Tag Archives: Anna Akhmatova

Alexander Fadeev plaque, Moscow

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This is one of the gloomiest places in Moscow, I think. I feel the oppression of the surroundings whenever I am here, and I have been here many hundreds, if not thousands of times over the last 28 years. The heavy, stone walls. The pompous columns crammed into space too small to fit and too high to see properly. The messy pipes and sloppy stray wiring and unused decorative grills. The noise and the arrogance of Tverskaya Street… All of these things influence what I feel when I am here. But there’s a lot more to it than that. One building away from here is the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, stolen from Vsevolod Meyerhold before he could build his planned theatre here in the late 1930s, and before he was shot in a Lubyanka basement in 1940. A towering monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky, all bright and  bushy-tailed, stands a few hundred feet from here on Triumphal Square – yes, the poet who shot himself out of despair at the age of 37 in 1930. I’ve written about all these places elsewhere in this space. Go to Meyerhold or Mayakovsky or Lubyanka if you’re interested.
But there is another reason for the morbidity and despondency that overcome me here. Alexander Fadeev lived here at 27 Tverskaya Street from 1948 to 1956. I’ve written about Fadeev a time or two on this blog, so I’ve already laid out the basic facts of this tragic personality’s biography. It goes from the high hopes and praise garnered by an early novel (The Rout, 1927), to a self-inflicted bullet wound that in 1956 killed the man, an alcohol-soaked, bought-and-sold government functionary at the age of 54. Although this precise spot on the map is not where Fadeev did his final deed – that was done at his dacha in Peredelkino – still, as his last address of record it is closely bound up in his ultimate, despairing act of self-destruction suggesting that conscience had not yet abandoned him entirely.
Look at how short a human being’s life is. Consider how little time we have to make our mistakes, take our chances, and reap what we will from that. First major success in 1927. Dead by suicide 1956, 29 years later.
The fact of the matter is that Fadeev supported or led many of the most heinous Soviet policies by which writers and other artists were not only driven out of their professions, but were often arrested, tortured and/or killed. He once called Joseph Stalin “the greatest humanist the world has ever known.” (Interesting fact: Most of today’s leading Russian writers and artists – I know many of them personally – would not be caught dead sharing space with the “humanist” word. It is considered an evil, horrible notion. When we look at the way the notion of “humanist” was mutilated and transmogrified into its precise opposite by folks such as Fadeev, we begin to understand the squeamishness of our contemporaries.) Fadeev stood by as dozens of the greatest Russian artists of his time were persecuted and executed. Occasionally he just stood by silently; sometimes he even helped them out; but there were times he was part of the machine that sent the most talented minds of the time to a bitter end. What did this do to the man? Here is something he said about himself later in his life, drawn from a detailed biography on the So People Will Remember website:
God gave me a soul that is capable of seeing, remembering and feeling good, happiness and life, but since I am constantly distracted by life’s swells and am incapable of controlling myself or putting my will at the service of reason, rather than express to people this life-spirit and good in my own personal life – as elemental and vain as it is – I transform this life-spirit and good into its opposite and, since I am easily offended and I have the conscience of a tax-collector, I am particularly weak when I feel I am guilty of something, and, as a result, I torment myself and I repent and I lose all sense of spiritual equilibrium.”

