Shalin on A. Zholkovsky's Article "Anna Akhmatova"

August 25, 27-28, 1997

Professor Alexander Zholkovsky
Department of Slavic Languages
University of Southern California
University Park
Los Angeles CA 90089-4353

Dear Alik:

Many thanks for your article on Akhmatova. I already e-mailed you a few preliminary thoughts about it. Here is the more extensive feedback I promised.

Your essay is a riveting, unsettling piece that raises a host of issues central to our project on Russian Culture at the Crossroads. I hope all people on our team have a chance to read and reflect on it. I would like you to extend your discussion to other dissident classics as well. You mentioned Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, Babel , Mayakovsky as possible subjects for your chapter -- by all means bring these characters up. Naturally, your primary focus is on literary figures, but feel free to stray off occasionally into the neighboring art forms (Eisenstein, Shostakovich, Tatlin, etc.).

The chapter you write promises to sort out the muddled relationship between the so-called nonconformist artists and the Soviet establishment. I think you can also shed some fresh light on the entire modernist project as it manifested itself in Russian aesthetics and politics. There are tantalizing parallels between your argument and the line of reasoning developed by Boris Groys. I hope you will further articulate the issues to which you allude in your fascinating article.

I gather that your essay is part of a larger project (I haven't seen your recent book yet). Clearly, I can't do justice to it in my hasty notes. My main concern is with the central thesis, or what I perceive to be such. As gleaned from your essay "Anna Akhmatova. Fifty Years Later" (Zvezda, 1996, No. 9, pp. 213-227), your argument runs something like this.

There is an uncanny resemblance between the cult of Stalin and the cult of Akhmatova. The surface differences separating these two figures mask deeply-rooted discursive similarities, the "paradoxical symbiosis of the totalitarian leader and the poet who opposes him" (p. 226), "the technology of power which Akhmatova did, in a way, share with the regime" (p. 213), "a special technology of living performance" (p. 212) which Akhmatova mastered as well as her nemesis in the Kremlin. Both paid close attention to their image, deftly manipulated public opinion, and studiously nurtured their respective myths.

Thus, Akhmatova liked to be on stage and constantly played to the audience. She made her displeasure known when her portrait didn't fit her expectations and none too subtly urged a painter to erase unflattering details. She chose her words with great care, knowing perfectly well that they would be preserved for posterity. She blasted accounts of her life she deemed unfair and openly sought to influence people writing about her career. Intolerant to the opinions of others, obsessed with her place in history, and generally oblivious to people's needs, she labored hard to establish the "AAA institute." This institute has preserved many crypto-totalitarian features of the system its adherents profess to despise. These features include "first, the renunciation of happiness, the acceptance of poverty and submission; second, the deductive predilection for collectivism, mutual assistance, 'we,' disciplined faithfulness to people of your circle, the disappearance of individual 'I'; and third, the solemn, even officious, desire to pass defeat for victory, to put the best face on every situation, to justify this-worldly misery by "'other-worldly glory'" (p. 214).

Having stated your main thesis, you cite Akhmatova's verses where the above traits are most tangible. "А мы живем, как при Екатерине; Много нас таких бездомных; А у нас сетлых глаз / Нет приказу поднимать ("мы"); А теперь пора такая, / Страшный год и стражный город, / Как же можно разлучиться / Мне с тобой тебе со мной? (взаимопомощь); Я была тогда с моим народом / Там, где мой Народ, к несчастью, был (коллективная взаимопомощь)" (p. 214). More verses are cited down the line to show how the values Akhmatova absorbed from the regime found their way into her poetry.

