Bella Akhmadulina / Image courtesy of Novaya Gazeta
This past Monday, Russia suffered the loss of Bella Akhmadulina, another voice from that hugely influential generation of poets who emerged in the 1960s and quickly achieved celebrity status in the Soviet Union. Alongside Yevgeny Evtushenko, Robert Rozhdestvensky, and Andrei Voznesensky (who also died this year), Akhmadulina became, according to poet and Radio Svoboda correspondent Elena Fanailova, a “feminine symbol of Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’,” appearing on stage, in popular films, and in print.
One should not forget that many poets in the Soviet Union, even major ones like Joseph Brodsky, did not have the luxury of seeing their work appear on the printed page. In fact, Akhmadulina was not always in the good graces of the authorities either: her second collection, Chills (Озноб), could only be released in tamizdat—“over there”—by a Frankfurt publisher run by Russian émigrés. And after she contributed a poem to Vasily Aksyonov’s unsanctioned almanac Metropol in 1979, Soviet officials evidently “branded her a prostitute and drug addict” in retaliation. That’s quite a fall for someone who just a decade before had helped to fill stadiums with crowds hungry for poetry.
Ironically, she was also made “a target of official criticism,” explains William Grimes in an obituary for The New York Times, precisely because her poetry seemed “resolutely apolitical.” Only in a place like the Soviet Union would such a critique make sense. Where, on the other hand, did ideologically engaged poetry lead? Pyotr Vail writes, “Bella Akhmadulina alone, out of all the poetic heroes of the 60’s, happily avoided the dangerous convolutions of civic poetry that carried her more active colleagues God knows where. She was always a lyric poet, a particularly intimate writer.” And her disengagement from politics may have been her greatest literary strength. Vail continues, “Lyric poetry survives, sustained by the inexhaustibility of the simplest – but necessarily personal – feeling.”
Fanailova places Akhmadulina in a line of poets that includes Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, two key figures of the Silver Age. Others have also made large claims of canonicity: Sonia I. Ketchian, who was interviewed for the Times obituary, calls Akhmadulina “one of the great poets of the 20th century. … There’s Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak – and she’s the fifth.” One indication of her stature is the speed at which prominent figures in Russian culture have responded to her death. By Wednesday, the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg had arranged a special exhibition dedicated to Akhmadulina to open on Friday, and the prominent (if embattled) sculptor Zurab Tsereteli had announced that he would create two new sculptures for her—one to adorn her gravesite, and one to be displayed on the street where she lived.
For a taste of Akhmadulina’s poetry, English readers can turn to Zephyr Press’s In the Grip of Strange Thoughts (edited by Jim Kates), which along with work by dozens of other late Soviet and post-Soviet Russian poets includes two of her poems, both translated by F. D. Reeve. Here are the opening stanzas of Reeve’s translation of “Chills,” the long title poem of her 1968 collection:
I guess I’m sick, because this is the third day
I’ve been shivering like a horse waiting for the start.
Even my snobbish neighbor on the floor
keeps shouting, “Bella, you’re practically shaking yourself apart!”
“Pull yourself together! Your weird disease
makes the walls tremble and blows through all the cracks.
It gives my kids inflammation of the feelings
and rattles the dishes drying in the rack.”
And so I’d say to him:
more and more—without malice prepense.
But by the way, tell everyone on the floor
that this evening I’m quitting our residence.”
But the general unease rendered me so queasy
that I kept making stupid verbal slips,
one leg began to hop, and I couldn’t even
get a smile to form upon my lips.