The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
We all belonged to the same category marked down for absolute destruction. The astonishing thing is not that so many of us went to concentration camps or died there, but that some of us survived. Caution did not help. Only chance could save you.
—Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned
Nadezhda Yakovlevna Khazina, known to us as Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899–1980), would have been sufficiently famous as the heroic wife and widow of Osip Mandelstam, one of the finest poets of 20th-century Russia and therefore one of the most illustrious of Stalin's victims among the old intelligentsia who had stayed on in Russia in the mistaken belief that the Soviet regime would be an opportunity for culture. As the naïvely nonpolitical poet soon found, it would instead have been an opportunity for him to starve if Nadezhda's ability to translate the principal European languages had not helped to pay for the groceries. After the poet was arrested in 1934 (his "crime" had been to write a few satirical lines about Stalin), Nadezhda's translations from English were her only means of sustenance over the course of her long banishment to the provincial towns, during which time, in 1938, her husband finally perished in the Gulag.
Only after Nadezhda was permitted to return to Moscow, in 1964, did she begin to write Hope Against Hope, the magnificent book that puts her at the center of the liberal resistance under the Soviet Union and indeed at the center of the whole of 20th-century literary and political history. Some would place her book even ahead of Primo Levi's If This Is a Man (unforgivably known, in the United States, under the feel-good title of Survival in Auschwitz) and Jung Chang's Wild Swans as required preliminary reading for any prospective student enrolled at a university. A masterpiece of prose as well as a model of biographical narrative and social analysis, Hope Against Hope is mainly the story of the terrible last years of persecution and torment before her husband was murdered. Nadezhda and Osip are the most prominent characters, although there is a vivid portrait of Anna Akhmatova. The book's sequel, Hope Abandoned, is about the author's personal fate and is in some ways even more terrible, because, as the title implies, it is more about horror as a way of life than as an interruption to normal expectancy. Both volumes are superbly translated into English by Max Hayward. Until the collapse of the regime, they were available in the original language only in samizdat or else from printing houses situated outside the Soviet borders. As with Akhmatova's banned poem "Requiem," their full publication in Russia marked the day when the Soviet Union came to an end, and freedom—which Nadezhda, against mountainous evidence, had always said would one day return of its own accord—returned.
Hayward chose the English titles well for his magnificent translations: Hope Against Hope is about a gradual, reluctant but inexorable realization that despair is the only thing left to feel: It is the book of a process. Hope Abandoned is about what despair is like when even the memory of an alternative has been dispelled: the book of a result. The second book's subject is spiritual desolation as a way of life. Several times, Nadezhda proclaims her fear that the very idea of normality has gone from the world: "I shall not live to see the future, but I am haunted by the fear that it may be only a slightly modified version of the past." The memory of what happened can't even be passed on without ruining the lives of those called upon to understand. "If any brave young fellow with no experience of these things feels inclined to laugh at me," she writes, "I invite him back into the era we lived through, and I guarantee that he will need to taste only a hundredth part what we endured to wake up in the night in a cold sweat, ready to do anything to save his skin the next morning." Well, none of us brave young fellows back there in the comfortable West of the late 1960s and early 1970s felt inclined to laugh at her. Schopenhauer had said that a man is in a condition of despair when he thinks a thing will happen because he wants it not to and that what he wishes can never be. Nadezhda had provided two books to show how that felt.
As such, they were key chapters in the new bible that the 20th century had written for us. In a bible, it is not astonishing that some of the gospels should sound like each other and seem to tell the same story. In Primo Levi's books, the theme is often struck that the only real story about the Nazi extermination camps was the common fate of those who were obliterated: The story of the survivors was too atypical to be edifying, and to dwell on it could only lead to the heresy that Levi called Survivalism and damned as a perversion. Survival had nothing to do with anything except chance: There was no philosophy to be extracted from it and certainly no guide to behavior. In Russian instead of Italian, Nadezhda said exactly the same thing about life under Stalin: "Only chance could save you." It is the best thing ever said about life under state terror, and it took her to say it so directly, bravely, and unforgettably.
It was the dubious distinction of the Soviet Union to create, for the remnants of the Russian intelligentsia, conditions by which they could experience, in what passed for ordinary civilian life, the same uncertainties and terrors as the victims who would later be propelled into Nazi Germany's concentrated universe. The main difference was that in Nazi Europe the victims knew from the start who they were and eventually came to know that they were doomed. In the Soviet Union, the bourgeois elements could not even be certain that they were marked down for death. Like Kafka's victims in the Strafkolonie, they were in a perpetual state of trying to imagine what their crime might be. Was it to have read books? Was it to have red hair? Was it (the cruelest form of fear) to have submitted too eagerly? Other versions of the same story came out of China, North Korea, Romania, Albania, Cambodia. The same story came out of the Rome of Tiberius, but the 20th century gave something new to history when societies nominally dedicated to human betterment created a climate of universal fear.