Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Obverse Of Stalinism: Akhmatova's Self-Serving Charisma Of Selflessness

     In every revolution, the main issue is power.

                                                                                                V. I. Lenin[1]

                "Poetry is power," Osip Mandelstam once said to Akhmatova in Voronezh, and she bowed her head on its slender neck. Banished, sick, penniless and hounded, they still would not give up their power.

                                                                                Nadezhda Mandelstam[2]


                The life and works of the poet Anna Andreevna Akhmatova (1889-1966) offer a sustained example of self-presentation that is grounded in historical circumstances in ways one would not have easily suspected. What follows is an attempt to reread the Akhmatova myth as a set of stories told of oneself and received, regurgitated, and institutionalized by the surrounding culture. The case of Akhmatova is especially challenging because of the poet's well-known stoic opposition to the reigning political climate of the time: her essential affinity with the totalitarian discourse of her oppressors can only be discerned through a fresh parsing of the text of her literary and personal life, usually construed in hagiographic tones.[3]

                Fortunately, the task is facilitated by the unabashed conspicuousness of Akhmatova's self-image-making. Forestalling the needs of biographers, Akhmatova used to give her visitors "guided museum tours of herself"[4] and play to them what she called "gramophone records" (plastinki)--vignettes from her life.[5] She often spoke as if "for the record"[6] and "was not above ghosting her own biography."[7]

                                She came to believe... that all her indiscretions would be divulged by her biographers. She lived... aware of her biography... "It is all in our hands," she would say, and: "As a literary critic I know..." One part of her longed for a canonized portrait without the follies and foibles inevitable in any life, especially that of a poet.[8]

                                [P]eople... said... that she "corrected her biography"... [She] declared herself... to be the chronologically first Akhmatova specialist to whose objectiveopinion all later specialists would have to give particular weight.[9]

Here is how she went about providing "objective" data.

                                She persuaded Vera Alekseevna Znamenskaia to write her memoirs, but... did not find in them what she had expected... A[nna] A[ndreevna] would get angry and even quarrel with Vera Alekseevna, but then she recalled wisely that the very initial period of her relationship with [the poet Nikolai] Gumilev [Akhmatova's former husband, executed by the Soviets in 1921 on dubious charges] should be remembered by Valia [Sreznevskaia]... Valeriia Sergeevna went ahead and wrote, but [Akhmatova] did not like her notes... although much of it was written according to her own words. Some of it they corrected together, and Valeriia Sergeevna once again copied it out in her own hand, at [Akhmatova's] insistence. This copybook written by Valeriia Sergeevna was rejected by Anna Andreevna..."[10]

With similar bias Akhmatova shaped her versions of her historic role. According to Sir Isaiah Berlin, she believed that

                                we--that is, she and I--inadvertently, by the mere fact of our meeting, had started the cold war and thereby changed the history of mankind. She meant this quite literally; and... saw herself and me as world-historical personages chosen by destiny to begin a cosmic conflict... I could not protest... since she would have felt this as an insult to her tragic image of herself as Cassandra--indeed, to the historico-metaphysical vision which informed so much of her poetry. I remained silent.[11]

Berlin identifies the fundamental connection between Akhmatova's personal fears as a subject of Stalin's regime and her charismatic self-image. The paranoia, more or less legitimate under the circumstances, develops into a mania grandiosa, which, in turn, energizes her personal myth, in an instructive instance of the paradoxical opposition/ symbiosis between dissident poet and totalitarian leader--of the sort perceptively analyzed by Gregory Freidin with respect to Osip Mandelstam.[12] Akhmatova's brooking no contradiction from Berlin, therefore, evidences not so much her unreasonableness as her adherence to the laws of charismatic mythmaking.

                Indeed, as a disciple of the Silver Age masters of "self-creation" (zhiznetvorchestvo)[13] and a witness to the production of Stalin's "cult of personality," Akhmatova had a keen understanding of these laws.

                                When [Joseph] Brodsky was tried and sent into exile... she said: "What a biography they are making for our Ginger. As if he had gone out and hired someone to do it." And to my question about the poetic fate of Mandelstam, whether it was not overshadowed by his fate as a citizen... she replied: "It's ideal."[14]

On occasion, the "hiring" metaphor would be reified. In the 1920s, Akhmatova engaged the services of a younger friend, P. N. Luknitskii, to work on the biography of Gumilev. In his diary, he noted her instructing him as follows:

                                "You mustn't forget that this biography you are compiling is perhaps a most severe indictment... You must gain an understanding of every detail, plow through all this debris... create the true image of Nikolai Stepanovich... You may overly narrow that image and make mistakes"... She realized that creating such a biography was also a work of art... an act of creation like any other.[15]

                Akhmatova considered plain wrong and punishable all biographical statements about Gumilev, herself, and Mandelstam that were not authorized by her.

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