January 01, 2011

Modigliani and Akhmatova in Paris

In 1963, when Khrushchev’s Thaw was beginning to ebb, a compilation of poetry by Anna Akhmatova was published under the title The Flight of Time (Бег времени). The work spanned her entire half century career and was, of course, greeted ecstatically and even with a certain sense shock by those who, despite all the horrors of recent decades, had retained a love of Silver Age poetry.

Imposing, majestic, and no longer the svelte beauty she had once been, Akhmatova was now transformed into a cult figure. Despite long years during which the authorities had, at best, pretended that Akhmatova’s poetry did not exist and, at worst, such as in 1946, had come down on the great poet with the full, awful might of the system, for many of her compatriots Akhmatova embodied the perseverance of Russian poetry, which had endured horrific trials. Her tragic fate – the death of her first husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov; her refusal to emigrate; the ordeals of her son, who was sent to labor camps three times; harassment after the Central Committee resolution concerning the journals Zvezda and Leningrad – all this created a completely unique image.

Akhmatova was perceived as a demigoddess, as the uncrowned queen of poetry. The Flight of Time became an instant rarity that was sought after, hunted for on the dusty shelves of provincial shops, and sold to foreigners in hard-currency bookstores that ordinary Soviet citizens were forbidden to enter.

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