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The Poet and the Motherland: On the 119th Anniversary of Anna Akhmatova’s Birth

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The Poet and the Motherland: On the 119th Anniversary of Anna Akhmatova’s Birth

25.06.2008

On June 23, 1889, Anna Akhmatova (Gorenko) was born in Odessa. It seems that everything possible has already been said about both her life and her work. To contemporary readers it is obvious that Akhmatova’s lines devoted to Pushkin – “idiot horse guardsmen and majestic privy counselors,” “oceans of dirt, betrayals, lies, indifference of friends and simple stupidity,” “heartless and, naturally, ignorant Petersburg,” “secret police surveillance of the poet,” and “the imperial court peeping into every nook and cranny” – relate largely to her own fate. But, on the other hand, in an angry passage by Zhdanov about “the lady gone wild, tossing and jerking between the powder room and her entreats,” finding in authority “erotic motifs, bound with motifs of sadness, melancholy, death, mysticism and resignation” there is a certain element of truth.

It is no coincidence, however, that the lines from her poem “Courage” became the tagline of the Russkiy Mir Foundation. Akhmatova wrote the poem in late 1942 while in Tashkent, where she had been sent from Leningrad, which was under siege at the time. In a matter of days – on March 8 to be precise – the poem was published in Pravda. Neither Akhmatova’s complex relations with Soviet authorities nor the fact that her son, Lev Gumilev, was still imprisoned in the camps kept the publication of her poem from the Communist Party’s main newspaper. This is not surprising given that its power over the people of a country at war was many times greater than the ideological potential of even the most furious leaflets with slogans such as “You will howl, Germany!” Akhmatova was able to find the right intonation and the right words to place this poem beyond time and ideology. The poem is neither pro-Soviet nor anti-Fascist. It is pro-Russian, but in a much wider sense of what constitutes Russianness. Above all, it appeals to language and culture.

We know what’s at stake and how great the foe’s power,
And what is now coming to pass.
The hour of courage has chimed on our clocks,
And our courage will hold to the last.
The bullets can kill us, but cannot deter;
Though our houses will fall, we shall remain.
And we will preserve you, Russian speech,
The great Russian word.
We will keep you free and pure,
And pass you on to our grandchildren,
Free from bondage
Forever!

The call to defend the Russian language during war was hardly timely. In such times, people are more often called to defend homes, land, mothers, loved ones. In other words, they are drawn by some deep-seated and time-honored understanding. Simonov’s poetry of the war years in this sense was considerably more war-like and befitting of a soldier. In those years, a theme such as “preservation of the Russian language” required an explanation. But it was precisely in this apparent disconnect that the paradoxical strength of Akhmatova’s poem consisted. She truly and sincerely wrote about how it would be much more frightful to lose Russian – and the losses in her life at that time were not few – for it was the last point of refuge for the spirit. This sincerity coupled with the falling out of other poems in the war years (some bad, some very good) drew special attention. It is quite possible that precisely this poem formed for the first time in the Soviet Union the notion that language has inherent value and that language and culture have a much greater relationship to the “motherland” than any political or ideological circumstances. It was a notion that served as a lifeline for many even well after the Great Patriotic War and in much different circumstances. Twentieth century Russian history showed time and time again that the poem was by no means written coincidentally and certainly not solely for publication in Pravda.

This poem by Akhmatova, as well as her other poems on military and patriotic themes, proved extremely popular almost immediately. Already in May, a collection of Akhmatova’s works was published, the first in many years. She took part in public events, her own creative events were organized, and along her return to Leningrad, Akhmatova repeatedly visited the front for poetry readings. In the general choir of Soviet poets, writers and publicists, Akhmatova won over a major figure – the soldier’s mother, keeper of the home, if we mean by a home not only the hearth but also the Russian language and Russian culture. Akhmatova’s call to "that which bids farewell to what is pleasant" – "pain melting away into strength" sounded especially convincing. In the grand scheme of things, this old woman with a very complex destiny, who was painfully sick since the beginning of the blockade and even in the Tashkent sun wrapped herself up in her well-known shawl because of an inextricable "cold in her bones," had become a tangible embodiment of the Motherland-mother from an Irakli Toidze poster. It would be risky to assume that Soviet ideologues felt the impact in the similitude, and perhaps that is why after his release from prison Lev Gumilev was allowed to join the ranks of the army, which was not unique for political prisoners but not especially common either. Characteristically, in a post-war biographical essay Akhmatova wrote of herself – "I have not ceased to write poems. For me, therein lies my connection with time and with the new life of my people. When I wrote them, I lived by the rhythms that sounded in the heroic stories of my country.”

