Sweetbrier in Blossom
From a Burnt Notebook
“You invented me. There is no such earthly being,
Such an earthly being there could never be.
A doctor cannot cure, a poet cannot comfort
A shadowy apparition haunts you night and day.
We met in an unbelievable year,
When the world’s strength was at an ebb,
Everything withered by adversity,
And only the graves were fresh.
Without streetlights, the Neva’s waves were black as pitch,
Thick night enclosed me like a wall …
That’s when my voice called out to you!
Why it did I still don’t understand.
And you came to me, as if guided by a star
That tragic autumn, stepping
Into that irrevocably ruined house,
From whence had flown a flock of burnt verse.”
An incredible human being: during her lifetime Anna saw famine and wars and repression and resistance and revolution. There were false charges and secret surveillance and purges and imprisonments and executions. Millions of people died. There was literary censorship. Her first husband was executed. Her second husband died from tuberculosis. Her third husband died in prison. Her son was imprisoned several times
Anna herself contracted typhus and tuberculosis. She lost touch with her family. She was labeled “half harlot, half nun,” probably with many connotations. The secret police kept her under constant surveillance. The majority of her life was lived out amid loss and grief and in poverty. Nancy Anderson writes, “Like a nun she saw herself as having a vocation that required her either to live on the charity of others or go without.” She did earn some money from translation. For thirty years she had no home of her own and lived as a guest with others. When she was expelled from the writer’s union, she lost access to food ration cards. By the end of her life, though, the government finally awarded her a small pension and an even smaller cottage.
Akhmatova could have fled like some others but chose not to.
She stayed to write the stories, to honor the dead, and to keep memories alive. James Joyce wrote in Ulysses, “You cannot leave your mother an orphan.” She later modified the line to “You cannot leave your Motherland an orphan.” There was much government opposition to her work and her apartment was secretly bugged, but she loved her country, and the Russian people loved her.
She and her friends helped each other—whether taking up collections for clothing or even memorizing each others’ words. Once, in August of 1920, Larisa Reisner, a former mistress of Akhmatova’s first husband, visited and found Anna “emaciated and dressed in rags, boiling soup in a borrowed saucepan.” Reisner used her connections to get food, clothing, and medical care for Akhmatova’s second husband, Vladimir Shileyko, and arranged for Akhmatova to get a library job.
Anna’s friends helped keep her work alive. Through a kind of whisper network, they preserved one another’s lines and stanzas before they burned the original copies. Requiem, one of Anna’s most famous pieces, maybe the most important, was “written” this way. She composed it over several years, but could not speak it or leave any trace of its words. It was a dangerous work, especially since it explicitly named Nikolay Yezhov, chief of the secret police during Stalin’s Great Terror.
There is so much rubbish on TV and ‘in the movies’ nowadays. So called ‘historical dramas’ are nothing of the sort. Fiction – and poor fiction at that! There are so many good stories to tell. Anna’s life, for starters.