Moscow Memoirs

Moscow Memoirs: Memories of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Literary Russia Under Stalin. Emma Gerstein, Author, E. Gershtein, Author Overlook.
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Her relationship with the Mandelstams and their circle formed the background to the rest of Emma's life. She also found her own vocation, as a literary researcher and scholar, becoming particularly renowned for her work on the 19th-century writer Mikhail Lermontov. For lovers of Russian literature, Nadezhda Mandelstam has enjoyed for decades an almost iconic status. Her volumes of memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, both first published in English in the 70s and detailing the years of persecution undergone by her husband who died on his way to the Gulag in , by Anna Akhmatova and others, have been revered texts.

Particularly while writers were still being oppressed in the Soviet Union, it would have felt politically incorrect to challenge the account given by this great survivor. So to readers familiar with Nadezhda Mandelstam's books, Gerstein's Moscow Memoirs may come as something of a shock. They certainly did to their Russian audience, when they appeared in this version in the work is actually a collection of different memoirs, first published between and For here the Mandelstams appear warts and all.

We learn of Nadezhda's bisexuality and penchant for erotic games and threesomes, as well as of Osip's unusual methods of composing poetry which included verbal abuse of his amanuensis, whoever that happened to be. We hear details of the poet's less than saintly behaviour under interrogation and we are made very aware of the demanding nature of friendship with the Mandelstams: It was impossible not to be swept up by this crazy commotion and, like one hypnotised, join in the latest feud. Akhmatova's ordeals would continue into a yet bleaker period.

In Lyova was imprisoned a second time. With a great many other such "repeaters" he was sent back to the camps: One aim, doubtless, was to break the will of his now sick mother. This second period of imprisonment ultimately drove mother and son apart. But the affection that bound Akhmatova and Gerstein did not cool, and in Gerstein publicly defended Akhmatova's memory against Lyova's claim that she had abandoned him to the Gulag. How does a poet address a tyrant?

Gerstein touches the most sensitive of issues for her two heroes, and their admirers, when she confronts the poems they addressed to the Leader.

The cynicism of the post-war years, more chilling than the horrors of the 30s, would lead Akhmatova to produce a different kind of verse. Her cycle "In Praise of Peace" and Stalin was a calculated though agonising gesture: These poems did not improve matters either for Lyova or for herself. They did prevent them, perhaps, from getting any worse.

Gerstein evokes the enduring humiliation to which Akhmatova subjected herself. In the late s, giving copies of the new volume of her poetry to friends, Akhmatova would paste over the compromising texts with other poems. Certain poems by Mandelstam and Pasternak in the s were a more complex matter. They reveal a genuine fascination with the Stalin phenomenon and an attempt, through verse, to grasp the realities he represented. Not content to leave matters at the level of discomfort with the very existence of these "aberrant" compositions, Gerstein probed further.

After the Stalin epigram, Mandelstam felt a periodic urge to restore contact with the revolution and, even, with the Leader. In he penned an "Ode" to Stalin. It would take decades for Mandelstam and Akhmatova to be fully rehabilitated. For a brief but memorable period in the late s, various kinds of poetry became immensely popular and officially tolerated in the Soviet Union: In its way, Nadezhda Mandelstam's first, monumental book of memoirs was unofficially the high-water mark of that period, the short-lived political thaw following Stalin's death.

But this only made the foot-dragging over Mandelstam's rehabilitation as an artist the more frustrating for his admirers: Admitted at 62 to the Writers' Union, Emma Gerstein did not become an acquiescent member of the literary establishment. In she signed a collective letter in defence of Solzhenitsyn.

A terrified Gerstein had supposedly burned a precious manuscript in a candle flame; Rudakov, who was killed during the war, had either stolen Mandelstam's never-published poems or, Nadezhda asserted, was planning to pass them off as his own. Gerstein did not respond publicly for more than 20 years, but her final memoir "Nadezhda", published in Russia in , paints an unforgiving portrait. Nadezhda's extraordinary accusations were groundless and she is further criticised for her part in a subsequent dispute, involving Nikolai Khardjiev, the editor of a long-promised Soviet collection of Mandelstam's poetry.

