Saturday, November 11, 2017

ET: Almanac

What a rush there would have been if--say, in 1937--all who wanted had been told they could go into voluntary exile with their families, children, belongings and books! All would have flocked to wait in line--wives side by side with their husbands' lovers, daughters with their stepmothers.

But maybe not. Poeple only keep going because they don't know their future and hope to avoid the fate of others. As their neighbors perish one after the other, the survivors take hope from the famous question "What were they arrested for?" and discuss all their indiscretions and mistakes. It is the women, as the real mainstays of the household, who are always the most frantic in their efforts to keep the small falme of hope from going out. In 1937 Lilia Yakhontov, for instance, said after a visit to the Lubianka: "I shall always feel safe as long as that building stands." Her pious expression of devotion may even have delayed her husband's end for a few years--he later threw himself out of a window in a fit of wild fear that he was about to be arrested. And in 1953 a Jewish woman biologist, a true believer, tried to convince another Jewish woman (who had come from the West and was therefore completely shaken by what was going on) that nothing would happen to her "if you have committed no crime and your conscience is clear." Then there was the woman I met in a train in 1957 who explained to me that one must be very careful about rehabilitated persons, since they were being released on humanitarian grounds, not because they were innocent: "Say what you like, there's no smoke without fire." Casuality and expediency are the basic articles of faith in our ready-made philosophy.


At the moment when I entered the coach and saw our brothers through the glass, my world split into two halves. Everything that had previously existed now vanished to become a dim memory, something behind the looking-glass, and the future opening up before me no longer meshed with the past. I am not trying to be literary--this is just a modest attempt to put into words the mental dislocation that is probably felt by all the many people who cross this fateful line. Its first result was utter indifference to what we had left behind--an indifference due to our knowledge that we had all set out on a path of inescapable doom. One of us might be granted a week's grace or even a year, but the end would be the same. It woul be the end of everything--friends, relatives, my mother, Europe. . . . I say "Europe" advisedly, because in the "new" state I had entered there was nothing of the European complex of thought, feelings and ideas by which I had lived hitherto. We were now in a world of different concepts, different ways of measuring and reckoning. . . .

Until a short time before, I had been full of concern for all my friends and relatives, for my work, for everything I set store by. Now this concern was gone--and fear, too. Instead there was an acute sense of being doomed--it was this that gave rise to an indifference so overwhelming as to be almost physical, like a heavy weight pressing down on the shoulders. I also felt that time, as such, had come to an end--there was only an interlude before the inescapable swallowed us with our "Europe" and our handful of last thoughts and feelings.

How would it come, the inescapable? Where, and in what form? It really didn't matter. Resistance was useless. Having entered a realm of non-being, I had lost the sense of death. in the face of doom, even fear disappears. Fear is a gleam of hope, the will to live, self-assertion. it is a deeply European feeling, nurtured on self-respect, the sense of one's own worth, rights, needs and desires. A man clings to what is his, and fears to lose it. Fear and hope are bound up with each other. Losing hope, we lose fear as well--there is nothing to be afraid of.

When a bull is being led to the slaughter, it still hopes to break loose and trample its butchers. other bulls have not been able to pass on the knowledge that this never happens and that from the slaughterhouse there is no way back to the herd. But in human society there is a continuous exchange of experience. I have never heard of a man who broke away and fled while being led to his execution. it is even thought to be a special form of courage if a man about to be executed refuses to be blindfolded and dies with his eyes open. But I would rather have the bull with his blind rage, the stubborn beast who doesn't weigh his chances of survival with the prudent dull-wittedness of man, and doesn't know the despicable feeling of despair.

Later I often wondered whether it is right to scream when you are being beaten and trampled underfoot. Isn't it better to face one's tormentors in a stance of satanic pride, answering them with contemptuous silece? I decided that it is better to scream. This pitiful sound, which sometimes, goodness knows how, reaches into the remotest prison cell, is a concentrated expression of the last vestige of human dignity. It is a man's way of leaving a trace, of telling people how he lived and died. By his screams he asserts his right to live, sends a message to the outside world demanding help and calling for resistance. if nothing else is left, one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.

That evening, guarded by three soldiers in the coach to which I had been taken in such comfort, I had lost everything, even despair. There is a moment of truth when you are overcome by sheer astonishment: "So that's where I'm living, and the sort of people I'm living with! So this is what thye're capable of! So this is the world I live in!" We are so stupefied that we even lose the power to scream. it was this sort of stupefaction, with the consequent loss of all criteria, standards and values, that came over people when they first landed in prison and suddenly realized the nature of the world they lived in and what the "new era" really meant. Physical torture and fear are not enough to explain the way people broke down and confessed, destroying others in the process. All this was only possible at the "moment of truth," during the madness which afflicted people when it looked as though time had stopped, the world had come to an end and everything was lost for ever. The collapse of all familiar notions is, after all, the end of the world. ... Was this a reason for going out of one's mind and expecting the end of the world?

