|Anna Akhmatova's Desk|
When her son Lev was arrested in 1938, Anna Akhmatova burned all her notebooks of poems. From then on, she memorized everything she wrote, to recite afterwards only in private readings with trusted friends.
Lev’s father, Akhmatova’s first husband Nikolai Gumilev, had been killed for his supposed role in an anti-Bolshevik conspiracy. But Akhmatova knew her son was probably also targeted because of the uncompromising nature of her own verse.
Her transition to the oral tradition also meant a change in her style: more fragmentary, more visual and, above all, more resonant. That was her strategy for surviving and safeguarding the collective memory of her people.
As a poet, she could not save the victims of Stalin’s Terror, the purges, or the Siege of Leningrad during World War II. But her transparent verses could preserve memory, and save it from a second death: Oblivion.
As the terrible events mounted in Russia and the suffering of her people grew, Akhmatova’s voice became stronger and more committed to the weakest victims. She lived through the fall of the empire, the October Revolution and two world wars. Akhmatova endured the terror of Stalin and the persecution of her writer-friends who belonged to The Silver Age: Mandelstam died on route to the Gulag, Tsvetaeva hanged herself and Pasternak was persecuted till his death. Akhmatova was officially silenced in 1924, and did not publish again until 1940.
“An entire generation has passed through me as if through a shadow,” she wrote. Despite her poverty and delicate health, Akhmatova’s generosity and solidarity with her family and friends remained a part of her character.
Between 1935 and 1940, she composed “Requiem.” In this, her most famous poem, she laments the execution of Gumilev, her first husband; the arrest of her third husband Nikolai Punin; and the imprisonment of her son Lev. But “Requiem” was also an anthem of the people’s resistance before the power of Stalin; one of the poem’s most powerful passages was written “Instead of a Preface.”