BORN: 1889, Bol’shoi Fontan, Russia
DIED: 1966, Domodedovo, Russia
GENRE: Poetry, prose, translation
Requiem: A Cycle of Poems (1964)
Anna Akhmatova. Akhmatova, Anna, 1918, photograph. Hulton Archive / Getty Images.
Over the course of a poetic career of nearly sixty years, Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova (Anna Andreevna Gorenko) led a literary movement, had her work banned in her own country, survived political and social unrest, and became a symbol of creative survival against tremendous odds. Described as the ‘‘tragic queen’’ of Russian poetry and considered among the country’s most significant poets, she remains a beautiful and sad symbol of twentieth-century upheaval.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Mentor and a Pen Name. Anna Andreevna Gorenko was born in Bol’shoi Fontan in Russia on June 11, 1889, the third of six children to an aristocratic family in a wealthy suburb of St. Petersburg. After an education at girls’ schools, she enrolled in the Department of Law at Kiev College in 1907, but her interest in literature and writing soon overtook her legal studies.
As a teenager, Gorenko began to write poems, receiving advice from poet Nikolai Stepanovich Gumilev, whom she had met in 1903. Gumilev spent years courting Gorenko, and although she was not initially interested in a relationship with him, she did let him read her poetry. Subsequently, he edited her first poem, ‘‘On his hand are lots of shining rings,’’ which appeared in a Russian magazine in 1907 under her real name. Her father objected to the publication of her poems under his name, so Gorenko took on the pen name Anna Akhmatova.
Marriage and Bohemian Life. Akhmatova eventually agreed to marry Gumilev in 1910. While on honeymoon with Gumilev in Paris, Akhmatova met an artist who would influence her greatly. Amedeo Modigliani was an unknown painter at the time. He became her correspondent and friend, accompanying her during her repeat visit to Paris in 1911 and even sketching her in the nude.
While she was discovering Paris with her new friend, Akhmatova’s husband was gaining recognition as the leader of a new literary movement: Acmeism. The group, whose name came from the Greek word acme (pinnacle), opposed Symbolism, a literary movement characterized by a belief in mysticism, and metaphorical language. Instead of dealing with the mysteries of the ‘‘divine world,’’ Acmeists focused on the material, or visible, world. The Acmeists (who included Gumilev, Sergei Mitrofanovich Gorodetsky, Mandel’shtam, Vladimir Ivanovich Narbut, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Zenkevich, and eventually Akhmatova) preferred to express themselves directly through images instead of symbols. Though Gumilev did not take Akhmatova’s poetry seriously at first, he eventually found that her verse fit well with Acmeist principles.
The years 1911-1912 were productive for Akhmatova in more ways than one: 1911 brought the publication of more of her poems in Russian magazines; her collection Evening (1912) was published, which brought her immediate fame; and she gave birth to her only son, Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev, on September 18, 1912. Not ready to give up her bohemian lifestyle, Akhmatova left her son with her mother-in-law and returned to St. Petersburg.
By 1914, Akhmatova had become a leading figure in St. Petersburg’s literary circle. Known for her great beauty and charisma, she charmed and attracted several admirers and built up a beautiful but sad persona that enchanted the city. Along with other literary figures, she read her poetry at the Stray Dog cabaret, a smoky basement where she could show off her beautiful figure and her free-wheeling charm. She was to meet several lovers there, including composer Artur Sergeevich Lur’e and poet Vladimir Kazimirovich Shileiko, who would later become her second husband. Though she showed no outward sign of regret for her affairs or her abandonment of her son, Akhmatova’s early bohemian poems deal with themes of guilt, sin, and repentance.
War and Revolution. But Akhmatova and her friends could not ignore the changes that were taking place in Russian society. World War I came to Russia, and with it the closure of the Stray Dog, which had become a symbol of the free and fun prewar years. Akhmatova turned her poetic attentions from love to politics as she foreshadowed hard times to come. After the 1917 Revolution, in which the Bolsheviks seized control of the Russian government in an effort to improve workers’ rights, many of Akhmatova’s friends fled Russia and advised her to come along. However, Akhmatova stayed in Russia, divorcing her husband, marrying Shileiko, and moving to the Sheremet’ev (‘‘Fountain House’’) Palace. Akhmatova’s residence at the Fountain House carried on a long literary tradition of housing poets and authors there, including influential nineteenth-century figures such as Sergeevich Pushkin and Petr Andreevich Viazemsky.
Though the Revolution threatened the political future of Russia, it created a temporary period of creative freedom for Russia’s artists and poets. Energized, Akhmatova wrote new poetry that focused on her commitment to her Russian homeland and her refusal to emigrate along with her friends. But Akhmatova had made a real sacrifice by staying in Russia after the Revolution. She lived in an unheated apartment with Shileiko, who by now had become distant and unhappy with Akhmatova, and began to lament the prerevolutionary days. Her ex-husband, Gumilev, was a direct casualty of the new regime: an anti-Communist, he was arrested and executed for his ‘‘monarchist’’ views in 1920.
