The silenced voice that spoke to Russia's soul

Review Biography

March 26, 2006|By WILL ENGLUND | WILL ENGLUND,SUN REPORTER

Anna of All the Russias: A Life of Anna Akhmatova

Elaine Feinstein

Alfred A. Knopf / 328 pages / $27.50

St. Petersburg, between about 1910 and 1924, and despite the violent dislocations of world war and civil war, must have been an electrifying place, especially for painters and poets. Russian artists suddenly embraced the modern with passion and typically disdainful self-confidence, and made it their own. Intoxicatingly provocative schools of thought contended, launching volleys from the smoky cellar cafes along the canals. It was a revolution of sorts, but it was cut short when the real revolutionaries, the ones in power, abruptly decided that modern art was bourgeois and unacceptably self-referential for a nation that was building a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Anna Akhmatova - dark, tall, slender, her oval face framed by black bangs and made famous by Modigliani, for whom she posed both in clothes and without - counted herself as an Acmeist, devoted to precise and unambiguous verse, and she made herself Russia's most striking poet. She wrote about men and women, and pain. She was a darling of the salons and the heroine of the Stray Dog Cafe, and simultaneously needy and casual when it came to lovers. Then it all ended.

Interestingly, although her writing was banned from 1925 to 1940, her paltry state income was cut off and she never had a place of her own to live, the Communist authorities in a city that overnight become a redoubt of conformity and official lack of imagination never dared to arrest her. They did pack her son and one of her husbands off to the gulag, though, and shot another of her husbands. By 1939 Akhmatova found herself, in clothes barely better than rags, enduring the interminable wait outside the Kresty Prison in St. Petersburg, where she brought whatever food she could find to her son, Lev Gumilyov.

Akhmatova began to compose - and memorize, it being too dangerous to commit to paper - what her biographer Elaine Feinstein justly describes as "one of the greatest lyrical sequences in the Russian language." She called it Requiem, and with it Akhmatova transformed herself, or perhaps finished a transformation. Having been at one time, as Feinstein puts it, a "frivolous `mocker' of conventional morality," Akhmatova wrote that she wished she could have seen:

What would happen in your life

And how you would stand with a

parcel

Three hundredth in line by the prison.

In Requiem, Akhmatova achieved what the Soviets said artists should achieve: She spoke for an entire nation. She spoke for the millions who perished in the purges, and for the millions more who mourned their grievous losses. She imagined herself a ewe lamenting her lost lamb and addressing the "padishah," or ruler, who had taken him. "May God preserve your own child. ... How was the taste of my son?"

Akhmatova had stylishly obsessed about death when she was young, but she came to know death too intimately during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, and feared it and saw that there was nothing romantic about it; the experience seems to have deepened her religious faith. With a trainload of writers and actors that included Boris Pasternak, she finally made her way to safety in Tashkent. In one short and beautiful paragraph, Feinstein conjures up the exotic aromas and Asian feel of the old Uzbek city in a way that almost makes it palpable. It's a disappointment that she doesn't ever quite do the same for the one-time imperial capital on the Neva River, the ghost-ridden city that occupies the heart of her biography.

Akhmatova was allowed to emerge from the official shadows, from time to time at least, after the war and especially after the death of Stalin. She seems to have been a magnetic and largely impossible person to be with; Feinstein describes "her mixture of helplessness and authority." Lev survived the gulag but felt she had abandoned him, and became a proto-Russian nationalist. It appears there always was some truth to the Bolsheviks' accusation that she was given to self-absorption, though at worst that's a literary, not a state, crime. Feinstein describes a night the British diplomat and scholar Isaiah Berlin spent with her in 1946, while his colleague Randolph Churchill stood in the courtyard below, shouting up to him to come down because Churchill needed help explaining to the staff of the Astoria Hotel what he wanted done with some caviar he had bought. Akhmatova later said she believed the incident ignited the Cold War.

Akhmatova is cherished by Russians today, and Anna of all the Russias, though in places a jumble of unconnected and - I'm guessing - not always very significant anecdotes, makes clear why. She survived Russia's unique and terrible experience, she emerged from it, she was forged by it. There could be none like her anywhere else.

will.englund@baltsun.com

Poems by Anna Akhmatova and others will be featured at www.knopfpoetry.com in recognition of National Poetry Month.

Will Englund is the associate editor of The Sun's editorial page and a former Moscow correspondent for the newspaper.

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