Culture Shock: From Russia with love pieced together in poetry

A mosaic in St Petersburg immortalising the relationship between the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and the artist Boris Anrep re-creates an image in the most unlikely place: the Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar

Resonance in religion: part of Boris Anrep’s Irish mosaic

Resonance in religion: part of Boris Anrep’s Irish mosaic


The great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova lived for 30 years, through the nightmare of the Stalinist purges, in a flat in the Fountain House, a former palace in St Petersburg. It is now a museum to her memory and to that of her husbands, Nikolai Gumilev and Nikolai Punin, and her friend Osip Mandelstam, who were all murdered by the regime. On June 14th the Irish Ambassador to Russia, the poet Philip McDonagh, unveiled a large mosaic in the stairwell of the house. It is, on the face of it, a straightforward religious image, a copy of a mosaic of St Anne presenting the young Virgin Mary in the temple. But the original is in the most unlikely place: the Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar. The return of the image to Akhmatova’s house is a haunting tale of sorrow and memory.

The connection between Mullingar and one of modern Russia’s most resonant figures is an artist called Boris Anrep. Born in St Petersburg in 1883, Anrep trained in Paris and made connections with the Bloomsbury circle in London. The Bloomsbury patron Ottoline Morrell described him on first meeting as “clever, fat, good-hearted, sensual, but full of youthful vitality and Russian gaiety”. Anrep, though, had a very serious side; he conceived the idea of reviving the ancient art of mosaic. He also felt a duty to join the Russian army when the first World War broke out.

Anrep, who was married and had a child with another woman, met Akhmatova when he was on leave in 1915. The following year they became close friends, and in 1917 they spent time together in St Petersburg. The precise nature of their relationship is not clear, but it mattered enormously to Akhmatova, as much as Maud Gonne mattered to WB Yeats.

We know this because no fewer than 17 poems in Akhmatova’s third book, and 14 in her fourth, written in these years, are dedicated to Anrep. The Russian word she uses translates more forcefully as “devoted”. They suggest strongly that she was passionately in love with him. She sees him everywhere in his absence. She dreams of turning the inattentive Anrep – who was, in truth, an inveterate womaniser – into an attentive lover. She imagines him as an angel who will reward all her suffering. She fantasises about how he would react if she took her own life. She sees herself abandoning everything to live with him as a beggar in a foreign city. And she both mourns and rails against his decision, in July 1917, to leave Russia – and, of course, her – and to live permanently in England. Anrep becomes an increasingly hostile figure in her poems: cynical, arrogant and cold-hearted.

And there, apparently, the story ends. Akhmatova stayed in St Petersburg/ Leningrad and suffered dreadfully at the hands of Stalin. In addition to the murders of Gumilev, Punin and Mandelstam, her son Lev spent years in the gulag. She is chiefly commemorated in the city, as she wished to be, by a fine statue opposite the Kresty holding prison, where she spent so much time with other mothers, queuing to pass parcels to men waiting for deportation. Anrep, meanwhile, settled in England and established himself as a key artist in the renaissance of mosaic, supported by figures such as Roger Fry, Aldous Huxley and Augustus John, who wrote of him as having “revived the tradition of the golden age of Christian art”. His public commissions included the chapel at Sandhurst, a floor at the Tate, the hall of the Bank of England, 11 panels for the National Gallery, and work at Westminster Cathedral.

There was no great evidence that Anrep thought much of Akhmatova, of her love for him or of her suffering in Russia. Except that, in 1954, Anrep was commissioned to create a mosaic at Mullingar cathedral to mark Marian year. He had already made a large mosaic in Mullingar that depicted St Patrick lighting the paschal fire on the hill of Slane. The new work was to celebrate the Virgin Mary. But it is remarkable in two respects.

First, Anrep represents a scene that is clearly from the eastern Orthodox tradition, the apochryphal story of the young virgin being presented at the temple by her mother, St Anne. It is Anne, tall and swathed in dazzling yellow, who dominates the image. And, second, she is not Anne but Anna. Very prominently at the centre of the mosaic are the letters “S. Anna”. The long face of the saint, with her huge dark eyes and curved nose, is an idealised portrait of Anna Akhmatova. Anrep wrote that the face is “full of calm dignity”. He also wrote that he was trying to capture her “touching motherly care” and “culminating vision of her child”. Was he thinking of Akhmatova queuing outside the Kresty prison to bring succour to her son? He was clearly intent on transfiguring the woman he had abandoned nearly 40 years before into an icon of endurance and acceptance.

Anrep and Akhmatova met again briefly in Paris in 1965, shortly before his death. In real life the reunion was unsatisfactory: they had little to say to each other. She had transformed him into poetry and he had transformed her into religious mosaic: aged flesh could hardly compete. Taking his image of her back to her house seems a far more fitting reunion.

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