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Ana Akhmatova

(1889 - 1966)

July 2, 2005

A truly Russian icon
Anna of All Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova
Elaine Feinstein
Weidenfeld, 322pp, £20, ISBN 0297643096

Reviewed by Anne Applebaum

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 stamp-collecting 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 cafés 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 hanger-on. 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, evensong
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.



July 03, 2005

Biography: Anna of All The Russias by Elaine Feinstein

ANNA OF ALL THE RUSSIAS: The Life of Anna Akhmatova
by Elaine Feinstein

Weidenfeld £25 pp322

In 1941, the poet Marina Tsvetayeva was in Chistopol, the bleak Tatar town to which members of the Leningrad Writers’ Union had been evacuated during the city’s siege. Someone remarked what a mercy it was that Anna Akhmatova was not there, as she would not be able to bear such hardship. Tsvetayeva, whose husband was missing, whose daughter was in a prison camp, and who was to kill herself only weeks later, was incredulous, both at the speaker’s obliviousness of her own misery, and at the assumption that Akhmatova was so fragile, so fine, so precious that everyone, however much they themselves might be suffering, should protect and shield her.

Elaine Feinstein has now written biographies of both poets and, although she is generously appreciative of Akhmatova’s great talents, she conveys far more sympathy for Tsvetayeva (self-reliant, but humanly vulnerable) than she does for Akhmatova, the beauty whose ladylike incompetence was such that she seemed literally unable to cross a road without a lover or disciple to help her over, and yet who outlived so many of her contemporaries, sheltered and cared for by friends and admirers. Tsvetayeva had apparent strength, but Akhmatova had the strength of apparent weakness, a less attractive attribute but a deplorably useful one.

Imperious, and with extraordinary looks, she was cherished and indulged even by her lovers’ wives, but history didn’t spare her. The story Feinstein tells is grim. It opens in 1913 when Akhmatova was a 24-year-old celebrity, the wife of a fellow-poet who had been besotted with her since she was 13, and a frequenter of the Stray Dog Cafe where, dressed in a tight skirt and black agate jewellery, she would read her poems and afterwards sit smoking with the poets Osip Mandelstam (who described her as a “black angel”) or Alexander Blok, who found her “terrifying”. Seven years later war, revolution and famine had transformed her. In 1920, a visitor to her tiny flat was appalled to find her “a horrible skeleton, dressed in rags”, but she was still formidable. “Surrender to you?” she wrote that year in a poem addressed to a lover. “You must be out of your mind.”

Her first husband was shot by the Cheka in 1921. Their son Lev, as the child of an “enemy of the people”, was repeatedly arrested and spent more than 10 years in the gulag. Feinstein argues persuasively that Akhmatova tried hard to help him. It was her experience of queuing for days outside a prison in Moscow, in the hope of at least finding out where he was, that inspired her great poem Requiem. But Lev, who had not forgiven her for abandoning him as a child, believed that had she been more loving and more courageous she could have obtained his release. He accused her of exploiting the ruin of his life to make a great career for herself. “Since I can’t have love, and I have no peace,” she wrote, “allow me a bitter glory.” Bitter’s the word.

Akhmatova lived under constant surveillance, and publication of her work was banned for 15 years. She was cautious, but Feinstein finds no trace of dishonour in the care she took to keep herself alive and free through successive waves of revolution and purgation. It took canniness as well as valour to negotiate that difficult passage, and Akhmatova made it to become, in the 1960s, the revered godmother of a brilliant group of young men, Joseph Brodsky among them. Her biographer needs almost equal adroitness to make space in one book for all the components of her complicated life and to find the right focus for such a diffuse and frequently interrupted career. Akhmatova’s personal experience was almost as unstable and tragic as the Russian history that was its context. So many lovers and deaths, devoted friends and tiresome hangers-on, so much grief and hunger, so many unburied corpses and unpublished poems and, looming behind these specific lives, three-quarters of a century ’s worth of warfare and terror: Feinstein’s book is sometimes as exhausting to read as it must have been difficult to write. But at its centre is the compelling figure of Akhmatova herself. “She is good-natured and does not hesitate to spend her money . . . But at heart she is cold and arrogant with a childish egoism,” wrote an anonymous police spy whom Feinstein describes as “shrewd”. Nikolay Nikolaevich Punin, who loved Akhmatova for years, wrote, “I often felt bitter and stifled with her, as if death were embracing and kissing me.” Not an easy person then, but a grand one, and a great poet, described by one of her friends as “trailing behind her an invisible mantle of fame, sorrow, great losses, hurts”.

Poet in a time of terror
(Filed: 12/07/2005)

Jonathan Bate reviews Anna of All the Russias by Elaine Feinstein.

Anna of All the Russias: the Life of Anna Akhmatova 
Elaine Feinstein
322pp, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20 

"Poetry is respected only in this country," wrote Osip Mandelstam, "people are killed for it. There's no place where more people are killed for it." In modern Britain, where poetry struggles even to retain its place in the school curriculum, it is singularly instructive to hear such voices from Soviet Russia.

Anna Akhmatova was one of the essential poets of the 20th century, but she remains insufficiently known in the English-speaking world. Nancy K. Anderson's beautifully produced volume provides the best possible introduction to her life and work. It offers a concise and compelling biography, elegant and accessible translations of her three most significant long poems, and a highly informative critical commentary.

Elaine Feinstein's biography, by contrast, is poorly written, confusingly structured and overburdened with details concerning the vicissitudes of Akhmatova's love-life. Nero fiddled while Rome burned; Feinstein peers through bedroom keyholes while her subject participates in and reflects upon momentous historical events.

Rather as you know within five minutes whether or not a film is going to be any good, the difference between the two books can be measured by their first paragraphs. "Let me begin in 1913," begins Feinstein, only to refer to Poem without a Hero, which was written in late 1940. The following paragraph tries to create the atmosphere of imperial St Petersburg - all candlelight, footmen and (why this detail?) Oxbridge blazers in shop windows on the Nevsky Prospekt. By the foot of the page we are being told that 200 years earlier wolves had prowled the streets of the city in broad daylight. So?

Anderson, meanwhile, cuts straight to the chase: "She was not born Anna Akhmatova. She came into the world on June 11, 1889, as Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, the daughter of a naval officer." When Anna was 17, it came to her father's attention that she had the unladylike ambition of becoming a poet. He warned her not to bring shame to his name; she replied that she didn't need his name, "and promptly disowned the entire masculine side of her lineage by choosing as her literary name the maiden name of her maternal grandmother".

As Anderson says, this was a creative choice as well as a splendidly rebellious one. Anna Gorenko somehow lacks the resonance of Anna Akhmatova, a name that her contemporary Marina Tsvetayeva compared to "a great sigh / Falling into a depth without name". Lovers and husbands would follow father in telling Anna what to do, but she would carry on going her own way.

She was a young woman of extraordinary beauty and charisma. A poet called Nikolai Gumilyov, who had first met her when she was out shopping for Christmas tree ornaments as a 14-year-old girl, courted her for six years - with several suicide attempts along the way - before she finally agreed to marry him. They had a tempestuous open marriage and hung out at a Petersburg café called the Stray Dog where, together with Mandelstam, they developed a new school of poetry called Acmeism.

Acmeism offered a finely honed alternative to the noisier new school of the time, Futurism, a movement associated with the flamboyant Vladimir Mayakovsky, who is nicely described by Anderson as "a sort of Russian anticipation of the Beat poets".

