Most Vermonters remember the famous Russian exile that lived among us for many years - in Cavendish to be precise. Although a recluse, he was sometimes seen at the local town meeting, casual but attentive. His name was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and he was both victim and chronicler of the bleakness and inhumanity of Soviet Communism.
The Russian bear has been in the news again, as if emerging from hibernation, hungry to seize, control, lie and repress. Yet that menace - like an old B movie we have to watch again - has its growl made hollow if we know that there’s another Russia, one rarely in the media to be sure, but one that is always luminous no matter how dark the night.
It’s the Russia of writers, and especially poets who bear eloquent testimony to ideology and power gone mad. These poets are vigilantes of the spirit. We don’t know where they will show up, but we know they will.
And Russians love their poets.
My favorite is Anna Akmatova whose thoughts, dressed in the mighty Russian language, never stopped seeming new - even just discovered. Her life spanned Russia’s turbulent Twentieth Century with its revolution, terror, famine, WWII, and the long dark night of repression. More personally, a husband was executed, and a son imprisoned, then eventually sent to the GULAG. Her usual habit was to memorize her poems rather than write them down and risk persecution.
Solzhenitsyn was banished from Russia; Akmatova, no ideologue, was not. She never quit the land or, as she called it “the soil”, the language and the people she loved and spoke for, the millions of them. That’s part of what’s so fascinating about this woman. She never ran or fled. She endured all.
In one of her poems she tells how a voice came to her, comforting her, telling her to leave her “sinful” land - Russia. The voice said that this would wash blood from her hands and shame from her heart. But, she wrote, she covered her ears with her hands so her spirit would not be stained.
One of Akmatova’s best known and loved poems is Requiem from 1939. Its inspiration came to her as she stood in a long queue of women, in the freezing cold, outside a prison in Leningrad with a package for her imprisoned son Lev. She wrote that poetry was the sadness and suffering of the Russian people. And she says that even if gagged - presumably by the censors - she would still be the “tortured mouth through which 100 million people shout”.
The Kremlin bullies from Anna Akmatova’s years are largely forgotten, as those from today will be. Another Russia, always there, will endure.
I admire this woman and poet of exceptional gifts and courage. Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, I think she would have made a great Vermonter.