'Suddently, at about one o'clock in the morning, there was a sharp, unbearably explicit knock on the door. 'They've come for Osip', I said'. In 1933 the poet Osip Mandelstam- friend to Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova- wrote a spirited satire denouncing Josef Stalin. It proved to be a sixteen-line death sentence. For his one act of defiance he was arrested by the Cheka, the secret police, interrogated, exiled and eventually re-arrested. He died en route to one of Stalin's labour camps. His wife, Nadezhda (1899-1980) was with him on both occasions when he was arrested, and she loyally accompanied him into exile in the Urals, where he wrote his last great poems. Although his mind had been unbalanced by his ordeal in prison, his spirit remained unbroken. Eager to solve 'the Mandelstam problem', the Soviet authorities invited the couple to stay in a rest home near Moscow. Nadezhda saw it as an opportunity for her husband to mend his shattered life, but it was a trap and he was arrested for the last time. 'My case will never be closed', Osip once said, and it is mostly through the courageous efforts of Nadezhda that his memory has been preserved. Hope against Hope, her first volume of memoirs, is a vivid and disturbing account of her last four years with her husband, the efforts she made to secure his release, to rescue his manuscripts from oblivion, and later, tragically, to discover the truth about his mysterious death. It is also a harrowing, first-hand account of how Stalin and his henchmen persecuted Russia's literary intelligentsia in the 1930s and beyond. Nadezhda Mandelstam spent most of the Second World War in Tashkent, living with her friend Akhmatova. Only in 1964 was she at last granted permission to return to Moscow. Here she began Hope against Hope, and later Hope Abandoned, the two memoirs of her life.
Nadezhda means "hope" in Russian. And Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of Osip Mandelstam, one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century, is aptly named, for it is hope alone that seems to have buoyed her strength during very trying times. In this, the first of two volumes of her memoirs, she offers a harrowing account of the last four years she spent with her late husband. She re-creates in terse, stripped-to-the-bone sentences the atmosphere of intense paranoia that enveloped Russia's literary intelligentsia. In 1933, Osip had written a lighthearted satire ridiculing Stalin. It proved to be a 16-line death sentence. Nadezhda recalls the night the secret police came for him: "There was a sharp, unbearably explicit knock on the door. 'They've come for Osip,' I said." He was arrested, interrogated, exiled, and eventually rearrested. Nadezhda chronicles each turn of event, describing her feelings of heartbreak and joy with self-effacing discipline. Not only does Mandelstam write with the vitality and insight of the classic Russian novelists, she is far too selfless to write an account of her own travails. Instead, she acts as witness to a society's. Similarly, although Osip's mind became unbalanced by his ordeal in prison, his spirit remained unbroken; it is this liberating, imaginative force that Nadezhda celebrates in Hope Against Hope. --Lilian Pizzichini, Amazon.co.uk