Hope, resistance, and poetry in two Russian autobiographies.
What are we to make of these paradoxes of two famous twentieth century autobiographies? How can we account for the fact that these two major texts from a scientific materialistic society, without God, are centered on the lives of two writers of Judaeo-Christian faith who used their poetry and life stories as a method of resistance to their own society? How did they emerge from a society that in 1929 so completely subjugated their Russian Orthodox Church that it never disagreed with any state policy for the next fifty years? Finally, how are we to account for the centrality of the word "hope" in the title of each work? These questions are at the heart of this essay.
In answer to these questions, we shall first examine the meaning of "hope" in the Christian tradition and its specific adaptation by Mandelstam and Ratushinskaya to the struggles of their autobiographies. As believers caught in a totalitarian system that appeared interminable in the 1970s, they developed the virtue of hope in its theological, moral, and political dimensions. For them, as for many twentieth-century theologians, hope called for an expectation of both the ultimate future of union with God and also the proximate future of building the Kingdom of God on earth. As poets, this complex hope drove them to a creative use of the "word" (in all its meanings) for protest and for proclamation.
Let us begin with the use of "hope" in the titles of their autobiographies. Mandelstam (1899-1980), whose own first name (Nadezhda) means hope in Russian, loved the phrase "hope against hope," playing with it in her letters and then choosing it as the title of her primary autobiography. Later, she also played on it in a subsequent memoir of her earlier and later years entitled Hope Abandoned (1972). For her successor, Ratushinskaya, the word "hope" also appears in the title of her prison memoirs, but in a paradoxical sense by which the gray of the concentration camp uniforms becomes the means of providing hope in a politically hopeless situation.
"Hope" for these two Russian Orthodox writers had developed within the Christian theological tradition; from the early church's concern for hope focused on an imminent parousia, and from the patristic period's concern with avoiding Gnostic hope for escapes from the body or from human history. After the Christianization of the Roman Empire, of course, hope began to be more focused on public ecclesiastical life as Christians tried to work toward a church that, in its sacraments and service, was a first stage in waiting for the second coming of Christ to bring about the fullness of the Kingdom of God. During the Middle Ages, Dante, the favorite poet of Osip Mendelstam, created a visual panorama of the afterlife which Christians hoped for in the vision of God as Love in The Divine Comedy. As this epic indicates by its historical particulars and vivid human portraits, hope for eternal life is inextricably bound up with human love and hope during life on earth. The theology behind Dante's vision of heaven derives, of course, from Thomas Aquinas, who expatiates on the theological virtue of hope as a disposition to set one's confident heart on the future goal of eternal life with God and other believers. Integral to this hope, of course, is the virtue of caritas and all its demands for loving action in the world. For Aquinas, the opposites of hope are the vices of two extremes--despair of salvation or presumption that one can achieve it by oneself. Along with the central literary and theological tradition of Dante and Aquinas emerged the waves of apocalyptic movements connected with the name of Joachim of Fiore and the spiritual Franciscans, who hoped for a new millennium of perfection on earth.
Although it is impossible to show that either Mandelstam or Ratushinskaya was conversant with this theological tradition of hope or with modern Russian Orthodox theology, it is not impossible that they were influenced by the movement in that church emerging from such nineteenth century thinkers as Aleksandr Bukharev, who was also known by his sub-episcopal title of Archimandrake Feodor (1824--1871). Bukharev, responding to the challenge of modernity with a work entitled The Humanity of God, emphasized the human nature of Christ and the need for Christian involvement in human reform, such as the liberation of the serfs in 1861. He called for Orthodox believers to bring the Gospel to bear on all human pursuits, "not just the arts and sciences, but also agriculture, trade and the other earthly interests of our so called positive century" (qtd. in Valliere 63). In his final work, Studies in the Apocalypse, Bukharev explored the need for a Christian prophetic hope that would go beyond the secularism of the nineteenth century toward a new Christian civilization.