Akhmatova's peculiar gift was to combine two diametrically opposed styles in the same poet: she is at once understated and passionate, classical and romantic, matter-of-fact and radiant. To find a comparison from English poetry of the same vintage, you would have to imagine some strange alchemical combination of hot-blooded D. H. Lawrence and Edward Thomas, quietest of the war poets.

Akhmatova is without English peer not only for style but also for subject-matter: she was a major poet of both world wars, of the Bolshevik revolution and the end of Tsarist Russia, of the civil war and above all of Stalin's terror. In August 1921 she looked at a copy of Pravda posted on the wall of a railway station. It announced that 61 counter-revolutionaries had been summarily executed. Among them was her estranged first husband Gumilyov. "A garment of new grief I made, I sewed it for my love. / Oh Russian earth, it loves the taste, it loves the taste of blood."

Her own poems were denounced as reactionary. The Soviet party line was that her work represented a hangover from the era of Tsarist élitism; she failed to address the proletariat, only concerning herself with free love and religion. Half-nun and half-whore, she was born too late and had failed to die in time.

As Stalin's grip tightened, her friend and fellow-poet Mandelstam spoke out. She was in his apartment when the knock came at midnight. Mandelstam had composed - but sensibly not written down - some verses about Stalin himself: "His cockroach whispers leer / And his boot tops gleam… And every killing is a treat / For the broad-chested Ossete." He would eventually die in a transit camp.

Akhmatova's son was arrested by the NKVD for, among other supposed counter-revolutionary activities, reciting this poem. Anna interceded with Stalin on his behalf and gained a temporary reprieve, but the boy was re-arrested and eventually sent to the gulag. Anna spent a year and a half on the "prison lines", the queues of wives and mothers waiting for news of their loved ones.

This was the experience that inspired her greatest poem sequence Requiem - included in full in the Anderson volume. Again, it was a poem too dangerous to be written down. Instead it was learned by heart and only committed to print during the thaw of the Khrushchev years.

Akhmatova went on to experience the siege of Leningrad, a period of post-war poetic stagnation and at last the international recognition she deserved. The two biographers differ somewhat over the extent of her readership. Anderson quotes Akhmatova speaking of 95,000 copies of her books being printed from 1940 to 1961, whereas Feinstein claims that a 1960 edition of the poems had a print run of 1,700,000. Whatever the exact numbers, she could legitimately, if arrogantly, describe herself as the voice of the wounded nation.

Poetry sales have plummeted in Russia since the end of communism. But, says Feinstein, Akhmatova's poems "can be downloaded from the internet as readily as Westerners download CDs."

I would like to propose Elaine Feinstein for a special prize for the most unhelpful reference note ever written. On reading that it is possible to hear on the web a recording of Akhmatova herself reading Requiem, I naturally turned to the endnotes for the website address, only to be given the information "As Jane Howlett demonstrated to me."

Jonathan Bate is Professor of Literature at the University of Warwick


A fortress hewn from rock
(Filed: 11/07/2005)

Hilary Spurling reviews Anna of All the Russias by Elaine Feinstein.

The passing of time makes Anna Akhmatova look, as she would have wished, more and more inhuman, even unearthly, the heroine of a reality grimmer than the grisliest folk tale or myth. Her third husband said she had within her a fortress hewn from rock. By the end of her life she seemed to the young poet Anatoly Nayman, meeting her for the first time in 1959, larger, grander and more clear-cut than actual flesh and blood: "Even when she moved, she was like a sculpture, a massive, meticulously modelled… classical sculpture: a masterpiece of the art form."

Half a century earlier, visiting France before the First World War as a young bride so lovely that Parisians turned to stare at her in the street, she posed for Amedeo Modigliani. His sketch of a slight, graceful, reclining figure, made up of six or seven abbreviated pencil curves, somehow suggests even then the monumental quality that would outface war, revolution, famine, the Great Terror and the siege of Leningrad: public and private tragedies that turned her heart to stone in the years when Akhmatova transposed almost unimaginable grief, pain and fear into poetry that spoke with lapidary directness to and for the people of Russia.

This particular drawing was the only one, from a batch of 20 given her by Modigliani, that she kept to the end of her life. Asked what happened to the rest, she said they had gone up in smoke, having been taken for cigarette papers by Red Army soldiers. The joke was in a sense the story of her life. Wry, laconic, utterly without self-pity, Akhmatova schooled herself from the start to reject the essentials - food, warmth, comfort, possessions, domestic affection or ties - that most people need for survival.

She was born Anna Gorenko, the third of six children of a minor civil servant in a provincial backwater near St Petersburg. (All the other children died young except the last, who disappeared, only to resurface years later as a security guard in America.) One of her first moves as a poet was to discard her father's name, calling herself Akhmatova instead, after a Tartar princess. Looking back later, she said she owed her parents nothing, not even the legacy of kindness passed down by her mother: "It has been a useless inheritance in this harsh life of mine."

Her first marriage to another young poet, Nikolay Gumilyov, broke up almost at once. Anna sent their only child away soon after his birth in 1912 to be brought up by her mother-in-law. In retrospect, she seemed to be stripping her life down ready for the cataclysmic disasters foreseen in her poem, "July 1914". Helpless on all practical levels at home, unable to cook, clean or even cross the street on her own, Akhmatova could already see with unnerving clarity things other people didn't or couldn't.

Gumilyov was shot by the Soviets on a trumped-up charge in 1921. Their son Lev found himself penalised from the age of nine as the child of an enemy of the people. Akhmatova mourned the past and the future in a prophetic poem, warning anyone close to her that her presence spelt destruction. She had developed by this time an inner hardness that frightened even her lovers. Nikolay Punin, the last of her three husbands, said she had the radiance and purity of snow. "When Anna came in, she filled the room so that it was as if winter herself had come to visit me," he wrote in his diary, "only it was warm."

Banned by the Communists in 1925, Akhmatova embarked on a terrifying duel played out over nearly three decades with Stalin, who treated her husband and son as hostages to be arrested, released and re-arrested. All she could do was join the unending lines of women, queuing in the snow with letters and food parcels, outside Soviet prisons. It was as if her whole life had been a preparation for the exchange she described in the preface to "Requiem", when a young women asked her through lips numb with cold: "'Can you describe this?' And I said, 'I can'. Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face."

Akhmatova, who often had to learn her poems by heart rather than commit them to paper, found people murmuring the lines along with her on the rare occasions when she was permitted to recite in public. Punin died in the camps in 1953. Lev Gumilyov, freed at last in his forties, exacted a dreadful price in bitterness and rancour for the many years of hard labour he served for being his mother's son. She paid with everything she had in human terms for the fearless, pitiless poems finally published and sold by the million in the thaw after Stalin's death.

"Sales of poetry have declined almost to Western levels in post-Soviet Russia," Elaine Feinstein writes briskly in this new biography, which reminds me a little of the limp boiled carrot brought in on a saucer for supper in Nayman's account of first meeting Akhmatova. That carrot seemed to him to symbolise the squalid everyday reality she had always defied and rejected. For all its great virtues - clarity, concision, evenhandedness - Anna of All the Russias remains essentially a dish of boiled carrots: an accurate, up-to-date, factual survey almost entirely lacking the emotional resonance conveyed in earlier accounts by people who watched Akhmatova transform herself, as Joseph Brodsky said, from history's victim into its victor.



