The Russian (not to say Soviet) poet Anna Akhmatova has long been one of my favorite poets. Indeed, she is perhaps the only poet equal to the bloody Twentieth Century so many millions did not survive. I have read Akhmatova for a quarter of a century now and familiarity has only deepened my respect for the magnitude of her daring and her accomplishment. Upon the very eve of the 1917 Revolution, she crowned herself Tsaritsa and consecrated herself to her people. To use a very archaic term, the theme of her poetry and indeed her very life was her sacring: poor, almost homeless, living in the shadow of the torture chamber, she fused into one an insistence both holy and imperial that she would bear witness for her people before the savage gods of mid-century Europe and the world.
Having read much of the English-language scholarship on Akhmatova (alas, I cannot read Russian), I have also been struck by the absolutely consistent refusal of most academics to address her sacring. Many understand Akhmatova to have been, not only difficult, mercurial, and lusty, but a woman of exceptional courage. Yet the last thing they want to describe her as is noble, much less imperial. They will mention that people like the literary critic Kornei Chukovsky (who described her as “half-nun”) and Nahezhda Mandelstam, wife and widow of Osip Mandelstam (who spoke of her as an abbess ready to go to the stake for her faith) understood there was something vaguely religious about her. But they are willfully blind to her as holy. But her sacring itself is a place that these scholars simply do not go to.
Incidentally, this essay was begun for Colin Walters, an ex-British Army sergeant and boxer who was the book review editor of The Washington Times, back when that paper was still was far more than a shill for the administration, but he died before it could come to print. Colin, if you’re looking down on us, here it is, my friend: I’m sorry it took so long, but I think you understand why I missed the deadline.
Copyright 2007, all rights reserved, by Erin Solaro
Anna Akhmatova, 1889-1966: Anna of All the Russias
I’d like to name them all by name,
But the list has been confiscated and is nowhere to be found.
I have woven a wide mantle for them
From their meager, overheard words.
I will remember them always and everywhere,
I will never forget them no matter what comes.
And if they gag my exhausted mouth
Through which a hundred million scream,
Then may the people remember me…
The approximate year was 1937. Russia had survived the First World War and the civil strife and famine that birthed the Soviet Union only to endure Stalin’s Great Terror. Millions were suffering and dying while Comrade Stalin proclaimed his people “Dizzy with Success” and happy beyond all previous imaginings. To deny any part of it, to proclaim the truth, even to hint that you understood the obvious, all were criminal acts, punishable by torture, Gulag or death.
Perhaps the year was 1937. Akhmatova never did specify. Perhaps she didn’t know it herself, or couldn’t recall it later; when your entire nation is a prison, time passes differently and means less. What she could do write down was how she “spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad,” delivering parcels to her imprisoned son and others. If the guard took your package, at least according to the prevalent mythology, it meant your friend or child or loved one was still alive. Whether they were, or whether the packages ever got to them, could not be known. Still, even if the parcels ended up feeding and clothing the torturers and executioners of their loved ones, it was better than doing nothing.
One day, on or about 1937, Akhmatova was standing in line when a woman recognized her as who she was: Anna Akhmatova, “Anna of All the Russias,” the greatest poet of the Twentieth Century. “Then,” as she later wrote:
a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I answered: “Yes, I can.”
Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.
“Of all the Russias” was reserved for a Tsar or a Tsarina ruling in his or her own right, as in Nicholas II, Tsar of All the Russias. But Akhmatova was no Romanov. She was born into the minor gentry. Like many young Russians of her class, she traveled abroad. She knew the Europe of which Russia, in those crazed and brilliant final years before the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, was a part. More a part than most people remember nowadays, even if they’ve seen Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in “Dr. Zhivago” more than once (Boris Pasternak, the Russian Nobel laureate who wrote the novel, used to sleep on Akhmatova’s floor, wrapped in his overcoat, whenever he was arguing with his wife). Akhmatova was as cosmopolitan, as crazed and as brilliant as her era. But she would not leave Russia. She stayed for fifty years until her death, in the land there where her people unfortunately were. She lived most of those years in great poverty, often on the verge of homelessness and starvation, forbidden to publish for decades at a time. Her works circulated furtively, hand to hand, by memory and word of mouth. Yet she was widely recognized as the voice of her people, in many ways understood to be the uncrowned Tsar, and a link to a past that the Bolsheviks were determined to erase from the Russian consciousness.
For most of those years, it was dangerous to know her, read her, speak of her. But through it all she remained embedded in a Russian consciousness that could neither move forward nor go back, neither see nor remember.
For centuries, Russian peasants and workers had called the Tsar, Little Father, their spiritual protector as well as ruler. Akhmatova was Little Mother. It was not for nothing that the literary critic Kornei Chukovsky described her as half-nun, half-whore, but he would have more accurately described her as half the Mother of God, half Mary Magdalene, the first disciple of Christ.
She was persecuted. From the end of the Civil War in 1921 until after Stalin’s death in 1953, the State hounded her in endless petty and not so petty ways. She was never destroyed from within, as other poets were. Some were driven to suicide or nervous breakdowns; some lost their will to survive in the camps. She was not murdered, as her two ex-husbands and many other poets were. Nor was she ever imprisoned, as her son, Lev Gumilyov was for three terms, for the crime of being the child of his parents. She was never even arrested. Of course, she could never have been certain that she would be spared the fates that befell tens of millions of her countrymen. What she did suspect-she certainly lived it-was that in 1924, she was subject to a secret and unofficial decree by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. She was not to be arrested. But she was not to be published, either.
The goal was never to physically eliminate her. That was too easily done. The goal was to co-opt her: with money, publishing contracts, a home, her son’s freedom. All she had to do was say yes, and then do the things that a totalitarian state needs a poet to do.