Next, you document in painstaking detail how Akhmatova's hunger for power manifested itself in her intolerant conduct and vainglorious demeanor. Whether she falls into awkward silence making everyone around uneasy, commandeers her followers to run her chores, waves with a dismissive gesture an admirer, or banishes a devoted friend who dared to defy her will -- she accounts for herself as a person unconcerned for other people's feelings, devoid of gratitude, vicious to the bone. Her behavior is hardly idiosyncratic, however; it reflects the qualities widely-spread among the powers with which Akhmatova waged a tacit war. "Why do I cast Akhmatova as a kind of totalitarian ideologue rather than as vaneglorious le femme fatal, bohemian superstar, or an old-fashioned implacable noblewoman? The answer can be found in the context, in the sum total of the details, and most of all, in the ways she wields her repressive power and stakes her totalitarian claim that she -- and her "institute" -- are above reproach. I think that playing any lesser role would be unacceptable to Akhmatova, who managed to grow from a decadent poet into 'Anna of the whole Russias '" (p. 227).

The above account is more than an exercise in art history. It has a moral dimension. It is clearly aimed at your contemporaries. Allowed to perpetuate itself, the Akhmatova myth is bound to exert a heavy toll on those who embrace it. "The cult of Akhmatova [that] conquered the masses and turned into a semiotic reality" poses a serious danger of revitalizing "the homo-sovieticus mentality" (p. 212) and perpetuating the old system via dissident discursive practices. The latter are rooted in Russian history and are most palpable in the Nietzschean discourse that reigned in the Silver Age era, whose ideals and practices Akhmatova transmitted through her contemporaries to her present day heirs.

You don't say that yours is the only possible account. Nor do you pretend to have a solution for the Russian historical predicament. But at the very least, you suggest, we ought to become self-reflexive and try to realize how we reproduce totalitarian realities through our linguistic practices. The postmodernist insight into the performative nature of discourse should aid in our efforts.

Your seminal text struck a responsive cord. I found in it insights which run parallel to my own long-standing concerns. Even when your argument didn't sway me, I felt its intellectual force and moral power. Dissidents intolerant to dissent, liberals unconcerned for freedom, humanists indifferent to flesh and blood humans, aesthetes leaving the trail of ugly deeds in their wake -- these are realities all too familiar to those brought up under the Soviet rule. They are still very much a part of contemporary Russia 's moral terrain.

Nonetheless, I feel more ambivalent about your thesis today than I would have been some twenty years ago when I was about to part with Russia for good. In a way, I am taking an issue with myself, trying to make a case that things are not as grim as they appear to be. Your article sent me back to the memoirs about Akhmatova and, I must tell you, this voluminous literature made me feel less hopeless.

What follows are scattered thoughts on your project and its larger implications. Some issues I raise are chiefly methodological, other substantive, still other ethical. They are meant not so much to invalidate your thesis as to qualify it, to circumscribe the area where it carries full force, and perhaps to suggest some venues for further inquiry.

* * * *

I have never been comfortable with references to myth when the term is used for debunking purposes. "Myth" functions here as a pole in a binary opposition -- "myth-realty." Whoever promises to expose something as a myth, couldn't help raise the specter of reality hidden underneath appearances, waiting to be unveiled before our eyes. The demythologizing pathos tends to downgrade the myth as a ruse, cheapens it as a kind of ideological fiction, overlooks the multiple realities the myth helps sustain and the vital role it plays in rendering these realities objective.

I find myself in sympathy with the constructivist notion that myth is part and parcel of any reality insofar as it becomes meaningfully objective. We cannot grasp reality as such unless we make a commitment -- consciously or unconsciously -- to some a priori beliefs and values which allow us to gloss over some elements in our experience and thematize others. Alternative reality means alternative myth, and vice versa. Any claim we stake against a myth in favor of a reality is therefore suspect. You can reject a myth, all right, but you can do so only by leaning on another myth which serves the purposes at hand and reveals an alternative agenda. The debunker's agenda remains as tacit as the a priori agenda of those who subscribe to the myth to be debunked.

I don't think you spelled out your own operative myth. Surely, there are things you take for granted, a priori assumptions that guide your own perception. To understand reality you paint, we need to know the mythological foundation in which you grounded your interpretation. Any account is paradigm-bound, a discursive reference frame is inexorably selective, as it allows us to gloss over some and fasten attention on other things. You have done a great job exposing what the proponents of the Akhmatova myth tend to gloss over. You are somewhat less clear, it seems to me, on what you are willing to overlook when you highlight a particular facet of experience.

