In 1906, a 17-year-old girl named Anna Andreyevna Gorenko told her father, a Ukrainian naval engineer, of her literary aspirations. Faced with the prospect of having a “decadent poetess” in the family, he implored her not to dishonor his name. So she began writing poetry as Anna Akhmatova. The pseudonym stuck.
In later life, Akhmatova wrote a four-line poem called “Name”: “Dense, Tatar,/It came out of nowhere,/Sticking to any possible misfortune,/It is itself a misfortune.” Throughout her career, this self-styled Cassandra predicted horrible disasters, and the disasters really happened; she was pursued in life by the themes from her poetry. But she also had a kind of “white magic,” an eye for concrete detail, and an indefatigable interest in life and in other people. These gifts protected her from melodrama, made her a great poet and earned her many friends.
During the Writers’ Congress of 1959, Akhmatova was visited in her room at the Metropole Hotel by a strange woman who had come to present her apologies. Not only was this woman’s name also Akhmatova, but she too wrote poetry, albeit in Ossetian. Anna received her double graciously and “chatted happily” with her for hours. “The two Akhmatovas got on very well,” Nadezhda Mandelstam recalled, “and when her namesake had left, Anna Andreyevna said sadly: ‘She’s a genuine Akhmatova and I am not.'”
“The two Akhmatovas got on very well”: Indeed, Anna Akhmatova got along with everybody. In her old age a thyroid condition made her “catastrophically fat” and destroyed all traces of her youthful beauty; still she was surrounded to the end of her days by young admirers, including Joseph Brodsky. In the words of Nadezhda Mandelstam: “Hordes of women and battalions of men of the most widely differing ages can testify to her great gift for friendship, to a love of mischief which never deserted her even in her declining years, to the way in which, sitting at a table with vodka and zakuski, she could be so funny that everybody fell off their chairs from laughter.”
Nadezhda Mandelstam’s description could not be more different from Akhmatova’s public persona. She was an icon: Cleopatran, tubercular, glamorous, her adopted name inseparable from her image. Everyone knew her high cheekbones and slightly hooded eyes, photographed by Moses Nappelbaum; everyone knew the drawings by Amedeo Modigliani, with their Egyptian simplicity. In the words of her friend and biographer Lydia Chukovskaya, Akhmatova was chiseled by her fate into “a statue of grief, loneliness, pride, courage.”
A beautiful poetess writes unhappy love poems about her unhappy love affairs, becomes a symbol of suffering, lives through the Revolution and the Stalinist terror, “repents,” abandons her frivolous love poems, takes on big historical subjects, becomes an icon of not just her own suffering but the suffering of her people: This is the received story of Akhmatova’s life, a flat before/after trajectory from the aesthetic (and bad) to the ethical (and good). In her disappointing new biography, Anna of All the Russias, Elaine Feinstein basically retells this story, approvingly noting “the transformation of the ‘gay little sinner’…into the voice of a whole people’s suffering.” (Like most of Akhmatova’s biographers, Feinstein is also prone to lapse into the unproductive discourses of Soviet-era biographical criticism: Was Akhmatova “only” a bourgeois love poet, or did she have a historical conscience?) It is a fable that does justice neither to Akhmatova’s life, with its complexity and change, nor to her richly layered work, with its synthesis of superstition, religion and prophecy, of Greek drama and the Russian novel, of fairy-tale schematism and everyday specificity.