An Unexpected Revival For A Beloved Russian Poet

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Anna Akhmatova, who lived from 1889 to 1966, was a beacon of artistic courage in the face of repression during Soviet times. Her work is now receiving renewed attention. (Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Anna Akhmatova, who lived from 1889 to 1966, was a beacon of artistic courage in the face of repression during Soviet times. Her work is now receiving renewed attention. (Heritage Images/Getty Images)

There's a surge of interest in the work of 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. It's inspired in part by American country and folk singer-songwriter Iris Dement, who has an adopted daughter from Russia and has set some of the poet's work to music in a new album, The Trackless Woods.

Akhmatova, born in 1889, witnessed the tumultuous years of the Russian Revolution and lived through the horrors of Joseph Stalin's repressions. She survived as a beacon of artistic courage.

One way to glimpse the poet today is through the St. Petersburg apartment where she lived for some 30 years.

It's a museum now, where guide Maria Nisnikova points out mementos of a woman who moved in glamorous, artistic circles before the revolution, and faced ruthless persecution during the Soviet era.

The building is actually a wing of one of the most beautiful mansions in St. Petersburg, the Sheremetev Palace.

Akhmatova came from an aristocratic background and she knew the splendor of the palace during its pre-revolution days — when it was, as Nisnikova says, "a kind of treasure house with examples of Western European art, ancient Russian icons, armor and ancient manuscripts."

Akhmatova, born as Anna Gorenko, came from a family of Russian and Tatar nobility. The pen name she chose for herself derives from an ancestor who was a Tatar khan, or leader.

A Muse For Artists

She was beautiful, dark-haired and angular, with a prominent hooked nose. Artists loved to draw her in profile, and there are thought to be at least 200 portraits of her — including more than a dozen by the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, who fell in love with her in Paris in the early 20th century.

She was a sensation, a celebrity of modernist poetry in what was called the "Silver Age," before the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Twice married and twice divorced, Akhmatova was known for spare, insightful poems about the ambiguities of love. On DeMent's new album, she sings a version of Akhmatova's short poem The Last Toast, which includes these lyrics:

"I drink to the house, already destroyed, to my whole life, too awful to tell.

To the loneliness we together enjoyed, well, I drink to you as well."

At the Akhmatova museum, Nisnikova shows a fading photograph of a young man in military uniform — the last known picture of Nikolay Gumilyov, Akhmatova's first husband.

"He was arrested on the third of August 1921," Nisnikova says, "and he was put into prison and three weeks later, he was secretly executed."

The pair had been divorced by then for nearly four years, but they had a son together. Nisnikova says Akhmatova only found out about Gumilyov's death when she read a list in the newspaper of those condemned and killed by the Bolshevik secret police.

Victims Of Stalin

Gumilyov, also a gifted poet, was just one among many of Akhmatova's loved ones and friends who would be shot, sent to labor camps or driven into exile starting in the years of the Russian Revolution through the Stalin era.

In the 1920s, Akhmatova moved into the apartment that ultimately became her museum. She lived with her lover, Nikolay Punin, a noted teacher and art critic. It was a communal flat by then, with multiple families and little space.

Near the entrance, Nisnikova points to a small window with a view of a stairwell. It's the window of the former bathroom. When unexpected strangers appeared at the door, the adults in the apartment would ask their children to climb up on the bathtub, peer out the window and describe the visitors.

This is, Nisnikova says, "the real evidence of the total fear that lived in the hearts of people in our city during the very severe period of mass terror, Stalin's repressions."

The fear was that the strange visitors might be secret police, coming to take someone away.

That fear was realized when Punin was arrested and jailed, along with Akhmatova's son, Lev Gumilyov. The poet became one in a long line of women who waited outside the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) prison to catch a glimpse of their loved ones or bring them bread.

She later wrote about the experience as one that gave her a new artistic purpose: to be a witness to history. She spent 17 months waiting in prison lines.

One day, someone approached her.

"On this occasion, there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who of course had never in her life heard my name," Akhmatova recalled. "And then she asked me, 'Could one ever describe this? I answered her, 'I can.'"

