Of all the Russian poets of the twentieth century, none voiced the suffering of their people more directly than Anna Akhmatova. The drama of her life is an intimate reflection of her country’s tragic history, the passion of her poetry drawn from both. Born in 1889, Akhmatova was already at the height of her success just before the outbreak of World War I, an extraordinary poetic talent and celebrated beauty in the bohemian world of imperial St. Petersburg. But then her life was caught up in the storm of the Russian Revolution and the civil war, the mass terror of the 1930s, the siege of Leningrad from 1941–1944, and the repressions of the postwar years, when she was singled out for particular attack by Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s chief of ideology. All of this Akhmatova endured with the stoicism that is perhaps the main hallmark of the Russian people in the twentieth century. As Elaine Feinstein writes in the preface to her moving new biography, Akhmatova “needed exceptional courage in the quarter of a century when she was not allowed to publish, especially in the years when her son and her third husband were held in the Gulag.”
Through her fearless and fiery poetry Akhmatova merged her personal drama with the history of her people, who were suffering at the hands of the Stalinist regime. She became the “mouth through which a hundred million scream,” as she put it in her greatest poem, Requiem, in which she described, through her own experience of standing in the prison lines of Leningrad to hand in a parcel for her son, the anguish felt by every woman who had lost someone in the Yezhovshchina, the Great Terror of 1937–1938.
Like all of Russia’s greatest poets, Akhmatova felt a moral obligation to become the people’s conscience and its voice of memory. In the “Second Epilogue” of Requiem, written in 1940 and today known by heart by millions of Russians, Akhmatova linked herself to that long line of Russian poets, stretching back to Alexander Pushkin in the early nineteenth century, whose public statues and monuments became the symbols of an unofficial republic of sufferers:
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
On the eve of my remembrance day.
And if ever in this country
They decide to erect a monument to me,
I consent to that honor
Under these conditions—that it stand
Neither by the sea, where I was born:
My last tie with the sea is broken,
Nor in the tsar’s garden near the cherished pine stump,
Where an inconsolable shade looks for me,
But here, where I stood for three hundred hours,
And where they never unbolted the doors for me.1
Akhmatova drew from her own experience to reconstruct and redeem this public memory. She wove a series of poetic myths around the story of her private life to make herself a symbol of her country’s history.
In her superb and concise biography, Feinstein brings to life the complex interplay between poetic truth and the ordinary truth of experience in the poet’s life and work. Feinstein has a special understanding of the poet’s moral universe and the role that poets played in Russian history. A poet and translator of Russian poetry, she has written fine biographies of Pushkin and Marina Tsvetaeva, the other great female poet of twentieth-century Russia, who was the first to call Akhmatova, as if she were the people’s queen, “Anna of all the Russias.” Feinstein’s poetic sensibility gives her book a distinctive quality, setting it apart from previous biographies (notably Amanda Haight’s,2 which benefited from its author’s acquaintance with the poet, and Roberta Reeder’s,3 which remains perhaps the most scholarly and authoritative account of Akhmatova’s life and work twelve years after its publication in 1994).
Much of the best writing about Akhmatova is in the form of reminiscences. Feinstein makes good use of three important new sources which were not yet published when Reeder was writing her book: the diaries and letters of the art historian Nikolai Punin, which give a rich and detailed account of his passionate affair with Akhmatova in the 1920s and 1930s; the journals of Lydia Chukovskaya, one of the poet’s closest friends, who visited her almost daily between 1938 and 1942, and then again from 1952 until the poet’s death; and the memoirs of Emma Gerstein, who had a long relationship with Akhmatova’s son, Lev Gumilyov.4
It is perhaps an irony that Akhmatova should become the poetic voice of millions, because she wrote very little “civic verse.” Nearly all her poetry was deeply intimate and personal. It came from a world that was destroyed in 1917.
