Preeminent Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam have become emblems of suffering -- iconic victims of the Soviet regime. Not without cause: Mandelstam died anonymously in the transit camp near Vladivostok, probably of typhus, in 1938. Akhmatova's husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, was killed by the Cheka, her only son imprisoned in the Soviet gulag. Their dossiers received "special attention" from Stalin, with the constant surveillance that implies.
The events of their lives have become more famous than their poetry -- but only in the West, where the merits of their verse must be triangulated from various translations and "versions." Inevitably, as translations proliferate , these poets will glitter as keenly as first-magnitude stars.
Until then, memoirs will dominate art. Enter Lermontov scholar Emma Gerstein and her Moscow Memoirs : Memories of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Literary Russia under Stalin (Overlook, $35), which recalls her life among last century's literati. Gerstein died in 2002, at age 98. She's waited a long time to tell her tale.
Originally published in Russia six years ago, the book is a lumpy grab bag of pieces published elsewhere over the years. But peppered throughout are remarkable vignettes: Akhmatova blesses her son and faints as her son is taken away to the gulag. Years later, she cries out, "Not one mother has done for her son what I did!" He replies by rolling on the floor, screaming camp obscenities. Mandelstam gives way to nervous exhaustion, ill health and the behavior that tagged him a "schizoid psychopath." His temperament doomed him long before he wrote his satire on Stalin, mocking the despot's "cockroach eyes" and "fat fingers as oily as maggots."
Gerstein is hoping to modify or refute her rival Nadezhda Mandelstam's dynamite memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. But there's no comparison, really. Mandelstam's vision is compelling, full of invective and opinionated oomph. She gives us an epic motion picture; Gerstein gives us a series of snaps, and possibly more than we wanted to know about the seamy side of the Mandelstams. But perhaps the details make a greater point. Gerstein's memoir shatters the cliche of heroism. The poets' suffering defies platitude. If they emerged diamonds, it's because they were under unimaginable pressure.
Cynthia Haven reviews poetry regularly for Book World.