Cultural Diary series
January 15th, 2020 has marked one of the most special commemoration dates in this year’s cultural calendar, the 130th birth anniversary of Osip Mandelstam, Russian poet of Jewish origin, vulnerable and hunted man who has created a cosmic, unparalleled quality of poetry that has become a distinctive mark of literature of the XX century in general.
This anniversary could well be his 300th or 30th one. He is from the category of eternal lights, and there are so very few of them.
Mandelstam is one of the most brilliant and ever-lasting ‘contributions’ of Russia in world culture. In my lectures, I often call him ‘Mozart of Russian poetry’, to give my students a glimpse of understanding of whom I am talking about. Because to translate his poetry is just impossible, as it is impossible to translate any really good poetry. Even when another genius poet Paul Celan who loved Mandelstam tried to do it, the result was not close to the original. If Celan could not do it, nobody else could.
There are people who are as if present in our life effortlessly, by definition. Osip, who was actually Joseph, definitely is one of them. It is just impossible to use ‘was’ with regard to Mandelstam because he is always there. His unique talent has formed so many people in a huge country, and many of the others world-wide, bringing us to incredible heights which we would never imagine existing, without being immersed into his smashing, ultimate, dizzy talent. With years passing on, one can only be amazed at how really few of such people exist in world culture – and how much did they give to enrich it.
Mandelstam was like a golden equivalent to the foremost of the Russian poets who lived and created after him, from his close friend and contemporary Anna Akhmatova to his partial ‘re-incarnation’ Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky who was known in their close circle around Akhmatova as ‘Osja ( shortened from Osip) Jr’.
I wish Mandelstam would know a bit, smallest bit of his posthumous fame and his meaning for Russian literature, Russian culture and so many people before he met his awful death that occurred in the nasty corner of Gulag in December 1938 when the pride of Russian literature died of typhus and cold and hunger, as so many other prisoners of Gulag, being just 47. Till this day, the place of his burial is unidentified and would not be identified. We only know about a huge ravine in which his body along with thousands of decayed corpses was thrown down seven months after his death. The climate conditions in that part of the Gulag were such, you see, that it was impossible to dig before short summer when earth would give up a bit of its closeness to the eternal freeze. Many decades later, a bit of the soil from that ravine was brought to be entered next to the grave of his heroic wife and widow Nadezhda Mandelstam who died in Moscow in the end of 1980.
And Nadja, Osip’s heroic wife. Without her, we would not know his eternal poetry and prose. We simply would not. That’s why Akhmatova, Brodsky and many other giants of spirit never separated them. In our common perception, Osip means “known because of Nadja”. And Nadja means Osip, for all of us, in generations. Our debt to Nadezhda Mandelshtam has not even started to be appreciated any close to what it should be, really.
That vivid Jewish girl whose family lived in Kiev in the beginning of the XX century and who studied art at the Alexandra Ekster studio, bumped into an already well-known poet, eight years her senior, at one of the popular and crowded cafes when she was 20, in 1919. It was the love from the first sight. But it was more: what happened to Nadja Khazin and Osip Mandelstam, two extraordinary Jewish people, was what is known in the Talmud as ‘the rule of three minutes’: when Jewish man and Jewish woman are destined to each other, they feel love towards each other within first three minutes of their first encounter.
From a Kabbalist perspective, according to Rabbi Luriah, it can be pondered that in the Jewish world, the souls of its men and women are destined each to another, and often those souls are, in fact, halves of one common soul. When those halves are finding each other, we, mortals, having a sensation of love, that mightiest in the world magnet which we are unable to explain often. It is exactly what happened to Nadja Khazin and Osip Mandelstam in the evening in that cafe in Kiev back in 1919. Their souls found each other, understood each other and were amalgamated into each other to a rare degree.
Nadja Mandelstam has proven it during her long life which was lived for only purpose: to make Osip’s legacy remembered and lived on. She over-lived her murdered husband for 42 years, with only the last fifteen years of which she had a home of her own, a tiny apartment far off Moscow down-town. Before that, after her trials with Osip to their common first exile in 1934, after his arrest and perishing in 1937-1938, throughout the Second World War and years after that, that small woman was a wanderer, literally. Nadia was moving from city to city – mid-Russia – Uzbekistan – Ural region – mid-Russia, very often, avoiding authorities, trying to survive, having no possessions of her own ever, and – memorising the poetry and prose of Osip daily and nightly. Waiting for the time and opportunity to put it on paper and to publish it, somehow, somewhere, anyhow, anywhere. A person has to be made of steel to lead such a life for so many years and decades. But she did it.