Many did. Vladimir Stavsky, who in 1937 was the General Secretary of the Union of Soviet Writers and chief editor of the literary journal Novy Mir (New World) did such things. He became an alcoholic but met a gracious fate: death at the front in 1943 as a war correspondent. The fate of Alexander Fadeev, Stavsky’s replacement, a man who had once been a talented and sincere novelist, was more tragic. He, too, became an alcoholic. But if he did the things they wanted done, he also helped many people. When he killed himself in 1956, many writers accepted it as an act of contrition.
Akhmatova was no saint thirsting for martyrdom. She was lusty and full of life and she wanted to live; while she wrote of being ready for death, she acknowledged her terror of being killed. But a soul-destroying career as a Party hack was unthinkable. She refused to co-operate, except on a few occasions when her son’s life seemed to hang in the balance. Beyond that, she would not go, or even acknowledge that such a thing was possible for her. She would not submit and after those moments when she abased herself, she always returned to her life of defiance. Perhaps her admirers understood that, under such conditions, everyone makes compromises. But not everyone surrenders their souls.
It has been said that the only man Joseph Stalin ever trusted was Adolf Hitler. It may well be that the only woman he ever really feared was Anna Akhmatova. He was quite capable of telling Lenin’s widow that, unless she behaved herself, he would “appoint another widow.” But he left Anna Akhmatova alone for some reason, perhaps because he found her fascinating-and understood her.
How could a woman from a disgraced, not to say almost exterminated social class, a woman of no means or official position, a woman unable to communicate openly, manage such resistance and be so venerated for it?
The short answer is that she was Russian, and until very recently, in no other country is poetry more cherished, and poets held in greater respect. In the United States, we are free to say and shout anything we want, provided it doesn’t mean too much or matter too much. In societies under tyranny, words-especially words that combine meaning and beauty-matter greatly. In the Russian tradition, words are both affirmation and resistance: affirmation of human value and beauty, resistance to those who would destroy that value and beauty.
The message of her poetry is universal. But because it is so Russian, it is not easy for Americans to penetrate. Translation of all but the most technical writing is an inexact art, the translation of poetry most of all. The best translations are rarely the most literal. Then there’s the matter of relating to what decades of terror and privation can do to a society and a soul. Stalin is alleged to have said that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic. Americans tend to agree. But how do people who have lived through tragedy and statistics explain how the damaged human spirit continues to survive and reach out?
Akhmatova did it (as did many of the best World War I poets) by finding what might be called “points of horror”-vignettes of daily life under terror that transcend both tragedy and statistics, vignettes of horror recounted as though they were matters of daily life. Which, of course, they were.
She wrote the following untitled poem in 1924, which was, by the standards of that era, a pretty good year. The Bolsheviks had won the Civil War. Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) meant that peasants were once again allowed to sell their produce, rather than have it confiscated. Famine is usually a man-made disaster. During the Civil War, cities had starved as peasants, who refused to give up their surplus, had hidden or even destroyed it. Now food reappeared; agricultural and mercantile NEPmen, as they were known, began to revive economic life. Even the killings and tortures slackened for a while. Amid all this, Akhmatova wrote:
Here the most beautiful girls fight
For the honor of marrying executioners.
Here they torture the righteous at night
And wear down the untamable with hunger.
This was not a poem that could be published in her lifetime. But she wrote it down, and it survived in her memory even though she repeatedly burnt her archives as her son and others close to her faced torture and death at the hands of the security services. She described that fate, the fate of millions, as “the noseless slut,” conveying its horrible and anonymous promiscuity. This poem and similar ones would survive in her memory or in the memories of a few trusted friends.
She could encapsulate in so few words the degradation of a civilization, a degradation that she hated but could not leave, because it meant abandoning what remained of that civilization to those who were trying to torture it to death. She would never go into exile; she appears to never even have seriously considered it. She felt that to leave Russia was to cut herself off from the culture and consciousness that informed her work, and also to cut off her people from a spiritual sustenance they needed at least as much. For the privilege of remaining in Hell and for any good she might do her imprisoned son, she “kissed the boots of all the important Bolsheviks.” The words are hers, unsparingly harsh. In 1950, after putting off the chore for three decades, she wrote some poetry in praise of Stalin. Once again, the goal was to help her son. But she would never do any of the other things the Soviet State needed its poets to do-especially what was needed to keep the other poets in line. She never informed on anyone, denounced anyone, or signed resolutions against anyone. Her morality was based upon the principle: thus far, but not farther. Suffer what you must, but be no implement of another’s suffering. Rather than violate that code, she would rather have starved.
More than once, she nearly did.
She was born Anna Andreievna Gorenko in 1889, the daughter of a government maritime engineer (Andrei Gorenko) and his wife (Inna Erazmovna). Inna was a simple, believing Christian who nevertheless sympathized, like her husband, with The People’s Will, a Socialist Revolutionary group responsible for political assassinations. She was also utterly helpless before even the most basic household task. Anna was born in Bolshoy Fontan on the Black Sea. When she was very young her parents moved to the northern capitol of St. Petersburg, the city with which she is most associated, and there she grew up in Tsarskoye Selo (the Tsar’s Village), site of the summer palace of the Romanovs.
(St. Petersburg went through a series of name changes. During the First World War, it became Petrograd. After Lenin’s death, it became Leningrad. Today, it’s Petersburg. In this chapter, I use the names appropriate to the years being considered.)
An extremely intelligent girl, she spoke French at the age of five. She grew up with the poetry of Nikolai Nekrasov, a publisher who used his poems to express his compassion for Russia’s peasants. Prior to their manumission in 1861, a lengthy and complex but peaceful process, these had been serfs, bound to the land and their noble masters. Although some 19th century radicals glorified their revolutionary potential, the peasantry would, again and again, prove a profound disappointment. Their innate conservatism, even cruelty-as one peasant proverb had it, “A hen is not a bird and a woman is not a human being”-outlasted Stalin, and made its own significant contribution to Communist barbarism.