13 July 2005 22:36

The conscience of a nation turned to stone

Anna Akhmatova's secret poems helped keep Russia's literary flame alive during the terrifying Stalin years. As a brilliant new biography is published, Olivia Cole surveys the tragic, triumphant life of a heroic survivor

Published: 11 July 2005

'Anna of all the Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova' by Elaine Feinstein is published by Weidenfeld (£20)

The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova was 28 at the time of the Russian Revolution and already famous as a poet in the St Petersburg that disappeared in its wake. Like Pushkin, whose reputation she was eventually to share, she grew up in Tsarskoye Selo, the summer home of the Imperial family. Her early poems were as if Pushkin's Tatiana, rejected by Onegin, has been given a chance to write obsessively of every nuance of the affair, even if the intimate details were as much elaborated and invented as coolly recalled. Like the greatest confessional poets, of which she might be seen as the first, as Joseph Brodsky suggested, her work remained always "half self-portrait, half-mask".

Akhmatova is known now as much for her extraordinary beauty and her suffering in the Great Terror as for her poetry, but Elaine Feinstein has managed to write a biography that is both scholarly and emotive. The versions of the poems that she uses are her own, and this sustains a sense of Anna of all the Russias as written from the inside of its subject's imagination. Having already written lives of both Pushkin and Marina Tsvetaeva (a contemporary transfixed by Akhmatova's example), she is completely at home with the physical and literary map of St Petersburg.

The twilight years of Tsarist Russia were for Akhmatova's aristocratic family a time of luxury and libertarianism which to the adult woman who endured decades in life-threatening poverty must have seemed a world she had dreamt. As a young teenager she was already writing the poems that would make her name - "Akhmatova" was the name she adopted because her father was embarrassed at the prospect of a poet in the family.

If her real name, Anna Gorenko, lacked the Tartar exoticism and glamour of her acquired one, her appearance and company needed no embellishment. By all accounts, she was not only beautiful but also an intoxicatingly attractive woman, for whom countless men (and women) fell at every stage of her life. Brodsky, who as a young poet was one of a circle of young admirers, wrote of how she looked "positively stunning. Five feet eleven, dark haired, fair-skinned, with pale grey green eyes like those of snow leopards." Beauty was however no more a guarantee of happiness than her early privilege. The self-image she later created, in irony, of the foolish, beautiful brat, languishing "for want of a cloud" became a bleak joke; constantly desired, she was at times almost destroyed by her relationships. Modigliani was the first to draw her. If she were to die, "Tuck Modi's drawing of me under your arm, and go," she once caustically counselled an admirer.

Although it could be said that her dedication to love poetry (like Yeats she wrote of the same affairs her whole life long) depended on life being complicated, the reality of her affairs, even without the terrors of life under Stalin, makes for grim reading. Her first husband and father of her son Lev, the poet Gumilyov, was later shot by the State. After years of unrequited love, it seemed that he was tired of her by the time he had persuaded her to marry him; Nikolay Punin, the art historian, and her great love, was no easier a figure. As he was unable to bring himself to leave his wife, the lovers lived with Anna's son and Punin's wife and daughter in a tiny apartment in the Fountain House on the Neva. When after 15 years the two finally ceased to be lovers, Anna had nowhere else to go and no choice but to move rooms and carry on as usual.

In another life, the stanzas of her classical forms might have been her private space, a palatial suite of her own, but she was under constant surveillance. A little pile of plaster falling to the floor indicated microphones being installed, but if the Cheka wished to listen to her conversations they had no desire to amplify her poetic voice. Punin and Lev were both repeatedly arrested and imprisoned and from 1922 to 1965, Akhmatova's work was banned; it was Brodsky suggested, like being "buried alive".

Though willing to acknowledge her capriciousness and egoism, and the infuriating aspects of her character, Feinstein takes as a given Akhmatova's stature as an artist and the terrible sentence that this ban entailed. During these years it was estimated that in any gathering of 10 people, one would be a spy. Her poetry was shared with seven trusted friends who would learn her poems by heart. The manuscripts were burned. In this precarious, painstaking way she wrote her extraordinary public sequences, Requiem, about a mother's desperate search for news of her imprisoned son, and Poem Without a Hero. Russians' terrible experiences in these years meant that Akhmatova's own griefs were as easily recognised experiences as those ordinary feelings she had caught in her love lyrics.

Akhmatova inspired mythologising in her life that continued long after her death in gossip, in memoirs and in biographical accounts. The manuscripts of her poems for the most part simply don't exist, and there are few letters. Her son Lev, persecuted because of his famous parents (as a child he was not even permitted to join the library) was always angry at the fact that his mother only ever wrote him postcards, communicating with him in prison as if from a holiday resort, he once quipped. In fact she was always fearful of further incriminating anyone closer to her, so dared write no more than a few cheery words. It's the kind of cumulatively illuminating detail from which this compulsively readable account is constructed.

Aside from the lack of documentary evidence and the conflicting recollections, the great difficulty of Anna Akhmatova's life as a subject for biography is an ethical one. The temptation is to conclude that tragedy was a gift to her talent - a chance to become Cassandra on which the self-centred poet fell hungrily. Feinstein entirely avoids the queasiness of celebrating her greatness as dependent on her suffering - it was in writing of the very ordinariness of desire, jealousy, guilt and rejection that she was already extraordinary.

Of all the images of his lover, it was Punin, a photographer as well as critic, who was responsible for one that seems the most headily evocative: in the gardens of Fountain House (the site today of the Akhmatova museum), he took a picture of his lover as a sphinx. Still as stone, she stares out at at the camera, posed and poised as her formal verses but also full of life, as if about to leap down from the pedestal. Being frozen or turned to stone was a motif she herself used, but with her peculiar idiosyncratic vision, writing of Lot's wife, she was struck mostly by her courage at daring to risk everything "for a single glance". Half a part of history, half a mesmeric friend you feel you know, the living statue also seems apt for Feinstein's biography.

At the time of Akhmatova's centenary in 1989, her first English biographer, the critic Amanda Haight, said it was "as if the door were finally closing on the living human being, and they are finally being cast in bronze. The temptation is to make the person superhuman, the statue larger than life. From here the next stage is to presume that life was somehow easier for them than for us, when in fact, in the case of a poet, their heightened sensitivity probably made it more difficult." The door still seems half-open. As Akhmatova wrote imagining the return of a long gone lover in her poem "White Night": "I haven't shut the door... I've got drunk on your voice in the hall." As a poet herself, Feinstein is adept at showing just why and how Akhmatova's unique voice has intoxicated readers ever since.

As a young attaché to St Petersburg in 1945, Isaiah Berlin could hardly believe that this figure of Tsarist times was still alive. He visited her and the two talked into the night, forming a lasting bond - almost a love affair about which Akhmatova wrote the lines claiming "what we do together here / will shake the Twentieth Century." What emerges most powerfully from this authoritative book is that Anna Akhmatova was already a poet of the 20th century long before its events threw her own life into shadow. She could write of it, rather than be written off as her persecutors wished, precisely because she was already a figure of great enough stature.


Our lady of sorrows

Elaine Feinstein tells how poet Anna Akhmatova, whose son was in the Gulag, spoke for millions of Russians of their hell under Stalin in Anna of All The Russians

Neal Ascherson
Sunday July 31, 2005
The Observer

Anna of All The Russians: The Life of Anna Akhmatova
by Elaine Feinstein
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20, pp322

When people remember Anna Akhmatova, they do so extravagantly. Josef Brodsky, one of the circle of young poets who adored her when she was old, said: 'In conversation with her, or simply drinking tea or vodka, you became a Christian, a human being in the Christian sense of the word'.

