News flashed the other day the death of Russian poet Bella Akhmadulina at the age of seventy-three. Growing up in Moscow, I remember her name cropping up among the poets who occupied the grey zone between the permitted and the impermissible: she could publish some of her poetry, the other, her muse’s contraband, she could voice at public recitals and enjoy its circulation in literary samizdat. That’s how most Russian intelligentsia lived then—in two worlds at the same time—call it schizophrenia or split personality, or double-think. A true poet, she embodied her age, and the decades after Stalin’s death were nothing if not the age age of poetry.
Because of the richness of inflection and infinite melodic variability of the language, Russian poetry is blessed with extraordinary expressive force and a mighty mnemonic potential. This comes in handy if you happen to live under a repressive ideocracy like the Soviet Union, since verses can be easily memorized and leave little material evidence. Indeed, there was no better time to realize Russian poetry's mnemonic and etherial potential than in the post-Stalin Soviet Union where the absence of independent publishing coexisted with burgeoning youth culture and a minimal—and for that reason infinitely titillating—lifting of the skirt of Soviet censorship. For us, who belonged the post-WWII generation, shaped by the de-Stalinization campaign and cold war, known euphemistically as “peaceful coexistence,” this toying with the ideological hemline excited our imagination and set our minds on fire! Grim and sclerotic as the Soviet empire was in its decline, it became a Garden of Eden for poetry—and a purgatory, not to say a minor inferno, for the poets themselves. Some, like Brodsky, were exiled or jailed, others went through torments of hell in trying to combine the imperative of remaining true to their calling with the relentless and crushing pressure to conform. That was the cup that Akhmadulina, twenty and otherworldly beautiful in 1956, drank to the dregs.
In the sixties, I was too much of a snob to take seriously the poetry of my older contemporaries. Joseph Brodsky was the sole exception, but then, he never published in Soviet press, had gone through a crucible of a trial, incarceration in a mental hospital, and exile up north. The first poem of his I remember was his Elegy to John Donne, a verse as extra-territorial as it was extra-temporal—just one metaphysical poet to another. And then, the word had it that Anna Akhmatova herself had bestowed the mantle of the Silver Age Heir Apparent on Brodsky’s shoulders. She knew a thing or two about poets and their legends, and her sardonic remark about Brodsly’s persecutors—“Oh what a biography they are creating for Joseph!”—hit the mark.
For me and my friends, then, Akhmadulina could not meet the high standard. Her poetry was permitted. What we yearned for was "stolen air" (Osip Mandelstam). True, she had a front seat in “the little orchestra of Hope, conducted by Love,” as the chansonier Bulat Okudzhava described the true poets of the post-war generation, who had lost faith in communism but not hope and love. Still, for me and my Bohemian milieu, the world of poetry was dominated, not by orchestras, not even chamber orchestras (like those of Rudolph Barshai and Andrei Volkonsky), but by the great solo players of the Silver Age. Tsveateva, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Pasternak (grudgingly, Mayakovsky). Each had an oversize and fulfilled destiny and each was wrapped in a personal myth capable of enchanting their “grandchildren’s” generation. And that was who we were. Just think, joked my friends and I: Akhmadulina shared only two syllables with the regal Anna Akhmatova. Two syllables simply did not cut it.
But then, not long before my emigration from Russia, I had the occasion to change my mind. The transformation occurred in a Moscow theater while I was watching a hybrid feature film documentary with what for me was an unlikely title: Sport, Sport, Sport (1970). What moved me to the quick was a poem that Akhmadulina herself recited in her tightly wound girlish contralto. It was a voice-over of the final segment of the film. Directed by the celebrated Elem Klimov, with the original score by Alfred Shnitke, a star-studded cast, and containing the first ever in Russia tiny clip of the Beatles, the film was all the rage in Moscow when it was released into theaters in the spring of 1971.
The film’s final segment with Akhmadulina’s voice-over consisted of a two-minute slow motion close-up of the great Ethiopian runner, Abebe Bikela, shot, no doubt, during one of his interminable marathons. The clip itself was decelerated in such a way as to make Bikela’s strides coincide rhythmically with the iambic pentameter of Akhmadulina blank verse, resounding as it did over a faintly audible organ continuo of Alfred Schnitke’s score. As Akhmaduline's voice receded, Schnitke's organ gained force, cresting over the film's finale. Seldom had any three celestial bodies been in a better alignment!