In 1905, Anna’s father retired and her parents separated due to the last of his many affairs. Anna, along with her sisters, brothers and mother returned to the Black Sea. Revolution came to Russia in 1905, hard on their humiliating defeat at the Battle of Tsushima, where the Japanese sank virtually their entire fleet. As the daughter of a civil servant of the Imperial Navy, she was deeply affected by the catastrophe.
It is likely, in fact, that Tsushima laid the foundation for Anna’s first public act. She had written poetry since she was a child of eleven, but her ambitions increased with her growing maturity: ambitions her father appeared to disdain, perhaps even fear for their political implications. In any case, he urged her not to “disgrace” the family name with her poems. So she granted him his wish and changed her last name from Gorenko to Akhmatova, the name of one of her Tartar great-grandmothers. In Russian, the ova or ovna suffix means “daughter of” just as ovich or ich means “son of.” So then, she named herself Daughter of Akhmat. A Tartar name. To a Russian, the significance is unmistakable. For centuries, while the West enjoyed its Renaissance and the beginnings of its global hegemony, Russia languished under the Tartar yoke. Eastern Europeans (especially Poles) still say, “Scratch a Russian, find a Tartar.”
But “Akhmat” was not just her grandmother’s name. It was also the name of the last Khan of the Khans to rule Russia. It is harder to imagine a more defiant gesture against one’s father, or a more conflicted attitude toward the world beyond Russia: a world that, in the years before 1914, her country was struggling to join.
And struggling surprisingly well, especially in the realm of modernist culture. Russian music, art, dance, literature and poetry were all as brilliant as anything going on to the West.
Akhmatova came to young womanhood in a Russia that was modernizing on the eve of a Revolution that, in her words, “swept away human lives like yellow leaves.” This Russia was a land of great poverty. There was a large class of peasants whose lot had not materially improved since the abolition of serfdom fifty years before. There was a smaller but growing class of industrial workers. There were a gentry and a minor aristocracy, living in various degrees of comfort. But enormous wealth was concentrated in the hands of the Romanovs, a few nobles and even fewer merchants and industrialists. As yet, there was only the beginning of a Western-style middle class, the sine qua non of liberal democracy. On the fringes of it all-and often at the violent center-were the intelligentsia and the modernists. The great question facing the country was, could it modernize and liberalize in time, peacefully? Or would the anarchists and the populists and the self-styled “vanguard of the revolutionary proletariat” prevail? In the final prewar years, you could argue the question either way. And in those final years, the sympathies of the literati were usually with the radicals and the people, not the capitalists or the Tsar.
In the time of Akhmatova’s young womanhood, the Russian capital was St. Petersburg, not Moscow. Founded by Emperor (he refused to be called Tsar) Peter the Great in 1703 to provide a “Window on the West,” it was the most cosmopolitan city in Russia, sometimes known as the “Venice of the North.” In many ways, the city was distinctively Russian in its elegance: winged white yachts on the Neva, Falconet’s bronze statue of the Emperor Peter, and Mikhail Perkhin’s Gatchina Palace Egg (surely the most beautiful of all the Fabergé Eggs). But it was also distinctively Russian in its degradation. It was all the bodies of those who died building Peter’s window, all the bones upon which Peter’s city rests in those northern swamps. It was the dosshouses where no bedding was provided for the unemployed and they were fed kasha (buckwheat porridge) out of communal bowls. It was the exhausted carters with their spavined, ribby horses. It was the kind of concentrated urban poverty that turns even great cities into monuments to human indifference and squalor.
But St. Petersburg was also a city looking towards the west, making an enormous contribution to Russia’s artistic explosion in the 1910s and to European culture generally. The painter Ilya Repin, the choreographer Diaghilev, the dancers Nijinsky and Pavlova, the singer Chaliapin, the composers Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, the beloved children’s writer and literary critic, Kornei Chukovsky, the increasingly political writer, Maxim Gorky. To name only a very few. And it was a city of learning, whether it was the Botanical Gardens, the Imperial Academy of Art, the Imperial Geographical Society and the Imperial Technical Institute, the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, the Psychoneurotic Institute, the Pulkovo Observatory, the great Smolny Institute, founded by Catherine the Great to educate the daughters of the nobility, the Women’s Medical Institute, schools for orphans and architectural drawing classes for women.
It was to this complex St. Petersburg, brilliant and precarious, that Akhmatova returned in 1910. She was newly married to the poet and explorer, Nikolai Gumilyov; their honeymoon had taken her once again to Paris. From the beginning, theirs was an open marriage, the kind of licensed adultery long fashionable among Europe’s cultural avant-garde. In 1911, when she returned alone to Paris, she would have an affair with the artist Amadeo Modigliani, who was then very poor. Her husband had many affairs as well, even during the seven years of their courtship. The conventional rules of society were for the bourgeois, the peasants, the workers. Not for them. But then, such serial philandering is often a problem with artists. It can be very hard to find all you need in one person if you’re complex and temperamental, and particularly if you’re a woman in a society where women have a far smaller scope of freedom than men.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, her affairs gave her little happiness. Her restlessness and dissatisfaction were clearly present in her early poetry. Love poetry then was the province of men writing about their idealized beloved and the eternal feminine. Akhmatova’s first collection, Evening, was published in 1912, when she was 23. As a young woman, she wrote about love from the female perspective. But what a compelling perspective that was! For these are the poems of neither a joyous sybarite nor a wounded maiden. The hard, cold character that would be so necessary for her moral survival is already evident. One of her most famous poems, “Under her dark veil she wrung her hands…” ends with these lines:
Panting, I cried, “A joke!