Banned. Akhmatova, whose poetry lived in a past she could not recapture, found herself in opposition to the Bolshevik regime. Critics began to describe her work as ‘‘anachronistic,’’ and her traditional approach to poetry was endangered when her work was banned by the government in 1925. Akhmatova had never made a living doing anything but writing and found herself without an income. However, she was embraced by the literary community, who continued to admire her work and supported her through hard financial times. Akhmatova’s admirers commissioned her to translate poetry and write works of literary scholarship, including a series of important essays on Pushkin.
Akhmatova divorced Shileiko in 1926 and moved in with Nikolai Nikolaevich Punin, a poet and avant-garde art historian she first met in 1914. Though she never married Punin, she considered him to be her third husband and lived with his family in the Fountain House, the same palace where she had lived at the beginning of her failed marriage with Shileiko. Over the course of her time in the palace, she would live with Punin’s family members in cramped and shabby quarters that symbolized Russia’s increasingly cramped and noisy communal life.
Requiem. Life in Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg) wasn’t just cramped—it was plagued with uncertainty and fear. Akhmatova faced arrest and interrogation for her writing, which had to be done in secret. However, she found a way to keep working. While composing Requiem: A Cycle of Poems (1964), her long narrative poem, she whispered the words line by line to her friends, who memorized them before she burned the paper on which they had been composed. This protected her and her friends, who passed the long poem to one another under threat of search and arrest.
Akhmatova wrote the bitter, tragic Requiem in response to her son’s imprisonment. Now a historian, her son spent over twenty years in forced labor camps because of his father and mother’s ‘‘counterrevolutionary’’ activities. Moved by the collective experience of torture and murder during the Soviet purges, Akhmatova used folk songs and traditional Russian imagery to express the breakdown of self and society.
The government finally gave Akhmatova permission to publish a new volume of poems in 1940. Akhmatova regained her place in the public consciousness during the terrifying siege of Leningrad, in which German troops attempted to starve the city out, leading to the deaths of 1.5 million civilians. During this time, Akhmatova and other intellectuals participated in a series of radio broadcasts devoted to the arts. Even after her evacuation to Uzbekistan in late 1941, Akhmatova’s poems found an audience in Russia, and she became a symbol of Russian patriotism, the culture of the past, and the tragedy of war.
Tragedy and Sacrifice. Life seemed to be improving for Akhmatova with her return to Leningrad and the end of World War II. She was allowed to publish Izbrannoe (Selected Poems) and her son was released from prison. However, she had to break off her engagement to Vladimir Georgievich Garshin, a doctor she had met before the war, when she got in trouble with the government once again, this time over her 1946 visits with influential exiled philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Andrei Zhdanov, who was in charge of cultural policy in Josef Stalin’s government, criticized her work and called her ‘‘half whore, half nun.’’ Akhmatova’s work was immediately rebanned and destroyed, and she was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers. This amounted to a death sentence by starvation, since only union members could get food ration cards. As a final blow, her son was rearrested and sent back to prison in 1949.
Encouraged by her friends to cooperate with the government, Akhmatova decided to trade her literary reputation for her son’s freedom. She wrote twelve patriotic poems praising Stalinism, advocating Communism, and celebrating her ‘‘happy life’’ in the Soviet Union. However, even Stalin was not convinced by this desperate attempt, and her sacrifice was in vain. These insincere poems may have compromised her reputation, but they did not free her son.
Devastated, Akhmatova threw herself into work on her masterpiece, Poem without a Hero (1960). A long narrative poem that acts as a funeral lament, Poem without a Hero explores the past, exposing Russia’s collective guilt. Complex in structure and filled with complicated allusions and references, the poem still fascinates modern critics.
Akhmatova lived to experience a ‘‘thaw’’ in Soviet politics after Stalin’s death in 1953. Though her work was still censored, she was allowed to publish throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and her son was released from prison in 1956. She acted as a patroness to young poets, including Joseph Brodsky, during this time, and was allowed to leave the country in 1965 to accept literary prizes abroad. Though she gained recognition by the Russian government as one of the most important Russian poets, she never saw Requiem published in Russia during her lifetime. She died on March 5, 1966, after suffering a heart attack.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Akhmatova's famous contemporaries include:
Joseph Stalin (1878-1953): Soviet dictator who led one of the most repressive regimes in modern history.
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967): Jazz-Age writer and poet known for her witty remarks on American urban life.
Boris Pasternak (1890-1960): Russian poet and writer who was forbidden to publish his poems and novels within Russia.
Alexandra Fyodorovna (1872-1918): Last Tsaritsa of the Russian Empire; died under mysterious circumstances after the Russian Revolution.
Robert Frost (1872-1963): American poet known for his poetry about rural New England.
Works in Literary Context
Akhmatova was influenced by Russian writers such as Sergeevich Pushkin and Boris Pasternak and by artists in other media, such as Amedeo Modigliani. However, it can be argued that the turbulent events of her lifetime were the biggest influence on her tragic and bitter body of work.
