On any list of inhospitable shores, a place should be reserved for the Soviet side of the Gulf of Finland in late October. Spruce and fir look their worst. Dunes are both slimy and precipitous. On the strand, huge misshapen stones, greasy and granitic, sweat the day away. Tumbledown dachas have a look of sodden cardboard. Except when the late autumn storms come rampaging in from the Baltic, the sea mumbles to itself. Stale and exhausted, it can barely make it to the beach.
But for the reader of Lydia Chukovskaya’s To the Memory of Childhood, this is hallowed ground. For it was in the summer settlement of Kuokkola, an hour’s drive from St. Petersburg, that her father Kornei Chukovsky lived, year-round, with his family until the revolution of 1917. And it should be said at once of Chukovsky that his books for children enjoy to this day a universal and well-merited popularity in the Soviet Union. At the mention of his name, every face lightens. Children, parents, grandparents—all are of the same mind.
In times no matter how hideous, Chukovsky’s stories-in-verse have for generations been giving childhood a new dimension for Soviet readers. A man of acrobatic fancy, he was Edward Lear, E. B. White, and the author of Babar rolled into one. He also had a specifically Russian speed and lightness and mischief. His stories are not in the least “political.” But they are the work of a free, buoyant, unprejudiced spirit. It should not surprise us that the work of this archetypal honnête homme should be have been attacked in the late 1930s—by Lenin’s widow, among others—as potentially subversive.
As to that, his daughter should have the last word:
For decades, he took part in the battle to assure the child’s right to fairy tales—both folk and literary—and he came out of that battle victorious. Fairy tales were looked on with suspicion by the authorities; the ignoramuses in power felt that they kept children from understanding reality.
To Russians who read him when they themselves were very young, he was not “an author.” He was a friend, a brother, a father, and a confidant. When, in his eighties, he walked into the Hotel National in Moscow, both staff and guests crowded around to set eyes on him.
He has other claims upon us. When he was twenty-one, and working in London as a correspondent for a newspaper in Odessa, he willed himself to master the English language. It was in his translations that Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Rudyard Kipling were made available in Russian. As for the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it was within reach of his hand for more than sixty years. He even thought of it as feminine in gender. “How much she has taught me!” he once said. “And how soothing and affectionate she is!”
As a critic, as a portraitist in words, as an editor of the Russian classics, and as a professional who gave a new dignity to the feuilleton and the book review, he was in a very high class. (In 1962 he won the Lenin Prize for his edition of the poems of Nekrasov, in which much that had been lost or censored was printed for the first time.) As a philologist, he was given an honorary doctorate in Oxford in 1962. But it was above all as a force for good in human affairs that from his early years onward he impressed himself upon everyone he met. “Villains are usually idiots,” he wrote toward the end of his life. “Doing good is more fun, more interesting and, in the end, more practical.”
In the eye of eternity, moreover, Kornei Chukovsky is likely to have a second existence as the father of Lydia Chukovskaya. She would be the last to say it. Only in the last pages of her memoir, when Kornei Chukovsky is dead and buried, does she let us glimpse her own activities during the previous fifty and more years. It is left to her dedicated, if not always ideally dexterous translator, Eliza Kellogg Klose, to tell us that her husband, the astrophysicist and science writer Matvei Petrovich Bronshtein, was imprisoned and killed under torture at the end of the 1930s and that she herself narrowly escaped arrest at that time. Neither in this matter nor in any of her other books does she present herself as heroine, victim, or sanctified scourge. But if we believe that writers are sent into the world to bear witness to events that may be unimaginable to those who come later, then Lydia Chukovskaya will take her place as one of the great spirits of our century.
In general she wrote short, and she wrote small. Not for her the diluvian rant and the organ note of sanctimony with which others bore witness. The words fall onto the page like snowflakes, even in the novel Sofia Petrovna, which corresponds minutely to her experiences after her husband was banished in 1937 and (unbeknown to Chukovskaya) shot in 1938.
Nor, in To the Memory of Childhood, does she refer to the book (published in English as Going Under) that she wrote between 1949 and 1957 about what it was like to go to a so-called rest home for writers in Komarovo, not far from Leningrad. It is with the subtlest art that she conveys what it was like to arrive in a neighborhood covered in unblemished snow and find, hour by hour, that the atmosphere was poisoned by the betrayals, the griefs, and the inhumanities that her fellow guests had brought with them from the city.
