Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova, the daughter of a naval engineer, was born near Odessa, on 23rd June, 1889. Her family moved to Tsarskoye Selo when she was a child. She moved to Kiev after her parents separated in 1905. She went on to study law at Kiev University, leaving a year later to study literature in Saint Petersburg.

She met the young poet, Nikolai Gumilev on Christmas Eve 1903 and the couple began giving poetry readings together. Gumilev's friend, Victor Serge pointed out: "Nikolai Gumilev was rather lean and singularly ugly: his face too long, heavy lips and nose, conical forehead, weird eyes, bluish-green and over-large, like a fish or Oriental idol - and indeed, he was very fond of the priestly statues of Assyria, which everyone came to think he resembled." Gumilev's first book of poetry, The Path of the Conquistadores was published in 1905. He also established a journal, Sirius, and in 1907 began publishing Anna's poetry. Gumilev also published Romantic Flowers (1908) and Pearls (1910). Anna married Gumilev in Kiev in April 1910.

In 1911 Anna joined with Gumilev, Sergey Gorodetsky and Osip Mandelstam to form the Guild of Poets. This was formed as a reaction to the Symbolist movement, the Acmeists, as they became known, called for a return to the use of clear, precise and concrete imagery. Gumilev was interested in the culture of Africa and Asia and in 1911 visited Abyssinia where he collected folk songs.

Akhmatova's first volume of poetry, Evening , was published in 1912. The book secured her reputation as an important new poet. Her second collection, The Rosary appeared in March 1914. Her work was much imitated and she commented: "I taught our women how to speak, but don't know how to make them silent" It was rumoured that during this period she had affairs with Boris Pasternak and Alexander Blok.

On the outbreak of the First World War her husband, Nikolai Gumilev, joined the Russian Army and while serving as an officer on the Eastern Front was twice decorated for bravery. He described some of his experiences in Notes of a Cavalryman (1916). A supporter of the Provisional Government Gumilev was sent by Alexander Kerensky to Paris where he served as a special commissar in France.

In 1918, Anna divorced Gumilev and married the poet Vladimir Shilejko. According to R. Eden Martin, she later said: “I felt so filthy. I thought it would be like a cleansing, like going to a convent, knowing you are going to lose your freedom.” Anna also began affairs with the poet, Boris Anrep and the composer Arthur Lourié, who set many of her poems to music.

A strong opponent of the Bolshevik government, Nikolai Gumilev supported the Kronstadt Uprising in March, 1921. After the defeat of the Kronstadt sailors in March, 1917, he was arrested and charged with being involved in an anti-government conspiracy. One of his friends asked Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of Cheka, to spare Gumilev because of his artistic talent. Dzerhinsky answered, "Are we entitled to make an exception of a poet and still shoot the others?"

Gumilev was executed on 24th August, 1921. According to Victor Serge: "It was dawn, at the edge of a forest, when Gumilev fell, his cap pulled down over his eyes, a cigarette hanging from his lips, showing the same calm he had expressed in one of the poems he brought back from Ethiopia: "And fearless I shall appear before the Lord God." That, at least, is the tale as it was told to me."

The Soviet authorities kept a close watch on Anna Akhmatova and after 1925 they would not allow anything of hers to be published. She survived by working in the library of an agricultural institute, by translating and writing critical studies of Alexander Pushkin and Benjamin Constant. She remained a close friend of Osip Mandelstam and was with him when he was arrested in 1934 for writing an epigram about Joseph Stalin: "His fingers are fat as grubs and the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips... His cockroach whiskers leer and his boot tops gleam... the murderer and peasant slayer". It has been described as as a "sixteen line death sentence."

In March 1938 her son Lev Gumilyov was arrested. She wrote: For seventeen months I've been crying out/Calling you home/I've flung myself at the hangman's feet/You are my son and my horror/Everything is confused forever/And it's not clear to me/Who is a beast now, who is a man/How long before the execution." He was eventually released from prison in Siberia and was forced to serve in the Red Army during the Second World War.

When the Germans surrounded Leningrad in the autumn of 1941, Andrei Zhdanov ordered Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshchenko to be flown over the German lines to Moscow and from there to Tashkent, where they spent the rest of the war. In 1945 Lev Gumilyov was arrested again and returned to a Gulag Camp.

In 1945 Isaiah Berlin visited the Soviet Union and asked to meet Akhmatova. Michael Ignatieff, the author of A Life of Isaiah Berlin (1998) has pointed out: "Akhmatova herself had a room looking over the courtyard at the end of the hall. It was bare and denuded: no carpets on the floor or curtains at the windows, just a small table, three chairs, a wooden chest, a sofa, and near the bed a drawing of Akhmatova - head bent, reclining on a couch - rapidly sketched by her friend Amedeo Modigliani during her visit to Paris in 1911. It was the only icon of a Europe she had last seen thirty-four years before. Now stately, grey-haired, with a white shawl around her shoulders, she rose to greet her first visitor from that lost continent."

Berlin wrote in Personal Impressions (1980): Akhmatova was immensely dignified, with unhurried gestures, a noble head, beautiful, somewhat severe features, and an expression of immense sadness. I bowed - it seemed appropriate, for she looked and moved like a tragic queen - thanked her for receiving me, and said that people in the West would be glad to know that she was in good health, for nothing had been heard of her for many years.... Akhmatova asked me about the ordeal of London during the bombing: I answered as best I could, feeling acutely shy and constricted by her distant, somewhat regal manner."

Akhmatova was readmitted to Union of Writers in 1951 and after the death of Joseph Stalin she was allowed to publish her poetry. In 1956 Lev Gumilyov was allowed to return from Siberia. Akhmatova's Poems was published in 1958. This was followed by Poems: 1909–1960 (1961).

Isaiah Berlin met her again in Oxford in 1965: "Akhmatova described the details of the attack upon her by the authorities. She told me that Stalin was personally enraged by the fact that she, an apolitical, little-published writer, who owed her security largely to having contrived to live comparatively unnoticed during the early years of the Revolution, before the cultural battles which often ended in prison camps or execution, had committed the sin of seeing a foreigner without formal authorisation, and not just a foreigner, but an employee of a capitalist government... She knew, she said, that she had not long to live: the doctors had made it plain that her heart was weak, and therefore she was patiently waiting for the end; she detested the thought that she might be pitied; she had faced horrors and knew the most terrible depths of grief, and had exacted from her friends the promise that they would not allow the faintest gleam of pity to show itself, to suppress it instantly if it did; some had given way to this feeling, and with them she had been obliged to part; hatred, insults, contempt, misunderstanding, persecution, she could bear, but not sympathy if it was mingled with compassion."

Anna Akhmatova died on 5th March, 1966.

Isaiah had read Zoshchenko's Scenes from the Bathhouse, but as for Akhmatova's poetry, he had read nothing at all. She was just a fabled name from the vanished Czarist past, known to him because Maurice Bowra had translated some of her early poems and had included them in his war-time collection of Russian verse. Bowra did not even know whether she was still alive. So Isaiah asked, in all innocence, whether she was, and the critic Orlov replied, to his astonishment, "Why, yes of course, she lives not far from here on the Fontanka in Fontanny Dom".

"Would you like to meet her?" It was, Isaiah remembered, as if he had been invited to meet Christina Rossetti or some semi-mythological figure from the history of literature. In his excitement, he could only stammer that he would indeed like to meet her. There and then Orlov made a phone-call and returned to say that the poet would receive them that very afternoon at three o'clock. Isaiah returned Brenda Tripp to the Astoria and walked back to the bookshop.

In company with Orlov, he set off across the Anichkov Bridge, with its statues of rearing bronze horses, along the Fontanka Canal on a snowy, grey afternoon in failing light. Fontanny Dom was the eighteenth-century palace of the Sheremetiev family. Its baroque yellow and white plasterwork was pitted with shell fragments and in places worn away by neglect. They passed beneath the Sheremetiev crest over the baroque entrance, through rococo iron gates and into the interior courtyard. Berlin and Orlov went up a dark, steep staircase to a third-floor apartment - No. 44 - past five or six rooms ranged along a corridor. Most of the apartment was occupied by Akhmatova's ex-husband, Nikolai Punin, his wife and child. Akhmatova herself had a room looking over the courtyard at the end of the hall. Now stately, grey-haired, with a white shawl around her shoulders, she rose to greet her first visitor from that lost continent. Isaiah bowed - it seemed appropriate - for she looked like a tragic queen.

She was twenty years older than he, once a famous beauty, now shabbily dressed, heavy, with shadows beneath her dark eyes, but of proud carriage and coolly dignified expression. As they sat down on rickety chairs at opposite ends of the room and began talking, Isaiah knew her only as the brilliant and beautiful member of the pre-revolutionary poetic circle known as the Acmeists; as the brightest star of St Petersburg's war-time avant-garde and its meeting place, the Stray Dog Cafe. But of what had befallen her after the revolution, he knew nothing.

There was nothing falsely melodramatic about her tragic air. Her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, had been executed in 1921 on trumped-up charges of plotting against Lenin. The years of terror had begun for her then, and not in 1937. Although she wrote continuously, she was not allowed to publish a line of her poetry between 1925 and 1940. During that time she had survived by working in the library of an agricultural institute, by translating and writing critical studies of Pushkin and Western writers like Benjamin Constant. As all contact with the outside world was severed, Akhmatova and her fellow-poet Osip Mandelstam kept alive a fierce conviction that the tyranny that had divided them from Paris, London and Berlin would not endure for ever....

