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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Memoir Versed in Survival And Truth




Most Russians today, even knowledgeable and intelligent people, are shocked that they did not foresee the inevitable financial crisis. But the human capacity for self-deception is nearly boundless.


How could clever, educated people live under Stalin (or Hitler?) without realizing the evil nature of the regime?


Take any 10 Soviet authors who write memoirs about life during the 1930s-1960s. Nine will claim that, at first, they honestly believed in the just course of socialism and had their eyes opened only after Stalin's death (1953) and Khrushchev's revelations about the Great Terror (1956).


I still do not have an answer as to why they were initially so naive and blind, and I dismiss as too cynical and too simple an explanation that they all just lied about their ignorance: lied to themselves, and then lied to us.


It is much more refreshing to read a sincere memoir of the 10th author who does not hide the fact that he (or she) was only trying to survive during the bad years.


When this rare type of reminiscence is written with strong literary talent and concerns famous contemporaries, it can be a masterpiece and a must for every intelligent reader.


Nadezhda Mandelstam's "Hope Against Hope" is such a book.


Now we have another: Emma Gerstein's "Memoirs," published in August by Inapress in St. Petersburg and now selling at "intellectual" bookstores for a starting price of 50 rubles.


Gerstein is 95 and still active. Born in 1903, she has worked since the 1920s as a historian of 19th century Russian literature. She, herself, represents the history of 20th century Russian literature.


In 1928 she became a very close personal friend of Osip Mandelstam and his wife, Nadezhda. For 40 years she was an intimate friend of Anna Akhmatova, and was even closer to Akhmatova's son, Lev Gumilyov, who spent nearly 20 years in prisons and labor camps. Boris Pasternak was also Gerstein's good friend. And so on.


Her voluminous "Memoirs," in 520 large-format pages, is actually a collection of about a dozen long memoirs devoted to her closest friends. Some of the stories were previously published in periodicals in abridged form, but the full text makes for great reading.


Talking about Osip Mandelstam, I'd like to mention another interesting and even useful book, "Moskva Mandelstama" ("Mandelstam's Moscow"). It is a detailed guidebook of addresses where the great poet lived, as well as places he visited. Written by Leonid Witgof, it is also a sort of poet's biography f plus a collection of his poetry and prose about Moscow.


The 500-page pocket-sized hardcover, with many illustrations, is published by Korona-print and sells at larger bookstores for 35 rubles.