Felix Philipp Ingold: Friendship in the time of terror

Nadezhda Mandelstam’s unique personal tribute to poet Anna Akhmatova.

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 1/3/2012.

ingold terror

Although the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) never received the highest literary honour, the Nobel Prize, the veneration she enjoyed during her lifetime as well as her ever increasing posthumous fame have made her one of the luminary figures of modern Europe. Few authors of the past century have been portrayed more often in paintings, sculptures or photographs; few bodies of poetry has been more extensively translated, interpreted, recorded and illustrated; few individuals have featured more in the letters, journals or memoirs of her contemporaries. The extensive biographical chronicles of Lydia Chukovskaya, Emma Gerstein, Mikhail Ardov and other associates have helped create a larger-than-life and almost heroic image of the poet, which has become inseparable from her work.

Anna Akhmatova herself propelled this image to mythical dimensions through the consistent self-stylisation and dramatisation of her own persona. A modern-day Cassandra, she lamented, exhorted, raged. Her view of life was characterised by an omnipresence of violence, betrayal and death. Her first husband was executed as a counterrevolutionary; her son was repeatedly sent to labour camps for political reasons; her second husband was murdered in prison; numerous friends and colleague were victims of the so-called purges.

Meanwhile, she was prohibited from publishing, forced to eke out an existence, mostly living in other people’s apartments, places of asylum, emergency accommodation. The body of work that she was able to garner in the midst of her extreme suffering in life and love is a unique and varyingly orchestrated requiem. The fact that the poet was officially and publicly reviled as “half whore, half nun” in the post-war Stalinist period is certainly due to the aura and exalted image that enveloped her, and which was to be maligned at all costs – because it posed an intolerable provocation to the Soviet literary scene.

Among those who accompanied Anna Akhmatova throughout the “century of the wolves” and enjoyed her steadfast trust was Nadezhda Mandelstam. Ten years her junior, this friend – the wife and biographer of poet Ossip Mandelstam – weathered with Akhmatova the arbitrariness of power, persecution, deprivation, evacuation and also the bickering of the menage a trois. And in the process she learned that in the face of extreme circumstances, only those who refuse to  to become slaves of fear are able to survive. Whoever is able to master this fear – for one’s life – will maintain his individual integrity and freedom, will remain victorious, even if falling ultimately victim to oppression.

Mandelstam gained this insight from her joint experience with Anna Akhmatova, and she vividly and impressively conveys both this experience and realsation in a major memoir, which was written in her later years but was only able to be published posthumously, after the collapse of the Soviet system in 1989. Recently published in German but still not translated into English, “Erinnerungen an Anna Achmatowa” (memories of Anna Akhmatova) proves to be an utterly biased portrait of her deceased friend, which celebrates the poet as a leading artistic, moral and intellectual figure in an age of horror.

The impassioned reverence heaped upon the grande dame does not forgo elements of critique. Anna Akhmatova’s virtually intimidating intelligence and presence of mind, her incorruptibility as well as her distinct authorial confidence are countered by vanity, arrogance, jealousy and, not least, a tendency towards gossip and sweeping judgements. But Mandelstam readily indulges her admired friend in all of this – and much more – in order not to diminish her glowing reputation as an icon of inner resistance.

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