A portrait of Lydia Chukovskaya, Guardian, 16 May 1994
In the bedroom-study of Lydia Chukovskaya’s apartment on Gorky Street in Moscow there is a small sketch of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in a taped-up frame. In her journal for 9 August 1939 Chukovskaya wrote “Today when I was at Anna Andreevna’s I noticed a little picture on the wall. An enchanting pencil drawing, a portrait of her. She allowed me to take it off the wall to have a look.
The drawing had been done by Modigliani in Paris in 1911, before either artist or subject became famous. Akhmatova replied sternly to Chukovskaya’s compliments: “You understand, he was not interested in the likeness. The pose fascinated him.” And a touch of vanity: “He drew me about 20 times.”
On Lydia Korneevna’s opposite wall hangs a photograph of Akhmatova as a young woman. Staring past the photographer, she has the same crescent-moon pose, curled and absolutely still; the face is superb, a face of limpid eyes and exquisite delicacy, a perfect Modigliani subject, “so perfectly defined,” as her friend writes, “as if ready to be cast in bronze…. A statue of pensiveness, if she were pensive — of fury, if she were furious.”
Lydia Korneevna Chukovskaya and Anna Andreevna Akhmatova became friends through the tragic circumstances of the dark years. Akhmatova’s son Lyova had been arrested at the height of Stalin’s Terror in 1938. When Chukovskaya’s husband, the theoretical physicist Matvey Bronshteyn, was also arrested she sought out the poet because rumours circulated that Akhmatova had gone personally to the Kremlin to hand Stalin a letter which had secured her son’s release. She went to find out what Akhmatova had written in her letter — although it turned out that the letter and release belonged to an earlier arrest in 1935 (Akhmatova’s letter of 1938 had no effect).
By a feat of endurance and memory, the friendship that grew out of their meeting was preserved in a diary. More than fifty years later, the first volume of Chukovskaya’s diary, covering the years from 1938-1941, is about to be published in English. It is a document as unforgettable as Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When? or Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past Is Myself. To anyone concerned with the fate of literature or with the madness of power exercised for its own sake, it is no exaggeration to say that it is one of the hundred most important books of the century.
In those days no one could conceive of keeping a real diary. What the young Lydia Korneevna wrote down was the record of her conversations with Akhmatova about poems and paintings, about writers from Pushkin to Hemingway, about critics and neighbours, clothes, food, firewood — the niggles and concerns of reality in the “ghostly, fantastical, troubled world” that surrounded them. The things that she felt more (or most often less) safe to write down have a tragic piety; the looming absence of the other content of these conversations, too dangerous or painful to commit to paper — the prison queues and the anguish, their efforts to save their husband and son, news about those “who perished in the night” — gives the Journals the quality of a modern Antigone. There is also the sense that both women derived from the friendship a thing which was oddly fortunate in the circumstances — an essence and an emotion which were irreplacable.
I arrived at Gorky Street on a slushy December evening with Lydia Korneevna’s English publisher, who had come to go through the proofs of her book with her. It was a professional visit, from publisher to author. She has become reclusive and doesn’t speak to journalists. Bruce Chatwin was a great admirer of her work, but he never met her. When I asked her about this, she said, “I don’t like to be acquainted with acquaintances.”
Akhmatova died in the Sixties, and Lydia Korneevna is almost the last of the “Pasternak generation”. The frames around her dusk-blue walls hold photographs of the people she has outlived: Boris Leonidovich himself, Akhmatova, Sakharov, her brother (killed in the war), and her husband who was executed in 1938. Behind the new steel outer door of the apartment, now essential in Moscow, she lives austerely. She and her daughter Lyusha once sheltered both Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky here.
She works every day, getting up at lunchtime and reading and writing for two or three hours in the afternoon, correcting in her special glasses. The frame of one lens has a porcelain eye-glass taped to it, and one’s first impression, on seeing her in these glasses in the sanctum of her study, is of extreme cunning. She looks like a diamond-dealer. Almost everything in the room, with the exception of a bottle of Chanel No.5 half-used on her bedside table — the books, papers, table, the arrangement of a broad day-bed and a massive reading-light that hangs from a scaffold-shaped frame — has been arranged for work with the same regardless taste for privacy.
