Who? Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of poet Osip Mandelstam: two terrorised geniuses.
What? A memoir of bleak optimism, or optimistic bleakness; an account of the author’s husband’s mental and physical destruction by the State, largely because he wrote a poem describing Stalin as having cockroachy whiskers.
When? As indicated on the cover by BBC Radio 4: ‘The publishing event of 1971.’ Finger on the pulse.
How? Time-hopping through anecdotes of the Terror in a swirl of disoriented memory and sincere social observation.
Why? It took a while to get hold of Hope Against Hope; the copy that arrived on my desk was yellowed, well-thumbed, unread in a while. The reason for this is simple: the subject matter is not in vogue, and the book is not well-appreciated. The fact is that Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir stands amongst the most personable, riveting, eye-opening letters on the twentieth century, and is absolutely the greatest account of life under Stalinism I have yet encountered. The account of her husband’s persecution shows the extent to which the threat of art (even aside from its counterrevolutionary manifestations) was taken seriously by the State, and does so in a way that would evoke respect in every artist in the modern world. Nadezhda Mandelstam’s writing itself commands equal respect; it brings to life the cultural milieu of 1920s/1930s Russia whilst maintaining complete freedom of personality and an unerring loyalty to her late husband. Hope Against Hope should be, and continues to be, considered as primary source for historical accounts of the life of the artist against tyranny, and is absolutely indispensable for anyone wishing to understand the extent to which politically-motivated groups have been willing to go to suppress human creativity.
Hope Against Hope is available as a Collins hardback in translation by Max Hayward, with an introduction by the legendary Clarence Brown, though is now shockingly out of print and in desperate need of rediscovery.
11 June 2017