Anna Akhmatova: The Poet Who Buried Stalin

By Lurie, Lev | Russian Life, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview

Anna Akhmatova: The Poet Who Buried Stalin


Lurie, Lev, Russian Life


In 1913, Petersburg was like a horseman perched on a cliff, like a Roman on the last day of Pompeii. Troikas galloped to the spit of Yelagin Island during White Nights; the Duma raged; at the Mariinsky Theater, Tamara Karsavina danced. But the Great Imperial Era, which began when Peter the Great moved the capital from Moscow to Petersburg, was coming to an end. It was the time of Rasputin, and only a blind person could not see where things were headed ...

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Culture is always nostalgic--for childhood, for the past, for love, for the Golden Age. In Petersburg at the beginning of the 20th century, a group of poets began to eulogize the city and its imperial past. They sang praises to a city that was, not long ago, during the days of Dostoyevsky, just an ugly assemblage of barracks and rented apartments, in which the residents were antinationalistic and cosmopolitan. The poets called themselves Acmeists. Their manifesto called for a poetry of clarity, precision and restraint (in contrast to the abstract decadence of the Symbolists). Their mentor was a translator of Euripides, a poet and former director of the Tsarskoye Selo gymnasium, Innokenty Annensky.

The poets lionized the city just as it was on the verge of collapsing as the center of Peter the Great's State. The Acmeist cult anticipated the end of Pushkin's Russia, expressing a nostalgia for life and art during the era of Empire and duels.

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Strangely enough, however, those who were the blood heirs of the 19th century traditions--the members of the capital's fading "high society"--did not feel connected to them. They loved the theoretical "Russian style" and the shrines of Moscow. Acmeism's adherents were, instead, from the first true generation of Petersburgers--the children of raznochintsy (19th century intelligentsia which did not descend from nobility), foreigners and non-Orthodox believers: the artists Alexander Benois and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, the poets Osip Mandelshtam and Anna Akhmatova.

Anna Akhmatova, who was married to the leader of the Acmeists, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, published her first collection of poems, Evening, at 23. Her subsequent publication, in March 1914, of Rosary--a "little book of love lyrics," as she called it--made her wildly famous. She became the idol of kursistkas (students at women's' colleges), their model for emulation. Painters fell in love with her. There was not a female student in love who did not try on the role of Akhmatova's lyrical heroine--a stylish femme fatale, a heartbreaker. In the 1910s, Akhmatova's heroine was to young women in Russia what Brigitte Bardot was for the French in the 1950s. And only a few suspected, in the words of Osip Mandelshtam, that "her poetry is nearing the point where it will become one of the symbols of Russia's greatness."

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After 1918, when the capital was moved back to Moscow, the only thing that remained of the old Petersburg was its architectural ensembles, the Kirov Ballet, the Hermitage, the famous cakes of Nord cafe ... and Anna Akhmatova. Pretension, irony and etiquette protected one from the new reality and helped "preserve the right tone."

Akhmatova, unlike many of her contemporaries, did not "abandon her country into the destructive hands of the enemy." She did not emigrate, but remained in communist Leningrad.

  No, not under an alien sky,
  Not protected by alien wings,--
  I was with my people then,
  There, where my people, unfortunately, were.
  Requiem

Remaining led to a life of suffering and persecution. Her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, was shot for participation in a White Guard plot; her third husband, Nikolai Punin died in a labor camp. Her son, the scholar Lev Gumilyov, spent much of his life in Stalin's camps. Akhmatova herself was never arrested.

From the mid-1920s on, Akhmatova's poems were barred from publication. …

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