You have assembled a string of damning quotations which paint Akhmatova in an unflattering light. But the vast literature on the subject contains all sorts of material, some running contrary to your argument. True, you mainly tried to redress the balance, to point out what some Akhmatova admirers would prefer to overlook. But if the reader unfamiliar with this literature, say an average American student, saw your piece, he would come out with a one-sided impression.

Here is a quote from Natalia Ilina as it appears in your text: "Right before my eyes, Anna Andreevna cloaked herself in the impenetrable steel armor. . . . My friend's spirit sagged . . . her voice dropped, she began to whisper as if she were in the presence of a sick person. Anna Akhmatova knew how to make a strong impression on someone new" (p. 217). But the parts of the quote you omit are telling. The first sentence in the original reads as follows: "Right before my eyes Anna Andreevna cloaked herself in the impenetrable steel armor and only answered questions addressed to her, and even then briefly, so that one could hardly imagine that she actually could be quite different" (Natalia Ilina, Sudby, Moscow: Sovetskii Pisatel, 1980, pp. 233-4). The point might seem picayune, were it not for the many-colored picture one finds in these (and other) memoirs. "Once again, during meal functions, I see Akhmatova solemnly-taciturn, starkly-unapproachable. But now I know," explains Ilina (p. 201-2), "that she needs her armor in the presence of the people she doesn't know well. . . . My shyness and insecurity gradually evaporated. I sensed her friendly disposition, saw that she accepted me the way I was."

Here is my favorite scene which gives a taste of another Akhmatova and which helps understand why she had so many friends, why people were ready to overlook her shtick:

That Fall in Golitsino I discovered in Anna Andreevna a brilliant satirical and, later on, even comic gift, which never ceased to amaze me. . . . Once in Moscow I stopped at the Ardov's. We were to go some place. Standing in the middle of the room with her bare feet in the slippers, Anna Andreevna blankly stared at a sock in her hand. Having noticed me enter the room, she said: "Come to think of it, one sock is not enough!"

Akhmatova's sense of humor jived so well with mine, I enjoyed it immensely. I laughed and laughed, until tears welled from my eyes. She tried to stop me but couldn't hold back her own smile: "There, there, when shall you stop laughing at an old woman!"

This regal lady who could make strangers freeze in their tracks had a perfect pitch for the comical, and the first sign of it is, in my view, an ability to laugh at yourself, to see yourself in a comical light (p. 203).

Anyone willing to make fun of oneself the way Akhmatova did couldn't be that bad. You certainly wouldn't find anything remotely resembling this gay disposition in Stalin, whose idea of fun was to place a ripe tomato on a chair and watch his unsuspecting colleague sink into it. Or else, brow beat Khrushchev into dancing the Ukrainian gopack in front of Politburo members. The only fun Stalin valued was at somebody else's expense.

If anyone had an ax to grind with Akhmatova it is Lidia Chukovskaia. I find the way Akhmatova treated her devoted friend unfair, insensitive, deeply troubling. Akhmatova dumped on Chukovskaia, loaded her with endless chores, often forgot to inquire into her health, and was ready to sever the long-term relationship when she was dissatisfied with a doctor recommended by Chukovskaia. I find here the strongest case for the thesis that dissident status offers no safeguards against emotional obtuseness and authoritarian proclivities. Still, I couldn't help wondering why Chukovskaia, a graceful, generous soul that she was, stood by Akhmatova, why did she make the first step to end the quarrel and restore the old friendship?

Your take on Akhmatova doesn't offer much by way of explanation, except that Chukovskaia was blinded by the AAA institute and couldn't resist Akhmatova's totalitarian charisma. This is not a very plausible explanation, in my view. I looked for answers in the three volumes penned by Chukovskaia, and I think I found some clues. Her testimony is particularly important that it comes not from a memoir but from a diary, written over the course of some 25 years by a person blessed with an extraordinarily sharp eye, impeccable moral sensibility, and nearly photographic memory. Here is a collage of observations from Chukovskaia's diary, starting with volume one, which places Akhmatova's changing moods in context:

Found her [Akhmatova] at the Shtock's. She called me in. Lied down. It's pretty cold in the room . . . her temperature is 37.2, her dinner arrangements are unraveling -- she, who never complains, laments about her "beastly existence."

