Late last week I rearranged my desk and put in place several mementoes of my single overseas trip, which was the long train journey from Beijing through Mongolia across Siberia and to Moscow, ending in St Petersburg. There I encountered the history about which I had read so much but now could for the first time allow to get under my skin.
I walked Raskolnikov’s murder trial, stood in the cells of St Peter and Paul Fortress, followed Catherine the Great’s collections in the Hermitage, stood at the sites of massacres and revolutions, and looked out onto the mist-laden Neva with Aleksander Nevsky at my back
But the most moving visit was late autumn afternoon spent at the Anna Akhmatova Museum, which has been established in her old communal apartment. There you can look out at the gardens that were her refuge, stand in her modest shared kitchen, and look upon her meagre study, where it is said she would speak the words of her great poem to a friend, to pass them on in memory, before the scraps of paper on which they were written were burnt in the ashtray. For poetry, like Akhmatova’s, was a perilous rebellion in Stalinist Russia, and a solemn reminder that writing is more than marketing and self-promotion, at least if it seeks to serve something beyond the writer.
Her great poem – Requiem – can be heard here (a big thank you for this superb production available from a poetry channel on Youtube) – in a superb reading, accompanied by music and images evoking the sufferings of the Russian people and the victims of the Gulag. It was only ever fully published in Russia in 1987, more than thirty years after its initial composition.
The hour has come to remember the dead.
In my collection of her poems, there is a short preface by Joseph Brodsky in which he says her readers memorised her poems by heart “to temper their heart against the new era’s onslaught of vulgarity. The comprehension of the metaphysics of personal drama betters one’s chances of weathering the drama of history.” Akhmatova Poems [introduction by Joseph Brodsky] (Norton 1983) p xix.
From Requiem (Epilogue)
I’ve seen how a face can fall like a leaf
How, from under the lids, terror peeks,
I’ve seen how suffering and grief
Etches hieroglyphs on the cheeks,
How ash-blonde hair, from roots to tips,
Turns black and silver overnight.
How smiles wither on submissive lips,
And in a half-smile quiver fright.
Not only for myself do I pray
But for those who stood in front and behind me,
In the bitter cold, on a hot July day
Under the red wall that stared blindly.