Anatoly Nauman, another in that circle, remembered that after meeting her he was 'stunned by the fact that I had been in the presence of someone with whom no one on earth had anything in common'. Isaiah Berlin, throwing himself on his hotel bed after spending a day and a night talking to her in Leningrad, exclaimed: 'I am in love, I am in love!'

Elaine Feinstein, author of this biography, calls her 'one of the greatest poets of Russian literature ... she became the voice of a whole people's suffering under Stalin ... an iconic figure for all those whom the Soviet regime repressed ...' This status was confirmed for ever when Andrey Zhdanov, Stalin's cultural rottweiler, excommunicated her in 1946 as 'half nun, half whore, or rather both nun and whore with her petty, narrow private life, her trivial experiences ...'

But icons are difficult to write about critically. How good a poet was she really? To me as a non-Russian, her contemporary Marina Tsvetaeva seems as a writer to be richer and more astonishing. I know Russians who now dismiss Akhamatova as 'a minor poet'. But 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?

Anna Akhmatova was born in Odessa in 1889 (her father was called Gorenko, but she took the more glamorous name of a Tatar ancestor). Brought up in and near St Petersburg, she became one of the young writers and performers who met in the 'Stray Dog' cellar in the years before the First World War. Mayakovsky, Mandelstam and many other men and women who were to be her friends for life went there. Akhmatova - tall, black-haired, with huge grey eyes - read poems about painful love.

Before she was 30, she was famous. The writer Kornei Chukovsky said her first book, Evening, 'accompanied the next two or three generations of Russians whenever they fell in love'.

In 1910, she married the poet and explorer Nikolai Gumilev. By the time of the revolution, seven years later, the marriage had come apart, but Gumilev's arrest and execution in 1920 on fictional charges of anti-Bolshevik conspiracy devastated Akhmatova. By now, she had begun the nomadic, chaotic existence which lasted most of her life. It brought her shabby rooms in old palaces, torn silk dressing gowns, a procession of momentary or semi-permanent lovers, semi-starvation ('a horrible skeleton dressed in rags', as one visitor saw her in 1919), tuberculosis and guilt. 'I brought destruction to those I loved.'

There were several times when both her current lover and her son, Lev Gumilev, were in the Gulag (the son survived; the lover, Nikolay Punin, died in the camps) But Akhmatova never left Russia, or thought of doing so. And, with only a few interruptions, the poetry kept coming.

Caught in the siege of Leningrad in 1941, she was one of the few writers chosen to be flown out. In spite of her political views, Stalin recognised that she was worth saving. But in 1946 Akhmatova was denounced ('harlot and nun') by Zhdanov. She became an 'unperson', dangerous to everyone she met. Lev Gumilev was rearrested and released only in 1956, three years after Stalin's death. Only in 1957 was Akhmatova rehabilitated. But nobody had forgotten the poet who had given them courage in awful times, and the last 10 years of her life were spent in glory, if not exactly in comfort, in a dacha of her own near Leningrad surrounded by friends.

A great deal of Feinstein's biography is taken up with careful attempts to decipher Akhmatova's 'relationships'. These were multiple and often simultaneous. Nobody's love life looks simple under bright light, but the emotional life of Russian intellectuals - then, as now - was as disorderly as a London teenager's floor. Wisely, Feinstein also disentangles Akhmatova's friendships, the human bond which many Russians consider more important and lasting than sexual love. Most of her male intimates let her down, but her women friends stood by her. What society today can produce friends as wonderful as Lydia Chukovskaya?

It was Chukovskaya who stood with her all those days and nights of frost, queuing outside prisons to hand in parcels. Akhmatova had food and clothes for Lev, bound for somewhere beyond the Arctic Circle. Chukovskaya took packages for her husband, not knowing that he had long ago been shot.

In one of those terrible queues, a girl recognised Akhmatova and whispered: 'Can you describe this?' Akhmatova replied: 'I can.' Out of that grew, gradually, her tremendous poem cycle, Requiem. Once, when young, she had written the lines which lovers quoted to one another. Now she provided words which thousands of men and women repeated under their breath, as they suffered, feared and waited.

As Feinstein writes, Akhmatova always considered that she had been 'appointed by God to sing of this suffering'. Even after her brilliant looks had faded, she was vain and - for someone with such good friends - strikingly indifferent to anyone else's problems.

As a conventional wife or mother, she was terrible. Her son, in the labour camps, deluded himself that she did not care how long he stayed there and that she was exploiting his fate to make her own poetry. (The embittered Lev Gumilev grew up to be the ultra-nationalist historian who reintroduced mystic racialism into post-Soviet education.) As a poet, her unambiguous language, like Pushkin's but almost always narration in the first person, does not translate easily into English, and can occasionally seem trite. But we know that for millions across the generations those words in Russian rang true.

Elaine Feinstein's achievement is to show us the life of an extraordinary woman in gleaming fragments, and to demonstrate, through so many witnesses, how she was worshipped.



Anna Of All The Russias: The Life Of Anna Akhmatova, by Elaine Feinstein

Russian, a poet, and better than beautiful

By Carol Rumens

Published: 06 September 2005

Born into the minor aristocracy in 1889, Anna Andreyevna Gorenko took the pseudonym Akhmatova from her Tartar ancestor, Khan Akhmat, after her father warned her not to publish and disgrace the family name. A more significant relative, perhaps, was Anna Bunina, whom Elaine Feinstein describes as "the first Russian woman poet". Bunina's fierce independence echoes strangely in the life of her great-great niece.

Unlike Bunina, Akhmatova gained swift acceptance as a poet. Pre-revolutionary St Petersburg gave her the free-thinking milieu where it was possible for a talented woman to seize the privileges of a man, especially if she was beautiful. Akhmatova, according to one commentator, was "better than beautiful". Modigliani conjured her angular, arrogant, iconic presence, together with a whole artistic era, in his portraits and sketches.

She moved as an equal among male intellectuals, married several times, had numerous lovers, and attracted a female "court". She had some valiant protectors during the years of poverty and ostracism, who helped by memorising poems that had to be burned.

The poet's story is the biography of 20th-century Russia. Akhmatova's first husband was arrested on a flimsy counter-revolutionary charge and shot in 1921. At the height of her fame, she fell prey to the cultural commissars. By her mid-thirties, she was denounced as an aristocratic "relic". Stalin's terror brought imprisonment for her son Lev. Starving, tubercular, frantic with worry, Akhmatova stayed put and, somehow, continued to write.

Her early genius for emotional truth-telling gave force to her later witness. Akhmatova was a pioneer of female poetics, as important as Virginia Woolf or Jean Rhys in fiction. She dramatised autobiography into lyric, at a time when there was no fashionable cloak of the "persona".

Like the five previous biographies, this one targets the general reader. Feinstein moves at a lick, and commits a few factual errors. Akhmatova's literary quality, like Pushkin's, is hard to convey in English. Feinstein provides workmanlike translations, and explains Akhmatova's aesthetic in simple but effective terms. She is also good on Akhmatova's quarrels.

But this strong ego looks outward as well as inward. Friends are fed in their hunger, nursed in their sickness. From her mid-career travails to rehabilitation in the 1950s and dignified death in 1966, Akhmatova emerges as, in the best sense, an aristocrat.

