- Saint or Monster?Anna Akhmatova in the 21st Century
In April 1966, one month after Anna Akhmatova's death, a minor literary critic, M. Busin, accused Soviet censorship of inflicting permanent damage on Akhmatova's poetic legacy.
We certainly don't know Akhmatova's poetic legacy in its entirety. The fine mesh of the [Communist] Party censorship sieve has let through [End Page 325] only some of its pitiful crumbs. Some of her legacy has reached us by roundabout ways. A lot of it, however, has undoubtedly been lost irrevocably.
What the late poet's friends manage to preserve from the party-driven vandalism will become fully known to us only after the seeds of the future free and noble Russia that she sowed sprout and communist despotism disintegrates into ashes.1
By the early 2000s, Busin's dreams had come true beyond his wildest expectations. As it turns out, the disgraced Communists did not sink into ignominy alone. They also managed to drag down with them such seemingly indestructible constructs as the Russian Silver Age and one of its major constituent parts—the Akhmatova institution.2 Since perestroika, Akhmatova's legacy has not only been successfully recovered, rediscovered, studied, and carefully stored for posterity in multivolume collections of her works of poetry and prose, in literary museums, and in numerous books of memoirs but also subjected to scrutiny and rigorous reconceptualization.
On 18 August 2007, the literary critic Viktor Toporov shared his impressions of Tamara Kataeva's Anti-Akhmatova (2007), which is aimed unequivocally at discrediting Akhmatova as one of Russia's cultural icons. He wrote:
Having taken as her model [Vikentii] Veresaev's Pushkin in Life, [Kataeva] compiled an encyclopedia of Akhmatova's unguarded self-exposing remarks about "time and herself" as well as equally scary (from an objective standpoint) opinions about her that were expressed, primarily, by ecstatic contemporaries—both male and female…. The image that emerges is monstrous. Of course, any genius is a monster, but genius Akhmatova, most likely, was not. Nor was she the queen of Russian [End Page 326] poetry; rather, she was a duchess, or, more likely, a marquise who was making up a diary with [Konstantin] Somov's illustrations.3
Toporov, whom one would expect to have read "The Northern Elegies," "The Way of All the Earth," Requiem, and A Poem without a Hero, chooses the familiar path well trodden by Soviet bureaucrats such as Andrei Zhdanov, who preferred not to notice Akhmatova's postrevolutionary output, foregrounding instead her lyrical poems of the early 1910s.
The literary scholar Alexander Zholkovsky (who in his own words, is in part "responsible for concocting this de-mythologized mishmash"), on the contrary, thinks highly of Akhmatova's poetry.4 It is Akhmatova's "manipulative personality" and her contrived survival strategies that Zholkovsky finds most objectionable. He was among the first to suggest that Akhmatova was not crushed by Stalin but had successfully adapted to Stalinism.5 Accordingly, in his interview with Dmitrii Bykov about Anti-Akhmatova and its cultural resonance, Zholkovsky invited the students of Akhmatova to act not as "evangelists but as historians of religion." Although not fully condoning Kataeva's interpretive strategies, Zholkovsky nevertheless sees the value of her book as "provoking a serious philologically grounded response, [in the form of] an authentic biography of Akhmatova, which has not been written yet."6 What does Zholkovsky mean by an "authentic" biography? Is it ever possible to write one? Roman Timenchik's Anna Akhmatova in the 1960s, which covers extensively "only" one decade of Akhmatova...