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The House on the Fontanka


In 1935, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova began to write a poem called Requiem. Stalin’s purges were under way, people were disappearing from one day to the next, yet no one talked about what was happening because they were afraid to do so. Standing in line at the Kresty prison in Leningrad one day, Akhmatova was approached by an unknown woman who asked her if she could write about what was happening.  Akhmatova agreed that she could.

And so she took it on herself to write a series of poems so that the terror being visited on the Russian people should never be forgotten.  She wrote alone in her room at night, learned each text by heart, and burned the paper it was written on.  If the NKVD had found it, they would have sent her to the camps.

Picking up a French translation of the poem in a bookshop one day by chance, I was fascinated by Akhmatova’s themes of time and memory and loss and survival.  Digging into her biography, I found the story of her affair with the artist Boris Anrep, who moved to England in 1917. Akhmatova never forgot him, and they were reunited briefly in London in 1966.

Survival through memory is the theme of Compassion, and the love that defies space and time is its foundation.  I used Anrep and Akhmatova as models for the main characters, even though I had to take extensive biographical liberties to make the project work.

Compassion 2

The title of the book came from Anrep.  One of the mosaics he created for the vestibule of the National Gallery in London represents Akhmatova, and he called it “Compassion.”

In my book, I called the two main protagonists “Andrei” and “Nina.”  Andrei is entirely an invented character, for I was unable to discover much about Anrep’s life. Anrep was a mosaicist, but I made Andrei a sculptor.

Akhmatova was different.  She had a complicated private life that involved three husbands and numerous lovers.  In Russia she is revered as a major poet, and in the West as well.   None of the accounts of her life gave me a sense of what she was like as a person, especially when she was young.  Hagiography, not biography, was the order of the day – and of course I was suffering from reverence myself. Akhmatova overawed me.  I didn’t feel I could work with her, which was why I created Nina.  Nina and Akhmatova are not the same person, even though certain outward elements of Nina’s life resemble those of Akhmatova, and the poetry I ascribe to Nina was written by Akhmatova.  Nina is a product of my imagination just as much as Andrei.

Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova

In Compassionthe story I tell is this:  Andrei arrives in Petrograd in 1921.  He sees the celebrated poet Nina Anishkova walk into The Stray Dog cabaret, and Nina sees him.   It’s the start of a love affair which will last for the rest of their lives.  But Andrei is half English and, when the Bolsheviks threaten to shoot him as a British spy, he is forced to flee to London.

Nina fails in her attempt to join him, and the gates of Soviet Russia slam shut behind her.  Destitute, half-starving, forbidden to publish her poetry in spite of her fame, trying desperately to make a life for herself and her son, she is forced into a loveless marriage by her need to survive.

During the Terror, her husband is taken, and she begins to write Witness, a poem about the purges. Working secretly at night, alone in her room, she learns each line of the poem by heart, and then puts a match to the pages.

Unlike many of her fellow poets, Nina survives the purges, and in 1944 she is reunited with Andrei in Moscow.  Again they attempt to make a life together, again they are thrown apart.  Andrei is deported from Russia.  Nina stays behind.

In 1968, they meet one final time in London.  Nina dies shortly afterwards, but Andrei lives to see Witness published in Russia for the first time, fifty years after it was written.  Andrei is now over ninety, and a world-famous sculptor.  He tells his grand-daughter Charlotte about his love for Nina, and the life they should have had that was stolen from them.

Sheremetev courtyard

Sheremetev courtyard

Akhmatova and her third husband Nikolai Punin lived in an apartment at the back of the former Sheremetev palace, which stands on the banks of the Fontanka canal in what is now St. Petersburg. It was Akhmatova who christened it “Fontanny Dom.”  The apartment is now a museum.  I went there for the first time in the early 2000s, and returned a second time in 2010 when I was researching Compassion.

The apartment doesn’t overlook the canal, but a tree-filled courtyard.  Since my last visit, it’s been revamped.  There’s an excellent English audioguide, and some new exhibits.  Visitors are sparse.  The atmosphere is austere. The previous week in Moscow, I had visited other poets’ houses: Tsvetaeva’s apartment and Pasternak’s dacha. Both were contemporaries of Akhmatova.  In both places, the atmosphere was one of fond familiarity, but it’s not like that here. Akhmatova is never referred to as “Anna,” not even “Anna Andreyevna.” She is never anything but “Akhmatova,” and it’s a little like being in church.  You can almost cut the reverence with a knife.  This is not a family home, even though her husband Punin’s overcoat hangs in the hall, and his cameras and family portraits are on display.   This is sacred ground.  This is where she wrote Requiem during the Terror, this is where she and her friends learned the text by heart, this is where where she burned the paper in the ashtray.

Akhmatova's room

Akhmatova’s room

Revisiting the house makes me remember why I wanted to write about her.  I take notes and a few surreptitious photographs, and the museum attendants smile at me, let me sit down to listen to the audioguide, and thank me for coming.  When a foreigner shows an interest in their culture and literature, Russians lose their habitual glumness and blossom in an unexpected and charming way.  The previous day I spent a long time dithering over tickets for a Mahler concert that cost upwards of $40 each. (Prices for foreigners are higher than for locals.)  In the end I decided they were too expensive and went away.  Halfway down the block I changed my mind.  It wasn’t as if I got the chance to go to the St. Petersburg Philharmonia very often.  Retracing my footsteps to the concert hall, I was greeted with open arms by the ticket lady, who cheerfully sold me two tickets at the Russian price of $20.

The next poet on my visiting list is Aleksandr Blok.  Leaving the Sheremetev palace, I continue along the Fontanka, and cut up past St. Nicholas’ Cathedral (where Akhmatova’s funeral service was held), to the legendary Marinsky Theatre on the Street of the Decembrists.

St. Nicholas' Cathedral

St. Nicholas’ Cathedral

Blok lived right at the end of Dekabristov ulitsa in a house that overlooks a canal.  As soon as I see it, a reference in one of Akhmatova’s poems from 1914 falls into place. She visited the great Symbolist poet in his high grey house by the sea-gates of the Neva, on a Sunday, precisely at noon.  Seeing the house for myself, I can picture it exactly.

Blok appears briefly in Compassion under the name of Vyacheslav Feld.  He is my heroine Nina’s first husband.  In real life Akhmatova and Blok were never married, but the idea that they might have had some kind of relationship came to me from reading what they wrote about each other.  Blok wrote about a rose in a glass of champagne and a tantalizing woman that everyone is in love with.  In her poem To Aleksandr Blok,  Akhmatova wrote: His eyes are so serene/one could be lost in them forever./I know I must take care/not to return his look.

Poetry is not proof, of course, and none of the respectful biographers hint at anything untoward. Still, reading between the lines, it felt like something that could have happened.

From Blok's window

From Blok’s window

Blok had a fabulous view from the big, quiet room where he worked at the top of the house, but he lived in the middle of nowhere.  Central St. Petersburg is remarkably short of public transport.  The metro is designed to bring people in from the suburbs, not get them around the centre, while buses are few and far between.  This means you have to walk.  Before setting out on the long trek back to my hotel near Nevsky Prospekt, I stop at the nearest café to get a drink.  The café is Georgian.   A lady with very dyed red hair is arranging napkins in intricate structures for the evening’s clients.  A bland male voice is crooning something vaguely oriental, and she hums along.   The poets of 1920s Petrograd are long gone.

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