“And the role of the fatal chorus / I agree to take on” — Anna Akhmatova

“This I pray at your liturgy
After so many tormented days,
So that the stormcloud over darkened Russia
Might become a cloud of glorious rays.”
— Anna Akhmatova, “Prayer”

Anna Akhmatova – born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko on this day – lived a life so epic – so tragic – the mind blunders around to even get a handle on it. She was a renowned poet in Russia prior to the Revolution, well-known in the cafe culture, and a major player in the bohemian Russian world. She was also a siren. Wives feared her, and they were right to. She drew people to her like moths to a flame. She had beauty, personality, self-possession – in short: personal charisma. You met her once, you never forgot her. There are a couple of famous “portraits” of her, which show her allure, the drive that male painters had to try to capture her. The first is by Nathan Altman:

But it is her liaison with Modigliani that was the most productive. He filled notebooks with sketches of her, sometimes using just one line to suggest her body. There’s an Aubrey-Beardsley-ish surreal-evocative quality to the most famous of these sketches:

You can look up the whole Akhmatova-Modigliani relationship – it was fascinating.

But it is not for all this she is known, primarily, although it’s part of her aura. She wrote about what was going on in Russia, poems about WWI, about death, about Russian life… and after the Revolution, with the good old Bolsheviks in charge, her work was suppressed. She struggled for years, writing poems that could never be published. Through all of this, her legend kept growing. Stalin “let her live,” mainly because she was too famous already to kill. (Similar to Mikhail Bulgakov’s experience.)

More about this extraordinary courageous woman after the jump:


Clive James devotes a chapter to Akhmatova in his indispensable Cultural Amnesia, and writes:

Akhmatova was the embodiment of the Russian liberal heritage that the authoritarians felt bound to go on threatening long after it surrendered. As such, she was an inspiring symbol, but when a poet becomes better known than her poems it usually means she is being sacrificed, for extraneous reasons, on the altar of her own glory. In Akhmatova’s case, the extraneous reasons were political. It should be a mark of reasonable politics that a woman like her is not called upon to be a heroine.

Read that last sentence again. And again.

Here’s the poem she wrote about the day Germany declared war on Russia (August 1 in our calendar).

In Memoriam, July 19, 1914
Translated by Stephen Edgar

We aged a hundred years and this descended
In just one hour, as at a stroke.
The summer had been brief and now was ended;
The body of the ploughed plains lay in smoke.

The hushed road burst in colors then, a soaring
Lament rose, ringing silver like a bell.
And so I covered up my face, imploring
God to destroy me before battle fell.

And from my memory the shadows vanished
Of songs and passions—-burdens I’d not need.
The Almighty bade it be-—with all else banished—-
A book of portents terrible to read.

Her whole life was “a book of portents terrible to read.” Akhmatova felt she had prophetic gifts, felt she was a Cassandra, and many of her friends agreed. She was tuned to a higher frequency. She could sense when “things” were coming. As the Revolution heated up, she was living in St. Petersburg, and many of her circle chose to flee the country. They could sense the “book of portents” and that their “bourgeoi and the “bourgeois” now had huge targets on their backs. (They were right.) Akhmatova stayed. Like Bulgakov stayed. She couldn’t picture not being in Russia, she couldn’t and wouldn’t picture being forced into exile. In 1919, she wrote a poem about this:

from “Petrograd 1919”
No one wants to help us
Because we stayed home,
Because, loving our city
And not winged freedom,
We preserved for ourselves
Its palaces, its fire and water.

It took a while for the real crackdowns to come, for the new regime to solidify itself enough to locate the enemies they needed to suppress/control/eradicate. Those were busy frantic years full of world-shaking events: the First World War, the Revolution, the Russian Civil War, … all took place practically simultaneously. Madness! Akhmatova was patriotic, in the truest and purest sense of the word … and her poems during this period were all about being Russian, about her devastation at the destruction of what she considered to be Russian values, Russian life. She was not wrong: The Bolsheviks were interlopers, remember. The leaders all took trains in from Germany (an exaggeration, but not by much). She felt the Bolsheviks as an alien force.

Here’s her devastating poem, written in the tumultuous fall of 1917:

When in anguish suicide

When in anguish suicide
People waiting for the German guests,
And the spirit of stern Byzantinism
From the Russian Church forth to,

When the Neva capital,
Forgetting his greatness,
How drunk whore,
Dont know, who takes her,

I heard a voice. He called consoling,
He said: “Go here,
Leave your edge, deaf and sinful,
Leave Russia forever.
I have blood on your hands otmoyu,
From the heart pull out the black shame,
I’ll cover a new name
The pain of defeat and resentment”.

