The Science of Parting: The Persecution of Nadezhda and Osip Mandelstam

Poet Osip Mandelstam, left, and writer Nadezhda, right, suffered persecution, exile and tragedy at the hands of the Stalinist authorities.
Poet Osip Mandelstam, left, and writer Nadezhda, right, suffered persecution, exile and tragedy at the hands of the Stalinist authorities.

If nothing else is left, one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.

—Nadezhda Madelstam, Hope Against Hope, p.289.

The cause and date of Osip Mandelstam’s death remain a mystery. Rumours that he had survived persisted for decades, thriving in the murky world of Soviet politics. This much is known: in 1937 the poet was arrested for counter-revolutionary activities and sent to a transit camp near the Siberian city of Vladivostok. Two years later his brother Alexandr received an official notice giving the time of death as December 27 1938. The ostensible cause was heart failure. As Osip’s widow Nadezhda wrote: “This is as much to say that he died because he died: what is death but heart failure?” [1] The date, which appears to be roughly accurate, has never been confirmed. Death certificates for prisoners interned in the Gulag system were uncommon, relatives going years without knowing whether their loved ones were alive or dead. Women at the prosecutor’s office to hear their husbands’ sentence were sometimes told they could remarry. In Hope Against Hope, her account of their lives together, Nadezhda Mandelstam, puzzled over why one had been granted to her husband. It is just one of many unanswerable questions, her book caught between the impenetrability of Russia’s ruinous history and the necessity of wrenching truth from what remained.

Hope Against Hope defies any easy classification. Part biography, part memoir, part testimonial to the surreal excesses of Stalinism, it follows the years of persecution leading to her husband’s death. The pair met during the spring of 1919 in Nadezhda’s home city of Kiev. By most accounts Osip was a brilliant, occasionally impulsive man, with a sweeping scorn for artistic equivocation. He was part of the Acmeist movement, the same school of Russian poetry as Anna Akhmatova and Nikolay Gumilyov. None of the prominent Acmeists fared well during the Russian Revolution. The first to die was Gumilyov in 1921, executed by the Cheka along with 61 others in the Kovalevsky forest. Only Akhmatova survived to see the death of Stalin, enduring years of ill-treatment and the repeated arrest of her son Lev. Mandelstam, already at odds with the politics of the day, was targeted after daring to write a poem critical of Stalin.

We live deaf to the land beneath us,

Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,

But where there’s so much as half a conversation
The Kremlin’s mountaineer will get his mention.

His fingers are as fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,

His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.

Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders-
Fawning half-men for him to play with.

They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,

One by one forgiving his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin.

And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.


He had read the poem to no more than ten of his closest friends. One betrayed him.

Initially the Mandelstams hoped the repeated searches of their apartment by the police were for some more innocuous infraction. To prevent Osip’s work being confiscated, they sewed poems into pillow cushions and hid them in pots and pans. Then, in 1934, they received an unexpected knock on the door at 1:00 in the morning. “All hope vanished,” Nadezhda wrote, “as soon as the uninvited guests stepped inside.” [3] Osip was sent to the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow. In his poem ‘Interrogation,’ written several years earlier, he had already anticipated the ordeal.

Official paper, officious jowls, unswallowable smells,
Of vomit, vodka, cells, bowels,
And all these red-tape tapeworms gorging on reports.


He was deprived of sleep and put in a straitjacket after asking for water. Like many other prisoners, Osip was falsely told that his wife had been arrested. Sitting in his cell, he imaged that he could hear her groaning. In the Lubyanka, Nadezhda observed: “The work of undermining a person’s sanity was carried on quite systematically.” [5]

And then, unexpectedly, she was summoned to the prison to speak with Osip’s interrogator. “For the first time,” she wrote, “I heard the phrase ‘isolate but preserve’: such was the order that had come down to him, the interrogator implied, as an act of supreme clemency from the very highest level.” [6] Osip had been sentenced to three years exile in the town of Cherdyn. [7] She chose to follow him. Their trip from Moscow was an ordeal. While changing trains in Sverdlovsk, Nadezhda wrote, the guards would reach for their pistols any time the couple moved. After his time in prison Osip had become temporarily deranged, convinced he was about to be murdered. “They’re going to behead me, as in Peter’s time,[8] he whispered to his wife.  Nadezhda watched over him for the five nights of their journey, staying awake as long as possible. On their first day in Cherdyn, as she fell into a restless sleep, Osip tried to kill himself by jumping from a hospital window. The suicide attempt, which permanently damaged his right arm, seemed to cure his mental illness. Writing of the incident, Nadezhda quotes from his poetry: “A leap – and my mind is whole.[9]

