The Akhmatova Journals, 1938-41, volume one by LYDIA CHUKOVSKAYA (trans., from the Russian by Milena Michalski, Syiva Rubashova, and Peter Norman).
THE STATELY, grey-haired lady who received Isaiah Berlin in her small room in the Sheremetevo palace on the Fontanka in 1945 had the pride and dignity of a tragic queen. One might expect that vision of martyred and transcendent genius to be somewhat modified in an unstructured, sporadic record of daily life in stressful conditions. Not in this case, however.
This first volume of Lydia Chu-kovskaya's journals gives a marvellously honest account of Anna Akhmatova's bearing, almost the illusion of her physical presence - demanding, impractical, obsessive, brave - at a time of terrible suspense, when her son Lev was in prison and Stalin's police so ubiquitous that she had to burn every poem after she had written and learnt it. To read it is to find confirmed not only Akhmatova's personal greatness but also the heroic endurance of friendship, and the Russian passion for poetry.
Lydia Chukovskaya, whose diaries these are, is herself a remarkable woman. Her father, the distinguished children's writer Korney Chukovsky, had brought her up with revolutionary ideals. Her own fine novel about the 1937 terror is a chilling account of a Communist mother waking up to the evils of the Party only when her son is taken away to the cellars of the Big House.
Chukovskaya's own husband, Matvey Bronshteyn, was a theoretical physicist, arrested and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment without benefit of correspondence. Throughout these memoirs, Chukovskaya is tormented by the need to have news of him, just as Akhmatova was in painful suspense to hear about the fate of her imprisoned son, Lev. It is a primary bond between them.
It was never in doubt, however, which woman had the duty of looking after the other, and this not only because Chukovskaya was the younger woman and Akhmatova had cardiac problems. As a great beauty, a great poet, and a person who had chosen not to accommodate to the regime, Akhmatova was perceived as deserving preferential treatment in a way that Marina Tsvetayeva, her only equal as a poet, was never able to arrange.
For all the reverence she felt, however, Chukovskaya was a fascinated observer of detail - of Akhmatova's furniture, for instance, including the armchair with a leg which had to be propped up before it could be sat in safely. She noted all the changes in Akhmatova's dress, the careful matching of colours and choice of jewels; nor did she omit to record the days when Akhmatova sat in a fur coat by the burning stove, or dishevelled and unkempt in an untidy bed.
It is clear that Akhmatova had an amazing physical courage. She makes no fuss about an operation in 1940 to remove a non-malignant tumour in her breast. Her moral courage too is unrivalled, and not only in preserving Mandelstam's poetry after his death in the Gulag.
Akhmatova confided some of her most intimate thoughts about love and loneliness to Chukovskaya. Although a beauty, loved by so many men, Akhmatova saw human love as mainly a source for pain; and almost as often as Tsvetayeva, she makes a sense of being unloved a subject for poetry. All her three marriages ended unhappily, perhaps because of her compelling devotion to poetry. There is a white bird, in an early Akhmatova lyric, which her lover kills to stop it singing; and she comments drily on Gumilyov's impatience with her poetry, even while he insisted on his own freedom to have affairs. Of her second husband, Shileiko, whose jealousy of her writing led him to burn her poems, she remarks: "I was so depressed that I didn't have the strength to leave." There are hints of a remoteness in many of her relationships. Unlike Tsvetayeva, Akhmatova did not live "in harness to her family", and was happy to allow her son to be brought up by his grandmother.
The conversation between Akhmatova and Chukovskaya is never merely gossip. Probably Akhmatova repeated herself a great deal. Even in this journal, there are two versions of her famous diatribe against Tolstoy's sanctimonious treatment of Anna Karenina, which Isaiah Berlin also recorded in 1945. Where she speaks warmly, as she does of Pushkin, Pasternak, Tsvetayeva and Mandelstam, however, she is luminous and memorable; observing, for instance, that there are not many people other than himself in Pasternak's poems, she does not attribute this to egotism: it was as if they were written before the sixth day, before God created man." Brooding about the strange dullness of memoirs -about Lermontov she remarks: "Lermontov had a short life. Nobody noticed him. Nobody glimpsed his life, nobody realised what kind of person he was. And then everyone rushed to write their memoirs..." In contrast, these intimate notebooks seem to convey so exactly the woman who was their writer's friend.
Elaine Feinstein is the biographer of Marina Tsvetaveva.