Carol Rumens' Poems 1968-2004 is published by Bloodaxe


The TLS n.º 5346  September 16, 2005

Grief like ours


Anna Akhmatova


Poems of memory

Edited and translated from the Russian by Nancy K, Anderson

326 pp. Yale University Press. £ 18 (US $30)

0 300 10377 8


Elaine Feinstein


The life of Anna Akhmatova

322pp. Weidenfeld  and Nicolson. £ 20

0 297 64309 6


Of Russia’s great twentieth-century poets, beside Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, and Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova was above all History’s poet. As the message-bearer of the suffering of two generations she was perhaps at greatest risk of a critical slump when the Cold War ended. But one can see now, not quite forty years since her death, what her clear merits are as an artist and Russian-style thinker.

“Akhmatova” was the name the feisty seventeen-year-old Anna Andreyevna Gorenko assumed when her father, a tsarist officer, expressed shame that a daughter of his, born in 1889, should become a poet, then an almost unheard-of profession for a woman in Russia. “1 don’t need your name”, she retorted, taking her maternal grandmother’ s in its place. Compellingly beautiful from childhood, a statuesque near six feet when full grown, Anna was a free-living, sensual tomboy until her father’s leaving home in her early teens emotionally derailed her. She regretted her mother’s humiliation and became lonely. Later she blocked out the question of whether her childhood had been unhappy. Yet for the rest of her life she fell serially in love with married men in a way that caused her much heartache. Uniquely, I think, it was that personal schooling in grief which allowed her to write about the grief of her country with such intensity and, simultaneously, such irony. The peaks and troughs of her bonds with men made her capable of taking on History. Asked whether she could describe the anguish of wives and mothers longing to help loved ones in the Gulag, she famously replied: “Yes, I can”. It is not to trivialize her peerless role in Russian culture to say that it was her three husbands and stream of lovers which made that affirmative answer possible.

She began by writing cool, succinct, Pushkinian lyrics of love and loss that sprang from liaisons with interesting men. Mikhail Lozinsky, who compared her early verse to Catullus, the artist Boris Anrep, whose mosaics would one day adorn the National Gallery in London, the critic Nikolai Nedobrovo and Artur Lurye (Lourie), the composer who would emigrate to the United States, were among the many who queued up for a dose of affection and torture. Of these four only Lurye didn’t write reciprocal poetry about her “law-giving look” and the adoration, fear and resignation she inspired. Akhmatova’ s early work brought her almost instant and dazzling success before the Revolution, just as quickly as it marked her out as a “bourgeois individualist” thereafter. When from 1925 to 1940 the solid, functional and prudish Soviet workers’ State rejected her work, her practical life became difficult and she was often humiliated. Left dependent on her men — above all on her third husband and most romantic love, the avant-garde art historian Nikolai Punin - she simply moved in with his existing family and claimed her share of increasingly scarce resources. In the inter-war years, both by elevated class origins and aesthetic taste she seemed to belong to a lost world, and even Isaiah Berlin when he met her in Moscow in 1946 compared the occasion to being invited to shake hands with Miss Christina Rossetti.

Poems Berlin didn’t then know might have changed his mind sooner, like one in 1922 which pitied Russians forced into emigration and proudly embraced the people’s fate.

We know each other’s hour’s worth will be made clear

And justified at the end of days…

None bear grief like ours with fewer tears,

With a prouder or simpler gaze.

As Nancy K Anderson (whose fine translation this is) notes: years later, when reading Joyce’s Ulysses, Akhmatova would be struck by the sentence: “You cannot leave your mother an orphan”. A similarly untitled poem of October 1917, written before the Revolution but in the wake of Russia’ s shaming exit from the First World War, rejected the voice of temptation trying to lure her abroad. Akhmatova’s feeling for Russia, and her idiom, was never Bolshevik. What moved her was her own “magic” poetic vocation. Already in “Muse” (1924) she puts a question hauntingly reminiscent of the foreword to “Requiem”. “Was it you”, she asks of her own talent, “dictated the Inferno to Dante?” “Yes”, comes the reply. Another short poem, Courage”, written in February 1942 in Tashkent and subsequently printed in the Party newspaper Pravda, seems “Churchillian” to a recent Russian critic; and to this reader Kiplingesque:

The bullets can kill us, but cannot deter;

Though our houses fall, we will stand —

Through it all we will keep you alive, Russian word,

Mighty language of our Russian land.

In short, Akhmatova, here in her fifties, had long possessed the capacity to express more than religious-erotic yearning. Nevertheless when, from the first arrest of her loved ones in 1935, she became an initiate into some of the worst horrors of the twentieth century, her poetry soared into a category of its own.

The challenge her biographers face is to throw light on that mural and aesthetic transformation without denigrating her plainly amoral, sexy, imperious and ravenous womanhood. We want to know how both the art and romance in her life fared on the far side of the October Revolution, during Stalin’s Purges, the Second World War, and through recurrent waves of Communist repression and rehabilitation. Akhmatova was never arrested herself: possibly in the 1930s the patriotism she had already shown, coupled with her long silence, kept her relatively safe. In 1939, in the hope of being able to help her son Lev Gumilyov, sentenced to five years in the Gulag, she applied successfully to join the Writers’ Union, As a result the State protected her through the war. This was the time when, with the help of her friend Lidya Chukovskaya, she memorized but never wrote down the poem which began with the pain of Lev’s arrest, “Requiem”. Meanwhile her official standing rose so high that she was fleetingly considered for the Stalin Prize.

A potential stigma on her political record was always her first husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, who had been executed on a trumped-up charge of treason in 1921. (In fact, he was shut dead in a State-sanctioned mass murder of intellectuals and others.) Lev, arrested and rearrested, spent a total of thirteen years in the Gulag precisely because of his paternity, though after she was denounced in 1946 by Stalin’s Culture Minister Andrei Zhdanov, his mother became an equal liability. Anderson makes clear, to me for the first time, that it was Isaiah Berlin’s landmark visit that finally prompted the State to round on her. Stalin read the police report and observed: “So our nun has been receiving foreign spies”. Three years later the interrogator was still banging Lev’s head against the wall: would he not admit his mother spied for England?

Lev suffered immeasurably, which engendered his lifelong bitterness, whereas his mother’s post-1946 fate was less grave than was once thought. Although publication of her work was halted, and expulsion from the Writers’ Union reduced her food ration, new archive material shows that by summer 1948 she was quietly receiving State financial aid. Personally she was worn down and alone. But, attracted and protected by her fame, friends and admirers rallied. At some moment she too evidently decided the future lay with compromise. In 1954, when dim-witted visiting British students asked what she thought of Zhdanov’s verdict on her work, she declared she wholeheartedly agreed with it. Age, the various illnesses which had been with her for two decades, and the vain hope of protecting Lev, made her, like Shostakovich, lie low. Only in her final years could she reap the benefits of a world reputation and travel again and be feted. She died in 1966.

