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The Passion of Anna | The Nation

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The Passion of Anna

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Akhmatova once said that "the poet works with the very same words that people use to invite each other to tea." For the Acmeists, poetry was part of the real world, as real as an invitation to tea. In Symbolism, the secret to the universe can't be accessed without the key; in Acmeism, the secret is itself the sum of all the keys.

About the Author

Elif Batuman
Elif Batuman is a doctoral candidate in literature at Stanford University. She is also a contributor to the literary...

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For prose scholar Viktor Shklovsky, who lived by the
code of style and studied its depths, an unhappy love affair can be as
much a personal tragedy as a plot device for more writing.

Akhmatova and Gumilyov's union had always been dramatic--in the unhappy years before their marriage, when she spurned his many proposals, he twice tried to kill himself. In 1912, two years after they finally married, their son Lev was born; he would be raised primarily by Gumilyov's mother in the countryside. After eight years of an open marriage and multiple extramarital affairs, the Gumilyovs divorced in 1918. Akhmatova married a diffident Assyrologist, Vladimir Shileiko, from whom she separated a few years later. In 1925 she became deeply involved with the art critic Nikolai Punin and moved into his apartment, where his wife and daughter also lived. Akhmatova and Punin shared the bedroom for thirteen years, after which she asked Punin's wife to "exchange rooms"; she continued to live in the apartment even after she became involved with her next lover.

In the 1930s Lev came to Petersburg to complete his studies; he lived on and off with the Punins. In 1935 he was arrested for no apparent reason and released a month later, after Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak wrote letters to Stalin on his behalf. Lev was arrested again in 1938 and sentenced to five years in Siberia, where he worked in a copper mine, studied geology and nursed bitter grudges against his mother. During his exile, war broke out and he was sent to the front. In 1940 Akhmatova suffered her first heart attack.

The following autumn she was exiled to Tashkent, where she lived for three years with Nadezhda Mandelstam and read poetry in hospitals. She returned to Leningrad in 1944; when Lev was demobilized in 1945, he rejoined her at the Punins'.

That winter, Akhmatova received several visits from the young Isaiah Berlin. While Berlin was at Akhmatova's apartment, his Oxford undergraduate classmate Randolph Churchill (Winston's son) turned up in the courtyard and started yelling up at the window. Churchill, stationed in Leningrad as a journalist, had heard that his old friend was in town and tracked him to Akhmatova's residence, hoping that Berlin could accompany him to his hotel and translate a request to the staff involving some caviar and an icebox. In later years, Berlin was embarrassed by Akhmatova's conviction that "by the mere fact of [their] meeting," they had "started the cold war and thereby changed the history of mankind." But Stalin's paranoid imaginative genius really did make much of this episode. Within days of Berlin's departure, the NKVD came to Akhmatova's apartment and ostentatiously installed a microphone in her ceiling. In 1946 her poetry was officially banned by the Central Committee of the Communist Party; in 1949 both Punin and Lev were arrested. Hoping to improve her son's lot, Akhmatova wrote a propagandistic cycle, In Praise of Peace (1950). Stalin was unmoved. Only in 1956, three years after Stalin's death, was Lev released. Akhmatova died ten years later in a convalescent home near Moscow.

The received narrative of Akhmatova's life is based largely on her poem "Requiem" (1935-40), in which she portrays herself as waiting for news of Lev like Mary after the Crucifixion: "Where the silent Mother stood, there/No one glanced and no one would have dared." (The poem greatly irritated Lev, who, after all, had survived the gulag; he later remarked that it would have been better for his mother's poetry if he had been killed.) In the most frequently quoted passage, Akhmatova ruefully remembers her carefree youth: "You should have been shown, you mocker," she writes, "Gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo,/What would happen in your life--/How three-hundredth in line, with a parcel,/You would stand by the Kresty prison."

In their old age, Akhmatova and Mandelstam periodically engaged in a contest of suffering: Akhmatova would say that compared with her troubles, Pasternak's problems were a mere "battle of butterflies"; Mandelstam would counter that Akhmatova's problems were trivial compared with the sufferings of herself and her husband. It's bad enough when poets compete over who suffered more, but it's incomparably worse when, fifty years later, critics take up the debate. Alas, in Anna of All the Russias, Feinstein unabashedly argues that the value of a poem depends on how much world-historical suffering it sublimates.

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