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By John Helmer, Moscow

The Russian literary intelligentsia doesn’t have a long history – just 200 years of the Russian language in poetry, for example. So it’s to be expected that the writers, including the poets, haven’t had time to overcome the resentment and envy of each other which is still the Russian intelligentsia’s most distinguishing feature, and consuming vice.  London and New York writers have been longer at scribbling for a living;  their vice is still unbridled.

Anna Akhmatova, one of the greatest of Russian poets by the consensus of the poets themselves, suffered throughout her life from every form of resentment causing her no end of hardship. The resentment and betrayals of her multiple husbands and lovers (male and female); of her housekeepers, nurses, and acolytes; of her son Lev Gumilev (Gumilyov); of her fellow poets and members of the Soviet Writers’ Union:  Akhmatova’s fortitude in suffering this  is now part of the history of her character which is as celebrated as her poetry. This is because her poetry may be considered a variable, a matter of aesthetic taste and fashion, which change with the times.

Her endurance, on the other hand, is a constant – her achievement as a Russian who endured the civil war, Stalin’s terror, the German war, the siege of Leningrad, the Communist Party’s punishment. Also, her achievement as a woman whose lyrics of love, abandonment, loneliness and death are a testament to the survival of the spirit against the material odds. 

On Sunday Russia celebrated the 130th birthday of Akhmatova, born at Bolshoi Fontan, a summer resort near Odessa on the Black Sea, on June 23, 1889. She died in Moscow on March 5, 1966. In acknowledgement, Channel One broadcast a 90-minute documentary on her life and work on Friday morning; Yelena Yakovich (right)  is the writer and director.  Although the time in Moscow was between half past midnight and 2 am, more than a million people watched, according to the Channel. This is an extraordinary audience for a poet judged critically to have been a minor one compared to others of the 20th century – Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky.   

The last biography of Akhmatova published in English, Anna of All The Russias, by Elaine Feinstein, explains the breadth, and also the motivation, of Akhmatova’s audience. “To the mass reader, her simplicity made her poems easy to understand and memorize. 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.”  

This is Akhmatova the icon. But as a British reviewer has commented, “icons are difficult to write about critically. How good a poet was she really? How do you separate the passionate response to her verse, a response which has itself become part of Russian history, from the quality of that poetry?”  This week’s answer is that this is no longer the question.

Listen to Akhamatova reciting her poem “Cleopatra”, composed in 1940.  Here is an English translation and the Russian original.   For a larger selection of her poems in English, click to read

Akhmatova recited in front of small audiences. Before 1917 they were bohemians of aristocratic origin and bourgeois incomes, especially inheritances and land rents. After the revolution, her recital audiences were circles of friends or of other poets and writers. She was disdainful of the mass audience readings of the revolutionary period by Vladimir Mayakovsky, or of the Soviet 1960s by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky. She was dismissive of Yevtushenko as a clown; she condemned Voznesensky for “not a single word has passed through his heart”. Mayakovsky returned the disdain, calling her poems too intimate and domestic for the revolutionary time. Yevtushenko might have thought as much; he didn’t say so.

She said Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago novel was so bad in parts, it must have been composed by his girlfriend. She was critical of his chasing after celebrity abroad, especially for the Nobel Prize; the Soviet government’s reaction against Pasternak she dismissed as a “battle of butterflies”.  For more on that episode, read this.  Akhmatova was a short-listed candidate for the Nobel Prize in 1966, but her death in March of that year took her out of the running, and it isn’t known if she knew. Since Mikhail Sholokhov had won the Nobel the year before, it’s certain  Akhmatova could not have won in 1996. There has been speculation that she had also been in contention in 1965, and that the Soviet lobbying concentrated instead on Sholokhov. 

The new film by Yakovich can be watched here. For the time being, this is in Russian without English sub-titles.

It is a tribute, too, to Russia of a time lost. The apartments in St. Petersburg and Moscow, in which Akhmatova suffered from the cold and lack of food, have now been restored to their pre-revolutionary style and comfort; her desks and bookshelves are much neater than they were in her lifetime; there is no sign of her favourite vodka and cognac.   