A note on her loneliness: in the twenty-one years from when the Terror first touched her in 1935 to Khrushchev’ s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, Akhmatova felt her vulnerability three-fold: as a woman, as a Russian and as a poet. Strikingly she was, by turns, what Russia has been for centuries: humiliated, proud and determined to survive. Airlifted out of stricken Leningrad in September 1941, she saw out the war in the official haven for writers and artists in Tashkent and hoped then to return to Vladimir Garshin, the man for whom she had left Punin years earlier. Her last great love was a doctor and also, inspired by his uncle, the short-story writer Vsevolod Garshin, a man of letters. At fifty Akhmatova longed for the security and companionship of a fourth marriage with Garshin, but he, deeply disturbed after serving as coroner to the starving city, when his office registered 650,000 deaths, needed his lover sooner than she could make time journey back across a dislocated country. He found someone else. Punin meanwhile, having survived the siege, died in a camp in 1953.

Elaine Feinstein, poet, translator, biographer and novelist, has quickened to Akhmatova’s story, as she did to Tsvetaeva’s over a decade ago. But the stress she lays on the womanliness of Anna tends to obscure her historic role as a member of the intelligentsia, which is a pity. Feinstein tells the story of “a poet of womnanly feeling in a brutal world”, which will surely leave readers wondering what makes this woman special.

Anderson, an “independent scholar”, has a more incisive grasp both of psychological and political connections. Not only does she tell the life compellingly, but, if “Poem without a Hero” is “the main philosophical-ethical poem of the twentieth century, and not only within the system of our native Literature”, as the Russian critic Svetlana Kovalenko recently put it, and “Requiem” is, in Berlin’s words, “a requiem for Europe”, then Anderson is the person to explain why. She helps ground these superlative formulations, while delivering the best rhymed translations of Akhmatova I have read. Here, from “Requiem’, just look at what the moon’s spotlight reveals across a vast and suffering country, listen to the delirious chant of the bereaved women and imagine what the English can’t quite manage, a sudden, abrupt: pray for me.

Quiet, quiet the Don flows,

Yellow moon through the window goes.

The moon comes in, its cap askew,

And sees a shadow lost in gloom.

Here’s a woman — she’s sick, bereft,

Here’s a woman with no one left.

Husband’s dead, and son’s in jail,

When you pray, tell God my tale.


The Life of Anna Akhmatova.

By Elaine Feinstein.
Illustrated. 331 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27

March 19, 2006

'Anna of All the Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova,' by Elaine Feinstein

Not Silenced


IN 1889, by the Black Sea, a child was born in the family of Andrei Gorenko, a naval engineer. She was christened Anna. At the dawn of the new century, she began to write poetry. Her father feared that a versifier would disgrace the family, and she took a new name — that of the medieval Tatar prince Akhmat, descendant of Genghis Khan, whose royal blood, she believed, flowed in her veins. The young girl who reinvented herself as Anna Akhmatova would become one of the two greatest female poets in Russian literature; the other, Marina Tsvetayeva, would crown her with the title "Anna of all the Russias."

In her 76 years, Akhmatova witnessed two revolutions, two world wars, a civil war and Stalin's purges. Her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, himself a wonderful poet, was shot without trial on a trumped-up charge; her son, Lev, spent years in labor camps; many of her closest friends left Russia or perished. Her early fame as a poet and a legendary beauty of bohemian prerevolutionary St. Petersburg gave way to decades of forced silence and official denunciations. And yet she remained in her beloved city, the unfaltering conscience of Russia, often suffering unimaginable deprivation. And through it all, she wrote.

Akhmatova died in 1966, but the power of her poetry has not diminished with time. Generations of Russians have known by heart the love lyrics from her first two celebrated collections, "Evening" (1912) and "Rosary" (1914); no other poet has had quite her intonation of passionate, fragile restraint, her laconic poignancy, her ability to convey depths of feeling through the simple image of a woman who, in walking away from a lover, pulls her left glove onto her right hand. If the early Akhmatova is often compared to Sappho, in the later volumes "White Flock" (1917) and "Anno Domini MCMXXI" (1922) she speaks with the sonorous voice of Cassandra. Later yet came "Requiem," a banned cycle of poems written at the time of Stalin's Great Terror, during the endless months she spent waiting outside the St. Petersburg prison for news of her son's fate. Published in Russian in its entirety only in 1987, the stark lines (cited here in Judith Hemschemeyer's fine translation) still ring out with the force of shattering revelations:

That was when the ones who smiled

Were the dead, glad to be at rest.

And like a useless appendage, Leningrad

Swung from its prisons.

Toward the end of her life, Akhmatova was rehabilitated and began to receive international acclaim; but in the West she still doesn't have the general recognition she deserves. Elaine Feinstein, herself a poet and biographer of Tsvetayeva and Pushkin, is well qualified to tell her story. Unfortunately, while "Anna of All the Russias" provides a thorough account of Akhmatova's day-to-day movements and her complicated marriages and affairs, it frequently loses sight of her essence, and of the broader historical and cultural context that informed her work.

The book does not lack for historical facts, at times positively overwhelming the reader with names, dates, places. People appear for a paragraph or two, are supplied with biographical sketches and family trees, then vanish; numbing details of clothing, hairstyles, menus, furnishings, medical reports and travel itineraries are recounted. In the first 10 pages, for instance, one learns that the young Akhmatova's favorite cabaret featured a dancer from Pskov who enjoyed making dolls; that there were "football jerseys in the colors of Oxford and Cambridge" in St. Petersburg's shop windows; that Rasputin was said to have "shriveled private parts"; that the Empress liked to order her furniture from the London department store Maples; and that Osip Mandelstam's father was a leather merchant. The book proceeds in much the same vein for nearly 300 pages. Though such minutiae can contribute to a sense of atmosphere or character, this avalanche of dryly presented detail ultimately only obscures the woman at the book's center.

When Akhmatova does step fully into the light, Feinstein seems primarily interested in her amorous entanglements. The chapter covering the mid-1920's — titled "Infidelities" — begins, "Amidst Russia's turmoil, Akhmatova was about to enter the longest and most intense relationship of her life." Earlier, Feinstein writes: "These two years of Akhmatova's life were at once frivolous and amoral" — this about the period that saw the White Army's defeat, Gumilyov's execution, the poet Aleksandr Blok's death and mass starvation — all of which affected Akhmatova deeply and found powerful reflection in her poetry.

In general, Feinstein devotes insufficient attention to Akhmatova's works and her rich intellectual life. Disappointingly little is said about the fascinating Silver Age of Russian poetry, of which Akhmatova was one of the leading voices, and barely two paragraphs concern her celebrated studies of Pushkin. Her verses — given in Feinstein's own translations — are sprinkled throughout the text, but they serve mainly as footnotes to her many conquests. Even while acknowledging that Akhmatova wanted her poems "to be read as fictions rather than confessions," Feinstein seems overly intent on ferreting out the man behind the poem. Thus, one of Akhmatova's most piercing poems of 1917, in which she speaks of her momentous decision to remain in her homeland amid the bloodshed of the revolution, is interpreted entirely in the light of her failed relationship with a man who had emigrated to England. Akhmatova wrote:

When . . . the stern spirit of Byzantium

Had fled from the Russian Church, . . .

A voice came to me. It called out comfortingly,

It said, "Come here,

Leave your deaf and sinful land,

Leave Russia forever.

I will wash the blood from your hands. . . ."

Feinstein's sole comment: "It may be his voice she imagines." Again, the above translation is Hemschemeyer's. Feinstein's own are far from precise, and tend to adopt matter-of-fact, conversational tones that fall short of Akhmatova's stern, weighty rhythms, often rendering many of her lyrics unrecognizable. For example, "I will not pity even what I love so much" is translated as "I'm not sorry / for loving you so intensely," while "We are all carousers here, all adulteresses" becomes "We are all boozers here, and sleep around."