This new sense of Christian hope was blocked, of course, by the Russian Revolution, but within the twentieth century arose a Russian Orthodox priest and theologian in exile, Sergei Bulgafov (1871-1944), who, with the mediation of the philosophy of Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900), brought a sophistication to the earlier prophetic vision of Bukharev. As Valliere has shown recently, Bulgafov's theological works, especially On the Humanity of God, demonstrate a continuity with the themes of Bukharev and a development that combines an emphasis on the pan-humanity of Christ (within the Orthodox tradition of the Spirit in the world), a pan-humanity that brings about a "Christification" of history. As Bulgafov says in his The Lamb of God: "History is not an empty corridor which must be got through somehow in order to be liberated from this world into the other one, it belongs to the work of Christ in His Incarnation, it is an apocalypse striving for eschatological fulfillment, a divine-human work on earth" (qtd. in Valliere 345). Although he had been expelled from the Soviet Union in 1922 because of his religion, Bulgafov's theological influence provided a steady pressure on Russian Orthodox thinkers until and beyond his death in 1944.
This brief excursus into Russian Orthodox thought suggests that Bukharev and Bulgafov were forerunners of late twentieth-century theologies of hope in western Christianity, as found in the writings of Jurgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and several political or liberation theologians. In accord with both their Russian theological ancestors and these Western thinkers, Mandelstam and Ratushinskaya demonstrate by their autobiographies that the focus of Christian hope is not merely individual salvation in the afterlife but also societal freedom and reconciliation in human life on earth as well. Both autobiographers implicitly longed for the coming reign of God as a gift and call by God; a call not merely to individuals but also to human society to union with God and with one another in a community of justice and peace in both this life and in the life to come. Most of all these autobiographers professed the vocation of the writer and poet to be prophets of resistance and hope in the face of apparently endless domination by an atheistic and totalitarian state.
ONE of the persistent questions that recurs for readers of Hope Against Hope is how Osip Mandelstam came to be a Christian and what sort of one he was. According to his biographers, after he was raised in a secular Jewish family, he was baptized in Finland into the Methodist Church in 1910, not solely for political or social reasons. (1) Although he did not attend church regularly, he consistently affirmed himself to be a writer in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In his early essays on Pushkin, Osip Mandelstam attests to his belief that the world is free and poets can write of freedom because of universal redemption by Christ. Although Donald Davie finds that Mandelstam's hope deviates from Christianity into a sort of antinominan utopianism, Mandelstam's own words lend themselves to a more benign interpretation:
Christian art is free.... The foundation stone of Christian aesthetics is not sacrifice, not redemption in art, but the free and joyous imitation of Christ. Art cannot be sacrifice, since that has already been made; it cannot be redemption, since the world, including the artist, has already been redeemed. What is left? Joyous fellowship with God ... (qtd. in Davie 463)
Even Davie, however, will admit that Nadezhda's few remarks about her own faith indicate that she was clearly a Christian for whom "only faith, hope, and charity ... can protect one from despair" (Hope Abandoned 497). Yet, this same wife affirmed the authenticity of her husband's Christian faith in several places in her own writings, for example, "M. accepted [Christianity] in its philosophical aspect rather than as a matter of everyday observance--it underlay his view of the world. He regarded poetry as something sacramental" (Hope Abandoned 44). She also asserted that her husband thought that all people had been set free by Christianity but that the modern age had abandoned freedom for atheism and rationality (580). For him, in contrast to the modern world, all authentic values "simply followed logically from Christianity" and he disliked modernity's attempt to separate humanism from the Christianity "which gave it birth" (521). In Hope Against Hope, his wife cites his statement, "Thanks to the wonderful bounty of Christianity, the whole of our two-thousand-year culture is the setting of the world free for play, for spiritual pleasure, for the free imitation of Christ" (269). It is no surprise that the author of the introduction to his Complete Poems calls Mandelstam "the most Christian of modern poets" (9).