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Throughout his adult life Fadeev mixed the life of a writer with that of a bureaucrat. He once admitted that he could not imagine life without conflict – it wouldn’t be life otherwise. Even before the publication of his first major novel he played a major role in the creation and running of RAPP, the notorious Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. It was one of the first “cultural” organizations in the early Soviet period that took it upon itself to police and chastise artists who strayed from the Communist Party line. Remaining with RAPP until its dissolution in 1932, he immediately joined the Writers Union and worked his way up the ladder there. That increasingly repressive organization made him one of the most powerful, feared and hated individuals in the Soviet literary world. He was secretary of the Union from 1939 to 1944; the general secretary from 1944 to 1954; and secretary of the board from 1954 to 1956. You will notice that within a year of Stalin’s death (1953) Fadeev was kicked upstairs and that within three months of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous denunciation of Stalinism at the 20th Party Congress in February 1956, Fadeev was dead.
If you like numbers, you will also see that Fadeev moved into the prestigious digs at the apartment building on Tverskaya Street just two years after his most famous novel, the patriotic The Young Guard, was published in 1946.
Fadeev’s suicide note (not published until 1990) was long, angry and despairing. The writer/bureaucrat lashed out at all kinds of enemies, but also revealed his own personal pain and, perhaps, guilt. Dated the day of his death, May 13, 1956, and addressed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, it begins with the following words:
I see no possibility of living on since the art, to which I devoted my life, has been destroyed by the self-assured, ignorant leadership of the party, and now nothing can be done to correct that. The best cadres of literature –  in number so much greater than the Tsar’s strongmen could ever have dreamed – were physically destroyed, or were lost due to the criminal connivance of those in power. The best men of literature died too early; the rest, still of some value, and capable of creating true values, died before reaching the age of 40-50.”
He rants at bureaucrats and other evil people who destroyed lives and art, almost as if he doesn’t realize the brutal irony – that he stood at the head of one of those horrible machines. But then he adds:
Born to make great art in the name of communism, associated with the party, workers and peasants for 16 years, and possessing extraordinary, God-given talent, I was filled with the highest thoughts and feelings which can come into being only due to the life of the people, coupled with the beautiful ideas of communism.” Then there comes that but, that huge, crushing but: “But I was turned into a draft horse. I spent my entire life groaning under the weight of mediocre, unjustifiable and countless bureaucratic affairs that could have been performed by anyone.”
Backing off slightly from his former adoration of Stalin, Fadeev declares that the new people who have come into power are utterly worthless and that “we can expect worse from them than even from the strongman Stalin. He was at least educated – these are ignoramuses.”
Yes, yes, yes. All of that, I say all of that blows in the wind around the building at 27 Tverskaya Street. The place has the look and the temperature of death, ignorance, lies…
And of messy paradoxes… Let me add one more story from an article by Pavel Basinsky in 2015. Just one month before Fadeev shot himself, the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova presented Fadeev with a collection of her poetry and signed it, “To a big writer and a good person.” That may be even more bizarre than any of the contradictions wending through Fadeev’s biography. After all, Fadeev was one of the leaders of the so-called Zhdanovism attacks on writers in 1946. He personally called Akhmatova out as a “vulgarity of Soviet literature.” In 1939, doing his bureaucratic duty, he personally banned the publication of some of her poetry. Meanwhile, as a bureaucrat, he helped her find an apartment when she needed one and he even nominated her for a Stalin Prize in 1940.
Go figure. But I come back to what I say. The air around 27 Tverskaya Street is as rotten as it is anywhere in this city.

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Dmitry Shostakovich monument, Moscow

