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Anna of all the Russias: The Life of a Poet under Stalin: A Life of Anna Akhmatova Hardcover – 30 Jun 2005
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eminently readable... Akhmatova is a figure that Russians return to again and again, the better to understand their own history. Feinstein has done English-speaking readers a great favour by making Akhmatova's life story, and therefore her poetry, more accessible to us that ever before."
"Feinstein has done English-speaking readers a great favour by making Akhmatova's life story, and therefore her poetry, more accesible to us than ever before. (Anne Applebaum SPECTATOR)
Her biographer needs... adriotness to make space in one book for all the components of her complicated life and to find the right focus for such a diffuse and frequently interrupted career... at its centre is the compelling figure of Akhmatova herself... Not an easy person then, but a grand one, and a great poet. (Lucy Hughes-Hallett SUNDAY TIMES)
"Elaine Feinstein's new life of one of the 20th century's greatest lyric poets is based on a wealth of documentary evidence and interviews with member sof Akhmatova's circle. Feinstein paints a vivid portrait of the woman whose dignity and authority led Marina Tsvetaeva to christen her Anna of All the Russias." (LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS)
Elaine Feinstein has managed to write a biography that is both scholarly and emotive. The versions of the poems that she uses are all her own and this sustains a sense of Anna of All the Russias as written form the inside of it's subject's imagination. (INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY)
Elaine Feinstein's achievement is to show us the life of an extraordinary woman in gleaming fragments, and to demonstrate, through so many witnesses, how she was worshipped. (NEAL ASCHERSON OBSERVER)
admiring but unsparing... [Akhmatova] is like Shakespeare and Burns in a fundamental way; she belongs to the whole human race. (ROBERT SERVICE MAIL ON SUNDAY)
"Feinstein is splendidly qualified to add to the story.. In addition, her final sections here, called Aftermaths and Epilogue, provide a fresh, informative glimpse of how Akhatova is seen now, how she has fared in the thicket of memoirs and revisions which have emerged in the last few decades. And how a new post-Soviet Russia has come to terms with her stature.... The poems themselves are offered with with a clear and clean eloquence. Akhmatova's luck has held." (EAVAN BOLAND IRISH TIMES)
fine biography... She is a natural subject for Feinstein to have chosen after her recent biography of Pushkin. (IAIN FINLAYSON THE TIMES)
Elaine Feinstein's Anna of all the Russias is as absorbine and comprehensive as was her biography of Pushkin, and as great a revelation of a poet's life. (JOHN BAYLEY LITERARY REVIEW)
This volume is a magnificent achievement for Elaine Feinstein... indispensable. (GLOBE AND MAIL)
Life of the Russian poet who withstood Stalinism and became an inspiration to millionsSee all Product description
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In 1910 she married her first husband, Nicolay Gumilyov, who was also a poet, was bored by marriage as soon as he had entered it, had numerous affaires, and often left Anna for months on end while he travelled in Africa. They had an “open marriage”, but, as is so often the case, the wife, although she, too, has relationships outside the marriage, is more vulnerable than the husband - not least because her lover, Boris Anrep, settled in England. Gumilyov was the father of her only child, Lev. Lev was brought up largely by his paternal grandmother in the country: Anna admitted that she not a good mother, and Lev would always feel eglected and be resentful of her.
In 1918 she asked Gumilyov for a divorce, saying that she intended to marry Vladimir Shileiko, also a poet, but primarily an orientalist. He turned out to be extremely possessive, jealous of her other friends and even of the time she gave to her poetry; so she wrote very little for the next three years. During that time she seems to have loved him all the same and to have been very submissive to him.
By this time she had lived through the horrors of the First World War, the two revolutions of 1917 and the terrible famine and shortages that followed. Akhmatova and Shileiko were both very ill. Akhmatova was in very poor health almost throughout her life.
In the early years of Bolshevik rule there was still respect and encouragement of culture. Gumilyov became chairman of the Petrograd Union of Poets and Anna, though hostile to the Bolsheviks, was admitted as a member. But Gumilyov would be reported as having remarked that he would join any uprising against the government; and although he took no part in the Kronstadt uprising of 1921, he was arrested on the defeat of the uprising and executed.
Earlier that year Akhmatova had freed herself from her love of Shileiko. They were not formally divorced until 1925, but Anna moved out to live in a ménage a trois with a musician Artur Lurye and his wife, and was writing poetry again. When Lurye emigrated in 1922, she decided to stay in Russia.
She then embarked on a passionate but volatile relationship with the art historian Nikolay Punin which lasted for fifteen years. What made it so volatile was, among other things, that both of them had other relationships at the time (Anna’s included her former husband Shileiko). In 1925 she moved into the flat in which Punin, his unhappy wife and daughter were living. But Punin became as jealous of her other friends as Shileiko had been, and the tension between them increased in 1928 when Anna’s son Lev, now sixteen, ready to study in Leningrad, moved from his grandmother’s house in the country to stay with his mother in Punin’s flat. Lev resented boh Punin and Anna who took very little interest in him.
By then the cultural climate in the Soviet Union had changed; her writings were first criticized and then, in 1929, the censors refused permission for new poems by her to be published. Soon life became very dangerous. Anna often visited her close friend, the poet Osip Mandelstam, in Moscow, and she was staying with him and his wife in 1934 when he was arrested: he had composed a poem, never written down, describing a repulsive-looking Stalin as “the murderer of peasants” and had read it to a group of friends. He was sentenced to three years of exile from Moscow.
