Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1793
In Russia, poets enjoy the kind of popularity that Western cultures reserve for film and rock stars. Like many other Russian children, Lydia Chukovskaya read and memorized poetry from an early age, and her favorite poet was Anna Akhmatova. Lydia’s father, Korney Chukovsky, a well-known writer of children’s stories and a literary critic, took his thirteen-year-old daughter to meet Akhmatova, and Lydia was overwhelmed that she was meeting her idol in person. In 1938, Chukovskaya met Akhmatova once again, in Leningrad, and she was to become Akhmatova’s close friend and confidante. Chukovskaya’s The Akhmatova Journals begin with that meeting and go on to describe the way Akhmatova and other Russians struggled to survive during the Stalinist era, a time of wholesale persecution and mass murder during which no Russian was safe.
Students of Akhmatova’s life and work are fortunate that Chukovskaya’s diaries were written and survived. Chukovskaya was accepted by Akhmatova both because of her loyal support and because she had a vast knowledge and intuitive grasp of Russian literature. As their friendship developed, Akhmatova came to rely on Chukovskaya’s help not only with the difficulties of daily life in one of the darkest eras of Russian history, but also with advice regarding the poet’s work. Chukovskaya helped Akhmatova organize her works for publication, check and correct proofs of her works, and determine how the works should be punctuated. Ultimately, however, Chukovskaya provided the most important service to Akhmatova and her readers by memorizing Akhmatova’s works, thereby ensuring their survival in an era when many of the poet’s greatest works could not be committed to paper because of the political persecution that would be sure to follow. In a ritual that recurs throughout the journals, Chukovskaya would study a poem until she had memorized it, after which Akhmatova would light a match and burn the manuscript.
Anna Akhmatova’s life had not always been one of suffering and deprivation. Born in 1889 into the aristocratic Gorenko family, Akhmatova fell in love with poetry early on, and she never considered being anything except a poet. She took the name Akhmatova when her father told her that her poetry would bring shame to the Gorenko name. She selected the name because her family traced its history back to Khan Akhmat, the last of the Tatar rulers to control Russia. By selecting the name Akhmatova, the young poet both rejected her father’s attitude toward poetry and paid tribute to her family’s history.
Akhmatova began to publish her verses in her early twenties; her first verse collection, Vecher(evening), came out in 1912, and her second, Chetki (rosary), was published in 1914. Almost immediately, she achieved the kind of success that most writers dream about all their lives. It was clear to everyone who had any understanding of literature that Akhmatova was a powerful force in Russian poetry. Like many other writers of her time, she wrote most often about love, and particularly about unrequited love; unlike all but a handful of poets, however, she wrote in a new way. Because of her tremendous knowledge and understanding of Russian literature, she was able to assimilate the techniques of the past. For this reason, Akhmatova’s work can be seen as falling squarely within the tradition of Russian poetry. At the same time, however, she found new ways to convey meaning.
When Akhmatova began her writing career, the work of the Symbolists held sway in Russia. She respected the Symbolists—especially Aleksandr Blok—but, along with Osip Mandelstam, Nikolay Gumilyov (who became her first husband in 1910), and a few others, she founded a school of poetry called Acmeism, which declared symbolic writing passé. The Acmeists rejected the techniques of Symbolism in order to create works that focused on the details of daily life. Akhmatova’s writing used concrete images to portray the psychological states experienced by the people about whom she wrote, and it did so in a way that was acclaimed not only by critics, but also by the reading public.
Akhmatova became a kind of icon of Russian literature in the tremendously creative era that literary critics call the Silver Age of Russian literature and art. In the years before the Russian Revolution broke out, Akhmatova came to symbolize all that was best in Russian literature. In addition, she was a beautiful woman who seemed to have an innate gift for attracting attention. Many of her contemporaries have mentioned that when Akhmatova entered a room, usually wearing her trademark shawl, everyone else was eclipsed. She became a superstar, and the public watched her every move. She was often seen reading in public, especially in the famous Stray Dog cabaret in St. Petersburg, where well-known writers, actors, and musicians of the day gathered to socialize and perform.
Akhmatova’s fame worked against her when the Bolsheviks seized power. The Communist Party set about to tear down the old society and build a new one, and the old values no longer held. For the Communists, Akhmatova was a symbol of the old regime. Love poetry was a relic of the bourgeois past—something to be discarded. All art had to promote the good of the state. It did not help that Akhmatova had spent much of her youth living in Tsarskoye Selo (“czar’s village”), the town in which the czar had maintained a residence. The place was a symbol of aristocratic decadence. Akhmatova’s life, like her work, was anathema to the Communist view of life and society.