Akhmatova had been there on the night in 1934 when Mandelstam was taken away for his first interrogation; and from then until his death in Magadan she stood by his wife, Nadezhda. But in March 1938 the weight of the terror fell upon her directly. Her son Lev Gumilyov was arrested. For seventeen months she had no idea whether he was alive or dead. As terror sealed the lips of those around her, she made herself the poet of despair and abandonment...

During her war-time evacuation to Tashkent between 1941 and 1944, Akhmatova lived in a airless top-floor room in the Hostel for Moscow Writers. Lydia Chukovskaya and Nadezhda Mandelstam lived there too, and for a time their conditions were eased. Akhmatova was allowed to publish a severely censored volume of Selected Poems and gave readings in hospitals for wounded soldiers. In May 1944 she was at last allowed to leave Tashkent. On her way home, she stopped in Moscow and gave a reading at the Polytechnic Museum, which ended with the audience rising and applauding her as a national figure, the incarnation of the victorious Russian language. She herself was terrified by this mark of respect and feared the attention it brought. She was right to do so, for, as Pasternak reported to her, Stalin himself supposedly asked Zhdanov, "Who organised this standing ovation?"

Akhmatova's return to Leningrad, in June 1944, proved to be desolate: the city was a 'horrible spectre'; so many of her friends were dead; her rooms in the Fontanny Dom had been looted and smashed. She had hopes of being reunited with Victor Garshin, a Leningrad coroner with whom she had become close after leaving Punin. He met her at the station and told her that he had decided to marry someone else." So, as she was meeting Isaiah, she was just coming to terms, at the age of fifty-six, with the prospect of living the rest of her life alone.

In the late summer of 1945 her son Lev, released earlier from Siberia to serve in the Soviet Army in Germany, at last returned home. She allowed herself to hope that her life might finally be about to improve. Certainly, without the fact of Lev's recent release - and thus the liberation of the hostage whose fate might have inclined her to caution - it is doubtful that she would have taken the risk of seeing a temporary First Secretary from the British Embassy in Moscow...

But she was categorical about the question of emigration. Salome Andronikova, Boris Anrep and others might choose the road of exile, but she would never leave Russia. Her place was with her people and with her native language. And so the night acquired another significance for her: it was a moment in which to re-affirm her sense of destiny as the all enduring Muse of her native tongue. Isaiah was quite sure he had never met anyone with such a genius for self-dramatisation - but, at the same time, he recognised that her claim to a tragic destiny was as genuine as that of anyone he had ever met...

She told him of her marriage to Gumilyov and how, despite their separation and divorce, she had always remembered the laconic and unquestioning way he had accepted her talent. When she described the circumstances of his execution in 1921, tears came to her eyes. Then she began to recite from Byron's Don Juan. Her pronunciation was unintelligible, but she delivered the lines with such intense emotion that Isaiah had to rise and look out of the window to conceal his feelings...

She confessed how lonely she was, how desolate her Leningrad had become. She spoke of her past loves, for Gumilyov, Shileiko and Punin, and, moved by her confessional mode - but also perhaps to forestall her erotic interest in him - Isaiah confessed that he was in love with someone himself. He was veiled, but it was clear that he was referring to Patricia Douglas. Akhmatova seems to have passed on a wildly garbled version of these remarks about his love-life to Korney Chukovsky, whose memoirs, published years later, referred to Berlin as a Don Juan disembarking in Leningrad to add Akhmatova to the list of his conquests." Akhmatova herself seems to have been responsible for this malentendu. It has hung over their encounter ever since. No Russian who reads Cinque, the poems she devoted to their evening together, has ever been able to believe that they did not sleep together.

In fact, they hardly touched. He remained on one side of the room, she on the other. Far from being a Don Juan, he was a sexual neophyte alone in the apartment of a fabled seductress, who had enjoyed deep romantic attachments with half a dozen supremely talented men. She was already investing their meeting with mystical historical and erotic significance, while he fought shy of these undercurrents and kept a safe intellectual distance. Besides, he was also aware of more quotidian needs. He had already been there six hours and he wanted to go to the lavatory. But it would have broken the mood to do so, and in any case, the communal toilet was down the dark hallway. So he remained and listened, smoking another of his Swiss cigars. As she poured out the story of her love-life, he compared her to Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and, moving his cigar hand to and fro - a gesture she was to capture in a line of verse - traced Mozart's melody in the air between them.

For seventeen months I've been crying out,

Calling you home.

I've flung myself at the hangman's feet,

You are my son and my horror.

Everything is confused forever,

And it's not clear to me

Who is a beast now, who is a man,

How long before the execution.

The last of Isaiah's encounters with the great figures of the Russian intelligentsia occurred in 1965, when he and Maurice Bowra managed to persuade their university to grant Anna Akhmatova an honorary degree. He had telephoned her in Moscow in 1956, and she had received the news of his marriage in icy silence. They had both decided it was not safe to meet. When she duly appeared in Oxford in June 1965, Isaiah was shocked to see how she had aged. She had gained weight and he thought, a little unkindly, that she resembled Catherine the Great. But she carried herself like an empress and delivered herself of her opinions with imperial force. When she arrived outside Headington House and surveyed the splendid garden, the three-storey Georgian house and Isaiah's new wife, she observed caustically: "So the bird is now in its golden cage." The spark that had leaped between them twenty years before was now extinguished. He could only secure her the recognition in the West that was her due; she could only acknowledge it with regal hauteur. He accompanied her as she stood in the Sheldonian and heard herself acclaimed in Latin as "an embodiment of the past, who can console the present and provide hope for the future". Afterwards he was in attendance at the Randolph Hotel when she received Russian visitors who had come from all over the world to pay court to her. He was there too when she read from her verse, intoning the deep and sonorous rhythms into a tape recorder. She departed for Paris and home, and Isaiah never saw her again. She died the following year. His anti-communism had always been a declaration of allegiance to the intelligentsia of whom she was the last surviving heroine. After her death, he exclaimed to a friend that he would always think of her as an "uncontaminated", "unbroken" and "morally impeccable" reproach to all the Marxist fellow-travellers who believed that individuals could never stand up to the march of history.

Anna Andrecvna Akhmatova was immensely dignified, with unhurried gestures, a noble head, beautiful, somewhat severe features, and an expression of immense sadness. I bowed - it seemed appropriate, for she looked and moved like a tragic queen - thanked her for receiving me, and said that people in the West would be glad to know that she was in good health, for nothing had been heard of her for many years. "Oh, but an article on me has appeared in the Dublin Review," she said, "and a thesis is being written about my work, I am told, in Bologna." She had a friend with her, an academic lady of some sort, and there was polite conversation for some minutes. Then Akhmatova asked me about the ordeal of London during the bombing: I answered as best I could, feeling acutely shy and constricted by her distant, somewhat regal manner.

When we met in Oxford in 1965, Akhmatova described the details of the attack upon her by the authorities. She told me that Stalin was personally enraged by the fact that she, an apolitical, little-published writer, who owed her security largely to having contrived to live comparatively unnoticed during the early years of the Revolution, before the cultural battles which often ended in prison camps or execution, had committed the sin of seeing a foreigner without formal authorisation, and not just a foreigner, but an employee of a capitalist government. "So our nun now receives visits from foreign spies," he remarked (so it is alleged), and followed this with obscenities which she could not at first bring herself to repeat to me. The fact that I had never worked in any intelligence organisation was irrelevant: all members of foreign embassies or missions were spies to Stalin. "Of course," she went on, "the old man was by then out of his mind. People who were there during this furious outbreak against me, one of whom told me of it, had no doubt that they were speaking to a man in the grip of pathological, unbridled persecution mania." On the day after I left Leningrad, on 6 January 1946, uniformed men had been placed outside the entrance to her staircase, and a microphone was screwed into the ceiling of her room, plainly not for intelligence purposes but to frighten her. She knew that she was doomed - and although official disgrace followed only some months later, after the formal anathema pronounced over her and Zoshchenko by Zhdanov, she attributed her misfortunes to Stalin's personal paranoia. When she told me this in Oxford, she added that in her view we - that is, she and I - inadvertently, by the mere fact of our meeting, had started the Cold War and thereby changed the history of mankind. She meant this quite literally; and, as Amanda Haight testifies in her book, was totally convinced of it, and saw herself and me as world-historical personages chosen by destiny to begin a cosmic conflict (this is indeed directly reflected in one of her poems). I could not protest that she had perhaps, even if the reality of Stalin's violent fit of anger and of its possible consequences were allowed for, somewhat overestimated the effect of our meeting on the destinies of the world, since she would have felt this as an insult...

She knew, she said, that she had not long to live: the doctors had made it plain that her heart was weak, and therefore she was patiently waiting for the end; she detested the thought that she might be pitied; she had faced horrors and knew the most terrible depths of grief, and had exacted from her friends the promise that they would not allow the faintest gleam of pity to show itself, to suppress it instantly if it did; some had given way to this feeling, and with them she had been obliged to part; hatred, insults, contempt, misunderstanding, persecution, she could bear, but not sympathy if it was mingled with compassion - would I give her my word of honour? I did, and have kept it. Her pride and dignity were very great.


Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova was the pen name of Anna Gorenko. She was interested in poetry from an early age but her father did not approve and this is why she was asked to use a pen name. She married Nikolai Gumilev a poet and critic in 1910. In 1912 Gumilev travelled to Abyssinia leaving Anna behind. During this period she wrote he first popular book ‘Evening’. With this and her 2nd book ‘Rosary’ (1914) Anna become a well respected author, especially within the literary scene of St Petersburg.

