By pure coincidence, my poetry books - loosely ordered alphabetically - are bookended by two slim volumes by Russian poets. In the late 1960s, Penguin Books published their Penguin Modern European Poets series. At 20p a pop these pocket-sized gems were well-worth the spend and did sterling work in broadening my reading horizons. Anna Akhmatova comes before Apollinaire and Beckett just as Yevgeny Yevtushenko followed the Thomases. In between them the collection is dotted with other well-thumbed volumes in the same series. They are a timely reminder that Russia is indeed part of Europe, more perhaps culturally than geographically, whether we like it or not.

As the bloodbath in Ukraine grinds on, I will not be alone in turning to the first of these two poets, the fearless and lionized poet of the Soviet era, Anna Akhmatova (1889 - 1966). She was born in Ukraine’s jewelled city on the Black Sea, Odesa, in pre-revolutionary Russia. After a brief interlude at Kyiv University, she then spent most of her life in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) where she witnessed its two and a half years of siege during World War II. No doubt, more of us today can place these cities on a map better than we could but several weeks ago: Ukrainian Odesa (whose residential outskirts, at the time of writing, have been shelled), Kyiv (Ukraine’s capital, one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe, today nearly encircled, besieged but valiantly holding out), Leningrad (Russia’s second-largest city, birthplace of the Russian Empire, and of Vladimir Putin). Akhmatova was both Ukrainian and Russian.

Akhmatova’s most celebrated poem, Requiem, was written between 1935 and 1940. Its central theme is that of parting, poignantly experienced first-hand when her son Lev Gumilyov was repeatedly arrested on trumped-up charges and subsequently imprisoned. Akhmatova was not alone in this. Millions of other mothers had husbands and sons taken from them during that volatile period of history, and the poem famously conveyed their suffering. Its preface describes how the poet spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. Numb and blue with cold, lines of women were taking necessities to their imprisoned relatives, never even being told whether they were still alive. It talks of the daily brutality of the Stalinist period, of people ‘tortured out of their minds’, of an ‘innocent Russia’ that ‘squirmed under bloody boots’, of Leningrad dangling ‘like a useless pendant at the side of its prisons’. Its stark imagery would have been immediately identifiable to the citizens of the city. “You will stand at Kresty” prison, she wrote:

three hundredth in line with your parcel,
and set fire to the new year ice
with your hot tears

Implicitly condemning the purges, Requiem was too inflammatory and dangerous for Akhmatova to publish in Russian during that period. The complete poem did not appear in the Soviet Union for nearly 50 years, when it was finally published there in 1987. During its composition and for the duration of the Great Terror, friends of Akhmatova memorized short sequences of the poem, coming together illicitly to recite it from memory. One is reminded of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 in which a secret collective of outcast intellectuals commits to memory the literature of a forbidden past, keeping it alive for the day when a rational society can be rebuilt.

The simplified outline of this tragic tale has more than a bitter irony at its heart. The son for whom Akhmatova waited in line - and on whose behalf she personally wrote to Stalin pleading for his release - spent twenty-two years in and out of prison before being released in the 1950s. Lev Gumilyov went on to become a prominent ethnologist. With two questionable doctorates, he developed a series of discredited theories about the evolution of ethnic groups. He particularly maintained that groups went through cycles of development, climax and degeneracy, which he presented as the concept of passionarity. One is reminded of Jason Stanley’s description (in his excellent How Fascism Works, which I have previously discussed here) of the development of fascist thinking, and how the appeal of a mythic past pollutes the present. Make Russia Great Again perhaps.

These thoughts are disturbing enough without also knowing that Gumilyov was a source of inspiration to no less a monster than Putin himself. In the latter’s view, the west has repeatedly blocked Russia’s ‘emergence’. The sense of ordained destiny not yet fully achieved seems writ large in that. Gifting Russia the invasion of Ukraine, apparently, would have helped it attain that destiny.

Who could have predicted the wheel of history turning so pervertedly, with the Soviet era son of a poet-protector of the oppressed eventually serving as inspiration to such a vile oppressor of our own time?

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933 - 2017), himself banned from travel outside the Soviet Union for several years in the 1960s, was nominated for the 1963 Nobel Prize in Literature for his poem Babiy Yar, a threnody for the victims of the 1941 massacres in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis and buried in a ravine north of Kyiv. Yevtushenko’s Babiy Yar has no memorials; they were erected only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and may have been hit in a bombing raid by Russian forces on March 1st this year. (Adjacent to Babiy Yar, the Menorah commemorating the slaughter by Nazi troops of 16,000 Jews in December 1941 at the Drobytsky Yar ravine was also hit by Russian shelling a few weeks later.)

In Yevtushenko’s poem, the poet identified himself with the victims of the massacres:

Today I am as old as the Jewish race.
I seem to myself Jewish at this moment.

The poet’s spare vocabulary, with line breaks marking a slowed pace of delivery, amplified the emotion these words still carry.

No Jewish blood runs among my blood,
but I am as bitterly and hardly hated
by every anti-semite
as if I were a Jew. By this
I am a Russian.

Yevtushenko was not born to a Jewish family, so this overt identification with Jews is all the more powerful. The poem was his protest at the code of silence about these massacres, and the refusal of the Soviet authorities to recognize the suffering of the country’s Jews. The poem’s publication, speaking not just of the Nazi atrocities but also of the Soviet government’s persecution of Jewish people, eventually caused the authorities to erect monuments outside Kyiv, and gradually dilute its antisemitic policies. In the following year, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 was given its first performance, setting Yevtushenko’s poem to music. Shostakovich was reported to have explained:

People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko’s poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence.

Two small examples of our present linking back to a past that we would do well not to forget, validating Shelly’s view that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

[I can highly recommend The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova which was reprinted last year by Zephyr Press. The poems have been translated from Russian by Judith Hemschemeyer and edited and introduced by Roberta Reeder. It is a fine record of her work and life, as well as being a great work of scholarship. It is available in the UK at Hive.]