“In the room of the ostracized poet, fear and muse work in shifts.”
This line, written by Anna Achmatova after visiting her friend, the poet Ossip Mandelstam, in Voronezh, in March 1936, describes life as a poet in a totalitarian regime. In a culture of political terror, where fear is both the “dominant emotion” (Hannah Arendt) and a taboo subject, writing becomes subject to its own set of laws. The very mention of fear and terror amounts to a transgression that warrants punishment for violation of the political order — a condition that the poetry of Mandelstam and Achmatova, written in the time of Stalinism, captures impressively. Both were shaped by Acmeism, a hermetic current of poetry from Russia’s pre-revolutionary modern, similar to Le Parnasse. Though after the Revolution they opened their work, in the words of Mandelstam, to the “noise of the time,” they resisted being co-opted by the political class. In the 1930s, the poets — accused of practicing an un-Russian aestheticism — began to characterize society’s collective fear. They gave a name to the silent suffering of the people and corrected the official image of the Soviet Union according to which “man could breathe freer than anywhere else.” But it was the Acmeist credo — “towards a cultural memory” — that enabled them to oppose political fear through the literary. Mandelstam’s poem for Stalin (which led to his arrest) as well as his Voronezh poems and Achmatova’s “Requiem” are to be considered.
Christa Ebert studied Slavic and Romantic languages in Berlin and Rostow am Don. She completed her habilitation in 1990, on Russian Symbolism, and then worked at the GDR’s Academy of Sciences and the Forschungsschwerpunkt Literaturwissenschaft, Berlin. Since 1994 she has been Professor of Literature and East-European Literature at the Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder. She has held research fellowships in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Prague, and New York. Some of her recent publications are Sinaida Hippius, Seltsame Nähe. Ein Porträt (2004); and Die Seele hat kein Geschlecht. Studien zum Genderdiskurs in der russischen Kultur (2004). She has also co-edited a number of volumes from the Ost-West Diskurse series.