On Friday, when I wrote of Helen Pinkerton’s death, a reader noted the “anniversary of the death of another woman who gave her life to poetry, Nadezha Mandelstam, who died within a few days of the anniversary of her poet-martyr husband.” I’m grateful for my reader’s memory and devotional sense. Nadezhda Mandelstam died Dec. 29, 1980, at age eighty-one. Her husband, Osip Mandelstam, died Dec. 27, 1938, at age forty-seven. In Critical Prose and Letters (trans. Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link, Ardis, 1979), the editors include Osip’s final letter, addressed to his brother, Alexander (Shura) Mandelstam. It is dated to late October, two months before his death, and was written, remarkably, in the transit camp near Vladivostok where he would die. Prior to this, his family had no idea where he was or even if he was alive. He writes:
“I got five years for counterrevolutionary activity by decree of the Special Tribunal. The transport left Butyrki Prison in Moscow on the 9th of September [he had been arrested May 5] and we arrived on the 12th of October. I’m in very poor health, utterly exhausted, emaciated, and almost beyond recognition. I don’t know if there’s any sense in sending clothes, food, and money, but try just the same. I’m freezing without proper clothes.”
The poet enquires after his wife: “Darling Nadenka, are you alive, my precious? Shura, write me at once about Nadya. This is a transit point. I wasn’t picked for Kolyma. I may have to spend the winter here.” He adds a P.S.: “Shurochka, one thing more. We’ve gone out to work these last few days. That has lifted my spirits. People are sent from our camp, as from a transit point, to regular camps. I was apparently `sifted out’ so I must get ready to spend the winter here. So please send me a telegram and wire me some money.”
His last known words. On Feb. 1, 1939, the package Nadezhda had sent to her husband was returned. At the post office, she was told it could not be delivered because the recipient was dead. Nadezhda received Osip’s death certificate in the summer of 1940. It said Osip Mandelstam, one of the last century’s supreme poets, had died of heart failure on Dec. 27, 1938.