To be sure, "Anna of All the Russias" does afford some tantalizing glimpses of an extraordinary woman living in extraordinary times. In the later chapters, as Akhmatova's romantic involvements dwindle, Feinstein broadens the focus to encompass the poet's relationships with her son and her friends, including Mandelstam, Pasternak and Joseph Brodsky. Not infrequently one comes across a striking image or incident — Akhmatova offering Mandelstam an egg (her entire supper) before he was led away by the secret police; Akhmatova forced to sell a painting in order to travel to Moscow to seek news of her imprisoned son; Akhmatova in 1946, newly denounced by the regime, asking, "Tell me, why has my great country, which has driven out Hitler . . . found it necessary to drive over the chest of a sick old woman?"

And yet, as illuminating as these moments are, Feinstein's overall portrait lacks depth. The reader would do better to turn to Akhmatova's own beautiful autobiographical prose (translated in "My Half-Century"), Hemschemeyer's clear rendering of her poetry, or earlier biographies by Amanda Haight and Roberta Reeder for a richer understanding of the complex poet who, at the end of her long life, had every right to say:

No, not under the vault of alien skies,

And not under the shelter of alien wings —

I was with my people then,

There, where my people, unfortunately, were.

Olga Grushin is the author of the novel "The Dream Life of Sukhanov."




After decades of suffering and repression under Stalin, Anna Akhmatova lived to see her poetry celebrated.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 19, 2006; BW15


A Life of Anna Akhmatova

By Elaine Feinstein

Knopf. 331 pp. $27.50

"There are four of us," wrote Anna Akhmatova, in one of her last poems. That "four" refers to Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak and herself, universally regarded as the greatest poets of Soviet Russia. Alas, since mere genius could accord no protection, each of them ended up the victim of their evil government. Mandelstam (1891-1938) died of malnutrition, overwork and illness in one of Stalin's camps. A broken Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) hanged herself in despair. The relatively lucky Pasternak (1890-1960) was able to bring out his novel Dr. Zhivago only in the West and was afterwards forced to refuse the capitalist-perverted Nobel Prize. As for Akhmatova (1889-1966), she was simply banned from publishing anything for more than 40 years.

What a waste! What a stupid, terrible waste! After all, between roughly 1910 and 1930 these four, and their equally gifted peers in the other arts, revolutionized poetry, fiction, drama, music, dance -- and not only for Russia, but for the world. And then, almost as suddenly, they were silenced, in some instances permanently by a firing squad, as was Akhmatova's first husband, the great Acmeist poet Nikolay Gumilyov (1886-1921). Moreover, even as purges and terror destroyed the artists themselves, the Communist Party-imposed doctrine of "socialist realism" gradually narrowed the acceptable range of all creative expression to the uplifting, didactic and dull. Not until the 1960s (and later) was Russian literature again worth reading, when much of the best to appear included novels secretly scribbled down during the Stalin years, such as Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (1966-67), or poems carefully memorized by friends, like Akhmatova's book-length elegy for the 1930s, Requiem (1988). "That was when the ones who smiled/Were the dead, glad to be at rest."

For many, Requiem represents the Akhmatova that we know best -- the voice of suffering Russia, the vilified poet who stood 300th in line "in bitter cold . . . under that blind red wall," to find out news of her imprisoned son, who burned her manuscripts lest they incriminate friends or family, who was there on the evening when the secret police first arrested Mandelstam. Through luck and charity she herself managed to survive near starvation, bouts of tuberculosis, heart ailments, the loss of almost everything that matters in a human life: "So much to do today:/kill memory, kill pain,/turn heart into a stone,/and yet prepare to live again." Only in her old age did Akhmatova grow round-cheeked and matronly, a grandmotherly stada baba , surrounded by young men, like Anatoly Naiman and Joseph Brodsky, who dreamed of becoming poets. By then, history had made her a symbol, the sole relict of a great and doomed literary generation.

But, as Elaine Feinstein shows us in this enthralling, anecdote-rich biography, Akhmatova wasn't this sort of political figure, except by necessity, nor was she always quite so velichavaya (stately or majestic). She was, in Brodsky's fine precis, "essentially a poet of human ties: cherished, strained, severed. She showed these evolutions through the prism of the individual heart, then through the prism of history." Throughout her life, she was very much a passionate woman -- and could even call her young self "the naughtiest girl of Pushkin's town."

Virginia Woolf famously remarked that the world changed on or around 1910. In Russia, the tall and slender, beautiful but somewhat imperious Anna Akhmatova was the leading lady of that change, the finest love-poet of her generation. She could be stunningly direct and sensual, startlingly bold: "Don't you love me or want to look at me?/O, you are so handsome, damn you." "I've put on my tightest skirt/To look even more svelte." "But raising his dry hand/He lightly brushed the flowers:/'Tell me, how do men kiss you, Tell me how you kiss.' " "You are drinking my soul through a straw." "With a hand almost not trembling/Once again he touched my knees."

Alexander Blok (1880-1921), the leading poet of the previous generation, said of this early poetry that Akhmatova "writes verse as if she is standing in front of a man." And not, it would seem, just standing. Sometimes her poems hint at a taste for masochism. Certainly, the artistic crowd at the legendary St. Petersburg cabaret The Stray Dog could rival even contemporary Bloomsbury in its sexual freedoms.

"We're all drunkards, here, and harlots," Akhmatova once proclaimed, just as she later announced that "the institution of divorce was the best thing mankind ever invented." Open marriages, gay couples, bisexuals, strings of lovers, menages á trois -- Akhmatova and her friends tried them all. "Forgive me" she coolly wrote to one lover, "for so often mistaking/other people for you." In Evening (1912), Rosary (1914), and White Flock (1917), the poet transmuted both her serious affairs and passing fancies into lyrics of permanent beauty.

The young Anna (nee Gorenko) was a privileged tomboy, who grew into a free-spirited schoolgirl (losing her virginity at 16), and then an even more free-spirited woman. In 1910 she married the poet Nikolay Gumilyov, keeping her pen name of Anna Akhmatova. The marriage wasn't a happy one, and both soon started affairs on the side. Even on her honeymoon in Paris, the young bride met a then unknown painter named Modigliani, with whom she would walk in the Luxembourg gardens, for whom she would buy roses, for whom she would pose in the nude.

While Gumilyov was away for six months trekking through Abyssinia, his new wife started to work seriously at her poems. When Akhmatova showed her notebooks to her husband, Gumilyov was astonished and immediately found a publisher. Soon the two, in company with their friend Mandelstam, were promulgating a new poetry of clarity, sharpness and simplicity, which they labeled Acmeism. Meanwhile, Anna gave birth to her son Lev in 1912, left him in the care of his grandmother, fell in love with a painter, amicably divorced, married an Assyriologist (who introduced her ex-husband's translation of Gilgamesh), carried on several affairs, lived with a composer and an actress, and wrote, wrote, wrote, even as World War I, the October Revolution and the Civil War were gradually destroying the fabric of society and civility. "By early 1917," Feinstein notes, "the average woman was spending around forty hours a week in line for necessities"; by the 1920s the economy was in ruins and people were starving.

