Category Archives: Russia
In a new series, we look at under acknowledged women through the ages.
The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova is too tragic and striking a figure ever to be forgotten. A famous portrait depicts her in a midnight blue dress and brilliant yellow shawl beside an objectivist arrangement of lighter blue hydrangeas. Nose aquiline and eyes contemplative under the signature black fringe, she is utterly transfixing. Yet much of our knowledge of Akhmatova is due to the self-effacing journals of a less remembered woman, Lydia Chukovskaya, who brought her friendship, food and unfailing support.
Lydia was a literary editor and a significant poet, novella-writer and memoirist, born in 1907. Her father was Kornei Chukovsky, a prolific and highly regarded writer of much-loved children’s books – a kind of Russian Dr Seuss.
In cultured St Petersburg, young Lydia developed a passion for literature, but soon after the outbreak of the 1917 Revolution she was briefly exiled to the city of Saratov because one of her friends had used her father’s typewriter to produce an anti-Bolshevik pamphlet.
Permitted to return to newly-named Leningrad, she got a job editing children’s books in the state publishing house, began to write stories, and married a brilliant young physicist, Matvei (Mitya) Bronstein.
Their marriage took place shortly before the outbreak of the Great Terror of 1936-38, one of the most brutal periods in the history of the Soviet Union. Both Mitya Bronstein and Akhmatova’s son Lev were arrested. By the time Chukovskaya was informed that Mitya had been sentenced to ten years in a labour camp, he had in fact been executed. Lev was held in a Leningrad prison for 17 months.
The frantic wife and devastated mother met each other while desperately seeking information about their loved ones. Lydia fled briefly to Kiev, but soon returned to their looted flat in St Petersburg to remake a home with her baby daughter Lyusha. Mitya’s room was occupied by a government surveillant.
Lydia kept a diary, but she now omitted from it everything that was “really important”, including her friendship with Akhmatova, whose intransigence invited arrest at any moment. She knew that to write down their conversations endangered both their lives; yet not to record them, she felt, would be “criminal”. She compromised by waiting until much later to fill in names.
Akhmatova was in the process of writing a long poem, her now-famous Requiem. An extended elegy for all who suffered under the Terror, it was obviously far too dangerous to commit to paper.
When visiting Lydia she would whisper parts of it for Lydia to retain, but in her own bugged apartment she would gesture at the ceiling and say in a loud voice, “Will you have some tea?” while passing over a handwritten page.
Lydia would memorise the poems on it and give it back. “How early autumn has come this year,” Anna would then muse, striking a match and burning the paper over the ashtray.
‘Hands, match, ashtray’
Lydia wrote of this act of rebellion: “It was a ritual: hands, match, ashtray – a beautiful and mournful ritual”. She would then use her nightly walk home to recall what she had memorised, oblivious to her route. “Poems guided me instead of the moon,” she wrote. “The world was absent”.
Leningrad was yet to experience the extreme shortages of the Siege (1941–1944), but food was far from plentiful. Lydia brought sugar, eggs or rissoles to the impractical Anna, but also lilacs, “so it would seem more like a present”.
During those years she described herself as feeling “less and less alive”, reviving only when she was with Anna,
a certainty amidst all those wavering uncertainties… her words, deeds, head, shoulders and hand-movements possessed of [the] perfection which, in this world, usually belongs only to great works of art.
But writing also sustained Lydia’s own spirit. In 1938 she’d been allowed a stint in a writers’ colony where she completed a novella, Sofia Petrovna – naturally unpublishable given that it described the realities of living under the Terror. Sofia is a typist whose son Kolya, a promising engineering student, is arrested.
Sofia embarks on the existence so familiar to Chukovskaya and Akhmatova: frozen hours standing in queues, the lack of news, the attempt to sneak food into the prison. Falling foul of the authorities. When a letter from Kolya finally arrives, Sofia is so terrified of compromising him she forces herself to burn the precious scrap.
After 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, Sofia Petrovna was circulated in samizdat (manuscript form), and even, during the thaw of the early 60s, came close to publication, but was ultimately rejected for “ideological distortions”. It finally appeared 25 years later, thanks to Gorbachev’s glasnost.
Grit and grief
Chukovskaya’s “acceptable” work included an Introduction to the Ukrainian anthropologist Maclouho-Maclay’s account of life in New Guinea, but her second book, Going Under, published in Paris in 1972, describes how in 1949 Akhmatova and the satirical writer, Mikhail Zoshchenko, were thrown out of the Writers’ Union. She also wrote letters of support regarding Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the physicist Andrei Sakharov, harassed by the KGB but later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, her best-known work remains the two volumes recording the almost daily conversations with Akhmatova, an overwhelmingly impressive mix of grit and grief as the two women confronted threats, cold, privation and starvation.
The journals first appeared in Paris in 1976 and 1980, alongside several volumes of autobiographical poetry, On This Side of Death, which express the profound sense of loss that afflicted both her and her country. In 1976 Chukovskaya received the first ever PEN Freedom Prize for the journals, and in 1990, the first Sakharov Prize for her life’s work.
Akhmatova died in 1966; from then on Lydia lived in Moscow, moving between a central flat and her father’s dacha in Peredelkino, the writers’ colony outside the city. She died in 1996, not altogether forgotten, but her memory outdazzled, as she would have deemed appropriate, by that of her more splendid friend.
