Assessing the Russian poet and femme fatale.
If the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution had never happened, the cafes of Petersburg and Moscow would probably have dominated this discussion. Petersburg, in particular, would have rivaled Vienna. (If the Nazis had never come to power, Vienna and Berlin would have continued to rival Paris, but that's another matter.) The Russian cultural upsurge in the years before the Revolution was so powerful that after the Revolution it took a while to slow down. Largely because the new regime took some time to purge itself of apparatchiks with a taste for the artistically vital, the Revolution, inheriting an unprecedented cultural efflorescence, spent its first decade or so looking like the benevolent guardian of a realized dream. Left-leaning culturati in the West were able to fool themselves for decades afterward that a totalitarian regime had somehow opened up new possibilities for making art a political weapon in the eternal struggle to free the people's creative will. The dazzle-painted agitprop trains and the snappily edited newsreels of Dziga Vertov were seen as signs of vigor, which they were, and of truth, which they were not.
Among the Soviet Union's apologists in the West, it was commonly supposed that, while the self-exiled Stravinsky no doubt enjoyed his personal freedom, Prokofiev and Shostakovich gained from being thought important by the power that paid them, and that this putatively fruitful relationship between creativity and a centralized state had been established in the early years after the Revolution. In reality, the intelligentsia was already doomed, simply because Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar for culture, wielded absolute power over the artists. He could wield it benevolently only with the indulgence of his superiors, which was withdrawn in 1929, the year the nightmare began to unfold unmistakably even to those who had been carried away when they thought it was a dream. (Awareness could be fatal: Mayakovsky, the poet most famous for transmitting state policy through works of art, shot himself not because he was mad, but because he was mad no longer—he had suddenly woken up to the dreadful fact that his creative enthusiasm had been used to cosmeticize mass murder.)
Akhmatova, to her credit, had always tried to stay aloof from the Revolution. But the Revolution was never likely to pay her the courtesy of staying aloof from her. As early as 1922, her poetry had been correctly identified as politically unhelpful. The ban on publishing new work was relaxed temporarily in 1940, but we need to remember that Akhmatova, as a poet, was never really allowed to function. She earned her living mainly from translation and journeywork in prose. (As a consequence, a threat in 1947 to expel her from the Writers' Union was tantamount to a sentence of death.) Praising Pushkin, as she did in the essay that mentioned his "lyrical wealth," was as close as she was allowed to get to saying something subversive. It was permissible to value a poet's specifically poetic gifts as long as the poet was accepted as exemplifying—or, in Pushkin's case, heralding—the correct political direction.
But if she had been caught even thinking about the "lyrical wealth" of, say, Osip Mandelstam, she would have been in even more trouble than usual. Osip Mandelstam had been murdered by Stalin in 1938. There had been a time when Osip, like most of the male poets of his generation, had been in love with Akhmatova. She had returned his affection, much to the annoyance of his wife, Nadezhda, who, in her essential book Hope Against Hope, can be found forgiving Akhmatova for alienating Osip's affections. Nadezhda Mandelstam knew that the glamorous Akhmatova, like Tolstoy's Natasha Rostova, needed to be adored: She was a vamp by nature. If there had been no revolution, Akhmatova could have made her seductive nature her subject, in the manner of Edna St. Vincent Millay but to even greater effect. History denied her the opportunity to sublimate her frailties. It made her a heroine instead. There were crueler fates available in Stalinist Russia, but that one was cruel enough.
What we have to grasp is that it needn't have happened to her. That's what history is: the story of everything that needn't have been like that. We also have to grasp that art proves its value by still mattering to people who have been deprived of every other freedom; indeed, instead of mattering less, it matters more. For the Russians, Akhmatova was iconic not just for what she had done, but for the majesty of what she had not been allowed to do. In Nina Berberova's delightful book about her life as a Russian emigré, The Italics Are Mine (1991), she tells the story of the Writers' Library, the bookshop in Moscow where the books of the old intelligentsia were traded for food after the Revolution. If there had been no revolution, the Writers' Library would have gone on being one of the most enchanting bookshops in the world. You could eat there, have a drink, write a poem, fall in love, and, above all, speak freely. It was a literary cafe. All too soon, there were no such places left in Russian cities. There was nowhere to lead the life of the mind except in the mind. That thought would reduce us to despair if it were not for the evidence that humanist values are real, not notional: They persist even in conditions of calculated deprivation. 1947 was a particularly bad year for Akhmatova. Every effort was made to deprive her of almost everything except life. Yet she could call herself rich. With Pushkin to read, she still had "lyrical wealth." The belief that such wealth is our real and inextinguishable fortune is the belief behind this project.
Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.
Reprinted fromCultural Amnesiaby Clive James © 2007 by Clive James, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company Inc. This material may not be reproduced, rewritten, or redistributed without the prior written permission of the publisher. Photograph of Anna Akhmatova by P.N. Luknitsky.