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.
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.
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:
…In the blest ease of death I’m afraid
I’ll forget the harsh rumble the prison vans made,
Forget how that door slammed, its harsh banging noise,
And the animal howl of an old woman’s voice.
The two other poems that began to take shape that year saw the horrors of Stalin’s Russia historically, conveying in visionary and innovative forms the experience of disintegration of the first half of the twentieth century. In “The Way of All the Earth” the narrator-heroine journeys through the bloody chaos of her war-torn century, from the Battle of Tsushima with Japan in 1905 to the collapse of Europe in World War II, on her path toward the peace of death. The extremely complex and mysterious “Poem Without a Hero” would continue to occupy Akhmatova for the rest of her life; she would never regard it as finished.
In this three-part work, past, present, and future are intertwined in the poet’s reflections on the themes of guilt, conscience, and fate, as she finds premonitions of the historical catastrophe in her pre-war milieu: her contemporaries in the artistic world of Silver Age Petersburg appear as spectral participants in a brilliant and sinister New Year’s masquerade of 1913. The presence of a demonic “mocking grinner,” with a mask of spite and pain, evokes the sense of doom that pervaded the mystical visions of the Symbolists.
Akhmatova’s preoccupation with the poet as both prophet and victim runs throughout the poem. The subtitle to the first part, “A Petersburg Tale,” is also the subtitle of Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman,” the first in a line of works, through Gogol and Dostoevsky to the Symbolist poets, that depict Petersburg as a cruel, deceptive, and unreal city, symbol both of Russia’s grandeur and the human cost of its achievement. The poem shifts between reality and the supernatural, memory and prophecy. The masqueraders of 1913 materialize in Akhmatova’s apartment of 1940, and a “guest from the future” appears in a mirror:
What we together will bring about
Will trouble the Twentieth Century.
…It’s doom he’ll come bearing me that night.
We know that the “guest” was Isaiah Berlin, who as a temporary diplomat at the British embassy in Moscow visited Akhmatova in 1945; they spent the night talking about literature. (He later explained the impact of his visit on her by the fact that he was the first person she had met since the Revolution who could speak her language and bring news of a world she had been isolated from.) She was convinced that their meeting was a prime cause not only of the Central Committee’s attack on her the following year, but also of the beginning of the cold war. In view of Stalin’s habit of reacting with unpredictable rage to seemingly unimportant events, this surmise was not as fantastic as it might seem; her son Lev’s interrogator on his third arrest in 1949 tried to force him to confess that his mother had spied for England—one consequence of Berlin’s visit.
While Akhmatova regarded the poem as the summit of her creative path, she refused requests to elucidate its meaning: “The more I explain it, the more enigmatic and incomprehensible it is.” Nadezhda Mandelstam remarked on her obsession with the poem during the two decades she worked on it, and Akhmatova herself described how it resisted completion; it would “go away” for a period of time, and then “unpredictably” come back. Anderson suggests that the poem’s obsessive hold on her can be explained by thinking of her continued rewriting of it as an attempt to come to terms with overwhelming memories, triggered by an event that lies at the poem’s center: the death of a poet.
In a foreword to the poem that she subsequently rejected, Akhmatova describes how it came into existence as a result of her discovery among her old papers of letters and poems relating to the suicide in 1913 of an aspiring young poet, Vsevolod Kniazev. In the poem the masqueraders flee, leaving Akhmatova alone to face the meaning of his death: “that hour none ever rightly marked.” Anderson regards his place in the poem as symbolic: that Akhmatova saw in this not particularly remarkable young man, whose death was motivated by unrequited love, “the archetypal innocent victim, doomed by Petersburg history and by the sins of his generation—a generation which tried to remove him from its consciousness, to wipe out every trace of the reproach that his fate represents.” She cites a note of 1959, in which Akhmatova recalls searching in vain for Kniazev’s grave in the cemetery where Blok had just been buried: “For some reason I remembered that moment forever.”
The lost grave prefigures the fate of two more significant poets. In Hope Against Hope Nadezhda Mandelstam describes how in the 1920s Akhmatova became preoccupied with the search for the grave of her former husband Nikolai Gumilyov (as state criminals he and his fellow accused had been buried in a mass grave at an unknown location). It is with Osip Mandelstam (also buried in an unknown grave) that Akhmatova explicitly links Kniazev’s fate. Variant editions of the poem include a dedication to the memory of Kniazev, but the date of the dedication was the second anniversary of Mandelstam’s death, according to the death certificate issued to his widow, and the words “I am ready for death” ascribed to Kniazev in the poem were said to Akhmatova by Mandelstam shortly before his arrest in 1934.