Anna’s poetry became associated with the movement of Acmeism. This praised the virtues of lucid, carefully-crafted verse. It was quite different to the previous symbolist style which was much more vague in its construction.

She divorced her husband N. Gumilev in 1918 and married twice more. Gumilev was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1921 and despite being divorced, through this association Akhamatova suffered from some degree of political censure for most of her life. One of her most famous works is ‘Requiem’ This was written as a tribute to the many victims of Stalin. It was not published fully in the Soviet Union until 1987.

Despite the heavy censure Anna faced from the authorities throughout her life she remained deeply popular with Russian people. Through her poetry Anna was a link to the pre Communist past and shewas also a personal witness to the political and cultural upheavals of Russian history.

She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1965 and was awarded the Etna-Taormina prize in 1964.

Anna Akhamatova died in Lenningrad in 1966

“Anna Andreevna Akhmatova used poetry to give voice to the struggles and deepest yearnings of the Russian people, for whom she remains the greatest of literary heroines. She has lately come to symbolize for the world even beyond Russia the power of art to survive and transcend the terrors of our century.”


Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova was born in Odessa and died in Moscow. In her long career as a poet, she rarely engaged directly with St. Petersburg as a subject of inquiry in her mostly highly personal verse. Nonetheless, her life and work were so tightly interwoven with the tragic and tumultuous fate of Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad in the 20th century that few other cultural figures are so widely and instantly identified with the city. The measured, incisive authority of her mature poetry upheld the moral and aesthetic values of the pre-Revolutionary liberal intelligentsia, cementing poetry's role as the human conscience of an often inhuman and amoral urban environment.

Akhmatova was born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko in 1889 in the Odessa suburb of Bolshoy Fontan. Her parents were both from minor noble families, her father a naval engineer and her mother a distant relative of Anna Bunina, acclaimed as Russia's first female poet. When Akhmatova was eleven months old, the family moved to Tsarskoye Selo, where her father became a collegiate assessor. She began her schooling at the Mariinskaya Gymnasium but, after her parents separated in 1905, completed it in Kyiv, where she went on to study law and literature for two years from 1908 to 1910. In the same year, she married Nikolay Gumilyov, a poet three years her senior, whom she had first met in 1903. In 1912, their son Lev was born. He would go on to become a renowned historian and controversial, pioneering anthropologist.

Akhmatova had begun writing poetry at the age of eleven and, encouraged by Gumilyov, she first published her verses in his journal Sirius in 1911. In order not to upset her father, she chose to publish under the pen-name "Akhmatova", the surname of her maternal great-grandmother, purportedly a descendant of the Tatar Horde. She published her first collection of verse, Vecher ("Evening"), in 1912. Her second collection, Chetki ("Beads") appeared in 1914, and was reprinted eight times before 1923, making her reputation as one of the leading poets of her generation and (if we ignore her largely forgotten ancestor Anna Bunina), the first truly significant female voice in Russian literature. She continued to release regular collections of verse through the years of the First World War, the Revolution and the Russian Civil War. The subject of her verse in this first period was almost exclusively love, her inspiration her own romantic relationships and, apart from her remarkable formal aptitude, it was the intense and naked emotional honesty of her poems that won her critical and public admiration.

In the two years after their marriage, Gumilyov and Akhmatova travelled extensively in France and Italy. Akhmatova's relationship with Gumilyov soured quickly. His desperate love for her, which had encompassed one attempt at suicide, had apparently already cooled by the time of their wedding, and Akhmatova herself had never been certain of her own feelings for her husband. A passionate traveller, he departed on his second expedition to Africa in 1913 and, on his return, volunteered early for service in the First World War as a cavalry officer, then served during the Revolution in the Russian Expedition Corps in Paris. The couple, by then thoroughly estranged, finally divorced when he returned to Petrograd in 1918.

In Paris in 1910, Akhmatova made the acquaintance of Amedeo Modigliani, and their brief affair, resumed when she returned alone to Paris the following summer, had a profound effect on his art and his mental stability. It also produced several remarkable drawings of her. Tall, slender and by all contemporary accounts exceptionally graceful, with strikingly strong facial features, Akhmatova attracted almost universal male admiration. She enjoyed a close friendship with Boris Pasternak, whose life and career were in many respects a mirror image of her own and who, although already married, proposed to her several times. She was also rumoured to have had an affair with the great Symbolist poet Alexander Blok. After her divorce from Gumilyev, she quickly married the poet and orientalist Vladimir Shileyko, although her second marriage lasted only three years and she continued to have affairs. This rich and semi-public romantic biography, along with her widely acclaimed sexual allure, was almost as important to her rapid rise to literary fame as the indubitable quality of her verse.

The darkness and desperation of the war years began to be reflected, albeit initially only tangentially, in her verse, and by the time of the October Revolution she was discussing with her habitual frankness in her work her uncertainty over remaining in Russia and her terror of the future. Nonetheless, like Pasternak and Blok and unlike the vast majority of her social circle, she chose to remain. As too did Gumilyev, although on his part, considering his military service and his poorly concealed disdain for the Bolshevik government, the decision smacked of recklessness. Almost inevitably, he was arrested, tried and executed by the Cheka in 1921 for purportedly participating in a monarchist conspiracy.

According to the degraded reasoning of the authorities, Gumilyev's alleged guilt cast permanent suspicion on Akhmatova and her son, making their lives increasingly difficult. From around 1925, she was unable to publish her poetry. She never stopped composing verse, but much of her work from the period, scantily recorded for fear of denunciation, was lost during later upheavals. She worked when she could as a critic and translator, producing Russian versions of works by Victor Hugo and Giacomo Leopardi amongst others. Money was desperately short nonetheless, and Akhmatova also found it difficult to obtain a proper education for Lev, as institutions were unwilling to accept a child marked as "anti-Soviet" by association.

Meanwhile, an ever increasing number of her friends and colleagues found themselves victims of Stalin's purges, and Akhmatova was made constantly aware of the state's malevolent scrutiny. In 1922, she had taken up residence with her lifelong friend, the art critic Nikolay Punin. In the early 1930s, Punin was arrested, but with Pasternak's help Akhmatova managed to petition for his release. At around the same time, it would later be revealed, Akhmatova was placed under constant government surveillance and a fat dossier of denunciations was compiled. The cruelest blow came in 1938, when her son Lev was arrested and sentenced to five years in the Gulag. This accumulation of horrors lead to the composition of one of her greatest works, the verse cycle Requiem, written between 1935 and 1940.

The Second World War brought a temporary relief from the Terror, but replaced it with an even greater horror in the form of the Siege of Leningrad, which Akhmatova witnessed the first months of. She began work on her Poem without a Hero, which she herself considered her masterpiece, and which she would work on for the next 20 years, dedicating it to the victims of the Siege. She was evacuated to Tashkent in 1942, where she suffered from typhus but otherwise actively involved herself in the war effort by writing patriotic verses, some of which even made their way into the pages of Pravda, and visiting the wounded in military hospitals to give readings. She returned to Leningrad in 1944 to bear witness to the horrific destruction the war had wrought on her beloved city.

Her son Lev finished his sentence in 1943 and was sent directly to the front line, surviving the war and even marching on Berlin in 1945. If there was any hope that victory had brought an end to the family's troubles, however, it was quickly dashed the following year when Akhmatova was specifically condemned and expelled from the Union of Writers, along with the enormously popular satirist Mikhail Zoshenko, by the newly appointed cultural commissar Andrey Zhdanov. Coming from the man whose Doctrine, the USSR's cultural policy in the final years of Stalin's life, sought to reduce all art to the packaging and marketing materials of an inane ideology already utterly bereft of either intellectual substance or moral authority, this was a backhanded recognition of Akhmatova's extraordinary status. Unable to publish properly for over two decades, she was still revered, respected and adored. The exceptional clarity and uncompromising honesty with which she had once recorded the emotional turmoil of her youth served equally effectively for her to bear witness to the monstrous machinations of the Soviet state, giving her a moral authority against which the likes of Zhdanov could only react with adolescent spite.

She would continue to pay the price. Lev was arrested again in 1949 and sentenced to ten more years of hard labour. In a vain attempt to win his release, Akhmatova even wrote a collection of verse praising Stalin, but to no avail. It was not until 1956 and the Khrushchev Thaw that Lev was eventually released and rehabilitated. Under Khrushchev, Akhmatova began to regain her freedom and receive official recognition of her status. In 1958, her first collected works was published, and further collections appeared at the beginning of the 1960s, although Requiem and Poem without a Hero, arguably her greatest mature works, would not appear in print until long after her death. She began efforts to reconstruct the works of her lost years, and received state honours both in the USSR and abroad. She was visited by foreign dignitaries, including Isiah Berlin and Robert Frost, and in 1965 she was allowed to travel abroad to France and Great Britain, where she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University.

Akhmatova died on 5 March 1966 while undergoing treatment for heart trouble at a sanatorium in Domodedovo outside Moscow. Her funeral was attended by thousands of mourners, andshe was buried at the cemetery of the St. Petersburg suburb of Komarovo, where she had long had a summer residence. There and at her apartment in the Fountain House on the Fontanka River Embankment, she was regularly visited by a younger generation of artists and poets, most notably among them Joseph Brodsky, who by the time of her death had begun his own wearisome battle with the state, and who would be widely hailed her moral and artistic heir.

