Waiting for a miracle

Nadezhda Mandelstam was the widow of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and author of the astounding memoir Hope Against Hope, originally published in 1970. It is still in print after all these years and well summarized here. Osip was first arrested and taken into custody in 1934 for having written an unpublished poem critical of Stalin. Later deposited in the Stalinist “sewage disposal system” (as Solzhenitsyn called it), Osip died in the Great Purge of 1937-1938. Nadezhda brings the nightmarish story unforgettably to life. When Osip is first arrested and interrogated in 1934, they know he needs a miraculous intervention. It came in the form of banishment from twelve major cities of the Soviet Union (the sentence of “minus twelve”). The wife of a great poet, Nadezhda was especially sensitive to issues of language. In chapter 23 (“On the nature of the miracle”), Nadezhda steps back to capture one aspect of their experience in a few paragraphs I wanted to share with readers:

As we soon learned, the case had been revised and M.’s sentence commuted to “minus twelve.” All this happened in record time — in no more than a day or two, or only a few hours. The very pace of events was testimony to their miraculous nature: when the right button was pressed above, the bureaucratic machine functioned with astonishing speed.

The greater the degree of centralization, the more impressive the miracle. We were overjoyed by miracles and accepted them with the credulity of an Oriental mob. They had become part of our life. Which one of us had never written letters to the supreme powers, addressed to the most metallic of names [Stalin]? And what is such a letter but a plea for a miracle? If they are preserved, these mountains of letters will be a veritable treasure trove for historians: the life of our times is recorded in them far more faithfully than in every other form of writing, since they speak of all the hurts, humiliations, blows, pitfalls and traps of our existence. But to go through them and sift out the tiny grains of real fact will be a Herculean labor. The trouble is that even in these letters we observed the special style of Soviet polite parlance, speaking of our misfortunes in the language of newspaper editorials. But even a cursory look at these letters to the “powers-that-be” would show at once how much we needed miracles — to live without them was impossible. Only one must remember that even if they got their miracles, the writers of such letters were doomed to bitter disappointment. This they were never prepared for, despite the warning of popular wisdom that miracles are never more than a flash in the pan, with no lasting effect. What are people left with in their fairy tales after their three wishes have come true? What becomes, in the morning, of the gold obtained in the night from the lame man? It turns into a slab of clay, or a handful of dust. The only good life is one in which there is no need for miracles.

* * * * *

What we wanted was for the course of history to be made smooth, all the ruts and potholes to be removed, so there should never again be any unforeseen events and everything should flow along evenly and according to plan. The longing prepared us, psychologically, for the appearance of the Wise Leaders who would tell us where we were going. And once they were there, we no longer ventured to act without their guidance and looked to them for direct instructions and foolproof prescriptions. Since we could offer no better prescriptions of our own, it was logical to accept the ones proposed from on high. The most we dared to offer was advice in some minor matter: would it be possible, for example, to allow different styles in carrying out the Party’s orders in art? We would like it so much…In our blindness we ourselves struggled to impose unanimity — because in every disagreement, in every difference of opinion, we saw the beginnings of new anarchy and chaos. And either by silence or consent we ourselves helped the system to gain in strength and protect itself against its detractors…

So we went on, nursing a sense of our own inadequacy, until the moment came for each of us to discover from bitter experience how precarious was his own state of grace. This could only come from bitter personal experience, because we did not believe in other people’s. We really are inadequate and cannot be held responsible for our behavior. And we are saved only by miracles.

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