-- "I'm so happy you came. I waited for you the whole day." (I, p. 381)

Once again I marvel at NN [Akhmatova], the miracle of her mind, genius and beauty that we call AAA. No wonder people are so glad to serve her. . . .

I read her verses by B.D. She agreed with my judgment. Mentioned another source -- Sologub. Spoke with such sorrow about life in provinces. With her wonderful kindness spoke about the man, who is so sick now: "What a poor soul!" (I, p. 387)

Lately she has been talking to me sharply, with visible irritation -- as usual, she is in great pain. She is suffering gravely: Bragantseva sent her inquiry about Vladimir Garshin to Inber -- no reply; besides her temperature is 37.3 again. (I, p. 446)

NN is animated, joyful, bright, unbent by the strong undertow of her usual sorrow -- simply joyful. (I, p. 485)

Now it's my turn to be with her. In truth, the prospect doesn't appeal to me. My efforts to do something around the house seem to bother her lately, and I don't care just to sit around. Besides, I like to see her humble, kind, good-natured, and when she is sick, she is irritable and unfair. (I, p. 496)

Our conversation was strange, to say the least, because of her bitterness toward me, her maniacal passion. . . .

-- She [Nadezhda Yakovlevna], F. G. and Lomakina saved my life. Especially after you sent me your doctor-murderer. . . . Why did you bring him here? Why?

-- I guess in order to kill you, NN, why else?

Then, feeling completely dumbfounded by her [Akhmatova's] persistent rudeness, totally incomprehensible and unfounded [the continuation is cut out]. (I, p. 515)

I said that after I failed to attend the [writers'] meeting and to speak out, I feel like I betrayed him [Boris Pasternak]. I will always feel this way. Even though I swear . . . it was easier for me to show up at the meeting rather than to stay away. Had I screamed a word [of protest] I would have felt happy now. . . .

-- How can you say this when Kornei Ivanovich is sick, Anna Andreevna harangued me. -- Screaming would have only aggravated his condition. With his blood pressure, he could have a stroke at any moment . . . . Yes, screaming to your heart's content might make you feel good, but if you are willing to disregard another person's illness for your personal pleasure, are you really any better than them? . . .

-- You are already a hero, she said. -- Yes, I mean it. You went to Boris Leonidovich on a day when, I am sure, not a soul came to see him, when everybody shunned him like a plague. (II, pp. 334-5)

-- Do I write down my verses? You ask me this question -- you?

She approached the suitcase resting on a little stool and angrily began to toss out of it manuscripts, books, paper holders, booknotes.

-- How could I write them down? How could I keep around my poetry? They slice my notes with a razor blade.
Here, look at this, look! They rip the laces from the paper holders. I have enough stuff to assemble a hefty collection of these laces and jackets torn from my books. That's what they do here, that's what they do in Leningrad ! That's the way they have always done it! (II, p. 219)

From her heavy posture and the expression in her eyes, I immediately realized that today she feels sick and annoyed. . . .

-- No, you are wrong. I am certain that the book published in Paris is "Requiem." I can see them jumping all over me and ruining Lev's life once again. Just watch the press. After March [of 1963] anything is possible.

It was no use arguing with her: that would only make her more angry. But what is there to disagree with, really? New times have failed to materialize, I understand this. (III, p. 53)

Anna Andreevna shifted to the sofa. Today she acts as an irritable queen. Surkov called. Told her it was decided, she was to go to Italy to receive her prize. He would be here at five o'clock to tell her more about the ceremony. -- I'll tell him: bring back to me my Joseph [Brodsky]! Or else, I'll refuse to go. (III, p. 215).

And once again, Anna Andreevna is -- hospitable, generous, witty, kind-hearted, animated and strong-headed. (III, p. 276).

I can't remember her so bogged down by gravity, dispirited, and irritable. She complains about her heart: "I'm much worse because not once did I managed to go for a walk in the Summer." There is an expression of suffering when she tries to get up, the grimace of pain and labored breathing disfiguring her face.