But indifference and calm Hands,
I closed the hearing,
To this speech unworthy
Not defiled sorrowful spirit.

When this poem was published, it appeared with several lines excised, another chapter in the “book of portents” and an ominous sign of things to come. A collection of her work came out in 1922. (Side note: what the hell was going ON in 1922 with writers?? A short list of who published what that year: T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows, Volume 4 of Marcel Proust’s massive In Search of Lost Time (or: Remembrance of Things Past), Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room – a departure for her, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt – I mean, I could go on … F. Scott Fitzgerald was active that year too – and then Akhmatova, worldwide, shit was going ON).

But for Russia, 1922 was a crucial year. The tide was about to turn, catastrophe loomed. The deep-freeze had arrived. The enemies were no longer external but internal. A war against the bourgeoisie (so-called) and the Kulaks (so-called) began. Millions upon millions would die in this war against completely fabricated internal enemies. Russian writers, already persecuted and suppressed, adjusted their styles and subject matter as a matter of survival (literally). Very good writers began to write poems like: “All hail Socialism, all hail the glorious Bolshevik liberators, all hail the proletariat, long live Lenin”. Much of this work is no longer readable in any way whatsoever, and you wonder what might have happened, had these writers been allowed to write what they want. This is why I am very very wary of censorship, coming from the right or the left. You need to consider worst-case scenarios and end-games. Language can and does freeze up. And nobody should want that. Dictators want that. Big Brother wants that. Freedom of speech is precious – and difficult.

Meanwhile, Akhmatova wrote poems mourning the loss of the cultural continuum. This story is a reminder that without history a culture cannot live or thrive. This is one of the dangers of thinking you can “cancel” the past, as opposed to grappling with its complexities, ambiguities and reversals. You can’t “cancel” the things that already happened. You have to DEAL with them. The past can’t be canceled because it’s the past, it happened. (Thinking of Orwell’s “memory holes” in 1984, as well as this, from 1984:

Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past.

In the USSR, Stalin went after the past, and he went after it hard, obliterating it to such a degree that Russia still hasn’t recovered. It’s still difficult to find accurate information about Stalin, for example, he did such a thorough job of erasing all traces of himself. There is the famous example of Stalin airbrushing people out of photographs, once they were “out of favor.” Photos that had 10 people in them originally would end up showing just two people, one of whom was Stalin. Who can say what’s true? It’s a photograph so it MUST be true. Trotsky was eliminated from the pictures of the Revolution, even though he was a far more central figure to the Revolution than Stalin ever was. (I always remember Menshevik politician Nikolai Sukhanov’s chilling comment that Stalin, in those early days of the Revolution, “gave me the impression…of a grey blur which flickered obscurely and left no trace. There is really nothing more to be said about him.) But once Stalin took over, Trotsky was airbrushed out of everything and turned into a monstrous phantom enemy on which the entire nation could focus all their rage. Trotsky was one of the “excuses” Stalin needed to … kill basically everyone, as part of this or that conspiracy organized by the omnipresent Trotsky (so Trotsky was a sniveling weak traitor, but he was also all-powerful like a God, in Stalin’s created mythology. This contradiction was never addressed. It didn’t have to be. The populace was so traumatized and terrorized they heard all the dog-whistles and followed the call). SO. In THIS crazy-making environment, Akhmatova mourning the past was a huge no-no. The past had been obliterated by the Revolution. 1917 was Year One. A reset. (Look out for those calling for a reset. The French Revolution went through the same thing, as wave after wave of terror annihilated everyone involved. Robespierre was a ferocious leader, who then found himself on the wrong side of it all, and lost his head. It happened to all of them. This is Tyranny Playbook. The BOOMERANG of reprisals. Don’t get too bloodthirsty because – mark my words – you’re next.)

Akhmatova almost overnight became not only passe, but perceived as dangerously retro. Reactionary, even, in the through-the-looking-glass-world of the Russian Revolution. She was called “bourgeois” – the literal worst possible name you could be called in Revolutionary Russia. A death sentence. It didn’t take long. By 1925, she was no longer allowed to publish anything, and all of her previous work was suppressed. Anna Akhmatova was erased, air-brushed out of history.