She was born Anna Gorenko in a small town near Odessa by the Black Sea, the daughter of Andrei Gorenko, a naval engineer who moved with his family to Tsarskoe Selo, the town outside the gates of the tsar’s summer palaces near St. Petersburg, after taking up a minor civil service post in 1890. In her teenage years Anna changed her name to Akhmatova (said to be the name of a Tatar ancestor on her mother’s side) when her father said that he did not want a poet in his family. It was fashionable at that time for Russians to invent a legendary Tatar ancestry in order to make themselves appear more exotic (Vladimir Nabokov even claimed that his family descended from Genghis Khan). Akhmatova’s change of name was partly a rejection of the dull provincial world of the minor Russian aristocracy into which she had been born (she always expressed a dislike of Chekhov’s plays, which offer no escape for the Anna Gorenkos of this world), and partly an invention of a literary persona for herself. The poet Joseph Brodsky, Feinstein writes, called her choice of name “her first poem.”
Akhmatova emerged onto the literary scene in St. Petersburg during the 1900s, a time of sexual liberation and experimentation, when Symbolist poets such as Alexander Blok and Innokenty Annensky, the two great early influences on Akhmatova, were publicly revered as messengers of a new way of life. Tall and strikingly beautiful, Akhmatova cut a regal figure at the Stray Dog club, where poets mixed with bohemian artists and theater people late at night. Akhmatova was an extraordinary performer of her verse; she read her poems musically (“rhythmically, in long-drawn, deep-voiced tones,” as Nabokov cruelly parodied her style in his novel Pnin).
Akhmatova’s early poetry was influenced by the Symbolists. But in 1913 she joined Osip Mandelstam and Nikolai Gumilyov, her first husband, in a new literary group, the Acmeists, who rejected the mysticism of the Symbolists and returned to the classical poetic principles of clarity, concision, and the precise expression of emotional experience. Her simple style made her verse accessible and easy to commit to memory, while its strong female voice and sensibility, at that time a novelty in Russia, made it hugely popular with women. Akhmatova had many female imitators, a fact she would deplore in later years. She wrote in “Epigram” (1958):
I taught women to speak…
But Lord, how to make them cease!
The central figure of the Stray Dog cabaret was the actress Olga Sudeikina, an erotic influence on Akhmatova’s early poetry, and the poet’s first bisexual love. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam, Sudeikina was a “nice, light-headed, flighty creature.” Her open marriage with the artist Sergei Sudeikin, and their bisexual ménage à quatre with the poet Mikhail Kuzmin and Vsevolod Knyazev, who on March 29, 1913, shot himself from jealousy when Sudeikina took another lover, epitomized the sexual amorality that affected many of Akhmatova’s relationships with men and women. There are even hints, as Feinstein notes, that Akhmatova felt responsible for a similar death, that of a young admirer who committed suicide after she rejected him. Akhmatova looked back on this period of her life in her great work, Poem Without a Hero, begun in 1940 and completed in 1963. The first part of the poem is dedicated to Knyazev and Sudeikina. It conjures up, in the form of a carnival procession of masked ghosts, an entire generation of vanished friends and figures from the Petersburg that history left behind in 1913. As Feinstein argues, Akhmatova turned the story of her private life into a poetic myth of history:
Over a period of twenty years assessing the history of events in her own life, and wishing to believe in a just God, Akhmatova came to think that this childish selfishness which she shared with Olga had led to the terrible years of war and terror.
Unlike Blok and many other poets of the Russian avant-garde, Akhmatova had no hopes for the Revolution: she had only fears. Yet despite the desperate conditions in which she lived in Petrograd, as St. Petersburg had been renamed, she made it clear that she thought it was a sin for poets to leave Russia after 1917. As Feinstein writes, quoting one of her many fine translations of Akhmatova’s verse in Anna of All the Russias, “a new defiance enters the tone of her poems,” as the poet becomes conscious of her sacred duty to remain in Russia and suffer with the people in their destiny:
I am not among those who left the land
To be torn open by our enemies.
And crude flattery does not influence me,
I will not give them my songs.
Still I feel some pity for an exile
Like somebody sick, or a prisoner.
A refugee has to walk a dark road,
And foreign bread has a bitter flavour.
Here in the smoke of blinding fires
What’s left of our youth will be destroyed
And we won’t be able to ward off
A single blow from ourselves.
Yet in the final totting up—and
We know each hour will be counted—
There is no people on earth more tearless,
More simple and more proud.
