The Akhmatova Journals
Volume 1: 1938-1941
By Lydia Chukovskaya.
LYDIA CHUKOVSKAYA became friends with Anna Akhmatova in November 1938, shortly after the arrest of Lydia's husband. Akhmatova's son had also just been arrested. Certain that her husband had died, Chukovskaya had achieved the calm of numbed shock. Akhmatova, forced to endure torture by hope, harassed by the authorities, ill and often clinically starving, opened her soul to Chukovskaya, calling her around at all hours of the day and night to the flat where she lived with her former husband and his new wife in a Dostoevskian squalor of stolen forks, bolted doors, informers and screaming neighbours.
Herself an editor and writer, Chukovskaya had worshipped Akhmatova's early poems from childhood. Now she was learning the new ones and sharing Akhmatova's poetic vision of Leningrad. Often ill, and with a young daughter to look after, Chukovskaya gladly stands in queues for Akhmatova and braves 35 degrees of frost in the blacked-out city, effacing herself almost to the point of invisibility in her eagerness to evoke Akhmatova's essence: her shawls, hats, dresses and shoes, and her utterances, like lines of poetry. In the madness of the Terror, Akhmatova's poems were "a moan from the depths of her soul", majestic, modest and pure; she was Russia's national poet, "who heard her country and spoke for it".
In 1940 Akhmatova was honoured and ceremonially welcomed into the Writer's Union. But as Chukovskaya herself became increasingly of interest to the authorities and her family came under surveillance, she began to see less of her, and this part of the diaries has been lost. It was only after the outbreak of war in 1941 that the two women were reunited, and Akhmatova was Chukovskaya's eagle-eyed companion on a train journey through Siberia to Tashkent.
In plain but sparkling prose, Chukovskaya celebrates Akhmatova's inner strength and nobility. Her sardonic tone with admirers ("they don't show up a second time, the way I receive them"), her hatred of snobbery, her generosity to friends who underwent sudden changes of personality, and to those who attacked her. Her delight in Joyce's Ulysses, modern gadgets and Modernists, who "handed back the country in a completely different shape from that in which they'd received it". Her imperious dismissal of Hemingway, Chekhov, even Tolstoy, "that rubbishy old man", who in Anna Karenina conjures up a prostitute, falls in love with her, then destroys her at the hands of high society and mocks her dead body, "shamelessly stretched out". When her friend is expected to join the squabbling for a place at the holiday dacha, Chukovskaya applauds her reckless disdain for Soviet boorishness: "How grateful I am to her that she understands so well who she is, that in preserving the dignity of Russian literature which she represents at some invisible tribunal, she never takes part in any common scuffles."
The intensity of Akhmatova's spiritual life became focused on her fear of the new - of crossing roads, moving, losing her sanity. Chukovskaya patiently edited the mountains of her work, dealing with her terror of punctuation and dates, bringing her food - with lilacs, "so it would seem more like a present" - and when others thought she was imagining persecution at the hands of over-fulsome admirers or the young man evidently sent to entrap her, Chukovskaya believed her.
In this journal, her picture of daily life in the shadow of the torture chamber - the queues, the petitioning for her arrested husband, her dismissal from work, Akhmatova's news of her son (her "latest misfortune") - are clear and fragmentary as dreams, as are Akhmatova's poems of the time. She describes the "black ritual", in which her friend would fall silent, signal to the walls and scribble on a scrap of paper the lines of a poem for Chukovskaya to read and memorise. Chukovskaya would hand it back in silence, and Akhmatova would light a match and burn it over an ashtray. "The aquiline profile, sharply defined as a blue shadow on the white wall of the transit prison, was entering my life with the same inescapable naturalness as the bridges, St Isaac's or the embankment had entered it long ago." On the way home, when words had slipped her mind, she would put in her own to keep the metre, "and from somewhere in the recess of memory, those unworthy words lured out the real ones. I had been sleep-walking. Poems had guided me and the world was absent."
These poems are at the end of the book. Translation alone is a precarious connection to Anna Akhmatova's poetry, but Peter Norman's clear renderings respect their austere tranquility, and Chukovskaya makes the links vivid in a series of invaluable footnotes written between the 1960s and the late 1980s, when the book was first published in Russia. Text and notes, with their wealth of information on Russia's literary and artistic life, shine the warm light of humanity on those years in which Akhmatova wrote some of her most imperishable poems.