Osip Mandelstam was last seen in December 1938, rummaging in the garbage of a transit camp near Vladivostok. Beaten up by hooligans, shivering in the calamitous Siberian winter, Osip traded his coat for some sugar, it is said. His last supper came from the garbage heap. He had been physically sick for a long time. In 1934, Osip was exiled by Stalin to the Urals. He, alone of all Russia's intelligentsia, dared openly defy the Tyrant. Expecting secret service police to fetch him at any moment, Osip threw himself out of the second-story window of a hospital he was in. Nadezhda, his wife and muse, grabbed his arm, but, like Faust holding the veil of the vanished Helen, she found herself only holding Osip's coat by the sleeve.
Osip lay with broken but healable bones on the pavement below. He had already told Anna Akhmatova: "I am ready for death." The survival of many of the poems of Osip Mandelstam to the present day is a miracle carried out by Nadezhda mostly. Some were hidden in shoes and sauce pans, others memorized lovingly by Nadezhda. Mandelstam's eloquence was so potent that it easily survives translation, so that English readers, as well, can savor "the charm of something never yet said."
Equally as unlucky was his illuminated friend, former lover and colleague, the poetess Marina Tsvetaeva, who said this of Osip's eloquence: "It isn't a question of classicism – but of sorcery!" Mandelstam's clairvoyance was accompanied by prophetic powers, like those of Pushkin before him. This is Apollo's curse on bards – the power of prophecy with this sarcastic condition: "No one will believe you." Mandelstam lived through World War I and died on the eve of World War II. He foresaw the world wars ahead of humanity in this verse:
Do you hear, Night, step-mother of the stars' gypsy camp, what comes now [World War II] and later [World War III]?
Osip Mandelstam perished in time of "peace". Despite his terrible fate in the transit camp near Vladivostok, it was the better option over the fate awaiting him had he survived. The camp was a transit for millions of souls annihilated by the aberrant whim of one madman. Those who survived in the cramped cattle cars for the 28-day hellride over the frozen steppe on the Trans-Siberian Railway, were driven into camp like starving cattle upon arrival. Osip was near-dead. The poet's remains cannot be identified in the ocean of skeletal fragments scattered over Siberia in the millions, and brought back to Petrograd for a state funeral, as have the remains of Czar Nikolai II and his family. Had he lived, his fate would have been to be crammed into the freezing steel hold of a freighter with thousands of other condemned men and women, and be shipped off over the Arctic waters southwest of the Bering Straits, to the horrifying Kolyma death camp in northernmost Siberia.
Stalin was interested in the gold, and estimates are that three million people perished here digging Stalin's gold. Those who had started from Moscow and survived the hellride over the frozen steppes of Central Asia, the terror of the transit camp, the icy voyage in the steel hold, and the forced march over snowy Siberian prairies, were very hardy souls. One of these was Varlam Shalamov, who, when freed after 17 years of agonizing trials at Kolyma, became a friend of Nadezhda Mandelstam. Shalamov's book on his experience at Kolyma is the most horrifying reading I know, along with Jewish accounts of the German death-camps. Combined with luck, Shalamov's courage, vitality and persevering spirit brought him through 17 years of Calamity. Osip Mandelstam, in dying at the camp near Vladivostok, was spared these new, more intense horrors at Kolyma.
It was Osip's wish "to free myself from the brunt of time," as was the wish of taoist immortals. He is free and leaves us captives here in "the twilight of freedom." The handwriting on the wall of the christian era was deciphered moments before the bard's martyrdom:
The fragile reckoning
of the years of our age
is now nearing its end.
Osip's longing for Nadezhda stretched over the freezing steppes of Central Asia, and was met by her vigilant love. Nadezhda sent her husband a letter, sent it off into the vast Unknown where he had vanished:
Osia, my beloved, faraway sweetheart!
I have no words, my darling, to write this letter that you may never read, perhaps. I am writing in empty space. Perhaps you will come back and not find me here. Then this will be all you have to remember me by. Osia, what a joy it was living together like children – all our squabbles and arguments, the games we played, and our love. Now I do not even look at the sky. If I see a cloud, who can I show it to?
Remember the way we brought back provisions to make our poor feasts in all the places where we pitched our tent like nomads? Remember the good taste of bread when we got it by a miracle and ate it together? And our last winter in Voronezh. Our happy poverty, and the poetry you wrote [...] I understand so clearly, and ache from the pain of it, that those winter days with all their troubles were the greatest and last happiness to be granted in life. My every thought is about you. My every tear and every smile is for you. I bless every day and hour of our bitter life together, my sweetheart, my companion, my blind guide in life.
Like two blind puppies we were, nuzzling each other and feeling so good together. And how fevered your poor head was, and how madly we frittered away the days of our life. What joy it was, and how we always knew what joy was. Life can last so long. How hard and long for each of us to die alone. Can this fate be for us who are inseparable? Puppies and children, did we deserve this? Did you deserve this, my angel? [...]
You came to me every night in my sleep, and I kept asking what had happened, but you did not reply. In my last dream I was buying food for you in a filthy hotel restaurant. The people with me were total strangers. When I had bought it, I realized I did not know where to take it, because I do not know where you are. [...]
I do not know where you are. Will you hear me? Do you know how much I love you? I could never tell you how much I love you. I cannot tell you even now. I speak only to you, only to you. You are with me always, and I who was such a wild and angry one and never learned to weep simple tears – now I weep and weep and weep. It's me: Nadia. Where are you?
Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda Mandelstam, tr. Max Hayward, Collins & Harvill, London, 1974.
(excerpt from Crazy Devil Sweeping)
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cited in The Whetting Stone
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