Yes, I think so. Now that I have regained my sense of despair and am capable once more of screaming, I can say this quite emphatically And I think that the superb way in which our departure was organized, with the stop at the Lubianka for M.'s suitcase, the porters who didn't have to be paid, and the polite fair-haired escot in civilian clothes who saluted as he wished us a happy journey--nobody had ever gone into exile like this before--was more terrible and sickening, and spoke more eloquently of the end of the world, than the plank beds in the forced-labor camps, the prisons and shackles, and the brutal cursing of policemen, torturers and killers. It was all done with the greatest style and efficiency, without a single harsh word. And there we were, the two of us, guarded by three well-briefed pleasant youths, sent off by an unseen and irresistible force to some place in the east, and forced to live in exile, where, as they had seen fit to tell me, M. was to be "preserved." This I had been told in that large, clean office where, at that very moment perhaps, they were now interrogating the Chinese.


Our encounter with the irrational forces that so inescapably and horrifyingly ruled over us radically affected our minds. Many of us had accepted the inevitability--and some the expediency--of what was going on around us. All of us were seized by the feeling that there was no turning back--a feeling dictated by our experience of the past, our forebodings about the future and our hypnotic trance in the present. I maintain that all of us--particularly if we lived in the cities--were in a state close to a hypnotic trance. We had really been pursuaded that we had entered a new era, and that we had no choice but to submit to historical inevitability, which in any case was only another name for the dreams of all those who had ever fought for human happiness. Propaganda for historical determinism had deprived us of our will and the power to make our own judgments. We laughed in the faces of doubters , and ourselves furthered the work of the daily press by repeating its sacramental phrases, by spreading rumors about each new round of arrests ("that's what passive resistance leads to!") and finding excuses for the existing state of affairs. The usual line was to denounce history as such: it had always been the same, mankind had never known anything but violence and tyranny. "People are shot everywhere," the young physicist L. once said to me. "More so here, you think? Well, that's progress." "But look, Nadia," L.E. used to argue with me, "things are just as bad abroad."

In the middle of the twenties, when the atmospheric pressure began to weigh more heavily on us--at critical periods it was heavier than lead--people all at once started to avoid each other. this could not be explained only by fear of informers and denunciation--we had not yet had time to get really scared of these. It was rather the onset of a kind of numbness, the first symptoms of lethargy. What was there to talk about when everything had already been said, explained, signed and sealed? Only children continued to babble their completely human nonsense, and the grown-ups--everybody from bookkeepers to writers--preferred their company to that of their peers. But mothers prepared their children for life by teaching them the sacred language of their seniors. "My children love Stalin most of all, and me only second," Pasternak's wife, Zinaida Nikolayevna, used to say. Others did not go so far, but nobody confided their doubts to their children: why condemn them to death? And then suppose the child talked in school and brought disaster to the whole family? And why tell it things it didn't need to know. Better it should live like everybody else. . . . So the children grew, swelling the ranks of the hypnotized. "The Russian people is sick," Polia X. once said to me, "it needs to be treated." The sickness has become particularly obvious now that the crisis has passed and we can see the first signs of recovery. It used to be people with doubts who were considered ill.


When I used to read about the French Revolution as a child, I often wondered whether it was possible to survive during a reign of terror. I now know beyond doubt that it is impossible. Anybody who breathes the air of terror is doomed, even if nominally he manages to save his life. Everybody is a victim--not only those who die, but also all the killers, ideologists, accomplices and sycophants who close their eyes or wash their hands--even if they are secretly consumed with remorse at night. Every section of the population has been through the terrible sickness caused by terror, and none has so far recovered, or become fit again for normal civic life. It is an illness that is passed on to the next generation, so that the sons pay for the sins of the fathers and perhaps only the grandchildren begin to get over it--or at least it takes on a different form with them.

Who was it that dared to say that we have no "lost generation" here? The fact that he could utter such a monstrous untruth is also a consequence of terror. One generation after another was "lost" here, but it was a completely different process from what may have happened in the West. Here people just tried to go on working, struggling to maintain themselves, hoping for salvation, and thinking only about their immediate concerns. In such times your daily round is like a drug. The more you have to do, the better. If you can immerse yourself in your work, the years fly by more quickly, leaving only a gray blur in the memory. Among the people of my generation, only a very few have kept clear minds and memories. In M.'s generation, everybody was stricken by a kind of sclerosis at an early stage.

