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09/01/2012

Friendship in the time of terror

Nadezhda Mandelstam's unique personal tribute to poet Anna Akhmatova

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.

Side by side the two women withstood two world wars, two revolutions, a civil war, multiple waves of terror and purges as well as an unparalleled gradual destruction of culture. That they not only managed to survive this "time of the plague" - in contrast to so many of their relatives and acquaintances - but were also able at times to experience it as a "time of celebration", Mandelstam attributes to the power of eros and art, and primarily poetry. Each new wave of force exercised by the state gave rise to a mass of sex affairs, divorces and remarriages among the Soviet population; terror produced something of an erotic paradise as an alternate world, a final refuge where one's own fantasy and choice could still prevail.

Naturally, erotic escapism did not protect anyone from state repression, and when a protagonist of a fleeting liaison was randomly arrested and sent to a camp, this impacted both women - the one as a previous lover and the other as the current flame - due to the prevailing practice of arresting those related to or close to the suspect. Mandelstam relates numerous tragic-comical monstrosities of this kind, but she emphasises individual mental resistance, which actually enabled her and people like her to occupy for themselves a space free of fear, impenetrable and hidden despite constant surveillance. In this space the possible world of poetry was able to at least momentarily assume the form of a reality and became a momentary respite from the murderous path towards the "clear future" of Soviet communism.

Apart from this, Madelstam's memories of Anna Akhmatova offer much more than simply a literary portrait. The swiftly penned text, which adheres neither to narrative logic nor chronology, is an epochal historical document with an authenticity both immediate and touching - subjective, headstrong, provocative, incredibly intelligent and composed, but nevertheless utterly devoid of illusion and even explicitly cynical at times.

Mandelstam's radical reassessment of modern Russian literature certainly borders on cynicism. The author sees the period as dominated by Ossip Mandelstam, to whom only Akhmatova and Pasternak can compare, whereas the canonised authors of symbolism and futurism - from Alexander Blok to Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky - only appear as minor figures in the history of literature or are explicitly described as sycophants, yes-men or even "cretins". As a whole, Mandelstam's memoirs read as a kind of "poethics", as an interdisciplinary introduction to the art of poetry and the art of living in a comfortless time - and much is to be learned from both.

*

The article was originally published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on January 3, 2012.

Felix Philipp Ingold is a Swiss author, translator and cultural journalist. He was a professor for the Cultural and Social History of Russia at the University of St. Gallen until 2005 and is a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin.

Translation: ls

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