Lorne Patterson is a psychiatric nurse and community educator who has worked in a number of countries, including Ireland, Britain, the United States, South Africa and Russia. For almost a decade, he worked in a women’s resource centre in Co. Longford, Ireland. A past runner-up in the Sean Ó Faoláin short-story competition, he has been included in several anthologies, and his novella on mental illness and its treatment, Bad Blood (Wordsonthestreet, Galway, Ireland) published to critical acclaim.
Anna Andreevna Akhmatova used poetry to give voice to the struggles and deepest yearnings of the Russian people, for whom she remains the greatest of literary heroines. She has lately come to symbolize for the world beyond Russia the power of art to survive and transcend the terrors of the century.
–Judith Hemschemeyer, A Stranger to Heaven and Earth
Wild honey smells like freedom,
Dust – like a ray of sun.
Like violets – a young maid’s mouth,
And gold – like nothing.
The flowers of the mignonette smell like water,
And like an apple – love.
But we learned once and for all
That blood only smells like blood.
–Anna Akhmatova, The Scent of Freedom (1933)
Anna Andreevna Akhmatova (1889-1966) remains one of the towering figures of Russian literature. Though she first came to prominence as a romantic poet during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, it was as Russia’s ‘Cassandra’ during the violent days of Revolution and even bloodier years of Sovietisation that she achieved lasting fame. Enduring decades of persecution on top of illness with profound dignity, Akhmatova became one of the country’s great moral as well as literary beacons. For the generation of dissident poets that succeeded this enemy of the Soviet State, there was no prouder boast than they were ‘Akhmatova’s orphans’.
The Russia of Akhmatova’s youth was convulsed by near-revolution and Imperial repression. In the midst of all the violence and uncertainty, the arts achieved a Silver Age of apocalyptic creativity. In the capital, St Petersburg, Akhmatova, Blok, and Mandelstam, read their futurist or symbolist or romantic poetry in crowded salons and cafes; Gorky, Zamyatin, Bely, and Tolstoy wrote in violent realism, sensualism, prometheism, or diabolism; Meyerhold acted in and directed experimental theatre; Vrubel and Chagall painted in strange shades of light and darkness; Stravinsky and Prokofiev composed in contentiously new forms; and Diaghilev – ‘the conqueror of Paris’ – with his independent ballet company of Pavlova and Nijinsky, Fokine and Balanchine, of Benois, electrified Europe with ground-breaking choreography, dancing, music, and sets.
But Petersburg was also Cradle of the Revolution, of Trotsky’s Soviet, and other destructive militants; the stage too for Rasputin, the ‘devil-monk’, whose strange relationship with the Tsar and his wife proved so fatal. In late 1917, with the alienated Imperial regime having finally been brought down by World War, Lenin and Trotsky seized power for the Bolsheviks. The capital became Red Petrograd. Akhmatova for her part, described her city as having ‘forgotten her majesty, a drunken harlot who didn’t know who was taking her…’
As early as the winter of 1917 Lenin instigated State controls over the troublesome intelligentsia, particularly the potent culture of prose and verse. The following year, he decreed that every artistic and scientific work, published or unpublished, from creators living or dead, was the property of the State. Of Russia’s literary notables, only the writer Maxim Gorky embraced the ruthless Bolshevik cause with any enthusiasm – criticising the regime as frequently as he praised it – later joined by the poets Mayakovsky and, half-heartedly, the Slavophile Blok. Many fled Russia, wracked as it was by appalling civil war; of those who stayed, no few died from cold, hunger, or disease. ‘Petrograd is Paradise’, declaimed one citizen with black irony, ‘for here men walk naked and eat apples.’
1921 marked the end of the Revolution for the Left intelligentsia. As the corpses from the anti-Bolshevik Kronstadt Rebellion were still washing up on Petrograd’s shores, Blok, who in 1917 had celebrated the dreadful transition into a new and terrible Red world, died. Having used morphine to dull Revolution’s inescapable reality, he perished from anaemia brought on by malnutrition, his spirit long broken. Nikolai Gumilyov, Akhmatova’s divorced poet-husband, was arrested for moral complicity in counter-revolution. In spite of pleas for clemency Gumilyov was executed. Zamyatin, an ex-Bolshevik whose post-Revolution writings formed the basis of Orwell’s ‘1984’, wrote openly of his fear for Russian literature and was arrested. Gorky, accused by Lenin of disloyalty, reluctantly emigrated.
Akhmatova, vilified as an ’anachronism’, stayed in Russia, even though she ceased to be published having ‘contributed nothing to Communism’. Not under the vault of alien skies / Not under the shelter of alien wings,’ she later wrote, ‘I was with my people then.’ Hungry, impoverished, frequently homeless, friends kept her alive. As those close to her were purged, Akhmatova calmly prepared for her own arrest. She was with her fellow-luminary Osip Mandelstam the night he was first arrested, and like Pasternak, took the enormous risk of trying to intervene on his behalf.