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Yes, it’s a bit comics-like. Yes, it’s a bit awkward. Yes, it’s a bit crude. But I think all those aspects suit the subject – Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975).
There’s no point in trying to determine what artist suffered most during the Soviet period. As harsh as it may sound, that would be like trying to determine which grain of sand on the beach is the biggest or smallest. Just try and figure. If you were going to take on that pointless task you would obviously start with those who were tortured to death, then those who were “just” killed, then those who were “allowed to die,” and then you would go on from there. Shostakovich, thank God, was able to live out his life. He didn’t live it out untouched and he didn’t live it out the way he would have chosen. There’s no way of knowing if he was so worn down by the battles and humiliations that he ran out of gas before he might have under different circumstances, a month short of his 69th birthday. But he did live, and he lived to see his work recognized in his  homeland and abroad. That’s no small thing.
As I pointed out in an earlier post on this site, Shostakovich quickly gained fame for his striking, unusual compositions from a very early age. His ground-breaking opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, based on the dark novella of sex and murder by Nikolai Leskov, was written between 1930 and 1932. It was staged in the composer’s hometown of St. Petersburg in January of 1934 at the Maly Leningrad Opera Theater and was received enthusiastically. However, a notorious attack on the composer and his work appeared in Pravda more or less on the second anniversary of the opera’s premiere. Entitled “Muddle instead of Music,” it cast a dark cloud over Shostakovich that lasted for decades. Wikipedia has a nice story about how that article came about. It’s worth repeating here:
Shostakovich was away on a concert tour in Arkhangelsk when he heard news of the first Pravda article. Two days before the article was published on the evening of 28 January, a friend had advised Shostakovich to attend the Bolshoi Theatre production of Lady Macbeth. When he arrived, he saw that Joseph Stalin and the Politburo were there. In letters written to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich recounted the horror with which he watched as Stalin shuddered every time the brass and percussion played too loudly. Equally horrifying was the way Stalin and his companions laughed at the love-making scene between Sergei and Katerina. Eyewitness accounts testify that Shostakovich was ‘white as a sheet’ when he went to take his bow after the third act.”
A second public “denunciation” came in 1948 when Shostakovich was named in one of the infamous Zhdanov decrees, this one attacking so-called “formalism” in Soviet music. The document called out Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, following a similar document that in 1946 had attacked the writers Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova as well as several theater critics. The composers were not officially “rehabilitated” until 1958, although Stalin himself loosened the screws in 1949 shortly before sending Shostakovich to represent the Soviet Union at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York.
One cannot be sure whether this was a positive thing for Shostakovich or not. He was, thereby, forced into the position of publicly praising to the world his de facto jailers, the very individuals and system that had tormented him for 15 years. Stalin’s death in 1953 eased the pressure on the composer again, but he never quite escaped the long, hard hand of the Soviet government. He was essentially forced to join the Communist Party in 1960 and from then on he often had to sing its praises in speeches and in his music. It is commonly felt that Shostakovich suffered as much as any artist who survived the excesses of the Soviet period. Of course, his great and sweeping oeuvre stands as a testament to his talent and his inner strength. The art won in the end, thanks to the tenacity of the individual.

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All of this is evident in the monument that Georgy Frangulyan erected in Shostakovich’s memory on the steps of the Moscow House of Music on May 28, 2015. It was the first monument commemorating the great artist in Moscow.
Frangulyan created the image of a deeply private individual, one who is obviously used to withstanding suffering. It may have bent him, it may have distorted his facial expression, but this is the figure of one who has weathered whatever came his way. The hard, exaggerated furrows in his brow bear witness to that. The head is down; it cares nothing about what is going on all around. Passersby, Moscow traffic – none of it exists for him. He is in his own world. The legs are crossed tightly, another sign of a man closing himself off to the world. Chances are his right hand is conducting some snippet of music that this he hears in his head. But it is not a public conductor’s gesture, not one that would be employed from a podium before an orchestra and a hall full of people. This is a private gesture, a small, approximate gesture, one that means something only to Shostakovich. It is, perhaps, his way of personally “hearing” his music with his body. From some angles, as in the second photo below, the hand may be “thinking” about playing notes on a piano. Of course, from other angles, it might be the beginning of him raising his arm to fend of blows – of any kind that might be thrown at him. (See the second and third photos above.) I like this aspect of Frangulyan’s sculpture – the arm gesture is very specific, yet open to interpretation. It is one of the things that give the sculpture life.
It is worth thinking for a moment about the significance of a monument like this appearing in Moscow today (just over a year ago). Increasingly, we are subjected to comments, actions and even attacks from Russian cultural authorities that harken back to the age of the Zhdanov decrees and even the denunciations in the press from the 1930s. We are constantly told by politicians, by media figures and by official patriots, that life in Russia has never been better, that the country is great, its history is great, and there are no problems aside from those that have been created by evil outside forces and the nasty people who support them for evil reasons. Don’t get me wrong. We have not returned – yet – to the exact atmosphere of the Soviet 1930s, but we are living in a time that has borrowed that era’s intonations and general methods.
To see this harried, hunkered, set-upon image of Shostakovich today is to set eyes upon a contemporary. I don’t know if any of the authorities who surely beamed happily the day of the unveiling have any idea about this or not. But it is a fact. When you stand behind Shostakovich here and gaze out on the endless stream of cars racing past on the Garden Ring Road, you realize that contemporary Moscow is as alien to you as it is to this image of Shostakovich.