Prerevolutionary Russia. Akhmatova’s work often refers to the prerevolutionary Russia of her childhood. This Russia is characterized by carefree manners and dignified traditions. In poems like ‘‘Midnight Verses,’’ she fondly recalls the artistic, genteel society of her youth. Akhmatova also uses the Russia of the past as a contrast to modern violence in her masterpieces, Requiem and Poem without a Hero.
Women and Love. Akhmatova’s poems were all written from a distinctly female perspective, showing the many moods of a woman. Her exploration of love and femininity occurred primarily in her early work, which draws upon the sights and sounds of avant-garde St. Petersburg to explore the idea of unrequited love and feminine guilt.
The Urban Environment. Akhmatova’s poetry is primarily concerned with urban subjects, exploring at length her fondness of the St. Petersburg of the past and her hatred of the Stalinist Leningrad. Her focus on urban life fit in well with the Acmeist movement, which preferred to explore urban themes instead of complex metaphors about nature and divinity.
Exiled and Oppressed Contemporaries. Akhmatova was not alone in facing repression and threats from the Stalinist government. In fact, Soviet Russia’s strict laws forced many of the country’s best writers either into exile or ‘‘underground.’’ Akhmatova’s own work was passed along by memory and the original manuscripts burned. This places her alongside other Russian writers such as Boris Pasternak, whose masterpiece, Dr. Zhivago, had to be smuggled abroad to find publication; Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote his greatest works in exile; and Marina Tsvetaeva, who was unable to publish work in Russia after her return from exile.
Patronage and Literary Influence. Later in life, Akhmatova acted as a patroness to younger poets like Joseph Brodsky. The young poets who visited her at her dacha in Komoravo during the last years of her life continued her literary heritage and worked to have her poems published abroad. In addition, Akhmatova corresponded and visited with literary figures abroad such as Robert Frost.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Imprisonment, exile, and government repression are common themes in Anna Akhmatova's poems. Here are a few works of other authors that reflect similar themes:
The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897), by Oscar Wilde, was written after Wilde's time served in a British jail for homosexuality.
Life Is Beautiful (1997), a film directed by Roberto Benigni, follows the imprisonment of an Italian Jew and his son during the Holocaust of World War II.
Children of Men (2006), a film directed by Alfonso Cuaron, deals with a repressive world in which humans are no longer able to reproduce.
Works in Critical Context
Akhmatova’s central position in Russian poetry was acknowledged throughout her career, earning her nicknames such as ‘‘Queen of the Neva’’ and ‘‘Soul of the Silver Age.’’ However, her critical reception varied. Though her first collection of poetry brought her fame and good reviews, her move into more serious poetry dealing with Russian patriotism and the past earned her criticism for ‘‘living in the past’’ and failing to praise the new Soviet government. As a result, her work was banned in Russia. However, these critics were motivated by political reasons, and it is hard to piece together an accurate view of her works’ critical reception during her lifetime. Akhmatova did live to see critical success and recognition during her lifetime; in a 1965 essay, professor Ihor Levitsky stated, ‘‘She is a master craftsman whose art consists in infallibly joining together words in such as way as to insure their greatest possible emotional impact on the reader.’’ He adds, ‘‘Her verse is the direct expression, the very substance of emotion, not just a metaphoric rendering of it.’’ In more modern times, Akhmatova has taken a place at the forefront of Russian poetry alongside writers like Pushkin and Brodsky. Michael Klimenko summed up the power and passion of her work when he remarked, ‘‘everything she wrote bears the stamp of finely-chiseled, most intimate, aesthetic and emotional experience.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Akhmatova was not allowed to publish through much of her lifetime because her poetry and lifestyle stood in opposition to the Soviet government. Are there circumstances when this kind of censorship might be justified? What about in times of war? Are there any limitations a government is justified in imposing on writers when it is threatened externally or internally by its own citizens?
2. A number of American and European writers and artists became Communists or were sympathetic to the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s. Given the repression Akhmatova and her comrades faced, how can you account for this? What ideas or circumstances made Communism an attractive ideology to Western writers and artists?
3. During World War II and the Siege of Leningrad, Akhmatova became a symbol of Russian courage and patriotism. What other historic, nonmilitary figures have come to symbolize their countries during wartime or times of national stress?
4. Censorship and government repression affected the fate of Akhmatova’s poetry within her own country. What other literary figures have been affected by censorship and repression? Using the library and the Internet, write a paper on two or three literary figures who wrote while imprisoned for their personal beliefs or in exile from their country.
5. Hoping to save her son from a second term of imprisonment, Akhmatova chose to publish pro- Stalin poetry. Do you think this compromised Akhmatova’s literary integrity? Why or why not? Write a personal narrative about a time you felt pressured to make a choice between compromising your values and helping someone else.
6. Among the poets Akhmatova mentored was Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky was exiled from the Soviet Union and spent the last part of his life in the United States, where for a time he served as Poet Laureate. Using the library or the Internet, research Brodsky's career in the United States and write a profile of him and his importance to American poetry.
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Leiter, Sharon. Akhmatova’s Petersburg. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.
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Polivanov, Konstantin. Anna Akhmatova and Her Circle. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
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