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A Great Russian Prophet

1.

No poet has been more photographed or painted than Anna Akhmatova: the unique profile with its imperious nose is instantly recognizable. Since her debut as a poet in the 1910s her contemporaries were fascinated with her image: tall, slender, very pale with deep-set eyes and a melancholy, pensive expression; she was often likened to a nun. All who met her were struck by her regal bearing, the more impressive in her later years in its contrast with the shabbiness of her clothes and the poverty of her surroundings as a pariah under Stalin’s regime. Of all the great Russian poets whom he persecuted, she, more than Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, or Marina Tsvetaeva, is renowned as a resister and martyr.

She grew into that image after the Revolution, when the theme of renunciation (blending with eroticism in her early lyrics on the topic of hopeless love) took on a heroic dimension in her poetry and her life. Refusing to leave her country, but labeled an internal émigré by the new order, she came under attack for her “aristocratic” poetry and was soon prohibited from publishing it. There followed decades of extreme privation and official hounding, culminating in the Central Committee’s public attack on her work in 1946. Her son was arrested and incarcerated three times in the Stalin era. Many of her friends perished in camps or were shot; undeterred, she pursued a campaign of passive resistance, commemorating the sufferings of her people in poems. The best known of them, “Requiem,” has been seen as the most powerful evocation of the horror of Stalinism by a Russian writer.

The symbolic significance Akhmatova began to acquire at this time is expressed in a comment by her Boswell, the writer Lidiya Chukovskaya, whose diary records of their meetings continued until just before the poet’s death: “Before my very eyes, Akhmatova’s fate—something greater even than her own person—was chiselling out of this famous and neglected, strong and helpless woman, a statue of grief, loneliness, pride, courage.”

Amanda Haight’s biography (the first to be published in the West) presents the same picture of the poet as chosen by fate to test the inherited values of her contemporaries against the Revolution’s dream of an earthly paradise and its hideous embodiment in the Stalinist state. However, both Haight and Roberta Reeder (author of the most comprehensive biography of Akhmatova to date) neglect one aspect of her image: her own active part in its creation.1 Contemporaries and close friends, such as the poet Anatoly Nayman and the critic Emma Gerstein, have commented on the strong element of self-dramatization that she brought to her poetry readings and personal encounters, and they have noted her businesslike concern with controlling what would be written about her after her death, choosing and closely monitoring her biographers (including Haight, then a young British graduate student), and correcting their accounts.

The appearance in recent years of these accounts (some in translation) has prompted various Western scholars to take a fresh look at Akhmatova’s personal and literary life in the light of theories of cultural myth and “charismatic performance.” Concepts such as “image creation” and the “constructed self” have been brought to bear on her biography, providing varying degrees of illumination. One critic has dismissed Akhmatova’s preoccupation with her public persona as the self-glorification of a domineering ego, another focuses on her dramatization of a “female” self, while one perceptive essay portrays her relationship with her devoted scribe Chukovskaya as a collaboration in the task of asserting the power of the poet as a symbol.2 But Nancy Anderson’s new study and translation of her major poems demonstrates convincingly that the key to Akhmatova’s performance lies in the moral motivation of her poetry: her obsession with her image sprang from her vision of the unique role and obligations of a Russian poet.

2.

The special significance with which Russians endow their poets dates back to the early nineteenth century, when the Romantic notion of the poet as outcast, martyr, and visionary blended with the “civic” tradition of Russian literature established by the radical critic Belinsky, which proposed that the writer’s duty was to express the aspirations of his society and defend them against oppression. Many members of the Decembrist movement, which organized an ill-fated revolt against the autocratic state in 1825, were Romantic poets, one of whom was hanged on the personal order of the Tsar. Several of the conspirators who were exiled to Siberia were friends of Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, revered not only for his genius but as the voice and conscience of the people. A victim of slanders from the court aristocracy, he died in a duel in defense of his wife’s honor. The young poet Mikhail Lermontov wrote an angry poem against the slanderers who had executed “Freedom, Genius, and Renown.” The poem could not be printed, but practically every educated Russian knew it by heart.

Akhmatova’s life and poetry are set firmly in this tradition in Anderson’s book. It presents a sensitive translation, with a commentary and critical essays, of three major poems, “Requiem,” “The Way of All the Earth,” and “Poem Without a Hero,” all connected to the experience of the Terror, and united by the theme of the poet as witness. Combining meticulous scholarship and a rare empathy with her subject, Anderson’s study of the poems is preceded by a substantial historical and biographical introduction, especially valuable to readers unacquainted with the culture that shaped Akhmatova’s understanding of her role as a writer.

Akhmatova began writing during the Russian Silver Age, a period dominated by Symbolism, which saw the poet as the bearer of a transcendent truth that could be expressed only indirectly, through symbols. While the Acmeist movement, which she headed with her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, and Osip Mandelstam reacted against Symbolism in the name of clarity, it retained its sense of the poet’s destiny. As Anderson puts it, Akhmatova’s poetry combined “a classicist ethos of clear-eyed observation and self-restraint” with “a thoroughly romantic strain of self-consciousness, a sense of herself as someone special, someone fated to live a consuming drama, whether personal or historical.”

