- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2006


By Elaine Feinstein

Knopf, $27.50, 331 pages, illus.

Near the end of “Anna of all the Russias,” a mesmerizing biography of the legendary Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Elaine Feinstein relates the following:

“[Bella] Akhmadulina told me a wonderful story about a personal encounter. Akhmadulina had offered to drive Akhmatova to a wedding party in her car, which unfortunately was not very reliable. It broke down in the middle of Moscow. Akhmdulina did everything she could to bring the engine to life, using cranking-handle and finding people to help her by investigating under the bonnet. Nothing succeeded. When she was at her wits’ end, a friend drove up and at once offered the two women a lift to wherever they wanted to go. Akhmatova, however, refused the offer grandly saying: “I never make the same mistake twice.”

Although this anecdote says a great deal about Akhmatova’s capacity for aloofness and resolve, it also suggests why this biography of the iconic poet is particularly successful. While faithfully rendering the sequence of the tumultuous events between Akhmatova’s birth in 1889 to her death in 1966, throughout the biography Ms. Feinstein keeps the narrative moving by balancing the worst of these events with Akhmatova’s transcendent poems.

As a result, from depictions of the days of tsarist splendor and recklessness, through the gathering storm of civil war and revolution, on to Stalinist terror and the aftermath, Akhmatova’s life is rendered whole and richly so because of the biographer’s knack for putting Akhmatova’s powerful words in context.

The book opens deceptively cheerfully: “In 1913 St. Petersburg was an imperial capital, with a black and yellow flag flying over the Winter Palace, private carriages pulled by thoroughbred horses with footmen in uniform who rode on the running-boards. There were trams and trolleys and occasional motor cars. Enticing shop windows on the Nevsky Prospekt had oysters from Paris, lobsters from Ostend and ‘fruticakes, smelling salts, Pears soap, playing cards, picture puzzles, striped blazers … and football jerseys in the colours o Oxford and Cambridge.’”

Ms. Feinstein writes, “No visitor would have recognised that ‘the moon was growing cold over the silver age.’ During that period the young Akhmatova, who was born into a family of no particular distinction, was beginning to forge a life of her own — meeting friends at the Stray Dog, the local night spot, and finding her voice in poetry, a voice that — even before it needed to be — was blunt and bleak.

We are all boozers here, and

sleep around.

Together we make up a

desolate crowd.

Even the painted birds and

flowers on the walls

Seem to be longing for

the clouds.

The “elegantly slender” and beautiful Akhmatova early on drew other young poets to her side, notably in those days, Osip Mandelstam who would become one of the giants of 20th century Russian poetry. Ms. Feinstein is adept as showing how well Akhhmatova set about forging her career as a poet of consequence and creating a certain personal mystique. Men and women lusted after her, but in 1910 she married Nikolay Gumilyov, a man about whom she wrote a poem that “seems to go to the heart of their swift estrangement”:

He loved three things in

this world

White peacocks, evensong

And faded maps of America.

He hated it when children


He hated tea with

raspberry jam,

And any female hysteria

in his life.

Now imagine it: I was

his wife.

Ms. Feinstein writes “Akhmatova was to love other men more passionately than Gumilyov [whom she would eventually divorce], but the course of his life and death were fundamentally to mark her own, and he was to be the father of her only child.”

In 1912, “Evening,” her first book of poems was published. Quoting the critic and translator Korney Chukovsky, Ms. Fenstein writes that “Evening accompanied the next two or three generations of Russians whenever they fell in love.”

Akhmatova’s early poetry mostly concerned relationships between men and women, but with an indisputable edge to it. In 1913 Marina Tsvetaeva wrote of Akhmatova: “who on earth is she/ with her cloudy, dark face?’

But Akhmatova’s words were about to become darker still. By 1914, Ms. Feinstein writes Akhmatova “had taken on the robes of Cassandra. She will continue to write love poems, but from now on her range has widened.”

Between 1917 and the beginning of World War II, the Bolsheviks set about destroying Russia as it was. Akhmatova, who was a religious woman, wondered “whether this was God’s retribution for the callousness and frivolity of the upper classes.” Stalinist terrors brought a new set of troubles including the arrest of her son Lev. Although Ms. Feinstein takes great care in illuminating the struggle between mother and son, it is hard to know in the end who was more to blame — the often cold Anna or the erratic and demanding Lev.

Akhmatova was to write about all the significant events in her life including the deprivations she experience under Stalin. Her poem “Requiem,” presumed to be one of her best was written after Lev was sent to prison. This is what she wrote “instead of a preface” to that poem:

“In the terrible years of the Yezkhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a young woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had of course never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there), “Can you describe this?’ And I said, ‘I can.’ Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”

Anna Akhmatova’s poetry is still read in Russia and she is sill much beloved. She is often compared to Marina Tsvetaeva and Ms. Feinstein does job of explaining how they were in fact very different:

“Akhmatova kept her dignity even in the face of tragedy, Tsvetaeva showed her emotions nakedly. Akhmatova’s poetry was marked by a classic restraint; Tsvetaeva’s by a constant pressure to invent new forms. Akhmatova always refused to leave her native Russia; Tsvetaeva followed her husband into exile. Both women had lives of tormenting unhappiness as a result of their choices.”

The story of Anna Akhmatova’s life is one of the 20th century’s most riveting ones. Elaine Feinstein has done it more than justice.

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