Nadezhda Mandelstam also claimed that her husband was aware of his poetic gifts as a sign of a predestined sacred vocation. She cites one of his earliest poems to substantiate her claim:
His heart seems wrapped in cloud And his flesh pretends to be stone Until the Lord reveals his poet's destiny. Ready for song as for battle He awaits the secret sign And the simple joining of his words Is like the sacrament of wedlock. (Hope Abandoned 12-13)
How did this Christian vision support Nadezhda and her husband in their years of internal exile from Moscow? First, they found in their faith and culture a ground for resistance to the deterministic philosophy and illusory utopia of Marxism because, as Osip said, these doctrines were a "hopeless stopping of time." The consequent dictatorship of Stalin with its bureaucracy and persecution of writers and artists became for the Mandelstams an "encounter with the irrational forces that so inescapably and horrifyingly ruled over us [and] radically affected our minds" (Hope Against Hope 44). As she sums up the central political conflict underlying her autobiography about her husband:
Struggling for breath, frightened of everything but afraid of no one, crushed and condemned, the bearded poet thus defied once more, in his last days, the dictator whose power was greater than any the world had ever seen. (Hope Against Hope 387)
This defiance is voiced by a soldier in Kiev in what may have been Osip Mandelstam's final poem, composed in May 1937: "Soldiers took the last trolley / out of town, right to the edge, / and a damp overcoat shouted: / 'We'll be back, do you hear!'" (Complete Poetry 297). Osip showed similar defiant hope in a poem written four months earlier: "I'm not dead, I'm not alone ... I live alone in beautiful poverty, in sumptuous / misery--peaceful, consoled --blessed days, blessed nights, / and sinless sweet-singing labor" (267).
Although neither Osip nor his wife believed in public political resistance, both were staunch advocates of intellectual and poetic resistance. Most of Nadezhda's account consists of detailed descriptions of Osip's day to day life and writing of poetry (e.g. Ch. 38-42). Only in poetry did be find a way to tell the truth and to find God in this world, which he called "a God-given palace." For him, there was only "one book" which underlay all his other reading and writing--the Bible (Hope Against Hope 227). For his wife, the way to communicate the truth of faith and culture was through poetry, "I can only watch with hope and bated breath as more and more people read poetry" (248). Even in the face of an unbending Stalinism, both of them retained a consistently hopeful view "about poetry, the role of the poet in society and the 'merging of the intellectual and the moral' in an integrated culture" through their lives (264).
Despite the vagaries of their internal exile, Nadezhda wondered about the significance of her own name, but affirmed, "... one cannot live without hope and, however often our hopes were disappointed, we could only go on trying."
Her husband's hope, however, was founded in his earlier turn to Christianity, which is shown clearly in a vivid poem from 1921:
Under the arches of gray-haired silence I love roaming requiems and public prayers And the moving obligatory rites Of funerals at Saint Isaac's Cathedral. I love the priest's slow step, The open display of Christ's shroud And, in a shabby fish-net, the Galilean Darkness of Lent. In these heavy years, the spirit is not pulled To you, but misfortune's wolf-tracks Are what is dragged along these gloomy wide steps, And we will never betray them: Because the slave no longer afraid of fear Is free, and there's more than by the measure Stored in cool granaries, in deep bins: The seeds of full, deep faith. (Complete Poems 119-120)
After the final arrest and confinement of Osip (triggered by his writing of a strong anti-Stalin poem), his wife took it on herself to keep his poetry alive, first by memorizing all his poems and later by writing the account of his life. As Joseph Brodsky says in his famous 1980 obituary and response to her autobiography, "If there is any substitute for love, it's memory. To memorize, then, is to restore intimacy. Gradually the lines of those poets became her mentality, became her identity" (Hope Against Hope ix). This keeping of his memory becomes the focus of her autobiography, making her, as one critic has said, an example of the alterity or "otherness" that often characterizes modern women's autobiography. For Nadezhda, however, this self-effacing focus on the other--her husband, the poet--was also part of her faith. This faith has its human level, as in her statement, "If the verse I have preserved is of some use to people, then my life has not been wasted and I have done what I had to do both for the man who was my other self and for all those people whose humane, that is human, instincts are roused by poetry" (Hope Abandoned 11). But what she calls her "preordained task" as an autobiographer and preserver of her husband's memory is also a religious vocation. In Pratt's words, she shares in "the religious concept of kenosis so prevalent in Russian spiritual life--the achievement of moral worth, even moral power, through denial or emptying of self, through suffering in imitation of Christ" (Pratt 69). Yet, in writing about the other, Nadezhda becomes more herself and creates her own presence in the autobiography. In doing so, she manifests and enhances herself in relationship to her husband, to the Russian culture and its sense of solidarity, to the power of poetry itself as a sort of sacramental Word, and to the divine Word working through all the others. As Pratt concludes, "Nadezhda Mandelstam achieves her own true identity as a creator of the Word because she has comprehended and recreated the essence of the Word of another" (76).