Quotations from Lydia Chukovskaya, The Akhmatova Journals, Vol. 1, 1938-41, Harvill 1994, tr. Milena Michalski and Sylva Rubashova.
This article is part of our series of explainers on key moments in the past 100 years of world political history. In it, our authors examine how and why an event unfolded, its impact at the time, and its relevance to politics today.
For most people, the term “Russian Revolution” conjures up a popular set of images: demonstrations in Petrograd’s cold February of 1917, greatcoated men in the Petrograd Soviet, Vladimir Lenin addressing the crowds in front of the Finland station, demonstrators dispersed during the July days and the storming of the Winter Palace in October.
These were all important events that forced the Tsar to abdicate, brought the Bolsheviks to power, took Russia out of the first world war, prompted British, American, and Japanese interventions, and careened the Romanov empire towards years of bloody civil war.
Among revolutionary socialists, they still inspire daydreams of future revolutions. Historians on the political right, by contrast, promote them as warnings of what happens if you try to change the world. In Russia, meanwhile, they pose complex challenges for constructing a past that can inspire the present.
The standard story summarised by these pictures goes something like this:
The Russian empire, already under severe political and social strain in 1914, broke apart under the pressures of modern warfare. In 1916, a massive uprising against conscription to work shook central Asia.
In 1917, it was the turn of the Russian heartland. Industrial strikes, protests over food shortages, and women’s demonstrations combined to create a revolutionary crisis in Petrograd, the capital of the empire.
Eventually, this crisis convinced both the political and the military elites to pressure the Tsar to abdicate. These events are known as the February revolution.
They turned out to be only the first step. Throughout 1917, the revolution radicalised until in October, the most radical wing of the Russian Social Democrats – Lenin’s Bolsheviks – took power in the name of the revolutionary working class. The October revolution, in turn, triggered the Russian Civil War which was eventually won by the Bolsheviks.
But this focus on events in Petrograd in 1917 is misleading. If we want to understand the significance of the Russian revolution for today’s world, we need to understand both its position in a wider historical process and its very complexity.
The larger context
What happened in 1917 was not just a beginning. It was also a moment in the larger trajectory of the Romanov empire (the pre-Soviet Russian Empire) embroiled in a world war it was poorly prepared to fight.
1917 is part of the story of how an empire, built between the 15th and the 18th century on the basis of peasants tied to the land of their master (serfdom) and the indisputable power of the Tsar (autocracy) tried to come to grips with a changing world in the 19th and early 20th centuries filled with overseas empires, industrialisation, and the emerging mass society.
It is but a snapshot in the history of imperialism, economic and social change, and decolonisation. These are all ongoing processes that still trouble the region today.
Together with a determined push in the 1890s to industrialise the country, these reforms brought a new, more modern, more urban, and more educated society into being.
This more complex society then faced its first test in 1904-05. A disastrous war against Japan destabilised the empire enough to trigger a first revolution in 1905. It forced the Tsar to make concessions towards modern politics through the creation of a pseudo-parliament, legal parties, and decreased control of the media.
Then came the first world war. The military campaign went poorly, disgruntling the elites with an obviously incompetent regime, dislocating populations on a massive scale, intensifying national feelings in this multi-ethic empire, triggering an economic crisis of immense proportions, and further polarising social divisions between the haves and have-nots.
The result was a cluster of wars, revolutions, and civil wars that dragged on to the early 1920s. The Union of Soviet Socialist republics that emerged from this catastrophe united most of the lands the Romanovs had ruled. Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland went their own way, meanwhile, at least until the second world war.
The “Russian revolution”, then, was not just Russian and not just a revolution. It was also a moment when modern nations were born.
Notwithstanding earlier histories, today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia began their lives in the crucible of war and revolution. Independent Finland and Poland, too, saw the light of day in 1917.
As one historian has pointed out in a compressed overview over events in Ukraine, “the Ukrainian revolution is not the Russian revolution.” Neither were the more democratic revolutions in Omsk, Samara, and Ufa, the same as the Bolshevik revolution in Petrograd, to say nothing of those beyond the peaks of the Caucasus, or the grassroots rural revolutions all over the empire. These other revolutions, often forgotten but as much part of the process as the iconic events in Petrograd, amounted to the catastrophic breakdown of the empire in 1918.
But the revolutionary period saw more than just the replacement of one empire by another. It also changed matters decisively. For one, the Soviet empire was not capitalist, notwithstanding the limited market mechanisms allowed under the New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced in 1921 to deal with the catastrophic economic crisis engendered by war, revolution, and civil war.
The new empire was also much more national in form than its Romanov predecessor had been. The aspirations of the non-Russian peoples had to be accommodated in some way and hence a pseudo-federal state was erected, where “Union republics” (such as Ukraine, Belarus, or Russia) were joined together in a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or USSR). In 1991, it would break apart along the borders of these Union republics, lines drawn, by and large, as a result of the reconquest of the Romanov lands by the revolutionary Red Army.
These lines became more significant over time, because of a second far reaching aspect of the national transformation of the multi-ethnic Romanov empire in the crucible of the “Russian” revolution. In order to deal with the threat of nationalism, the Soviet Union became an “affirmative action empire”, which gave non-Russian minorities space and resources to develop their languages and cultures. This affirmation of the national principle was meant to disarm nationalism and help the development of socialism. Instead, it inadvertently “promoted ethnic particularism”.
As a result, many of the nationalisms we encounter in the region today are to a considerable degree a result of this paradoxical Soviet nation making.