After the revolution, Akhmatova’s life became tremendously difficult. She was rarely able to publish her work, and when she did manage to publish a new collection of verse, most of her best work could not be included. In spite of these problems, however, Akhmatova continued to write. She wrote about the difficulties of life in the new Soviet state, and ultimately she came to symbolize persistence and survival in the face of tremendous suffering.
Chukovskaya’s journal about Akhmatova begins in 1938, a year of unbelievable horror for the Russian people. In 1937, Nikolay Ezhov took over the directorship of the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, and unleashed a reign of terror that has no parallel in Russian history. The era of the Ezhov Terror was a time when no one was safe. The NKVD had orders to arrest a certain percentage of the Russian population, and it has been estimated that some eight million people were spirited away by the secret police during that era. Ultimately, Ezhov and his henchmen, after losing power in July of 1938, were themselves executed.
The lives of Akhmatova and innumerable other Russians were torn apart by the political purges of the Stalinist era, which lasted from 1924 to 1953. Nikolay Gumilyov, Akhmatova’s first husband, was executed in 1921 because he had allegedly conspired against the state. In 1935, their son, Lev Gumilyov, was arrested and released. He was arrested again in 1938 and was held by the authorities for seventeen months. Chukovskaya’s journals record Akhmatova’s efforts to intercede with the authorities on her son’s behalf. They also mention Akhmatova’s attempts to send letters and packages to her son, and to other incarcerated individuals about whom she cared deeply. It was also during the time period covered by the journals that Akhmatova wrote much of her great work Rekviem (1963; Requiem, 1964), which focuses on the suffering of those whose loved ones had been imprisoned or killed by the secret police.
Chukovskaya shows the many facets of Akhmatova. Her diary witnesses the poet’s bravery in the face of both political persecution and her own irrational fears. This woman, who was able to help her friends and neighbors at tremendous risk to herself, was sometimes afraid to walk upstairs or cross the street. Courage was important to her. In one entry, discussing a friend’s refusal to have a necessary operation, Akhmatova says, “Death—that’s what will happen. That’s the punishment for cowardice!” The book also records many conversations between Chukovskaya and Akhmatova on the subject of literature. One of many interesting topics of conversation was the revulsion Akhmatova held for Leo Tolstoy, the great novelist. Akhmatova was particularly incensed by Tolstoy’s treatment of his fictional character Anna Karenina. According to her, “The entire novel is based on a false physiological and psychological premise. . . . Tolstoy wanted to prove that a woman who leaves her lawful husband is a prostitute. And his attitude towards her is vile.”
Chukovskaya’s remarkable work is invaluable for the light that it sheds on Akhmatova’s life and views, and it provides many remarkable vignettes that give the reader the flavor of life under Stalin. It will be particularly enlightening for those who already know something about both Akhmatova and Russian history. For various reasons, however, the book is not a good place to begin a study of Akhmatova. Because of the danger of keeping such a journal, many of Chukovskaya’s entries are written in a sort of code. She sometimes uses key words to refer to works or incidents that are not mentioned in the text itself. In some cases, the author explains these entries in footnotes, but in others, even Chukovskaya has forgotten what she meant at the time. Throughout the book, Chukovskaya and Akhmatova refer to friends and acquaintances by using only their names and patronymics, which often makes it difficult to keep track of the people who are being discussed. The book does include a list of personages that makes it possible to look up individuals by first names and patronymics, but going back and forth is a time-consuming and distracting process. It would be wise for anyone who wishes to read Chukovskaya’s journals first to read a biography of Akhmatova, such as Roberta Reeder’s Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet (1994).
One of the most useful features of The Akhmatova Journals is the inclusion of translations of some of Akhmatova’s poems. As Chukovskaya says, they are “Those without which my entries would be hard to understand.” It is unfortunate, however, that the edition does not include an introduction dealing with Akhmatova’s life and placing Chukovskaya’s work in historical perspective. The book does include a workable index that makes it a useful tool for the student of literary history and biography.
Sources for Further Study
Belles Lettres. IX, Summer, 1994, p. 79.
Chicago Tribune. July 31, 1994, XIV, p. 4.
Library Journal. CXIX, April 15, 1994, p. 73.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 1, 1994, p. 3.
New Statesman and Society. VII, June 10, 1994, p. 40.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, July 10, 1994, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, January 24, 1994, p. 44.
The Times Literary Supplement. August 5, 1994, p. 21.
The Wall Street Journal. VII, May 25, 1994, p. A14.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, April 24, 1994, p. 2.
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