The couple’s imminent concern was that Osip would be rearrested and transferred into an internment camp. To their amazement what followed was the “miracle of Voronezh”. The miracle was not salvation but exile of a different sort. Osip had his sentence commuted to “minus twelve”, excluded from the twelve largest Russian cities. They chose to live in Voronezh, where Osip spent most of the final years of his life. In exile, housing was precarious and work nearly impossible to find. Perhaps worst of all was the constant gnawing uncertainty about the future. People sent into exile were frequently rearrested. Much of Nadezhda’s work details the systematic repression of exiles by the Soviets: the labyrinthine bureaucracy, the constant deprivation and the ever-present threat of being sent to the camps. Most friends, afraid of attracting the attention of the authorities, refused to help. Still, the Mandelstams were grateful to be together and alive. But even that small mercy could only last for so long.

In 1937, Osip visited the Soviet Writer’s Union trying to find work. The Literary Fund gave the couple vouchers to visit a rest home in Samatikha while his request was deliberated. [10] It was a trap. On the first of May, Nadezhda dreamed of icons, a bad omen. She awoke in tears. “What have we got to be afraid of now?” Osip asked. “The worst is over.” [11] The next morning, two men in military uniforms arrived with a warrant for his arrest. She never saw him again.

For years after Osip’s death Nadezhda waded through rumour, fantasy and deliberate lies to discover what had happened to her husband. She sheltered the former prisoner Kazarnovski from the police for three months, hoping to extract information. Kazarnovski, she wrote, possessed a memory “like a huge, rancid pancake in which fact and fancy from his prison days had been mixed up together and baked into an inseparable mess.” [12] This was a typical state of affairs among people recently released from the gulag. There was the same jumble of truth and falsehood, the past fragmented by suffering. “Listening to these accounts,” she noted, “I was horrified at the thought that there might be nobody who could ever properly bear witness to the past. Whether inside or outside the camps, we had all lost our memories.” [13]

Nadezhda’s writing is a gesture against the death of that collective memory. On her own, moving from place to place to escape arrest, she repeated Osip’s poetry to herself. His writing was entrusted to friends and acquaintances, sometimes disappearing forever. What is most remarkable is that the poetry survived at all. In one case, Natasha Shtempel, the subject of some of Mandelstam’s final poems, fled with them on foot as she escaped the invading German army. The number of extant Mandelstam poems gives weight to his wiry remark that: “Poetry is respected only in this country – people are killed for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.” [14]

In an age where politics depend on falsehood, a regard for reality is the greatest form of resistance. The fundamental drive in Nadezhda’s work was veracity, both in terms of her husband’s life and what the revolution had become. She clearly documented the degree of conviction it took not to crumble under the weight of the regime. Towards the end of his life, Osip attempted to write an ode to Stalin in order to save himself and his wife. He wrote, said Nadezhda, “with a noose around his neck”. [15] Later he asked for the poem to be destroyed. Normal moral expectations had become blurred by years of propaganda backed by terror. “Christian morality –including the ancient commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ – was blithely identified with ‘bourgeois’ morality.” [16] Those who attempted to push back were chastised not merely by the law but also those closest to them. The terrible allure of ideology extended to everyone. Even the most strong-minded were paralyzed by the romance of revolution and ruthless drive towards the future. Fear also played its part. “We all took the easy way out by keeping silent in the hope that not we but our neighbours would be killed.” [17]

There was no reward for resistance. The consequence was, at best, obscurity and isolation. In rejecting the state, dissidents gave up any chance of normalcy, forgoing work, housing, and a stable life for their children. The potential even for self-sacrifice had been undermined, as family members could be implicated by any refusal to cooperate. Nadezhda described the student informers at the schools where she taught. They passed on information to the regime, either hoping for favours or to avoid being punished. In the fading years of the revolution, the best start in life was to inform on your friends.