The comparison of Anna Akhmatova with Russia is, of course, hyperbole, although not at all inappropriate. Akhmatova’s fate bears a striking resemblance to the history of Russia during the first half of the 20th century. Her childhood in Tsarskoye Selo and studies at the Mariinsky Gymnasium were in Akhmatova’s own interpretation traditional, pastoral and almost worthy of Lydia Charskaya’s pen. Then there was her interest in new literary and intellectual trends, her marriage to Nikolay Gumilyov, the first poetry collections, and acmeism. And, like a logical continuation of the intellectual unrest of the Russian elite – 1917. In the first years of Soviet rule, Alexander Blok stood to the left of Akhmatova with his calls "to listen to music of revolution." To the right was the "conspiratorial" and "anti-Soviet" Gumilyov. Akhmatova herself was never able to come to terms with the revolution and whether to accept it. And then it was too late with the advent of War Communism. Neither Blok nor Gumilyov, both of whom died in August 1921, survived that era, although the first was awarded an official obituary while the latter received merely a bullet to the back of the head. "These graves were predicted by my word,” wrote Akhmatova, blaming herself for the loss of loved ones and for what had become a national tragedy. In the mid-1920s, publication of Akhmatova’s works ceased, and she was excluded from the writer’s organization. She was excommunicated from the world of literature virtually right up to the start of the war, forced into various types of day jobs ("oh, these translations, how you cause my head to ache"). But neither the lack of opportunity to engage in her favorite activity, nor the arrest of her husband (Nikolai Punin) and son in the 1930s could break her will to live. Akhmatova really learned to "live simply and wisely." It did not happen in 1912, when the young girl wrote these lines, but much later. Nonetheless, it happened.

And to live, which is most important, in Russia. Emigration had always been an unacceptable alternative for Akhmatova.

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,
Root out the black shame from your heart,
With a new name I will conceal
The pain of defeats and injuries.”

But calmly and indifferently,
I covered my ears with my hands,
So that my sorrowing spirit
Would not be stained by those shameful words.

Even more telling are the lines devoted to the artist Boris Anrep’s departure for England: “You are an apostate; for a green island, you betrayed, betrayed your native land…”

Akhmatova more than once had the opportunity to leave Soviet Russia. British diplomat Isaiah Berlin supposedly offered her and her son the opportunity to leave in 1945, but she refused. In 1946, Akhmatova was again expelled from the Writers’ Union (on the basis of attacks in Zvezda and Leningrad), and Lev Gumilev was arrested. But even when Akhmatova’s fortunes turned for the worse a second time, she didn’t regret her decision.

In her reflections in 1961, Akhmatova wrote:

Not under foreign skies
Nor under foreign wings protected

I shared all this with my own people
There, where my people unfortunately were…

It must be said that in general, people, hold reciprocal feelings for Akhmatova. Her place in Russian literature is indisputable, much like that of Pushkin ("a swarthy lad", who in his childhood roamed the same alleys as Akhmatova). Last year in St. Petersburg, a monument to Anna Akhmatova was dedicated opposite the Crosses Detention Center on the bank of the Neva. Akhmatova had requested a monument herself where she “stood for three hundred hours and no one slid open the bolt.” The monument has already become a place with a cult following, and among the public all sorts of superstitions have emerged. According to one, after a successful visit with friends and relatives, prisoners should go and "bow to Akhmatova.” This is a somewhat unusual but unquestionably high honor to Akhmatova for the courage and patience with which she pestered Soviet officials, waited for the return of her husband and son from prison, and again bid farewell and again wrote petitions and again carried packages.

These are her toils – also one of the images of the Motherland-mother. And it is not worth lamenting the fact that for certain parts of the population some aspects of Akhmatova’s biography are much closer than her poems. This is also very Russian – to love a poet not necessarily for what he wrote but for how he lived…

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