THE GOULAG ARCHIPELAGO FROM A FEMININE PERSPECTIVE
by Daniel Dragomirescu
[Previously published in The End of a Dictatorship by Daniel Dragomirescu (PIM Publishing House’s “Bibliotheca Universalis” Collection, Iasi, Romania, 2015)]
The Stalinist era, with all its implications for the individuals and for society in the biggest country of the world, produced a literature which excels in dimension and complexity. A relevant example is Nadejda Mandelstam’s novel, published in Romanian at Polirom, Iasi bearing the suggestive title “Hopeless” (in Russian hope is the equivalent of nadejda). The book is not only as an exceptional documentary value, but also a literary masterpiece, highlighting the cultural and literary life during the Stalinist era, as well as the relationships between writers and the Bolshevik power settled by means of mass rebellion and off-stage manoeuvres in that remarkable 1917 at Petrograd (later Leningrad, today Sankt Petersburg). The book is first of all a genuine monument which the author dedicates to her husband, Osip Mandelstam, an important Russian poet and a relevant example on the endless list of nonconformist Russian intellectuals who fell a prey to the Bolshevik pressure during the first decade of the previous century.
Actually, the book is a genuine novel, in many respects similar to “The Gulag Archipelago”, by Al. Soljenitin. Throughout those hundreds of pages, we follow up breathlessly, feeling both horror and compassion for the tragic destiny of a character - a Russian Orthodox Jew, Osip Mandelstam - who made proof of an exceptional consciousness in an era which he had the bad fortune to be contemporaneous with. By all account, the man sometimes falls short to the artist’s worthiness. Unfortunately, we have enough examples, from the tragic XX century, which testify this hypothesis; there are a lot of popular Romanian writers who- helas!- sided with the totalitarian regime after August 23rd 1944, on the ground that they were actually protecting their work, and not trying to achieve a privileged social statute. In the vast space of the Russian culture, such an example is the novelist A.N Tolstoy who was deservedly slapped in public by Osip Mandelstam. At the counter pole stands - the tragic destiny of the acmeist poet, Gumiliov (the acmeism was an expression of the Russian literary avant-garde, which was very popular at the beginning of the XX century, before the Revolution and a few years after), who was brutally assassinated / executed in the first decade of the 1920’s for his stately and conscious attitude looked upon as a defiance hinting at the Soviet power (just like the French poet, Andre Chenier who, more than a century ago, was the victim of the Great French Revolution).
The case of Osip Mandelstan - whose name is brilliantly abbreviated O.M (= homme, man; in Russian, celovek) in the Romanian translation – gives the reader an excellent example which proves by means of facts, and not of words that the worthiness of Mandelstan, the man, kept up to the mark of Mandelstan, the poet, in extremely harsh historical circumstances. Osip Mandelstam’s destiny represents the most eloquent example of what humanness means in an era marked by tragedy: to refuse the temptation of the compromise, cost what it may.
The author narrates with evocative talent and very accurately, in more then 80 chapters and over 500 pages, various stories and experiences which marked her destiny in a blazing and decisive way, especially in the roaring ‘30’s, the era of the great Stalinist repressions, which rolled over the Orthodox Russian people who, due to some historical fatalities, became the guinea pig of a social system which was supposed to institute humanism throughout the world, in the broadest and most authentic sense of the word (but the distance from theory to practice was once again enormous).
The Odyssey of Nadejdea and Osip Mandelstam began in 1943, when - as a consequence of a comminatory poem against Stalin (reproduced at the end of the volume) - the poet has been arrested for the first time and the two outcasts were forced to leave Moscow, in order to live in the obligatory residence in Cerdan and then in Voronej, far-away urban regions located on the vast territory of the Soviet Union. The Odyssey which took place in the historical era of great theoretical expectations and of factual hopelessness ended up with the permanent separation of Nadejda - this genuine itinerant Penelope - from her husband who had been deported in a concentration camp from the Far East, which was practically located at the end of the world; it was there where he died without any specification regarding the date and the circumstances, as we can read in the short note at the end of the book: “ the date of his death was not established. And I can’t do anything to find it out.”
The book which is as I’ve already mentioned, a genuine novel based only on real facts (“reality goes beyond fiction”) might be interpreted as a touching record of a woman’s devotion for the men she loves, and whom she follows to the bitter end and whom she would never abandon, just like those famous female characters belonging to the great XIX century Russian literature.
The Romanian version is well translated due to Nicolae Iliescu and it has a very good review and it includes extensive end notes (a veritable dictionary of cultural figures from Stalinist Russia epoch) and a rich introduction, written by Livia Cotorcea. The Romanian translation of the satiric poem pointing at Stalin, the one which represented the main charge against Osip Mandelstam the day he was arrested in 1934, is the work of the late Slavist and specialist in Russian literature, Emil Iordache.
“Hopeless” is a remarkable reference book, written in an emphatic and intense narrative style whose message ought to be remembered and whose instructions must not be ignored or minimized, because a society which forgets its past too easy is sooner or later condemned to reiterate it in new shapes which are not less dreadful.
Daniel Dragomirescu is a Romanian writer and journalist born in Bucharest.