Friday, September 15, 2017

`Many Villains and Few Decent People'

“In view of the obviousness of death the body was not subjected to autopsy.”

So reads the death certificate of Osip Mandelstam. The document tells us the poet was convicted of “counter-revolutionary activity” by the Special Board of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs of the USSR on Aug. 2, 1938, and given a five-year sentence to a forced labor camp. He arrived from Moscow on Oct. 12, entered the infirmary Dec. 26, and died on Dec. 27, in a transit camp in Siberia. The cause of death is given as “stoppage of heart arteriocerebrosclerosis.” In other words, a stroke.

Even more than most bureaucratic documents, Mandelstam’s death certificate makes for chilling reading. Peter B. Maggs includes a photograph of the original Russian document and, on the facing page, an English translation, in The Mandelstam and `Der Nister’ Files: An Introduction to Stalin-era Prison and Labor Camp Records (M.E. Sharpe, 1996). Der Nister (Yiddish: “The Hidden One”)  was the pseudonym of Pinchus Kahanovich (1884-1950), a Russian who wrote in Yiddish and, like Mandelstam, was murdered by Stalin.

Maggs is not a literary scholar but a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois College of Law, where he specialized in Russian law and U.S. intellectual property law. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he worked in Russia and the former Soviet republics to aid in reforming their legal systems. His book is documentary in the strictest sense. He writes: “There are many villains and few decent people in these records.”

Maggs reproduces the contents of Mandelstam’s personal file, which identifies his nationality as “Jew” and his “specialty” as “writer and poet.” Height: “Average.” Body: “Normal.” Hair color: “Grey.” Eye color: “Hazel.” Nose: “Hooked.” We learn that Mandelstam spoke Russian, French, German, Italian and Spanish. We see his fingerprints, pre- and post-mortem. We see the letter the poet’s widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam, sent to the “Main Administration of Camps” on Feb. 7, 1939. She says she learned of Osip’s death when a money transfer she had sent him was returned “because of the death of the addressee.” She requests an official death certificate. In Hope Against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970), in her characteristic hard-boiled fashion, she writes:

“In June 1940, M.’s brother Alexander was summoned to the Registry office of the Bauman district and handed M.’s death certificate with instructions to pass it on to me. M.’s age was given as forty-seven, and the date of his death as December 27, 1938. The cause was given as `heart failure.’ This is as much to say that he died because he died: what is death but heart failure? There was also something about arteriosclerosis.”

[In 2008, New York Review Books Classics published Der Nister’s The Family Mashber. Remarkably, Kahanovich was born in Berdichev, also the birthplace of Joseph Conrad and Vasily Grossman.]

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