Enormous must have been the temptation to contrast her years of happiness in childhood, with her father digging a narrow path through the snow with a flat, square shovel. Yet no one who comes untutored to Going Under could guess that the rest home in question was only a mile or two from Kuokkola. In this narrative, nostalgia has no place.
Meanwhile, and from beginning to end, To the Memory of Childhood is a portrait of her father. With her customary plainness, she tells us why:
After all, there aren’t many people still alive who remember him as a young man. He’d had four children. I am the sole survivor. I remember our childhood and his youth. It was up to me to write.
In this book, she is the mirror in which Kornei Chukovsky looks out at us as the father who made everything fun.
Encountered in his old age, he was tall and erect, with a great high-bridged nose that seemed to turn of its own accord toward his every visitor. But as a young man, and to his very young children, he seemed, so Lydia Chukovskaya tells us, “the tallest man on earth.” “His height,” she goes on,
was given us by fate as a sort of cubit, a natural unit of measurement. Sitting in a boat, trailing our fingers over the side in the transparent gray water, we’d often estimate distances: and if we were calculating the depth, to the very, very bottom—how many papas would it come to: six or more? “Heavens, no! What do you mean, six? It’s at least twelve!”
Now that it is common form for daughters to trash their fathers in print, there is almost a prelapsarian innocence about Lydia Chukovskaya’s memories of Kornei Chukovsky before 1914. Here he is, reading poetry on his rowboat, way out on the sea:
I have never heard poetry recited more beguilingly. It was as if, at these moments, every aspect of his being were concentrated in voice, inflection, lips, and sounds, sounds seeming to cling to lips, and lips to sounds…. Kornei Ivanovich recited poetry like a poet, not an actor. He tried not to add anything of his own to the intonation or rhythm as he recited, instead, his voice, his whole being obeyed the rhythmic movement, which made clear the meaning of even the most complicated verse, even to very young children. That’s why his recitations made comprehensible to us the poems which used many words we didn’t know or depicted events which were beyond our experience.
It might seem that Lydia Chukovskaya was sometimes overcome in this book by her unbounded and lifelong admiration for her father. She writes about his hands:
As a little girl, I first noticed how beautiful his hands were one day when I was listening to him recite poetry out at sea. I’ve never seen such remarkable hands on anyone since—strong, capable, but unblemished by oar, saw, pail, stone, or shovel, with long fingers which bent back slightly at the tips.
Yet it was clear to those who saw him in the 1960s, whether in Oxford, in Moscow, or in Peredelkino, that to the end of his life Chukovsky’s hands were not those—soft, unmarked, unschooled in everyday tasks—of “a writer.” They were the hands of what he had been in youth—a determined if amateur maintenance man who loved to fix, saw, chop, paint, service the stove, and act as yardman.
As for his way of reading poetry aloud, we have to remember that, as well as anyone else now living, Lydia Chukovskaya knows what it was like to hear Russian poetry read aloud by those who had written it. The poets in question included Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Blok, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Gumilev, Esenin, Marshak, and the young Joseph Brodsky.
Each of them recited in his own way. The now conversational, now emotional intonation of Mayakovsky in no way resembled the latent passion concealed by outward restraint of Blok’s recitation. (His mournful, muffled voice seemed simply to list the words.) I heard the candid, wide open recitation of Pasternak, so completely unlike the severe, serious, reserved recitation of Akhmatova (she remained closed, even as she opened herself).
All this notwithstanding, Chukovsky wanted his children “to grow up like children anywhere” and to have children’s priorities. When he strapped an improvised sail to his back and let the children skate across the frozen sea with him, that was the great adventure. To be on the stoop when Gorky met Mayakovsky for the first time did not touch them in the same way.
Nor would he have wished it otherwise. He saw child prodigies as an abomination. He could not bear parents who showed off their children’s gifts. Feodor Chaliapin impressed little Lydia by his gigantic stature, but who was he, after all? A man who opened his mouth and sang. Far more memorable to her was his Chinese valet. A yellow-skinned man! And so strangely costumed! Who could get over that?
When the first motor yacht to come into view off the beach at Kuokkola sent a launch ashore, and when the passenger in that launch was Leonid Andreyev, author of The Seven Who Were Hanged, Lydia Chukovskaya took note of his stylish white sweater, and of the equally stylish binoculars that hung around his neck. She had often heard him talked about. But what interested her much more was the sailor in his striped vest, with the name of the yacht printed in gold on the ribbon on his cap.
They were my first motor boat, and my first sailor. The sound of the motor, knocking, dead, alien to the splash of the waves, to the blue of the sky and the silence.