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Mikhail Sholokhov monument, Moscow

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I have been photographing this monument to Mikhail Sholokhov, the Nobel Prize-winning author who claimed to have written the classic Soviet novel The Quiet Don, for several years now. I have never liked the photos I got. Often it was a problem of light – I usually happened upon it on very sunny days when I got nothing but black shadows and burned-out white spots. But there were other problems, too. One is the monument, which is sprawling and multifarious and, therefore, difficult to get an angle on. Another is the figure of Sholokhov. Controversial is no longer the word for him – it now seems certain that many will continue forever to call him a fraud -still another of those frauds, like the Stakhanovite shock workers or the child hero Pavel Morozov, none of whom actually existed, at least as the stories were told about them. Sholokhov may well have been one of those heroes that the Soviet state needed, but didn’t have, so chose to make up. And he turned out to be willing to play the part – why not? –  it made him rich, famous and powerful. Rumors, and not only rumors, have long posited that a certain Fyodor Kryukov, a soldier who was killed during the Russian Civil War, wrote most of The Quiet Don (English publishers traditionally have cut this work into two, And Quiet Flows the Don, and The Don Flows Home to the Sea). Over the decades other authors, or partial authors, have been put forward, including Alexander Serafimovich (who denied he wrote the novel). The 1999 discovery of the manuscript that Sholokhov first submitted for publication at the end of the 1920s gave support to those who believe in Sholokhov’s authorship. It was clearly determined that 605 of the 885 pages were written by Sholokhov, while the remaining pages were written by his wife and her sisters.
And yet, the doubt that hangs over Sholokhov’s head is just too serious to be dismissed. After all, who is to say that Sholokhov and his wife didn’t merely copy out Kryukov’s, or someone else’s, abandoned text? A highly detailed article about the controversy on Russian Wikipedia lists 17 serious accusations that have never been successfully refuted. It lists 10 detailed reasons to believe that Sholokhov wrote the novel.
I am no expert in this topic, which, as the Russians say, could easily make the Devil himself break a leg trying to maneuver the details. I did have the memorable, though, ultimately inconsequential, experience of once working with a TV producer who came from the Don region, knew the people there, the stories, the reality, and who passionately, even vehemently, supported the version that Sholokhov was a plagiarist.
Sholokhov was recently in the news again when the archives of the Nobel Prize Committee for 1965 – the year he won – were made public. You can read some details in an article in The Guardian, but here are a few tidbits: Writers passed over in favor of Sholokhov included Vladimir Nabokov, Anna Akhmatova, Konstantin Paustovsky, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Somerset Maugham, Samuel Beckett and several others. Although records show that the choice of Sholokhov was unanimous, it was, according to a piece published by Colta.ru, far more controversial than it would appear at first blush. At one point a suggestion to give the Prize jointly to Sholokhov and Akhmatova appeared to gain traction. It was apparently shot down by Professor Anders Esterling, who declared, with some reason, that such an award would be pointless since nothing, other than their native tongue of Russian, unified the two writers.

