Mandelstam and the Olympics

Statue of poet Osip Mandelstam in Vladivostok, where he died in a Gulag camp.

Statue of poet Osip Mandelstam in Vladivostok, where he died in a Gulag camp.

It was surprising to see, along with the prerevolutionary classic authors whose pictures were displayed in the ceremony at Sochi last night, photos of Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Brodsky, Bulgakov, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn. It would have been nice if the organizers had thrown in Shalamov and Yevgenia Ginzburg, but still, it was the only acknowledgement I saw in either the opening or closing shows of Stalin’s victims. I found myself wishing Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, could have been transported forward in time for just three minutes to see that.

In her second memoir, Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda wrote of all those who died in the camps across the Soviet Union, “The mass graves into which the bodies with tags on their legs were thrown are inaccessible. One day, perhaps, they will dig up all the bones and burn them, or throw them into the ocean.” But she was wrong. The bones were never dug up, not in Vladivostok, anyway, where Mandelstam died and was probably dumped in a mass grave.

After his arrest in 1938, Nadezhda wrote him a letter, just in case he was released only to find her arrested (as happened to many couples). She stated:

Like two blind puppies we were, nuzzling each other and feeling so good together. And how fevered your poor head was, and how madly we frittered away the days of our life. What joy it was, and how we always knew what joy it was. …

In my last dream I was buying food for you in a filthy hotel restaurant. The people with me were total strangers. When I had bought it, I realized I did not know where to take it, because I did not know where you are.

When I woke up, I said to Shura [Osip’s brother]: ‘Osya is dead.’ I do not know whether your are still alive, but from the time of that dream, I have lost track of you. I do not know where you are. Will you hear me? Do you know how much I love you? I could speak only to you, only to you. You are with me always, and I who was such a wild and angry one and never learned to weep simple tears—now I weep and weep and weep.

It’s me: Nadya. Where are you?

When I initially posted the above thoughts on Facebook, Rob Coalson, an editor in RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom in Prague, responded, “I think you can go further, though. Practically all the writers from Pushkin to Solzhenitsyn were at one time censored or persecuted by the Russian government. It was a pageant to censorship, arrest, exile, imprisonment, murder. Shameful for the state to be celebrating them without acknowledging it.” He adds excommunication as another punishment (Tolstoy).

He has a point. And while every back-page biography in a Dostoevsky novel refers to his arrest, you have to read Notes from the House of the Dead to get a sense of how harrowing his prison experience was, particularly his description of the flogging of prisoners–a thousand strokes, two thousand, often to death. (Chekhov, by the way, also wrote about a flogging he witnessed on Sakhalin.)

Still, the ceremony’s highlighting of writers, however hypocritical, was at least a contrast to the celebration of Stalinism in the opening. All those people running around in red tights reminded me of devils. I wonder what Bulgakov would have made of it.

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