That’s all it was. If you leave, I’ll die.”
He smiled calmly and grimly
And told me, “Don’t stand here in the wind.”
The unhappiness expressed in these poems, and in her 1914 collection, Rosary, mirrored a very real unhappiness in her personal life. Part of her unhappiness may have been the legacy of her father’s womanizing. She seems not to have known how to respond to men who treated her badly-or for that matter, well. But the simple fact was that she lived in a milieu where mistresses and lovers were common currency, and relationships between lovers, publishers, critics and artists could be almost incestuous. By the standards of her time and place, Akhmatova was not particularly promiscuous, though she may well have been more sinning than sinned against. In any case, affairs are a lot like flying bomber missions. With each sortie, the odds against you mount up. Yet this small circle of friends and lovers, capable of both cutting and sharpening each other, survived two World Wars, the Revolution and the Civil War and Stalin’s relentless Purges. In many ways, they became family. Regardless of blood or legal bonds or relationships outside the group, they were tied together beyond untying.
To the Bolsheviks, such restlessness and unhappiness were meaningless personal problems. They wanted a world in which such things didn’t matter. And Akhmatova’s malaise would inevitably be subsumed in the disaster of their victory.
Akhmatova divorced her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, in 1918, the first year of Bolshevik rule, although they were still close when he was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1921. In 1918, she married the Assyriologist Vladimir Shileiko, with whom she’d been having an affair. She separated from him in 1920, then divorced him in 1925. Their relationship was both unhappy and very loving, and separation seems not to have precluded further intimacy. During their marriage, Shileiko forbade her to write poetry-an edict Akhmatova all but admits she voluntarily complied with, at great personal cost. But Shileiko also looked after her with great tenderness, saving her life by keeping her fed and warm at a time when people starved and froze to death by the thousands.
During both these marriages, she had other affairs. The roster is impressive. One relationship was with Boris Anrep, who would emigrate to England after the October Revolution of 1917 to become a mosaic artist. Another was with the critic Nikolai Nedobrovo, who first noticed the steeliness in Akhmatova’s love poetry and what it foretold, and who later lost his will to live as his native land was engulfed in the horror of the Civil War. She slept also with Arthur Lourie, an intelligent, rather than particularly ideological, Commissar of Music, which was probably why he was fired. After his dismissal, he emigrated to Paris. Later, because as a Christianized Jew, he was in danger in Hitler’s Europe, he found his way to America.
By the time of her divorce from Shileiko in 1925, Akhmatova was also deeply involved with a married art critic and historian, Nikolai Punin. While Punin would not divorce his wife, this would be the longest relationship of Akhmatova’s life. Marriage and divorce in post-Revolutionary Russia could be quite casual, which explains how Akhmatova and Punin could be accepted as married, even though they had no legal relationship. They lived together until 1938 in the same apartment with Punin’s de facto ex-wife, until the two women peacefully decided that Punin should formally “remarry” her. Punin apparently had very little say in the matter. In fact, Akhmatova would live with the Punins and their extended family for most of the rest of her life, if not always happily. In 1949, Punin was arrested and sent to the camps, where he would die in 1953.
Her relationship with her son, Lev, her only child, was another casualty of the political violence of the Soviet regime…and of her dedication to her art and to her people.
Born in 1912, Lev was mostly raised by his father’s mother, first at Slepnyovo, the Gumilyov family estate in Tver Province, then in the city of Bezhetsk, also in Tver Province, about midway between Petersburg and Moscow. There is no question that this saved his life many times over. After the Revolution, Akhmatova was so poor she was often dressed in rags, had tuberculosis, and was starvation-thin. There was simply more to eat in Bezhetsk than in Leningrad. Even so, and even given that it has always been common for upper-class women to have help raising their children, Akhmatova was not a particularly involved mother. Lev’s father, Nikolai Gumilyov, was even less involved, having gotten himself shot for openly proclaiming monarchist sympathies. Despite the fact that his behavior in no way rose to committing or even advocating the mildest criminal acts-in any rational state-under Bolshevik rule, he exhibited a lack of common sense verging on the suicidal. As Akhmatova, with her usual ability to capture points of horror, wrote of her ex-husband’s demise:
And when she saw where Nikolai Gumilyov was buried: “Groves, a small curved pine, next to it another huge one with torn roots. This was the wall. The earth sank down, dropped, because they had not filled in the graves. Pits. Two fraternal pits for sixty people.”
Lev, her son, was first arrested for nine days in 1933. In 1935, he was rearrested along with Punin. Akhmatova and the poet/novelist Boris Pasternak appealed directly to Stalin to free both men, and he did. However, Lev was expelled from Leningrad University and that winter of 1935, he nearly starved to death. In 1938, he was arrested a third time, tortured for eight nights, sent to the camps, initially sentenced to be shot, but later transported to Siberia. After he served his sentence, he joined the Army, which he found a vast improvement over conditions in Siberia. This is something, considering the Red Army’s wartime treatment of its soldiers. “They called us, they trained us, they killed us,” recalls a veteran in Catherine Merridale’s beautiful book Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945. After serving in the artillery and taking part in the conquest of Berlin, he was discharged. He was re-arrested in 1949 and released only in 1956.