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This monument, conceived by Iulian Rukavishnikov several decades ago, but eventually created by his son Alexander Rukavishnikov, and unveiled May 24, 2007, was the second monument honoring Sholokhov to be erected in Moscow. It has been – like its subject – controversial from the very start. It is located in the garden walk area of Gogol Boulvard immediately across from house No. 10, where Ivan Turgenev occasionally lived. Many felt that if any monument were to go up here, it should have been one honoring Turgenev. This is not, however, a fully arbitrary location for the present sculptural group, as Sholokhov lived for many years on Sivtsev-Vrazhek Lane, which runs perpendicular to Gogol Boulevard right in front of the monument. Sholokhov, sitting in a boat presumably navigating the Don River, looks directly down the street where he lived. Behind him is a fountain – which doesn’t always have water flowing in it, and certainly did not on the sub-freezing day I photographed it – that shows horses fording the river in the opposite direction from Sholokhov (who appears to be letting the boat float where it will as he poses for the sculptor). Across the walkway there is a two-sided bench, the backs of which bear symbolic images important to the Cossacks, the main characters in The Quiet Don (such as sabres and the Russian symbol of the two-headed eagle). Scattered around in the walkway around the benches are bronze imitations of stray sheets of manuscripts. The one I provide here (the second-to-last photo below) is of the title page from Sholokhov’s other famous novel, They Fought for their Motherland. You can’t help but wonder if this is the sculptor’s sly idea of a way to acknowledge the legend that Sholokhov came upon “his” Quiet Don as an abandoned manuscript.

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Anna Akhmatova, Ivan Turgenev et alii at the Sheldonian, Oxford UK

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The Oxford connection to Russia and Russians runs deep. Suffice it to say that the university purchased a Russian font for its press in 1696. This and many other fascinating tidbits of Oxford-Russia history may be gleaned from Victoria Bentata’s article, “Oxford’s Early Russian Connections,” for the Oxford Today website.
Surely one of the most important buildings in this relationship is the roundish Sheldonian Theatre on Broad Street. This is the location where Oxford presents its honorary doctorate degrees and a surprisingly large number of Russians have received them. The first figure of Russian culture and art to be so honored was the novelist Ivan Turgenev. In fact, according to an article by J.S.G. Simmons on the Oxoniensia.org website, he was the first novelist of any nationality to receive that high honor. The event occurred on June 18, 1879, somewhat more than four years before the great novelist’s death, and just 75 years, to the day, before I was born.
Simmons writes: “At this period the undergraduate members of the audience at the University’s annual Encaenia still exercised their traditional privilege of voicing their opinion of the University’s notabilities and honorands – and though Turgenev was perhaps at the peak of his literary fame in England at the time,  he feared that recent memories of the Russo-Turkish War and the bitter divisions which it had engendered in English political life, might lead to embarrassing demonstrations against a Russian Honorary Doctor. But in the event all went well…”
Reportedly, Turgenev wrote to a friend a few days later to point out that he had received louder applause than any of the seven other recipients that day.
Some other Russian honorary doctors include the composer Dmitry Shostakovich, the poet, translator and children’s author Kornei Chukovsky, the great literary scholar and humanist Dmitry Likhachev, the poet Joseph Brodsky, and, of course, the poet Anna Akhmatova. Some of these individuals might have passed through the gates leading to the theatre, as seen directly below, as well as passing a guard or greeter, perhaps similar to the one who was overseeing foot traffic the day I made these photos last week. As it happens, degrees were being bestowed on the fortunate and fastidious that day as well.