While she had a strong feeling of communion with Western culture (she taught herself Italian in the 1920s in order to read Dante in the original), the poet to whom she gave the most thought was Pushkin. After the ban silencing her as a poet in 1925, she began work on a series of studies on him, including an article, “Pushkin’s Death,” which was not published until the 1970s. It was, in Anderson’s words, a defense lawyer’s speech on Pushkin’s behalf, vindicating his reputation by exposing the unworthy motives of his slanderers. Surely, Anderson suggests,

as Akhmatova sat in the archives poring over the letters and diaries of Pushkin’s contemporaries, she reflected on the New Testament dictum that the disciple can expect no better than the master: if Pushkin, the greatest of all Russian poets, had been subjected to such hounding, how could she expect any mercy?

The fates of other poets under the Soviet regime must have seemed to Akhmatova strong evidence of their common tragic destiny. The greatest of the Symbolist poets, Alexander Blok, died in 1921. She was among the immense crowd that followed the coffin to the cemetery—a traditional sign both of respect for great Russian writers and of protest against the state’s repression of them. It was commonly believed that Blok had lost his will to live: those present recalled a speech he had delivered a few months before, on the anniversary of Pushkin’s death. What killed Pushkin was not his antagonist’s bullet, he said, but lack of air, the deprivation of creative freedom.

On the day of Blok’s funeral, Akhmatova learned of the arrest of her former husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, for alleged counterrevolutionary conspiracy. He was shot shortly afterward without trial. The peasant poet Sergei Esenin and Vladimir Mayakovsky, the self-appointed bard of the Revolution, both committed suicide. In 1938 the poet Nikolai Klyuev was exiled and later shot for a poem, “To the Slanderers of Art,” in which he referred to the silencing of Akhmatova. As her close friend Osip Mandelstam remarked: “Poetry is respected only in this country—people are killed for it.” He himself met his death as punishment for his poem on the subject of Stalin, never written down but recited to a number of friends, one of whom betrayed him.

As Anderson observes, the nightmarish years of the 1930s, when no one was safe from arrest and execution, served to deepen Akhmatova’s sense of her vocation as a poet and of the price it exacted. When Stalin unleashed his Terror the poetic inspiration that had deserted her for some years returned, but, as she wrote, “my handwriting had changed, my voice sounded different.” A number of the first poems she wrote in this new phase were about poetry and poets, such as Pasternak, Gumilyov, and Mandelstam. A poem on Dante alludes to his decision not to return from exile to his beloved Florence at the price of a humiliating public repentance. Her poem “Voronezh” (the town where Mandelstam spent three years of exile) describes the “room of the banished poet,” where “terror and the Muse take turns in keeping watch.” In a poem dedicated to Mandelstam she writes of her reluctance to accept the burden of witness. But conscience will not release her:

…earthly time is something it doesn’t know;

For it, the three dimensions are unreal.

The Terror had given her a precise poetic mission: to preserve the memory of the voices it had silenced and the values it sought to destroy.

3.

As Anderson observes, the theme of memory and the commemoration of the dead dominates the three major poems of 1940. “Requiem,” composed of ten individually numbered poems, was born of her personal suffering during the purges as one of the multitude of Russians whose loved ones were victims of arbitrary arrest, followed by inquisitions which could take more than a year. Their families could learn of their eventual sentences only by queueing before a window at the prisons where they were kept. After her son Lev’s second arrest in 1938, Akhmatova stood in such a line for months before learning that he was to be sent to a camp in the North. Those waiting with her were women (men ran a greater risk of attracting the attentions of the secret police). In place of a foreword Akhmatova describes the poem’s genesis:

One day somebody “identified” me. Then a woman with blue lips who was standing behind me… awoke from the torpor normal to all of us and breathed a question in my ear…. “Can you describe this?” And I said: “I can.” Then something like a smile slipped across what once had been her face.

The city in the grip of terror—“like a tacked-on extra, a useless weight/ from its prisons dangled Leningrad”—is the background for an intense evocation of unbearable cruelty, suffering, and death, culminating in a supreme image of suffering and endurance: Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the foot of the cross. The imperative to preserve the memory of her people’s ordeal will accompany the poet beyond the grave:

  1. 1

    Amanda Haight, Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage (Oxford University Press, 1976); Roberta Reeder, Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet (St. Martin’s, 1994).

  2. 2

    See Alexander Zholkovsky, “Anna Akhmatova: Scripts, Not Scriptures,” Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Spring 1996), pp. 135–141, and “The Obverse of Stalinism: Akhmatova’s Self-Serving Charisma of Selflessness,” in Self and Story in Russian History, edited by Laura Engelstein and Stephanie Sandler (Cornell University Press, 2000), pp. 46–68; Barbara Heldt, Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature (Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 124ff.; Beth Holmgren, Women’s Works in Stalin’s Time (Indiana University Press, 1993), pp. 68–94.

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