Akhmatova was a poet of redemption, the “last great poet of Orthodoxy,” according to the writer Kornei Chukovsky, and the theme of sacrifice, of suffering for Russia, appears throughout her work. Feinstein might have made a little more of Akhmatova’s Christian vision of redemption, although she rightly notes the religious element in some of her poetry. Akhmatova thought of the Revolution as a punishment for sin. She believed that it was her calling to atone for Russia’s transgressions through the prayer of poetry. In White Flock, published in September 1917, she identifies herself with widows mourning for their husbands killed in the World War. As Feinstein puts it, “the whole of Russia becomes the body of Christ”:
Low, low hangs the empty sky
And a praying voice quietly intones:
“They are wounding your sacred body,
They are casting lots for your robes.”
Here again Akhmatova weaves her own persona and imagined suffering into a poetic myth of national sacrifice and redemption.
Akhmatova did not lose a husband in the war, but Gumilev (from whom she was divorced in 1918) was arrested by the Bolsheviks and shot without a trial in 1921. Gumilev was charged with belonging to a monarchist conspiracy (the opening of the KGB archives has recently revealed that he had merely said that if there was a popular uprising against the Soviet government, he would join it in the streets). Gumilev was the first great poet to be executed by the Bolsheviks, although many more would soon follow. With his death, there was a feeling that a boundary had been crossed; that the values of the old civilization had vanished.
Akhmatova was dismissed as a figure from the past. In 1922 Trotsky attacked her poetry as “literature irrelevant to October.”5 Her intimate and lyrical style of poetry was deemed to be incompatible with the new collectivist order, in which the poet was expected to address the grand public themes of the Revolution. (Even Mandelstam declared that lyric verse was inappropriate for Soviet art, because the historical epoch no longer had any “interest in the human fate of the individual.”6 ) Other poets of her generation, such as Boris Pasternak, were able to adapt to the new conditions of the Revolution. Or, like Vladimir Mayakovsky, they were made for it. But Akhmatova was rooted in a classical tradition that had been rejected in 1917, and she found it hard to deal with her new Soviet environment.
From 1925 there was an unofficial ban on the publication of Akhmatova’s work. Feinstein speculates that “the policy originated with Stalin,” although there is no evidence for this. Without income from her writing, Akhmatova lived in desperate poverty, at first with her second husband, Vladimir Shileiko, a young scholar of Middle Eastern archaeology, in a small apartment in the northern wing of the former Sheremetev Palace (“Fountain House”) in St. Petersburg, and then, after 1926, when she divorced Shileiko, a jealous husband and a bully (once in anger he had even burned her poetry), with her lover Punin and his former wife, together with their daughter and her mother, in an apartment in its southern wing. Akhmatova did not have her own Soviet living space until 1960, when she was awarded a dacha, “a small, weather-boarded house with a single, rather dark room and a tiny kitchen,” by the Writers’ Union. Feinstein gives a vivid description of Akhmatova’s poor appearance at the Mandelstams in Moscow, where she stayed in 1934:
She had been travelling for twenty years with the same suitcase, which did not have a lock and had to be secured by a strap. She had only one old cap and a light coat, which she wore no matter what kind of weather.
Akhmatova was staying with the Mandelstams when the NKVD (secret police) burst into their apartment in Moscow and arrested Osip for a poem he had written about Stalin (“the murderer and peasant-slayer”) which had been read in secret to his friends. Mandelstam’s seditious poem also had a part in the arrest of Akhmatova’s son, Lev. Since the death of his father, Lev had lived with relatives in Bezhetsk, but in 1929 he moved into the Punin apartment and, in 1934, he enrolled as a history student at Leningrad University. One evening at the Fountain House he recited the Mandelstam poem, which he knew by heart, to his student friends. One of them was an informant of the NKVD, which came to arrest him, along with Punin, in October 1935.
With the help of Pasternak, Lev and Punin were released, but Lev was then expelled from the university. He moved out of the Fountain House, bitterly resentful, as he believed, that his mother cared for Punin more than she did for her son. Lev was rearrested in March 1938, imprisoned in the Kresty Jail, and then sent to the Norilsk labor camp in the Arctic Circle for five years. It was the height of the Stalin Terror, when millions of people disappeared. For seventeen months Akhmatova joined the lines of women waiting outside the jail to hand in a letter or a parcel for their husbands, fathers, sons.