Akhmatova, though tough, was hardly what you'd call handy or competent. She couldn't light a fire and never really worked at anything but the writer's trade. (During her years of silence she earned a little money from perfunctory translation, anything from Rubens's letters to Korean poetry.) In the mid-1920s she hooked up with a married art professor named Vladimir Punin, who confessed in his diary, "I don't know anyone in whom there has lived such a large and pure angel, in such a dark and sinful body." Eventually, Punin gave Akhmatova a room in his small apartment, where she lived not only with him but also with his unhappy wife and young daughter.

About this time, her son suddenly re-entered Akhmatova's life. After years of neglect, it's little wonder that the 16-year-old Lev wasn't especially fond of his mother. And never would be. During the years when he was exiled in Siberia, largely because he bore the name of the traitor Gumilyov, Lev convinced himself that the great poet wasn't doing enough to help alleviate his sufferings. In truth, Akhmatova appealed to officials, wrote letters, stood in queues, threw herself "at the hangman's feet," and eventually (in the early 1950s) produced some blatantly servile poems in praise of Stalin. Despite all this effort, Lev wasn't completely rehabilitated until 1956, after having spent more than half his adult life in exile.

At the end of the 1930s, Akhmatova finally broke with Punin for a doctor, enjoyed a brief respite from critical neglect during the days of the Hitler-Stalin pact, learned that Mandelstam had died (a correspondent cautiously wrote, "Our friend Nadya is widowed") and then chose to remain in Leningrad when the Germans invaded. For some mysterious reason, she was among those the government airlifted out to Tashkent, where she spent the war years. In that central Asian city she drank heavily, wrote about those who suffered during the purges, composed a play (that she destroyed out of fear), and eventually began Poem Without a Hero , a phantasmagorical dream-vision about 1913 and a world that had vanished forever, except in her memory. "Bonfires warmed the Christmas holidays,/And carriages slid off the bridges. . . ."

In the mid-1940s the Russian-born philosopher Isaiah Berlin, "the guest from the future," managed to call on her, and the two spent a night discussing art, poetry and exiled acquaintances. Unfortunately, Stalin decided that this "half nun, half harlot" was now consorting with English spies, and over the next decade she was again blacklisted. Only in the late 1950s, after Khrushchev attacked the excesses of the Stalin era, did Akhmatova find her writings rediscovered and openly honored. She was eventually awarded a government pension and even a little dacha in the country, where she passed sedentary days with a stream of visitors, eager to see the living legend. A late fragment reads "Pray, at night, that you won't/Awake to sudden fame."

Feinstein has written a highly engaging biography of this great poet and determined woman, a fine companion volume to her previous life of Marina Tsvetaeva. It makes a superb introduction to Akhmatova and her world. Nonetheless, Roberta Reeder's Anna Akhmatova: Po et and Prophet remains a fuller, more scholarly life, albeit somewhat daunting in its detail. Readers wishing to explore the poetry will find many different selections and translations, but none can truly replace The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova , translated by Judith Hemschemeyer -- handsomely laid out, prefaced by important memoirs (Anatoly Naiman, Isaiah Berlin), replete with photographs and illustrations. ·

Michael Dirda is a critic for Book World.



Russian poet's words stood up to war, repression and tragedy
Reviewed by Peter Campion
Sunday, April 2, 2006


Anna of All the Russias

The Life of Anna Akhmatova

By Elaine Feinstein

KNOPF; 331 PAGES; $27.50

Many lines of poetry have burned the past century's atrocities into our memory. But perhaps the most devastating, and the most gorgeous, are those in Anna Akhmatova's "Requiem," her lament for her son, Lev, imprisoned during the Stalinist terror. There is, for instance, the couplet (translated by the English poet D.M. Thomas) in which she remembers her first husband's assassination as a suspected counterrevolutionary:

Son in irons and husband clay.

Pray. Pray.

Lines like these dig their way into the mind. And certainly, the terrible circumstances surrounding "Requiem" conduct some of its heat.

But Akhmatova was a great artist well before she became a historical figure. In her thorough and captivating new biography of the poet, "Anna of All the Russias," Elaine Feinstein does a particularly impressive job of evoking Akhmatova's early years.

We see the poet as a child, growing up in Tsarkoye Selo, a small town outside St. Petersburg. We learn that her neighbors nicknamed her "the wild girl" and that her father already referred to her as "the decadent poetess." Feinstein so compellingly conjures the personality of this literary black sheep that we need no explanation to understand how Akhmatova arrogated to herself the role of the love poet, a role that had been dominated by male voices.

Feinstein gives a thorough description of Akhmatova's aesthetic development. With a cinematic wealth of detail, she evokes the pre-Revolution days, during which Akhmatova shuttled between the bohemian cafes of St. Petersburg and the bourgeois realm of the salons. Influenced by the Art Nouveau movement, her poems of this era weave arabesques across lines and stanzas. But there was never anything merely ethereal to her sensibility. Much like Ezra Pound, she worked to convey lucid details, to cut an edge into her poems by employing the kind of imagery one would expect from a novelist or photographer. With her husband, Gumilyov, and the poet Osip Mandelstam, she even founded a movement, Acmeism, which argued for classical firmness and poise.

With great ease and confidence, Feinstein leads her reader backstage, showing the personal tumult behind the aesthetic stolidity. After all, the poets and artists of St. Petersburg were not known for sobriety and fidelity. Akhmatova begins one poem from this time with the line "We are all drunkards here. Harlots." Feinstein introduces us to the cast of characters that line implies. We meet the radiant actress Olga Sudeikina (with whom some believe Akhmatova had an affair) as well as poets such as Mandelstam and Marina Tsvataeva. It's particularly poignant to read about those poets in their early years: Convicted for satirizing Stalin, Mandelstam was last seen eating from a pile of garbage on his way to a Siberian gulag; Tsvataeva, who was forced to commit her daughter to an orphanage where the girl starved to death, hanged herself.

Feinstein's weakness shows when she discusses Akhmatova's poems themselves. Too often, Feinstein uses the poems to illuminate the twists and turns of the life instead of the other way round. This may seem understandable. The book, after all, remains a biography and not a work of literary criticism. But one suspects that Feinstein, herself an excellent poet and translator, might have offered a stronger, more complex weave of art and life. Because she fails to do so, "Anna of All the Russias" never attains the level of Richard Ellmann's biography of James Joyce, Richard Sewall's of Emily Dickinson or Lyndall Gordon's of T.S. Eliot.

Yet Feinstein so fully knows and feels for Akhmatova's life that the reader follows her past her faults. It's especially heartening to see the poet come out the other side of her horrors, championed by the likes of Joseph Brodsky and Isaiah Berlin. When Akhmatova died in 1966, five years after Khrushchev denounced Stalin, she was a national heroine.

Akhmatova's story also acts as a curative. At a time of war, many of us look to literature. We may not be after topical subject matter, or editorial argument, but simply the peculiar justice of the best words in the best order. Akhmatova's life stands as a reminder of poetry's power to speak to the very situation it transcends. In the prose introduction to "Requiem," she writes of waiting with other family members of inmates outside the prison. Another mother whispers to her: " 'Can you write this?' And I said, 'Yes, I can.' And something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face."

Peter Campion is the author of a book of poems, "Other People" (University of Chicago Press), and a monograph on Mitchell Johnson (Terrence Rogers Fine Art.) He teaches at Stanford.


Thursday, June 15th, 2006


Anna of All the Russias: A Life of Anna Akhmatova
by Elaine Feinstein


Fear and the Muse

A Review by Michael Scammell

Read this article, here                           


 The Passion of Anna                    


[from the July 10, 2006 issue]

Read this article, here