By John Helmer, Moscow
Anna Akhmatova, the most famous poetess in the Russian language, will be 133 on June 23.
Akhmatova was the nom de plume she chose because her father said his family name would be disgraced by her publishing her poems. The family name was Gorenko, and she was born in Bolshoi Fontan, Odessa. A bust memorializes the place to this day; the rule of the city by anti-Russian forces since 2014 has not damaged it. The street leading to the memorial used to be called Ukrainskaya; it was renamed Anna Akhmatova, and still is.
After her father — a naval engineer from a decorated navy family — left the family, she lived with her mother, her brother and sister in Evpatoria, in the Crimea. They spent their summer holidays south along the peninsula, around Khersones; and northeast further inland, at the village of Slobidka Shelekhivska in Khmelnytsky oblast, near today’s Moldova border. The house has been turned into the Anna Akhamatova Literary Memorial Museum. No one answers the telephone there these days, but it is otherwise undisturbed.
Between 1905 and 1910 she lived in Kiev and attended Fundukleyevskaya Gymnasium, then the Kiev College for Women. There is a plaque in Old Russian on the wall at Number 7, Zankovetskaya Street, Kiev, to memorialize the time and place. The war has not touched it.
Akhmatova’s maternal ancestors were celebrated in the Crimea and all of the Ukraine. Her mother, Inna Stogova, came from Kiev where her grandfather, Erazm Stogov, made a fortune growing sugar beet and refining it into sugar. Four hundred years earlier, their progenitor was Khan Akhmatov. He was assassinated in 1481 after losing a military campaign against Tsar Ivan III; his death marked the final Russian emancipation from the Tatar Horde. Anna preferred to be known after the khan, not after the sugar magnate.
Top: the apartment building at Number 7, Zankovetskaya Street, Kiev, where the plaque says: “In this house in 1906 lived the Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova”. Bottom: the drive, garden, and entrance of the summer dacha where Akhmatova lived as a child with her family at Slobidka Shelekhivska; it is now the Akhmatova museum.
For the 77 years of her life, Akhmatova refused every proposal from sponsors or requests from her friends and lovers to leave Russia and go into exile. “I am not one of those,” she wrote in the first line of a poem of July 1922, near the end of the civil war, “who left the land/to the mercy of its enemies/Their flattery leaves me cold./My songs are not for them to praise./But I pity the exile’s lot.”
Although evacuated with other writers and artists from Leningrad to Tashkent during World War II, and then remaining in and around Leningrad and Moscow until her death, she had returned regularly to visit her mother in Crimea and Kiev until 1925, when the mother moved to Sakhalin to be with her son, Akhmatova’s brother. She wrote from her memories of the Ukrainian countryside and seashore, and also about her women friends and her lovers, Nikolai Nedobrovo and Vladimir Shileiko, who were from the Ukraine. She never distinguished them from Russia or Russians.
In the poem she titled “Kiev”, written in 1914, she tied the city and herself to the ancient Rus and to the Orthodox Church. “The ancient city seems deserted/My arrival is stranger./Over the river, Vladimir/Raised a black cross…My sacrificial and glorious journey/I will finish here,/And with me only you, my equal/And my lover.” That lover was Nedobrovo.
A PhD dissertation written two years ago at the University of Virginia from a Ukrainian perspective noted that “a mere 3% of her geographical references are to Ukraine. The majority of Akhmatova’s Ukraine poetry is centered in the city of Kyiv, with a couple of verses venturing beyond the city’s border to honour personal friends. Akhmatova wrote about personal experiences she had in Kyiv, while also acknowledging the city’s religious and cultural import, but when she was not physically visiting Ukraine, she remained essentially silent on the topic of Ukraine… She does not consider herself to be Ukrainian…by referring to her birthplace as merely a place near the sea, she avoids using the term ‘Ukraine’ at all. This reveals that in her mind, Ukraine is not necessarily distinct or separate from the rest of the Russian Empire… She does not engage in a discussion of national or ethnic identity, but simply views Ukraine as another region of her homeland. She indeed even labels these regions—Odessa and Leningrad—as part of the same country (в этой стране). In Akhmatova’s understanding, Ukraine is not a separate nation, but is part of her own home ‘country’ of the Russian Empire/Soviet Union.”
In a poem of 1961, five years before she died, she wrote that her homeland was “Yes, for us it’s the mud on galoshes, / Yes, for us it’s the grit on our teeth. / And we grind, and we knead, and we crumble, / This clean dust. / But we lie in her and we become her, / And because of that we freely call her—ours.”
The US Akhmatova regarded critically, making the irregular rhyme between Америка (“America”) and истерики “(hysterics”); she was implying that this is what the Russians she knew who had chosen their exile in New York had become.
When Akhmatova died in 1966, Masha Gessen had not been born (1967) nor her brother Konstanin (Keith b. 1975). Since they took over the New Yorker after 2014, Akhmatova was quoted in 2018 by Masha Gessen to turn the present Russian regime into Hitler’s Germany. “The single most searing literary document of Stalinist terror is ‘Requiem,’ a cycle of poems written by Anna Akhmatova while her son, Lev Gumilev, was in prison. But, in the official Soviet imagination, it was the Nazis who tortured adults by torturing children”. -- The same year Keith Gessen published his own return from New York to Moscow in A Terrible Country, he omitted Akhmatova altogether.
For Akhmatova, in the entire world she knew there remained only “my old friend, my true North, / Comforted me as well as it could.” For an exceptional attempt to make a political geography of Akhmatova’s poetry, read this.
The staff at the Akhmatova museum in St Petersburg say that because of the war all their contact has now been cut off with the Akhmatova museums in the Ukraine. Until now, sources in Kiev and Odessa confirm, the attacks on Soviet monuments have not struck at Akhmatova’s memorials. Poverty has taken its toll, though. The first bas-relief of Akhmatova at Bolshoi Fontan in Odessa was made of bronze. But because this attracted scrap thieves, the city decided to remake the sculpture in stone, and that is how it can be viewed today.
Left to right: Vosstaniya Street, St Petersburg; St Petersburg State University; Bolshoi Fontan, Odessa; Fountain House, Liteyny Street, St. Petersburg; opposite the Kresti Prison, St Petersburg; Bolshoi Street, Bezhetsk (Tver). For more on the memorials and monuments, click.
Akhmatova and Amedeo Modigliani were lovers in Paris between 1910 and 1911, but after she returned to Russia they never saw each other again. The reclining study he drew of her (lead image) was one of her most treasured possessions; she kept it with her always and made it one of the few explicit provisions of her will. She requested it to be the dust jacket illustration for the collection of her poetry published in Moscow in 1963 and entitled The Flight of Time (Бег времени). There were many other drawings of her by Modigliani which did not survive in Russia or in France – that was until several were published in Venice in 1993; the two above were among them. Modigliani died on January 24, 1920; Akhmatova died on March 5, 1966.