During the political ‘thaw’ in the mid-1960s, friends helped her to return to Moscow, to get that small apartment, and to send the Osip priceless archive to Princeton, for free, obviously. She also wrote her legendary memoir which was published in the USA in Russian in the 1970s, with two followed volumed later on. This memoir is one of the most important books on the history of the USSR in a period between the 1930s and 1960s.
Nadja was not an angel, far from it – and who would be under the circumstances of her life? Just one detail: her only dream – people with a disciplined brain were not much of dreamers in that country – was ‘to die in my own bed’. Which she did, with my friend Vera Lashkova being next to her. Vera is a well-known Soviet dissident, very special and devoted person who did help the others completely selflessly all her life. She was very close with Nadja, and spent days and nights next to her during the last period of her life. Not only Nadja slept away in her own bed, she was taken loving care of, and was looked after by a real friend. Luxury, in her understanding.
I always felt a special attachment to that tragic and unique couple of two Jewish people, two halves of evidently one Jewish soul who has become the pride and the heroes of Russian literature and culture. What was and still be amazing about them is that both Osip and Nadja Mandelstam, despite all the persecutions, hunting and crushing of them, were always strong and free. This message of their extraordinary characters and lives is not less important than Osip’s genius poetry and Nadja’s great prose. Not for a bit.
One Teacher, One Book
These days, I am commemorating my own Mandelstam connected anniversary, as well. It is half of a century this year while I am living with his presence in my life. Some things in one’s life are remembered surprisingly graphically, and this one, with Mandelstam entering my life, is one of them.
I was a 13-year old bookish Jewish girl who loved literature and poetry greatly being raised this way by my mom who was a legendary teacher of it, and who treated great writers and poets with trepidation. My appetite for reading was both selective and insatiable. I was not interested in reading ‘all of it’, but only the best of it, and all of the best, naturally. After I completed reading through our big home library, my mom realised that I needed to extend beyond it. Public libraries were not an option for me at the time. I was not the type. My mom was also a brave person who could allow herself a bold move every now and then. Especially in the name of culture, the sacred name for her.
The one of such moves was to send me on my own, as an under-aged cultural apprentice, so to say, to one of her close friends, also famous teacher of literature Maija Mailis, a legend in our large enough Soviet Ukrainian intelligenzia circles. Maija was a legend because she was a very brave political dissident who was a close associate of the widow of famous Russian poet Maximilian Voloshin Maria and belonged to the inner Voloshin circle of Russian intelligentsia – this meaning families of the most important writers and poets, including Tsvetajev sisters, and many others, all with utterly tragic destinies.
Maija gave me a quick look during my first visit to her small apartment which was all in books, magazines and manuscripts from ceiling to floor, on tables, chairs, floor, anywhere, and immediately started to teach me the real history, culture, literature and poetry, most of which had been forbidden in the USSR. I was a very grateful sponge, and visited Maija several times a week. Very soon, I have become her willing and enthusiastic assistant who was helping her to produce those small and priceless home-made samizdat books of genius poetry which I was only over-happy to print on my mom’s type-writer at home, bringing all five exemplars of tiny paper to Maija, who would show me how to produce ‘almost a real book’ from my sheets. All that was done at her kitchen during the long hours every day. She always knew whom she would give those precious gifts of real, beautiful, great – and heavily forbidden – poetry, from hand to hand. Precious as they were, the only window to the world of real culture and literature for us, they posed the certain danger, too, to everybody participating, but most of all, to the initiator and informal head of the circle of people who dared to read what they would like to, not what has been prescribed.
Remarkably, not anyone from hundreds of people, her pupils and their friends whom she gifted with those pearls of the best of Russian literature, ever gave her in to the KGB authorities. She was regularly summoned to ‘the conversations’ there after her returns from Voloshin house where she would be going as often as she could, several times a year, but as she claimed her absolute innocence and total immersion in literature matters only, and there was no hard evidence on political activities against her, she managed to teach for years.
There were several searches in her small apartments in my memory, with tens of newly produced small volumes of poetry confiscated. As there were no political manifestos, but literature creations, she was allowed to continue to work for a while, after which she was sacked, eventually. My family and some of her friends were supporting her to the end, with my mom employing Maija on her first opportunity to do it, during the rest of Maija’s life. Those people never went to retirement, all of them, they regarded it as a drama, failure, and pitifulness, to put it mildly. They all did strive to work to the end. Such was their understanding of usefulness of life.
Maija was my teacher not only in literature and poetry, but in freedom of thinking and dictated by that attitude to life, from quite an early age. She provided me with knowledge and books from which I learned not to follow the mass. She widened my horizon of knowledge from its outset, for which I am still grateful to that extremely knowledgeable and freely spirited Jewish teacher all my life.
