Writing Poetry Under Stalin: Samizdat and Memorization
"Worse Than a State Indifferent to Poetry was One Obsessed With It"
At first, Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet, worked on her poem in the usual way. She always composed by hand, writing out the lines on paper; then she would make corrections and perhaps read the lines aloud to see if they sounded right. Normally, she would produce a fair copy and send it to a magazine, or put it aside until a whole cycle of poems had emerged and then approach a book publisher. Before the Great War, she had published several volumes in this way, to great acclaim. She had become a celebrated poet in Russia while still in her early twenties, a dashing figure with her long shawls, black hair, and a bearing that betrayed her aristocratic heritage. In Paris, she had made the acquaintance of Amedeo Modigliani, a painter already confident of his future success, and he had fallen for her. Modigliani produced several drawings and paintings of the young Akhmatova that captured the elegant lines and distinct features of the poet whom critics would soon call the Russian Sappho.
Akhmatova held on to one of Modigliani’s drawings and gave it pride of place above her bed, but the time of her Paris triumph was long past. No thought of publication crossed her mind now, in the middle of the 1930s, as she was composing her new poem. The state would simply not allow it. Ever since Martin Luther had demonstrated what could be done with print, authorities had been trying to control publishers and authors. Permission had long been required for many publishing projects, forcing the likes of Cervantes to apply for a royal license. But licenses could be circumvented, as Franklin knew when he published a Bible without one, and books could be printed abroad and copies smuggled back into censored territory, as Marx and Engels found. Only in the 20th century was control over print finally within the reach of the state, at least some states. Equipped with centralized power, totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany commanded guns and manpower, but they also relied on a large bureaucratic apparatus to keep track of their citizens. Innumerable dossiers were created, processed, and stored. Bureaucracy, first developed 5,000 years earlier with the invention of writing, had become an all-encompassing force. Anna Akhmatova never engaged in any political activity, and yet her police file grew to some 900 pages.
Knowing that the state would not allow her poem to appear in print did not deter Akhmatova from writing it, even in these dangerous times. After a leading functionary was assassinated in 1934, arrests and executions had become a daily occurrence. No one was safe from Genrikh Yagoda, the head of Stalin’s secret police, who arrested potential rivals of Stalin, old comrades, anyone who might harbor thoughts of opposition or who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yagoda also dragged prisoners who had been tortured to confess their sins in show trials that spread fear across the entire population. When Yagoda himself was arrested, people became even more frightened: If even the head of the secret police was not safe, then truly no one was. Yagoda was swiftly replaced with someone even worse, Nikolai Yezhov, who oversaw the deadliest period of the Great Purge, until he, too, followed the fate of his predecessor.
Throughout this period, Akhmatova knew that she was at great risk of arrest. Ever since her former husband had been executed on fabricated charges, she had been on the radar screen of the security forces. Their son had also been arrested, released, arrested again, and tortured. At any moment, the secret police might come and search her apartment, and a single line of poetry, the wrong line of poetry, would be reason enough to land her in front of a firing squad. This was why she memorized each section of the poem as soon as she had finished it, and then burned the paper on which it had been written.
Akhmatova was particularly exposed because the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state with a keen interest in poetry. Akhmatova’s early fame came from the time before the Russian Revolution, which meant that she was now suspect as a writer from another era, even though she had never been a traditionalist. Together with her first husband and a group of like-minded young artists, she had founded a movement, Acmeism, that sought to do away with the heavy symbolist poetry of the turn of the century and replace it with more simplicity and clarity (the word “Acmeism” might have been inspired by Akhmatova’s name). In the heady days after the revolution, this relatively modest movement with its relatively modest manifesto was quickly overtaken by more radical movements such as Futurism, which wanted to do away with the past entirely and quickly flooded the market with increasingly shrill pronouncements. (One of the differences between the older Acmeists and the new Futurists happened to be one of paper: The Acmeists used expensive paper, while the Futurists liked their paper cheap and disposable.)
The leaders of the Russian Revolution knew only too well that their own revolution had been prepared by underground texts such as The Communist Manifesto and that this text had filtered into the world of art, inspiring revolutionary literary and art movements. Leon Trotsky, the intellectual leader of the Russian Revolution, had found the time to write Literature and Revolution, a book about the new literary movements, in which he attacked Akhmatova, barely 30 years old, as already outdated. Anatoly Lunacharsky, the powerful commissar of education, denounced Akhmatova in similar terms. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin managed to consolidate his power by forcing Trotsky into exile, but he retained Trotsky’s interest in poetic affairs and kept track of Anna Akhmatova’s doings (Akhmatova was not the only poet he read; one of his favorite writers was Walt Whitman). Being the object of Stalin’s attention could cut both ways. When Akhmatova’s son was arrested in 1935, Akhmatova was able to write to Stalin directly and plead for her son’s life. To her own surprise, her son was released. But for the most part, Stalin’s interest severely restricted her ability to write and publish. Worse than a state indifferent to poetry, it turned out, was one obsessed with it.