In setting Akhmatova’s major poems in their historical and biographical context, Anderson offers persuasive grounds for her contention that “one of the driving forces of her life [was] the determination to honor the dead and to preserve their memory among the living.” That she saw herself as following a tradition set by Pushkin seems clear from an allusion (immediately evident to her Russian readers) in the fourth line of “Requiem” to his famous poem addressed to the Decembrists, “From the depths of the Siberian mines,” in which he promises that his “free voice” will reach them “even within your convicts’ holes.”
Akhmatova offers no such hope: the Stalinist state had developed techniques of silencing dissidents to a degree undreamed of by the tsars. Its goal was not merely to suppress public expression of independent thought, but to wipe Russian minds clean of all memories, facts, and values other than those it proclaimed:
Made an unperson, every trace wiped out,
Horrific facts changed to word of mouth,
My double’s being taken to “confess.”
Such images in “Poem Without a Hero” remind us that Akhmatova’s poems of 1940 were composed under conditions unknown to previous generations of Russian writers. As the case of Mandelstam showed, a poem that existed only in one’s head, if recited to one other person, could lead to prison or execution.
The fear of further endangering her son, who was already in a camp, made Akhmatova see threats everywhere. She refused to write her poems down for herself or anyone else, yet the fear that if she died they would die with her made her seek a means of communicating them to others. Her friend Lidiya Chukovskaya, who had a gift for memorizing poetry, tells how Akhmatova, not daring to whisper a poem even in her apartment, would write it down on a scrap of paper, pass it to her to read and memorize, and then burn the paper over an ashtray. Later, Akhmatova said proudly: “Eleven people knew ‘Requiem’ by heart, and not one of them betrayed me.”
Those who understood the magnitude of the risk Akhmatova faced in her determination to bear witness could appreciate the hidden meaning of the concluding lines of the first part of “Poem Without a Hero”:
I, your olden conscience, here
I tracked down the tale that
had been burned,
I went to the deceased’s
And there I laid it down
On a window shelf—
and then I tiptoed off…
As Anderson observes, Akhmatova’s dedication to preserving the memory of the dead derived not only from her deep sense of communion with world culture, but also from her religious faith in the communion of the present with the past and the living with the dead as part of a seamless whole in which each person and event has eternal meaning and value. This faith is reflected in the epilogue to “Requiem,” in Akhmatova’s words to the grieving women: “Once more the hour of remembrance [pominalni chas] draws near,/I see you, I hear you, I feel you all here.” Anderson writes that the Russian words suggest the Orthodox practice of prayer for the sick or for the souls of the dead, a suggestion reinforced by a subsequent couplet’s image of a list bearing the names of each sufferer. The list has been confiscated, and in its absence, Akhmatova weaves her “mantle of words/Made up of the snatches that I’ve overheard,” preserving the memory of all the bereaved women for whom she speaks. She asks in return:
Let them all speak for me, mention me when they pray
Every year on the eve of my burial day.
The epigraph to “Poem Without a Hero” expresses the same sense of the mutual responsibility of past and present: “Deus conservat omnia” (God preserves everything—the motto on the coat of arms of the former Sheremetev Palace where Akhmatova occupied a room in the apartment of her former husband Nikolai Punin). It can be seen in the spirit of a resigned acceptance of suffering that infuses so much of her poetry, as in the poem of 1922 where she reflects on her refusal to desert her country in a catastrophic time:
But here, as the dark fires blaze around
And our last youth burns out in their glow,
We don’t ask where refuge can be found,
Don’t try to avoid a single blow.
We know each hour’s worth will be made clear
And justified at the end of days…
This certitude was a head-on challenge to the official ideology of her time, which saw the past as something to be negated and mercilessly extirpated along with its unpersons, in favor of the present which itself had only instrumental value as a staging post on the march to the ideal future. For her, no final judgment could be delivered on the past; the dead retained their right to make their protest heard by the living. Hence her prescient afterword to Part I of “Poem Without a Hero,” written in 1940:
…The poem rests now,
…with no more to say.
But what if a theme suddenly bursts out,
Knocks with its fists on a windowpane—
And to that summons there replies
A distant sound fraught with alarm—
Gurgling, groaning, and shrieking cries
And a vision of crossed arms?…
Akhmatova’s openness to such cries from the past explains the numerous revisions of the poem, meticulously documented by Anderson, which occupied her over so many years. It was still growing when the voices she had preserved were heard by her people through samizdat.