Under the mirror in the dining room -- two neat rows of [her] book. One copy is right by her side. Brodsky is finally freed. Beg vremeni is finally here! But it looks like she has no strength left or happiness. (III, p. 297).

Forgive me for being such a nudnick. I couldn't resist the temptation of collating these quotations. They show my own bias and selectivity, but they are biased and selective in a different way. I believe that the above excerpts are more apt to give a larger context, to suggest alternative explanations, to show not the "remarkable consistency" you found in Akhmatova but quite the opposite -- the remarkable spontaneity, unpredictability and reversibility of human conduct. The only thing that is constant here is inconstancy itself. The self is truly a quantum reality; its identity is perennially problematic, as it shows up under one disguise, and the next moment reveals a completely different face. We can talk about probabilities here, we need to take up the issue of identity as a moral project, but we should resist the temptation to close prematurely our deliberations and cast a person as an immutable character.

It is the context, also, that makes me wonder about your interpretation of Akhmatova's poetic diction. You found the same patterns in her poetry that you discerned in her conduct. Thus, you quote from Akhmatova: "А мы живем, как при Екатерине; Много нас таких бездомных; А у нас сетлых глаз / Нет приказу поднимать ("мы") (Op cit., p. 214). I am puzzled by your hermeneutic procedure. The reference to Ekaterina sounds like a not so veiled critique of a serf-like mentality in the USSR , and so is the second quote. The third one, if you read the entire short piece, is a mischievous, playful put-down -- how does it show Akhmatova to be smitten with collectivism and contemptuous of individual self? The case against your interpretation is strengthened when you consider Akhmatova's entire corpus, where the lyrical "I" is every bit as prominent as the communal "we." Nor am I clear on why the line "Я на правую руку надела перчатку с левой руки" signifies the willingness to forgo happiness, to acquiesce to misery and revel in little things. The full piece hints at someone feeling lost, confused, overwhelmed with emotions. Yes, Akhmatova is given to musing about her poetic stature and the way she will be remembered as a poet, but this is a common stock in so much poetry and is hardly an exclusively Russian trait. The methodological grounds on which you interpret each piece is not altogether clear, and even when your interpretation is plausible, we can find in Akhmatova's corpus other pieces that point in an entirely different direction. One thread that does indeed come through her poetry is suffering. But then what Akhmatova experienced was harrowing indeed.

Her friends and lovers summarily executed, her son languishing in the Gulag, her own life endangered by the party decrees that singled her out as an enemy of the people -- reasons enough for anyone to grow a bit paranoid. Yes, she probably developed a personality disorder, as she succumbed to what Nadezhda Mandelshtam called "the traumatic psychosis" of 1937. What is amazing, however, is how much sanity Akhmatova managed to preserve under the circumstances. Add to this her willingness to risk her life by supporting the Mandelshtams, endanger her own career by signing a petition on behalf of Brodsky, give her bread ration to the starving son of Tsvetaeva, commit endless acts of random and not so random kindness -- and you couldn't help wondering if the parallel you draw between Akhmatova and Stalin is far fetched. I am against drawing a moral equivalency between these two historical figures. I can't see Akhmatova turning into a Kremlin butcher any more than I see Herzen becoming a ruthless disciplinarian were he to trade places with Nikolai I.

