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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Anna Akhmatova: a game with destiny

9 October, 2007 - 00:00

Do you know that the great Anna Akhmatova’s mother is buried in the village of Slobidka Shelekhivska in Derazhnia raion, Khmelnytsky oblast? And that there is a very inviting museum filled with Akhmatova memorabilia, which is housed in her aunt’s former manor? I did not know this either, until my pilgrimages brought me to this picturesque nook of Ukraine.

Although the house of “Aunty Vakar,” as Akhmatova called her relative, is more than 200 years old, it is well preserved. It is surrounded by a park or, to be more exact, what remains from those distant times when there was a “nest of nobles” here. Akhmatova made frequent visits to this place: first, as a seven-year girl and then at least twice again, in 1906 and 1912. Researchers rarely mention these facts from the poetess’s biography, as I concluded after reading a pile of monographs and memoiristic collections following my visit to Slobidka Shelekhivska. Meanwhile, the Slobidka Shelekhivska motifs in Akhmatova’s life are very interesting.

During this period the poetess was not yet Akhmatova but Anna Horenko. Odesa (the city of my youth) considers the poetess 100 percent “its own” because she was born in a little cottage in the seaside suburb in Velyky Fontan and baptized in the Transfiguration Cathedral. Her father Andrii was a naval engineer, a handsome ladies’ man whose many love affairs “on the side” finally destroyed his married life with Inna, who had given birth to his six children, Akhmatova and her two brothers and three sisters.

As it happens, Anna’s every visit to Slobidka Shelekhivska was connected with some dramatic moment in her life. Her parents divorced in 1906 and her mother, a totally impractical person, ended up in dire straits because of financial problems. In July her sister Inna died of tuberculosis. Anna had just turned 17. A resident of Tsarskoe Selo, she came to Kyiv to take her exams at Funduklei High School. Some of her relatives, including Anna Vakar (“Aunty Vakar”) who owned the country house in Slobidka Shelekhivska, lived in Kyiv. A similar house, belonging to her sister, was close by, in the neighboring village of Litky. Old Erazm Stogov had given a house to each of his daughters, except Inna, Anna’s mother.

Anna came to Slobidka Shelekhivska with a “scarred heart”: she had just lived through a major love drama. She had even contemplated suicide because the one she loved, a Petersburg University student named Vladimir Golenishchev-Kutuzov, was cold and indifferent to her feelings. Nevertheless, the two had had sexual relations, a fact that Anna did not hide from Nikolai Gumilev, who compared her to Dante’s Beatrice when he met her.

I imagine the summer of 1906, when a downhearted Anna Horenko, a gray-eyed beauty with a ballerina’s figure, wandered down the alleys of the noblemen’s park in Slobidka Shelekhivska. How much passion she had already experienced! She had been writing poetry for a long time, but her literary debut had not taken place yet. But it was just ahead: Gumilev would soon publish her poem “His hand sparkles with many rings...” in the journal Sirius.

In the museum, I saw a plaster cast of her hand. The young Anna had a pale face, long dark hair, and beautiful white hands.

After passing her exams, she moved to Yevpatoria, her favorite seaside spot. Then she returned to Kyiv to finish high school. Anna had the honor of being admitted to St. Petersburg’s Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, but she stayed there for just a few weeks: she was expelled after being caught sleepwalking along the institute’s corridors. Sleepwalking, I stepped into life
And life flinched in fear

Akhmatova would write many years later. The poetess’s latest biography attributes Anna Horenko’s sleepwalking to the loss of inner peace following the rift between her parents, and the illness and death of her two sisters (See E. Feinstein, Anna Akhmatova, Moscow, 2007, p. 31, in Russian).

In the summer of 1906 Anna Horenko settled in Kyiv. Much earlier, in the distant 1840s, her maternal grandfather Erazm Stogov had worked in the chancellery of Governor General D. Bibikov and contributed to the gentrification of the city.

