The Revolution devours its children…Saturn does the same. Robespierre screams with pain as his battered body is dragged to the guillotine. The thinkers, intellectuals, intelligentsia, fall under the spell of power, worship it, sacrifice others and themselves to it. How and why? These are the themes of Nadezhda Mandelshtam’s memoir, Hope Against Hope.She was married to Osip Mandelshtam, a poet of the early twentieth century, now regarded as one of the greatest of Russian poets of that entire century. He didn’t write that much, didn’t live that long. Early on, he wrote a poem that was not flattering to Stalin, which is to say, he wrote what he thought. He was arrested, through the miracle of intervention, his life was spared, and he went into exile. Eventually – he was doomed because he insisted on being just himself – he was arrested again and he died in a labor camp of the Gulag.
His wife devoted herself to keeping his memory alive and this book is her testament to the period. Sharp, sometimes funny!, bitter, and always unsentimental she tells the story of how her class, her circle – the intelligent, the educated, the relatively well-off, the culturati – destroyed themselves. Yes, she says the intelligentsia were not destroyed – they destoyed themselves. They were willing accomplices, toadies to power, filled with fear and hysteria along with everyone else, and this was the result. She does not spare herself either. The clear impression you get is that it is mostly by association with her husband, whom she loves and adores, that she was able to keep above the moral degradation and corruption of her time. He was clearly an exceptional individual – such people do exist. He avoided, with horror, any contact with or involvement with power – he knew that to become close to it was like touching the third rail of the subway.
I am fascinated by these stories, and I read them over and over, here and there in different books, because they are warning fables of the dangers of intellectuals, of intellectualism. The abstract thinking that loses touch with reality because the thinkers are so idealistic, so concerned with The Good, The Great, the wonderful goal, that they lose sight of or concern for The Means to their End. And they justify crimes of the most horrendous sort because it will bring them sooner to the hoped for paradise.
Bin Laden, Stalin, Lenin,…Paul Wolfowitz. Now the neo-cons are wailing that their glorious visions of flowering democracy in Iraq have been obscured and crushed by the incompetence of W. “If he had done it the right way…” Ends and Means. Did they really think he would or could, assuming for the moment that the goals were to the good? No, they ignored politics as one of those messy ‘details’ of no import. Just as the lives of a few, few hundred, few thousand, few hundred thousand are of little import when the class struggle to establish true socialism is at stake. So it goes…
…and from an earlier period of devilry, shown here in images of Ken Russell’s film, The Devils:
Cardinal Richelieu says to the young Louis XIII, “I look forward to building a new France, in which Church and State are ONE! And may the Protestants be driven from the land!”With a little help from their friends in the middle – the Inquisition, not the KKK! – it shall be done. Edict of Nantes be damned!