That there were likely to be serious problems in dealing with Mandelstam's unpublished poetic legacy was hardly surprising. For example, Emma recalled a version of the Stalin epigram that was dramatically confirmed when the KGB released Mandelstam's autograph of the poem over half a century later. When Nadezhda turned on Khardjiev, accusing him of jeopardising the Mandelstam archives, Gerstein took Khardjiev's side. That quarrel permanently alienated her from Nadezhda, who died in A scene from that later period provides a fitting conclusion. In early , not long before Gerstein began to write her memoirs, a second printing of the long-awaited Leningrad edition of Mandelstam's poetry suddenly came on sale.

Moscow writer Alexander Gladkov made the following entry in his diary: This morning they sold Mandelstam at the Bookstall. After the previous disappointments a list was drawn up of over people. Lev put me down as The temperature was 19 below zero. We went off, once in a while, to warm up in some neighbouring financial institution. Sometimes, as always happens in queues, amazing rumours began they wouldn't bring any, they'd only have 50 copies, only people who brought their Writers' Union card would get one. At about 11 the books arrived. The shop's director announced that copies would be put on sale.

The diarist, a member of the union queuing up outside the Writers' Bookstall in the centre of Moscow, was lucky. He'd left his card at home but was able to buy a copy for one rouble 45 kopecks "They say it's already selling on the black market for roubles". Pleased with his good fortune, he forgot to mention an odd coincidence: January 15 would have been Osip Mandelstam's 83rd birthday. May, 14 - 20 Unsparing in her recollections of the Stalin-era intelligentsia, Emma Gerstein refrains from judging the friend she most admired, Osip Mandelstam.

When published in Russia in , "Moscow Memoirs" drew prizes and praise from some quarters, and charges of irreverence and malice from others. An account, in part, of life in the company of Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak and, principally, Osip Mandelstam, it provided an unusually messy and human picture of great poets and their foibles. For some readers, the image of a nonagenarian spinster reflecting on the erotic exploits of Mr.

A small revolution in Russia - Telegraph

Mandelstam and on much else besides was clearly beyond the pale. Emma Gerstein, a literary scholar, died in at the age of 98, and we can only feel thankful both for her longevity and her powers of recollection. Rich in vivid anecdotes and convincing analysis, her "Moscow Memoirs" broaden and deepen our understanding of Mandelstam and Akhmatova, their circle and their era. Gerstein's love and flair for poetry is palpable throughout, while on key issues of historical fact she has fresh evidence to propose and sharp interpretations to suggest.

After a first chance meeting at a sanatorium outside Moscow in , Gerstein's fate became forever entwined, through friendship and acrimony, not only with that of the lyric poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife, Nadezhda, but also with the fates of their relatives and acquaintances -- notably Akhmatova and her son, Lev Gumilyov, for whom Gerstein nurtured an unhappy but persistent affection "Unwanted Love" is the title, if not quite the focus, of the longest section of the book. These lives were, without exception, brutally defined by the fears, punishments and traumas of the Stalin years, and "Moscow Memoirs" is studded with tales of lost or burned manuscripts and with the closely observed signs of physical and mental disintegration, most painfully in the case of Osip Mandelstam, the book's central figure.

The Mandelstam who emerges from these pages can be hysterical and ostentatious, demanding and irresponsible. But Gerstein, while never denying his faults, does not judge him. If no longer a martyr in Gerstein's account, Mandelstam remains very much a prophet, even genius. Gerstein was clearly alive to his love of the paradoxical and unconventional, to the qualities of a creative mind whose thoughts "leap implicit links. Sometimes unfortunate people are very happy". Many of her sketches capture a joyful, fragile vitality: His toothless mouth opened and closed while tears streamed from his tightly closed eyes.

He dried his beautiful curling eyelashes and shook his head. Gerstein's memoirs crackle with ancient quarrels. After long years of close but taxing friendship, Gerstein and Nadezhda fell out for good in , by which point Nadezhda, already a widow for three decades, had written and unofficially circulated "Hope Against Hope," the first of the famous memoirs that enshrined the image not just of herself and her husband Osip Mandelstam, but also of the many other figures who were drawn into their lives.

Gerstein, a stickler for the facts, summarily denounces the accuracy and good faith of Nadezhda's accounts: All through this period Gerstein was at hand as witness and support, even if she eventually came to feel that "the Mandelstams needed me not as a friend, a companion or an admirer of his work, but as a servant with no life or personality of her own. For the sick Mandelstam it was triply insane.