At eighty-seven she is in every respect a very fussy old woman. She knew everybody, and she remembers everything. We — her publisher Christopher MacLehose and I — sit on straight chairs on either side of the day-bed she reclines on, in a blue dressing-gown (dark blue or pale blue? — faced with her memory, you fear for your own accuracy). Stabbing at a passage from the proof of the Journal’s glossary, she quotes, “‘Tsarskoe Selo is a town’… of course it is a town! What is Versailles? It is the residence of the French kings. So you must say Tsarskoe Selo is the imperial residence. So this glossary must change — and it must be in a different type.”
A loaf of ivory hair and a long, deathly pale face under her big reading-light: she looks like a ghost or someone who has spent their life under hot towels — the true reason is that in the last two years she has not left the apartment. She was forced to move to the sixth floor in the city after she displeased the Writers’ Union. When the roof of her dacha at Peredlkino started leaking, they forbade the Carpenters’ Union to fix it: “I have only petrol to smell now.”
But when she takes her glasses off, her eyes are startling. They are a little sunken, and a deep and penetrating Arctic blue; breathing holes in the ice of old age.
Her daughter Lyusha says, “This section is headed ‘Notes’. It was meant to be a separate section by the author called ‘Behind the Scenes.’” Lydia Korneevna, sitting up very straight, says, “And I hate notes.” She reclines again on her day-bed. Her hands are broad and mannish and her fingers entirely straight. Someone’s name is mentioned. It is wrong in the glossary. “His name was —,” Lyusha says.
“Was, and is!” says Lydia.
“I want to say —,” Christopher begins. I see that he is preparing to concede everything.
Lydia puts her hand up. “— and I want to say something. These are not Notes, they are short stories, portraits of people we knew. I went to a lot of trouble to decide which are the short stories and what goes into the footnotes. And nothing must go in or come out, just like a novel or a short story. This is not just a collection of materials on Akhmatova! It is a finished book.”
Lydia Korneevna saw too much of life when she was too young. She was thirty when her husband Matvey Petrovich was arrested at their flat at the Five Corners in Leningrad, thirty-one when he was shot. (Her defence lawyer was not able to tell her of his death until over a year later.) She recreated the Terror in a remarkable short novel, Sofia Petrovna, about an ordinary woman whose son is arrested and who as a consequence retreats into a lonely world of fantasy. But tragedy did not wither her. Her Journals were eventually published in Moscow five years ago; copies, however, circulated in secret and for years “scholars” passed off her words about Akhmatova as their own.
These events — the loss of her husband, the theft of her work, her discovery of memory’s imperatives — explain her unshakable stubbornness now. The belligerence in her face and her manner can be conveyed in an inadequate metaphor — there seems to be a light in her, not on like an electric light, but like a torch. I have sat silent during the discussions about her proofs. Whenever Lyusha takes over, Lydia Korneevna appears to switch off and her head falls forward. Then she sits up very straight again and picks up in the middle of a sentence. (Borges used to do this too in old age.) There is a moment when Christopher addresses her, telling her in reasonable self-defence that two of her English collaborators are an Oxford don and a lecturer at UEA. Lydia Korneevna sits up. She cannot believe it. She puts her hands up to her face. But she is grinning. She has challenged a tradition she venerates. She says she is sorry, but she isn’t. When she dies the memories she leaves will be absolutely accurate.
“We live in a wild country, but we have an intelligentsia — or we had! We are talking about literature here and I think we should do things in the right way.”
Suddenly the blue eyes swivel and fix on me and she demands, “Why don’t you say anything?”
“I don’t know anything, Lydia Korneevna,” I say, unable to sat anything but the truth..
Lydia Korneevna had learnt Akhmatova’s poems by heart in her youth; poems like “We Don’t Know How to Say Goodbye’, written in 1917:
We don’t know how to say goodbye:
we wander on, shoulder to shoulder.
