Saturday, October 22, 2011

Anna Akhmatova and the victory of art over dictatorship

All our images from that time are gray and industrial - of seven year plans and cold intrigue in the Politburo; of weapons of war being paraded past a faceless leader in Red Square.
It's strange and unreal now to think of Russia in the 20th Century, of those totalitarian days when art, literature and religion were trampled under the jackboots of the paranoid Georgian.

But the land of Tolstoy and Chekhov wasn't going to give in easily to the plunder of its ideas and free expression, to the reduction of all that art and color onto one flat easel that bore the brutish features of Comrade Stalin. Even as the trains bore the dissidents north to the labor camps and salt mines of Siberia, as Collectivisation led to mass slaughter of the peasants and famine, so writers continued to write in the most uncompromising of places.

The life of Anna Akhmatova illustrates how art can triumph over oppression. The poet's first husband was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1921; her son and second husband were deported to the camps. And yet her popularity with the Russian people meant even the all powerful Russian leader did not risk imprisoning her.

In the days since Stalin's death there have been seen many imitators. The Romanian leader Nikolai Chauchesku  in 1989, although it appears he can still be friended on Facebook; Saddam Hussein was executed in 2006 and it appears the mob didn't wait for a formal execution in the case of Muammar Gaddafi.

So is this the end of the line for the dictators who paraded in dark glasses and outlandish uniforms while their people suffered. Probably not but it gives hope that art and freedom of expression will overcome in the darkest of places.

Everything is Plundered by Anna Akhmatova

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,
Death's great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?

By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.

And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses --
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breast for centuries.



  1. It was really hard for me to watch the footage on TV about the capture and killing of Gaddafi. I guess violence of any sort doesn't sit well with me. He lived a life of brutality and died that way too, I suppose. My son said, "So he's dead. Now what?" I think he was saying, does that mean all that oppression and brutality will end or will someone else just take over the role and continue it. I said, "I don't know. I guess we will see what happens next." I certainly hope that freedom of expression will win out.

  2. you are right enough Daisy - it was a horrible way to go, although he'd surely have been executed if he went on trial anyhow. interesting to see.