Maija noticed very early that of many Russian poets about whom she did teach me, Osip Mandelstam was my favourite, indisputably. It was a love from a first glance, indeed. That’s why I was given a special task to type, namely Mandelstam’s poetry on my mom’s personal type-writer that I did so diligently and so happily for a few years.
One day, Maija showed me a huge foliant. She took it from her shelf, not from its front row, but from some hiding place behind it, and put it on the table in front of me ceremonially, with a special expression on her face.
–What’s that? – I asked. I was spoiled by Maija by the endless gems of her treasury by now. Maja was smiling as if expecting something really delicious to share. – Well, this is such a kind of book that you have never seen before – she said, at last. – What do you mean, dear Maija? But you are providing me with so many wonderful books – which was true, every time I visited my teacher, I left with several volumes to read at home. – No, my dear girl, I can guarantee you that this kind of book you never hold in your hands – Maija was smiling wider and wider.
The exceedingly heavy foliant of 740 pages was the Anthology of the Russian poetry of XX century published in Moscow in 1925, with all important poets of the first quarter of that tumultuous century presented by their best poems, their biographies, bibliography of their published works, everything.
The book was a huge liability. From the early 1930s until mid-1980s, it was listed among the books which had to be hidden in what was known in the Soviet reality as spetzhran, heavily controlled books and other printed materials and manuscripts depositories sealing those materials off Soviet public. The book was also the only Anthology of the Russian poetry of the XX century ever published in the USSR until the end of it. Today, the original edition of it has become a gem at the rare books auctions.
Forty eight year ago, I brought it home being absolutely happy. I can physically remember that happiness still now. That blossom of poetry has become my favourite book ever. I knew that I should return it to Maija who did treasure it extremely highly, as I was doing with all the books and magazine borrowed from her, and as it my habit ever. There are people who return books and there are those who don’t. I belong to the first category emphatically.
But that book was an exception, the only one in my life, as it happened. Every now and then, I would ask her:
-Maja dear, can I please still have Anthology for a while? She always smiled and always said: – Yes, my dear, you can.
That dialogue was going for years. I felt guilty, but I just could not depart with that very book. I finished school, started to study at the university, and it was still the same. When I was going away from home for a substantial period of time, to the student camp, and alike, and was unable to take such a heavy volume with me, I was missing it distinctly.
Then I got married to a young man whom I knew – without any other elaboration , but with that firm inner knowledge – that I would marry very soon after we met.
Maija decided that as a part of her present to me for my wedding, I should not return Anthology to her. I was absolutely happy and so very grateful. That heavy volume travelled with us to St Petersburg where we moved soon, but because of its rarity, it was impossible to take it with us across the border in our further journeys. We left my treasure with good friends. At least I know that it is at the family-like home. I still miss it, tell you the truth.
The young man who has got that rare wedding present from Maija together with me, has become a very able artist. At the beginning of his artistic journey, Michael was deeply connected to the literature with which we grew up and to his preceding work at theatre. He was very sensitive to the historical storms which have formed us, our families, the writers whom we read and the poets whom we loved. Michael also knew that I am missing that Anthology volume which always crowned my working table at our previous homes.
Without discussion or hinting on what he was working, he created a very special artwork, his early portrait of Osip Mandelstam, as the present for my birthday. Almost thirty years have passed since that moment of that total and overwhelming surprise to me, but I can tell that this is one of the most dear to me presents, and one of the most dear and special of my possessions. For many years, ‘my Osip’ painted by my Michael was hanging on the wall in all my studies being a reflection and source of empathy to me.
Later on, I have created a few works to commemorate Mandelstam’s huge talent and his absolutely tragic destiny in my projects on Jewish heritage and our living memory which is not only paying a bit of our debts to the people who has formed us by their talent, but also continuation of some of their ideas, having them as ‘a golden equivalent’ of the level and the quality of what we do while we creating ourselves.
It is also about keeping their spirit alive. The most important – and actually, the only thing – that we could do for them, for their memory. The one of the musical video-essay presenting such project, Horizon Beyond Horizon:Celebration of Jewish Talent , can be watched here.
Osip Mandelstam has become much better known and much more justly appreciated in his country after his death than during his short life. It happened so very often in the XX century, due to the demons which were unleashed from the beginning of it and through three quarters of it.
In commemoration of his 130th birth anniversary, a truly special memorial plaque was unveiled in Ekaterinburg, Russia’s main city in the Urals. On the plaque created by Russian artist Nikolay Peredein, and crowd-funded by people from all over Russia, Osip and Nadja are depicted together, as two birds, hunted but strong and determined, living by the huge resources of their both’ extraordinary souls.
Or that one soul which I believe was in the case of Mandelstams, Osip and Nadja, Jewish heroes of Russian culture.
January 15-17, 2020.