An Unexpected Revival For A Beloved Russian Poet
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Now a line from the 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.
(Reading) You will hear thunder and remember me, and think, she wanted storms.
Akhmatova witnessed the tumultuous years of the Russian Revolution and the horrors of Stalin's repression. Now there's a growing interest in her as a beacon of artistic courage in modern Russia. NPR's Corey Flintoff has this look back at her life.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: One way to glimpse Anna Akhmatova is here in the St. Petersburg apartment where she lived for some 30 years. It's a museum now, where guide Maria Nisnikova points out mementos of a woman who lived in glamorous artistic circles before the revolution and faced ruthless persecution during the Soviet era.
MARIA NISNIKOVA: And you can see here different documents, photographs, personal belongings of Anna Akhmatova.
FLINTOFF: There's her music, too, to suggest the vibrancy of her life. Akhmatova came from a family of Russian and Tatar nobility. The pen name she chose for herself derives from an ancestor who was a Tartar khan. She was beautiful, dark-haired and angular with a prominent hooked nose. Artists loved to draw her in profile.
NISNIKOVA: This portrait is really very nice, and we know that Akhmatova always directed artists. And there are more than 200 portraits of Anna Akhmatova. Can you imagine?
FLINTOFF: The Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani fell in love with her in Paris and painted more than a dozen portraits of her. She was a sensation, a celebrity of modernist poetry in what was called the Silver Age, before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Akhmatova was known for spare, insightful poems about the ambiguities of love. She was married and divorced twice.
NISNIKOVA: This is the last photo of the first husband to Anna Akhmatova, Nikolay Gumilyov. He was arrested on the 3 of August, 1921, and he was put into prison. And three weeks, later he was secretly executed.
FLINTOFF: Akhmatova's former husband, also a gifted poet, was just one of many of her loved ones and friends who would be shot, sent to the labor camps or driven into the exile from the Russian Revolution through the Stalinist era. Around 1926, she moved into this apartment with her lover, Nikolay Punin, a noted teacher and art critic. It was a communal flat, by that time, with multiple families and little space.
Her poetry was officially banned. Punin was arrested, along with Akhmatova's son. And she became one of a long line of women who waited outside the prison to catch a glimpse of them or bring them bread. She later wrote about the experience that gave her a new artistic purpose to be a witness to history. She said she spent 17 months waiting in prison lines in Leningrad until one day, someone picked her out.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: On this occasion, there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. And then she asked me, could one ever describe this? I answered her, I can.
FLINTOFF: Akhmatova kept her promise with a cycle of poems called "Requiem." She composed it in secret and at one point was even afraid to keep a manuscript of it. It wasn't published in the Soviet Union until more than 20 years after her death. But she did record "Requiem" in her own voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ANNA AKHMATOVA: (Through interpreter) It happened like this when only the dead were smiling, glad of their release, that Leningrad hung around its prisons, like a worthless emblem flapping its piece...
FLINTOFF: The poem was dedicated to the victims of Stalin's terror. Anna Akhmatova and her son outlived Stalin and many of his henchmen. And she won recognition from the generation of younger poets that came after her. She died of a heart attack in 1966 when she was 76 years old. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.