Especially in St. Petersburg, Akhmatova remains a figure of universal admiration and affection. There are two museums in her honour, of which the Anna Akhmatova Museum at the Fountain House is definitely the superior and one of the most popular museums in the city. There are statues in her memory in the courtyard of the philological faculty of St. Petersburg State University, in front of a secondary school on Ulitsa Vosstaniya, and in the garden of the Fountain House. In 2006, a monument to her was erected on Robespierre (now Voskresenskaya) Embankment directly opposite the Kresty Holding Prison, where she had been forced to spend countless hours queuing to hear news of her son and other loved ones.


Biography

Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, better known by the pen name Anna Akhmatova, was a Russian and Soviet modernist poet, one of the most acclaimed writers in the Russian canon.

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 style, characterised by its economy and emotional restraint, was strikingly original and distinctive to her contemporaries. The strong and clear leading female voice struck a new chord in Russian poetry. Her writing can be said to fall into two periods - the early work (1912–25) and her later work (from around 1936 until her death), divided by a decade of reduced literary output. Her work was condemned and censored by Stalinist authorities and she is notable for choosing not to emigrate, and remaining in Russia, acting as witness to the atrocities around her. Her perennial themes include meditations on time and memory, and the difficulties of living and writing in the shadow of Stalinism.

Primary sources of information about Akhmatova's life are relatively scant, as war, revolution and the totalitarian regime caused much of the written record to be destroyed. For long periods she was in official disfavour and many of those who were close to her died in the aftermath of the revolution.

Early life and family

Akhmatova was born at Bolshoy Fontan, near the Black Sea port of Odessa. Her father, Andrey Antonovich Gorenko, a civil servant, and her mother, Inna Erazmovna Stogova, were both descended from the Russian nobility. Akhmatova wrote,

"No one in my large family wrote poetry. But the first Russian woman poet, Anna Bunina, was the aunt of my grandfather Erasm Ivanovich Stogov. The Stogovs were modest landowners in the Mozhaisk region of the Moscow Province. They were moved here after the insurrection during the time of Posadnitsa Marfa. In Novgorod they had been a wealthier and more distinguished family. Khan Akhmat, my ancestor, was killed one night in his tent by a Russian killer-for-hire. Karamzin tells us that this marked the end of the Mongol yoke on Russia. [. ] It was well known that this Akhmat was a descendant of Genghiz Khan. In the eighteenth century, one of the Akhmatov Princesses - Praskovia Yegorvna - married the rich and famous Simbirsk landowner Motovilov. Yegor Motovilov was my great-grandfather his daughter, Anna Yegorovna, was my grandmother. She died when my mother was nine years old, and I was named in her honour. Several diamond rings and one emerald were made from her brooch. Though my fingers are thin, still her thimble didn't fit me."

Her family moved north to Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg when she was eleven months old. The family lived in a house on the corner of Shirokaya Street and Bezymyanny Lane (the building is no longer there today), spending summers from age 7 to 13 in a dacha near Sevastopol. She studied at the Mariinskaya High School, moving to Kiev (1906–10) and finished her schooling there, after her parents separated in 1905. She went on to study law at Kiev University, leaving a year later to study literature in St Petersburg.

Akhmatova started writing poetry at the age of 11, and published in her late teens, inspired by the poets Nikolay Nekrasov, Racine, Pushkin, Baratynsky and the Symbolists however none of her juvenilia survives. Her sister Inna also wrote poetry though she did not pursue the practice and married shortly after high school. Akhmatova's father did not want to see any verses printed under his "respectable" name, so she chose to adopt her grandmother's distinctly Tatar surname 'Akhmatova' as a pen name.

She met the young poet, Nilolai Gumilev on Christmas Eve 1903, who encouraged her to write and pursued her intensely, making numerous marriage proposals from 1905. At 17 years old, in his journal Sirius, she published her first poem which could be translated as On his hand are many shiny rings, (1907) signing it ‘Anna G.’ She soon became known in St Petersburg's artistic circles, regularly giving public readings. That year, she wrote unenthusiastically to a friend, “He has loved me for three years now, and I believe that it is my fate to be his wife. Whether or not I love him, I do not know, but it seems to me that I do.” She married Gumilev in Kiev in April 1910, however none of Akhmatova’s family attended the wedding. The couple honeymooned in Paris, and there she met and befriended the Italian artist Modigliani.

In late 1910, she came together with poets such Osip Mandelstam and Sergey Gorodetsky to form the Guild of Poets. It promoted the idea of craft as the key to poetry rather than inspiration or mystery, taking themes of the concrete rather than the more ephemeral world of the Symbolists. Over time, they developed the influential Acmeist anti-symbolist school, concurrent with the growth of Imagism in Europe and America. From the first year of their marriage, Gumilyov began to chafe against its constraints. She wrote that he had "lost his passion" for her and by the end of that year he left on a six month trip to Africa. Akhmatova had "her first taste of fame", becoming renowned, not so much for her beauty, as her intense magnetism and allure, attracting the fascinated attention of a great many men, including the great and the good. She returned to visit Modigliani in Paris, where he created at least 20 paintings of her, including several nudes. She later began an affair with the celebrated Acmeist poet Osip Mandelstam, whose wife, Nadezhda, declared later, in her autobiography that she came to forgive Akhmatova for it in time. Akhmatova's son, Lev, was born in 1912, and would go on to become a renowned Neo-Eurasianist historian.

In 1912, the Guild of Poets published her book of verse Evening (Vecher) - the first of five in nine years. The small edition of 500 copies quickly sold out and she received around a dozen positive notices in the literary press. She exercised a strong selectivity for the pieces - including only 35 of the 200 poems she had written by the end of 1911. (She noted that Song of the Last Meeting, dated 29 September 1911, was her 200th poem). The book secured her reputation as a new and striking young writer, the poems Grey-eyed king, In the Forest, Over the Water and I don’t need my legs anymore making her famous. She later wrote "These naïve poems by a frivolous girl for some reason were reprinted thirteen times [. ] And they came out in several translations. The girl herself (as far as I recall) did not foresee such a fate for them and used to hide the issues of the journals in which they were first published under the sofa cushions".

Her second collection, The Rosary (or Beads - Chetki) appeared in March 1914 and firmly established her as one of the most popular and sought after poets of the day.Thousands of women composed poems "in honour of Akhmatova", mimicking her style and prompting Akhmatova to exclaim: "I taught our women how to speak, but don't know how to make them silent". Her aristocratic manners and artistic integrity won her the titles "Queen of the Neva" and "Soul of the Silver Age," as the period came to be known in the history of Russian poetry. In Poem Without a Hero, the longest and one of the best known of her works, written many decades later, she would recall this as a blessed time of her life. She became close friends with Boris Pasternak (who, though married, proposed to her many times) and rumours began to circulate that she was having an affair with influential lyrical poet Aleksandr Blok. In July 1914, Akhmatova wrote “Frightening times are approaching/ Soon fresh graves will cover the land" on August 1, Germany declared war on Russia, marking the start of "the dark storm" of world war, civil war, revolution and totalitarian repression for Russia. The Silver Age came to a close.

Akhmatova had a relationship with the mosaic artist and poet Boris Anrep many of her poems in the period are about him and he in turn created mosaics in which she features. She selected poems for her third collection Belaya Staya (White Flock) in 1917, a volume which poet and critic Joseph Brodsky later described as writing of personal lyricism tinged with the “note of controlled terror”.She later came to be memorialised by his description of her as "the keening muse". Essayist John Bayley describes her writing at this time as "grim, spare and laconic". In February 1917, the revolution started in Petersburg (then named Petrograd) soldiers fired on marching protestors, and others mutinied. They looked to a past in which the future was "rotting". In a city without electricity or sewage service, with little water or food, they faced starvation and sickness. Her friends died around her and others left in droves for safer havens in Europe and America, including Anrep, who escaped to England. She had the option to leave, and considered it for a time, but chose to stay and was proud of her decision to remain.That summer she wrote:

You are a traitor, and for a green island,

Have betrayed, yes, betrayed your native

Abandoned all our songs and sacred

And the pine tree over a quiet lake.

She wrote of her own temptation to leave:

A voice came to me. It called out comfortingly.

Leave your deaf and sinful land,

I will wash the blood from your hands,

Root out the black shame from your heart,

I covered my ears with my hands,

So that my sorrowing spint

Would not be stained by those shameful words.

At the height of Akhmatova's fame, in 1918, she divorced her husband and that same year, though many of her friends considered it a mistake, Akhmatova married prominent Assyriologist and poet Vladimir Shilejko.She later said “I felt so filthy. I thought it would be like a cleansing, like going to a convent, knowing you are going to lose your freedom.” She began affairs with theatre director Mikhail Zimmerman and composer Arthur Lourié, who set many of her poems to music.

In 1921, Akhmatova's former husband Nikolay Gumilyov was prosecuted for his alleged role in a monarchist anti-Bolshevik conspiracy and on 25 August was shot along with 61 others. According to the historian Rayfield, the murder of Gumilev was part of the state response to the Kronstadt Rebellion. The Cheka (secret police) blamed the rebellion on Petrograd's intellectuals, prompting the senior Cheka officer Agranov to forcibly extract the names of 'conspirators', from an imprisoned professor, guaranteeing them amnesty from execution. Agranov then pronounced death sentences on a large number of them, including Gumilev. Gorky and others appealed, but by the time Lenin agreed to several pardons, the condemned had been shot. Within a few days of his death, Akhmatova wrote:

Terror fingers all things in the dark,

Leads moonlight to the axe.