Akhmatova kept her promise with the cycle of poems called "Requiem." She composed it in secret, and at one point was even afraid to keep a manuscript. She wrote down fragments for her friends, who memorized them. The fragments were then burned. "It was like a ritual," her friend Lydia Chukovskay recalled. "Hands, matches, an ashtray. A ritual beautiful and bitter."

"Requiem" wasn't published in the Soviet Union until more than 20 years after Akhmatova's death, but it became well known among her friends and admirers.

She dedicated "Requiem" to the victims of Stalin's terror. It includes these lines:

"(And if ever in this country
They decide to erect a monument to me,

I consent to that honor
Under these conditions — that it stand

Neither by the sea, where I was born:
My last tie with the sea is broken,

Nor in the tsar's garden near the cherished pine stump,
Where an inconsolable shade looks for me,

But here, where I stood for three hundred hours,
And where they never unbolted the doors for me)."

Anna Akhmatova — and her son — outlived Stalin and many of his henchmen, and she won recognition from generations of younger poets who came after her.

She died of a heart attack in 1966, when she was 76. Forty years later, a statue of her was erected in St. Petersburg, across from the prison where she and countless others used to wait.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now a line from the 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

(Reading) You will hear thunder and remember me, and think, she wanted storms.

Akhmatova witnessed the tumultuous years of the Russian Revolution and the horrors of Stalin's repression. Now there's a growing interest in her as a beacon of artistic courage in modern Russia. NPR's Corey Flintoff has this look back at her life.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: One way to glimpse Anna Akhmatova is here in the St. Petersburg apartment where she lived for some 30 years. It's a museum now, where guide Maria Nisnikova points out mementos of a woman who lived in glamorous artistic circles before the revolution and faced ruthless persecution during the Soviet era.

MARIA NISNIKOVA: And you can see here different documents, photographs, personal belongings of Anna Akhmatova.

FLINTOFF: There's her music, too, to suggest the vibrancy of her life. Akhmatova came from a family of Russian and Tatar nobility. The pen name she chose for herself derives from an ancestor who was a Tartar khan. She was beautiful, dark-haired and angular with a prominent hooked nose. Artists loved to draw her in profile.

NISNIKOVA: This portrait is really very nice, and we know that Akhmatova always directed artists. And there are more than 200 portraits of Anna Akhmatova. Can you imagine?

FLINTOFF: The Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani fell in love with her in Paris and painted more than a dozen portraits of her. She was a sensation, a celebrity of modernist poetry in what was called the Silver Age, before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Akhmatova was known for spare, insightful poems about the ambiguities of love. She was married and divorced twice.

NISNIKOVA: This is the last photo of the first husband to Anna Akhmatova, Nikolay Gumilyov. He was arrested on the 3 of August, 1921, and he was put into prison. And three weeks, later he was secretly executed.

FLINTOFF: Akhmatova's former husband, also a gifted poet, was just one of many of her loved ones and friends who would be shot, sent to the labor camps or driven into the exile from the Russian Revolution through the Stalinist era. Around 1926, she moved into this apartment with her lover, Nikolay Punin, a noted teacher and art critic. It was a communal flat, by that time, with multiple families and little space.

Her poetry was officially banned. Punin was arrested, along with Akhmatova's son. And she became one of a long line of women who waited outside the prison to catch a glimpse of them or bring them bread. She later wrote about the experience that gave her a new artistic purpose to be a witness to history. She said she spent 17 months waiting in prison lines in Leningrad until one day, someone picked her out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: On this occasion, there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. And then she asked me, could one ever describe this? I answered her, I can.

FLINTOFF: Akhmatova kept her promise with a cycle of poems called "Requiem." She composed it in secret and at one point was even afraid to keep a manuscript of it. It wasn't published in the Soviet Union until more than 20 years after her death. But she did record "Requiem" in her own voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNA AKHMATOVA: (Through interpreter) It happened like this when only the dead were smiling, glad of their release, that Leningrad hung around its prisons, like a worthless emblem flapping its piece...

FLINTOFF: The poem was dedicated to the victims of Stalin's terror. Anna Akhmatova and her son outlived Stalin and many of his henchmen. And she won recognition from the generation of younger poets that came after her. She died of a heart attack in 1966 when she was 76 years old. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.