Who knows how empty the sky is/ On the spot of the fallen tower/ Who knows how quiet the house is,/ Where the son has not come home?"
These are lines Anna Akhmatova wrote in 1940, and she knew what she was talking about.
In 1921, her husband Nikolay Gumilyov was shot for an alleged involvement in a "counter-revolutionary plot"; in 1938, their son Lev was arrested because of a suspicion that he might avenge his father (he was sentenced to death, yet thanks to the chaos which reigned in Soviet jurisprudence during that period he got off with internal exile);
and the entire world in which Akhmatova had lived was destroyed before her eyes.
The natural reaction to this horror would have been silence.
For Akhmatova, it was poetry - some of the very best poems created in our century.
For rather obvious reasons, she was reluctant to write them down.
Luckily, she found an audience consisting of one person who helped pass them on to the next generation.
Akhmatova's listener was Lydia Chukovskaya, a remarkable writer in her own right.
Eight years younger than the poet, she was, at that time, the only person besides Akhmatova to write in secret about the Stalinist terror:
her short novel "Sofia Petrovna" remains, together with Akhmatova's "Requiem", exceptional in Russian literature since it does not recreate that era from memory but depicts it from nature.
Chukovskaya was born to a literary family: her father Korney Chukovsky was a sort of Russian H.L. Mencken, the most witty critic of his generation, a caustic observer of social mores and an Anglophile.
She knew Akhmatova from her childhood, yet they became close only in 1938, when Lydia's husband Matvey Bronshteyn was arrested and sentenced to "ten years without right of correspondence." These code words meant death: the authorities were pretty sure that in ten years no relatives of the sentenced person would be around to look for him or her. Chukovskaya came to understand that only gradually. She visited Akhmatova having heard rumors - obviously false - that Akhmatova's letter to Stalin had helped Lev Gumiloyv, and was eager to seek guidance in her efforts to save Matvey.
The visit developed into a friendship which lasted to the end of Akhmatova's life. It also resulted in a book of diaries that kept track of Chukovskaya's conversations with the great poet-a unique document of the period, first printed in Paris in 1976-80 and only recently re-published in Russia. Now, the first volume of the diaries, which includes 54 of Akhmatova's poems and extensive commentary, is available to the American reader. It is long overdue.
The volume covers exactly three years, from Nov. 10, 1938 to Nov. 9, 1941. These represent the very nadir of the Stalinist era. An accomplished artist, Chukovskaya gives the reader an extraordinary feeling for the climate of the times. She possesses an eye for detail and squeezes the gist of any dialogue into a few indispensable lines (her writerly gift was evidently sharpened by contact with Akhmatova). Yet the most important part of the book consists in ellipses, gaps and hints which the author herself, after so many years, is frequently at a loss to explain. In her comments, there are dozens of pathetic and perplexed question marks. "My entries on the Terror, incidentally, are notable in that the only things which are fully reproduced are dreams. Reality was beyond my powers of description," Chukovskaya writes.
The lack of a language to express the unspeakable was, of course, not the only reason: the other one was mortal danger. The two women meet in a shabby flat inhabited by several families, the most typical of Soviet environments, one preserving shreds of old Russian tradition ("The wet washing was just like the ending of a nasty story, like something out of Dostoyevsky, perhaps.")
Akhmatova has heart trouble and is subject to acute phobias. She experiences a not necessarily unfounded feeling that she is under constant surveillance. She lives in poverty, virtually starving, among people who are disoriented to the point of savagery. The official critics dismiss her as a person who "did not manage to die on time," and a bureaucrat responsible for her pension asks: "You were a writer once, weren't you?" When she finally receives a letter from her exiled son, it reads: "Life, it appears, is hanging by a thread." And just then, after several years of silence, she starts to write poetry- "Requiem" and "Poem Without a Hero". As her friendship with Chukovskaya matures, she asks her to memorize these poems, which are subsequently burnt in an ashtray. When Chukovskaya mentions "Requiem" in the diary, she hides it by calling it Mozart's "Requiem": a pathetic subterfuge and, simultaneously, a recognition that the two works are equal in their import. "If this exists, even dying is bearable," Chukovskaya notes about Akhmatova's verses.
Probably the most interesting part of the book is the development of the two women's relationship, which has its ups and downs. Both, the elder master and the young apprentice, are survivors. Both are possessed - almost consumed - by their decision to bear witness.
Discussions on literary topics take more space in the book than one might expect. Sometimes one is struck by the feeling that one is in Bloomsbury rather than in a communal flat in Leningrad during the Terror. Curiously, Akhmatova is particularly fascinated by English literature - Shakespeare, Keats, Lewis Carroll, Joyce. (In the winter of 1938 she reads "Ulysses" four times!) Like Pushkin before her, she has a talent for nailing down those she dislikes with a short epigrammatic verdict (among the cultural figures not to her taste are Turgenev, Chekhov and Freud, and she dismisses Tolstoy summarily as a "rubbishy old man").
Akhmatova is well aware that she is on a par with any body in Russian and world literature. Her interlocutor is self-effacing: she tends to see Akhmatova as the only reality in the ghostly universe of 1938-41 - in any case, as somebody much more real than herself. One may consider Chukovskaya's modesty overstated, since she belongs to the same "heroic handful of human beings" (to quote Isaiah Berlin), and her book bears comparison with the best examples of the memoir genre anywhere. Yet, in a sense, she is right. Morally, both women are equals. The
rest, however, is poetry.
Tomas Venclova, a Lithuanian poet and essayist, is a
professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Yale