Those who survived the camps were deeply damaged in many ways. But Lev Gumilyov carried a special burden. His interrogators did their best to destroy what was left of his relationship with his mother, suggesting that she was healthy and well-fed, leading a comfortable life-and that she would not lift a finger to free him. The first part was not true. There were times when she sent money and food to Lev while she was living on handouts, not of bread, but of uncooked flour. Her plight was compounded by the fact that, like her mother before her, she was a remarkably helpless woman. She could barely light a stove or a fire; simply boiling potatoes was a triumph. (Once, when her secretary and companion Anatoly Nayman came to visit her in the 1960s, she offered him “a single boiled carrot, not scrupulously peeled, on a plate.”) She was unable to chop wood or carry water. It is true that she was often sick, with Ménière’s Disease, an insidious, debilitating combination of attacks of vertigo and tinnitius (ringing ears), and with tuberculosis. She also suffered from either Graves Disease or an overactive thyroid, typhus, scarlet fever and heart trouble. Still, her lifelong practical ineptitude went far beyond physical weakness, perhaps even beyond her mother’s example and genes. It was in many ways the “learned helplessness” of a woman who dares not display her true strength or ability, yet will not accept her fate and become the slave poet of a totalitarian state. All her capacity is taken up by cultivating the brute endurance of stone.
But the second part of the accusation, that she would not do whatever it took to save her son, is true. A few phone calls, an adjustment in attitude, and she could have influenced her son’s fate. She could have been published. In fact, she’d been published under the Bolsheviks. Anno Domini MCMXXI appeared in 1922. But after that, nothing until the collection From Six Books came out in 1940, only to be abruptly withdrawn from stores and libraries. There was a slight thaw during the war, when she was permitted to address the people of Leningrad before being evacuated to Tashkent. A major edition of her work was planned for 1946, but then she was harshly denounced and expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, which would have meant starvation except for the charity of friends and strangers. In 1950, her cycle of poems glorifying Stalin, In Praise of Peace, was published in Ogonyok and may have saved her son’s life. A slightly greater adjustment in attitude, and Lev would probably have been freed.
Not until 1958 did another volume of Akhmatova’s verse appear. Her two great works, Requiem and Poem without a Hero, were never published in the Soviet Union during her lifetime. For a poet of her stature, this was equivalent to being buried alive. But she survived, earning her living as a translator of other writers: the great Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko’s cycle Fading Leaves, Victor Hugo, Giacomo Leopardi. She translated Aleksandr Radichev’s French prose (like many Russians nobles, he wrote in French) from Siberia, whence he’d been exiled by Catherine the Great, back into Russian. She did Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Indian Rabindranath Tagore, and Armenian, Georgian, Korean and Serbian poetry.
She was a woman of tremendous erudition, connected to the world by a mind that could encompass many cultures, European and Eastern, but would not permit her to leave her own. Destitute and self-imprisoned, she remained connected through her lovers and their knowledge. She also remained connected through her own work: her poetry, the art and music that informed it, and, of course, her translations. If her name was a defiant embrace of Russia’s Eastern heritage, Akhmatova’s mind provided the bridge to the west that Peter the Great had intended his city to be. And in a sense her life was symbolic of Leningrad’s place during what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War-a city besieged for a thousand days, with no choice but to endure.
After Stalin’s death, Akhmatova was cautiously rehabilitated. Lev was released; Akhmatova began to earn more money and moved to a small dacha at Komarovo, 28 miles northwest of Leningrad on the Karelian Isthmus. It boasted one large, rather dark room and a tiny kitchen: her first home in half a century. She was even allowed, at the very end of her life, to travel abroad once again, to be honored by all Europe. True to form, the State issued her travel documents only at the very last minute, after months of delay and prevarication: petty little bureaucrats demonstrating their power over a woman they knew very well would return. For there was not the slightest possibility that she would ever defect, given the price she’d paid to remain.
The greatest part of that price paid-the only part she truly regretted-was her relationship with her only child. Neither Akhmatova nor Gumilyov had been suited for happy family life, and Lev depended upon his grandmother for much of his love and affection. Moreover, Lev knew that Akhmatova’s second husband, Punin, had publicly criticized and all but denounced his father Gumilyov-a self-serving treachery that Akhmatova apparently ignored. Punin was also unkind to the boy (an unkindness he would acknowledge with regret) while Akhmatova herself clearly valued her relationship with Punin over her relationship with Lev. For his own part, Lev was deeply, virulently anti-Semitic in a country where anti-Semites had shed torrents of blood. He expressed this anti-Semitism freely, especially to his friend Emma Gerstein, a Jewess who loved him deeply and did her own best to help him survive the camps. His anti-Semitism was part of his character before his arrests, but may have been intensified by the possibility that some of his interrogators and torturers were Jewish (a surprising number were). Lev believed that his suffering entitled him to say or do whatever he pleased. This cannot but have strained his relationship with his mother, who for all her Orthodox Christianity despised anti-Semitism.
But he particularly hated her poem Requiem, for writing about and grieving for him. The son’s bitterness at being left to languish when he could have been saved, then finding himself the subject of his mother’s artistry, is certainly understandable. But he also seems to have taken special offense at her use of the imagery of crucifixion. Of course, in a certain sense, he had been, alongside so many. Akhmatova evokes the image of Christ. But she also implies that those in the camps with him were crucified by the Soviet State very much like the slave followers of Spartacus, six thousand of them crucified by the Romans along the road from Capua to Rome for attempting to claim their freedom by force of arms. She grieved for him as a mother, and her grief may well have been intensified by her knowledge that she had been ill-suited for ordinary domesticity: so much lost time, so many lost opportunities, never to come again. So very many regrets. But as a poet, she transmuted her grief for her son and all who suffered with him into art, and kept faith with that art, rather than renounce it to free him. They had terrible arguments, including one in which Lev is said to have told her that it would even have been better for her as a poet had he died in the camps. The shame and guilt his words provoked in her probably contributed to an ensuing heart attack. And one must wonder. How mixed were the emotions of the Gulag’s survivors, even those who admired her greatly, that she was writing on an experience she herself had escaped? For even in Hell, there are degrees of torment.
As a poet, Anna Akhmatova’s work can be read for its own beauty and value. But the conditions under which she wrote must never be forgotten. In America, writing love poetry is no big deal. But in a totalitarian society, such writing becomes an act of political defiance. Love poetry under Joseph Stalin affirmed the importance of private life; love poetry was less about your orgasms than it was the importance and legitimacy of your personal experiences and emotions.
