Yes, it’s late this month, but leading up to my intended publication date I was in the middle of the Baltic, miles from a 4G signal, and struggling with an internet connection via satellite that was simultaneously both absurdly expensive and remarkably fragile in view of weather conditions. Now that I’m back on shore here’s a bumper selection from the collection I was reading at the time.
Why is our century worse than any other?
Is it that in the stupor of fear and grief
It has plunged its fingers in the blackest ulcer,
Yet cannot bring relief?
Westward the sun is dropping,
And the roofs of towns are shining with its light.
Already death is chalking doors with crosses
And calling the ravens and the ravens are in flight.
I can imagine those opening lines being written today, 100 years later, but our current political troubles are relatively insignificant in comparison to those experienced by Anna Akhmatova. At least death isn’t stalking the streets in the way it was in post-revolutionary Russia. The imagery of chalking doors with crosses might suggest the Black Death or a plague, but the death that would come calling as darkness fell is more likely to have been the Cheka, the Soviet secret police.
8 November 1913
The sun fills my room,
Yellow dust drifts aslant.
I wake up and remember:
This is your saint’s day
That’s why even the snow
Outside my window is warm,
Why I , sleepless, have slept
Like a communicant
Anna Akhmatova was born as Anna Andreyevna Gorenko in czarist Russia. She was a precocious writer and started writing poetry as a child; by the time she was 17 in 1906 she was established in the artistic community of St Petersburg, the capital of pre-revolutionary Russia, and reading at public events at the notoriously bohemian Stray Dog Cafe. She would have been striking presence on the St Petersburg literary scene, strikingly beautiful and over 6 feet (1.82m) tall, assertive and confident, and with the publication of her first two collections in 1912 and 1914, established herself as a major player in St Petersburg’s cultural life. She was as the peak of her career at the time of the revolution in 1917, but subsequently became marginalised, persecuted and silenced by Stalin’s regime.
Anna’s experience was not unusual for artists and intellectuals of her generation. She was distrusted as a potential counter-revolutionary even though she had publicly declared her pride in rejecting calls to leave Russia for sanctuary in the west.
I’m not of those who left their country
For wolves to tear it limb from limb.
Their flattery does not touch me.
I will not give my songs to them.
However, she was part of the cultural and intellectual elite in Petrograd (name changed in 1914): the family home was in the affluent and regal suburb of Tsarskoye Selo as her father had been an engineer in the imperial Russian navy and was a minor aristocrat with a small landed estate and a dacha on the Black Sea. Further, her ex-husband, Nickolay Gumilyov, was arrested and shot in 1921 for allegedly being part of a non-existent monarchist conspiracy – the Tagantsev conspiracy – fabricated by the Cheka in 1921 to terrorize intellectuals who might be in a potential opposition to the ruling Bolshevik government. This guilt-by-association extended to her son, Lev Gumilyov, who spent from 1938 to 1943, and then 1949 to 1956 in the Siberian gulags (labour camps).
Continuing to live in Leningrad (2nd name change in 1924), her published writings were suppressed and she was unable to publish new material but Anna translated works by Victor Hugo, Rabindranath Tagore and Leopardi and researched biographies of Pushkin and Dostoevsky. She was kept under close surveillance by the secret police, but the most subversive activity they could link with her was her campaigning on behalf of those sent to the gulags, and visiting friends in prison. During World War II she survived the first part of the siege of Leningrad before being evacuated to Tashkent with other civilian non-combatants like Dmitri Shostakovich who was able to complete his Symphony No 7 (Leningrad) there.
And you, my friends who have been called away,
I have been spared to mourn for you and weep,
Not as a frozen willow over your memory,
But to cry to the world the names of those who sleep,
What names are those!
I slam shut the calendar,
Down on your knees all!
Blood of my heart,
The people of Leningrad march out in even rows,
The living, the dead: fame can’t tell them apart,
In her poetry of the 1940s Akhmatova’s voice becomes the voice of the people. Before the revolution, and in Paris in 1912, her work was influenced by art nouveau and often had a light and flowing form. Although her style remains fluid and graceful the privations of the material hardship, intimidation, and death, whether from external enemies or political purges, means that her work becomes more spare and hard-bitten. However, this harsher work remained relatively unknown through censorship and she continued to be associated with her lighter, less serious, pre-revolutionary writings.
The smiles of summer are simply indistinct
And winter is too clear,
But I can unerringly pick out
Three autumns in each year.
The first is a holiday chaos
Spiting the summer of yesterday.
Leaves fly like a schoolboy’s notes,
Like incense, the smell of smoke,
Everything moist, motley, gay.
First into the dance are the birches,
They put on their transparent attire
Hastily shaking off their fleeting tears
On to the neighbour next door.
But as it happens, the story’s just begun.
A moment, a minute — and here
Comes the second, passionless as conscience,
Sombre as an air raid.
Everything suddenly seems paler, older,
Summer’s comfort is plundered,
Through the scented fog float
Far-off marches played on golden trumpets…
A flagstone covers the sky vault. Cold waves
Of incense. But the wind’s started to blow
Everything clean open, and straightway
It’s clear that this is the end of the play,
This is not the third autumn but death.
Akhmatova returned to Leningrad in 1944 and when the war was over in 1945 the heroes of the siege became popular public figures, heroes of the Soviet Union, heroes of the Great Patriotic War. There always had been a degree of rivalry between Leningrad as the former Russian capital city and Moscow as the power-base of Stalin and the Communist Party, so ‘The Leningrad Affair’ was engineered in 1949 to accuse some of these newly prominent rivals of unauthorised use of government funds before they could seriously challenge Moscow. Lev Gumilyov, her son, was arrested again and sent to a gulag again, as was Anna’s friend from university and former lover, Nickolay Punin. Punin was a celebrated art historian and curator of the Hermitage museum. Today he is lauded for saving dozens of masterpieces by great west European artists by ignoring Stalin’s order to destroy them for being decadent and bourgeois, and concealing them in secret places around the museum instead. Punin had spent time in the gulags during the 1930s, but on this occasion he wasn’t to survive and he died in 1953.
I want to visit the roses
In that lonely
Park where the statues remember me young
And I remember them under the water
Of the Neva. In the fragrant quiet
Between the limes of Tsarskoye I hear
A creak of masts. And the swan swims
Still, admiring its lovely
Double. And a hundred thousand steps,
Friend and enemy, enemy and friend,
Sleep. Endless is the procession of shade
Between granite vase and palace door.
There my white nights
Whisper of someone’s discreet exalted
Love. And everything is mother-
Of-pearl and jasper,
But the light’s source is a secret.
(July 1953, Leningrad)
After Stalin’s death in 1953 the reputation of Anna Akhmatova began to be rehabilitated although she was still censored. She started to reassemble her lost works by recreating from memory the work that had not survived the various purges, and became active mentoring younger poets including Joseph Brodsky who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. Anna was allowed to publish again in 1956, and then again in 1958 and 1960; in 1962 Robert Frost was allowed to visit her.
If all who have begged help
From me in this world,
All the holy innocents
Broken wives, and cripples,
The imprisoned, the suicidal —
If they had sent me a kopek
I should have become ‘richer
Than all Egypt’ …
But they did not send me kopecks,
Instead they shared with me their strength,
And so nothing in the world
Is stronger than I,
And I can bear anything, even this,
At the age of 76 in 1965 she was permitted to leave the Soviet Union with her friend Lydia Chukovskaya to receive the Etna-Taormina Literary Prize in Sicily, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford. However later that year she was incapacitated by a heart attack and she died in the spring of 1966.