death and the maiden

What to do when it all seems hope­less and dis­senters are sum­mar­ily ar­rested —and ex­e­cuted.

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CULTURE - Words by pauline fan

“It was a time when only the dead smiled, happy in their peace.”—anna Akhma­tova

Out­side the gates of the dark­ened prison, for 17 months, she stood in end­less lines to pass parcels of food and cloth­ing to her son. One day, in the shadow of those iron gates, some­one in the crowd recog­nised her as the poet well-loved by many: Anna Akhma­tova. The woman stand­ing be­hind her, “with lips blue with cold”, whis­pered to her: “Can you de­scribe this?” The poet replied, “I can.”

It was a de­ci­sive mo­ment for Akhma­tova, one that com­pleted her me­ta­mor­pho­sis from a lyric poet to a poet of bear­ing witness. It urged Akhma­tova to com­pose one of her most pow­er­ful works, “Re­quiem”, an ele­giac cy­cle of po­ems for her ab­sent son and all her fel­low coun­try­men who suf­fered a sim­i­lar fate. At the hour of des­per­a­tion, even the act of prayer seems fu­tile against the mag­ni­tude of loss and grief.

No use to fall down on my knees and beg for mercy’s sake. Noth­ing I counted mine, out of my life, is mine to take: not my son’s ter­ri­ble eyes, not the elab­o­rate stone flower of grief, not the day of the storm, not the trial of the vis­it­ing hour…

This was Rus­sia in 1937-’38, the most bru­tal years of Stalin’s Great Purge. These years be­came known as the “Yezhov Ter­ror”, af­ter Niko­lai Yezhov, the head of the Soviet se­cret po­lice who presided over mass ar­rests, tor­ture and ex­e­cu­tions. At least 600,000 lost their lives in the Great Purge, while mil­lions more were vic­tims of po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion

or lan­guished in un­bear­able liv­ing con­di­tions. The Com­mu­nist Party of the Soviet Union’s rit­ual ‘clean­ing of the party ranks’—which took place pe­ri­od­i­cally, start­ing with the Bol­she­vik purge of 1921 and con­tin­ued un­der Joseph Stalin—now as­sumed a far more sin­is­ter form. Any­one sus­pected of, or “de­nounced” for, overt or covert op­po­si­tion to Stalin was sum­mar­ily elim­i­nated. Many mem­bers of the Old Bol­she­vik Guard were tried in the in­fa­mous Moscow show tri­als and sen­tenced to death.

In­tel­lec­tu­als, writ­ers and artists were not spared the ter­ror. Among the vic­tims of the Great Purge was Akhma­tova’s

close friend and fel­low Acmeist poet Osip Man­del­stam, who was ar­rested in 1934 af­ter recit­ing his satir­i­cal “Stalin Epi­gram” to a gath­er­ing of friends, one of whom be­trayed him to the author­i­ties. Man­del­stam was even­tu­ally re­leased and ex­iled to Voronezh; he was re­ar­rested in 1938 and died of ill­ness in tran­sit to a labour camp. Stalin’s per­se­cu­tion of writ­ers led to Man­del­stam’s dark ob­ser­va­tion: “Only in Rus­sia is po­etry re­spected—it gets peo­ple killed. Is there any­where else where po­etry is so com­mon a mo­tive for mur­der?”

Other prom­i­nent writ­ers who died dur­ing the Great Purge in­cluded the

Ge­or­gian sym­bol­ist poet Tit­sian Tabidze, who was charged for trea­son and ex­e­cuted. The mod­ernist short story writer Isaac Ba­bel was shot af­ter be­ing forced to con­fess that he was a Trot­sky­ist and for­eign spy.

