Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Abandoned

Nadezhda Mandelstam's twin memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, are two of the best pieces of writing ever produced by Soviet citizens.  (See my earlier post on Hope Against Hope).  The poet's wife writes beautifully, but it's the power of her intellect, as opposed to the power of her prose, that overpowers the reader.  They say that writing and thinking are essentially one and the same thing, but I doubt that this is precisely true.  In Hope Abandoned, we are seldom impressed by the texture of the author's words, or the grace of her images, but we are often impressed by the wisdom and clarity of her arguments and the power of her moral vision.  Nadezhda's memoirs accomplish several related tasks:  they defend the literary and humanistic legacy of one of Russia's greatest poets;   they analyze and contextualize Mandelstam's poetic oeuvre;  they depict the tyranny of the Soviet system;  and they analyze the individual's moral responsibilities in a totalitarian age.  If the poet Mandelstam was a master of verse, his wife may approach the level of her husband's competence with respect to the genre of memoir. There's something akin to St. Augustine's Confessions here.  Just as St. Augustine analyzed his own moral failures at every age, including infancy, Nadezdha applies the moral scalpel to her own behavior at various stages of life. However, Nadezhda isn't merely interesting in self-analysis:  her main concern is understanding how Russians allowed the moral catastrophe of Stalinism, and Bolshevism more broadly, to engulf them.  Mandelstam approaches this question on many different levels.  She's concerned with the broad and narrow questions of evil.  She wants to know why Russia became a land of totalitarian suffering, but she also insists on exploring how evil operates from one day to the next in the lives of Russian citizens.  In the last analysis, Nadezhda believes that all Russians bore responsibility for Stalinism.  Why did Russians kill and degrade one another?  Nadezhda argues that this became a possibility only because ordinary Russians co-signed Stalin's bloody check. If Nadezhda believes that all or almost all Russians bear responsibility for the state's brutality, she is also interested in how and why so many Russians went above and beyond the call of duty to monitor, denounce, harass, and torture one another.  Nadezda's explanation of evil isn't economic but entirely moral.  Russians placed their own self-interest above that of their neighbors.  This selfishness is complex:  sometimes collaborators hoped for social or economic advancement, sometimes they hoped merely to survive, but in all cases the root of the matter was narrow-minded selfishness.  Nadezhda's examination of Russian criminality remains relevant in the twenty-first century.  When one reads Russian blogs today one is quickly immersed in raging rivers of homophobia and anti-semitism, to say nothing of generic expressions of xenophobia.  While Russia's root problems may be economic in nature, related as much to a crisis of capitalism as to a legacy of communism, there's clearly a continuing failure of moral imagination in Russia's citizenry.  Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Abandoned may be one of the best remedies for this sad situation.  And if moral analysis doesn't work, perhaps poetry will.

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