This comprehensive biography of the legendary Russian poet -- a rich narrative of the dramatic life behind the extraordinary work -- draws on a wealth of new material, including memoirs, letters and journals, and interviews with Akhmatova's surviving friends and family.
Anna Akhmatova began writing in the years before World War I, a time when, according to Akhmatova herself, "to think of a woman as a poet was absurd." Her genius would rise above categorization, but this superb biography makes clear how heavily she paid for the political and personal passions that informed it. A fierce poise, forged by Anna's lonely childhood, carried her through her father's resistance to her writing -- which prompted her to change her name from Gorenko to Akhmatova, a name taken from a Tartar ancestor - and her flawed but passionate love affairs. We see Akhmatova's work banned from 1925 until 1940, and banned again following World War II, when the Union of Soviet Writers labeled her "half nun, half harlot." We see her steadfast resistance to Stalin during her hopeful but unsuccessful attempt to win her son's release from prison. We see her abiding loyalty to such friends as Mandelstam, Shostakovich and Pasternak as they faced Stalinist oppression. And we see how, through everything, Akhmatova continued to write, her poetry giving voice to the Russian people by whom she was, and still is, deeply loved.
Anna of All the Russias takes us into the days and nights of an icon. It is a revelation of both the artist and the woman.
By the time the famed Russian poet Anna Akhmatova died in 1966, at the age of 77, she had witnessed the colossal changes that overtook Russia, from the last days of the czarist regime through revolution to Stalin's Terror and subsequent Soviet rule. Though born into a comfortable situation, she often lived in abject poverty and relied on the mercy of friends when governmental whim forced her poetry out of circulation. Feinstein, a poet, translator and biographer of Pushkin and Ted Hughes, has produced a thorough, workmanlike biography that runs more to giving times and dates than truly bringing this extraordinary woman to life. Feinstein gives enough (at times too many) details to hint at the complexity and contradictions that made up Akhmatova's character, but never delves deeply enough for a fully fleshed portrait. And while Akhmatova's poetry was intensely personal throughout her long career, Feinstein seems more interested in asserting which of her many lovers and acquaintances Akhmatova wrote about than in assessing the poems' power as works of art that transmuted the regular round of human life as well as the horrors of 20th-century Russia into poetry still revered by Russians today. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Mar. 20)
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April 08, 2007
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Excerpt from Anna of All the Russias by Elaine Feinstein
Let me begin in 1913. The dark and glittering verses which open Akhmatova's Poem Without a Hero circle about her memories of that year, the final moments of a corrupt and glamorous world. In the poem, Akhmatova is waiting for guests to celebrate New Year 1941. Candles have been lit, wine and crystal set out when, instead of her expected visitors, a sinister phantasmagoria of dead friends crowd in upon her, dressed as mummers. Their presence calls up St. Petersburg as it once was, when Akhmatova was twenty-four, a fashionable young woman already famous as a poet, with the violent upheavals of the twentieth century not yet under way.
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 "fruitcakes, smelling salts, Pears soap, playing cards, picture puzzles, striped blazers . . . and football jerseys in the colours of Oxford and Cambridge." On the sunny side of Nevsky Prospekt bookstores sold the latest poetry.
Built below sea level, at the edge of the Baltic, St. Petersburg was always an unnatural city. Thousands of slave labourers died of disease and hunger to realise Peter the Great's grand design of a window on the West. Even after he had declared St. Petersburg his new capital, wolves boldly entered the city at night as late as 1712, and occasionally devoured their prey in broad daylight. Floods constantly overwhelmed the islands, and in 1721 Peter himself was nearly drowned on Nevsky Prospekt. It is the city of Pushkin's "Bronze Horseman," where a poor clerk's lover is carried away by the waters and Falconet's grand statue of Peter pursues him when he dares to protest. It was Gogol's city of shadows and phantoms. The poverty and squalor of the streets and squares still remained much as in Dostoevsky's nightmare vision.
Akhmatova called St. Petersburg her cradle, even though she was not born there. In her autobiographical jottings, she describes childhood streets filled with organ-grinders, Tatar ragmen and tinsmiths, the houses painted different shades of red, front entrances scented with the perfume of ladies and the cigarettes of passing gentlemen, back staircases smelling of coffee, bliny, mushrooms and, frequently, cats.
1913 was the Jubilee of three hundred years of the Romanov dynasty, and in February all the main streets of the city were decorated, statues garlanded and portraits of a long line of tsars pasted to the front of buildings. Everything was done to impress foreign and provincial visitors. Electricity illuminated the Winter Palace, the golden spire of the Admiralty arch, other columns, arches and double-headed eagles. The rich dressed with flamboyance. At one opera house, in 1913, for a performance of Glinka's patriotic A Life for the Tsar, the boxes blazed with jewels and tiaras. For the nobility, most of whom lived on or near the Nevsky Prospekt, there were balls and banquets. Everywhere military music celebrated the absolute rule of Nicholas II, and the magnificence of his empire.
On the February day which inaugurated the Jubilee celebrations, the Imperial family drove in an open carriage towards Kazan Cathedral. To protect the Tsar on his first public appearance since the revolution in 1905, one battalion of horse guards rode in front of his carriage and another behind. Imperial Guards lined the route. Tourists from all over the empire, and foreign dignitaries from the rest of Europe, were staggered by the splendour of the occasion.
Behind these central areas, St. Petersburg remained a city of filth and disease. Many factories were allowed to discharge their waste into the rivers and canals. With a cholera outbreak on average once every three years, the death rate was the highest of any capital city in Europe. Water had to be fetched in buckets and boiled before it was safe, but thirsty workers gave little attention to this and the general domestic water supply was a breeding-ground for typhus as well as cholera. London had eradicated similar problems in the nineteenth century by building a new system of sewers. No attempt was made to improve the situation in St. Petersburg until 1917.
Nicholas thought of himself as divinely appointed and the many peasants who still wrote directly to him for help saw him as a father who felt compassion for their difficulties. Over Nicholas' vast empire, however, the memory of 1905 remained raw.