LIKE Nadezhda Mandelstam, Irina Ratushinskaya wrote her autobiography as a memoir to preserve herself and others, in her case, the lives of other women political prisoners in the gulag during the final crackdown by Andropov in the 1980s. She was arrested for writing poetry that was considered too religious and too subversive of the state. As a strong Russian Orthodox Christian, through her autobiography, she empties herself in the service of the Word, the words of her own poetry, the words of the stories of her fellow prisoners, and the Word of God embodied in the Bible that was the most precious possession of several of her fellow prisoners. One of the key moments in her account takes place when Ratushinskaya receives a Bible and a copy of Osip Mandelstam's poems as gifts from a fellow prisoner who is being sent from the camp into exile. These two objects symbolize the three primary means that the author and her friends use to survive in the camps--the word of law, the word of poetry, and the word of faith.
Unlike the Mandelstams, Ratushinskaya and her friends in the camp believed in strong political resistance to the arbitrary dictatorship of the prison camps. Living in the post-Stalinist era, she and other women political prisoners joined in solidarity to confront the KGB and petty officials who used the camps and its rules to gain arbitrary power over prisoners. As she asserts about herself, "Just because I am imprisoned it does not mean that I shall let anyone deny me the freedom to behave like a normal human being" (42). With this collective sense of their human dignity, the women join in solidarity to resist all camp rules that are against human values, but they make special use of the words of the Russian penal law system to gain control of it. Through strikes, silence, letters and petitions, celebrations, religious ceremonies, and the refusal to wear tags, they are able to retain their sense of self-worth and bonding as fellow prisoners in the face of informers and vicious guards. They use the very law that keeps them imprisoned to imprison the guards and commandants within the rule of law.
More importantly, Ratushinskaya uses her gifts as a poet throughout her three years in prison. She recounts her method of learning to write poetry in her head and, like Osip Mandelstam, of reciting it to her fellow prisoners at night or on special occasions. She then writes it down in secret and keeps it hidden from the guards until she can smuggle it out of prison in letters or packets given to visitors, who in turn get it to her husband in Moscow. At one point, she worries that she is losing her memory of her poems and so creates an index in code to help her recall them (338-339). Eventually, through her husband, she is able to publish underground or overseas two volumes of her prison poems.
Even as she begins her account, she tells of reciting poems on the train to other prisoners, mostly criminals, who are curious about having a poet in their midst. One of the poems includes the theme of hope that is provided by her very recitation of it to the others:
I see a household cat in my despairing, Who makes no noise and knows how to behave. Her needs are few--a scratch will start her purring, A scrap to eat and whispered words: 'Be brave.'" (27)
Once in the camp, Ratushinskaya writes poems for all her fellow prisoners, including a famous one for her closest friend, Tatanya, who set up and supported the others in their attempts at keeping order and human dignity: "Soon, soon you'll be joining the convoy, / Soon you'll be putting on a warm sweater, / And freedom will be treading on your heels ..." (73). After one of the major hunger strikes is over, she writes a poem to memorialize their resistance group:
So tomorrow, our little ship, Small Zone, What will come true for us? ... Those of us who sail to the end, row, live to the end--Let them tell for the others: We knew The touch of this hand. (151)
She also writes poems as prizes for their secret camp games or to highlight their occasional opportunities for birthdays or religious celebrations. On one occasion when she is on a hunger strike in a special cell, she "recites" a poem for the other prisoners by tapping it out on a pipe: "Oh Hope, I shall remain alive / The grave's damp earth is not my calling" (229). Even in the last year, when she is so afraid of having poems confiscated that she memorizes then swallows them, but later revises them in her head, she recites the last poem in a special prison cell where she is being punished: "Which dusty road are we measuring? / Which centuries? / On our bodies we shall go on treasuring / The hard Earth's unevenness" (339). Her poetry also inspires other prisoners to write their own, such as when Pani Jadvyga, a Lithuanian Catholic woman, translates for the "small zone" of political prisoners her simple poem about Christ's presence at their supper. The power of Ratushinskaya's poetry over other prisoners is further seen in a letter from Tatanya Mikhailovna back to Ratushinskaya in prison praising the important role of her poems in giving them all identity and dignity. As Tatanya says in the words of another Russian woman poet:
Did all this really happen? But we, when we're reflected In a poet's brilliant eye Become what we must be. (144)
If these examples show the power of poetry in resistance for Ratushinskaya, what was the role of her faith? When she arrives in the camp, she discovers that several of her fellow political prisoners are there because of the open practice of their faith, in particular some dissident "true orthodox" older women, called grannies, who had joined a sect which forbade any cooperation with the communist government. Others in the Small Zone include two Lithuanian Catholic women (one a nun) who are there on trumped up charges, and two Protestant converts whose faith had been too public. All in all, she finds a diverse religious group: "What a mixed bunch we are: a Catholic, a Pentecostal, several Orthodox, an unbeliever ... later we were to be joined by a Baptist. Yet we were always deeply respectful of one another's convictions" (123). Throughout her account, she weaves in small religious details of their lives--the use of prayer formats for poems, the use of the sign of the cross during departures, the smuggling in of communion wafers, and the like. In the middle of the autobiography, after some unexpected gifts from the more violent women criminals, she stops to offer thanks to God, to her fellow women in the Small Zone, and to other prisoners:
Thank you, O Lord, that it fell to my lot to endure the rigors of prison transports, to hide poetry and books from the KGB, to languish in punishment cells and starve. Only when I entered into open combat did I realize how much help I received from almost everyone I encountered. (148)
On special feasts such as Easter or Christmas, she recounts their preparations for celebrating these reminders of their Christian identity. As she recounts one freezing Christmas eve, "We gather around the table, and the words of the Lord's Prayer ring out in Lithuanian, Latvian, Russian and Ukranian" (307).
Thus, through the power of intelligent use of the law, of poetry, and religious faith, Ratushinskaya and her companions retain the hope that is needed to keep up their resistance to the irrational forces of the gulag camp. As she ends her narrative in 1987, still not yet aware of the closeness of the end of the Soviet Union, she recalls her association of hope and gray in her prison uniform:
The color of hope! How much longer will those camps stand upon the soil of my country? How can I sleep while they exist? But it was our Zone that had a gray uniform. The majority of zeks [nonpolitical prisoners]. What hope can they have? Perhaps only that which we can offer. (357)
The very writing of her autobiography in the form of a memoir of others --her fellow prisoners, her husband, herself--becomes a sign of hope and resistance, a sign that would soon find its fulfillment in 1989. In this hope that her words would bring hope to her world, she is echoing one of the final Dante poems of Osip Mandelstam, who called himself "the last Christian-Hellenic poet of Russia" and who, like Ratushinskaya, recited his poems to fellow prisoners to give them hope:
Don't crown me, please, With tender-sharp laurel--Chop my heart, please, Into ringing blue bits, And having served my time, I'll die, Friend to everyone alive, And heaven's answer will be heard, louder And higher and wider, out of my chest. (Complete Poetry 285) (2)
1) See Brown, Harris. 2) See Pevear, p. 439.
Brown, Clarence. Mandelstam. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1973.
Davie, Donald. "From the Marches of Christendom: Mandelstam and Milosz." Southwest Review 80.4 (1995): 448-474.
Harris, Jane Gray. Osip Mandelstam. N. Y.: Macmillan, 1988.
Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Abandoned. Trans. Max Hayward. New York: Atheneum, 1974.
--. Hope Against Hope. Trans. Max Hayward. New York: Atheneum, 1970.
Mandelstam, Osip. Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam. Trans. Burton Raffel and Alla Burago. Introduction and notes by Sidney Monas. Albany: SUNY P, 1973.
Pevear, Richard. "On the Memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam,' Hudson Review 24 (1971): 427-440.
Pratt, Sarah. "Angels in the Stalinist House: Nadezhda Mandelstam, Lidiia Chukovskaia, Lidiia Ginzburg, and Russian Women's Autobiography" A/B Autobiography 11 (Fall 1996): 68-86.
Ratushinskaya, Irina. Gray is the Color of Hope. New York: Knopf, 1988.
Valliere, Paul. Modern Russian Theology: Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov: Orthodox Theology in a New Key. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.
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|Author:||Leigh, David J.|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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