September 17, 2012 amazon books courage dictators Hope Against Hope Nadezhda Mandelstam Osip Mandelstam poverty Soviet Russia Stalin whining 0

I was out running this am, feeling a little sorry for myself–probably because I hate to run, but today I simply couldn’t make myself go to the gym, yes my life of grim suffering–and I suddenly thought that as tough, in some ways, as my life currently is…for many people, it’d be a joyous walk in the woods.

Specifically, I was thinking about Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of (murdered) poet Osip Mandelstam, and an amazing author in her own right. She wrote her first book, a memoir of her life with, and without her husband, Hope Against Hope…when she was in her late 60s. ( Not only was she a senior citizen, but she had spent the past 40 years surviving conditions of almost unimaginable poverty. She was constantly hunted and persecuted by the Soviet government, and had to witness the government-sponsored harassment and killings of her friends. If you’re interested, I would advise you to Google Joseph Brodsky’s wonderful obituary of Mme. Mandelstam.

Anyway, despite her decades of loss and grinding poverty, in her late 60s, she wrote a book that is completely honest, passionate and almost incandescent. She writes about her life, about the love she shared with her husband and about poetry, among many other things. She wrote about working overnight in factories, keeping herself awake by memorizing all of her dead husband’s poetry, since it was far too dangerous to write any of it down. She wrote about how her husband was snatched from her and sent to the camps, and how she had no idea how he had really died…nor where his grave might be.

Yes, I have a huge hard-on for Nadezhda. I love her because she was old, she was cranky, she was smart, and very funny…and she was fearless. She had seen Stalin come and go and she knew that one day her values would be triumphant.I have a big thing for people who can dismiss dictators, no matter the personal cost.

So I thought about this (astonishing) woman this morning, on my run, and realized that the things I was whining about…would be like riches to Nadezhda. Here I have the freedom to read and believe what I want, to use my intellect (or something) in starting this business, to express myself without fear. And here I was kvetching because…what? Because I haven’t taken a vacation in a few years? Because I have to work hard to earn what’s important to me? Oh, meow meow meow. Suffice it to say, I stopped whining, finished my run,went home… and got down to work.

You took away all the oceans and all the room.
You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it.
Where did it get you? Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence. 
                                                            -Osip Mandelstam, 1935 (

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