The Vakar family took Anna in. But she did not feel comfortable at her aunt’s place and soon wrote to Sergei von Stein, the husband of her sister Inna, “Everybody treats me very well here, but I don’t like them. We are too different. I am always keeping silent and crying, crying and keeping silent. This may seem strange, but since I don’t have any other shortcomings, everyone is generally nice to me” (Anna Horenko’s letters to S. Stein were published in A. Kheit, Anna Akhmatova, Poetic Wandering: Diaries, Reminiscences, Letters, Moscow, 1991, pp. 317-237, in Russian).

The letters to von Stein are a “cardiogram” of her soul during the Kyiv period. Her thoughts often fly to Tsarskoe Selo, to which she longs to go at least for Christmas. The leitmotif throughout her letters is Golenishchev-Kutuzov. Anna is brimming with feelings towards her beloved, who gives her the cold shoulder. She insists that Stein send her his photograph, admitting, “I still love V. G.-K. And I have absolutely nothing in my life but this feeling. I have a neurotic heart because of worries, eternal torments, and tears.”

There are a lot of complaints about poor health: insomnia, heart palpitations, and dizziness. One day, when her relatives left Kyiv for their estate in Podillia, Anna fainted on the carpet, and when she came around she could not undress herself and saw ghosts flitting before her eyes. “My heart is very bad indeed: as soon as it begins to ache my left arm goes numb,” Anna complains to her friend.

She often thinks that nobody needs her and an apocalyptic mood is predominant in her letters: she even thinks about death. She recalled that she tried to hang herself a year earlier in Yevpatoria, but her attempt at suicide failed: “The nail popped out of the plastered wall.” “Mama was weeping. I was ashamed — very bad indeed.”

Now she felt equally bad. Remarks like “No money. Aunt is nagging me” were routine. “Aunt Vakar...can’t stand me,” Anna concluded. She was oppressed by talk about politics, fish dinners, and her uncle’s loud voice. “I cannot stand the lies that surround me. I wish I could finish school as soon as possible and go to Mama.” She said this a mere six months after leaving Tsarskoe Selo.

The atmosphere of the Vakar house was so oppressive that Anna finally moved to the home of Maria Zmunchilli. Here is one of Akhmatova’s Kyiv addresses: 7 Meringovska Street (now Zankovetska St.), apartment 4.

She smoked; apparently this was exotic at the time. Then, much to her relatives’ joy, she quit. In general, judging by her letters, there was nothing good about her Kyiv routine — only utter despair and absorption in her own sufferings. The latter are grossly exaggerated (“I have finished my life without even starting it,” “I killed my soul, and my eyes are made to shed tears,” etc.). This is typical of youth, when the first dramas look like the end of life. The cause is all too obvious: the poison of unrequited love. These were the very words that the schoolgirl Anna Horenko once wrote to Sergei von Stein.

Naturally, her peers and adult men were interested in her. Cousin Demianovsky proposes to her “every five minutes,” but he reminds Anna of a pesky fly. The poet Fedorov (20 years her senior) kissed her and “swore his love,” but she remembered that when Fedorov was kissing her, he “smelled of lunch.” Her heart had room only for Golenishchev-Kutuzov.

It is doubtful that Anna’s love for him was true because there was room in her heart for somebody else. At a certain moment she decided that this “somebody else” was her destiny. “I am marrying a friend of my youth, Nikolai Gumilev. He has loved me for three years, and I believe fate decreed that I should be his wife. I don’t know if I love him, but it seems to me I do.” These lines are from a letter to von Stein, dated Feb.2. 1907. The impression is that Anna had succumbed to autosuggestion and thrown herself on the mercy of fate. Gumilev’s feelings are more important to her than her own. “He loves me so much it scares me,” was the Kyiv schoolgirl’s conclusion, whenever she received Gumilev’s letters from Paris. She considers this enough for her to be happy. While waiting for a photograph of Golenishchev-Kutuzov from von Stein, she was thinking of marriage to Nicolas. If her father were against the marriage, she would elope and have a secret church wedding.

