«Из года сорокового,
Как с башни на все гляжу.
Как будто прощаюсь снова
С тем, с чем давно простилась,
Как будто перекрестилась
И под темные своды схожу”
25 августа 1941
(Akhmatova, “Poema bez geroi,” Izbrannoe, 301)
“From the year nineteen forty
As if from a tower, I survey everything
As if bidding farewell again
To what I parted from long ago,
As if crossing myself
And then descending to dark vaults”
August 25, 1941
(Akhmatova, “Poem Without a Hero,” Complete Poems, 548)
“In Russia we have two complex writers, Dostoyevsky and Akhmatova,” my host mother (хозяйка) told me in a dismissive tone over a cup of tea when I told her of my intention to research the poet Anna Akhmatova. Her name is Galina Nesterovna Chistiakova, a vehemently patriotic, somber widow steeped in Soviet nostalgia. She loves the troubled Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky almost as much as Aleksandr Pushkin, who has become a sort of God-like figure among the Russian people, even among atheists and Stalin apologists like Galina Nesterovna herself.
Akhmatova’s legacy, meanwhile, remains uncertain. While exploring hole-in-the-wall cafés and other hang-outs for Saint Petersburg’s artistic underground, one is almost guaranteed to find pictures of Marina Tsvetaeva, Russia’s other iconic poetess. Tsvetaeva’s comparatively terser language, deemed “masculine” by my friend Elena Belyaeva, has endeared her to Russia’s younger generation, while Lena argues that Akhmatova’s poetry is too flowery, too sentimental, too “feminine” to appeal to the masses. Indeed, Akhmatova began her career as a Silver Age writer crafting mainly love poems in pre-revolutionary Russia. With the advent of the Bolshevik Revolution, she continued to avoid political themes, unlike her contemporaries, such as the aforementioned Mayakovsky. This would change dramatically with the composition of Akhmatova’s two most famous poems, Requiem (Реквием) and Poem Without a Hero (Поэма без героя). While Requiem serves as a contemporary political statement, intended to be read, Akhmatova wrote Poem Without a Hero as a poem specifically for the people of Saint Petersburg who still remembered its pre-revolutionary past. According to literary critic Isaiah Berlin, who plays an essential role in the poem, Akhmatova told him “that when those who knew the world about which she spoke were overtaken by senility or death, the poem would die too; it would be buried with her and her century; it was not written for eternity” (Dalos, 192). The poem’s significance becomes all the more palpable when one visits the Anna Akhmatova Museum at Fountain House, where Akhmatova experienced both her greatest traumas and her most brilliant bursts of creativity, culminating in the composition of a new “Petersburg Tale.”
Born Anna Andreevna Gorenko on June 23, 1889 in present-day Ukraine, Akhmatova took her pseudonym from a Tatar princess related to her on her mother’s side. She married her first husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov in 1910, only to leave him after four years of marriage and less than two years after the birth of their son- and Akhmatova’s only child- Lev. The Cheka, the predecessor of the NKVD, arrested and later executed Gumilyov in 1921 (Feinstein, 10, 45, 93). Throughout Akhmatova’s life, arrest and imprisonment would become a shared fate for many of the people closest to her. Akhmatova had previously lived in the House on the Fontanka on two separate occasions. She and her second husband, Vladimir Shileiko, briefly occupied a room there before moving to the Marble Palace. Her second marriage fared no better than her first, and she joined composer Artur Lourié and actress Olga Sudeikina in a polyamorous living situation, also in a flat on the Fontanka (Feinstein, 90). All three had become acquainted at the Stray Dog Café, a risqué Petersburg haunt for poets like Akhmatova, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Alexander Blok. By 1925, Akhmatova, formerly a critical darling with the Soviet press, had fallen out of favor due to her lack of
political themes, and a Party Resolution banned her works from publication (Meyer, xxxv). After Lourié and Sudeikina emigrated to Paris in 1924, Akhmatova briefly returned to the Marble Palace before another romantic entanglement wooed her back to the House on the Fontanka, this time an affair with the married art historian Nikolai Punin (Feinstein, 117). During this period, Akhmatova lived in the rooms now preserved in the Anna Akhmatova Museum. Here she experienced isolation from the Russian literary scene, emotional abuse from Punin, and, most traumatic of all, the arrest of Punin and her son, Lev Gumilyov. These jarring life events inspired Akhmatova to begin her two most enduring works, Requiem, a poetic cycle written over three decades, and Poem Without a Hero, a triptych written over the span of twenty-two years (Akhmatova, My Half Century, 28). The poems illustrate he struggles endured by both Akhmatova and her city as a whole, from the Great Terror of the 1930s to the Siege of Leningrad during World War II. Akhmatova herself recalls returning to Leningrad from her evacuation to Tashkent and finding a “terrifying specter pretending to be my city” (Akhmatova, My Half Century, 28), a frightening image that would further influence Poem Without a Hero.
