If this book has an equivalent in English, it would be Boswell's Life of Johnson. Like Boswell, Lydia Chukovskaya was much younger than the famous writer whose work she had admired from a distance for so long that sometimes she could hardly credit her luck at being accepted as a friend.
Anna Akhmatova for her part expanded, like Johnson, in the warmth of the young diarist's energy and affection, accepted her boundless veneration and tolerated the insatiable curiosity together with the uncomfortably sharp observation that went with it. She was also well aware of the relationship's practical advantages. "Young acquaintances must last longest, if they do last," as Johnson explained to Boswell; "I love the young dogs of this age."
Not that youth was any guarantee of durability in Leningrad in November, 1938, when Chukovskaya's diaries start. This first volume covers the few relatively peaceful years between the Great Terror and the blockade, which replaced shooting with starvation as the commonest cause of death. In 1938 Pyotr Ivanovich - Chukovskaya's macabre nickname for the NKVD - seemed momentarily to have relaxed his grip. Queues of relatives waiting outside prison gates were shorter than they had been the year before. Akhmatova made alarming jokes: "They've come for me," she said when a Party hack turned up with a military man in tow. In her diary that night Chukoyskaya left a blank, not daring to write down the actual words.
Chukovskaya's husband; Matvey Bronshteyn, had been arrested in 1937. So had Akhmatova's son, Lev Gumilyov. Their situation, and attempts to secure their release, preoccupied the two women night and day. In fact, although Chukovskaya did not yet know it and would not be officially informed for another 20 years, Matvey had already been shot. She herself had escaped arrest by accident, "like a glass," as Akhmatova said cheerfully, "that has rolled under a bench during an explosion in a china shop."
None of this could be openly discussed, let alone be committed to paper. The convivial gossipy conversations recorded here - mostly about books and writers - take on a different sense in the light of the poems (printed in Peter Norman's translation at the back) in which Akhmatova confronted what was actually happening at the time. "Reality was beyond my powers of description" Chukovskaya explains in a blood-curdingly deadpan preface: "... real life, my daily life, has been omitted from my notes, or almost omitted; just faint glimmers of it here and there."
A typical day would begin with an urgent call from Akhmatova asking her friend to come at once. Chukovskaya would be handed a scrap of paper with a new poem scribbled on it to read, memorise and pass back for burning. "It was a ritual: hands, match, ashtray - a beautiful and mournful ritual." On January 13, 1940, the temperature was 35 degrees below zero, the 1 war with Finland was entering its third month, and the poem was a seasonal greeting: "To the New Year! To New Grief!/ Here he dances, mischief-maker/Above the smokey Baltic Sea,/Bandy-legged, bald and wild..."
Akhmatova cannot have been easy to live with. Her intense and steadfast concentration on things other people were desperately trying to forget made her seem at times both inhuman and absurd. Old friends grumbled, and occasionally rebelled. But Chukovskaya remained spellbound, never losing sight of the fact that, no matter how squalid, painful or ridiculous the circumstances, Akhmatova still somehow represented Russian literature at the bar of posterity, and that the burden was almost too great for her to bear.
What makes this record so enthralling is precisely its humanity. Chukovskaya describes everything, from Akhmatova's sagging armchair and unswept floor, to the neurotic impulsions which made it almost impossible for her to cross the road, or her rage when a total stranger in a fish queue suddenly quoted a line from one of her poems:
"When you're travelling in a soft landau, under a little umbrella, with a big dog next to you on the seat and everyone says 'There goes Akhmatova', that's one thing. But when you're standing in a courtyard, wet snow falling, queueing for herring and there is such a pungent smell of herring that your shoes and coat reek of it for ten days and suddenly someone behind you recites: 'On the dish the oysters in ice smelled of the sea, fresh and sharp...' that is something else entirely. I was gripped by such fury that I didn't even turn round."
Chukovskaya has mastered the hardest and most moving of all biographical feats, the art of reconciling the vulnerable with the invulnerable aspects of her subject – the woman queueing for fish, in broken-down shoes and smelly coat, with the great artist whose poetry could invoke Dante’s tragic muse on equal terms, or picture her own memorial statue weeping tears of melted snow from bronze eyelids, like Pushkin’s bronze horseman, between the Neva and the Kresty prison:
“Before my very eyes, Akhmatova's fate - something greater even than her own person - was chiselling out of this famous and neglected, strong and helpless woman, a statue of grief, loneliness, pride, courage”.
It was a dichotomy that fascinated Boswell; and these marvellously Boswellian journals - first published in Russia in 1990 - bestow a kind of immortality on all that was frailest, funniest and most human in Akhmatova as well as on what was grandest and most marmoreal.