Much Western misunderstanding of the Russian dissident intelligentsia is based on a mixture of sentimental hearsay and naive acceptance of Soviet propaganda. The notion that Anna Akhmatova "read poetry to the Russians every day on the radio" is a minor example of this sadly enduring syndrome. When the war broke out, Akhmatova had for years been living in penury, often depending on the charity of friends. Long since deprived by the Soviet authorities of the right to publish her own writings, she earned a pittance from translations and had little enough money to meet her grocery bills, let alone contribute to the war effort (although she did do a few days of duty as an air-raid warden before being evacuated).
Akhmatova appeared on Soviet radio only once during the war -- a propaganda speech to the women of Leningrad*-- shortly before, on Stalin's orders, she was flown out to Moscow, and thence to Chistopol', later making her way to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. There she roomed with her friend Nadezhda Mandel'shtam in conditions of poverty and illness until returning to Moscow on 15th May 1944. (See Madam Mandel'shtam's brilliantly penetrating memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned.) The Soviet government's sole war-time concession to Akhmatova -- she being, in their view, an outmoded "individualist" writer -- was to allow limited publication of her verses, many of which, during 1942-44, were "patriotic" in the sense of being pro-Russian (rather than pro-Soviet). While she gave some recitals in Tashkent's hospitals, reading to wounded soldiers, Leningrad heard no more from her until 1946. Upon her return to Moscow, Akhmatova gave a reading which drew such excited audience response that NKVD agents reported the event as a "provocation" and Stalin demanded to know who had "organised" this show of enthusiasm. The Moscow recital led, via her Leningrad appearance in April 1946, to Zhdanov's Stalin-mandated attack on Akhmatova and Zoshchenko -- and thence to her expulsion from the Writers' Union on 4th September.
Asked about her brief experience of the siege of Leningrad, Akhmatova told her friend Chukovskaya (upon meeting her, during evacuation, in Chistopol'): "Germans, what Germans, Lydia Korneevna? No one is thinking about Germans. The city is starving, already they are eating dogs and cats. There will be plague and the city will perish. No one is concerned about the Germans." (Quoted in Amanda Haight, Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage, p. 123.) Shortly before Akhmatova arrived in Chistopol', her friend Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself in nearby Yelabuga in a fit of grief and despair, having been callously neglected by the Soviet authorities. Tsvetaeva had unwisely returned from overseas exile towards the end of the Terror in 1939, whereupon her husband had been arrested and shot, her sister imprisoned, and her daughter sent to the Gulag for nineteen years. Akhmatova was deeply distressed by Tsvetaeva's suicide. Talking to Isaiah Berlin four years later in Leningrad, she occasionally interrupted her own narration to say "No, I cannot [say more about this], it is no good, you come from a society of human beings, whereas here we are divided into human beings and..." She would then fall silent. -- I.M.
"My dear fellow citizens, mothers, wives, and sisters of Leningrad. It is more than a month since the enemy began trying to take our city and has been wounding it heavily. The city of Peter, the city of Lenin, the city of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Blok, this great city of culture and labour, is threatened by the enemy with shame and death. My heart, like those of all the women of Leningrad, sinks at the mere thought that our city, my city, could be destroyed. My whole life has been connected with Leningrad: in Leningrad I became a poet and Leningrad inspired and coloured my poetry. I, like all of you at this moment, live only in the unshakeable belief that Leningrad will never fall to the fascists. This belief is strengthened when I see the women of Leningrad simply and courageously defending the city and keeping up their normal way of life... Our descendants will honour every mother who lived at the time of the war, but their gaze will be caught and held fast particularly by the image of the Leningrad woman standing during an air-raid on the roof of a house, with a boat-hook and fire tongs in her hands, protecting the city from fire; the Leningrad girl volunteer [druzhnitsa] giving aid to the wounded among the still smoking ruins of a building... No, a city which has bred women like these cannot be conquered. We, the women of Leningrad, are living through difficult days, but we know that the whole of our country, all its people, are behind us. We feel their alarm for our sakes, their love and help. We thank them and we promise them that we will be ever stoic and brave."
[Akhmatova's reference to "the city of Lenin" was purely formulaic. She detested Soviet Communism throughout her life. -- I.M.]