In Slate, Clive James, author of Cultural Amnesia, takes a look at the great lyrical Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.
Born in Odessa, educated in Kiev, and launched into poetic immortality as the beautiful incarnation of pre-revolutionary Petersburg, Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) was the most famous Russian poet of her time, but the time was out of joint. Before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, called Akhmatova, already wore the Russian literary world’s most glittering French verbal decorations: Here work was avant-garde, and in person she was a femme fatale. Love for her broken-nosed beauty was a common condition among the male poets, one of whom, Nikolay Gumilev, she married. After the Revolution, Gumilev was one of the new regime’s first victims among the literati: The persecution of artists, still thought of today as a Stalinist speciality, began under Lenin. Later on, under Stalin, Akhmatova included a reference to Gumilev’s fate in the most often quoted section of her poem “Requiem”: “Husband dead, son in gaol/ Pray for me.”
In the last gasp of the czarist era, she had known no persecution worse than routine incomprehension for her impressionistic poetry and condemnation by women for her effect on their men. But the Russia of Lenin and Stalin made her first a tragic, then a heroic, figure. After 1922 she was condemned as a bourgeois element and severely restricted in what she could publish. Following World War II, in 1946, she was personally condemned by Andrey Zhdanov, Stalin’s plug-ugly in charge of culture. She was not allowed to publish anything new, and everything she had ever written in verse form was dismissed as “remote from socialist reconstruction.”
From “Requiem” (translation by Sasha Soldatov, but you should look for the Stanley Kunitz-Max Haward translation, or the D.M. Thomas translation.):
Not under foreign skies/Nor under foreign wings protected -/I shared all this with my own people/There, where misfortune had abandoned us.
INSTEAD OF A PREFACE
During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’. On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear (everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face.
[The 1st of April in the year 1957. Leningrad]
Mountains fall before this grief,/A mighty river stops its flow,/But prison doors stay firmly bolted/Shutting off the convict burrows/And an anguish close to death./Fresh winds softly blow for someone,/Gentle sunsets warm them through; we don’t know this,/We are everywhere the same, listening/To the scrape and turn of hateful keys/And the heavy tread of marching soldiers./Waking early, as if for early mass,/Walking through the capital run wild, gone to seed,/We’d meet – the dead, lifeless; the sun,/Lower every day; the Neva, mistier:/But hope still sings forever in the distance./The verdict. Immediately a flood of tears,/Followed by a total isolation,/As if a beating heart is painfully ripped out, or,/Thumped, she lies there brutally laid out,/But she still manages to walk, hesitantly, alone./Where are you, my unwilling friends,/Captives of my two satanic years?/What miracle do you see in a Siberian blizzard?/What shimmering mirage around the circle of the moon?/I send each one of you my salutation, and farewell.