There are no limits to her fantasies in playing with Fate as well as to her subconscious attempts to suppress her doubts. Yet, as time went by, her doubts remained.

In May 1907 Anna graduated from Funduklei High School and in the fall enrolled in the law department of the Higher Women’s Courses at St. Volodymyr University in Kyiv. It is difficult to imagine what was behind this choice, but Akhmatova wrote later that she liked the history of law and Latin, and nothing else.

Another six months passed. The plot of her strange and protracted affair with Gumilev was approaching the showdown. It seemed that the enamored poet had “crushed” Anna with his “terrible” siege-like love, while she was tormented by endless hesitations. After being rejected three times, Nicolas wanted to commit suicide, and Anna finally surrendered. This occurred in the fall of 1909 after a literary soiree attended by Gumilev’s St. Petersburg friends. Anna and Nikolai dropped into a small restaurant next to what is now European Square (today’s Ukraine House), where she finally agreed to marry Gumilev.

Just a week before the decisive date with Anna, Gumilev had fought a duel with Maximilian Voloshin — over a woman, of course. Her name was Yelizaveta Dmitrieva. For a long time St. Petersburg’s literary circles did not know that Dmitrieva and the mysterious poetess Cherubine de Gabriac was the same person. Yelizaveta liked “turning the heads” of several men at the same time; she even thought that she loved both of them. This game of hearts ended with shots exchanged near Chornaia River, the very place where Pushkin and Dantes had once fired at each other.

That day, Nov. 22, 1909, a lucky chance saved Gumilev and Voloshin. No one knows if this was sheer coincidence. Voloshin’s second, Count Aleksei Tolstoi, later said that it was his father who in fact saved the two poets: he intentionally “put a double amount of gunpowder into the pistols, which increased the recoil at the moment of firing and reduced the precision of hitting the target” (V. Polushin, Nikolai Gumilev, Moscow, 2006, p. 163, in Russian).

By Nov. 28 Gumilev was reciting his poems in the hall of the Kyiv Merchants Assembly. Accompanying him were his writer friends Aleksei Tolstoi, Mikhail Kuzmin (another second in the duel), Piotr Potemkin, and others.

Did Anna Horenko know about all those dramatic events? She probably did because much was written and discussed about the duel.

On April 25, 1910, Anna Horenko and Nikolai Gumilev were married at a church in Mykilska Slobidka near Kyiv, on the left bank of the Dnipro. At the time this was Oster district in Chernihiv gubernia. The wooden church was small and cozy, with embroidered towels draped around the icons (it was torn down in the 1960s during the construction of the Livoberezhna subway station). No relatives attended the church wedding because they considered it a doomed marriage. Why, then, did the newlyweds get married so far away from curious eyes?

The happy Gumilev called Anna a “sorceress” in one of his poems: From the serpent’s burrow,
From Kyiv town
I did take a sorceress as a wife.

Did he have a hunch that married life with a “sorceress” would be full of unexpected things and trials? The newlyweds went to St. Petersburg and stayed at the Gumilev family home. The poet’s passion quickly faded (perhaps because the “fort” had been captured?). Family duties began to tire him, and six months later Gumilev went off for several months to his beloved Africa. “We had been fiance and fiancee for too long,” Akhmatova explained later. “When we got married in 1910, he had already lost his fervor” (L. Chukovskaia, Notes on Anna Akhmatova, Moscow, 1997, Part 1, p. 187, in Russian).

Her loneliness sparked her poetic inspiration. When Gumilev returned from Africa, he could not recognize his wife’s verses. She had become a Poet. It was during his absence that Akhmatova wrote most of the poems that formed her first collection Evening (1912).