There was also no opportunity to opt out. Remaining alive meant working with the system, tacitly or otherwise. This how Soviet citizens became trapped. The more they became involved in the regime’s crimes, the less they were able to fight back. Everyone became complicit. There were no public heroics because resistance had been forced into a small, private space. All that was left was internal dissent and gestures that might escape the notice of the state: the dangerous decision to visit a recent exile, to bring them bread, to offer comfort. Writing in the late 1960s, Nadezhda reflected: “It now seems there were no Stalinists at all, only brave fighters against the ‘cult of personality.’ I can testify that nobody I knew fought – all they did was to lie low. This was the most that people with a conscience could do – and even that required real courage.” [18]

Her book is a study of what happens when a society lurches out of control and begins to cannibalize its own citizens. The greatest weapon dictatorial governments have is to make everyone culpable. The ultimate consequence is a society where no one, not even the most powerful despot, has ultimate control. No one can say “stop” and have order restored; the sickness is, by that point, in every cell of the body political. It is the national version of original sin. Nadezhda goes on to write:

Anybody who breathes the air of terror is doomed, even if nominally he manages to save his life. Everybody is a victim – not only those who die, but also all the killers, ideologists, accomplices and sycophants who close their eyes or wash their hands – even if they are secretly consumed with remorse at night. Every section of the population has been through the terrible sickness caused by terror, and none has so far recovered, or become fit for normal civilian life.

Hope Against Hope is the autopsy of a revolution that ended in violence and mass persecution. It is also the closest that Osip Mandelstam has to a grave marker. Words, Nadezhda realized, retain their power to tell the truth even when no other remnant of the author survives.

Mounds of human heads and mine
Among them, unseen, unmarked, unmourned.

But look: in lines as cherished as a lover’s scars,
In screams of children who play at wars,

I rise with my hands of wind, my tongue of sun.

—Osip Mandelstam [19]


Hope Against Hope. Nadezhda Mandelstam. Translated by Max Hayward. Collins & Harvill Press, London, 1971.

Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam. Translated by Christian Wiman. Harper Collins, 2012.

*Title from ‘Tristia’ by Osip Mandelstam

[1] Hope Against Hope, p.377.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hope Against Hope, p.5.

[4] Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam. Selected and Translated by Christian Wiman. 21

[5] Hope Against Hope, p.77.

[6] Ibid, p.32.

[7] Hope Against Hope, p.51.

[8] Ibid, p.58.

[9] Ibid., p.60.

[10] Ibid, p.353.

[11] Ibid., p.361.

[12] Ibid., p.379.

[13] Hope Against Hope, p.379.

[14] Ibid., p.159.

[15] Ibid., p.203.

[16] Ibid, p.165.

[17] Ibid, p.108.

[18] Ibid, p.304.

[19]Mounds of Human Heads.’ Stolen Air, p.64.

4500 Heartbeats an Hour: Death in a Secular Age

A sunset in a graveyard. Photo courtesy of Andy Rothwell via Flickr.
The sun sets in a graveyard. Photo courtesy of Andy Rothwell via Flickr; Creative Commons licence CC-BY-SA 2.0.

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory.

When I was 23, I moved into a funeral home. My relationship had just ended and some kind friends, who ran a suburban funeral parlour, offered me their spare room. They lived in the basement, looking out into the car park where mourners snuck cigarettes, the men in suits and women in rickety heels. Upstairs, the funeral home had an atmosphere similar to a mid-range hotel, the same unencouraging grey carpets and pervasive odour of cleaning products. The only obvious difference was a slight undercurrent of flowers and, of course, the dead.

My friend, the funeral director, was a conscientious man with a black sense of humour. At night he fished abandoned Coke cans from unlikely places and hauled elaborate floral displays off to the dumpster. I occasionally lent a hand, disposing of wilted lilies pinned to crucifixes at enormous expense. His job, unsurprisingly, bred a prosaic attitude towards death. There were mortuary textbooks on the dinner table and a jar of pink reconstructive putty collecting dust on the bookshelf. Most mealtime conversations revolved around his clients, the bereaved; the arguments, breakdowns, the man leaning over his wife in the coffin and wistfully remarking: “Well, at least her tits still look great.”