The distress of these women was the inspiration of what Feinstein rightly calls “one of the greatest lyrical sequences in the Russian language”: Requiem, begun in 1935 and completed in 1940. The first poems are about the loss of a husband and a son. But after 1938, Feinstein observes, most of the lyrics “are explicitly about her fear for Lev”:
I cried out for seventeen months,
to call you home again, and
threw myself at the hangman’s feet—
you are my son and my terror.
Here Akhmatova is speaking for herself. But in other poems, as Feinstein notes, “she seems to be looking down on her own suffering as if from above and at a stranger”:
This woman is ill.
She is all alone.
Her husband is in the grave, her
son in prison: pray for her.
She thus fuses her own identity, as a suffering wife and mother, with the identity of every woman grieving for a husband or a son. The poem represents a decisive moment in Akhmatova’s artistic evolution from the lyric poet of private experience to the artist who expressed, in deeply personal terms, the anguish felt by millions.
“Poetry is respected only in this country,” Mandelstam would tell his friends in the 1930s. “There’s no place where more people are killed for it.”7 Poetry has played a special role in Russian history. Nowhere else does Shelley’s maxim about poets as “unofficial legislators” ring so true. A poetic sensibility is the main defining feature of the Russian intelligentsia, and most Russians can recite many stanzas of poetry by heart. Akhmatova’s poetry was banned from publication from 1925 to 1958 (ten thousand copies of her early poems were withdrawn from the shops when long queues formed to buy them in 1940). Yet in 1945 the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who had then just arrived as first secretary of the British embassy in Moscow, was told that Akhmatova
received an amazingly large number of letters from the front, quoting from both published and unpublished poems, for the most part circulated privately in manuscripts copies; there were requests for autographs, for confirmation of the authenticity of texts, for expressions of the author’s attitude to this or that problem.8
For many Russians Akhmatova represented the classical tradition of St. Petersburg. As the German armies circled in on Leningrad in the autumn of 1941, Akhmatova was called upon to raise the spirits of the city by talking to its people in a radio broadcast. She appealed to the city’s historical legacy—not just to Lenin but to Peter the Great, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Aleksander Blok.
During the siege of Leningrad Akhmatova was evacuated to Tashkent but in 1944 she returned to the Sheremetev Palace, where she sensed the presence of nineteenth-century poets, including Pushkin, who had visited the house. The palace was sort of inner sanctum in her moral universe separating her from the rest of Soviet society. It stood for the vanished European civilization for which she nostalgically yearned. During his famous all-night meeting with the poet at the Fountain House in 1945, a meeting which inspired passions on both sides, Isaiah Berlin asked Akhmatova whether the Renaissance was a real historical past to her inhabited by imperfect human beings, or an idealized image of an imaginary world:
She replied that it was of course the latter; all poetry and art, to her, was—here she used an expression once used by Mandel’shtam—a form of nostalgia, a longing for a universal culture, as Goethe and Schlegel had conceived it, of what had been transmuted into art and thought.
Informed of her meeting with the British diplomat, Stalin accused Akhmatova of receiving “foreign spies.” It was the height of the cold war—a conflict which Akhmatova believed was brought about by her meeting with the Englishman (she “saw herself and me as world-historical personages chosen by destiny to begin a cosmic conflict,” Berlin wrote). Feinstein dismisses her belief as “megalomania,” but in some ways it was bound up with her poetic myth, her image of herself as part of history.
Certainly, the meeting had dire consequences for herself. In August 1946 Akhmatova was attacked in a decree by the Central Committee. Zhdanov, the chief of ideology, announced her expulsion from the Writers’ Union, delivering a vicious speech in which he described Akhmatova as “one of the standard bearers of a hollow, empty, aristocratic salon poetry which is absolutely foreign to Soviet Literature.” Akhmatova was deprived of her ration card and forced to live off food donated by her friends. She narrowly escaped arrest. But the NKVD increased its surveillance of the Fountain House, and Lev, who had been barred from taking his degree on his return from the Norilsk camps, was rearrested in 1949 and sentenced to ten years in a Siberian labor camp.
Feinstein cites a police report on Akhmatova from this period. It is the most memorable description of the poet in the book:
Akhmatova has many acquaintances. She has no close friends. She is good-natured and does not hesitate to spend her money when she has it. But at heart she is cold and arrogant with a childish egoism. She is helpless when it comes to the practical tasks of everyday life. Mending a stocking poses an insoluble problem for her. Boiling potatoes is an achievement. Despite her great fame, she is very shy.
