I was walking home. The sun was out. The snow had finally melted and the grass was growing green, so I decided to change my usual route. That’s when I came across her. Her weary smile and lonely eyes had given place to a grimace of pain, but her haughty beauty remained. Her tall and frail figure stood alone facing the Kresty Holding Prison, exactly where she had stood for 17 torturous months 80 years ago. I stopped to admire her, verses running through my mind, tears flowing to my eyes:
And if it happens one day they agree
To raise a memorial somewhere to me,
I’ll give my consent to the monument planned,
But on one condition, which is that it stands,
Not down by the sea, where I entered this world:
I’ve cut the last links that once bound us of old,
And not by the tree-stump in old Tsarky Sad,
Whose shade seeks me still with disconsolate love.
But here, where they let me stand three hundred hours,
And never so much as unbolted the doors.
Poet Anna Akhmatova was born in 1899 in Odessa as Anna Andreyevna Gorenko and died in 1966 in St Petersburg of an infractus. In between those two dates, she published 11 collections of poems and established herself in Russian literature.
Akhamatova was one of the major figures of the Silver Age, an opinion absolutely not shared by her first husband, Nikolay Gumilev, also a famous poet; Gumilev is now always referred to as Akhamatova’s spouse (What an irony!). Alongside Osip Mandelstam she founded the influential Acmeist school, whose stance against symbolism represented her simple, limpid poetry. Of course, it is hard to perceive through the translation, but reading her poems is such a pleasant thing. The words flow one after the other. The rhythm is natural, not strained. There is an honesty in her verses, stripped of artifices and ornaments. Her language is beautiful but it is not pompously complex.
Akhmatova wrote often about love and relations. Her poetry seems to nicely reflect the development of a woman’s heart from innocence and infantilism to maturity. However, she is not limited to this genre. Akhmatova was loved and is still loved by the Russians not only for the simplicity of her stylistics, but because she was Russian herself in essence.
She was born into nobility. When the revolution erupted and engorged imperial Russia, nobles and intellectuals fled. Faced with the prospect of a life of persecutions or poverty, with the disappearance of a way of being, they abandoned their homeland for Paris, Rome, Berlin but Akhmatova did not. She wrote in 1917:
A voice came to me. It called out comfortingly.
It said, “Come here,
Leave your deaf and sinful land,
Leave Russia forever,
I will wash the blood from your hands,
Root out the black shame from your heart,
[…] calmly and indifferently,
I covered my ears with my hands,
So that my sorrowing spirit
Would not be stained by those shameful words.
I wonder if she ever regretted this choice. Her life under Stalin would have broken us all. In 1921, her husband was executed on charges of treason. As the wife of an “enemy of the nation” and as an anti-communist poetess as the authorities described her, she was persecuted. She was deemed to represent an introspective bourgeois aesthetic, reflecting only trivial “female” preoccupations. From the government of the country she refused to leave, she received but insults. In 1923, the historian Boris Eikhenbaum took the time to fustigate her poetry in a monograph, calling her a “nun” as well as a “whore”, an example of unworthiness and decadence, terms then borrowed by the party secretary a few years later. In 1925, her publications were unofficially suppressed, but she continued to write, composing 3 books, all consequently banned.
The final blow came when she was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers in 1946. She lost her right to food coupons and was left to die a slow death. She made it through those years by translating foreign works, and mostly with the help of her “entourage”, who would bring her food late at night.
As the time passed, those friends became scarce. Her contemporaries disappeared one after the other. Bunin died, Mandelstam was deported and perished in a labour camp, Mayakovsky, Esenin, and Tsvetaeva committed suicide. Her third husband, Nikolay Punin, was sent to a labour camp, where he died in 1953. Her son was arrested in 1935, accused of counter-revolutionary activity, but his only crime was surely being her son. (He came to hate her for the pain she inflicted on his life.)
And for 17 months she queued in front of the Kresty Holding Prison to deliver food to him. That’s when she engaged in the writing of her famous “Requiem”:
One day somebody in the crowd “identified” me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, and who, naturally enough, had never even heard of my name, emerged from that state of torpor common to us all and, putting her lips close to my ear (there, everyone spoke in whispers) asked me:
– And could you describe this?
And I answered her:
– I can.
Then something vaguely like a smile flashed across what once had been her face.
In it, she spoke of the torture of uncertainty, of the awaiting of death, of her companions, those women who stood with her in those lines and whose torn lives so perfectly reflected hers. She became the scribble of the nation in a time “when no one smiled any longer/ save the dead, who were glad of release”, when “stars of death stood above us, and Russia, / In her innocence, twisted in pain”.
Later, during the siege of Leningrad, she composed “the Wind of War”. In 1942, as the people were losing hope, succumbing to cold and hunger, she was invited on a national radio station to read a poem of that collection:
“We know what trembles on the scales,
and what we must steel ourselves to face.
The bravest hour strikes on our clocks:
may courage not abandon us!
Let bullets kill us–we are not afraid,
nor are we bitter, though our housetops fall.
We will preserve you, Russian speech,
from servitude in foreign chains,
keep you alive, great Russian word,
fit for the songs of our children’s children,
pure on their tongues, and free.”
“Courage”, when read in Russian, resembles a prayer. It goes without saying that even in times of war, reading a prayer on a Soviet radio was nearly impossible, but this is how it was received. It was a prayer for Russia, the essence of it, eternal and victorious. Through this episode and the reluctance of the communist party to imprison, exile or execute her transpires the love and the place she held in the popular culture of that time.
The last years of her life were spent in happiness. She finally received the recognition she deserved. She was awarded the Etna-Taormina prize in 1964 and an honorary doctorate from Oxford University a year later. She was welcomed back into the Union of Soviet Writers and given a ridiculously small datcha (sort of cottage house) just outside of Leningrad, where number of young artists constantly visited her.
One of these admirers was Josef Brodsky. Exiled in New York, he wrote an eulogy to Akhmatova published 20 years after her death:
Great soul, a greeting from overseas,
For finding them – to you and your mortal remains
That sleep in native earth, thanks to you
The gift of found speech in a deaf-and-dumb universe
Despite the obstacles and through difficulties, Anna Akhmatova never lowered her head, she was never crushed. She was proud and strong, but reportedly of particular kindness. She stood through it all, alone, pure and whole, as all fell around her. For me, she is an extraordinary figure, a real tragic heroine, whose person, talent and strength is anchored in the imaginary and culture of the Russian people. НАВЕКИ!