In May 1912, Anna visited Podillia again. Two years of family life had brought her much sadness. The honeymoon trip abroad had ended all too soon, ushering in the humdrum days of a young woman who had fallen “out of love.” Finally, she and Gumilev granted each other complete freedom, which they used to capacity. Anna struck up an affair with the artist Amedeo Modigliani whom she had met earlier in Paris.

Nevertheless, the family ship went on sailing. The Gumilevs returned from a tour of Europe, and Anna was expecting a child. She went to visit her relatives in Podillia for the summer. On her way to her cousin Maria Zmunchilli, who lived on an estate in nearby Litky, she stopped at Slobidka Shelekhivska. This is a documented fact that the poetess herself confirmed. “I went from Kyiv to Litky, my cousin’s estate in Podillia gubernia” (See V. Chernykh, A Chronicle of the Life and Works of Anna Akhmatova, Part 1, 1889-1917 , Moscow, 1996).

In Litky, Anna was visited by the poetic muse. Here is one of her poems from May 1912. Rich in visual details and full of melancholy and sadness, it has an expected suicidal leitmotif. Everything is here as before.
It seems futile to dream here.
You must lock the window shutters early
In the house down a dirt road.
My quiet house is empty and unfriendly,
Its one window looks out on the woods.
Inside it, somebody was taken out of the noose
And cursed as he lay dead.
He may have been sad or secretly cheerful,
But death is a great triumph.
And his shadow sometimes flickers
On the chairs’ red worn-out plush.
And the cuckoo clock is glad to see the night,
You can hear its clear talk very well.
I am looking though a crack
And see horse thieves lighting a bonfire.
And, prophesying the coming downpour,
Smoke is flying low.
But I’m not scared,
For I wear a silken navy-blue shoestring
As a token of luck.

We see here the paradoxical dramaturgy of the lyrical heroine’s feelings: she looks on death as a “great triumph,” a happy liberation. She displays a solemn and proud exaltation that runs counter to the generally-accepted stream of life. These lines, written in Litky, are the voice of a desperately lonely and reflective soul that seeks solace in suffering.

Approximately at the same time, in 1912, the poetess wrote “I Learned to Live Simply and Wisely.” In contrast to the previous poem, this one vibrates with vital optimism. The small joys of existence are underlined by the knowledge that everything is transient and mortal, but emotionally luxurious signs of harmony are blended with the here and now; harmony with the cry of a stork on the roof, weeds in a ravine, the yellow and red clusters of a mountain ash, a fluffy cat, a light in the distance... I’ve learned to live simply and wisely,
To look into the sky and pray to God,
And wander before evening
To quell unnecessary alarm.
When weeds whisper in the ravine
And the clusters of a yellow-red
mountain ash is drooping,
I compose merry verses
About fatal but beautiful life.
I am coming back. A fluffy cat
Will lick my palm and purr with satisfaction.
And a bright light will go on
In the turret of a lakeside wood mill.
The cry of a stork perched on the roof
Explodes silence rarely enough.
And if you knock on my door,
I don’t think I will hear it.

What the poetess discovered during her visit to Podillia was the wisdom of simplicity.

On Sept. 18 (according to the Julian calendar) Anna gave birth to Gumilov’s son Lev, who would become a famous scholar. Lev Gumilev’s books are still in brisk demand at the Petrivka wholesale market in Kyiv, where his father and mother once entered into a marriage union that was as fragile as early ice.

When I was at the Anna Akhmatova Museum, I recalled the words from her autobiographical notes, which were inspired by her youthful reminiscences: “Everybody considers me a Ukrainian.” On her father’s side she was Ukrainian, although she became a Russian poetess with the Tatar- sounding pen name of Akhmatova. It is quite possible that the “call of the blood” occasionally made itself heard, at least here, in the Ukrainian environment of Litky or Slobidka Shelekhivska. Had it not been for this “voice,” could she have been able to so subtly understand and translate Ivan Franko’s “Withered Leaves?”

Volodymyr Panchenko is a professor at the National University of Kyiv— Mohyla Academy.

By Volodymyr PANCHENKO