Clive James again:

If there had been no revolution, Akhmatova could have made her seductive nature her subject, in the manner of Edna St. Vincent Millay but to an even greater effect. History denied her the opportunity to sublimate her frailties. It made her a heroine instead. There were crueller fates available in Stalinist Russia, but that one was cruel enough. What we have to grasp is that it needn’t have happened to her. History needn’t have been like that.

She did what she could to survive. She worked as a translator, mostly, and this was probably arranged by her more well-regarded friends, who tried to help her out. She did end up writing some patriotic (grotesque) poems praising Stalin, praising Socialism, praising how happy everyone was in Russia post-Revolution. She needed the money. She did what she had to do. Her personal life was extremely complicated. She married twice – unhappily both times. Her only son, Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev, was born in 1912, pre-Revolution when she was still a glittering light in bohemian circles. She cut a swath through the available men in town – I say this with admiration, not judgment – and men lost their minds over her. She was not “made” for monogamy, and lived a communal life, post-Revolution, with one of her lovers and a number of his other mistresses. Akhmatova set herself up in a corner of a room, lying on a ratty divan, writing and chain-smoking.

Imagine writing constantly, knowing that none of it will ever be published. Knowing that you would be killed if authorities discovered it. Akhmatova died in 1966. Much of her work would not appear in Russia until the late 1980s/1990s. Her reputation never diminished, she was never forgotten among the people, and there were secret smuggled copies of her work all over Russia.

And now to “Requiem” – written during the horrifying years of The Great Terror, 1935-1940. Her son Lev was imprisoned, mainly because of who his father was (a supposed “counterrevolutionary”). The engine of Bolshevik Russia was guilt by association (another thing I am very very wary of, as well as blaming children for the “sins of the fathers”.) Akhmatova’s son was kept in a prison in Leningrad, before being shipped out to forced-labor camps. He was imprisoned from 1935-1956. Twenty-one years. For no reason. THIS is the end-game of guilt by association.

Akhmatova went crazy – literally – trying to figure out where he was being held. She had no idea where he was, if he were alive or dead. She got up at dawn every day, and went to stand in line outside the prison in Leningrad, waiting to hear what had happened to her son. By this point, she was like a ghost in Russia, a figure from a long-forgotten past. People remember seeing her there every day in line, in the frigid cold, wrapped in shawls, every day, every day, waiting endlessly to see her imprisoned son. This was when Akhmatova started “Requiem” – one of the masterworks of the 20th century.

Illustration for Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem’

She would write the verses, and then whisper them to her friends, who memorized them, line by line. She then burned the scraps on which she had written the poem. Each section is dated (not sure if she dated them herself), so one stanza was written in 1935, one in 1937, one in 1940 … which gives you a feel for the background anguish and horror. “Requiem” lived in the minds of people who heard it, Akhmatova’s close friends, all women. Akhmatova described this process of passing on her written work verbally, commanding her friends to commit it to memory, as “pre-Gutenberg”. The people who heard it would then whisper it to others, and then those people memorized it and whispered it to others, and on and on. AND, when Akhmatova went back and revised or edited earlier passages, she’d then pass on the EDITS to her friends, who would then memorize the edits. Please picture this! I am lost in admiration for this woman, for artists everywhere. There’s a reason artists – and the press – are always the first on the chopping block of any dictator. If you want to be a dictator, ruling over silent masses who do what you say, the first order of the day is You gotta get rid of freedom of speech, you gotta gotta gotta.

“Requiem” is a very long poem. No actual physical copy existed. It was in people’s MINDS and that’s how it survived. The poem indicts an entire system, totalitarianism itself. It was probably the most famous poem in Russia and it had never been printed anywhere. Requiem starts with a small section titled “Instead of a Preface”:

During the terrifying years of the Yezhov repressions, I spent seventeen
months in Leningrad prison lines. One time, someone thought they
recognized me. Then a woman standing behind me, who of course had
never heard my name, stirred from her own, though common to all of
us, stupor and asked in my ear (there, all spoke in a whisper):
—Could you describe this?
And I said:
—I can.
Then, something akin to a smile slipped across what once had been
her face.