“At any moment, the secret police might come and search her apartment, and a single line of poetry, the wrong line of poetry, would be reason enough to land her in front of a firing squad.”
For a poet like Akhmatova, poetry was dangerous, but also necessary; it enabled her to channel the sadness, fear, and desperation of an entire people. She called her new poem Requiem. It didn’t tell a straightforward story. The Stalin years were too overwhelming, too confusing, too disjointed. Instead, Akhmatova offered snapshots, a few lines of dialogue here, a remembered incident there, reduced to a sentence or an image that would turn history into a matter of minutely crafted moments. The most telling passage spoke of women, mothers and wives, who gathered every day outside a prison, waiting to learn whether their loved ones had been executed or exiled. “I’d like to remember them all by name,” Akhmatova wrote about these women, “But the list has been confiscated and is nowhere to / be found.”
The evolving poem was safe as long as Akhmatova memorized each section and immediately burned it, but it would survive only as long as she herself survived. In order for the poem to live, it needed to be shared, carried in the minds of others. Cautiously Akhmatova summoned her closest friends, no more than a dozen women, and read the poem to them over and over until they knew it by heart. Perhaps this was how Sappho had taught her poems to groups of female friends more than two thousand years ago. But Sappho had not lived in fear of writing down her lines. Scraps of her poems, recorded on brittle papyrus, have come down through the ages, bearing witness to her extraordinary imagination and the durability of writing. Such writing, even on papyrus, was not something the Russian Sappho could risk.
Forced to learn her poetry by heart, Akhmatova and her female friends had to make do without the skills of singers from oral cultures. Those professionals had trained their memories to hold long narratives as well as set pieces, but they also knew that they could adapt this memorized material to new circumstances. Akhmatova, by contrast, didn’t want her friends to change a single word. She had composed her poem on paper, worrying over each phrase, and now insisted on the precision typical of a literary writer. Her friends were expected to remember Requiem exactly as she had written it. The irony of her position as a poet living in a highly literate society who was forced to resort to memorization didn’t escape Akhmatova. She called her situation “pre-Gutenberg” and declared, sarcastically, “We live according to the slogan ‘Down with Gutenberg.’
In 1962, Akhmatova found herself reciting Requiem to a younger Russian writer who was about to test the limits imposed on published literature in the Soviet Union. Stalin had been dead for several years, and the worst of the purges were over. After an internal power struggle, Khrushchev had won the upper hand and had begun to distance himself from Stalin’s most extreme crimes. The period was called the Thaw, and it allowed an influential literary editor to write to Khrushchev on Akhmatova’s behalf, suggesting that she be rehabilitated after so many years of enforced silence and exclusion. Once again, the head of state had to decide what to do with Russia’s Sappho. Khrushchev agreed that Akhmatova was no longer a threat and might even be given a minor place in the Soviet literary universe. For the first time in decades, Akhmatova could write with the hope of publication.
Even under these new circumstances, however, Requiem was too risqué to be published, which was why Akhmatova was reciting it to the younger Russian writer from memory. The writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, didn’t know Requiem, but he did know some of her other poems from a publication system called samizdat, the Russian word for “self-publishing.” While the safest method for composing secret poems under Stalin was to commit them to memory, after Stalin’s death an underground method of self-publishing had emerged as an alternative. The tools were not printing presses, which were difficult to acquire in a totalitarian state—samizdat was still pre-Gutenberg, as Akhmatova had called the era—but it used another mechanical instrument, barely 100 years old, relatively cheap, and more difficult to control: a typewriter. With the aid of carbon paper, a single typewriting session could produce around ten copies, which would then be passed on to other readers, who might in turn duplicate the text secretly and give it to more readers still.
Samizdat started after Stalin’s death with the poetry of Akhmatova and a few others. Poems were short, the most compressed way of capturing the helplessness and terror that had seeped into every corner of Soviet life. In the beginning, these unauthorized, handmade poems circulated among groups of friends, each group barely larger than the one to whom Akhmatova had whispered her poems in the ’30s. But during the Thaw following Stalin’s death, samizdat became bolder. Copies circulated more widely and more people dared to read them. People might be allowed to keep a text for only one day, reading it greedily on their own or to friends all night before passing it on to the next group. The process was primitive, labor-intensive, and limited in reach, but it was a beginning. Soon, samizdat expanded from poetry to essays, political writings, and even novels, especially from abroad, all typed on cheap paper, without covers, unbound, strewn with errors, and often divided into loose chapters so that several people could read a work simultaneously. As samizdat increased, the method of duplication improved, with professional samizdat typists aiding the literary underground while also supplementing their income.