There's an ominous knock behind the

The murders had a powerful effect on the Russian intelligentsia, destroying the Acmeist poetry group, and placing a stigma on Akhmatova and her son Lev (by Gumilev). Lev's later arrest in the purges and terrors of the 1930s were based on being his father's son. From a new Marxist perspective, Akhmatova's poetry was deemed to represent an introspective "bourgeois aesthetic", reflecting only trivial "female" preoccupations, not in keeping with these new revolutionary politics of the time. She was roundly attacked by the state, by former supporters and friends, and seen to be an anachronism. During what she termed "The Vegetarian Years", Akhmatova's work was unofficially banned by a party resolution of 1925 and she found it hard to publish, though she didn't stop writing poetry. She made acclaimed translations of works by Victor Hugo, Rabindranath Tagore, Giacomo Leopardi and pursued academic work on Pushkin and Dostoyevsky. She worked as a critic and essayist, though many critics and readers both within and outside USSR concluded she had died. She had little food and almost no money her son was denied access to study at academic institutions by dint of his parents' alleged anti-state activities. The impact of the nation-wide repression and purges had a decimating effect on her St Petersburg circle of friends, artists and intellectuals. Her close friend and fellow poet Mandelstam was deported and then sentenced to a Gulag labour camp, where he would die. Akhmatova narrowly escaped arrest, though her son Lev was imprisoned on numerous occasions by the Stalinist regime, accused of counter-revolutionary activity. She would often queue for hours to deliver him food packages and plead on his behalf. She describes standing outside a stone prison:

"One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from 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):

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

Akhmatova wrote that by 1935 every time she went to see someone off at the train station as they went into exile, she'd find herself greeting friends at every step as so many of St Petersburg's intellectual and cultural figures would be leaving on the same train. In her poetry circles Mayakovsky and Esenin committed suicide and Akhmatova's sister poet Marina Tsvetaeva would follow them in 1941, after returning from exile.

Akhmatova married an art scholar and lifelong friend, Nikolai Punin, whom she stayed with until 1935. He too was repeatedly taken into custody and died in the Gulag in 1953. Her tragic cycle Requiem documents her personal experience of this time as she writes, "one hundred million voices shout" through her "tortured mouth".

Seventeen months I've pleaded

Flung myself at the hangman’s feet.

Now all’s eternal confusion.

In 1939, Stalin approved the publication of one volume of poetry, From Six Books, however the collection was withdrawn and pulped after only a few months. In 1993, it was revealed that the authorities had bugged her flat and kept her under constant surveillance, keeping detailed files on her from this time, accruing some 900 pages of "denunciations, reports of phone taps, quotations from writings, confessions of those close to her". Although officially stifled, Akhmatova's work continued to circulate in secret (samizdat), her work hidden, passed and read in the gulags.Akhmatova's close friend and chronicler Lydia Chukovskaya described how writers working to keep poetic messages alive used various strategies. A small trusted circle would, for example, memorise each others' works and circulate them only by oral means. She tells how Akhmatova would write out her poem for a visitor on a scrap of paper to be read in a moment, then burnt in her stove. The poems were carefully disseminated in this way, however it is likely that many complied in this manner were lost. "It was like a ritual," Chukovskaya wrote. "Hands, matches, an ashtray. A ritual beautiful and bitter."

During World War II, Akhmatova witnessed the 900 day Siege of Leningrad (now St Petersburg). In 1940, Akhmatova started her Poem without a Hero, finishing a first draft in Tashkent, but working on "The Poem" for twenty years and considering it to be the major work of her life, dedicating it to "the memory of its first audience - my friends and fellow citizens who perished in Leningrad during the siege". She was evacuated to Chistopol in spring of 1942 and then to greener, safer Tashkent in Uzbekistan, along with other artists, such as Shostakovitch. During her time away she became seriously ill with typhus (she had suffered from severe bronchitis and tuberculosis as a young woman). On returning to Leningrad in May 1944, she writes of how disturbed she was to find "a terrible ghost that pretended to be my city".

If a gag should blind my tortured mouth,

through which a hundred million people shout,

then let them pray for me, as I do pray

She regularly read to soldiers in the military hospitals and on the front line indeed, her later pieces seem to be the voice of those who had struggled and the many she has outlived. She moved away from romantic themes towards a more diverse, complex and philosophical body of work and some of her more patriotic poems found their way to the front pages of Pravda.She was condemned for a visit by the liberal, western, Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin in 1946, and Official Andrei Zhdanov publicly labelled her "half harlot, half nun", her work "the poetry of an overwrought, upper-class lady", her work the product of "eroticism, mysticism, and political indifference". He banned her poems from publication in the journals Zvezda and Leningrad, accusing her of poisoning the minds of Soviet youth. Her surveillance was increased and she was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers. Berlin described his visit to her flat: It was very barely furnished—virtually everything in it had, I gathered, been taken away—looted or sold—during the siege . . . . A stately, grey-haired lady, a white shawl draped about her shoulders, slowly rose to greet us. Anna Akhmatova was immensely dignified, with unhurried gestures, a noble head, beautiful, somewhat severe features, and an expression of immense sadness.

Akhmatova's son Lev was arrested again at the end of 1949 and sentenced to 10 years in a Siberian prison camp. She spent much of the next years trying to ensure his release, to this end, and for the first time, she published overtly propagandist poetry, “In Praise of Peace,” in the magazine Ogoniok, openly supporting Stalin and his regime. Lev remained in the camps until 1956, well after Stalin's death, his final release potentially aided by his mother's concerted efforts. Bayley suggests that her period of pro-Stalinist work may also have saved her own life notably however, Akhmatova never acknowledged these pieces in her official corpus. Akhmatova's stature among Soviet poets was slowly conceded by party officials, her name no longer cited in only scathing contexts and she was readmitted to Union of Writers in 1951, being fully recognised again following Stalin's death in 1953. With the press still heavily controlled and censored under Nikita Khrushchev, a translation by Akhmatova was praised in a public review in 1955, and her own poems began to re-appear in 1956. In this year Lev was released from the camps, embittered, believing that his mother cared more about her poetry than her son and that she had not worked hard for his release. Akhmatova's status was confirmed by 1958, with the publication of Stikhotvoreniya (Poems) and then Stikhotvoreniya 1909-1960 (Poems: 1909-1960) in 1961. Beg vremeni (The flight of time), collected works 1909-1965, published in 1965, was the most complete volume of her works in her lifetime, though the long damning poem Requiem, condemning the Stalinist purges, was conspicuously absent. Isaiah Berlin predicted at the time that it could never be published in the Soviet Union.

Sand on the bottom whiter than chalk,

and the air drunk, like wine,

the rosy limbs of the pinetrees.

Sunset in the ethereal waves:

is ending, or the world, or if

the secret of secrets is inside me again.

During the last years of her life she continued to live with the Punin family in Leningrad, still translating, researching Pushkin and writing her own poetry. Though still censored, she was concerned to re-construct work that had been destroyed or suppressed during the purges or which had posed a threat to the life of her son in the camps, such as the lost, semi-autobiographical play Enûma Elish. She worked on her official memoirs, planned novels and worked on her epic Poem without a hero, 20 years in the writing.

Akhmatova was widely honoured in USSR and the West. In 1962 she was visited by Robert Frost Isaiah Berlin tried to visit her again, but she refused him, worried that her son might be re-arrested due to family association with the ideologically suspect western philosopher. She inspired and advised a large circle of key young Soviet writers. Her dacha in Komarovo was frequented by such poets as Yevgeny Rein and Joseph Brodsky, whom she mentored. Brodsky, arrested in 1963 and interned for social parasitism, would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1987) and become Poet Laureate (1991) as an exile in the US. As one of the last remaining major poets of the Silver Age, she was newly acclaimed by the Soviet authorities as a fine and loyal representative of their country and permitted to travel. At the same time, by virtue of works such as Requiem, Akhmatova was being hailed at home and abroad as an unofficial leader of the dissident movement, and reinforcing this image herself. She was becoming representative of both Russias, more popular in the 1960s than she had ever been before the revolution, this reputation only continuing to grow after her death. For her 75th birthday in 1964, new collections of her verse were published.

Akhmatova was able to meet some of her pre-revolutionary acquaintances in 1965, when she was allowed to travel to Sicily and England, in order to receive the Taormina prize and an honorary doctoral degree from Oxford University, accompanied by her life-long friend and secretary Lydia Chukovskaya. Akhmatova's Requiem in Russian finally appeared in book form in Munich in 1963, the whole work not published within USSR until 1987. Her long poem The Way of All the Earth or Woman of Kitezh (Kitezhanka) was published in complete form in 1965.

In November 1965, soon after her Oxford visit, Akhmatova suffered a heart attack and was hospitalised. She was moved to a sanatorium in Moscow in the spring of 1966 and died of heart failure on March 5, at the age of 76. Thousands attended the two memorial ceremonies which were held in Moscow and in Leningrad. After being displayed in an open coffin, she was interred at Komarovo Cemetery in St Petersburg.

Isaiah Berlin described the impact of her life, as he saw it:

The widespread worship of her memory in Soviet Union today, both as an artist and as an unsurrendering human being, has, so far as I know, no parallel. The legend of her life and unyielding passive resistance to what she regarded as unworthy of her country and herself, transformed her into a figure [. ] not merely in Russian literature, but in Russian history in [the Twentieth] century.

In 1988, to celebrate what would have been Akhmatova's 100th birthday, the University of Harvard held an international conference on her life and work. Today her work may be explored at the Anna Akhmatova Literary and Memorial Museum in St Petersburg.

