It was Cornucopia s Travels in Tartary issue – and partly my own Russian heritage – that piqued my interest in delving deeper into the literary figures who laid claim to various parts of Crimea as their home at some point in their lives. My research brought me to some fascinating discoveries about the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s somewhat doomed teenage experiences in Yevpatoria, as well as insights into Anton Chekhov’s burgeoning love affair with his wife-to-be, Olga Knipper, in Yalta (about which more another time).
Anna Akhmatova’s connection with Yevpatoria is a strong one. The resort, famous for its climate and therapeutic brine baths, is said to have been Akhmatova’s favourite seaside destination – so no wonder a literary café honouring her (which our editor and publisher recently visited) can be found there. Yet archival material and Akhmatova’s personal correspondence and essays reveal that her time in Yevpatoria between 1905 and 1906 was a period of great suffering and longing.
In 2001 the historian and ethnographer Vera Katina released the results of her two-year archive research on Akhmatova’s stay in Yevpatoria. Katina found that, after separating from her father, Akhmatova’s mother had taken her five children there from their home in Tsarskoye Selo, a town not far from St Petersburg, where the Russian imperial family resided (and which might have also been their home as both Akhmatova’s parents descended from nobility). In Yevpatoria, Akhmatova's mother had rented a house from a Sevastopol merchant, Ananii Savelevich Paskhalidi. It had four bedrooms and was reasonably priced at 330 rubles per year.
The house still exists today, next door to the aforementioned literary café, and carries a memorial plaque (below), which reads: *‘Here, in Paskhalidi’s house, from 1905–1906, lived Anna Akhmatova/Gorenko.’* It is uncertain why the family chose Yevpatoria, but the fact that Akhmatova’s sister Inna had tuberculosis and that the south of Crimea was the go-to place for the illness because of its climate could be one very plausible reason.
An essay written by Akhmatova not long before her death in 1966 entitled About me, in short (taken from the book Anna Akhmatova: Experience Analysis by IK Sushilina) reveals that while in Yevpatoria she wrote many poems describing her ‘helplessness’.
The 16-year-old clearly lived with a sense of terrible loneliness and a tragic perception of her life. In her diaries and letters from the period 1905–1907, she reveals: ‘If you only can see how miserable and unnecessary I am… I can’t sleep for four nights…. And this is horrible… When everyone goes to the restaurants or to the theatre, I sit listening to the stillness in a dark room. I am always thinking.’ She even tried to commit suicide – albeit rather embarrassingly, as she admits in her personal correspondence: ‘I tried to hang myself [using] on a nail, and the nail popped out of the limestone walls. My mother was crying, I was ashamed – it was awful.’
Akhmatova had started writing poetry at the age of 11 and by the time she was in Yevpatoria her poems already displayed her signature vivid imagery and disciplined form. One such surviving poem (there are very few from when she was so young), talks passionately of the first signs of love and longing:
I am able to love,
I am able to be submissive and affectionate.
I am able to look in your eyes with a smile,
Attractive, sensitive and quivering.
And my slender waist so airy and slim,
And my gentle, aromatic curls.
Oh, he who is with me, his soul is restless,
And bliss is embraced…
Akhmatova was clearly deeply unhappy – possibly because her parents had just divorced; possibly because of something to do with her future husband, Nikolay Gumilev. She had been seeing Gumilev before the family’s move to the south, but they had broken up and she had fallen madly in love with his friend, Vladimir Golenischev-Kutuzov. Gumilev wrote his first book of poems The Way of the Conquistador when Akhmatova was already in Yevpatoria and for some unknown reason he sent this book not to Akhmatova, but to her brother Andrei, who was with her there.
The following year Akhmatova and Gumilev rekindled their friendship when she submitted a poem to his literary journal, Sirius, and they married four years after that – although it has been claimed that she never loved him but simply married her childhood friend.
It is difficult to tell whether Akhmatova’s feelings during her sojourn in Yevpatoria were reflections of a time and a place or simply the artistic stirrings of a teenage girl. She described the period as one where the ‘muffled echoes of the fifth Revolution reached Yevpatoria… cut off from the world’. Could this isolation have spawned her feelings? This is something we will, unfortunately, never know for certain.