Reading Akhmatova Now

This is part of a SEEB series entitled “Russian Studies in the Era of Trump” organized by Ani Kokobobo.


Sarah Krive

It’s a muggy summer day, but I’m fortunate to be spending it in the Slavic Reference Library at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Seated at a modern apparatus, with neat stacks of microfiche at the ready, I begin my search for poems by Anna Akhmatova. The poems themselves are by now accessible through the six-volume Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Ellis-Lak 1998–2005). But rather than reading poems as discrete entities, however, I aim to read them as them as they once were, situated in journals, newspapers, and small anthologies of their original publication. I want to see how they appeared on the page, what other texts and images surrounded them. Remediating is a way of trying to understand, in part, “crucial cultural information about how different components of the periodical’s readership were intended to interact with its content.”1

As I scroll through image after image of journal pages from 1912 to 1924, three things immediately stand out: first, how little advertising has changed. Then, as now, the adverts promise the moon—instant hemorrhoid relief, piano lessons, eyeglass repair, a Norwegian cruise. Sensing that we still (and, in the case of Russia, again) share a consumer mentality is somehow spectacularly reassuring a century on.

While the paratext of consumer taste reveals mostly the ways in which bodies break down and how we prop them up, my attention shifts to the ways Akhmatova’s poems are situated among other literary texts and even the news of the day. So the second thing that comes to mind is how reading her poems in situ suggests the ways that individual Akhmatova poems were consumed by readers. An example of what at first glance seems like an incongruous juxtaposition of words can be found in the December 20, 1915 morning edition of the newspaper Birzhevye vedomosti, on a large page dense with theater notices, book subscriptions for the coming year, a factory stock options sale, and Italian villa rentals, a slim column with the heading “Vospominania” contains Akhmatova’s poem, printed without stanza breaks, «Тот август как желтое пламя…». Below it is Sologub’s poem from August 18, 1889, «Что в жизни мне всего милей?».  To the right, Ivan Kasatkin’s short story, “The Meeting.” Akhmatova’s poem asks: Что сталось с нашей столицей,/Кто солнце на землю низвел? “What had happened to our capital,/Who had lowered the sun to the earth?” And later, И серые пушки гремели/ На Троицком гулком мосту “And gray cannons thundered/Across Trinity Bridge.”

Тот август как желтое пламя,
Пробившееся сквозь дым,
Тот август поднялся над нами,
Как огненный серафим.
И в город печали и гнева
Из тихой Корельской земли
Мы двое — воин и дева —
Студеным утром вошли.
Что сталось с нашей столицей,
Кто солнце на землю низвел?
Казался летящей птицей
На штандарте черный орел.
На дикий лагерь похожим
Стал город пышных смотров,
Слепило глаза прохожим
Сверканье пик и штыков.
И серые пушки гремели
На Троицком гулком мосту,
А липы еще зеленели
В таинственном Летнем саду.
И брат мне сказал: настали
Для меня великие дни.
Теперь ты наши печали
И радость одна храни.
Как будто ключи оставил
Хозяйке усадьбы своей,
А ветер восточный славил
Ковыли приволжских степей.
1915

Akhmatova brings the experience of war into the urban landscape of the present day, providing readers of the Stock Market News reason to pause and perhaps look out the window at the morning sky.

Together with the numerous publications “in support of orphans” or “in support of soldiers” that I came across, Akhmatova’s poem leads me to ask how poets and writers of our own time are responding to the twenty-four hour news cycle, to each new tragedy, unavoidable or not. And I’m led to ask: what is the relationship between artists and soldiers today. In an era of Go Fund Me appeals, what use is a poet? Celebrity writers like Elizabeth Gilbert can use Instagram to solicit funds for a group dedicated to reuniting migrant children with their parents. Beyond that, how do poets and writers today face a violent world, and do they perceive it as their civic duty to speak out?

I found answers waiting for me on my local bookstore shelf. Bullets into Bells. Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence (Beacon Press, 2018). Containing poetry and commentary that confronts contemporary gun culture, any page of the text will knock you to your knees. Take, for example, the opening stanzas of Mark Doty’s “In Two Seconds”:

Tamir Rice (2002-2014)

the boy’s face
climbed back down the twelve-year tunnel

of its becoming, a charcoal sunflower
swallowing itself.  Who has eyes to see,

or ears to hear? If you could see
what happens fastest, unmaking

the human irreplaceable, a star
falling into complete gravitational

darkness from all points of itself, all this:

the held loved body into which entered
milk and music, honeying the cells of him:

who sang to him, stroked the nap
of the scalp, kissed the flesh-knot

after the cord completed its work
of fueling into him the long history

of those whose suffering
was made more bearable
by the as-yet-unknown of him…

Looking for a connection between a hundred year old revolution a continent away and the present moment in North America, I find it in guns, in weapons, in the tragedy of trying to live one’s small “l” life and being confronted with Life and Death. I find myself trying to understand the culturally disciplined bodies moving about Petrograd, smoke in the air, and what reading a poem in Stock Market News might evoke for them, along with the poets and writers who provided literary works in order to support soldiers, and children orphaned by war. Reading a journal like the short-lived Vershiny (1914-15) [The Peak], perhaps the Harper’s Weekly of its time, every single issue a hushed page-turner of photographs, like the one of soldiers’ lifeless bodies in a snow-covered field, sticks of hay poking up around them.

We typically assume that it isn’t comme il faut for a scholar to weep before a poem memorializing the dead or a photograph of soldiers leaning against each other, exhausted. But by reclaiming co-feeling with the artistic works of an earlier historical period, we can better recognize the ways poetry now can and must play a role similar to the one it seemed to play then: it offers a language that can contain paradox, contradiction, absurdity, and render us speechless, rightly so.


1 Manushag N. Powell, “We Other Periodicalists, or, Why Periodical Studies?” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. https://tswl.utulsa.edu/afterword/we-other-periodicalists-or-why-periodical-studies/#F16. Accessed August 24, 2018.


Dr. Sarah Krive is Lecturer in Liberal Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.


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