Akhmatova, Anna

Akhmatova, Anna
© Moses Nappelbaum, ca. 1924

Anna Akhmatova was the pen name of Anna Gorenko, one of the most renowned and influential Russian poets of the twentieth century. Akhmatova's work ranges from short lyric poems to intricately structured cycles, such as “Requiem” (1935-40), her tragic masterpiece about the Stalinist terror. Her work addresses a variety of themes including time and memory, the fate of creative women, and the difficulties of living and writing in the shadow of Stalinism.

Akhmatova was born outside of Odessa, and her parents separated in 1905. She was educated in Tsarskoe Selo outside of St. Petersburg. There she first met her first future husband Nikolay Gumilov, also later a famous poet, whom she married in 1910. Their son, Lev Gumilov, born in 1912, was to become a famous Neo-Eurasianist historian. Nikolay Gumilov was arrested and executed in 1921 for anti-Soviet activities, and her son was also arrested several times and spent over fifteen years in labour camps.

Anna Gorenko started writing poetry at the age of eleven, inspired by poets such as Racine, Pushkin, and Baratynsky. In order to conceal her real family name she chose to adopt the surname of her Tatar grandmother as a pseudonym. In 1912, on the verge of the so-called Silver Age of Russian poetry, Akhmatova published her first collection, entitled “Evening,” which was acclaimed for its classical diction, telling details, and skilful use of colour.

By the time her second collection, “The Rosary”, which appeared in 1914, thousands of women were composing poems "in honour of Akhmatova." Her early poems usually picture a man and a woman involved in the most poignant, ambiguous moment of their relationship. Such pieces were much imitated and later parodied by Vladimir Nabokov and others. Together with her husband, Akhmatova was a member in the Acmeist circle of poets. Her aristocratic manners and artistic integrity won her the titles "Queen of the Neva" and "Soul of the Silver Age". Many decades later, she would describe this blessed time of her life in the longest of her works, "Poem Without a Hero" (1940–65), inspired by Pushkin's “Eugene Onegin.”

Due to her condemnation by the authorities as a “bourgeois element,” Akhmatova was rarely published between 1923 and 1930. She earned her living by translating poetry from different languages and publishing essays, including some brilliant pieces on Pushkin, in scholarly periodicals. All of her friends either emigrated or were subject to state oppression. Only a few people in the West suspected that she was still alive until, in 1940, she published with a new collection of poems. During World War II she witnessed the nightmare of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad and wrote a cycle of outstanding patriotic poems. After Akhmatova returned to Leningrad following the Central Asian evacuation in 1944, she was distressed by "a terrible ghost that pretended to be my city."

In 1946, on Stalin’s orders, Andrei Zhdanov publicly labelled her "half harlot, half nun" and had her poems banned from publication in the journals Zvezda and Leningrad. She even resorted to publishing several poems in praise of Stalin to secure the release of her son Lev from the Gulag. Akhmatova became a symbol of a suppressed Russian heritage, and such was her reputation that her work continued to circulate by word of mouth. After Stalin's death, Akhmatova's pre-eminence among Russian poets was grudgingly conceded, even by those officials who banned her. A censored edition of her work was published. Her later pieces, composed in neoclassical rhyme and mood, seem to be the voice of many she had outlived. In 1952 she had to leave the apartment on the Fontanka embankment (Fontanny Dom) where she had lived since 1920. As a result the Union of Soviet Writers provided her with a dacha in Komarovo, a small village on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, 44 kilometres outside Leningrad. Here she wrote many of her famous late poems and lived until her death. She was visited by many young poets, including Josef Brodsky, who continued the tradition of St. Petersburg poetry into the 21st century. She was also visited there by Robert Frost. In 1965 Akhmatova was allowed to travel to Sicily and England in order to receive the Etna-Taormina prize and an honorary doctoral degree from Oxford University. She died at the age of seventy six and was buried in Komarovo Cemetery.

Akhmatova’s reputation continued to grow posthumously and in 1989, the centenary of her birth, “Requiem”, one of the greatest poetic monuments to the tragic era of Stalin’s terror, was finally published in Russia. She has been widely translated into many languages and is one of the best-known Russian poets of 20th century.