The full terror began after the murder of Kirov later that year. Lev, as the son of Gumilyov, was arrested in 1935, and so was Punin, who had made a joke about Kirov’s murder. On this occasion they were both released after a courageous letter to Stalin written on behalf of Akhmatova’s “husband and son” by Boris Pasternak. But in 1938 Lev was arrested again, and sentenced, initially to ten years - later reduced to five - in a prison camp. Mandelstam was also rearrested that year and sent to a gulag near Vladivostok where he died not long afterwards.
Anna’s “marriage” to Punin had come to an end that year (though she continued to live in his flat). She was sick, poor, shabbily dressed and undernourished, and her main concern now was for Lev: she at last began to feel maternal, queuing for hours in all weathers outside prisons to deliver parcels for Lev. He never received them, was never aware of her efforts and felt great bitterness towards his mother.
At this time she wrote her most famous poem, “Requiem”, which speaks of her own suffering as that of “ a hundred million” and which was published only after Stalin’s death.
But, unaccountably, in 1940 she was admitted to the Leningrad Writers’ Union, a selection of her poems was re-published, and her pension, which had been withdrawn, was restored to her. When Leningrad came under siege by the Germans in 1941, the Writers’ Union included her among the group of writers whom they evacuated, to Chistopol in Tartarstan on the Volga and then to Tashkent in Kazakhstan.
She returned to Leningrad when that city was freed. While in Tashkent, she had accepted a marriage proposal from Vladimir Garshin, the doctor who had been extremely solicitous during her many illnesses in Leningrad. He had stayed behind in the city; his wife had died of starvation. But on her return to Leningrad Anna found that he had changed his mind, having fallen in love with someone else. She now had a room with the Rybakov family, which was shared for a while by Lev, who, after his sentence had ended, had fought with the Soviet army and was now completing his degree at Leningrad University.
It seemed a better time: she was published and popular, and her readings were received with standing ovations. But in November 1945 and January 1946 she had two famous and fateful meetings with Isaiah Berlin who was at that time on the staff of the British Embassy. It made the Soviet authorities suspicious of her, and she now came under attack from Zhdanov and was expelled from the Writers’ Union (1946) and again stripped of her pension.
This was followed by renewed persecution of people close to her. First, in August 1949, Punin was arrested again and sent to a camp in Siberia; in September it was the turn of Lev, sentenced to ten years in another camp in Siberia. They were not released on the death of Stalin in 1953 - Punin died later that year. Lev wrongly accused his mother of not caring enough or doing enough to help him. He was released in 1956 and returned to Leningrad to live for a while, in black resentment, in the same small space in which Anna was then living with the Ardov family.
That was the period known as The Thaw, and Akhmatova’s works were again printed and praised. She was even allocated a one-room flat of her own in Leningrad and a two room dacha just outside the city - it was the first time since before the First World War that she had a home of her own. She was the center of a court of four young poets (three of whom were Jewish) who loved and admired her. But even now, as throughout her life and despite her very poor health, she moved constantly between Leningrad, Moscow and the dacha, and she was never short of friends to help her or to give her hospitality. She even managed to travel to Sicily in 1964 to receive a literary prize and to Oxford in 1965 to receive an honorary doctorate. Isaiah Berlin had been instrumental in the latter case. She died of a long-standing heart disease the following year.
She was clearly a great poet, and endured her many political tribulations with courage and dignity. The tribulations in her personal life were, I think, a different matter: even if one accepts the rejection of conventional morality which she shared with her husbands and lovers, she was not at all wise in the most important of her personal relationships.
The book is not a fluent read. Although the personalities of Anna and the other main personalities stand out clearly, there are innumerable other people who are mentioned without anything much that makes them memorable, and frequently I had to look at the index to remind myself of an earlier mention of them. The careers of some others who were involved with Akhmatova are recounted in distracting detail.
Her poetry is intimately connected to her personal life, the autobiographical sources of it barely disguised, but the work of all great poets take on a universal dimension. The State recognised this and banned publication of her works for two lengthy periods. They also persecuted her son Lev who was imprisoned for years just because he was her son. Already bitter towards her because she did not bring him up (his grandmother did), theirs was a difficult relationship and caused much suffering. She had influential friends - Pasternak, Mandelstam, Brodsky among them - and many lovers; she always needed the support of others both practical and emotional, and several women, notably Lydia Chukovskaya, were devoted to her care. In the last decade of her life, when her collected works were at last published in Russia, and her status was acknowledged, she had a quartet of young male poets to support her too.
It's a story of poetic fame and greatness overcoming huge difficulties - loneliness, poverty, state repression. Her stoicism and courage - she was in Leningrad at the time of the siege, before being airlifted to Tashkent - was evident to all. Her beauty, poise, her special spirit, was commented on by all who admired her. Though she had a her critics, though her son might bitterly disagree, in many ways her life was an exemplary one, and Feinstein brings this out in a book that pays due tribute to her subject in a well informed, unsentimental way. Indeed, she's to be congratulated on the wide use of her sources - journals, letters, interviews - to create a well-balanced picture of an extraordinary life.
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