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Anna Akhmatova received her honorary doctorate here at the Sheldonian on June 5, 1965. It was a Saturday and the ceremony began at 2:30 in the afternoon. Readers of my last post may recall that I drew my account of Akhmatova’s visit to Oxford from the memoirs of the poet’s companion Anna Kaminskaya. I do so again here. Kaminskaya, it should be pointed out, sometimes refers to Akhmatova affectionately as Akuma.
“We found ourselves almost at the head of the procession on the street. A man of small stature lead us all. He was dressed in a medieval, black suit with a mace in hand. He was followed by two ceremony masters carrying staffs, also in black. Next in line were Vice Counsellor Doctor Kenneth Vere and Mr. Brian Brown [I have not been able to verify these individuals – JF], followed by Anna Andreyevna who leaned on my arm in a red gown with gray cuffs and sleeves. Behind us were three other laureates also dressed in red and gray gowns. Further on were professors in black gowns. The procession, which has not changed its outward appearance since medieval times, made its way through the tiny old streets of Oxford to the Sheldonian Theatre and stopped alongside the two-story, 18th-century Clarendon building with its central porte-cochere. We passed into a small room on the first floor where a book lay on a table. Four of the year’s laureates left their signatures in it and received sheets printed with the salutatory speeches. The room was lit only by the light entering through a window made of small panes of glass. As such it seemed as though we were plunged into a medieval gloom. When we passed further through a portico, the procession entered a large cobblestone yard before the Sheldonian, where the ceremony was to begin at 14:30.
“(When we walked through the yard where the public was waiting, eager to greet the laureates, Akuma was extremely tense. In order to calm her I surreptitiously gave her a validolum tablet which helped her cope with her nerves. A few seconds later she said to me, ‘I’m moving. I’m moving. I’m fine.’)
“The heavy doors of the theatre opened; spectators had filled the amphitheatre. Anna Andreyevna was the first to be honored. She entered slowly, leaning on my arm, her head slightly bowed, looking at no one, attempting to conserve her energy for the event that was to come. We sat in our designated seats. During the speech Anna Andreyevna was supposed to stand in the center of the hall, but, violating tradition, an exception was made for her.
“…After the triumphant reception of Anna Andreyevna, we went out onto the square. A crowd of admirers of Akhmatova’s poetry was waiting on the street, and it was joined by professors, students and guests who had come out of the ceremony. A living corridor of applause was formed and the victory parade continued. Anna Andreyevna did not expect such a triumph.
“Sir Isaiah [Berlin] approached us and led us to the car belonging to the family of Prince Obolensky. Akuma was uncommonly pleased and happy, primarily because everything was now over with. On the road to the hotel she said that it all reminded her of “An Easter Procession in Kursk Province” (a painting by Ilya Repin), lacking only the horsemen and holy banners. Otherwise it was just like any large church holiday in Russia.”
Kaminskaya’s Russian-language memoirs may be accessed on the website of Zvezda (Star) journal.
In a recent short piece called “A Sheldonian Experience” by Sagar Gubbi,  we hear a bit about Akhmatova’s receiving her doctorate from another source. “The final speaker of the evening,” writes Gubbi about an event in 2009, “was Sundance Institute’s Kenneth Brecher, who did an outstanding job of describing the history behind the evening’s venue, Sheldonian Theatre. He narrated a particularly moving and inspiring story of Anna Akhmatova, an incredibly talented Russian poet who, after many years of struggle under the Soviet rule, was finally recognised by the University of Oxford for an honorary degree. It was here at the Sheldonian that the University’s Head broke its age-old tradition by climbing down from the stage to confer the degree to a physically frail Akhmatova.”

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Anna Akhmatova hotel, Oxford UK

