Lydia Chukovskaya's "The Akhmatova Journals", set in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, reads like a distorted, nightmarish version of the conventional literary memoir. Clearly smitten by her subject, she proves an attentive, sometimes even sycophantic amanuensis, scrupulously memorising Akhmatova's poetry and catching every crumb of gossip and opinion about Russian literature that is thrown her way. As Akhmatova's near neighbour, she soon becomes nurse and companion as well as secretary to the older woman. Akhmatova, for her part, is a magisterial, dishevelled figure, often wearing the same tattered black robe with a dragon emblazoned on the back, who finds herself utterly bewildered by domestic affairs: cups, saucers, spoons have a nasty knack of disappearing, and she is forever running out of tea and sugar. She has all sorts of nervous foibles, claiming to know nothing at all about punctuation, despite being one of Russia's foremost writers, and throwing herself into a panic every time she is obliged to cross a road.
The two sit in each other's apartments, drinking hot water and eating stale cakes, or sipping vodka 'out of minute porcelain things that looked like salt cellars', and chatter away about art and literature. Their discourse takes in everything from Joyce's "Ulysses", which Akhmatova finds mildly pornographic but has nonetheless read six times, to the painter Modigliani, who drew twenty or more pictures of her when she knew him in Paris many years before. In the course ot their long, rambling conversations, they also touch on the lives and works of Akhmatova's most celebrated contemporaries. There are brief, acerbic asides on Mayakovsky ('shady, hypocritical and insincere...but this didn't stop him becoming one of Russia's greatest twentieth-century poets'), Mandelstam ('Osip tried to fall in love with me twice, but both times it seemed such an insult to our friendship that I immediately put a stop to it') and Pasternak ('sometimes he himself doesn't always understand what he is saying'). From outside Russia, Freud, Rembrandt, Mark Twain, Hemingway, and even Lewis Carroll flit in and out of their discussions.
If this wasn't anything more than a simple literary diary, penned in peaceful times, it would still have considerable fascination. Remarkably, though, Chukovskaya's journals were written in the wake of the Stalin 'terror' of 1937, when the prison camps first began to bulge at the seams. Back then, the author recalls in her introduction, both women lived 'under the spell of the torture chamber'. Akhmatova's son, Lyova, was languishing behind bars, and many of her friends and colleagues were already dead. Chukovskaya's husband, the physicist Matvey Bronshteyn, had been arrested on false charges. His main crime, it seemed, was that he shared a surname with Trotsky. For this, he was condemned to 'ten years without correspondence'. Only many years later did his wife discover that such a sentence was merely a euphemism for execution.
From 1938 to 1941, the period the journals cover, both Chukovskaya and Akhmatova were undernourished and in poor health, living in cramped accommodation, spied upon and under permanent threat of arrest. Much of their time was spent queuing outside the prison in the usually forlorn hope of hearing information about their loved ones. At considerable risk to themselves, they resolved to record the sufferings of 'those -who perished in the night'. Chukovskaya's searing novella "Sofia Petrovna", written during these years, charts the experience of an ordinary mother whose son, seemingly a model Soviet citizen, is denounced and thrown into jail, while Akhmatova's famous "Requiem" cycle is an anguished howl against the times, the howl of a 'Sick woman, woman alone/ Son in prison, husband dead.'
Seen against the backcloth of the purges, the diaries, for all their humour and tittle-tattle about Russian literature, take on an altogether darker hue. Their language is highly coded. It would have been foolhardy for Chukovskaya to broach the terror directly. Instead, she skims over the tragic events, offering only clues as to what is really happening below the surface. It is left to footnotes, asterisks and glossaries to unlock the hidden text. Scared of preserving anything on paper which could be used against them, the two devised an elaborate ritual: Akhmatova would recite her poems, write them down on a scrap of paper and hand them 'over to her friend. Chukovskaya would learn them by heart and hand them back. Then Akhmatova would set fire to them over an ashtray, saying 'How early autumn has come this year.' It took more than three decades for much of this verse to see the light of day again.
The journals end abruptly, with the women reunited in Tashkent in late 1941 after fleeing Leningrad, where the Nazis were briefly taking over from the Secret Police as the people's main oppressors. Already, though, there is the sense that Akhmatova is growing a little exasperated with her confidante. Perhaps it isn't hard to see why. Chukovskaya, still utterly in awe of the poet, describes her again and again not as a woman of flesh and blood but as some abstract figurehead. Akhmatova is, variously, 'a statue of grief, loneliness, pride, courage', 'a statue of the Madonna', 'a noble spirit'. Such worship can't have been easy to take.
Sadly, shortly after the events described here, there was to be a ten-year lull in the couple's friendship. From 1942 to 1952, Akhmatova refused even to speak to Chukovskaya. These were seismic years in which Akhmatova's reputation was first restored and then sullied anew. In 1946, Stalin's stooge, Zhdanov, launched a typically crass attack on her work, calling her 'a half-crazy gentle lady who tosses between the bedroom and the chapel, half nun, half harlot'. As a result of this criticism, she was bounced out of the Writers' Union and consigned to the wilderness yet again. Chukovskaya's journals miss all this. Still, we can console ourselves with the thought that the couple did patch up their differences. There are two further volumes, dealing with the years 1952-62 and 1963-66, waiting to be translated. They, too, should make essential reading.