“Behold a man who has commenced his run,” Akhmadulina’s voice was resonating with our shared subliminal and not so subliminal desire to defy the boundaries of our constricted Soviet space,
way back, when dawn broke over
the whole universe; can’t calculate how many centuries
he has been running far and yon. Toward a blessed
and important goal. What triumph drives him on
to keep transcending space? …”
Вот человек, который начал бег
давно, когда светало во вселенной,
не вычислить, какой по счёту век
бежит он вверх и вдаль. К благословенной
и важной цели. Что за торжество
манит его превозмогать пространство?
I was overjoyed when I found this clip on Youtube.
A few months later, in September 1971, I found myself transcending space, first on board an Aeroflot flight to London, then, a few hours later inside a giant PanAm 747, which I first mistook for a movie theater and which, despite its girth, whisked me effortlessly across the Atlantic to JFK and into my wife's embrace.
* * *
My sole personal encounter with Bella Akhmadulina took place some seven years later in 1978, when she came to the Bay Area as part of a poetry tour of the United States. She had an appreciative audience at UC, Berkeley, but was nervous and visibly upset during the recital, a poor match, I then thought to myself, to Brodsky, who had not long ago cast his spells in the same auditorium and like a rock star held everyone in thrall for two hours. We agreed to meet for a nightcap. She was accompanied by her husband, a theater artist, Boris Messerer; I came together with Lithuanian poet and scholar Tomas Venclova, who had known her for years and who had just escaped from the Soviet Union and was then teaching Tartu Semiotics as a Regents Professor at my alma mater. Now, over three decades later, I have a vague memory that Czeslaw Milosz joined us later when we were about to break up. He had just been awarded the Nobel Prize and must have felt he had an obligation to honor a fellow poet and visitor from behind the Iron Curtain.
We met at some dive on the north side of the campus, and the nightcap quickly evolved into a liquid supper in the Russian style. Akhmadulina complained bitterly about a minder from the Soviet consulate who was at once fawning and insulting to her and whom she blamed for her foul mood at the Berkeley poetry reading. She drank a trifle too much, and I remember being surprised by the quiet and indulgent smile with which her husband observed her progress with the bottle. Like a sand clock with its communicating chambers, the emptier the bottle became the more high-strung Akhmadulina grew. I recall saying to myself then that this was what Marina Tsvetaeva must have looked like in some cheap Parisian bistro or other some forty years earlier. A comparison with Nastasya Filippovna from The Idiot, too, crossed my mind. The conversation got jerky and moved in spurts. Filling a tense pause, I ventured to pipe in something about how much I was touched by her poetry in the 1970 film and how much she opened my eyes to the beauty and spiritual depth of athletics (a former boxer, I had valued sports for the ecstasy it afforded me in the ring and its utility in self-defense, but never spirituality or aesthetics). To my surprise, she took offense and with a touch of hysteria in her voice dismissed me, along with my heart-felt compliments.
I backed off. She looked like a wounded animal—a human animal, as she was also drowning in alcohol and self-pity. I sipped my drink in silence. For the first time, it occurred to me that even a star like Bella Akhmadulina, precisely because she was a star, had to live with fear, contempt, self-loathing, and then again, with more fear, contempt, and self-loathing. Now, eleven time zones from the Kremlin, she was yet again reminded by a petty clerk from the Soviet Conuslate in San Francisco of her bondage to the state, and along with, all the innumerable lacerations she had ever endured. Oh what she had to go through for years and years, this marathoner with a tense girlish contralto, as she tried to safeguard her integrity while taking care not to cross the red line marked by the jealous and ever-vigilant party-state! The following year, she summoned enough courage to join the uncensored underground almanac Metropol. Her husband did the design for the volume. With a lot to lose, as it must have felt then, they chose defiance, at last.
I now wonder, if her reaction to my heart-felt praise may have been prompted by something else. Was she, perhaps, considering defection or some other desperate act and wished to talk it over with her old friend Tomas Venclova and felt constrained and irritated by my presence? Tomas, if you read this and remember that evening, please let me know. But one thing is clear now. In her generation’s “little orchestra of Hope, conducted by Love,” hers were some of the most memorable solos.
Stanford. December 1, 2010.
Postscript. Looking for a Youtube link to Okudzhava's song, I came across a clip recorded not long before Okudzhava's death in the company of Bella Akhmadulina. She embaces Okudzhava and reminds the audience that the song was dedicated to her. Here is the clip:
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