Feinstein conveys extremely well the poet’s unhappiness. Battling against heart disease, growing old and fat, she lived completely on her own, without a man or passion in her life, only visited by a small number of her female friends, to whom at times, when she drank too much, she made lesbian advances. Looking back on this period of her life, friends like Nadezhda Mandelstam would later accuse her of vanity and selfishness, and even acolytes, like the handsome young translator Anatoly Nayman, who came into her life in 1959, acknowledged that Akhmatova was
sometimes capricious, despotic, and unjust to people…. Consciously or unconsciously she encouraged people to see in her an exceptional figure of greater stature than themselves.
Above all her sadness in these years was connected to her tortuous relations with her son, a subject deftly handled by Feinstein. Lev did not return from Siberia until 1956. He was at once bitterly resentful of his mother, whom he accused, not without some justification, of having ignored him when he was in the camp (she had turned down the opportunity to visit him); he even accused her of not caring sufficiently for him to campaign for his earlier release. “It is her duty to save me, to prove my innocence,” he wrote to Emma Gerstein in 1955. “To neglect that duty is a crime.” There were constant arguments between Akhmatova and her son, who, according to the poet Joseph Brodsky, once told his mother, no doubt referring to the poem Requiem:
“For you it would have been even better if I had died in the camps.” He meant “for you as a poet.”
Brodsky thought that some of Lev’s anger was justified. He believed—and Feinstein agrees with him—that there was a division within her between the poet and the sufferer, that her “genuine pain was transmuted once she came to write poems,” and that this may provide an insight into what made Lev so infuriated with his mother. As Brodsky put it, in a way that encapsulates the self-invention at the heart of Akhmatova’s life and work:
[As a poet] submits to the demands of the muse, the language [articulates]…a greater truth than the truth of experience….Inadvertently you sin against the ordinary truth, against your own pain.
In the last decade of her life, during the cultural thaw begun by Khrushchev in 1956, Akhmatova enjoyed worldwide success and celebrity. In 1965 a large collection of her poetry was published in the Soviet Union. Her poems were translated into many languages. She received honorary degrees from several foreign universities, including Oxford, where she had a strange reunion with Berlin and his wife in 1965.
When Akhmatova died, in 1966, she was mourned by the Soviet public. Thousands turned out for her funeral to pay their respects to a citizen whose poetry had spoken for them at a time when no one else could do so. In the years of glasnost, in the 1980s, when Russia began to face up to the legacy of the Stalinist regime, she was praised and claimed by people who differed politically about everything else. As Feinstein points out in the final pages of her marvelous book:
The liberals saw her as an opponent of Stalinism, religious people recognized her love of God, patriots saw she was deeply Russian. Even Communists observed that she had never been outspokenly anti-Soviet.
But sales of her poetry have since plummeted. A 1960 collection of Akhmatova’s poems had a print run of 1.7 million copies in Russian; but only 15,000 copies of the six-volume edition of her works were published between 1998 and 2001. The poet’s voice, which had once spoken for the Russian people, has been lost in the commercial noise of post-Soviet “democracy.”
June 22, 2006
The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer, edited by Roberta Reeder (Zephyr, 1992), p. 393. ↩
Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage (Oxford University Press, 1976). ↩
Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet(St. Martin’s, 1994). ↩
The Diaries of Nikolay Punin, 1904– 1953, edited by Sidney Monas, and Jennifer Greene Krupala, translated by Krupala (University of Texas Press, 1999); Lydia Chukovskaya, The Akhmatova Journals: Volume 1, 1938–1941, translated by Milena Michalski, Sylva Rubashova, and Peter Norman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994); Emma Gerstein, Moscow Memoirs: Memoirs of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Literary Russian Under Stalin, edited and translated by John Crowfoot (Overlook, 2004). ↩
Pravda, October 17, 1922. ↩
Autobiographical Statements in Twentieth-Century Russian Literature,edited by Jane Gary Harris (Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 13. ↩
Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope, translated by Max Hayward (Atheneum, 1989), p. 159. ↩
Isaiah Berlin, “Meetings with Russian Writers in 1945 and 1956,” in Personal Impressions (Penguin, 1982), pp. 160–161. ↩