Anyone who can oppose a tyrant with a pen is a hero. During Tsarist times, in the 19th century there were many. Under Soviet rule, especially Stalin, there were so many. One of my favorites was Mikhail Bulgakov. I have read all of his works. The talent to write such creative satire and paradox under the threat of death is indeed heroic. In Russia there was not only a loyalty to their craft, but to their country, and certainly not their dictatorial leadership. One of the most valiant of these was the poet Anna Akhmatova. I hope the young of Russia today recognize what she and others like her sacrificed for their country and freedom.
The Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City Committee raised money to help an archivist in that great Russian city begin a conservation and digitization of the works of the famous poet during Stalin times, Anna Akhmatova. The story of that brave woman is shocking and her writing under such deathly circumstances is incredible. That such feelings could be put into words is so powerful. The following is a universal favorite and says so much with so little.
In Leningrad 1957, Akhmatova wrote this, titled “Instead of a Preface” to her “Requiem” collection: “In the awful years of Yezhovian horror, I spent seventeen months standing in line in front of various prisons in Leningrad. One day someone ‘recognized’ me. Then a woman with blue lips, who was standing behind me, and who, of course, had never heard my name, came out of the stupor which typified all of us, and whispered into my ear (everyone there spoke only in whispers): ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said, ‘I can.’ Then something like a fleeting smile passed over what once had been her face.”
Russian writers, or any the Soviet leadership considered hostile, were targeted often by hurting, killing, or imprisoning the artist’s loved ones. The writer him or herself was too popular with the citizenry and had to be handled surreptitiously. In the case of Akhmatova, it was triply brutal. Although they had recently divorced, Akhmatova was nevertheless stunned by the execution of her friend and former partner Gumilyev in 1921 by the Bolsheviks, who claimed that he had betrayed the Revolution. In large measure to drive her into silence, their son Lev Gumilyov was imprisoned in 1938, and he remained in prison and prison camps until the death of Stalin and the thaw in the Cold War made his release possible in 1956. Meanwhile, Akhmatova had a second marriage and then a third; her third husband, Nikolai Punin, was imprisoned in 1949 and thereafter died in 1953 in a Siberian prison camp. Her writing was banned, unofficially, from 1925 to 1940, and then was banned again after World War Two was concluded. Unlike many of her literary contemporaries, though, she never considered flight into exile.
Persecuted by the Stalinist government, prevented from publishing, regarded as a dangerous enemy, but at the same time so popular on the basis of her early poetry that even Stalin would not risk attacking her directly, Akhmatova's life was hard. Her greatest poem, "Requiem," recounts the suffering of the Russian people under Stalinism -- specifically, the tribulations of those women with whom Akhmatova stood in line outside the prison walls, women who like her waited patiently, but with a sense of great grief and powerlessness, for the chance to send a loaf of bread or a small message to their husbands, sons, lovers. “Requiem” was not published in Russia in its entirety until 1987, though the poem itself was begun about the time of her son's arrest. It was his arrest and imprisonment, and the later arrest of her husband Punin that provided the occasion for the specific content of the poem, which is sequence of lyric poems about imprisonment and its affect on those whose loved ones are arrested, sentenced, and incarcerated behind prison walls. Akhmatova died in 1966 in Leningrad.
Yes, I hope today’s Russian youth grow to know these writers for they are a foundation stone of Russian culture.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.