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It did not take me long to learn that Anna Akhmatova stayed at the Randolph Hotel when she received her honorary doctorate at Oxford University in 1965, but in the two days I had last weekend in Oxford I could never have done it without the aid of friends and strangers. I was rather pushy about it, just unloading the question on anyone and everyone I could grab by the sleeve and hold long enough to talk to. In the end, the answer came by way of my old friend Oliver Ready, the distinguished translator of Russian prose, and his colleague Henry Hardy, the distinguished editor of the works of Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher and historian whose idea it was to invite Akhmatova to Oxford and confer upon her the honorary doctorate.
Henry Hardy also sent along the link to a recent publication in the Russian press. In June of this year the Zvezda (Star) thick journal published the travel notes of Anna Kaminskaya, Akhmatova’s companion on the eight day sojourn to London, Oxford and Stratford. I pull most of what follows from that account.
Kaminskaya and Akuma, as the companion calls the poet, had a long day of travel and hospitality on June 4, 1965. They traveled by car from London to Oxford with Sir Isaiah Berlin, but upon arrival in Oxford he took them directly to his own home for dinner and conversation. They did not arrive at the Randolph until sometime after 11 p.m. that night.  The next morning at 10:30 a.m. Kaminskaya and Berlin went to “rehearse” everything Akhmatova would do in the course of the day’s ceremony on June 5. Akhmatova presumably stayed behind in the hotel room to rest up for the day’s festivities. The room, according to Kaminskaya, was “spacious and very light. Elegant, almost transparent curtains decorated with tiny flowers hung on the windows looking out into a garden. Beyond the windows there was greenery and sunlight.”
I will post an account of that ceremony soon. For now, we cling closely to the Randolph.

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Following the ceremony “a crowd of fans awaited Akhmatova” in the foyer of the Randolph, writes Kaminskaya. “People came from various countries and cities – students and Russianist professors, and there were many emigrants. They all wanted to congratulate Anna Andreyevna. Unfortunately, it was necessary to cut the visitations short because in the second half of the day a whole series of events had been planned. Anna Andreyevna received: Salisbury with his wife, the Annenkovs, Eliane Moch-Bickert, Gleb Struve, N.A. Daddington and several other people. While Akuma rested, I and Count [Dmitry] Obolensky went out into the city and on one of the streets happened upon Arkady Raikin and his wife. They were in England on tour and had come especially to Oxford for the honorary ceremony, but were too timid to bother Akhmatova with a visit. I virtually cajoled them to come to the hotel, assuring them that Anna Andreyevna would be very glad to see them. In Moscow Raikin often visited the Ardovs in connection with his work and when Akuma would spend time at the Ardovs’, they would occasionally meet there. Anna Andreyevna, who had a fine feel for humor, loved these meetings.”
“That evening Sir Isaiah arranged a ceremonial dinner at our hotel in honor of Anna Andreyevna and the Pasternak sisters Lidia and Josephine, who lived in Oxford. Anna Andreyevna was lively and cheerful. We talked much about her verses and those of Pasternak. Lidia Leonidovna Slater was a professional translator; she had translated many of Boris Leonidovich’s poems into English and he thought very highly of these translations. She also translated Akhmatova’s poems but Anna Andreyevna was not inspired by her translations. A slight shadow rose up between them.”
It was apparently at this evening that Akhmatova asked Berlin if he was the one to have arranged her honorary doctorate and visit to England with all of the events that it entailed. “No,” Kaminskaya reports Berlin as replying, “I was only the pioneer.”
Berlin was a longtime friend, admirer and one-time suitor of Akhmatova, which made her trip to Oxford somewhat complex emotionally. According to an excellent article on the Poetry Foundation site: “Akhmatova always cherished the memories of her nightlong conversations with Berlin, a brilliant scholar in his own right. Inspired by their meetings, she composed the love cycle Cinque (first published in the journal Leningrad in 1946; translated, 1990), which was included in Beg vremeni [Race of Time]; it reads in part:

Sounds die away in the ether,
And darkness overtakes the dusk.
In a world become mute for all time,
There are only two voices: yours and mine.

