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Why these Kansas City musicians are inspired by a Ukrainian poet born in the 1880s

Julie Denesha
Kansas City soprano Victoria Botero and Vanessa Thomas sing together during a rehearsal of Anna Akhmatova’s poem "Song About Songs" put to music by American musician Iris DeMent.

A group of Kansas City musicians is getting together to honor a woman who lived through the most turbulent years of the 20th century and is considered "one of the greatest women poets of all time.”

Kansas City soprano Victoria Botero has spent a lot of time recently thinking about a poet who was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1889.

Botero says Anna Akhmatova's poems serve as a testament to survival.

“We should pay attention," Botero says. "When a poet can cross the century, can cross continents, can cross languages. There's something there.”

Akhmatova rocketed to early fame as a glamorous young poet. Then came the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, political purges and the devastating Second World War.

“Anna Akhmatova is one of the greatest poetic voices of the 20th Century and also one of the greatest women poets of all time,” says Vitaly Chernetsky a professor in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas who is a scholar of literature and cinema. He says although she was born into a Ukrainian family, Akhmatova was a poet who wrote in Russian and identified with Russian culture.

Public Domain
This 1914 portrait by Soviet avant-garde artist Nathan Altman shows Anna Akhmatova as a young woman. Akhmatova was born Anna Andreevna Gorenko in June 1889 in Odessa, Ukraine.

Akhmatova had a difficult life.

"Her son was thrown into the gulag for many years. Her first husband was shot. Her other husband also was later arrested and shot. She was really treated terribly by this Soviet regime," he says. "But she became a voice of dignity and survival.”

Chernetsky says Akhmatova’s voice was bold and uncompromising.

“She is a woman who is not afraid to speak," he says. "She is a poet who speaks confidently in her own right and makes no apologies for that.”

Over the decades, several of Akhmatova’s poems have been set to music.

Her "Song About Songs" was put to music by American musician Iris DeMent. English composer John Tavener and Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev also set Akhmatova’s poems to music.

Botero thought the diverse range of music would make a challenging program, and began gathering Kansas City musicians for a project that took on more resonance once Russia began its war on Ukraine.

Julie Denesha
Vitaly Chernetsky is a professor in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas.

Censorship turned poets like Akhmatova into heroes of resistance. During the terror of Josef Stalin’s Soviet regime, artists like Akhmatova were dangerous enemies of the state.

“We think of survival as taking up arms, but in her case, she took up a pen," Botero says. "And then when they took away her pen, she composed the poems in her mind, and she told them to friends in secret, and they memorized her poems over a cup of tea.”

Akhmatova shared her poems among ten trusted female friends. The poems were memorized in short phrases then burned in an ashtray. She was never betrayed.

In this way Akhmatova was able to offer snapshots of the crushing despair that was often a part of daily life.

"She spoke truth to power," says instructor Renee Neff-Clark, who taught a class on Akhmatova in March through KU's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, for seniors 55 and and older.

"She was persecuted. She was censored. But she was not silenced. I think she still has a lot to say to us today," she says.

Julie Denesha
Pianist Brad Cox and violin player Betse Ellis work through a musical phrase.

Neff-Clark says Akhmatova speaks to the particular anguish of women under the repressive regime. She recalls a famous passage in Akhmatova's poem "Requiem," which gives voice to the mothers and wives who gathered every day outside a prison, waiting to learn whether their loved ones had been executed or exiled.

"Requiem, 1963"

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line

outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing

behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard

me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked

me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

"Can you describe this?"

And I said: "I can."

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

Julie Denesha
From left: Kansas City soprano Victoria Botero, vocalist Vanessa Thomas, pianist Brad Cox, and string duo Betse Ellis and Clarke Wyatt rehearse on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Unlike many artists and writers, Akhmatova never left Russia, despite the dangers. She studied the life of the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, who spent many years in exile. She saw his life as a cautionary tale and wrote the poem “Dante” in 1936.

Even after his death he did not return

To his ancient Florence.

To the one who, leaving, did not look


To him I sing this song.

From hell he sent her curses

And in paradise he could not forget her

“I love this poem because it’s like a secular prayer," Botero says. "She never left Russia and she could have. And so she calls on Dante who did leave Florence and regretted it. And so the song is about his regret.”

Akhmatova paid a heavy price to remain in her homeland but her words outlasted the regime that tried to stifle her work.

“The arc of her life brought back the dignity and recognition that the Soviet regime tried to deny her," Chernetsky explains. "But it also testifies to how repressive, authoritarian regimes are afraid of poets because they know how strong poets' voices are and how powerful poetry can be.”

Botero says Akhmatova’s words are inspiring.

“Art is powerful," Botero says. "It's a witness. And Akhmatova's words are as true today as they were when she wrote them.”

DISSIDENT: Songs for Anna Akhmatova” will be performed Sunday, May 15 at 2 p.m. at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Branch, 14 West 10th Street, Kansas City, Missouri.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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