In the mid-Thirties, the period of intense purges and mass killings known as the Great Terror began, the climax to Stalin’s campaign for absolute power. Nikolai Punin, Akhmatova’s lover, and Lev, her son by Gumilyov, were arrested. Akhmatova humbled herself and wrote to Stalin, pleading with her tormentor. Both were freed – temporarily. Lev was re-arrested, but in spite of torture refused to incriminate his mother. Whilst waiting endlessly in Leningrad’s prison lines trying to discover his fate, Akhmatova’s mighty ‘Requiem’, tribute to the victims of the Purges, was born: ‘…the woman with the blue lips…suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there); ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I can.’ And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face.’
‘Requiem’ could not be trusted to paper, but was stored instead in the memories of a few trusted friends.
Fourteen years after her poetry had been proscribed Stalin granted Akhmatova permission to publish once more. He did so, it is said, to please his only daughter. A heavily edited version of the collection she wished to bring out was produced. Nevertheless, Stalin took exception to it and the book was removed from circulation.
After the Second World War, a war that cost Russia an estimated 25-30 million dead and turned Leningrad, first of the Hero Cities, into a graveyard, Stalin renewed his grip on a nation exhausted by war and repression. The Leningrad Affair, his purge of the city’s intelligentsia, gave notice of the clamp-down. Pride of place went to Akhmatova. ‘Half-nun, half-whore’, sneered Zhdanov, Party ideologue; her poetry, ‘pathetically limited’. Akhmatova was expelled from the State-mandated Writer’s Union and placed under constant surveillance. Lev was re-arrested. Punin, was also re-arrested, to die in the camps.
Why Stalin chose to torment Akhmatova instead of destroying her as he had destroyed so many others, is uncertain, for Stalin detested intellectuals and refused to tolerate even the suspicion of opposition. Perhaps simply because it pleased the godhead to act capriciously. Imprisoned Zamyatin had been freed to leave Russia; the sick Bulgakov denied the same concession. Pasternak, who pleaded for the doomed Mandelstam, was left alone but Pilnyak and Babel, ardent Revolutionaries, were executed for failing to conform sufficiently. Even Gorky with his correct working-class background and revolutionary credentials, who had left Russia only to make his compromise with a system he professed to despise, failed to stave off his Master’s malice. His death and its timing, just before the first of the great Show Trials, proved remarkably fortuitous to Stalin.
At Stalin’s death in 1953, of Akhmatova’s contemporaries of the Silver Age, Stravinsky, Chagall, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Balachine, Benois, Pavlova had all fled into exile. Vrubel had died insane prior to the Revolution; Blok, under surveillance by Lenin’s State Police, died in despair not long after it; Mayakovsky, ‘drum-beater’ of the Revolution, committed suicide, broken by Stalin’s tyranny; Gorky was most probably murdered on Stalin’s orders; Mandelstam – whose incisive epigram on Stalin was known off by heart even by the head of the Secret Police – died in a camp; and Meyerhold was executed after being savagely tortured by his gaolers. Well could Akhmatova describe her beloved Petersburg as ‘a granite city of fame and calamity’?
As part of his de-Stalinisation policy, Khruschev instigated cautious intellectual relaxation. But when Pasternak was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature in 1958 for his novel ‘Dr Zhivago’, rejected by the Soviet Censor only to be published abroad, the State excoriated him and forced him to decline the honour. Four years later, at the height of ‘the Thaw’, the most overt period of de-Stalinisation, it took Khruschev’s personal intervention to over-ride Politburo objections and ensure the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag-story, ‘One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich’. Within weeks the final neo-Stalinist backlash began.
Tvardovsky, editor of the risk-taking journal and himself a poet of no little repute, nevertheless encouraged Solzhenitsyn to submit more work. Solzhenitsyn did so (carefully selected pieces), also putting forward Akhmatova’s ‘Poem without a Hero’ and other notable ‘bottom-drawer’ writings by the leading names of dissident literature. None were acceptable. Solzhenitsyn himself only had two more, minor, works published. Tvardovsky was purged and, already an alcoholic, drunk himself to death.
In early 1964 the Leningrad poet Joseph Brodsky was arrested and put on trial for ‘parasitism’. One of the group that Akhmatova called ‘the magic choir’, the public event was rightly interpreted as a reminder of the Leningrad Affair, an indication that the political climate was returning to repression of unregulated art. Akhmatova gave Brodsky her open support. Brodsky was found guilty and sentenced to five years internal exile (later leaving Russia, to be awarded, like Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize for Literature). At the same time, ‘Requiem’ finally began to circulate in samizdat, the remarkably efficient underground publishing system that increasingly neutralised literary censorship. Two years later, the ill Akhmatova died of a heart attack. Not until 1965, twelve years after Stalin’s death and one year before her own, was Akhtamova’s poetry again published. ‘Requiem’ and ‘Poem Without A Hero’ could not be openly printed in her own land until Gorbachev, at the demise of the Soviet State that had failed to break her.
Roberta Reeder, in her magnificent biography, quotes Akhmatova: ‘there is no power more threatening and terrible than the prophetic word of the poet.’ Few have had more right to make such a claim.