Yet Nadya could not withstand Mandelstam's elemental craving to live and work freely and openly and Nadya's gambling instinct constantly incited Osip to keep trying. She has also tried to recover the true history of Mandelstam's many romantic attachments, even his erotic interests, which, she claims, was smoothed over in Nadezhda's memoirs. Gerstein explores its relevance to his poetry, about which she has much of interest to say. Another bone of contention is the often tragic history of Mandelstam's manuscripts.

Here, Gerstein comes to the rescue of Sergei Rudakov, a callow, aspiring poet to whom Mandelstam entrusted much of his work in Voronezh and whom Nadezhda accused of planning to steal her husband's archive. Conclusively disproving this slur, Gerstein makes a case for the singular interest of the relationship between Mandelstam and Rudakov, and provides 30 pages of Rudakov's correspondence from Voronezh.

Gerstein also describes Rudakov's life and background, creating one of the many compelling portraits that are tucked away in the ample pockets of these surprisingly shapeless memoirs. The richness of the book is its abiding quality, even if the "general reader" -- to whom John Crowfoot rightly directs his diligent efforts as translator and editor -- may find the detail overbearing in places.

I have not even touched here on Gerstein's sensitive pages on Akhmatova, in which she rejects "the legend of the bad mother"; nor on her much harsher treatment of Lev Gumilyov.

Noteworthy, too, is Gerstein's insightful discussion of the psychological relationship between Pasternak and Stalin, poet and tsar. More broadly, "Moscow Memoirs" must be read for its thoughtful overview of several extraordinary decades, especially the long-distant s. And also, lest we forget, for the moving story it so discreetly tells of the life and loves of lonely Emma Gerstein, an acclaimed Lermontov scholar and, according to Osip Mandelstam, the "most intelligent woman in Moscow.

The plight of two poets in Stalin's Russia Filed: When Emma Gerstein, an elderly Russian academic, published a longer version of these memoirs in Russia in , she provoked outrage in literary Moscow.


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In meticulous, fiercely honest prose, Gerstein describes her close friendship with two of the greatest poets of the century, Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, as well as Mandelstam's wife, Nadezhda. In doing so, she criticises one of the dissident movement's most sacred texts, Nadezhda Mandelstam's two-volume memoir, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. To many in Moscow, this was "mean-spirited", the act of "an embittered old maid".

Aurea Carpenter reviews Moscow Memoirs by Emma Gerstein and Death of a Poet by Irma Kudrova

Others greeted Gerstein's recollections with delight. A voice from the s had spoken. Mandelstam and Akhmatova lived again in her pages. I first read Nadezhda Mandelstam's books while studying in Voronezh, the provincial city where the Mandelstams were exiled in Like many, I found her description of their life indescribably moving; the image of the harassed, debilitated Osip Mandelstam muttering poetry as he paced the streets of Voronezh haunted me, as did his astonishing "Voronezh Cycle", the poetry he wrote during this period of poverty and nervous exhaustion.

The portrait Gerstein draws of Mandelstam is vivid, human and comic, full of affection. She describes in detail his neurotic, impulsive behaviour, his petty obsessions and his occasional malice — for example, his relief when Akhmatova leaves after a long visit.

That was too much electricity for one home. Gerstein also describes Mandelstam's hypochondria and capriciousness, and a contemporary letter she mentions tells of a hilarious episode in a hospital in Tambov. The poet was infuriating everyone. Eight patients banged on his door, upon which "O. Akhmatova emerges scarcely blemished from Gerstein's examination. She displayed remarkable dignity during her four decades of poverty and oppression under the Soviet regime.

Her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, was killed by the Bolsheviks; their son, Lev, was twice imprisoned. The cruellest blow of all, perhaps, was that Lev became so embittered by his experience that he turned against his ageing mother. No wonder she wrote in a poem of Gerstein's disapproval is directed most fiercely at Nadezhda Mandelstam for her sloppiness in writing and researching her memoirs. Gerstein, who died in at the age of 98, was a painstaking literary historian, a woman to whom such failings were no less than lies.

In this instance she has a point: Hope Against Hope was guilty of inaccuracy at best, slander at worst, and until perestroika its victims had no possibility of redress. However, these year-old quarrels are the least interesting aspect of Moscow Memoirs. Nadezhda Mandelstam's errors were in part a product of the time, a time that Gerstein conjures up with painful vividness. These were the years when "the crack of skulls being crushed could be felt in the air".