Even when she was only eight, Mayakovsky’s “defiantly scornful, almost thunderous” way of reading poetry impressed her enormously, as did his way of striding along the shore and composing aloud as he went. But it was as a croquet player that Mayakovsky really got to her. The lionlike quality, the flashes of ill humor, the barriers between him and others—all vanished. More than fifty years later, she remembered him as just a young man playing croquet with some teen-age girls. But, even there, he was his passionate and invincible self. Everyone else held the mallet with two hands and bent over to play, but he held it like a walking stick, hit the ball straight and sure, and was always the first to turn vindictive. And when he turned vindictive, what fun it was to watch—how the balls flew, and how sharp was the crack when one hit the other!
There is no way for us today to see even the wraith of the Chukovsky house as it was at that time. After the revolution of 1917, it was looked after by friends and neighbors. But after a few years Chukovsky lent it to a Kuokkola acquaintance who claimed that he had nowhere else to live. In no time at all he sold everything of value in the house and decamped with the money.
On his heels, even worse people followed. And when the painter Ilya Repin, a close friend and no less close neighbor, walked over to see the house in 1923 he wrote that he was
grief-stricken to see a multitude of ripped brochures on the floor, covered with muddy bootprints, between the ragged, once-elegant sofas where we spent such fascinating and comfortable hours listening to lectures and discussions by talented writers, fanned by the bright flame of freedom. A veritable platform of rare and valuable books and manuscripts lay on the floor of the library, and beneath this thick layer, glass crunched and cracked unbearably.
In 1986, the Chukovskys’ house burned to the ground. But what can be seen, and to a remarkable degree has retained its original character (as I saw on a recent visit), is the house of Ilya Repin, in which Chukovsky and his family were almost daily visitors. To read her book and to step into that house are part of a single, irreplaceable, self-completing experience.
We may not see the family flag that Repin raised and lowered outside the house every day in deference to his wife’s naval forbears. But we see the glassed-in steeples that gave extra light, year-round, to a house that lived by light’s entrapment. We see the gong that he struck before meals, the big black hat and the small Gladstone bag that he kept in the lobby, the ancient photographs in their Jugendstil frames, the full-sized plaster cast of the Venus de Milo and the suit of plate armor that Repin used as a prop when the historical fancy seized him.
Ilya Repin kept open house every Wednesday from 3 PM onward. “Penates” was the name that he had given to his steepled house, and like many another successful painter he was a model of outgoing hospitality. In particular, his Wednesday afternoons and evenings took place around the dining-room table, laid for twelve or fourteen. With its heaped flowers, its fine linen, its strongly patterned china, and its heavyduty silver, it invited that new favorite, the group photograph.
As for the revolving circular platform in the middle of the table, with its stout wooden handles to speed the dishes on their way, it was the epitome of conviviality. When the camera was brought out, guests would stand two and three deep around the table to be sure to find a place before the lens. And in the prints that resulted Kornei Chukovsky looks completely at home, with his brilliant black hair, his brilliant black mustache, and his air of eager attention.
Home movies were coming in, too, and one of the treasures of Penates today is the uproarious program of silent films that shows us exactly how high were the spirits that animated both host and guests. Repin was small, quick, and full of fun. Unlike almost every other painter of consequence, he seems never to have spent an anxious or an unhappy hour in his studio.
“I love art,” he once wrote, “more than any other human happiness and joy. I love it secretly, jealously, incurably, like an old drunk…. No matter where I am or what I’m involved in, no matter who may delight me, nor what may attract me. Anywhere and everywhere, art is in my mind and my heart.”
The home movies in Penates leave us in no doubt of the euphoria that resulted. Its contagion was universal, moreover, and when Repin led his friends on a country walk, he strode out ahead, his short legs notwithstanding. And as the assembled intelligentsia—many of them elderly—fell into line in the snow behind him, it could happen that they threw their tall hats in the air from sheer joie de vivre. Throwing snowballs was not outlawed, either, even if Repin himself was the target.
Nor did he demur if the movie camera was focused on him as he wrote letters at his elaborate desk, fingered a brush or two in his studio, or proved his versatility by shoveling the snow away from his front door. He was the little man—neither the first nor the last—who had his chance before the movie camera and wasn’t going to pass it up.
In his art, Repin responded to the big meaty subject, and he knew how to treat it in a big meaty way, like a John Singer Sargent whose art had run somewhat to fat. His painting of Zaporozhian cossacks was to the public of his day the quintessence of unreconstructed preindustrial Russia. His portrait heads of individual members of the Duma, have both weight and bravura. In subject-pictures drawn from contemporary life—The Arrest of a Political Offender, for one—he could sum up the dreams, the waking nightmares, and the aspirations of a multitudinous populace.