Akhmatova posing at the locked gate of the courtyard of the Sheremetyev Palace in Leningrad; undated photograph in the Channel 1 documentary by Yelena Yakovich: https://www.1tv.ru/

Akhmatova between 1912 and 1925; from Yakovich’s film. https://www.1tv.ru/

Akhmatova between 1930 and 1941: https://www.1tv.ru/doc/

Akhmatova during her evacuation to Tashkent, 1943-45: https://www.1tv.ru/

Akhmatova between 1950 and 1966: https://www.1tv.ru/

Feinstein’s biography tells the story of Akhmatova’s life and work through excerpts of her friends’ and lovers’ diaries, letters written to and by her, and snippets of her poetry, the symbolism explicated in her love affairs; the execution of first husband Nikolai Gumilev for an alleged anti-regime plot;  the political persecution of her son Lev Gumilev, and of many others. Feinstein aims at uncovering much more of the sexuality than she managed of the official records of the Cheka, the Writers’ Union, and of Stalin himself. Feinstein doesn’t explain who exactly was responsible for the first publication ban of Akhmatova in 1925, or why; that lasted until 1934, when Akhmatova decided herself not to apply to rejoin the Writers’ Union. Feinstein also got no closer to explaining the second ban between 1946 and 1957.

Between a bookish joke by Leon Trotsky in 1922 and a speech to the Writers’ Union of Leningrad by Andrei Zhdanov in 1946, the explanation ought to be clear. According to Trotsky, “the lyric circle of Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Radlova is very small. [God] is a very convenient and portable third person… How this individual, no longer young , burdened with the personal and too often burdensome errands, can manage in his spare time to direct the destinies of the Universe, is simply incomprehensible.”  

Zhdanov (right) —  in 1946 the head of the Central Committee’s propaganda department — is  remembered today as Stalin’s last apparatchik of information control. Akhmatova, he said, is “one of the standard bearers of a hollow, empty, aristocratic salon poetry which is absolutely foreign to Soviet Literature. The range of her poetry is pitifully limited…based on erotic motifs of mourning, melancholy, death, mysticism, and isolation…with her petty, narrow private life, her trivial experiences , and her religious-mystical eroticism.”

So long as the Communist Party regarded the intelligentsia as a powerful revolutionary and counter-revolutionary influence over Russian hearts and minds, poets like Akhmatova were either regime-change risks, or harmless cloud-dwellers, as Stalin described Pasternak in 1949. (Stalin had been equally tolerant of Akhmatova, when she appealed to him for the release from prison of her husband and son, in 1935; he consented to their release.)

In between Trotsky and Zhdanov, Akhmatova wrote her own record of rejection of the prevailing ideologies. A Russian essayist, Yevgeniya Ryadnova, asked recently in print: “Has anyone Russian done something to expose the socialist realist assessment of her, say between 1940 and 1960?” Until now, no — Yakovich doesn’t make the attempt in her film. She is well aware of the Central Committee and Writers’ Union politics, as well as of the manipulation of Russian writers and their work by Anglo-American information warriors during the Cold War and now.  That lot included Isaiah Berlin, an individual correctly assessed by the KGB as an enemy and a British spy.

His visits to Akhmatova in November 1945 and January 1946 led to serious trouble for her and for her son. It also produced the five verses Akhmatova entitled Cinque. Among them this

Akhmatova regarded Berlin as a man, not more; the poems which followed their meetings together are without a trace of her understanding of the political context. By itself that gave the poetry much more gravity then than can be interpreted in the verses today.  If not by Akhmatova about Berlin in 1946, the lines would be unmemorable; Zhdanov’s interpretation  in retrospect no more than “a battle of butterflies”.

Hers was a realism of intimate feelings, called subjectivism at the time with nothing in common with socialist realism. Hers was also a realism of as many forms of victimization as can be imagined or suffered.  That record, according to Feinstein, includes sexual exploitation by the men in her life, although on that score Akhmatova herself appears to have judged she gave as good as she got.

For most Russians, however, to listen today to her lullaby rhythms and simple rhymes is to identify themselves with her, and therefore with her way of coping with life’s misfortunes and miseries. As Anatoly Naiman, Akhmatova’s last secretary, said early this month: “She was a person about whom everyone who knew anything about Akhmatova, knew that this is an example of a person who lived life with dignity. For all that was done to her, what was happening around her, she, without making something special of it, was a person with a completely unique sense and manner of manifestation of this feeling – a sense of human dignity.”  Revolutionaries can’t express themselves like that, nor Marxists.

In the end, let there be a modicum of reciprocal political understanding, Akhmatova’s and Zhdanov’s. To his attack on her in 1946, Akhmatova replied: “I experienced great fame, I experienced great disgrace and I have come to the conclusion that, in essentials, it is all the same.” 

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