Already the sun is going down;
you’re moody, I am your shadow.
Let’s step inside a church and watch
baptisms, marriages, masses for the dead.
Why are we different from the rest?
Outdoors again, each of us turns his head.
Or else let’s sit in the graveyard
on the trampled snow, sighing to each other.
That stick in your hand is tracing mansions
in which we shall always be together.
Akhmatova had become famous with her second collection, Rosary, three years after her return from Paris and the meeting with Modigliani (“an Italian Jew, short, with golden eyes, very poor. I understood at once that he had a great future in store”). Lydia Korneevna had been taken by her father, the much-loved writer for children Korney Chukovsky, to see Akhmatova when she was thirteen. She didn’t dare look at her. She never imagined she would one day become the poet’s confidante — or her memory. When she fled from Leningrad at the time of her husband’s arrest, because wives in her position could expect to be sent to the camps too, she lived in Kiev, then Vorzel near Kiev, then Yalta for a time. When she heard from her father that the NKVD had calmed down, she and Lyusha returned to Leningrad. There she went to see Akhmatova “on business”, to find out what could be done to save Matvey Petrovich.
“Day by day,” she writes in the foreword to the Journals, “month by month, my fragmentary notes became less and less a re-creation of my own life, turning into episodes in the life of Anna Akhmatova. In the ghostly, fantastical, troubled world that surrounded me, she alone appeared not as a dream, but as a reality.” Akhmatova, however, came to depend on Lydia Korneevna equally. Little that she wrote could be kept or spoken aloud in those years: “she would fall silent… get a scrap of paper and a pencil… cover the scrap in hurried handwriting and pass it to me. I would read the poems and, having memorized them, would hand them back to her in silence. ‘How early autumn came this year,’” Anna Andreevna would say loudly and, striking a match, would burn the paper over an ashtray. “It was a ritual: hands, match, ashtray — a beautiful and mournful ritual.” Without the memory of the young Lydia Korneevna, many of Akhmatova’s poems would be lost, perhaps including her masterpiece “Requiem” with its Epilogue:
The hour of remembrance draws near.
Once more I hear, I feel, I see you here:
You, whom to the window they barely led,
You, who this earth no longer tread,
And you who, shaking your beautiful head,
Came here as though home, you said.
I would like to name each one in turn,
But they’ve taken the list; there’s nowhere to learn.
From the poor words you used, which I overheard,
I have woven for you a burial shroud.
I shall remember them everywhere, always,
I shall not forget them come fresh evil days,
And if they shut my tortured mouth,
Through which a hundred million shout,
Then may you too remember me
On the eve of my remembrance day.
If they think some day in this country
To raise a monument to me,
To this solemn gesture I consent,
But with the condition that it be put
Not by the sea where I was born
(My last bond with the sea is torn),
Nor in the park by the hallowed tree
Where an inconsolable shade seeks me,
But here where three hundred hours and more
I stood and no one unlocked the door.
Because even in blessed death I’m afraid
I’ll forget the noise Black Marias made
And the ugly way the door slammed shut
And the old woman’s howl like a beast that was hurt.
And from my motionless bronze lids
May the thawing snow stream down like tears
And the prison dove coo from afar
And the boats go quietly down the Neva.
The Journals naturally contain scant references to the texts of the poems. (The English edition has an appendix of poems to which the entries, obliquely and often in code, refer.) They have instead the testamentary magnificence that is due to Lydia Korneevna’s self-effacement — a portrait in which the maker is both absent and present.
22 February 1939
She came — in an old coat, a faded, crushed hat, coarse stockings.
She sat on my divan and smoked, stately, beautiful as ever.
“I can’t look at those eyes [the eyes of the women in the prison queues]. Have you noticed? They seem to exist apart from the faces.
“My neighbour doesnët love her boy. She beats him. When she takes the strap to him, I go into the bathroom….”
I set off with her to see her home…. She walked with a light, quick step, but was afraid to cross the street and clung to my sleeve in the middle of Nevsky…. We stood in the middle of the street for a long time. I kept encouraging her softly: “We can go now, we can go now.”
