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The Lion in Winter

Finally, at the end of a long path, I walked beneath stark, towering branches, through an opening between two walls, and there before me was the Fontanka embankment and the gold-crested black gate of the Sheremetev Palace. I recognized the lion on the gate—it is spitting a gold flame—from the cover of Joseph Brodsky's book of essays Less Than One. (He had been "anointed" by Akhmatova and later made her known in the West.)

The museum shows Akhmatova's trajectory from exhilarating inspiration to utter despair and destitution. In the years when her poems first became known, and she began to read them in public, Akhmatova was a magnetic beauty. There is a photo of her sitting on a wicker chair on a wrought-iron balcony. She is wearing black suede lace-up shoes—the laces crisscross over her stockinged ankles and vanish up a romantically long skirt. Her hair is in a style that's once again fashionable: bangs cut short, well above the eyebrows, emphasizing her crooked patrician nose, which seems to have been broken at the bridge.

In a wonderful book titled Encounters with Akhmatova, Lydia Chukovskaya explains how the two exchanged information so that the spying neighbors would have no opportunity to eavesdrop. Akhmatova would say something ordinary, such as, "Would you like some tea?" while scribbling lines of her latest poem on a slip of paper that she then handed to her friend, who memorized them before handing the slip back. Akhmatova would burn it in an ashtray, murmuring, "Autumn came so quickly." Those were dark years, as Nadezhda Mandelstam pointed out, "for the only country in the world where a poem could get you killed."

I met up with Olesja Turkina, a curator at the State Russian Museum, in front of my hotel. "Akhmatova was a romantic, melancholic old-style poet," she said, "but her house is a very Soviet place because she was so ascetic." The word ascetic was to crop up several times in my conversation with Olesja. Artists were becoming monks, she told me; even her hairdresser had entered a monastery.

"In Russia there is an idea of suffering," she said, "which helps people to survive. The most common idea of consumer society is, 'Enjoy yourself.' The most common Russian idea is, 'You have to suffer.' It's a good sign of a religious education." In spite of the fact, I thought, that many churches in Soviet times were turned into pools, skating rinks, and parking lots for ambulances.


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