Monday, February 5, 2018

Emma Gerstein

Emma Gerstein's Moscow Memories:  Memories of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Literary Russia under Russia is an invaluable resource.  It imitate portrayal of the intelligentsia in the age of Stalin allows readers to understand that intellectual and creative work continued even in the midst of authoritarian terror. Although Gerstein was a serious scholar of Lermotov, her memoirs--as the subtitle implies--are particularly interesting insofar as they offered additional or even alternative descriptions of two of Russia's greatest modern poets:  Akhmatova and Mandelstam.

In Gerstein's account, Mandelstam emerges as a deeply flawed human being whose nervous disposition often made life difficult for friends and family.  Gerstein's depiction of Mandelstam's wife is even more caustic, with Nadezdha Mandelstam emerging as a relatively selfish champion of her brilliant husband.  Gerstein's worst complaint of the couple is related to the claim that Mandelstam evidently offered up Gerstein's name in at least on interrogation by the secret police.  According to Gerstein, Nadezhda justified the action on the grounds that her name was already compromised.  Nevertheless, Gerstein was rightly hurt that she was delivered so nonchalantly after years of aiding the two.

In the end, one believes Gerstein, not only because she seems to be a singularly honest memoirist, who constantly testifies to her own moral failings, but also because it's easy to believe that a great poet would have found it difficult to live in Soviet Russia without resorting to petulance, selfishness, moral compromise, and self-pity.  Authoritarian pressure on free intellectual discourse made life for sensitive souls all but impossible. Gerstein's take on Nadezdha in particular is easy to credit, largely because unfettered moral genius probably always has its downside, including insensitivity to men and women who fail to live up to unusually high ethical standards.  One thinks of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who bravely opposed Soviet totalitarianism for decades, but then failed to interrogate his own self-serving nationalism in the final years of his life.  In the end, there is room to believe both Gerstein and Nadezdha.  For if Nadezdha had not been the sort of woman who could occasionally ignore the legitimate complaints of friends, neither would she have been the sort of woman who could have single-handedly defended the legacy of her husband against the false and egregiously immoral demands of Soviet elites. 

In contrast to the chapters on Mandelstam, Gerstein's account of her friend, Akhmatova, is almost entirely positive. Gerstein clearly admired the dignified fortitude of her long-suffering friend. In particular, she defends the poet against the accusations of her son, Lev Gumilev, with whom Gerstein had once been in love.  Gerstein's description Gumilev's relationship with his mother is probably the most fascinating aspect of Gerstein's memoirs. They explicate the elements of the myriad personal tragedy associated with Stalinism.  Gumilev, also son of the executed poet by the same name, was a genius in his own right, and someone incapable of accommodating his own behavior to the exigencies of authoritarianism. While Gumilev became an important Russian ethnographer, he was ultimately severed from his mother by his horrendous experience in the labor campus.  With tenuous, surveillance-state communications between mother and son, Gumilev began to blame his mother for his condition, or at least blame her for not caring enough about his bitter fate.  Gerstein was a front line witness to this personal catastrophe.

Of course, Gerstein's memoirs demonstrate that intellectual life continued even in the midst of Stalinism.  For instance, Gerstein's acquaintance, the brilliant Yury Tynyanov somehow managed to write the extremely well-researched and sensitive book, Young Pushkin, between 1935 and 1943.  Nevertheless, Gerstein's description of everyday life under Stalin reminds readers of the creeping terror of those years, since so many of her acquaintance of her casual acquaintances end off dead, and not merely as a result of the brutal Nazi invasion.

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