Saturday, March 21, 2009
One of the reasons I decided to write this blog was to become a more critical reader. Now as I read a book, I begin to formulate the arguments that are then discussed on this page. My most recent read proved to be a difficult text on a few different levels and as I type these words I am still unsure how to encapsulate the subject matter. Therefore, I now understand why George Steiner of the New Yorker is quoted as saying, "nothing one can say will either communicate or effect the genius of this book. To pass judgment on it is almost insolence-even judgment that is merely celebration and homage." I was not able to fully grasp the genius of this memoir written about Russia in the 1930's but I can relate in the difficulty of actually passing judgment on the work.
A dear friend of mine with a deep knowledge of communism has always told me that Marx's political ideology was never meant for a country like Russia. Certainly the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 led way to a complete transformation of a society at all levels - from economic to cultural. However the tactics used by Stalin to "pacify" society for the betterment of all led to a nation gripped by fear who saw millions of its citizens sent to the forced labor camps to die.
Within this period any type of expression deemed disruptive to the state was not tolerated. Those involved risked death. The intellectuals who supplied cultural material to the country did so either in a state-sponsored position or underground. The first approach meant that all poems, books and music were subject to government approval while the latter meant living a transitory life with no security, money, or assistance. Many of these individuals were seen as a nemesis to the state and were arrested and sent to camps.
Hope Against Hope could be the best and most humanistic account we have of what life was like during that period for someone who opposed the state. It is the memoir written by the wife of Oris Mandelstam - one of Russia's most famous poets. These two individuals spent their entire marriage on the run mainly due to one poem Mandelstam wrote which included two negative lines about Stalin. A poem! Arrest! What absurdity.
Our history of Russia and the will of man are both richer thanks to this book. Having access to this period cannot be taken for granted because so many millions of pages of text, be it poems, biographies or novels, never made it beyond the eyes of the secret police who confiscated and later destroyed them. The fact that this memoir survived is a miracle in its own right.