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If Poet’s Room Could Speak, It Would Tell of Grief

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – In the diffuse, almost endless light of summer, it is hard to regard this city as a place of suffering. Few people could gaze at the noble mansions and monuments and easily summon thoughts of despair.

In many ways St. Petersburg has, since its creation, always been the spiritual center of the country, the center of science, sophistication, culture and art. But for the last century and a half, culture has often been at war with Russia. Pushkin died here in a foolish duel and Dostoyevsky was once taken from the city in chains. Osip Mandelstam, one of Pushkin's heirs, was destroyed by Stalin.

Somehow, though, the poet Anna Akhmatova survived. She lived through the revolution and the Nazi siege, through hunger and disgrace and the murder of her closest friends. She lived through the terror of Stalin, mostly alone in a small room that is now a sad, perpetually empty museum. She lived to tell about it all by carefully committing her poems to memory and then burning the paper they were written on. ("It was like a ritual," her friend the poet Lydiya Chukovskaya wrote. "Hands, matches, an ashtray. A ritual beautiful and bitter.")

Always grand in her restraint, lucid in the agony she was able to convey, Akhmatova was the bard of St. Petersburg. She managed to be everything the city has always been: elegant, expressive and laden with grief. She was, in her disciple Joseph Brodsky's unforgettable phrase, "the keening muse."

But the muse is not in demand these days. Even at the height of the tourist season there are not many visitors to the memorial rooms devoted to her in the Fountain House, a former palace that became a communal residence where she lived during Soviet times. More people visit Dostoyevsky's house in a month than have been to see Akhmatova's rooms this year, even though, in Russia, she is considered one of this century's finest poets.

"She is still loved," said the museum's director, Nina Popova. "But people just don't feel the need to come here. I don't understand it. Maybe the memories are still too strong. Maybe it's too painful for people to be reminded of something so close."

This is a country that cherishes literature like no other. But maybe life in Russia today is moving too fast to waste time on a woman who died 30 years ago and could well have lived in another world. Born in 1889 and raised near here in Tsarskoye Celo (Czar's Village), where Pushkin also once lived, she chose not to emigrate after the revolution. "I am not one of those who left the land to the mercy of its enemies," she wrote. "Their flattery leaves me cold, my songs are not for them to praise."

Her first husband, Nikolai Gumilev, was shot as a subversive in 1921. She was barred from publishing her poetry; she was with Mandelstam when he was arrested. Like most of her friends, he died in the camps.

All this is communicated in the few rooms in which she lived between the years 1922 and 1952. There are silhouettes of her friends, and carefully reworked drafts of some of her shorter poems. There are many drawings of her, for she was tall, lithe, dark and beautiful in an eternally exotic way.

She gained her early fame writing love poems, but history took her in a sharply different direction. She was at her most creative when Russia plunged into the darkest ravine (perhaps proving her friend Mandelstam's comment that great poetry is often a response to total disaster).

When the terror was at its worst, she lived in a single room with a tiny bed, a desk and four books (Pushkin, Shakespeare, Dante and the Bible.) Linden trees — beautiful and often mentioned in her poetry — block most of the light even on the sunny days that are now upon the city. There was little heat and less food.

"The souls of all my dears have flown to the stars," she wrote in "The Return." "Thank God there's no one left for me to lose so I can cry."

There is surprisingly little of value or importance in her rooms. Some porcelain; a copy of the one Modigliani line drawing of her that survives (he drew 16); posters that tell the troubled story of modern Russian literature. "Akhmatova or Mayakovsky? Two Russias" was the bill for a lecture on Dec. 16, 1920, at the House of Artists here, when debates between opposing figures like a traditionalist and a futurist were still possible. There are a few short notes for "Requiem," her great epic of suffering.

"Requiem" is Akhmatova's story but it is also Russia's. It takes place during the worst years of the purges, between 1935 and 1940, when she stood outside Leningrad's enormous stone prison day after day for 17 months, desperate for some word of her son's fate. Even then she was famous, and a woman, seeing the poet for the first time, timidly approached her. The exchange appears at the beginning of her long story of those terrible years:

"One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

" 'Can you describe this?'

"And I said: 'I can.'

"Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face."

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