“Socialist Realism”-the doctrine that artists and writers may only portray Russian life as a paradise of glorious striving and communal contentment-was preposterous, but it was also enforced. Soviet leaders wanted their pet poets to write about how free and happy life was under Communism. Boy meets tractor, tractor meets girl, and they all fall happily in love to fulfill huge production quotas and build the workers’ paradise. Sex was for producing good little soldiers and workers, not for intimate affection or ecstasy. They did not have in mind marvels such as this, from her cycle Sweetbriar in Blossom (From a Burnt Notebook) that she wrote for the British intellectual, Sir Isaiah Berlin.
Along the road where Donskoy
Once led a great army,
Where the wind remembers the foe,
Where the moon is horned and yellow-
I walked, as in the depths of the sea…
The sweetbriar smelled so sweet
That it even turned into words
And I was ready to meet
The ninth wave of my fate.
Sir Isaiah had been born in Riga, then part of the Russian Empire, now Estonia, a Jew whose family had fled the savagery of the Revolution in 1920. In 1945, he returned to the Soviet Union as a member of the British Embassy in Moscow…and very likely as some sort of intelligence agent. In Leningrad, he visited a bookstore frequented by much of the city’s literary elite; the store owner offered to introduce him to Akhmatova. They met three times at the end of 1945 and in early 1946. Their first meeting was interrupted by Randolph Churchill, son of the Prime Minister, bellowing for Berlin at the top of his lungs. Young Churchill wanted Berlin’s assistance in procuring caviar, but his boorishness made it impossible for the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, who followed every foreigner everywhere, to “overlook” what might have been a discreet meeting. Nonetheless, he saw her twice more. They apparently never so much as touched, but there was an intense erotic charge between the poet and her visitor, twenty years her junior. As a consequence, her flat was bugged, and Stalin himself read the police report of Berlin’s visits to her: “So our nun has been receiving foreign spies,” he remarked, and in August of 1946 Akhmatova was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, denounced as a feral half-nun, half-whore, or rather both nun and whore.
But the strongest and most consistent theme of her poetry was not love, at least not in any conventional sense. Her strongest theme, in all its permutations, was what she willed herself to become: Anna of All the Russias. Even her almost-perverse name choice indicates that at some level, always, she very clearly understood she was put on earth to do something terribly difficult in a blood-drenched, suffering-haunted time and place. This was not egotism, but a profound egoism: an understanding of her self-worth as a human being, and how much the people close to her, whether lovers or platonic friends or other poets, were also worth as human beings. And at some level, also, it must have been her realization of the price they deserved for her to pay, in order not to inform against or denounce them, or sign resolutions against them.
Akhmatova wrote her first long poem, By the Edge of the Sea, in 1914. It revolves around a young girl with an invalid older sister who fantasizes about becoming the Tsaritsa (future Empress) by marrying the Tsarevitch (Crown Prince). It was written by a woman whose country was about to endure the horrifying slaughter of the First World War, utterly unprepared for it, militarily or emotionally. Perhaps, like so many prescient others, she sensed the imminent conflagration when she wrote:
When I become the tsaritsa,
I will build six battleships
And six gunboats
To guard my bays
Right up to Fiolent
God, we will rule wisely,
We will have grand churches
And tall lighthouses built by the sea.
We will tend both water and land,
And no one at all will we offend.
Embedded within a poem about a young girl’s fantasies of marrying into royalty is a vision of the classic just ruler. She will defend what is hers, propitiate God in order to protect travelers and ensure clean water, lush grazing and a good harvest, and wield her power with care and justice. Indeed, the protagonist does not write a word about the gifts her Tsarevitch will bring her: no gems or gold, no extravagant dresses, no fine horses drawing a gilded carriage. Nor does she respond to a gypsy’s prophecy of merriment. In fact, the Tsarevitch, who is described as “the skipper who had sailed/the gayest, most winged yacht,” is pulled broken from the water of the rocky shore upon which he has wrecked his craft. This prophetic scene conjures up an image of Tsar Nicholas II in naval uniform. Russia’s official Tsar, incompetent and ignorant, serenely approaching the rocks.
Anna published her book Plantain in 1921, near the end of the Civil War that consolidated Bolshevik power when she was living in Petrograd, a city slowly starving to death and not so slowly freezing to death. In that book are two poems she wrote in 1917, both dedicated to her lover, Boris Anrep, who had fled Russia for England. The first reads in part:
You are an apostate; for a green island
You betrayed, betrayed your native land…
So now, blaspheme and swagger,
Destroy your Orthodox soul,
Stay in the city of royalty
And rejoice that you are free.
…You know yourself that even in the sea you won’t drown
And from mortal combat you’ll emerge unharmed.
Yes, neither battles nor the sea terrify
One who has forfeited grace.
Because of that you beg to be
Remembered when we pray.
The second is one of her most famous poems. To understand its daring, you must remember that Akhmatova wrote it after the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Perhaps they had it coming; they had certainly failed to be good rulers. But they were butchered by worse. And she published it at a time when it was clear that the murderers of the imperial family were going to win the Civil War. In this poem, Akhmatova publicly states her purpose. She will remain in a land where the hands of many are red with the blood of the innocent and the helpless.
When in suicidal anguish
The nation awaited its German guests,
And the stern spirit of Byzantium
Had fled from the Russian Church,
When the capital by the Neva,
Forgetting her greatness,
Like a drunken prostitute
Did not know who would take her next,
A voice came to me. It called out comfortingly,
It said: “Come here,
Leave your deaf and sinful land,
Leave Russia forever.
I will wash the blood from your hands,
Root out the black shame from your heart,
With a new name I will conceal
The pain of defeats and injuries.”