“No, no, not yet, not yet!”
8 August 1940
“Kuzmin [Mikhail Kuzmin, the poet: this is Akhmatova speaking] was a very nasty, malevolent and rancorous person…. He couldn’t stand Blok, because he envied him. Once Lourié was playing his composition to Blok’s words in front of Kuzmin. Kuzmin knew perfectly well whose words they were, but deliberately asked: ‘Is that Golenishchev-Kutuzov?’…. There was a real cult of gossip in his salon. This salon had the most pernicious effect on young people: they took it as the height of intellect and art, but in reality it was the perversion of intellect, because everything was considered a game, everything was mocked or jeered at…. I can still recognize people from Kuzmin’s salon unerringly — one phrase is all I need.”
One regrets the way Lydia Korneevna puts herself in the background, her lack of vanity. In their shared love of literature one discerns Akhmatova’s trenchancy and misses hers. They do agree on the genius of Pasternak and Mandelstam, on Turgenev’s superficiality and Pushkin’s potency, on the greatness of Joyce. But Akhmatova’s loathing for Tolstoy, on account of his portrayal of Anna Karenina as a shameless prostitute, while it is thought to be disproportionate, is implacable: “And please don’t try to defend that rubbishy old man!” Lydia Korneevna may have been a few years too young and too much in awe.But Akhmatova’s imperiousness and her needs (“Last night, Anna Andreevna phoned and summoned me”, “Today Anna Andreevna phoned and asked me to go round… this request was rather merciless, for it was -35ºC outside”) never wearied her. She was neither pennyboy nor clown to the poet. The dignified modesty of Chukovskaya is as genuine as Akhmatova’s stately dignity, and in their shared harassment by Yezhov’s murderers or by swiping critics, or when either one was ill or despaired, some kind of exchange seems to have taken place between these two essential individual qualities, in which the stateliness or modesty of one was transferred to the other. This is perhaps as sound a description of love as any.
We sit down to eat in the dining room next to Lydia Korneevna’s bedroom. It’s impossible to tell what colour the walls are: they are hidden behind heavy glazed bookcases and boxes and folders which go from the floor to the high ceiling. Lyusha serves rollmop herrings and red fruit juice. The phone rings. Lyusha gets up to answer it. Lydia Korneevna is tired after the exertion next door, but again she sits up and says: “The last thing: on the biographical details of my book — I was fired from the Writers’ Union in 1974 for writing open letters about Sakharov — I typed them up a million times! [she makes her hands bounce up and down] — and for my involvement in samizdat. I am just telling you this so that you know it.” She does not say that sixteen years later she was awarded the first Sakharov Prize for the courage displayed in her life’s work.
Conscious of having been an observer throughout, I pay her a clumsy compliment during dinner, saying that she has beautiful eyes and I hope she will continue to use them for ever. She looks at me with the utmost suspicion and replies: “A man who compliments a woman of eighty-seven knows he is safe!”
Lyusha is complaining about an illegal edition of her mother’s novel Sofia Petrovna when the phone rings again. With cavalier vitality her mother sweeps the receiver off the cradle, says, “Good. Thank you very much,” bangs the phone back down and switches it off.
The dinner is over. Like a parrot on a perch the old woman constantly drops her head and closes her eyes, but she accompanies us to the door. During the business of scarves and hats, she crumples onto the chair next to the door. Lyusha points down the hall and says, “Solzhenitsyn worked through there,” and the front door is opened. We hold out our hands to Lydia Korneevna to bow and say goodbye, like children to their grandmother.
She sits up. After I have shaken her firm hand, she grins. She carries on grinning, then, before her head drops again, with her right hand she makes a sign of scribbling and punches the air with her closed fist.
We thought we were beggars, and possessed nothing at all,
But when we began to lose one thing, then another,
So that each day turned into
One of remembrance —
We began to compose songs
About God’s great generosity,
And about our former great wealth.
Anna Akhmatova, 1915
The Akhmatova Journals 1938-41 by Lydia Chukovskaya is published by Harvill
© Julian Evans 1994