Author of Anna of All the Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova, Elaine Feinstein imagines a day in the life of the poet during her exile in Tashkent, when she lived in a small room on the top floor of the ‘Hostel for Moscow Writers’ at 7, Karl Marx Street
It was already mid-morning. Anna Akhmatova, her whole being formed in Leningrad, lay dreaming in Tashkent. Against the pillow her profile was as sharp as a metallic image on a coin. She awoke with a jolt, her heart thumping loudly and out of rhythm.
Her small, almost childlike hands threw off the faded pink blankets and reached for her pills. er hert clicked back into rhythm Too much vodka the night before with Faina Ranevskaya. As she sat up and cautiously rubbed her numb feet, she smiled think of Ranevskaya’s droll face: Charlie Chaplin, she called her. She was the most famous comic actress in Russia.
Anna began to pull on an old gown of Chinese silk with a black dragon embroidered on the back. One of the seams was torn from under the arm to the knee, as it had been for months. But the air was warm against her skin. How much easier it is to be poor in a warm climate, she thought.
Bits of her dream returned to her. She was walking over a Tartar wasteland: frozen mud, a plank over a puddle of melted snow. Below her, she made out a woman in ragged clothes, a village hut, a nail, a hank of rope …
Was it a sign? Anna was superstitious about dreams.
She had come south on a train more than a year ago, from Chistopol in the frozen North, where the Writers’ Union had first evacuated her. Lydia Chukovskaya, a loyal friend from her Leningrad days, was with her; Anna always found people to look after her. And Lydia was a courageous woman – she had memorised the lyrics of Requiem when it was too dangerous to write them down – and a generous woman, too. She had spent hours standing in line for rations, or queuing to hand in parcels at Kresty Prison.
Anna sighed. There had been a break between them. Lydia disapproved of her drinking so heavily. It was not sensible, with a bad heart. More than that, she disapproved of Ranevskaya, whom she found vulgar. Perhaps she was a little jealous. Anna shrugged. What will be will be.
But the dream stayed with her. She must have been thinking about the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, the only woman Anna recognised as her equal. Tsvetaeva had hanged herself in Yelabuga, across the river Kama from the Writers’ Union headquarters in Chistopol. Anna had only met her once, not in the far North but in Moscow, just before the German invasion. By then, all of Tsvetaeva’s family were in the camps except for her son Georgiy, whom she adored. She had killed herself in Yelabuga, even so. Remembering it, Anna crossed herself. It was never good fortune to dream of death, still less a suicide. And her own son, Lev, was in the Gulag now – a brilliant boy who might have been a fine historian.
She would not think of that, or of the words in his last letter, which had hurt her so much. His interrogators had jeered at him: ‘Your mother is so famous, she could get you released with a word, but she doesn’t care.’ How could he believe that? She had tried every trick to win his release. Didn’t he understand she was helpless? She shook the thoughts out of her head. One day he might forgive her. If they both lived long enough.
Tashkent was a city of almond and apricot trees, markets piled with fruits, brown-skinned girls. Sometimes there was a majestic caravan of camels. In the dry heat, she had learned to value the shade of a tree as much as sunshine. She had lived her whole life in a city of sea and rain. Water had coloured all her poetry, water and ghosts. Now she lived among wide steppes in a Muslim world.
That Tashkent was a Muslim city did not trouble her. Hadn’t she taken her pen name from an ancestor said to be a khan? She liked the ancient, alien customs. It did not displease her that she had a reputation for wisdom among Muslim women. She enjoyed it.
But the dream. What did that presage?
Someone was knocking at the door.
It was Ranevskaya, her drinking companion of the night before. Anna cheered up whenever she approached. Even in Tashkent, the children called catchphrases after her. She had lit Anna’s stove when it died the previous winter. Stole the wood for it, too. Today she brought fresh aromatic peaches … and something else, held behind her back.
‘You have forgotten you are reading tonight,’ Faina reproached her. ‘Have you anything to wear?’
‘All my life I have been able to look however I wanted, from a beauty to a hag,’ Anna replied indifferently. ‘What are you holding?’
Ranevskaya gave her a letter, and Anna looked at it without seizing it. It was from Garshin, her lover in Leningrad, whose wife had died in the streets. It was not what she was waiting for. He wrote so often she knew what he would say.
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