In February 1956 the silence shrouding the country was broken when Khrushchev admitted to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party that crimes had been committed in its name. But severe limitations remained on how much could be said, and by whom. Even after the opening of the Soviet archives, the full cost in human lives of Stalin’s paranoia is still a matter of educated guesswork; it has been estimated that over three quarters of a million Soviet citizens were executed between 1934 and 1953, while 18 million passed through the camps during Stalin’s reign.
Delivered in closed session and transmitted in secrecy to Party cells all over Russia, Khrushchev’s attack on Stalin focused almost exclusively on the Terror of 1937 and 1938, singling out its victims among the Party elite. No mention was made of between six and seven million people who died in the famine of 1933 following forced collectivization. A few thousand rehabilitations were put in motion—a tiny percentage of those who had been falsely convicted. Returnees from the camps were often shunned or met with indifference. Many faced the ordeal of encountering those who had denounced them, few of whom were brought to account, while their victims remained objects of suspicion, as witnessed by the fate of an editor who sought to publish a book of memoirs by Gulag prisoners. His battle with the censors ended in his detention in a psychiatric hospital with the diagnosis that he was “obsessed with the struggle for justice.”3
Collective amnesia about the subject of the Gulag was shattered when in 1962, with the aim of discrediting his enemies, Khrushchev permitted the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s novella A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The public’s hunger for new revelations was met by the clandestine circulation of hand-typed manuscripts—two of which became key texts in the underground battle against the neo-Stalinist revival under Brezhnev: Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs of the life of the Moscow intelligentsia under the Terror, and Akhmatova’s “Requiem.”
Anatoly Nayman, who was a young poet during that period, explains the unique impact of this work on his generation. Soviet poetry, the theorists had taught them, was poetry in which the poet was of the people and spoke on their behalf, in language accessible to the people. Here was a poem that did just that, yet in its anti-heroic tone and rejection of taboos, it was the antithesis of contemporary Soviet poetry.
Nayman recalls that “Requiem” began to circulate clandestinely at about the same time as copies of notes of Joseph Brodsky’s responses at his trial in 1964 (made secretly by a journalist who attended it). Brodsky’s poems were widely admired but not legally published. Excluded from membership of the Union of Writers, which would have guaranteed him an income, he supported himself by odd jobs in order to devote most of his time to writing poetry. Convicted of parasitism, he was sentenced to internal exile. When the judge asked him who had recognized him as a poet, Brodsky replied: “No one. Who was it who recognized me as a member of the human race?”
Public opinion, according to Nayman, made a link between “Requiem” and Brodsky’s retort. In his memoir of Akhmatova, Nayman writes:
The poet defends the right to be a poet and not to have any other occupation so that he or she should be able when necessary to speak on everyone’s behalf. The transcript of the poet’s trial sounded like poetry on the most profound themes of public concern; and Requiem, poetry on the most profound themes of public concern, sounded like a transcript of the repressions,…a record of acts of self-sacrifice and martyrdom.4
The publication of Solzhenitzyn’s novella led Akhmatova to hope that “Requiem” too might be published, but this was a step too far for the authorities. Even the two less controversial poems of 1940 could not be published in their entirety. But the Thaw changed her status from outcast to celebrity. Literary magazines began to publish her work; a book of her poems appeared in 1958. Even the regime implicitly recognized her position as the matriarch of Russian letters by allowing her at the age of seventy-five to travel abroad with a Soviet literary delegation. She was feted in Italy, and Oxford University awarded her an honorary doctorate of letters, describing her, in the accompanying encomium, as “the Russian Sappho.”
Akhmatova’s friends remarked that she reveled in the admiration and flattery bestowed on her after the long years of proscription; but as Anderson observes, more than her own vanity was involved: her new fame showed that the ethical tradition of Russian literature that she had upheld at great personal cost had survived.
Even her close friends agree that she was a difficult woman; as Nadezhda Mandelstam records, old age and fame reinforced the strain of imperiousness in her character; she would react like an “angry cat” to the slightest attempt to contradict her, an observation that would provoke her to even greater fury. But this trait did not diminish their affectionate regard for her: they understood that when applied to the subject of her life and times, her intransigence served a higher purpose. Mikhail Polivanov, one of the young intellectuals who sought her out in the 1960s, has described her obsessive concern with a truthful record of herself and her contemporaries:
She was not afraid that she would be forgotten, but that she would be slandered. She was afraid not only for herself, but for her friends and, above all, for the Acmeist poets Gumilev and Mandelstam, whose definitive literary fate she did not distinguish from her own…. Thus, throughout her life, from her early years on, she kept returning to detailed memories of events, relationships, and people—to all that which made up the character of the epoch as she saw it…. Conscious of her own place in the epoch, she wanted others to talk about it and not she herself.5
She had good reason for her fears. As she put it in “Poem Without a Hero”:
A full ten years, no less, I’ve passed
Beneath the gun,
I didn’t dare look right or left
A single inch,
And after me at every step
The slanders hissed.