True as this is, however, I never cease to marvel at our hardiness. After Stalin's death my brother Evgeni said to me: "We still do not realize what we have been through." Not long ago, as I was traveling in an overcrowded bus, an old woman pushed up against me and I found my arm was bearing the whole weight of her body. "That must be killing you," she said suddenly. "No," I replied, "we're as tough as the devil." "As tough as the devil?" she said, and laughed. Somebody nearby also laughingly repeated the phrase, and soon the whole bus was saying it after us. But then the bus stopped and everybody started to push toward the exit, jostling each other in the usual way. The little moment of good humor was over.

In the period of the Yezhov terror--the mass arrests came in waves of varying intensity--there must sometimes have been no more room in the jails, and to those of us still free it looked as though the highest wave had passed and the terror was abating. After each show trial, people sighed, "Well, it's all over at last." What they meant was: Thank God, it looks as though I've escaped. But then there would be a new wave and the same people would rush to heap abuse on the "enemies of the people." There was nothing people wouldn't say about the victims in order to save themselves. "Stalin doesn't have to cut heads off," said M., "they fly off by themselves like dandelions." I think he said this after reading an article by Kossior and then learning that he had been arrested nevertheless.

In the summer of 1937 we lived in the country like vacationers--as M. said, "It's always easier in the summer." We went into Moscow fairly often, and we even visited friends at their dachas in other parts of the country around about. We went, for instance, to see Pasternak at Peredelkino (writer's colony). He told us he thought his wife was baking a cake down in the kitchen. He went to tell her of our arrival, but came back looking glum: she clearly wanted to have nothing to do with us. A few years later, when I had returned from Tashkent and tried to telephone Pasternak, she answered the phone and said: "Please don't come out here to Peredelkino." After that I never tried to call him again, but whenever he ran into me on Lavrushinski Street, near the house where I lived for a long time with Vasilisa Shklovski, he would come up to see me in the apartment. he was the only person to come and see me on hearing of M.'s death.

On that last visit M. and I made to Pasternak in Peredelkino, he came to see us off at the station and we spent a long time talking on the platform, missing train after train. Pasternak was still obsessed by Stalin and complained that he could not write poetry any more because he had not been able to get a meeting with Stalin as a result of their famous telephone conversation. M. smiled sympathetically, but I felt nothing but dismay. After the war it appears that Pasternak rid himself of this obsession--at least he never mentioned it again in conversation with me. As regards his novel, Dr. Zhivago, the idea must have come to him well before the war--every time we met him he told us he was writing a prose work "about us all." As one can see from the novel itself, the basic idea may have changed in the course of the years, but it was a time in which people were always frantically changing their minds, never sure who was right.

During the years of terror Shklovski had no illusions, but he always hoped that the arrests reflected mainly a "settling of accounts" within the ruling group. For instance, when Koltsov was arrested, he said it did not affect us, but he was terribly upset whenever real intellectuals were picked up. He was anxious to survive so that one day he could be a "witness." But by the time the Stalin era was over, we had all grown old and lost the keenness of vision one needs to be a witness. This is what happened to Shklovski.

Lev Bruni, when we went to see him at this time, shoved some money into M.'s pocket and said: "Who needs this cursed regime?" Marietta Shaginian pretended that she hadn't heard anything about arrests: "Who are they arresting? What for? Why are the wretched intellectuals making such a fuss because half a dozen people have been arrested for conspiracy?" Her own daughter shouted into her ear about the Tretiakov family, but, taking refuge in her deafness, she affected not to hear.

Adalis was scared to let us stay the night, which was natural enough, but then she put on a silly act of trying to persuade us to go and spend the night at our old apartment at Furmanov Street: "I'll come along with you, and if the militia trouble you, I'll explain everything to them--I promise I will." People were quite beside themselves and said the first thing that came into their heads, in sheer self-defense. The ordeal by fear is the most terrible there is, and people never recover from it.

We had nothing to live on and we had to go and beg from our friends. We spent part of the summer on money given us by Katayev, his brother (Evgeni Petrov) and Mikhoels. Mikhoels embraced M. and vied with Markish in trying to console him. Yakhontov gave us money all the time, until he went away.

Every time we came into Moscow for the day, M. went to the Union of Writers, trying to get an interview with Stavski, but Stavski wouldn't see him and sent him instead to his deputy, Lakhuti.

Lakhuti did his best to arrange something for M. He even sent him on commission from the Union of Writers to the White Sea Canal, begging him to write a poem about it. This is the poem that Akhmatova empowered me to burn. It would not, incdentally, have satisfied those who commissioned it: m. was only able to turn out something on the landscape.

Hope Against Hope - Nadezhda Mandelstam

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