In The Unexpected Return, for instance, he could sum up exactly what it meant for an exile to return home—gaunt, haggard, in rags—and break in upon a quiet and peaceful hearth. He could respond to people of genius, too. No one forgets Mussorgsky as he was painted by Repin. He painted Chaliapin, in Penates, as he sprawled at his ease, bare-throated and caught in mid-sentence, across the panoramic sofa in the studio. (That sofa is still there, by the way, and the same tapestry is still thrown across it.) In that portrait, we recognize Chaliapin as a great lord of life in the plenitude of his powers.
There and elsewhere Repin was inspired by private affection, as much as by a sense that he was the recording angel of an exceptionally gifted set of men and women. Lydia Chukovskaya tells us that when Chaliapin announced himself for a visit to Kuokkola in 1914, the following telegram went back to him forthwith: “Paschally exultant; house, studio, canvases, paints, artist ready, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Is this a dream? Repin.” And if we in our turn get to half-sit, half-lie on that same sofa, we too say, “Is this a dream?” and we are not quite sure of the answer.
Kuokkola before 1917 was permeated by a collegial spirit that was never to characterize its later near-equivalent, the writers’ colony of Peredelkino, near Moscow. Reading To the Memory of Childhood, we suddenly realize that in the 1920s and 1930s there was hardly a table in all Russia at which people could speak so freely, let alone an album in which anything at all could be written down and shown to future guests without a second thought.
In 1958, when his daughter came to visit him at Peredelkino, Chukovsky said to her that a novel could be written about what happened to the writers who had lived there. ” ‘The Shipwreck,’ ” he said, “would be a good title. Some of them were shot. Some of them were driven to their graves. Others were reduced to total despair. No one ever got out of Peredelkino safe and sound.”
Reading that, we remember that 1958 was the year in which Boris Pasternak was ostracized in Peredelkino for having been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. “You really ought to go back to Moscow,” one of his neighbors told him. “If you stay here, people are going to throw stones at you in the street.”
Of all that hatred, Penates had been the very antithesis. Lydia Chukovskaya says of the atmosphere there that
even after sharp and sometimes violent quarrels in public debate, or in the pages of a magazine, it was still possible to admire intensely the achievement, the talent, the greatness of another person. People of widely differing opinions sensed their membership in a mutual brotherhood of culture, and continued to love each other.
Even when high hopes and a bright potential came to nothing, Penates had a healing quality. In 1913, Alexander Blok asked Stanislavsky if he would like to put on his new play, The Rose and the Cross, at the Moscow Art Theater. “If he wants to,” he wrote in his diary on April 20, “he can both put on the play and act the part of Bertran. If his genius touches the play, I shall not worry about anything else.”
They met. They talked, again and again. And then, on April 29, Blok took up his diary.
A sensitive person came to see me, a person in whom I believe, who has done great things (Chekhov at the Art Theater) and he understood nothing, “grasped” nothing, felt nothing. That means I shall be writing “under a bushel” again.
“Bitter lines,” Chukovskaya noted, “but Blok did not lose his respect or love for Stanislavsky.”
Penates meant almost as much as life itself to Chukovsky, and his daughter recalls the holy hush upon which her father insisted whenever they were anywhere near Repin’s house during his working hours. When he stood before the canvas with the huge circular palette in his left hand, nothing must distract him.
Repin returned his feelings. Lydia Chukovskaya tells us that he loved to have Chukovsky read to him—any time, any book, any place. He had him edit his memoirs. Long after Chukovsky had left Kuokkola, Repin remembered his “tall, merry figure.” He also remembered how, when trees were knocked down by a storm, Kornei Ivanovich could pick them up with his bare hands.
Above all, Chukovsky had a moral force that communicated itself to others. “You were always the center of attention,” Repin wrote in 1923, “inspiring courage and freedom.” And again in 1925:
If you were living here, I would fly to you every free minute: we share so many common interests. But most of all, you are inexhaustible…. You react to everything. You know so very, very much; my conversation with you is—always—headlong—worthwhile.
To perpetuate something of the collegial spirit of Kuokkola, Kornei Chukovsky began to keep the combination of scrapbook, family album, and autograph book for which Repin found the best name—“Chukokkala.” From the annotated account of this that was published in Moscow in 1979 it is clear that it never lacked for contributors. Though kept up until the end of the 1920s, the book was at its best and strongest until 1923 or thereabouts.
