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This article is taken from PN Review 3, Volume 4 Number 3, April - June 1978.

The Use of Poetry in Twentieth-century Russia Henry Gifford

LYDIA CHUKOVSKAYA tells in her reminiscences of Akhmatova how on a June day in 1953 they tried vainly to reconstitute a poem from 1940, 'The Cellar of Memory'. Akhmatova was then subsisting upon translation, like Pasternak; but, where-as he could undertake the work with a will, however irksome it may have been at moments, Akhmatova felt that in this activity a poet simply eats his own brain. Why must she give up her best hours to rendering the vacuities of Victor Hugo? Seven years before Zhdanov had blasted her and the satirist Zoshchenko. Since then officially she had ceased to produce original work. A poem on her situation says:


You hung me like a slaughtered animal
On a bloody hook,
So that tittering and incredulous
Foreigners might wander round
And write in esteemed journals
That my incomparable gift had burned out,
That I had been a poet among poets,
But it had now struck thirteen.


Anything she did compose for herself had to be hidden away, in manuscripts entrusted to courageous and reliable friends, or (more safely) learned by heart.

At the end of October she and Chukovskaya came a little nearer to completing the poem. Akhmatova suddenly recalled its final line: 'But where is my home and where my reason?' However, it was not until January 1955 that she was able to produce the two lines beginning the poem, and it ...


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