Not under foreign skies
Nor under foreign wings protected –
I shared all this with my own people
There, where misfortune had abandoned us.
We celebrated our Independence Day a few days back. During Independence Day the tone of articles in the media and the social media swing between two extremes. On one hand, we have the patriotic post, providing ample proof on why we are one of the greatest nation in the world. The other end of scale belongs to the skeptics who wonder if we have really achieved Independence and list down all the evils in our society as the only achievement of India. (As usual the truth lies in the golden mean)
We were lucky to a large extent since our ‘enemy’ was clearly identifiable. We knew we have to drive out the British who were the occupying force. In contrast to this, many countries world over suffered because they had no identifiable external enemy. The evil was within. The dictator, the despot, the tyrant, the fascist who ruled them was one of their own. In many cases he had occupied the highest seat with the active support of his people. It is obtaining Independence from such a regime which is extremely tough.
In this article we will talk about a poet who lived in a regime which regularly persecuted its writers and artists. Anna Akhmatova, born in 1889, was a poet of great distinction, who suffered a lot during the Stalinist era – the monstrous epoch in human history, as Joseph Brodsky called it(1). She married the poet Gumilev in 1910, had a son Lev Gumilev, in 1912 and she divorced her husband in 1918. Gumilev was shot dead in 1921 for being a counter-revolutionary. Though Anna Akhmatova had divorced Gumilev by then, the fact that she was once the wife would haunt her and son throughout their lives.
Anna Akhmatova being a great poet could foresee what the future held for he beloved country. She writes with great clarity:
Why is our century worse than any other?
Is it that in the stupor of fear and grief
It had plunged its fingers in the blackest ulcer,
Yet cannot bring relief
Westward the sun is dropping,
And the roofs of town are shining in its light.
Already death is chalking doors with crosses
And calling the ravens and ravens are in flight
(Translation by D.M.Thomas – Anna Akhmatova: Selected Poems)
She wrote this three years before Gumilev was shot and her premonition was right.
She wrote this poem in the year Gumilev was executed
They wiped your slate
With snow, you are not alive
Bayonets twenty eight
And bullet holes five.
It’s a bitter present,
Love, but I have sewed it.
Russia, an old peasant
Killing his meat
(Translation by D.M.Thomas – Anna Akhmatova: Selected Poems)
People like us living in relatively peaceful times fill find it difficult to imagine the terror Anna Akhmatova experienced. D.M.Thomas in his introduction to Akhmatova’s Selected Poems says: “Faced with the events of Stalinist Terror…only the bravest and the most complete artists can respond with anything but silence”. The state tried to silence many of the writers, who were considered dangerous. Akhmatova found it hard to publish her poems. During those times she translated various European authors into Russian. She was living a life of poverty with her son. Soon only poverty would keep her company as her son was arrested and sent to prison.
Anna Akhmatova’s contemporaries fate was equally bad and most of them, unlike Akhmatova, could not survive the reign of terror. Mayakovsky shot himself, Osip Mandelstam was deported to a Gulag , where he would die. Marina Tsvetaeva was forced to commit suicide and Boris Pasternak was silenced for a long time. D.T. Thomas writes, “For Akhmatova herself, life was relatively happier during the war, when the enemy was known and could be fought. Such ‘happiness’ as she said, was a comment on the times!”
Anna Akhmatova took lot of pains to get her son released. She went to the extent of writing poems praising the regime she hated. (She never wanted these poems to be included in her Collected Poems). Her son was only released after Stalin died. She was a common-law wife of Nikolai Punin, who was also to be arrested and would die in the Gulag.
Ahkmatova’s experience with arrest of her son and Punin, gave rise to her great long poem, Requiem. Anna Akhmatova used to stand in long queues to meet her son in prison. This poem stands as a testimony of how horrible a time it was for the people of Russia under Stalin’s rule. She starts the poem with this Prelude:
During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’. On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear (everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face.
The Prologue of the poem gives an excellent idea of those times of terror.
In those years only the dead smiled,
Glad to be at rest:
And Leningrad city swayed like
A needless appendix to its prisons
It was then that the railway yards
Were asylums of the mad;
Short were the locomotives
Stars of death stood
Above us, and innocent Russia
Writhed under blood stained boots and
Under the tyres of Black Marias.
Her own state is reflected perfectly in this poem from Requiem
Gently flows the gentle Don,
Yellow moonlight leaps the sill,
Leaps the sill and stops aston-
ished as it sees the shade
Of a woman lying ill,
Of a woman stretched alone
Son in irons and husband clay,
As could be expected a poem of such intensity was not allowed to be published in Russia for a long time. It was published outside Russia and only in 1987 was the complete work published.
This brings us to the question: Why did Akhmatova not emigrate to a safer country? She herself had written that every time she went to see someone off at the train station as they went into exile, she’d find herself greeting friends at every step as so many of St Petersburg’s intellectual and cultural figures would be leaving on the same train. Akhmatova is supposed to have once remarked, “Who can refuse to live his own life?” Akhmatova did not move out of her country probably because she knew that her art would survive and so would her name whereas the names of those who prevented her from practicing her art will be wiped off from history. In D.M.Thomas’s introduction there is this paragraph about Akhmatova’s views of Pushkin. ”The whole epoch, little by little.. began to be called the time of Pushkin. All the high ranking members of the court, ministers, generals and non-generals, began to be called Pushkin’s contemporaries and then simply retired to rest in card indexes and lists of names in studies of his work”. So Anna Akhmatova perfectly knew the place of artist in the society. After Stalin’s death, her fame grew and she was accepted as one of the greatest poets of Russia. People of Russia loved her because she did not run away. Rather she chose to stay and suffer like all common people. That’s why huge crowds gathered for her memorial service when she died in 1965.
Anna Akhmatova did what is expected of a writer: to be the conscience of the society. Though she couldn’t publish many of works initially, the later publication show the uncompromising part of Anna Akhmatova. The poems throw light of the excesses of that era and the suffering everyone had to endure. As in the case of Pushkin, she outlasted the government functionaries, she outlasted her accusers. As D.M.Thomas notes about Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak and Tsveteva, “The officials of Stalin’s monolith were retiring ‘to rest in card indexes’ of their(Russian poets) work. It is a momentous thought. Can it be by chance that the worst of times found the best of poets to wage the war for eternal truth and human dignity.” Yes, those are the two things every artist must strive for: eternal truth and human dignity.
Independence and Freedom are not one time affairs. The artist must keep constant vigil to ensure that the Freedom we have is not taken away. The artist has to clash with the establishment when required and act as the conscience of the society. We cannot afford to take our freedom for granted. Beneath the surface there are always forces which want to curtail our freedom. The attack can come from the government, it can come from the industry, it can come from religion or from caste. The truth is that every form of identity tries its best to suppress other forms of identities. (As we are experience in Iraq with ISIS taking over). The artist can be the most powerful stumbling block for such forces. If the artist is truth and acts as the conscience of the society and is not afraid to speak the truth, his or her immortality is assured.