Here’s just one painful stanza, written in 1939 – even just writing that date makes me shiver. The year Germany invaded Poland. The year of the secret Molotov-Rippentrop pact. Gigantic forces moving yet again to war, a war in which Russia would lose more people than every other country put together – a whole generation lost. Akhmatova:

For seventeen months straight I scream,
Calling for you to come home, please,
Throwing myself at the executioner’s feet;
You are my son and also my nightmare.
Now, everything is confused for the ages.
Now I will never manage to untangle
Who is an animal and who a human being,
Nor how long I’ll wait till the death sentence
Is carried out. Only the dust-covered flowers,
And the ringing of the censer, and the tracks
Into some unknown realm of uncertainty.
Staring in my face, directly into my eyes,
It threatens me with an impending death,
That all-engulfing and engorged star.

In one section, she heeds the call of the woman in line outside the prison, she feels the full responsibility of being a writer in an oppressive society:

I’d like to name them all by name,
But the list has been confiscated and is nowhere to be found.
I have woven a wide mantle for them
From their meager, overheard words.

The final section, builds and builds, devastatingly, crushingly. She had no idea how long she would live, but as far as she was concerned, her life was over. Her voice suppressed. Her son vanished. Her work abolished. She imagines the monument that will be built to her eventually (and there are, indeed, many). She knows where she wants it to stand: she wants it outside the prison, where she spent almost 2 years, in line, day after day after day.

And should they shut my tortured mouth
From which a hundred million people shout,

Then let them remember me as well
On the anniversary of my funeral.

And if they ever in this, our country,
Consider erecting to me a monument,

I give my whole-hearted consent,
But with one condition—do not

Put it by the sea where I was born;
My last connection with the sea is torn.

Not in Tsar’s Garden, by the famous stump,
Where an unrequited shade searches for me,

But here, where I stood three hundred hours
And where for me the gate opened never.

Because even in blessed death, I am afraid
I will forget the Black Maria’s thundering.

Forget how, the frozen door slamming shut,
An old woman like a wounded beast howled.

And may from under immobile bronze lids
A flood of tears run as a stream of snowmelt,

And a prisoner’s pigeon coo in the distance,
And on the Neva River ships glide quietly.

If you want to read the whole poem – and you should read the whole poem – you can find a copy online here.

If you want to read more about Akhmatova’s writing of “Requiem”, and the surrounding context, this is a good article: Requiem: How a poem resisted Stalin.

The poem wasn’t published in the Soviet Union until 1989, over 20 years after her death, and over 50 years after she wrote it. It was considered that dangerous. It was a publishing EVENT.

First edition

She is a hero. But I’m with Clive James. She is a hero because she lived in a brutal country, which crushed her, killed her loved ones, “disappeared” her son, and suppressed her work. How much better it would have been – for all of us – if she hadn’t HAD to be a hero.

—Could you describe this?
And I said:
—I can.

She did.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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3 Responses to “And the role of the fatal chorus / I agree to take on” — Anna Akhmatova

  1. Daniil Adamov says:

    I feel obliged to add that Nikolai Gumilyov was indeed a counter-revolutionary – he was involved in an admittedly utterly quixotic conspiracy against the new regime (that it was quixotic and likely to end in the deaths of everyone involved is something that he knew full well, but he could hardly stay away). I consider his involvement in such a thing to be entirely to his credit. As for Lev Gumilyov, you probably know this, but he did not disappear forever. He was arrested many times during his life, which has by all accounts scarred him, but he also went on to be an accomplished historian and populariser of history.

  2. Tom Nassisi says:

    I thought these two quotes might add something about Gumilyov:

    One of the main reasons why the very gallant Russian poet Gumilev was put to death by Lenin’s ruffians thirty odd years ago was that during the whole ordeal, in the prosecutor’s dim office, in the torture house, in the winding corridors that led to the truck, in the truck that took him to the place of execution, and at that place itself, full of the shuffling feet of the clumsy and gloomy shooting squad, the poet kept smiling. [Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, The Art of Literature and Commonsense, ed. Fredson Bowers]

    Nothing is so helpless as the liberal spirit face to face with fundamentalism. Such brute power can only be met with an equal and opposite moral strength, like that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who prayed for the souls of the machinegunners before whom they fell at Buchenwald, the singing Christians Nero nailed to crosses in the Circus, or Mandelstam’s colleague the poet Gumilyov who crumbled under the volleys of a Soviet firing squad, clutching a Bible and a Homer to his heart. [Guy Davenport, “The Man Without Contemporaries,” The Geography of the Imagination]

    • sheila says:

      Tom – amazing quotes, thank you so much (a belated thank you). I particularly loved the Guy Davenport. Coincidentally (or not) I am reading Hope Against Hope as we speak – where Akhmatova plays, of course, a lead role.

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