Sunday, 9 September 2018

Anna Akhmatova's Poetry / Al Stewart track 'Roads To Moscow'

                  Anna Akhmatova ( Anna Akhmatova Gorenko)         
Update : I am preparing a longer piece about Anna Akhmatova with the kind assistance of Lucy London from the 'Female Poets of the First World  War  Blog' which will be featured on the website    Michael Bully, 22nd September 2018     

Further update said webarticle now ready to view at Anna Akmatova -joint piece with Lucy London                          

                        1922 portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin ( courtesy of Wikipedia) 

                                     "At the burial of an epoch
                                      no psalm is heard at the tomb
                                      soon nettles and thistles                                       
                                      will decorate the spot 
                                     The only busy hands are those 
                                      of the grave-diggers .Faster! Faster!
                                      and it's quiet, Lord, so quiet
                                      you can hear time passing."
                                      Anna Akhtmatova poem,  'In 1940' 
Many basic details of concerning the life of Anna Akhmatova are not agreed upon. Some sources state that Anna Akhmatova was born in St. Petersburg in 1888, others offer Boshoy Fontain, near Odessa, Ukraine in 1889.  Associated with  the Acemist poetry movement centred round St .Petersburg, Anna Akmatova married fellow poet Nikolay Gumilyov in 1910- though divorced in 1918. Their son, Lev Gumilyov was born in 1912, and collections of Anna's work appeared in 1912 and 1914.  

Though met with official disapproval during the Bolshevik regime, further collections of Anna Akhmatova's work appeared in 1917, and two in 1921. However, Nikolay Gumilyov was executed in 1921 for alleged taking part in an anti-Bolshevik conspiracy.  Anna Akhmatov found that her poetry was no longer permitted to be published, and she survived as a translator and literary critic ,becoming a specialist on the work of Pushkin. Lev Gumilyov served three sentences under Stalin's regime. Anna Akhmatov's close friend, the fellow poet Osip Mandelshtam, was hauled away by police in front of her , and imprisoned.  Two future husbands would also be jailed- in fact her third husband, the art historian Nikolai Punin died in a camp in 1934,

When World War 2 began, Russia had already  signed the Nazi-Soviet pact with Germany. Anna Akhmatov's poetry was allowed to be published again in 1940, but a full collection would not appear until 1961- one source I consulted, stated 1965. One of her 1940 poems - ' To The Londoners,' was a written dedication to those who were facing the London Blitz. 

Following the launching of Operation Barbarossa ,Stalin permitted Anna Akhmatov to broadcast live to the women of Leningrad as the blockade of the city began in September 1941, but she departed the city in the Spring of 1942 for Tashkent, Uzbekistan. One account has Anna flying out of the city , clutching the manuscript  for   Shostakovich's 7th Symphony - The Leningrad Symphony'. Whilst absent from Leningrad, Anna Akhmatov read poetry to the wounded troops. In June 1944 Anna Akhmatov returned to the city. During this time her poetry began to be published again, and in 1945 she performed her work to an audience of some 3,000 people at an event in Moscow, and received a standing ovation.  

However in 1946, the Soviet authorities clamped down on her work. An extensive collection of Anna Akhmatov's poetry being prepared for publication was banned. A high standing member of the Politburo, Anrei Zhadanov, notoriously denounced her work for being "utterly individualistic" and referred to Anna Akhmatov as " a nun and a whore, who combines harlotry with prayer."

Following her son Lev Gumilyov 's third arrest and imprisonment in 1949, Anna destroyed a substantial amount of her own work including a play that she had written during her stay at Tashent. 

However, following 'The Thaw' after Stalin's death, Anna Akhmatov was allowed to have her work published again with 22 of her poems appearing in an official anthology of Soviet poems in 1958.  In 1959 her membership to the Soviet Union of Writers was restored, and Anna was permitted to embark on a foreign travel . Following more of her work being published, Anna Akhmatova was permitted to travel abroad again in 1965.
On 5th March 1966 Anna Akhmatov died after a short illness. 

Anna Akhmatova seemed to have lost so many people close to her during the Revolution, the Purges, World War 2 that she reached a state evoked in her poem 'The Return' from 1944  

"The souls of my dears have all flown to the stars
Thank God there's no one left for me to lose"

A cycle of 16 short poems 'The Winds of War  appeared in 'Second World War Poems-chosen by Hugh Haughton ' ( Faber & Faber, 2004). Here is number three in the series.


And people's colourful daily round
Suddenly changed drastically
But this was not a city sound,
Not one heard in the villages.
It resembled a distant peal of thunder
As closely as one brother resembles another,
But in thunder there's the moisture,
Of cool cloud towers
And the yearning of the meadows-
For the news of joyous showers,
But this was like scorching heat, dry,
And we didn't want to believe
The rumour we heard-because of
How it grew and multiplied,
Because of how indifferently
It brought death to my child

September 1941

Yet there were notes of victory within the poetry cycle. 

 15 JANUARY  27, 1944

And on starless January night,
Amazed at its fantastic fate,
Returned from the bottomless depths of death,
Leningrad salutes itself


A clean wind rocks the firs'
Clean snow covers the ground.
No longer hearing the tread of the enemy,
It rests, my land 

February 1945 


10 Anna Akhmatova Poems to Read when Life, Love, and Politics Are Hard


The Muse of Keening  Short film about the life of work  including as interview with step-daughter.

Poem-'Requiem'       Anna Akhmatova's most famous poem read out with some minimal electronic backing. Superb.

Contemporary  St Petersburg website about Anna Akhmatova (English language)

 St. entry for Anna Akhmatova Museum

Recommended Books

'Anna Akhmatova Poems' Selected and Translated by Lyn Coffin -Introduction by Joseph Brodsky'
 published by 'Norton & Company' London/New York 1983

'Anna Akhmatova Selected Poems-Selected, Translated and Introduced by Stanley Kuntiz with Max Hayward'
published by Collins Harvill, London 1989

Al Stewart song 'Roads To Moscow'  

Folk rock singer-songwriter Al Stewart has excelled in writing countless songs with a historical theme.  My favourite is 'Road To Moscow'  from the 1973 album 'Past, Present and Future'. Unfortunately not in a position to  reproduce the lyrics so can only quote from them

'Roads to Moscow' tells the story of a Red Army soldier serving at the time of Operation Barbarossa. The first verses describe the Soviets retreating deep into Russia, then in turn drive the Germans back. The soldier begins to dream of his return home-but becomes a prisoner of war, but escapes after a day. He successfully  rejoins the Red Army. But only to be moved from the ranks and ordered to a  Soviet labour camp for allowing himself to be taken prisoner. The song ends with him gazing through the wire, realising that Winter was approaching.

"It's cold and damp in the transit camp
 The air is still and solemn
The pale sun of October whispers
The snow will soon be coming
And I wonder when I will be home again
And the morning answers never. "

The debate whether song lyrics about war can be counted as 'war poetry' seems hard to resolve. But if it is accepted that lyrics can be considered as war poetry, then 'Roads to Moscow' is a strong contender.


Al Stewart explanation  of 'Roads to Moscow'

'Roads to Moscow' (song)   from 'Youtube'

Finally Please remember that there is a companion blog to this one called A Burnt Ship  about Stuart era War Poetry and literature. Also features contemporary fiction about the 17th century .