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June 23, 2004 by AK

They say the day before yesterday was Akhmatova’s birthday according to the Gregorian calendar. (Russia was still on Julian style then, in 1889.) Timing is everything, and it seems that it is the dates of birth, and the time and place of death, that set apart the four poets commonly hailed as central to Russian 20th century literature.

Yes, they were born in four successive years: 1889, Akhmatova; 1890, Pasternak; 1891, Mandelstam; 1892, Tsvetaeva–all of them in what was the Russian Empire. Odessa, Moscow, and Warsaw. All of them died in the USSR. Mandelstam’s turn came first, in 1938 or 1939 somewhere in a prison camp in Siberia. Tsvetaeva hanged herself in 1941 in Yelabuga, a town in Tatarstan. Pasternak died in his Moscow apartment; Akhmatova, in a sanatorium not far from Moscow. The latter two survived Stalin and enjoyed a few ‘vegetarian’ (Akhmatova’s bon mot) post-tyrant years.

In addition, and that’s no less important, all of them earned a literary reputation before 1917, and there was some kind of personal connection between each pair of them. Akhmatova and Mandelstam were both members of Tsekh Poetov, the ‘Guild of Poets,’ the Acmeists. Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam became close friends shortly after the Revolution. Pasternak and Tsvetaeva exchanged intimate letters in the 1920s. Once or twice, Pasternak asked Akhmatova to marry him.

Stalinism, of course, deformed their lives: Mandelstam got arrested, exiled, arrested again, and perished in the camps. Tsvetaeva’s husband (a Soviet spy) was executed, their daughter imprisoned. Akhmatova’s only child, Lev Gumilev, spent 17 years in prisons and camps. She was never arrested, despite being denounced as ideologically alien in the late 1940s. Pasternak got through the Stalin years safely, only to get in trouble with Khruschev’s lackeys when he dared to publish Zhivago abroad (albeit via a Communist publishing house). In the early 1930s, Pasternak stood high in the official ranking of poets; at some point, Stalin called him and asked his opinion of Mandelstam.

All of those criteria–i.e., a) date of birth; b) date and place of death; c) pre-1917 achievements; d) personal ties–are important. For instance, Khodasevich (1886–1939), whom Nabokov rated first among 20th century Russian poets, was born in Moscow just three years before Pasternak and started publishing in 1907, but, alas, his move to Berlin and then Paris, where he died, disqualified him from membership in the quadrigue (Alexei Purin’s term). Nor did he hang around with Pasternak and Tsvetaeva–more with Andrei Bely. Zabolotsky missed the train–born in 1903, he obviously belonged to the next generation. (I’ve just realized his centennial was last year, but I don’t remember must celebrating, even though he was the last great innovator in Russia poetry.)

As for literary merit, good manners require that I ignore it, lest I risk offending sensibilities.


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