Open caskets are still far more popular in Canada than the UK, one of those mysterious cultural divisions that emerge over time. Because this was a Canadian funeral home, embalmed cadavers were left in caskets overnight to prepare for early morning viewings. It takes surprisingly little to get used to the dead. The process of mortuary care sanitizes corpses, masking their humanity with industrial quantities of makeup. Any recognition that they had once been a person was usually down to the failure of the mortician; the cracks in heavy makeup around the knuckles; a few stray hairs across a woman’s cheek. I remember my friend gently rearranging the body of a man that had shifted during the night. As he lifted the bottom of the coffin, I was surprised to see the man’s sockless feet, white and swollen with oedema. The pathos of that residual humanity was much greater to me, a stranger, than the carefully blank face.

There was always something unsettling about the stillness of the bodies. “At rest” turns out to be a disturbing state for the observer if not, presumably, for the corpse. What was disconcerting was not that the bodies were somehow obtrusive but rather the opposite. Without any personal connection to the dead, cadavers all too easily became just another object in the room. The starkness of death was that transformation from person to passive article, devoid of opinion, and disregarded as easily as a lamp or a chair.


He is happy enough, that lives to die well.

-Joseph Hall, Three Centuries of Meditations and Vowes

In among the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder’s wonderful list of phobias is thanatophobia, the abnormal fear of death. This, of course, begs the question, what a normal fear of death might be? One of the more pat modern responses to mortality is: why do you care? You’ll be dead, you won’t know. Which misses the point that fear of extinction is less about the experience of nothingness than its inevitability. Existential dread may be cowardly but it’s deeply human, given that our lives are shaped by their brevity. Because living in the funeral home made death more visible, it also removed a level of abstraction from the dead. It was this level of normalcy that made mortality less frightening.

Mortuary workers are some of the very few people who regularly encounter death in its neutral form, separate from personal grief or prurient interest. Rapidly declining childhood and maternal mortality, following on the heels of developments in medicine and sanitation, have helped banish physical decay to the peripheries of our culture. In the 17th century, the satirist and Bishop of Exeter Joseph Hall could truthfully write: “Death borders upon our birth. And our cradle stands in the grave.” This is evidently no longer the case in the wealthy developed world.

But while the dead are less visible in public spaces, our interest in death has not dissipated. We may no longer advertise our bereavement like the Victorians by dressing in black crepe and wearing jewellery of calcified coal but we have Facebook memorial pages, execution videos and a 24-hour news cycle of repetitive tragedy. It could be argued that murder mysteries, CSI and Scandi noir, are the memento moris of the 21st century; comfortable, middle-class people entertained by serial killers, necrophiliacs and dead children. Whatever else these stories may be, they are also an inducement to think about death.

But murder mysteries tell us little about how to manage our own mortality. The memento mori had meaning because it existed inside an already coherent system. Paintings of skulls and rotten fruit prompted their audience to consider the importance of salvation rather than ruminate on the expiry date of plums. There is for many of us, myself included, no longer any equivalent cultural system from which to draw meaning about death. The decline of religious observance in many Western countries has encouraged a new strain of humanist morality. But a secular consideration of death has not emerged alongside this newly defined moral coda.

This is perhaps because humanism, with its movement away from God and the afterlife, has little to offer other than stoicism. In “Unweaving the Rainbow”, Richard Dawkins writes:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born… We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

While Dawkins is clearly not a man to mince his words, this is not an uncommon sentiment. Death is unavoidable and life precious so why be afraid?

It’s unrealistic to imagine our need to contend with death has vanished over time. Our culture is studded with reminders that we will die. Death may be an addendum, but it remains a defining one in lives bracketed by absence. What makes Dawkins’ argument difficult is less its content than its inflexibility. Mortality is bound up with uncertainty, and any useful consideration of death is likely to be a process rather than anything conclusive.

One of many irreligious people, I hope for a better secular response to mortality. My time in the funeral home suggested that reviving mortuary customs may be part of the answer. Laying out the dead and washing bodies are reminders that death is just another human state. The same is true of commemorative rites, whether it be eating with the dead in Russia or the pebbles traditionally laid on the tops of Jewish gravestones. Regardless of what follows next, mortality becomes easier when death is not entirely a stranger.