Why is Anna Akhmatova’s legacy important? What was shameful about Jorge Luis Borges’ career? How did Coco Chanel become famous? These are the kinds of questions esteemed critic Clive James poses and answers in his new book, Cultural Amnesia, a compendium of the intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who shaped the 20th century. Taken together, the essays—presented in an A to Z format—offer a compelling alternative history of the last century and the struggles of liberal humanism against totalitarianism: “If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into this new century, it will need advocates,” James writes. “These advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive.” Over the next eight weeks, Slate will run an exclusive alphabetical selection of these essays, adapted and abbreviated for these pages.
This lyrical wealth of Pushkin …
—Anna Akhmatova, “Pushkin’s Stone Ghost”
Born in Odessa, educated in Kiev, and launched into poetic immortality as the beautiful incarnation of pre-revolutionary Petersburg, Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) was the most famous Russian poet of her time, but the time was out of joint. Before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, called Akhmatova, already wore the Russian literary world’s most glittering French verbal decorations: Here work was avant-garde, and in person she was a femme fatale. Love for her broken-nosed beauty was a common condition among the male poets, one of whom, Nikolay Gumilev, she married. After the Revolution, Gumilev was one of the new regime’s first victims among the literati: The persecution of artists, still thought of today as a Stalinist speciality, began under Lenin. Later on, under Stalin, Akhmatova included a reference to Gumilev’s fate in the most often quoted section of her poem “Requiem”: “Husband dead, son in gaol/ Pray for me.”
In the last gasp of the czarist era, she had known no persecution worse than routine incomprehension for her impressionistic poetry and condemnation by women for her effect on their men. But the Russia of Lenin and Stalin made her first a tragic, then a heroic, figure. After 1922 she was condemned as a bourgeois element and severely restricted in what she could publish. Following World War II, in 1946, she was personally condemned by Andrey Zhdanov, Stalin’s plug-ugly in charge of culture. She was not allowed to publish anything new, and everything she had ever written in verse form was dismissed as “remote from socialist reconstruction.”
Her prestige abroad helped to keep her alive at home, but also ensured that her life could never be comfortable: The security police were always on her case. In the 1950s she was rehabilitated to the extent that a censored edition of her collected poems was officially published. (“Requiem” was among the poems missing: Isaiah Berlin, who visited her in Moscow in 1946, was correct when he predicted that it would never be published in Russia as long as the Soviet Union lasted.) Unofficially, however, her work had always circulated, whether in samizdat or, in that peculiarly Russian tribute to greatness, from mouth to mouth, by memory. Akhmatova was the embodiment of the Russian liberal heritage that the authoritarians felt bound to go on threatening long after it had surrendered. As such, she was an inspiring symbol, but when a poet becomes better known than her poems, it usually means that she is being sacrificed, for extraneous reasons, on the altar of her own glory. In Akhmatova’s case, the extraneous reasons were political. It should be a mark of reasonable politics that a woman like her is not called upon to be a heroine.
Some languages are inherently more beautiful than others, and Russian is among the most beautiful of all. For anyone learning Russian, a phrase like “lyrical wealth,” from Akhmatova’s essay “Pushkin’s Stone Ghost,” comes singing out of the page like a two-word aria from an opera by Moussorgsky. I noted it down as soon as I saw it. In 1968 the West German publishing house that called itself Inter-Language Literary Associates produced a magnificent two-volume collection of Akhmatova’s works in verse and prose. I bought those books in London in 1978, when I was in my first stage of learning to read the language. I never got to the last stage, or anywhere near it; but I did reach the point where I could read an essay without too much help from the dictionary. (Memo to any student making a raid on the culture of another language: Essays are always the easiest way in.) Reading Akhmatova’s essays, one is soon convinced that she would have been an excellent full-time critic of literature if she had been given permission. But of course she wasn’t, which brings us immediately to the point.
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.