In public, most were discreet; many sought jobs that made no ideological demands, and were critical in private. For Gerstein, "Stalin's defining trait was his corrupting influence". He ensured the moral destruction of most who were arrested; of Gerstein's circle, almost everyone who fell into the hands of the NKVD incriminated their friends.

A small revolution in Russia Filed: In , when, breaking decades of silence, Emma Gerstein finally published these memoirs, she may have wondered if she hadn't left it just a bit too late. A literary researcher and critic, born and bred in Moscow, she had witnessed the most turbulent of centuries - from childhood in Tsarist Russia, through the Bolshevik revolution and the years of the Terror and Cold War, to perestroika and beyond - and now found herself offering her life's work to a dwindling readership, as she put it, in "an altered world, occupied with very different things", in which books were all but forgotten.

She need not have worried. Moscow Memoirs caused uproar when it was published in Russia, largely because of its unflattering portrayal of two of the nation's most revered figures - the great poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife, Nadezhda. Gerstein first met the Mandelstams in , at a sanatorium near Moscow where she was recuperating from a bout of depression. They quickly became friends, three kindred spirits in league against the petty dramas of patient life. Gerstein, then 25, had been feeling dissatisfied and unsettled, at a loss as to what she wanted to do with her career, and this new friendship, as she explains, marked a turning point: Over the next decade Gerstein came to know many of Russia's most eminent writers - the poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, the critics Sergei Rudakov and Nikolai Khardiev - but, to her chagrin, she never really felt she qualified as a main literary player herself.

Much later on in her life, she would be widely praised for her groundbreaking study of the work of Mikhail Lermontov but, back in the s, she was still the quiet one in the corner, underestimated, unrecognised - and don't they so often turn out to be the most dangerous witnesses?

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Of all the characters that Gerstein depicts in this book only Akhmatova emerges wholly undiminished no surprise there, perhaps, since she was also one of the few writers who took the young Gerstein's work and ideas seriously. Akhmatova comes over as a noble, majestic figure, caught tragically between the demands of art, state and motherhood.

A small revolution in Russia

In fact, her reputation is even bolstered here thanks to Gerstein's access to privileged information about the poet via her son, Lev Gumilyov - with whom Gerstein had a long, haphazard affair. Not so the Mandelstams. Gerstein clearly had a deep affection for Osip Mandelstam, and regarded him as a great poet. But she also has no compunction about revealing the darker side of his complicated nature - that of a "fussy, highly strung" man, vain and petulant when he didn't get his own way, a game-player; he had, says Gerstein, "a cruel mind but a kind heart".

Accustomed as we are in the West, to the art of warts-and-all biography writing, we may find it difficult to understand why this relatively mild character assassination caused such a storm. And then there is the treatment of his wife. If Mandelstam was a literary martyr par excellence, then Nadezhda was his perfect partner.

After Mandelstam's death in the camps in , Nadezhda published two volumes of memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned which, when they became available in the West via the underground press in the s and s, instantly became required reading for anyone interested in the plight of Russia under the Soviet regime. It is these "epoch-shaping" books with which Gerstein takes issue.

They were the products, she argues, of a woman of uninhibited ambition, who woefully misrepresented the facts, and allowed herself to play freely with dialogue, dates and events to suit her own interests. As literary historical spats go, this is all very entertaining - and we should not feel too sorry for Nadezhda, who could give just as good as she got: She has a genius for getting everything wrong. According to Gerstein, the Mandelstams asked a lot of her. When the poet was interrogated by the secret police and forced to give names of those to whom he had confided his subversive poem about Stalin, hers was, as he later admitted, pretty much top of the list.

And this was not the only occasion on which she was treated as expendable. She gives a terrible description of the tense days of the autumn of , when Moscow was coming under daily bombardment, and everyone was debating whether to leave the city or stay. In the end, despite their promises that they would reserve a place for her on the special train out the next morning, Akhmatova et al left without her.

And yet, and yet. She outlived all of these "living treasures". She did not lose her family to the camps, was never sent into exile. Did she need to betray her former friends in this way? There is a telling passage early on in Moscow Memoirs, in which Gerstein directly addresses the issue of her motivation for writing the book. After a disagreement with Mandelstam in , when she refuses his demand that she go to the Central Committee to protest about his treatment in exile, he becomes spiky and scornful.

Perhaps she is afraid? You'll write memoirs after I'm dead, but you don't care about the living poet?