The Soviet state was not oblivious to the growing samizdat movement, but short of turning back the clock to the terror of the Stalin period, samizdat was difficult to control. Apartments were searched, and the mere possession of samizdat would be met with swift punishment, usually based on article 190-1, “Slander of the Soviet State and Social System,” or article 162, “Engaging in Prohibited Manufacturing.” But no matter how many readers and distributors were arrested, samizdat could not be stopped, because it produced the only literature worth reading. A joke circulated in which a grandmother tried and failed to interest her granddaughter in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Desperate, she retyped the sprawling novel by hand to make it look like a samizdat publication.
“No matter how many readers and distributors were arrested, samizdat could not be stopped, because it produced the only literature worth reading.”
By the time Akhmatova read Requiem to Solzhenitsyn, some 300 authors were circulating in this way. Solzhenitsyn was one of them, which is how Akhmatova had read a samizdat version of Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. While Akhmatova’s Requiem had described what it was like to wait without hope outside a prison, Solzhenitsyn took the reader into the heart of the gulag, the prison camp system known by its acronym. The novel was chillingly matter-of-fact. Solzhenitsyn recounted a single day in the life of a typical inmate, beginning with the wake-up call and the scramble for extra food and describing the day’s work on a building crew at below-zero temperatures with inadequate clothing. Solzhenitsyn realized that life in the gulag was so inhuman that no amount of outrage could do it justice. The best weapon was bone-dry description, giving readers the chance to generate outrage themselves. Unbeknownst to him, a similar approach had been used by writers such as Primo Levi in trying to capture the even more inhuman experience of the Nazi labor and death camps.
When I contemplate the fortunes and function of literature in the 20th century, authors bearing witness to the horrors of fascism and totalitarianism rank high. To be sure, earlier writers had not been shy about depicting violence. In the Iliad, Homer and his scribe capture in stark detail how a spear might enter a human body or crash through a head. But describing the systematic mass incarceration of ordinary people was a new challenge. Literature was prepared to meet this challenge because it had learned to care about the lives of common people, not just the fates of kings and heroes. In the 20th century, these two developments, mass internments and literature, converged in the extraordinary literature of bearing witness.
Solzhenitsyn knew what he was writing about. While serving in World War II, he had made a derogatory remark about Stalin in a letter to a friend, which led to his being arrested and sentenced to eight years in the gulag. Upon his release, made possible by Stalin’s death, he was forced into exile in Kazakhstan, where he took up residence in a primitive clay hut. The first thing he did was to buy a Moskva 4 typewriter to put his experience of the gulag into words. It was a laborious process because Solzhenitsyn was not a fast typist. When he remarried his former wife, who had divorced him while he served his sentence, the pace of production increased because she knew how to touch-type, like the better samizdat duplicators. Writing about the gulag was taboo, so Solzhenitsyn burned all drafts and kept only one version, which he carefully secured in a complicated system of hiding places.
But by the time he was meeting Akhmatova in 1962, things were changing. The main reason for Solzhenitsyn’s visit to Leningrad was not to pay homage to Akhmatova, but the astonishing fact that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was to be printed in Novy Mir. The magazine occupied a crucial place in Russian literature, situated at the border between the secret world of samizdat and the official world of state-sanctioned print. The plan to publish Solzhenitsyn in an official journal almost failed. Editors at the magazine had to be placated, and Khrushchev himself, acting on his reformist impulses, persuaded the party presidium to authorize publication. The efforts were worth it: Around one million copies of the magazine version would be produced, as well as a separate book publication with a print run of more than one hundred thousand. During their meeting, Akhmatova and Solzhenitsyn didn’t know these numbers, but they knew that the publication would create a sensation. A text channeling the pent-up power of samizdat was about to burst into the public eye with the state-controlled might of Gutenberg.
Akhmatova profited from these new possibilities as well. Novy Mir, the magazine that would publish One Day, had brought out some of her poems, though not Requiem, which continued to circulate in samizdat only. By the early sixties, there existed another possibility: publication abroad. Presses had sprung up in different countries, especially in Germany, ready to publish Russian works. The process was difficult and dangerous. Manuscripts had to be smuggled out of Russia, often on microfilm, and the printed books smuggled back. There were also risks to the authors, which was why foreign publications, called tamizdat (publishing abroad), usually carried a note saying “published without the consent of the author.” After having lived in the minds of Akhmatova and her close friends and then been circulated through the secret samizdat network, Requiem was printed for the first time in the form of tamizdat in 1963.
From The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization. Used with permission of Random House. Copyright 2017 by Martin Puchner.