Akhmatova lived to be vindicated beyond her hopes, but the tradition she upheld is now under assault from a different quarter. As Anderson observes in her conclusion:
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the world in which she lived already seems far from us. Poets and poetry have perhaps less symbolic value now than they did then.
A significant factor in this change is surely the deconstructive bent of contemporary critical theory, as applied to such notions as “charismatic performance” and the “myth of the poet.” The work of scholars such as Gregory Freidin and Svetlana Boym has shown how such an approach can expose the tragic ambivalence of poets of the Soviet period such as Mandelstam and Mayakovsky, whose sense of themselves as the voice and conscience of the people made them hesitate to condemn a society where the people were “officially” in power.6 At the same time these scholars never lose sight of the historical fact that the myth of the poet served Russians as a source of inspiration for resistance against tyranny, and a moral compass in the nightmare world of the official lie.
But there is no place for this perception in the cruder versions of deconstructive criticism, which is eager to unmask all expressions of meaning as self-delusions or power plays. Thus the prominent US Slavist Alexander Zholkovsky has dismissed Akhmatova’s vision of the poet’s ethical responsibility (or, as he puts it, her cultivation of “the prophet image”) as just “self-centered playacting,” a smart strategy for acquiring control in the power play of ideological discourses of her time. We can see a revealing symmetry between, on the one hand, Zholkovsky’s labeling of Akhmatova’s concern to control her image as the obverse of Stalin’s cult of personality and, on the other, the 1946 denunciation of her poetry by Stalin’s cultural enforcer Andrei Zhdanov as the work of “a half-crazed upper-crust lady running between the boudoir and the chapel.” Both deny any ethical importance to the way she represented herself and her work. For Zhdanov, her ideological sins deprived her life and art of any moral value, while Zholkovsky’s attack seems rooted in a postmodern intellectual culture which claims to expose the hidden role of ideology in determining our lives. He also ridicules, as an instance of the “mania grandiosa” of the Stalinist age, Akhmatova’s belief that her meeting with Isaiah Berlin had changed history.
Berlin himself took a very different view of what he called “the historico-metaphysical vision which informed so much of her poetry.” In his memoir of Akhmatova he describes the poem that alludes to their meeting as “a work of genius…mysterious and deeply evocative” and goes on to say that if some of her accounts of the personalities and acts of others had seemed to him implausible at the time,
it may be that I did not sufficiently understand the irrational and sometimes wildly capricious character of Stalin’s despotism, which makes normal criteria of what can and cannot be believed difficult to apply with confidence even now.
were not senseless, not sheer fantasies; they were elements in a coherent conception of her own and her nation’s life and fate…. She was not a visionary, she had, for the most part, a strong sense of reality.
Berlin did not idealize Akhmatova, but approached her with a moral insight singularly lacking in her detractors, past and present. His understanding of the special circumstances that gave rise to the Russian view of the writer’s obligations made him particularly sensitive to what Anderson’s fine book so convincingly shows to have been the dominant motivation of her greatest poetry: the defense of justice and moral truth against a system based on lies.
As Berlin put it:
Her entire life was what Herzen once described virtually all Russian literature as being—one uninterrupted indictment of Russian reality.7
She called poetry “our holy trade,” “the Word that causes death’s defeat.” It is not difficult to share her conviction that its moral power will outlive ideological fashions and other vicissitudes of history.
November 3, 2005
Amanda Haight, Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage (Oxford University Press, 1976); Roberta Reeder, Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet (St. Martin’s, 1994). ↩
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. ↩
On Living Through Soviet Russia, edited by Daniel Bertaux, Paul Thompson, and Anna Rotkirch (Routledge, 2004), p. 222. ↩
Anatoly Nayman, Remembering Anna Akhmatova, translated by Wendy Rosslyn (Henry Holt, 1991), p. 135. ↩
Cited in Holmgren, Women’s Works in Stalin’s Time, p. 72. ↩
Gregory Freidin, A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelstam and His Mythologies of Self-Presentation (University of California Press, 1987), and Svetlana Boym, Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet (Harvard University Press, 1991). ↩
Isaiah Berlin, Personal Impressions, edited by Henry Hardy (Viking, 1981), pp. 190–208. ↩