On the morning of June 7 at 11 a.m., the artist Yury Annenkov and Eliane Moch-Bichert, the wife of the prominent, retired French politician Jules Moch, stopped by the Randolph to see Akhmatova. After that a radio journalist came by to record Akhmatova reading poems that she published in 1964 and then the travelers got into a car and headed for Stratford. The three days in Oxford were behind them.
To fill out the picture for the moment, however, allow me to quote a paragraph from Michael Ignatieff’s book, A Life of Isaiah Berlin. It is drawn from the Spartacus Educational website entry on Akhmatova:
“The last of Isaiah’s encounters with the great figures of the Russian intelligentsia occurred in 1965, when he and Maurice Bowra managed to persuade their university to grant Anna Akhmatova an honorary degree. He had telephoned her in Moscow in 1956, and she had received the news of his marriage in icy silence. They had both decided it was not safe to meet. When she duly appeared in Oxford in June 1965, Isaiah was shocked to see how she had aged. She had gained weight and he thought, a little unkindly, that she resembled Catherine the Great. But she carried herself like an empress and delivered herself of her opinions with imperial force. When she arrived outside Headington House and surveyed the splendid garden, the three-storey Georgian house and Isaiah’s new wife, she observed caustically: ‘So the bird is now in its golden cage.’ The spark that had leaped between them twenty years before was now extinguished. He could only secure her the recognition in the West that was her due; she could only acknowledge it with regal hauteur. He accompanied her as she stood in the Sheldonian and heard herself acclaimed in Latin as ‘an embodiment of the past, who can console the present and provide hope for the future.’ Afterwards he was in attendance at the Randolph Hotel when she received Russian visitors who had come from all over the world to pay court to her. He was there too when she read from her verse, intoning the deep and sonorous rhythms into a tape recorder. She departed for Paris and home, and Isaiah never saw her again. She died the following year. His anti-communism had always been a declaration of allegiance to the intelligentsia of whom she was the last surviving heroine. After her death, he exclaimed to a friend that he would always think of her as an ‘uncontaminated,’ ‘unbroken’ and ‘morally impeccable’ reproach to all the Marxist fellow-travellers who believed that individuals could never stand up to the march of history.”

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Anna Akhmatova house, Moscow

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The building at 17 Bolshaya Ordynka, in the heart of the Zamoskvorech’e section of Moscow, is generally known as the Akhmatova House because the great poet Anna Akhmatova would live here for long periods of time when she made trips to Moscow from her home in Leningrad between the years of 1938 and 1966. The small but tasteful sculpture that commemorates Akhmatova’s connection to this building is a quote of a famous drawing of Akhmatova by the great artist Amadeo Modigliani. By some accounts this home was as important in Akhmatova’s creative biography as the famed House on the Fontanka in Leningrad, where she wrote many of her most important works. The actual Moscow apartment that she stayed in belonged to Viktor Ardov, a very successful comic writer, and his wife Nina Olshanskaya, an actress who was one of Akhmatova’s closest friends. Olshanskaya was an actress at the Moscow Art Theater and later, at the Soviet Army Theater. It was at the Ardov-Olshanskaya home where Akhmatova met face to face for the only time with the other great Soviet-Russian female poet of her time, Marina Tsvetaeva. That happened June 7-8, 1941, just two weeks before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and two and a half months before Tsvetaeva committed suicide.

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The Ardov-Olshanskaya home was no common home, if for no other reason that Olshanskaya’s young son Alyosha spent his young years here, too. This Alyosha, in whose room Akhmatava would stay when visiting, grew up to be one of the greatest and most beloved of all Soviet film actors – Alexei Batalov. But beyond that this welcoming home was a meeting place for much of the Soviet intelligentsia over the decades. A partial list of other famous guests who would stop by for visits includes Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Bulgakov, Joseph Brodsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Boris Pasternak, the great actress Faina Ranevskaya, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky (father of the great Soviet film director Andrei Tarkovsky), Dmitry Shostakovich, Kornei Chukovsky and more. Not bad company. But one meeting that took place here must be considered the most amazing of them all. It happened in May 1956 when Akhmatova’s son Lev Gumilyov, the famous literary critic and son of the great poet Nikolai Gumilyov, happened to drop in on the Ardovs. This was no ordinary visit. Gumilyov had just been released following 14 years in the labor camps and he had no idea that his mother was in Moscow, at the Ardovs, at that moment. He was just passing through on his way back to Leningrad and happened to find his mother there.

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