But calmly and indifferently,
I covered my ears with my hands,
So that my sorrowing spirit
Would not be stained by those shameful words.
In her book Anno Domini MCMXXI, published in 1922, after the Bolshevik victory and her ex-husband’s murder, the short poem “Prophecy” makes explicit Akhmatova’s understanding of the role she has chosen for herself and the price she may pay.
I saw that crown of hammered gold…
Don’t envy such a crown!
Because it is stolen
And it wouldn’t become you.
Like a twisted branch of blackthorn,
My crown will begin to glow on you.
Never mind that it refreshes
The delicate brow with crimson dew.
She has stolen the golden crown of thorns that Tsar Nicholas II should have been proud to wear for his people. She has appropriated for herself his pain and blood, as a constant reminder of the peasant and the worker’s hard lives, and an inducement to gentle that harshness.
This last poem is from a book that mourns her husband’s murder, describing the terrible manner of his death. Read in the context of the violence and suffering she has so far survived, these are chilling poems. All her life, Akhmatova would be terrified of dying and struggle very hard to stay alive-but she knew very well that by publishing these poems, she might well be signing her death warrant, much as Gumilyov did.
Perhaps that was some kind of inner test, some facing of death that, once accomplished, need not be repeated. But it was for the living and the dead of the camps that she wrote Requiem, her greatest work. Stalin’s Great Terror consumed millions. The survivors were not allowed to mourn their dead or to their murderers and torturers. Stalin told people that life had become better under his rule, happier and more free, and he required people to love him as a benevolent Little Father. Millions did, including his victims. People went to their deaths asking, “Why?” and “What for?” and “If only Stalin knew”-much as they’d lamented in centuries past, “If the Tsar only knew…”
Akhmatova did not deceive herself. Nor did she allow those she knew to deceive themselves. And to the extent that it lay in her power, she refused to permit her people to deceive themselves.
In 1921, in starving Petrograd, Akhmatova found some milk and gave it to her friend, the literary critic and children’s author Kornei Chukovsky, for his daughter Lydia. In February 1938, Lydia’s husband, the physicist Matvei Bronstein, was arrested for sharing the real name of Stalin’s archenemy, Leon Trotsky. Anna and Lydia became friends; Lydia would become Anna’s diarist, and after Lydia learned that her husband had been shot, Anna’s collaborator.
Lydia Chukovskaya describes Akhmatova as usually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, living in such fear that she could barely walk down a dark corridor or up a flight of stairs. Street intersections terrified her. At one point she stuck newspaper over her windows and hung a piece of a shawl from the ceiling in a crude attempt to foil observation devices. She was often dressed in rags. But all her life, whenever she had something-milk or money-she shared it with those who had less. In turn, her generosity was one reason why people like Chukovskaya, Pasternak, even her ex-husband Gumilyov’s former mistress, Olga Vysotskaya (who at one point was the only person who could convince Akhmatova to eat) helped her. But it was only one reason.
Chukovskaya explains another reason why people risked so much to help her: the almost sacramental quality of her resistance.
The torture chamber, which had swallowed up, physically, whole quarters of [Leningrad], and spiritually all our conscious and unconscious thoughts, the torture chamber, crying out its own clumsily crafted lies from every newspaper column, from every radio set, at the same time demanded of us that we should not take its name in vain, even within four walls, tête-à-tête. We were disobedient, we mentioned it continually, vaguely suspecting while doing so that, even when we were alone, we were not alone, that someone never took his eyes off us, or rather his ears. Surrounded by muteness, the torture chamber wished to remain at once all-powerful and non-existent; it would not let anyone’s word call it out of its almighty non-existence; it was next door, a stone’s throw away, and at the same time it was as if it wasn’t there; women stood in the queues in silence, or whispering, used only indefinite forms of speech…
In what Chukovskaya describes as “a beautiful and mournful ritual,” she and Akhmatova would have an ordinary conversation. Then Akhmatova would write a line of poetry in silence, asking Chukovskaya something mundane. Would she have a cup of tea? Chukovskaya, who possessed an excellent memory, would silently memorize the lines of poetry. Then she would hand the paper back to Akhmatova, who would burn it. This is how Akhmatova composed Requiem: in all a cycle of fourteen poems, several hundred lines that were not written down until after Stalin’s death, but kept alive in Chukovskaya’s memory for nearly twenty years.
They lived in a world where tens of millions of people were tortured and murdered, some for genuine crimes and resistance, many for no reason at all. Remembering and writing down memories of loss were more than acts of resistance. They were a means of maintaining one’s self-respect and sanity. With her son in prison, hostage for her, Akhmatova took the most stringent security precautions, time and again burning her notebooks and letters. But she still chose to be guilty of maintaining her self-respect, and giving voice to the losses of millions of her people, and the grief and guilt and shattering shame of their survivors. If she was going to be murdered, if her son was going to be murdered, it would be because she had kept faith with her people in their torment. It would be for a reason, a moral reason.
Akhmatova was defined by her holy and imperial insistence upon telling the truth, in order that (as she wrote in Requiem) she might be able to weave “a wide mantle for them from their meager, overheard words,” the only burial shroud so many millions would ever have. One could be killed for so little as giving such a person food, or money, or a place to stay. And yet people did, over and over again. To help her was to be guilty in turn of one’s own self-respect, and respect for others. But by such acts, they created a saving remnant of a nation, against the day when it might be possible for Soviet people to become human again.