Poem Without a Hero is prefaced by a brief introduction, dated April 8, 1943 and entitled “In Place of a Forward,” whose epigraph, “Deus Conservat Omnia,” is the motto on the coat of arms of the Fountain House and means, “God preserves all.” Akhmatova then explains that the poem first came to her “on the night of December 27, 1940, in the Fountain House” and dedicates the work “to the memory of its first
audience- my friends and fellow citizens who perished in Leningrad during the siege” (Akhmatova, “Poem Without a Hero,” 543-4). Part One, entitled “The Year 1913: Petersburg Tale,” opens with the poet preparing to light ritual candles in Fountain House on New Year’s Eve 1940, only to be visited by various “shades” from her past, as well as a “Guest from the Future,” famous literary critic Isaiah Berlin (Akhmatova, “Poem Without a Hero,” 549). In “Prose About the Poem,” Akhmatova confirmed Olga Sudeikina’s influence on it, describing the mysterious, alluring heroine as “half Olga, half [ballerina] Tatyana Vecheslova.” Numerous other figures from Akhmatova’s life feature in the poem. As she tells us, “everything was already there. The Demon was always [Silver Age poet Alexander] Blok, the Milepost- the Poet in general, the Poet with a capital ‘P’ (something like Mayakovsky), and so on” (Akhmatova, My Half Century, 135, 128). Perhaps the most important biographical insertion in “Poem Without a Hero” is Fountain House itself. Literary critic Sharon Leiter argues that the its “place in the Poema transformed the House on the Fontanka from an element of Akhmatova’s biography to a poetic symbol in its own right. As a Petersburg literary landmark it belongs, not with the great public monuments … but with the city’s legendary inner space: the delirium-wracked rooms of the city’s dreamers” (Leiter, 152-3).
Indeed, Fountain House provides much more than setting and motto for the poem. The “shades” from 1913 transform Akhmatova’s flat on the Fontanka to the former dazzling splendor of the Sheremetev Palace, as if capturing the Eurocentric Petersburg of the past and contrasting it with its revolutionary present. In this sense, Poem Without a Hero succeeds where the city itself fails. Saint Petersburg is resplendent with reconstructed palaces, from the formerly Nazi-occupied Peterhof to Gatchina, Emperor Paul I’s residence, which is still undergoing renovations. The Sheremetev Palace, however, has not undergone the same treatment. I expected some remnants of the Sheremetev’s opulence to have remained, at least in the building’s architecture, but it seems the city has instead chosen to highlight its 20th century function as a communal apartment building.
The House on the Fontanka River is not the only spatial influence on the poem. St. Petersburg as a whole permeated the writing process of Poem Without a Hero, even while Akhmatova worked on it in different cities, to the point where she referred to it as “‘Petersburg Tale’” and claims, “those who didn’t know some of the ‘Petersburg circumstances’ would find the poem incomprehensible and uninteresting” (Akhmatova, My Half Century, 129-30). That Akhmatova gave Part 1 the subtitle “Petersburg Tale” is no coincidence, as it evokes Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman,” that oft-quoted ode to Petersburg’s creation and inevitable destruction which my host mother encouraged me to memorize. For all Galina Nesterovna’s misgivings about Akhmatova, the poetess wanted her readers to understand the city as much as Chistiakova wanted me to
understand it. Both women saw the city’s tragedies as the most essential part of their histories. In “Prose,” Akhmatova voiced her desire to evoke “The Petersburg horrors: the death of Peter, and Paul, Pushkin’s duel, the flood, the blockade.” Nevertheless, whereas Galina Nesterovna and other patriotic Leningraders see these tragedies as proof of the city’s indomitable spirit, for Akhmatova Petersburg was best illustrated by “these words: ‘Let this place be damned’” (Akhmatova, My Half Century, 136-7). Thus, from its carnivalesque atmosphere to Part 1’s ominous subtitle, Poem Without a Hero echoes the theatrical, apocalyptic shroud in which St. Petersburg has been ensconced since its myth-like founding. Whether one takes these myths as a point of pride or a herald of destruction, Poem Without a Hero is as much a Petersburg tale as Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman.
Just as Pushkin follows his narrative of Peter the Great’s triumphant establishment of Russia’s imperial capital with a tragic tale of death and destruction, in Chapter 3 of Part 1 Akhmatova begins her transition from the dazzling façade of pre-revolutionary Petersburg to the harsh realities of contemporary Leningrad, announcing “The real- not the calendar- / Twentieth Century draws near” (Akhmatova, “Poem Without a Hero,” 562 lines 383-4). Parts 2 and 3 of Poem Without a Hero, entitled “Flipside” and “Epilogue,” are set in the Fontanka House on January 5, 1941 and June 24, 1942, respectively. Akhmatova relates the treacherous journey to Siberia undertaken by those condemned to the GULAG, such as her son Lev and lover Punin” (Akhmatova, “Poem Without a Hero,” 576, lines 89-91). The poem then closes with the following lines:
“Seized by mortal fear
Of what had turned to dust
And recognizing the hour of vengeance,
Lowering her dry eyes
And wringing her hands, Russia
Fled before me to the east” (Akhmatova, “Poem Without a Hero,” 576, lines 96-101).
Fountain House never relinquished its psychological hold on Akhmatova. In “A Sketch,” composed later in her life on April 19, 1962, Akhmatova recalls driving around Leningrad and viewing famous literary sites, but writing, “I don’t think we drove by the House on the Fontanka. That would have been too much” (Akhmatova, My Half Century, 22). Petersburg, too, continued to haunt Akhmatova. In Part 3 of Poem Without a Hero, Akhmatova writes of the city, her ultimate muse, “We are inseparable, / My shadow is on your walls” (Akhmatova, “Poem Without a Hero,” 575, lines 51-2).