I read “Hope Against Hope” while Vladimir Putin bombed Ukraine. It is the biography of Osip Mandelstam written by his wife Nadezhda. Osip was a Russian Jewish poet in the early 1900s who was killed by Stalin during the terror of 1937-38. The story is one of extraordinary resilience and resistance. Of the tremendous challenges of making ends meet, of trying to lead a life as close to normal as possible when Stalin decided you were to be “isolated but preserved”. It is a testament to defiance in the face of dictatorship; of humanity in the face of the dehumanization of communist totalitarianism; and of love. Not self-absorbed Hollywood love, facile and flaccid – but the love of seeing the person you are married to waste away under stress and bad food and illness. To work together in seeking out the next meal, the next paycheck – all the while trying to find a way to preserve the poetry in a shoe or a sock drawer from the periodic raids by the book-burners. And then, when it is all over, watching the one you love be marched away to the gulag and spending the next decade trying to figure out where and how he died when the only package you could send is returned with the simple message “Recipient Deceased”.
I first read Osip Mandelstam in Yerevan, where I found a copy of his “Journey to Armenia”, the tale of his trip to the South Caucasus. He was saved by Armenia – it is in Armenia that he rediscovered his ability to write, that he found the thread between past and future, that he recognized resilience and love of life and beauty. Armenia saved his life, as it did mine, and for writing “Journey to Armenia” he was accused of excessive nationalism – though he was not Armenian – and was order by Stalin to be “Isolated but preserved”. Well, that and the poem he wrote about Stalin.
I read “Hope Against Hope” while Vladimir Putin bombed Ukraine. Proving that while history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme. Proving that we are not really that changed; and when we think of The Terror of 100 years ago, in another 100 years our descendants will be talking about the great pandemic of 2020 followed by war which returned to Europe after a short period of Pax Americana. If we don’t read the past, we can’t understand the future.