Lest I sound too self-righteous, let me reiterate that I think you spotted the most serious problem, which was identified by scores of Russian intellectuals before. The system doesn't exist in a vacuum, it doesn't hover somewhere up there and determine us from without through decrees -- we are the system, insofar as we unself-consciously reproduce it in our daily conduct. Democracy begins at home, says John Dewey. I take it to mean that a political system has more to do with the way we treat each other in everyday life than with the way the government treats us. Soviet dissidents, and more broadly, Russian intellectuals, are given to emotional littering in their own midst, which is deeply disturbing. The system they abhor is rooted in their own selves; it cannot be readily effaced by a revolution or a clever piece of legislature. Herein lies the moral force of your argument. But it is all the more important to discern the alternative scenarios, discursive practices, and emotional strategies which abound in the Russian psyche and which might be worth salvaging. Akhmatova memoirs could -- and should -- be read along those lines. There is ample evidence to be found here that the Soviet dissident movement harbored many different types, that Chukovskaia, Kopelev, Vigdorova and other people blessed with emotional intelligence were not uncommon among shestidesiatniki. Even those individuals upon whom we like to frown (I won't mention names here) are able to rise to the occasion now and then and show moral imagination. One can argue that such worthy traits represent "the recessive genes" in Russian culture, that they fail to inform the larger public discourse. Still, we are likely to shortchange ourselves if we fail to make a strenuous effort to bring them to the fore.

You quote Groys to the effect that Russian oppositional thinkers mirrored the regime, that Bakhtin in particular offered a thinly veiled apology for Stalinist mayhem in his vision of the carnival as eternal rebirth. I haven't read Groys's main works, so I have to reserve my judgment. I sense a lot of subtlety in his argument. Yet, I couldn't help wondering about his thesis that you echo in your article, the one that seems to cast Russian aesthetic modernism as an artistic equivalent, if not a direct cause of, Bolshevism and Stalinism.

Bakhtin was influenced by the Marxist insight into the public nature of our private selves and linguistic consciousness, but his extraordinary sensitivity to intonation, his celebration of polyphony, and his harangues against all those who would prematurely enclose a unique individual into any standard formula had very little in common with Soviet Marxism.

Were Russian futurists crypto-Bolsheviks? They certainly found the movement intriguing, some even aided the communist cause. But things changed in a hurry when the Bolsheviks began to tightened the screws. Few Russian artists found the new realities to their liking, though most made do with it. Fierce individualism, creative experimentalism, libertarian sensibilities that propelled modernist artists had little in common with the rigid bolshevik ideology. We can talk about (very) elective affinity here, about the ironic and unanticipated consequences of treating life as an art form, but what a long way it is from saying that aesthetic modernism spells bolshevism.

Russian intellectuals harbored many urges, some quite repugnant. We can lay at their door the responsibility for many a sin of Russian society. But I think we should resist the temptation to ridicule them on mass. There is much here that is humane, reasonable, and emotionally intelligent. We just have to ferret that stuff out. What we need is a counter-myth, a constructive fiction that brings into focus our better selves and lays an agenda for alternative discursive practices to draw upon as we take stock of the future, Russian or otherwise.

You took pain to emphasize in your article that you intend to "reexamine the layers of the homo sovieticus mentality, as it reveals itself in your acquaintances, colleagues and friends for whom Akhmatova typically wrote, and not to a small degree in myself" (Ibid, p. 212-4). I was heartened by this self-reflexive touch. It should help to mitigate the cross-Atlantic fissures that increasingly threaten to split the emigre writers from their metropolitan colleagues. But when I read your reply to Gorfunkel's diatribe against your article on Akhmatova (Zvezda, 1997, No. 4), I couldn't help feeling ambivalent. Sure his invective against your piece was too personal, yes you bested him in the intellectual sense. And yet, the tone of your polemics was rather acrimonious. It seemed like you allowed yourselves to be dragged down from the high moral grounds to the level of a literary squabble. I don't generally write in Russian or partake in such exchanges, but I have noticed that when I do switch to Russian in a conversation, something happens to my vocalization: I am more agitated, more argumentative, more apt to interrupt, the level of decibels in the room goes up, and unless I watch it closely, the exchange could easily turn acrimonious. Clearly, a different side of me is struggling to get out. Maybe it is not all bad. There is something to be said about a full-blooded, passionate exchange. And yet, and yet. . . .

It is time for me to turn off my computer. I have to finish the memo and send it to all our team members. With your permission, I am including this latter and your most recent interview (thanks for sending it to me) in a package of materials for conference participants. I trust most of them have already seen your piece on Akhmatova. If not, they should read it before too long and see how the issues you raise could affect our separate narratives.

Best wishes and see you in November.

Dmitri Shalin