Blok, Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Gorky, Remizov, Zoshchenko, and many another wrote for it. Drawings—above all of Chukovsky himself—were everywhere. From a visit to London in 1916, there were cameo appearances by H. G. Wells, John Buchan, Edmund Gosse, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edward Grey, the former foreign secretary, who had composed in August 1914 the still-famous phrase about “the lights going out all over Europe.”
Chukokkala is an invisible document. We can only be glad that Chukovsky buried it, dug it up, kept it through difficult times, and clung to it as if it in some way validated that admiration in which he had been held. Together with the personal archive—apparently still intact—that he kept from 1900 until his death in 1969, Chukokkala is the record of a long life of concentrated work and what his daughter calls “cheerful, varied and energetic associations.” It is remarkable that any such book, and any such archive, should have survived the long period in which to be caught with even a dozen lines of poetry on a sheet of paper could mean certain banishment and quite possibly a horrible death.
But for Kornei Chukovsky, the life of letters was the only real life. Already in his twenties, he had been a substantial critic, and widely read. He had been on cordial terms with writers whose work has been untouched by time. For more than half a century, he reached out to everyone who crossed his path.
In 1958, when he was seventy-six, he rallied to Boris Pasternak, and was photographed with him, at a terrible moment in Pasternak’s affairs. At the same time, he was known to hundreds of thousands of Russians as the man who had written about a crocodile that walked upright on its hind legs along the Nevsky Prospect, spoke German fluently, smoked cigarettes, and on occasion swallowed uniformed policemen as if they were sardines.
These were manifold distinctions, but we may sense that they never quite took away the central shame and terror of his life, which was that his father, a Petersburg university student, had abandoned his mother, a peasant woman from the Poltava Province, not long after his birth. For that reason, he and his brother and sister had been brought up by their mother in Odessa. On his papers appeared, he wrote, “the terrible words—’son of a peasant, Miss so and so.’ ”
Even in Kuokkola that was still the case.
As an illegitimate child, Chukovsky said, I was the most divided, complicated person in the world. To admit it meant I was disgracing my mother. I felt that I was the only illegitimate child in the world, that everyone else was legitimate, that everyone was whispering behind my back, and that when I showed my papers to anyone (a caretaker, a porter) he would immediately begin to despise me. And, in fact, that was the case. I remember the agonies of that time.
“It was a misery,” his daughter tells us, “and it remained so—in the grown man, the middle-aged man, and the old man—despite the consolation of the new name, which he created for himself, chose for himself, and made official after the revolution.”
Even when Kornei Chukovsky was quite possibly the best-loved human being in the Soviet Union he was never free from the dread of being unacknowledged, excluded, passed over. It was that dread, as much as his inborn kindness, amiability, and love of being amused that made him long to become the friend of everyone with whom he came into contact. Even an exchange of glances on the road would set him off.
A visit to him in Peredelkino could have its phantasmagorical side. Most visitors arrived by invitation. They were more than warmly received. They ate a little, drank some tea, got settled at the long table. And then it could happen, in this visitor’s experience, that two English-speaking strangers would knock on the door and simply ask to come in.
Chukovsky welcomed them to the long table and sat down between them. “What a joy to see you!” he would say, though he was clearly not quite certain who they were. The better to make them feel at home, he put his right arm around the shoulders of the one and his left arm around the shoulders of the other.
When they got up to go, he thanked them warmly for their visit and saw them out of the house. “What capital fellows!” he said as he came back in. “How delighted I am that they came!” “And who were they?” someone asked. “I haven’t the faintest idea,” said Kornei Ivanovich. “But weren’t they the nicest people?”
Yet he was disgusted by some of his neighbors, and all the more so after the persecution of Pasternak, to which many had been passive (not to say eager) observers. Happening to see them walking home on the road, he would say their names under his breath with a nuance of scorn and contempt for which an appropriate typeface has yet to be devised.
Conversely, there were no words for the admiration and the awe in which he held those who had endured ostracism, harassment, and penury without flinching. One of them was his daughter, Lydia. The other was the great poet Anna Akhmatova, whom he had known since they were both very young people.
