The conscience of a nation turned to stone

Anna Akhmatova's secret poems helped keep Russia's literary flame alive during the terrifying Stalin years. As a brilliant new biography is published, Olivia Cole surveys the tragic, triumphant life of a heroic survivor
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The Independent Culture

Akhmatova is known now as much for her extraordinary beauty and her suffering in the Great Terror as for her poetry, but Elaine Feinstein has managed to write a biography that is both scholarly and emotive. The versions of the poems that she uses are her own, and this sustains a sense of Anna of all the Russias as written from the inside of its subject's imagination. Having already written lives of both Pushkin and Marina Tsvetaeva (a contemporary transfixed by Akhmatova's example), she is completely at home with the physical and literary map of St Petersburg.

The twilight years of Tsarist Russia were for Akhmatova's aristocratic family a time of luxury and libertarianism which to the adult woman who endured decades in life-threatening poverty must have seemed a world she had dreamt. As a young teenager she was already writing the poems that would make her name - "Akhmatova" was the name she adopted because her father was embarrassed at the prospect of a poet in the family.

If her real name, Anna Gorenko, lacked the Tartar exoticism and glamour of her acquired one, her appearance and company needed no embellishment. By all accounts, she was not only beautiful but also an intoxicatingly attractive woman, for whom countless men (and women) fell at every stage of her life. Brodsky, who as a young poet was one of a circle of young admirers, wrote of how she looked "positively stunning. Five feet eleven, dark haired, fair-skinned, with pale grey green eyes like those of snow leopards." Beauty was however no more a guarantee of happiness than her early privilege. The self-image she later created, in irony, of the foolish, beautiful brat, languishing "for want of a cloud" became a bleak joke; constantly desired, she was at times almost destroyed by her relationships. Modigliani was the first to draw her. If she were to die, "Tuck Modi's drawing of me under your arm, and go," she once caustically counselled an admirer.

Although it could be said that her dedication to love poetry (like Yeats she wrote of the same affairs her whole life long) depended on life being complicated, the reality of her affairs, even without the terrors of life under Stalin, makes for grim reading. Her first husband and father of her son Lev, the poet Gumilyov, was later shot by the State. After years of unrequited love, it seemed that he was tired of her by the time he had persuaded her to marry him; Nikolay Punin, the art historian, and her great love, was no easier a figure. As he was unable to bring himself to leave his wife, the lovers lived with Anna's son and Punin's wife and daughter in a tiny apartment in the Fountain House on the Neva. When after 15 years the two finally ceased to be lovers, Anna had nowhere else to go and no choice but to move rooms and carry on as usual.

In another life, the stanzas of her classical forms might have been her private space, a palatial suite of her own, but she was under constant surveillance. A little pile of plaster falling to the floor indicated microphones being installed, but if the Cheka wished to listen to her conversations they had no desire to amplify her poetic voice. Punin and Lev were both repeatedly arrested and imprisoned and from 1922 to 1965, Akhmatova's work was banned; it was Brodsky suggested, like being "buried alive".

Though willing to acknowledge her capriciousness and egoism, and the infuriating aspects of her character, Feinstein takes as a given Akhmatova's stature as an artist and the terrible sentence that this ban entailed. During these years it was estimated that in any gathering of 10 people, one would be a spy. Her poetry was shared with seven trusted friends who would learn her poems by heart. The manuscripts were burned. In this precarious, painstaking way she wrote her extraordinary public sequences, Requiem, about a mother's desperate search for news of her imprisoned son, and Poem Without a Hero. Russians' terrible experiences in these years meant that Akhmatova's own griefs were as easily recognised experiences as those ordinary feelings she had caught in her love lyrics.

Akhmatova inspired mythologising in her life that continued long after her death in gossip, in memoirs and in biographical accounts. The manuscripts of her poems for the most part simply don't exist, and there are few letters. Her son Lev, persecuted because of his famous parents (as a child he was not even permitted to join the library) was always angry at the fact that his mother only ever wrote him postcards, communicating with him in prison as if from a holiday resort, he once quipped. In fact she was always fearful of further incriminating anyone closer to her, so dared write no more than a few cheery words. It's the kind of cumulatively illuminating detail from which this compulsively readable account is constructed.

Aside from the lack of documentary evidence and the conflicting recollections, the great difficulty of Anna Akhmatova's life as a subject for biography is an ethical one. The temptation is to conclude that tragedy was a gift to her talent - a chance to become Cassandra on which the self-centred poet fell hungrily. Feinstein entirely avoids the queasiness of celebrating her greatness as dependent on her suffering - it was in writing of the very ordinariness of desire, jealousy, guilt and rejection that she was already extraordinary.

Of all the images of his lover, it was Punin, a photographer as well as critic, who was responsible for one that seems the most headily evocative: in the gardens of Fountain House (the site today of the Akhmatova museum), he took a picture of his lover as a sphinx. Still as stone, she stares out at at the camera, posed and poised as her formal verses but also full of life, as if about to leap down from the pedestal. Being frozen or turned to stone was a motif she herself used, but with her peculiar idiosyncratic vision, writing of Lot's wife, she was struck mostly by her courage at daring to risk everything "for a single glance". Half a part of history, half a mesmeric friend you feel you know, the living statue also seems apt for Feinstein's biography.

At the time of Akhmatova's centenary in 1989, her first English biographer, the critic Amanda Haight, said it was "as if the door were finally closing on the living human being, and they are finally being cast in bronze. The temptation is to make the person superhuman, the statue larger than life. From here the next stage is to presume that life was somehow easier for them than for us, when in fact, in the case of a poet, their heightened sensitivity probably made it more difficult." The door still seems half-open. As Akhmatova wrote imagining the return of a long gone lover in her poem "White Night": "I haven't shut the door... I've got drunk on your voice in the hall." As a poet herself, Feinstein is adept at showing just why and how Akhmatova's unique voice has intoxicated readers ever since.

As a young attaché to St Petersburg in 1945, Isaiah Berlin could hardly believe that this figure of Tsarist times was still alive. He visited her and the two talked into the night, forming a lasting bond - almost a love affair about which Akhmatova wrote the lines claiming "what we do together here / will shake the Twentieth Century." What emerges most powerfully from this authoritative book is that Anna Akhmatova was already a poet of the 20th century long before its events threw her own life into shadow. She could write of it, rather than be written off as her persecutors wished, precisely because she was already a figure of great enough stature.

'Anna of all the Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova' by Elaine Feinstein is published by Weidenfeld (£20). To order a copy for £18 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897