In her last years, Akhmatova kept a more-or-less open house, filled with flowers in vases, pitchers, and jars. She had heart trouble and she drank too much. She loved vodka and also laughter. After so many years of slander and silence, she was eager for praise, created her own autobiography and “corrected” others’ biographies of her, telling them what she wanted them to hear, what she wanted to be remembered for. Very early in life, she had accepted crushing poverty as the necessary price of her integrity. Still, she managed to keep a few things of great sentimental value, such as Modigliani’s drawings of her. The rest was sold to raise money to live on, to send to Lev, or had been given away. Now she had a stable and comfortable income, including a great deal of money for her translations, which she used to help Lev. From time to time, she would buy something lovely, such as a necklace, enjoy it for a few weeks, then give it to someone she cherished for her to enjoy. Friends furnished her dacha with beautifully carved furniture, old cast-offs (we would call them antiques) that needed only to be reupholstered, but she lived with the tattered fabric. She had a table made out of a door.
She was also endlessly patient with young writers. To those who presented her their bad poetry, she offered tactful, noncommittal praise. To those who were serious, she offered constructive criticism.
One of her serious poets was Joseph Brodsky, who was exiled from the Soviet Union to America in 1972 and went on to win the Nobel Price for Literature and become America’s official Poet Laureate. Another was Anatoly Nayman, a handsome young poet who became her literary secretary and companion. Because of the great difference in their ages-when Nayman met her in 1959, he was 23, she 70-he never used the familiar “ty”, or thou, but always “vy”, you. Both Nayman and Brodsky heard and dismissed the rumors that the relationship between Nayman and Akhmatova was erotic. Perhaps, as they are Russians, they’re telling the truth. Perhaps they are gentlemen and lying: gentlemen know about the double standard and do their best to protect women from it. Perhaps they simply accept the impossibility of explaining an affair between a handsome young man and an old woman, heavy, stout, and plagued by heart trouble. Brodsky is dead and Nayman deserves his privacy. But lovers or not, it is a fact that Nayman loved Akhmatova deeply, and his close relationship with her was probably a factor in his divorce from his wife.
I suspect the poem below, dated just thirteen months before her death in March 1966, was written for Nayman.
So we lowered our eyes,
Tossing the flowers on the bed;
We didn’t know until the end,
What to call one another.
We didn’t dare until the end
To utter first names,
As if, nearing the goal, we slowed our steps
On the enchanted way.
This is utterly unlike any of her early love poems, gentle and fresh. No one young could have written it, nor anyone who had not passed through fire and horror to a hard-won peace.
Akhmatova’s protégé, Joseph Brodsky, and her countrymen Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, were all awarded the Nobel for Literature. Akhmatova herself never won it, although she was nominated in 1962. Today, she is far less well known in the United States than those three.
But she still strikes nerves. Just as she was loved for the integrity she demanded of herself, she is also still hated for it, sometimes even in America. Alexander Zholkovsky, a Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California, emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1979. In a vicious essay titled “The Obverse of Stalinism: Akhmatova’s Self-Serving Charisma of Selflessness,” he proclaims:
What follows is an attempt to reread the Akhmatova myth as a set of stories told of oneself and received, regurgitated, and institutionalized by the surrounding culture. The case of Akhmatova is especially challenging because of the poet’s well-known stoic opposition to the reigning political climate of the time: her essential affinity with the totalitarian discourse of her oppressors can only be discerned through a fresh parsing of the text of her literary and personal life, usually construed in hagiographic tones.
Her essential affinity with the totalitarian discourse of her oppressors?
It is certainly easy to dismiss this as post-modern gibberish. It is also easy enough to draw certain implications ad hominem. Neither exercise is relevant here, save perhaps to note: with those who would reduce all the world to the same banality of evil, the better to indulge the evil of their own banality, it never pays to argue.
Suffice it to say that others saw her differently. She was complicated. She was flawed. She was difficult in the extreme. As a poet, she inevitably “poeticized” her life to others. As a human being, she’d earned that right. For whatever else she did, she carried something pure and sacramental within her and offered it freely to all who might receive it. She was a great gift in a time of great need.
Throughout her life, Akhmatova was often recognized for being far beyond the common run of humanity, even by people who had no idea who she was. In Tashkent, the Uzbeks sell soured milk as a refreshing and nourishing drink. One day, as the story goes, she came out of her room in the hostel where she was staying. An old Uzbek who sold milk there was surrounded by a crowd of laughing women. He was pinching them and urging them to buy more when he saw her and commanded: Dzhim, Mullah! Quiet for the holy woman!
Take your choice.
A Brief Bibliographic Note
Two fine recent biographies of Anna Akhmatova exist in English, Anna of all the Russias by Elaine Feinstein (Knopf, 2006) and Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet by Roberta Reeder (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), along with the first volume of Lydia Chukovskaya’s Akhmatova Journals: 1938-1941 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994; alas, the other volumes have yet to be translated into English). To simplify matters for the reader, I have relied exclusively upon the first two biographies for all details of Akhmatova’s life and dispensed with footnotes. Feinstein and Reeder often corroborate each other, differing only in details and style, while I doubt the reader would care for a hundred footnotes that refer to just two books. Where cited, I have also drawn upon Chukovskaya. However, my interpretation of Akhmatova’s resistance is mine alone, drawn from my own understandings of artistic life in a totalitarian bureaucracy.
As for Akhmatova’s poetry, again in order to simplify matters for the reader, I have relied exclusively upon Judith Hemschemeyer’s translation in two volumes of her Collected Works (Zephyr Press, 1990), which is simply the standard for completion and scholarly annotation. However, the English poet D. M. Thomas (Akhmatova: Selected Poems, Puffin, 1989) and the American poet Stanley Kunitz joined by the English scholar Max Hayward (one of Sir Isaiah’s protégé’s) (Poems of Akhmatova: Izbrannye Stikhi, Mariner Books, 1997) have also published superb literary translations. In fact, due to the web I was able to look up that line that first introduced me to Akhmatova a quarter of a century ago: “Faces fall to bone” was in fact translated by Kunitz and Hayward.