A Truly Russian Icon

For far too long, the history of 20th century Russia has been understood almost exclusively through the prism of politics, as if it were about nothing more than Marxism and Leninism, revolution and totalitarianism, war and famine. But in fact the history of Russia over the past 100 years is not only one of multiple political crises, but of an unprecedented cultural catastrophe.

Between 1917 and 1937, the Bolsheviks destroyed not just the Russian political system, but an entire civilisation, everything from its manners and its habits to its stampcollecting clubs and its fashion designers. A generation of cultural and social leaders died or emigrated. Most of those who stayed were imprisoned, impoverished, or otherwise silenced. As a result, the books people read and wrote before 1917, the pictures they painted and the ideas they thought differed from what Russians read, wrote, painted or thought in the years afterwards.

There were, however, a tiny number of exceptions, a small group of creative people who were neither destroyed by the revolution nor completely transformed by it. One of these, and famously so even in her lifetime, was the poet Anna Akhmatova. Born in 1889, Akhmatova had already won fame for her verse even before the revolution.

Her early poetry dealt almost entirely with concrete matters of male-female relations, often describing, as this poem does, the atmosphere in the cafis and artistic salons she then frequented:

We are all boozers here, and sleep around.

Together we make up a desolate crowd.

Even the painted birds and flowers on the walls Seem to be longing for the clouds.

Born Anna Andreevna Gorenko, Akhmatova’s parents were neither especially distinguished nor artistic. Fearing that her poetry would embarrass him, her father, a provincial naval engineer, insisted that she write under another name. Although her Tatar pseudonym was borrowed from one of her mother’s ancestors, it was also alliterative (‘Anna Andreeva Akhmatova’) and exotic to the Russian ear. Elaine Feinstein, in this perceptive and well-researched biography, points out that the younger poet Joseph Brodsky, to whom Akhmatova served as a mentor late in her life, called that choice of name ‘her first poem’.

Feinstein goes on to describe the care with which the young Akhmatova, having chosen her name, set about transforming herself from a provincial girl into a ‘poetess, ‘ a denizen of St Petersburg salons, an exotic beauty with legions of men (and women) lusting after her. Her marriage to Nikolai Gumilyov, another young and already famous poet, put her in touch with the leading literary and artistic figures of her time. But she was not merely a hangeron. Her ability to capture the most fleeting emotions in a few words was unusual then, and remains strikingly fresh even now. Of Gumilyov, she wrote:

He loved three things above all else
White peacocks,
And faded maps of America.

He hated it when children cried,
He hated tea with raspberry jam,
and female hysterics
And I was his wife.

But what was most extraordinary about this act of self-creation was how utterly impossible it would have been to carry it out a few years later. After all, almost none of the personal qualities valued by Akhmatova’s Petersburg friends individuality in speech and dress, artistic and sexual freedom, the careful use of language was considered even remotely important or valuable after the revolution. The Soviet regime liked its artists to be conformists, working in the service of the state.

Propagandists were rewarded, not poets who could parse intimate human feelings.

So radical was the change that by 1923 another Russian poet had already dismissed Akhmatova, then only 32 years old, as ‘a relic’.

But although many assumed she was dead, Akhmatova did not disappear along with her reputation. After Gumilyov was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1921, she began to live an extraordinarily itinerant, homeless existence, sleeping on sofas and floors around St Petersburg, unhappily remarrying, finding lovers and discarding them. For many years she lived with the art historian Nikolai Punin and his wife, at first sharing a bed with Punin, then sharing a room with his daughter when he decided he preferred his wife after all. Often ill with tuberculosis and thyroid diseases, she rarely had enough to eat. She suffered through the siege of Leningrad and through the Stalinist terrors that both preceded and followed the war, watching as friends and acquaintances died or disappeared into the camps.

Above all, Akhmatova suffered from the arrest of her son, Lev Gumilyov, who was later to blame her directly for his fate. He believed it was her fame which had led to his imprisonment for more than a decade in the Gulag. At the same time, he believed she had failed to use her connections to get him released, and accused her of relying on his misfortunes to inspire her poetry. At one point, he told her that ‘for you it would have been even better if I had died in the camps’, meaning it would have been better for her poetry. Although Feinstein defends her against charges of hard-heartedness, pointing out that both Lev’s fate and his terrible resentment brought Akhmatova pain, she also quotes Brodsky arguing that Lev’s attacks hurt his mother precisely because there was some truth to them.

But through all of her personal and political troubles Akhmatova maintained contact with other ‘relics’, such as the poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda, and kept writing. As before, she preferred to describe everyday experiences and emotions, staying away from lofty metaphysics.

But because everyday reality had changed, so did the tone of her poetry. No longer the ‘mocker, delight of your friends, hearts’ thief’, as she bitterly referred to herself in one later poem, she wrote instead about her experiences of war, Stalinism, and disappointment. Probably her best known work, Requiem, was indeed inspired by Lev’s arrest. It begins with a famous passage, entitled ‘Instead of a Preface’:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent 17 months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind was a young woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had of course never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there), ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said, ‘I can.’ Then something like a smile passed over what had once been her face.

As a result of this poem and many others, Akhmatova’s reputation began to come back, with a vengeance. Although she never did achieve financial stability indeed she went on living with Punin’s wife and daughter even after his death by the time of her own death Akhmatova was one of the best known literary figures in Russia. She became an inspiration to a younger generation, and in an odd moment of international vindication received an honorary degree from Oxford University, arranged by Isaiah Berlin. Her poetry was and still is loved and admired across Russia, precisely because it springs from a pre-revolutionary, deeply individual sensibility. Feinstein astutely points out that Akhmatova isn’t exactly revered as a dissident, but rather as a poet who retained her ‘womanly feeling in a brutal world’. Her perceptions remained fresh because they remained apolitical.

Although this isn’t a biography that adds an enormous amount of new material to Akhmatova’s story, and although it could use more historical context, at least for my taste, it is eminently readable, and was certainly needed. Akhmatova is a figure that Russians turn to again and again, the better to understand their own history. Feinstein has done English-speaking readers a great favour by making Akhmatova’s life story, and therefore her poetry, more accesible to us than ever before.

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