Akhmatova joined the Acmeist group of poets in 1910 with poets such as Osip Mandelstam and Sergey Gorodetsky, working in response to the Symbolist school, concurrent with the growth of Imagism in Europe and America. It promoted the use craft and rigorous poetic form over mysticism or spiritual in-roads to composition, favouring the concrete over the ephemeral. Akhmatova modelled its principles of writing with clarity, simplicity, and disciplined form.Her first collections Evening (1912) and Rosary (1914) received wide critical acclaim and made her famous from the start of her career. They contained brief, psychologically taut pieces, acclaimed for their classical diction, telling details, and the skilful use of colour. Evening and her next four books were mostly lyric miniatures on the theme of love, shot through with sadness. Her early poems usually picture a man and a woman involved in the most poignant, ambiguous moment of their relationship, much imitated and later parodied by Nabokov and others. Critic Roberta Reeder notes that the early poems always attracted large numbers of admirers: "For Akhmatova was able to capture and convey the vast range of evolving emotions experienced in a love affair, from the first thrill of meeting, to a deepening love contending with hatred, and eventually to violent destructive passion or total indifference. But [. ] her poetry marks a radical break with the erudite, ornate style and the mystical representation of love so typical of poets like Alexander Blok and Andrey Bely. Her lyrics are composed of short fragments of simple speech that do not form a logical coherent pattern. Instead, they reflect the way we actually think, the links between the images are emotional, and simple everyday objects are charged with psychological associations. Like Alexander Pushkin, who was her model in many ways, Akhmatova was intent on conveying worlds of meaning through precise details."

She often complained that the critics "walled her in" to their perception of her work in the early years of romantic passion, despite major changes of theme in the later years of The Terror. This was mainly due to the secret nature of her work after the public and critical effusion over her first volumes. The risks during the purges were very great. Many of her close friends and family were exiled, imprisoned or shot her son was under constant thread of arrest, she was often under close surveillance. Following artistic repression and public condemnation by the state in the 1920s, many within literary and public circles, at home and abroad, thought she had died. Her readership generally didn't know her later opus, the railing passion of Requiem or Poem without a Hero and her other scathing works, which were shared only with a very trusted few or circulated in secret by word of mouth (samizdat).

Between 1935 and 1940 Akhmatova composed, worked and reworked the long poem Requiem in secret, a lyrical cycle of lamentation and witness, depicting the suffering of the common people under Soviet terror. She carried it with her as she worked and lived in towns and cities across the Soviet Union. It was conspicuously absent from her collected works, given its explicit condemnation of the purges. The work in Russian finally appeared in book form in Munich in 1963, the whole work not published within USSR until 1987. It consists of ten numbered poems that examine a series of emotional states, exploring suffering, despair, devotion, rather than a clear narrative. Biblical themes such as Christ's crucifixion and the devastation of Mary, Mother of Jesus and Mary Magdelene, reflect the ravaging of Russia, particularly witnessing the harrowing of women in the 1930s. It represented, to some degree, a rejection of her own earlier romantic work as she took on the public role as chronicler of the Terror. This is a role she holds to this day.

Her essays on Pushkin and Poem Without a Hero, her longest work, were only published after her death. This long poem, composed between 1940 and 1965, is often critically regarded as her best work and also one of the finest poems of the twentieth century. It offers a complex analysis of the times she lived though and her relationship with them, including her significant meeting with Isaiah Berlin (1909–97) in 1945. Her talent in composition and translation is evidenced in her fine translations of the works of poets writing in French, English, Italian, Armenian, and Korean.


Anna Akhmatova

As I was considering this blog and trying to figure out what my focus will be, I came across an old book of Akhmatova’s poems and was inspired to include her work and life in my study abroad experience. Anna’s entire life had been a struggle, from an unhappy marriage to the constant tyranny of the communist regime, which took the lives of everyone dear to her. Unlike many other writers and members of the intelligentsia who emigrated to various European countries, Akhmatova stayed in Russia and bore witness to the horror around her.

I have been drawn to poetry ever since I could read. When I first began reading Akhmatova, it was mainly to read the poems in Russian and then proceed to see how much I understood by reading the English translated version. Reading Dostoevsky in Russian was too strenuous after a couple chapters and well, reading Anna’s short poems not only made me feel good about my Russian reading abilities, it fulfilled my innate need for poetry.

However, the more I learned about Russia’s history, and the more I read other Russian writers’ commentaries on Russian society, Anna’s poetry began to really resonate with me. In her poems, she effectively combines her own personal emotions and stories with the politics of the day, creating beautiful yet often dismal images.

I would like to share her poetry and presence by including an Akhmatova poem in every post, and probably a little biographical detail in order to keep the history of Russia alive as I am exploring present-day St. Petersburg. Anna spent most of her life in St. Petersburg, and I’m excited to walk her steps, go to the cafe she used to perform at, and see some of the sights she must have seen (minus the Макдоналдс on the corner)!!

Let me know if you have any questions/ suggestions.

The title of this blog comes from one of her poems:

You will hear thunder and remember me,
And think: she wanted storms. The rim
Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson,
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.

That day in Moscow, it will all come true,
when, for the last time, I take my leave,
And hasten to the heights that I have longed for,
Leaving my shadow still to be with you.

-Anna Akhmatova (trans D.M. Thomas)

Услышишь гром и вспомнишь обо мне,
Подумаешь: она грозы желала…
Полоска неба будет твердо-алой,
А сердце будет как тогда – в огне.


Случится это в тот московский день,
Когда я город навсегда покину
И устремлюсь к желанному притину,
Свою меж вас еще оставив тень.


Anna Akhmatova - History

Anna Akhmatova

16 Akhmatova // A Nation Without Nationalists John

I am not among those who left our land

I am not among those who left our land

The first line and title. They call to mind images of the exiled. Placing herself in a roll of the speaker within the country, that stayed, that endured. That is sure that she is in the right place. (or was)

to be torn to pieces by our enemies.

This of course is a vulgar image, But what better way to set up this poem? She would choose to stay home. She did not go to fight. "Torn to peices" shows the hopelessness of her situation. They werent merely killed but torn to peices. It almost sounds as if she was disgusted with fact that people could leve the country to be destroyed knowing full well they would die. While she was forced out and had no choice. Or maybe they werent killed so much as their identitites were destroyed and therefore they were torn to peices. By leaving the culture and the world they knew they were destroyed by the outside world, or her "enemies" It says something about how hopeless she feels but yet how she still feels right about her choice to stay.

I don't listen to their vulgar flattery,

I will not give them my poems.

This I love. Her poetry is so much a part of her world. It instills a feeling of suffering and great hurt, but also makes the world turn a sympathetic ear saying "how can this happen" But she doesnt write for the soldiers and the fighters. She doesnt write for the people continuing the bloodshed. She writes for those that chose to stay behind and endure, those such as herself. I am reminded of her Poem about Women waiting outside a jail to hear news of their son or husband because they were taken away. The women would wait outside every day hoping to hear if their son or husband was alive. I wish I knew the name of the poem right now. I was introduced to it through Jorie Graham's poem about it. (Read Jorie Graham every chance you get!) But it is another poem written about the people that suffer in a war besides the soldiers. These are people that choose every day not to fight but yet they still have to feel the pain. So she doesnt write for national pride, she writes for the meek, for the pathetic. She writes so that somebody can hear what they are saying every day. They dont care about what is being fought for, they care about they're sons and husbands.

But the exile is for ever pitiful to me,

like a prisoner, like a sick man.

But now that she is away from her homeland she is in just as bad a state. She can no longer suffer with her family and friends, a comforting thought when you wonder where they even are.

Your road is dark, wanderer

It is a step out of the original speaking voice. The voice of fate that condemns someone to a life that others might rejoice at her surviving, but she herself cannot. For she is a refugee of war and cannot return to the place that she knows.

alien corn smells of wormwood.

Another powerful line to end a stanza that talks about the idea that she is a refugee and did not choose to fight but nonetheless she is out away from her homeland. Among everything that is different and therefore she can never be comfortable again.

But here, stupefied by fumes of fire,

The fire of a camp from a refugee or fire from their homes and their crops burning. It has made them silent. in shock.

wasting the remainder of our youth,

There is nothing that a refugee can do. And nothng takes away youth like war. The loss of innocense puts them into that strange place where a child cannot be a child anymore.

we did not defend ourselves

Christ turns his cheek, and the refugees move on. They didnt even defend. It is the ideals of christianity taken to its grotesque conclusion. If you do not defend yourself then you end up bruised and bloodied. But that is what is called for, or that is all they could do, either way you cannot decide whether to look up to them or to look down on them.

will vindicate our every hour.

What a sad statement. The only thing to look to for hope is that history will prove you right. The hope of the hopeless. The ellipses say that there is something more. How will history vindicate them, The same way it vindicated the slaves that endured lifetimes of slavery? It is so sad to look on this being your only hope left. What happiness is found in a hope that none will live to see? You cannot tell a person that they must die today because then their grandchildren will say they died nobly that day. It is such an odd statement to find pride in.

There is no one in the world more tearless,

more proud, more simple than us.

Tearless can be because they cannot cry anymore, or because they choose not to cry over the fate they were dealt. Proud can be because they walked the right path and history will one day say they did or because that is all they can have left of their own heritage. And simple is just what is left. They had nothing to do with the war around them but they suffered. And they did not ask why but merely endured. The life of a Refugee within one sentence.

16 Akhmatova // A Part. But Not That Part Scott

Anna Akhmatova in 99 Poems, p. 1

I've done quite a few line-by-line readings lately, so I'm just going to select a few lines of this poem that are special to me and then elaborate as much as possible, okay? Thanks.

