Anna Akhamatova is one of the most important poets in Russian history and the works of this nation can not be analyzed without mentioning her influence. Akhmatova survived the terror of the 1930's and 40's and gave to the world the most haunting testament of the struggle of the Russian people under Stalin in her cycle of poems, Requiem. Although Akhmatova received very little recognition during her life due to heavy censorship, she has now been rehabilitated to her rightful place among Russia's greatest writers and poets.
Anna Akhmatova was born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko on June 23rd, 1889, near Odessa in the Ukraine. She grew up in an aristocratic family in the town of Tsarskoye Selo and until 1905 was educated by a governess. In 1905, her parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Evpatoriya on the Black Sea. She eventually went on to read law at the Kiev College for Women, receiving as much education as a woman in that era was permitted.
Akhmatova began writing verse at the age of 11, but when her father found out about her literary aspirations, he forced her to adopt a pen name to prevent her from shaming the family. She chose her maternal grandmother's last name, Akhmatova, from whom she inherited her striking Tartar looks. Pictures of Anna Akhmatova can be found at:
By all accounts, Akhmatova was an enchanting and captivating woman, able to put her audience into a trance when reciting her poems at the famous Stray Dog Café. It is little wonder that this charm, coupled with her beauty stirred the hearts of many, including the then already famous poet, Nikolai Gumilyov. The pair met in 1903 and Gumilyov pursued Akhmatova until she agreed to marry him in 1910, despite being in love with another man. Maybe she was convinced by Gumilyov's suicide attempts.
The newlyweds travelled to Paris, where Gumilyov left Akhmatova while he went on a adventure to northern Africa. While in Paris, Akhmatova met and became close friends with the painter Modigliani. Upon their return to Russia, Gumilyov founded the famous Acmeist group in St. Petersburg. Other members of this group include Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsevtayeva.
Acmeism was a reaction to the current Symbolism. The Acmeists emphasized clarity and directness, in contrast to the Symbolists, who the Acmeists believed clouded their poetry with ideologies and intangibilities like mysticism and symbols
Akhmatova's writing was greatly influenced by her husband and the new literary movement of which she eventually became a central part. Her first published book of poems, Evening (1912) was met with critical and popular success and set the standard for this new group of writers.
The Acmeists, through their periodical Apollon ("Apollo"; 1909-17), rejected the esoteric vagueness and affectations of Symbolism and sought to replace them with "beautiful clarity," compactness, simplicity, and perfection of form--all qualities in which Akhmatova excelled from the outset.
Her second book of poems, Rosary (1914) turned her into a cult figure amongst the literary circles and a parlor game was developed based on it. One person would recite a line from the book and the next would continue, and so on until the entire book was completed. The collection which brilliantly combined religious motifs with Akhmatova's unique and passionate style, caused one critic to call her 'half nun, half whore.' Such statements did nothing to diminish her growing importance as a poet.
While Akhmatova enjoyed literary success, her private life was falling apart. Her son, Lev, born in 1912, was sent against her wishes to live with his paternal grandmother, a woman who despised Akhmatova. Her success also came between her and Gumilyov, who was resentful and jealous of her popularity. They were unfaithful to one another and they eventually divorced in 1918.
With the publication of At the Edge of the Sea in 1915, The White Flock in 1917 and Plantain in 1921, her role in the literary world was made indelible. This period is often referred to as the Silver Age of Russian poetry. She remarried Viktor Shileiko shortly after her divorce from Gumilyov, although she remained close friends with her ex-husband. Gumilyov was arrested and executed in 1921.
Meanwhile, Russian life was thrown into turmoil with several historical events you probably have heard of like World War II, the Russian Revolution and rise to power by Stalin. Akhmatova, like most of her fellow countrymen and women, lead a life of hardship and poverty throughout these events. She was officially silenced by the dictatorial government from 1925-40, and all her poetry was banned.
At the peak of the Stalinist terror, many of her friends and family were arrested, held without trail, sent into exile or executed. Her son, Lev was arrested first in 1933 and again in 1935. He was eventually sent to Siberia. During this time, Akhmatova dedicated her efforts to literary criticism and translation. She also wrote her now famous Requiem, a cycle of poems dedicated to the memory of Stalin's victims, but it was not to be published for many years.
In the latter part of the 1930's, the state sanctioned Socialist Realism style of writing was all the rage, at least officially. In 1939, Stalin asked Ahkmatova to start writing again and she attempted to conform to the new style. She even wrote several poems glorifying the tyranical leader.
Where Stalin is, there is Freedom, Peace,
and the grandeur of the earth
Despite the above Akhmatova can not be accused to supporting Stalin as it is obvious she was writing in such style only to appease the leader in the hope of gaining release for her son. These poems are usually omitted from modern anthologies out of respect to Akhmatova and because they are not representative of her style or her importance to Russian poetry. The poet herself asked that these poems be left out.
Despite her attempts, she was unable to help her son, who was sent to do hard labour in 1949. She also lost her membership in Soviet Union of Writers. This expulsion from the Union meant that she had to depend on the help of her friends for the rest of her life, having no other means of income or support.
The death of Stalin brought about minor return to literary life in Russia. Nikita Krushchev denounced Stalin as a tyrant and started a cultural 'thaw' that allowed the publication of some of Akhmatova"s earlier poetry. Most importantly to Akhmatova was the release of her son in 1956. Slowly, Akhmatova was rehabilitated to her rightful place, but still with severe censorship. Young poets like Brodsky became her proteges and she regained popularity. In 1962, she received a visit from Robert Frost. In 1964 she was awarded the Etna-Taormina prize in Italy and in 1965 she was permitted to travel to Oxford to receive an honorary Doctorate.
In her late years she became a symbol of nobility and courage in adversity to her countrymen. Her popularity among young readers was enormous being identified with the Russian intellectuals' struggle for freedom.
Akhmatova died peacefully in 1966, never attaining the level of recognition and honor in life that she deserved. Her most important poems, Requiem, were not published in Russia until 1989 and most of her poetry remained heavily censored until this time.
In her life Akhmatova presented the world with over 800 beautiful poems. More importantly, she changed the world of poetry forever with her innate ability to communicate simply with hauntingly stark realism the human condition in love and anguish.
Anna Akhmatova died on March 25, 1966.
That was a time, when only the dead
Smiled, glad to have peace.
Swung from its prisons
Like an unused limb.
Gone mad from suffering,
The condemned regiments were started off,
And the whistles of the locomotives
Sang short songs of parting.
Over us were stars of death,
And innocent Russia
Struggled under the bloodied boot,
And the tires of the Black Maria.
From the poem Requiem
Translated by Leonore Mayhew
And William McNaughton