Akhma­tova’s son Lev Gu­mi­lyov, a his­to­rian and an eth­nol­o­gist, was ar­rested in 1938 and sen­tenced to five years of hard labour at the No­rilsk Gu­lag in Siberia. He was re­ar­rested in 1946 in a new wave of purges; this time, he was im­pris­oned for 10 years. Lev’s fa­ther, Niko­lay Gu­mi­lyov, Akhma­tova’s first hus­band, had been charged with be­ing in­volved in a monar­chist con­spir­acy and was ex­e­cuted in 1921. In “Re­quiem”, Akhma­tova likens the per­se­cu­tion of her son to the suf­fer­ing of Christ. In a sec­tion called “Cru­ci­fix­ion”, she imag­ines the voice of her cap­tive son speaking to her: “Do not weep for me, Mother, when I am in my grave.” Akhma­tova then in­vokes the fig­ures of Mary Mag­da­lene and the Vir­gin Mary, the lat­ter a sym­bol of the poet her­self as the griev­ing yet stoic mother: “No other looked into her se­cret eyes. No one dared.”

“Re­quiem” is a med­i­ta­tion on death and the hope­less­ness that per­vaded Stalin’s Rus­sia. Akhma­tova’s lan­guage in “Re­quiem” ap­proaches litur­gi­cal in­can­ta­tions of mourn­ing while putting forth im­agery that is at once sur­real and sav­age.

The stars of death stood over us. And Rus­sia, guilt­less, beloved, writhed un­der the crunch of blood­stained boots, un­der the wheels of Black Marias.

While, in her later years, she grap­pled with the tragedy of hu­man be­ings caught in the mael­strom of his­tory and pol­i­tics, Akhma­tova was “es­sen­tially a poet of hu­man ties: cher­ished, strained, sev­ered,” as the poet Joseph Brod­sky re­minds us. “She showed these evo­lu­tions through the prism of the in­di­vid­ual heart, then through the prism of his­tory.”

In the decades lead­ing up to the Great Purge, Akhma­tova had al­ready se­cured her place as one of Rus­sia’s most beloved poets. Born in 1889, she be­longed to a gen­er­a­tion of poets now re­ferred to as the “Sil­ver Age of Po­etry”, the Golden Age be­ing that of Puskhin and Ler­mon­tov. The Sil­ver Age en­com­passes Sym­bol­ist poets such as Alek­sandr Blok; Acmeist poets in­clud­ing Akhma­tova, her hus­band Niko­lay Gu­mi­lyov and Osip Man­del­stam; Fu­tur­ists such as the flam­boy­ant Vladimir Mayakovsky; and poets like Ivan Bunin, Ma­rina Tsve­taeva and Boris Paster­nak, who did not align them­selves with a par­tic­u­lar aes­thetic group.

Akhma­tova used to read her po­etry at gath­er­ings at the Stray Dog Café in St Peters­burg. Her bold, sen­sual po­ems and strik­ing beauty made her a phe­nom­e­non. Her first book, Evening, was de­scribed by Kor­ney Chukovsky as hav­ing “ac­com­pa­nied the next two or three gen­er­a­tions of Rus­sians when­ever they fell in love”. Akhma­tova was more than a fleet­ing sen­sa­tion: her nu­anced un­der­stand­ing of emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal as­pects of hu­man re­la­tions, com­bined with lyri­cal bril­liance, gave birth to some of the most un­for­get­table lines in Rus­sian po­etry:

And it seemed to me that there were fires Fly­ing till dawn with­out num­ber And I never found out things—those Strange eyes of his—what colour?

Ev­ery­thing trem­bling and singing and Were you my en­emy or my friend, Win­ter was it or sum­mer?

Akhma­tova’s pop­u­lar­ity was trou­bling to Soviet author­i­ties. She was fa­mously de­nounced by one of Stalin’s min­is­ters, An­drei Zh­danov, as “half-nun, half-whore” and was pro­hib­ited from pub­lish­ing her work for decades. All at­tempts to si­lence the power of Akhma­tova’s po­etry ul­ti­mately failed. In Akhma­tova’s work, the tra­di­tions of clas­si­cal Rus­sian po­etry were re­mem­bered and re­newed, sur­viv­ing both the wild ex­per­i­men­ta­tions of the 20th cen­tury avant­garde as well as the sti­fling aes­thetic im­po­si­tions of Soviet so­cial­ist re­al­ism.

Anna Akhma­tova pho­tographed by Soviet artist, Moi­sei Solomonovich Nap­pel­baum.

Akhma­tova in 1966, the year of her death.

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