I am not among those who left our land (Akhmatova, 99 Poems, p. 1)

I am not among those who left our land

to be torn to pieces by our enemies.

I don't listen to their vulgar flattery,

I will not give them my poems.

The author is identified by her poems. They mean more to her, and explain more about her, than anything else in the world. To me, this is a recognition of the power of the written word. It's not surprising that tyrannical rulers want to silence the pens of the great authors of their nation. Oppressive leaders always try to control the newspapers and art of the country. If the poet decides to give away her words, or if she is forced to give them away, there is nothing left for her to say. Art can often influence people more deeply than money, sex, and food. Therefore, art must be completely silenced for one to have true and complete authority over it--just like our natural urges are often silenced to show that we control them. This is an extremely powerful line. It's tough and straightforward. "I will not" is a command to anyone near. "give" points to an impending struggle should anyone decide to challenge the author for her art. She refuses to give it away, someone must try to come and pull it from her. "them" is the enemy, although the enemy remains nameless and faceless. I picture the author writing this poem in a lonely room, trapped and hidden away from the outside world. She is being hunted, yet she still has something to say. She will not give away her poems, but will use the poems to fight back if she can. Poetry is her weapon of choice. The way this line is written, it's as if Akhmatova is sharing a little secret with me. in a whispered voice, she tells me that, no matter what the consequence, she will not give her poems over to the forces of evil. This is because her poems are a source of beauty and peace in the world. They cannot mix well with evil and hatred. Poems go much deeper than religion, race, economic status, etc. and so she refuses to put a label on them and give them away. The author assumes that we are not part of the problem, but part of the solution. As such, she will not give "them" her poems, but she will share them with you and me. In a sense, this is almost like a response to someone else, possibly someone who was telling her to conform or give up her quest for hope. The forces of evil can take away her physical possessions, but she refuses to compromise the place where her poems are found--in the depths of the soul. She will give up a certain part of herself, but not that part that belongs to the soul.

But the exile is for ever pitiful to me,

like a prisoner, like a sick man.

Two weak, vulnerable, and controlled descriptions. The prisoner is held against his will and is treated however badly his captors choose to treat him. He eats when told to eat. He drinks when told to drink. He sleeps when told to sleep. The prison walls are inescapable and cold. Prisoners watch them, waiting for them to fall, but they never do. And so it is with a dictator: the people wait for him, watch him, hope that he falls, but he never seems to--at least not until all signs of life are gone. A prisoner gets all of his possessions taken away from him. The guards hope that physical possessions are what define a man. But Akhmatova will not give away her soul. A sick man, similar to a prisoner, has little control over his life. He becomes alienated from his own body, fighting it for survival. A body is like a homeland, but it goes through many changes when a virus enters the area. Such things--sickness, prison, dictator--aren't natural and people cannot live well confined by them. When health of body is taken away, the mind must fight back as long as it is able.

Your road is dark, wanderer

There is a path up ahead. But one cannot see what it is or where it leads. Because of the circumstances, the poet will forever find herself wandering the world. Home can never be home again. And the new places of the world will never feel safe or comfortable. Akhmatova has lived through the defining moment of her life. She has seen what the crushing forces of darkness can do when they take control of humanity. Her pathway is forever full of stones and boulders--there will be no more easy travels. I like this line because it seems to stand out from the rest of the poem. The poet is able to see into the future--my future. She is speaking to me directly, telling me to learn from the struggles of her life. I am part of the future of the world, the youth. Therefore, I must look back and see clearly the gross mistakes of the past. Akhmatova appears to speak about the coming of a day of darkness. There will be a new government in her homeland, and she can foretell the doom that is to follow. The land that was once her home and place of worship now belongs to someone else.

alien corn smells of wormwood.

But here, stupefied by fumes of fire,

wasting the remainder of our youth,

we did not defend ourselves

will vindicate our every hour.

I find both hope and sadness within these lines. On the one hand, the author hopes for a better tomorrow. On the other, she recognizes her terrible plight and knows that deep down inside things can never return to form. She looks to the future, hoping, perhaps knowing, that history will prove all modern day actions of evil to be reprehensible. This seems strange to me as well. It's almost like Akhmatova feels that she doesn't belong in her society. She sees things and understands how actions will be perceived in the future, but she doesn't feel that the situation can be changed in her time. The human condition progresses throughout time, but all changes for the good seem to take so very long. The ellipsis at the end of this line indicates the unknown amount of time that all human beings will need before they understand the evils of dictatorship. It's hard to take on society in the way that Akhmatova wants to. she understands that time makes more converts than reason, to borrow a phrase, and it's a bit troubling. How can one convince others that their actions will be seen as vile in years to come? Unfortunately, we usually can't, leaving us alone with our thoughts. Our rage-filled thoughts. Does Akhmatova feel let down by her country? Or are some forms of evil impossible to stop? I think she recognizes that evil enters the world at certain times for unknown reasons, but that it takes the history books to truly attempt to explain how evil forms. Problem is, a writer of history can never see things so clearly while they are still going on.

There is no one in the world more tearless,

more proud, more simple than us.

Translated by Richard Mckane in 99 Poems, p. 1)

16 akhmatova // Contradictions. ? Jennifer

Anna Akhmatova is the literary pseudonym of Anna Andreevna Gorenko. Her first husband was Gumilev, and she too became one of the leading Acmeist poets. Her second book of poems, Beads (1914), brought her fame. Her earlier manner, intimate and colloquial, gradually gave way to a more classical severity, apparent in her volumes The Whte Flock (1917) and Anno Domini MCMXXI (1922). The growing distaste which the personal and religious elements in her poetry aroused in Soviet officialdom forced her thereafter into long periiods of silence and the poetic masterpieces of her later years, A Poem without a Hero and Requiem, were published abroad.

Taken from http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/akhmatova/akhmatova_ind.html

Here is another great site for info on Anna Akhmatova: http://www.odessit.com/namegal/english/ahmatova.htm

First of all, I know that we, as readers, are not necessarily supposed to assume that the author is speaking as herself, but this poem seems to come directly from her. I have one major question. Is this Anna Akhmatova speaking to us through poetry?

"I am not among those who left our land"

I am not among those who left our land

To be torn to pieces by our enemies.

The speaker is one who stuck with her home, believing in the possession of that soil, even though it were taken over by another. There is a connection with the land here… it reminds me of the stories I have heard of the Irish, who seem to hold their land closer to their hearts than their own kin. There is also a respect for the land, of which only those familiar with it will be successful in their attempts to properly work it.

I don’t listen to their vulgar flattery,

I will not give them my poems.

Here is more possession! The speaker owns her poems and only gives them to those people who are worthy of the gift. She will not acknowledge their opinions of her poetry because they can have no opinion of value to her. Their flattery is vulgar and will not move her to more than an increase of disgust in them. They do not respect her home, if her poetry is about that home, their respect can only be feigned.

But the exile is for ever pitiful to me,

She sees the exile of those people who have left her homeland as sad and pitiful, though they abandoned the land itself. She sees something that they may not see, knowing what they have given up to escape whatever harm the enemies could cause.

Like a prisoner, like a sick man,

Your road is dark, wanderer

Both of these images are of hopeless individuals who cannot help themselves. The prisoner is trapped within a cage, from which he cannot emerge. The sick man is trapped by a disease too small to be comprehended or physically ripped from the body. And the wanderer stands as the metaphor for both situations. Both the prisoner and sick man are traveling down roads of which they cannot see or imagine the end. Their roads are dark and seem without hope.

Alien corn smells of wormwood.

The alien corn, the new place is unfamiliar and feels wrong, unusual, disgusting. Those who have been exiled or have exiled themselves are immersed in an alien universe which they cannot comprehend and can never feel at home in. What could be sadder than this? People who have ripped themselves from their own comfort and thrown themselves into an alien world of depression.

But here, stupefied by fumes of fire,

Wasting the remainder of our youth,

We did not defend ourselves

Those who left the land and those who remained are both faced with horrendous existences. One group is in completely new and unfamiliar territory, while another is suffering the guilt of their non-action against those who succeeded in taking over the land. I do not understand the last portion of this stanza. Why did they not defend themselves? I’m guessing that defense was impossible and take-over inevitable, but that is not necessarily the case. Why are they better off for staying on the land if they did nothing to defend themselves, thus handing it to their enemies?

Will vindicate our every hour . . .

The . . . at the end of these two lines implies uncertainty. In other words, the author may hope that history will vindicate or perhaps she feels that history should vindicate, but there is no guarantee that it will.

There is no one in the world more tearless,

More proud, more simple than us.

These people are strange. They did not defend their land from takeover, yet are proud. This is a complex poem from the point of view of a complex individual, yet she claims to be simple. She seems horribly sad for those people who are exiled, yet she is tearless. Is the contradiction caused by the loss of control in the homeland? A loss of control for the speaker of the poem? Interesting to say the least.

16. Akhmatova // Waiting for Justice Tim

In order to avoid redundancy and since Jen and Scott provided pretty complete research, I will add only a picture.

This sketch is by A. Modigliani.

I am not among those who left our land

I am not among those who left our land

to be torn to pieces by our enemies.