When Chukovsky learned in 1938 that Lydia Chukovskaya was seeing Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad, and on a regular basis, he looked at her very seriously and said, “I hope that you understand that you ought to record every word that she says.” Chukovskaya needed no encouragement. At thirteen, when she had been taken to see Akhmatova for the first time, she already knew her poems by heart. Hearing her read aloud, some years later, Chukovskaya had trouble believing that Akhmatova was made of the same clay as the rest of humankind. As of November 1938, she saw Akhmatova as often as she could, and as often as Akhmatova wanted, and she wrote down almost every word that was said.
From those encounters there came Conversations with Anna Akhmatova, of which the first volume—covering the years between 1938 and 1962—was published in a French translation by Albin Michel in 1980. (An English translation will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) As had happened in the case of her father, she felt that “it is up to me to write.” And she wrote. Volume One of the French-language edition runs to a hefty 556 pages. The rest is still unpublished.
No more than in To the Memory of Childhood does Lydia Chukovskaya put herself forward in the Conversations. She sets the stage, checks the lighting, gets the curtain up on time, and is ready to play Enobarbus to Akhmatova’s Antony and Horatio to her Hamlet.
If her role had been simply that of an amanuensis, the book would hold us uninterruptedly, such is the presence of Akhmatova and the implacable candor with which she conducts herself on all occasions. But, so far from being mere interviews, Conversations impresses us as a dialogue between equals—and equals who have survived the worst that our century has had to offer.
We know from the very first entries in Chukovskaya’s diaries in November 1938 that this is in very truth a dialogue between equals. When Akhmatova said on the radio in September 1941 that “a city which has bred women like ours cannot be conquered,” there is a tone of heroic energy and moral grandeur that Homer himself might have envied. But Chukovskaya had that same gift, and to that same degree.
This is not to say that, then or at any other time, the two women bandied heroics. At the time of the first diary entry Akhmatova’s son Lev Gumilev was in prison in Leningrad. Chukovskaya’s husband had been arrested—apparently for nothing more substantial than that his surname, Bronshtein, was the same as Trotsky’s. Deeper troubles could hardly come a woman’s way.
The time was soon to come when Akhmatova was to live on black bread and tea without sugar and get up early every morning to stand in line, in deep winter, outside a prison, waiting for news. Her hat, her raincoat, her shoes, and her stockings looked like nothing on earth. The day came when her estranged husband stole her kettle and she couldn’t even make any tea.
So what did those two women do? Did they sit around being sorry for themselves? Not at all. Akhmatova talked about James Joyce’s Ulysses, and how it had recently taken her four close readings to get the measure of it. “It’s a most remarkable book,” she said, “even if there is a little too much pornography for my taste. But it’s prodigious. All the others live off the crumbs from Joyce’s table.”
“You know,” she said a month or two later, “I’ve just reread Mrs. Browning’s poems. I didn’t care too much for them. Robert Browning had only one note to his work, and it was always the same. But he was a virtuoso, whereas she…. Well, maybe she’s no good because she’s so very much like him.”
In her judgments of literature, Akhmatova was very severe, though not more severe that Chukovskaya is said to be today. She never compromised. Confessional writings, in particular, did not interest her. “In Pushkin’s day,” she said, “poets never talked about themselves. But they said everything, all the same—everything, to the end.”
And when Pushkin did indeed “say everything,” as when he told of the moral effect of torture upon human beings, her sovereign composure for once gave way. “How could he know that?” she said. “How could he know everything? I never want to read those lines again.”
These were two people for whom the word written and remembered was the last, best, strongest hope of humankind. (“What is written by the pen,” Chukovskaya writes in her memoir of her father, “cannot be cut out by the axe.”)
Every imaginable affront had been offered to the one, as the other, in their professional activities. Cruelties beyond number had been inflicted upon them through persecution of their husbands and sons. Nor were such things all in the past tense. In 1964, Lydia Chukovskaya took untold risks to help Joseph Brodsky, who was serving time on a state farm in northern Arkhangelsk. After Akhmatova died in 1966, Chukovskaya was expelled from the Union of Writers for protesting the campaign against Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet press. Her name could appear nowhere. (Immortality of a kind must be attached to a leading editor of the day who said that “My conscience as a Communist does not allow me to print the name of Lydia Chukovskaya in my newspaper. No one in authority has ordered me not to. It is I myself who consider it impossible.”)
To say that she and Akhmatova talked as equals is not to say that she is a great poet. It is to say that in her human qualities, and in her command of an exact, fearless, unemphatic turn of phrase she was the equal of her friend. (She may well be the only human being now alive of whom that could be said.) There can be no book as yet unpublished in its entirety that will have so much to contribute at first hand to a great and terrible period in human affairs.
February 15, 1990