Searing, unsentimental portrait of Soviet intellectuals’ sufferings under Stalin.
Emma Gerstein (1903–2002) created a furor in post-Soviet Russia when she published her blunt accounts of her friendships with poets Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova. Contradicting the well-known, highly selective memoirs of Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda (Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned), Gerstein depicts the poet as high-spirited and brilliant, but difficult, and terrifyingly reckless; he recited his infamous “Stalin Epigram” (which referred to the dictator’s “fat fingers oily as maggots”) to many more people than was safe, and when arrested promptly gave his listeners’ names to the police. Gerstein also states that Mandelstam, who died en route to a labor camp in 1938 after a series of arrests and internal exiles, tried to lure her into a ménage à trois with himself and the bisexual Nadezhda. In the case of Akhmatova, Gerstein contradicts the bitter reproaches of the poet’s son Lev Gumilyov, who claimed his mother abandoned him during his lengthy incarcerations. Close to both of them (she had a stormy affair with Gumilyov and corresponded with him in the camps), the author shows Akhmatova doing everything she dared to help her son, crippled by the knowledge that the actions of a banned poet could easily do more harm than good. Herself a distinguished Lermontov scholar whose career was severely damaged by her relations with these and other dissidents, Gerstein freely acknowledges the compromises and betrayals forced on even the best-intentioned people by a brutally repressive state; she judges them gently, perhaps because her own father, a Jewish doctor, remained loyal to the Revolution even after it consumed some of his closest friends. Yet no one will come away from her detailed, pitiless record of the horrors inflicted on its citizens without concluding that the Soviet system was politically, economically, and morally indefensible.
A valuable addition to the growing list of Soviet memoirs, countering sanitized depictions of martyrs and monsters with plain truth-telling about human beings trapped in a murderous society.