By James Dempsey
Worcester, MA, USA
The Moscow Times reported recently on Russian theaters and their struggle to cope with President Vladimir Putin's most recent censorship law, which, among other things, bans cursing in the mass media, including theater, television, cinema, and literature. This follows on the heels on another edict requiring bloggers to register with the government.
Russia is no stranger to censorship and the mistreatment of artists. Of late I've been reading the poems of Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet born in 1889 who rose to fame in the teens of the last century and continued to produce verse until just weeks before her death in 1966. She was a prolific writer, and the English edition of her work, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer and edited by Roberta Reeder, is a 900-page tome that offers, beside the verse, a translator's preface, an editor's discussion of Akhmatova's life and works, a memoir by British philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, and a chronology, all of which is most useful in appreciating a poet who wrote so much over a lifetime that was full of tragedy and triumph.
Even Akhmatova's name came about through repression. She was born Anna Gorenko, but her father was scandalized after reading her work and would not allow her to use the family name for fear of bringing shame on the family.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1918, Akhmatova found herself under the suspecting eyes of the Soviet because of her upper-class birth and her activity in poetry circles. In 1921 her first husband was executed by firing squad for his alleged involvement with counterrevolutionaries, and her son was imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s. Following Trotsky's belittling of her verse and the Communist Party's banning of her work in 1925, she and other poets turned to the oral tradition, memorizing their own and each other's poems, which were in turn read and recited by prisoners in the gulags. By the 1950s, following the death of Stalin, the authorities reluctantly began to recognize Akhmatova's importance as a poet, but her work continued to the censored up to and including the publication of Flight of Time in 1965. "Fate did not leave anything out for me," she said. "Everything everyone could possibly experience fell to my lot."
Akhmatova began publishing in the Modernist period, and her early poems have something of the Imagist emphasis on precise observation of the world. She had not only a talent for the short lyric but also for long interconnected pieces. She writes of love and passion with the same careful observation and lack of sentimentality as she does of politics and the Stalinist terrors.
Her best-known piece is Requiem, a series of connected poems about the Great Purge, recalling her attempts to visit her son in jail. The work is both poem and journalism, setting down the human truth of what imprisonment meant for the imprisoned and for their grieving families, who were rarely allowed to visit and who rarely knew whether their loved ones were dead or alive. In the Requiem piece "Instead of a Preface", she describes being approached by another woman while waiting to visit her son who recognized her as a writer. She asked, "Can you describe this?" Akhmatova answered, "Yes I can." Then, wrote the poet, "something like a smile passed over what had once been her face."
The dedication of Requiem gives one a sense of the helplessness felt by those so abused by the state: "Mountains bow down to this grief, / Might rivers cease to flow, / But the prison gates hold firm, / And behind them are the prisoners' burrows / And mortal woe."
Despite the horrors she lived through, Akhmatova chose to remain in Russia her whole life, apart from a few trips abroad to see friends and receive various honors. Russia was her home and Russian her language and literature, and even though she was denounced by the authorities as an "internal émigré", she chose to stay.
For those who view poetry as merely decorative and the poet as an esthete out of touch with the granular actuality of the world as it is, I recommend the tough, vulnerable, loving, angry poems of Anna Akhmatova.