Akhmatova begins her poem with I am, and I think she is talking about herself. After reading a short biography, it sounds like this is her voice. This also reminds me of the Bible, God saying powerfully "I AM". I'm not sure if this connection is intended, but it came to mind. The way she speaks of our land also reminds me of the Bible and the promised land. To change directions, the first line makes me think of flight, people physically leaving a place, but the sentence does not end, the line leaves me hanging. Sure enough, the second line changes or at least makes me rethink the first. Maybe this doesn't mean to geographically move, but just to allow it to happen. I also think it is interesting that the land is torn to pieces, not the people or anything cultural. The land is so basic to life, it seems so tragic to have the land torn to pieces. At the same time this leaves hope for survival.

I don't listen to their vulgar flattery,

I will not give them my poems.

She continues to make this poem very personal both of these lines begin with "I". She also continues with the negatives, "I don't listen" and "I will not give". Each of these shows her personal protest, she will not comply. She will not give them her art, her voice.

But the exile is for ever pitiful to me,

like a prisoner, like a sick man.

Again, at first I thought this exile was physical, but now I think it is merely the exile of her poetry. I shouldn't say merely the poetry is of course, her. The way she uses "for ever" is intriguing. Reading the word "for" I look for reason, an answer, but I am lost when I reach "ever". She strongly describes her powerlessness when she is "like a sick man". I am reminded of our discussions of men and the vulnerability of a man who isn't strong.

Your road is dark, wanderer

This line is a turning point in this poem for me. Your- She turns from I to you. I feel like she is talking to me. road- this word carries many meanings. This word reminds me of the journey of my life, makes me think globally of the places I'll go and have gone. The word also makes me think of where I am now. is- now I see she directs me to where I am now, where she has lead me. dark- I see how I don't understand where I am, what surrounds this road. The culture is not my own and I can't understand the setting of this. I also understand this is how she feels, she is surrounded by something foreign in her life. wanderer- she acknowledges that I am a wonderer, I have happened upon her path. I am only here temporarily, she lives her life here.

alien corn smells of wormwood.

I still feel there is a kind of duality in what I feel and what she is living. Reading thus far, I feel I have connected to something terrible, some injustice. She feels this way in her own land, in the food she eats isn't her own kind.

But here, stupefied by fumes of fire,

wasting the remainder of our youth,

we did not defend ourselves

In this stanza she reminds me that I am not in her world. She moves from her individual efforts, and my place, to the people where she is. They did not get to be a youth, like me. Again, she mentions what did not happen, "we did not defend ourselves". When I think of a youth, I think of exploration, of finding yourself. When she says "wasting the remainder of our youth", I wonder if she means this youth that I think of or a youth spent defending themselves.

will vindicate our every hour.

She shows us the endurance of her people. Waiting for justice. I like that the word our is inside the word hour.

There is no one in the world more tearless,

more proud, more simple than us.

The words she chooses to describe her people are interesting. Tearless: is she describing a stoic quality, or justice among the people? The word simple stands out to me, it reminds me of God and religion (maybe that's just because of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). I feel here she returns to her beginning "I am", by waiting for this justice it is like having faith in God or even waiting for the second coming. I might be off-base and I can't put my finger on it, but it seems like there is an underlying theme of God here somewhere. Then again, the bio that talked about the acmeist poets said they strive for clarity, not symbolism, so maybe I'm reading into the poem inaccurately.

16. Akhmatova// A venutian crater is all you get Adam

I hope the above inserts work, because Anna's story is truly fascinating and i hope you guys get a chance to read through this site. Wow.

Let's get into Akhmatova's poem "I am not among those who left our land"

(** a special message: I have been a firm believer in exegesis, but here I have had a change of heart, because this poem actually magnified in meaning for me after i had read a brief bio. on Anna.)

Pay attention to the pronouns. (Who is she talking to?)

"I am not among those who left our land

to be torn to pieces by our enemies."

She is speaking on two levels, about two different wars with two different enemies and lands. More obvious is the violent war between countries and rival peoples. Here the enemies are the outsiders and the land is mother Russia (who loves "droplets of blood"). BUT, the other war is one of literary censorship and internal oppression. Her books were banned and she was censored. Now the enemy moves within the countries borders, it is the leaders (Stalin,Lenin). The land that she has not abandoned is literary integrity. She is remaining true to her beliefs. She is not fleeing the country or changing her style like so many of her fellow scholars did in fear.

"I don't listen to their vulgar flattery,

I will not give them my poems."

If we were stuck with the first reading about the physical war, we would have a conflict of pronoun and previous noun, that is "their" and "them" do not seem to refer to "enemies", because why would the Germans be flattering her? The second reading makes more sense. The Bolshevik leaders flatter the people by building their sense of importance as communists in that "mad experiment" following the revolution. Of course, it is vulgar because they achieve flattery through terror. She will not give them her poems, meaning she will not cheapen her art to speak for their causes, she will not betray her trade, she will not be the voice they wanted her to be. (I hope this poem was written post 1917, or else this interpretation sucks!)

"But the exile is for ever pitiful to me,

like a prisoner, like a sick man."

The exile, i think, is the ban of her poetry. She is exiled from her art. She is removed as the voice of her people. She is distanced, though not literally, from the people she wants to help. She is imprisoned. But why a sick man? why not a sick woman?

"Your road is dark, wanderer"

She is talking to those who have sold out, to those who have gone to the dark side of using poetry to spread tyrranical propoganda, rather than to question it. Darth Vaders of communist Russia.

"alien corn smells of wormwood."

ALIEN - The poets she is addressing have betrayed themselves, they are aliens to their own selves. A strong word (implications of Bertolt Brecht's Entfremdungs-Effekt - meaning: you have died to yourself the moment you neglect to question and challenge the surrounding reality. The world is what you make it.) .

CORN- To me, a hallow nutrient, a filler food, something on the side, no substance. There is no artistic sustenance in the false literature these poets have turned to. This is the empty nutrition, the hallow reality, that the Bolsheviks wanted to feed the masses

SMELLS OF - Smell is the most vulgar of senses, the one most adapted to sense the foul, the rank, the evil, the rotten things that surround us.

WORMWOOD - Heavy implications. Dictionary.com tells us this plant is sometimes refered to as "old man" (see "like a sick man" above). Wormwood is bitter. It is used to make absinthe, and in fact the greek word is "absinthion", meaning "undrinkable", Anna could not stomach a betrayal of her art. Absinthe is toxic, and can produce hallucinations, and is in general a nasty habit. Extremely bad for one's health.

"But here, stupefied by fumes of fire,

wasting the remainder of our youth,

we did not defend ourselves

Circle the pronouns in this poem and you will switch from "I" to "them" to "your" and now to "we". Who is we? We is those who did not sell out? Note the term stupefied used right below wormwood. Also, i think that "we" did not defend "ourselves" because that would mean succombing to the use of poetry as propoganda. And it is touching to think of "we" as her husband and/or her son, because her husband was executed as an innocent poet and her son was imprisoned three times.

will vindicate our every hour.

There is no one in the world more tearless,

more proud, more simple than us."

These last lines fit great into my theory, because she did outlive her persecuters, and she was vindicated, as she is the most famous Russian poet of her time. Her pure art survived and transcended the whole messy century, that is, she never spoke anything except what she believed in (except for a few poems written for Stalin in an attempt to get her innocent son out of jail.) She has no regrets, she stayed true to her heart. But, although her art survived, did it do any good? This is the question. Marxist, feminist, and Brechtian literary theories would have us believe that art can prevent the greusome tragedies of life, but she seemed powerless to stop Stalin's terror. Her art survived, but did it ever put up a fight? Is it futile, impotent. She was vindicated, but history still happened as bad as it did.

p.s.- they named a crater on Venus after her.

16.Akhmatova // Exiled to her homeland Joanna

"I am not among those who left our land"
by Anna Akhmatova

I am not among those who left our land
to be torn to pieces by our enemies.
From the very first line, this poem rings with power and pride. "I am not among those. " Akhmatova declares. She did not leave her homeland in the face of opposition or give herself over to the mercy of the people of other lands. Her loyalty to her people and her country is evident.
I don't listen to their vulgar flattery,
I will not give them my poems.
These lines contain amazing imagery. I love the contrast in "vulgar flattery". I imagine that neighboring countries are opening their doors to Akhmatova's people, setting up refugee camps to protect them from the current situation in their own country. But her pride in her own people will not let Akhmatova accept their hospitality. She finds their flattery vulgar and refuses to believe they are sincere. "I will not give them my poems" she says. She refuses to let these foreigners benefit from her art- she will not write poetry on their turf, so that they cannot gain anything from her hard work.
But the exile is for ever pitiful to me,
like a prisoner, like a sick man.
Yet despite everything, Akhmatova is still in exile. She is an exile within the boundaries of her homeland, because she and her people have no control over their own fate and the fate of their country. The images of the prisoner and the sick man depict a sense of helplessness that comes from this loss of control. Akhmatova and her people have been made the victims of every whim of those in power.
Your road is dark, wanderer
alien corn smells of wormwood.
Now she is addressing the wanderer, one who has left their homeland. She knows that the wanderer's road is even harder, even darker than her own, because the wanderer cannot gain strength from the comfort of their homeland. Even the corn in other countries has a bitter smell.
But here, stupefied by fumes of fire,
wasting the remainder of our youth,
we did not defend ourselves
from a single blow.
But Akhmatova is becoming numb to the violence and the injustice of her situation- the fumes of the fire. As she endures each day, she feels that there is no meaning in the way she is spending the "remainder of her youth". She feels weak and helpless, and she cannot defend herself o what she believes in from her attackers. This is a striking contrast with the pride in the first stanza- she is so proud of her choice not to flee, yet she feels that her life has become futile.
We know that history
will vindicate our every hour . . .
"We" indicates the unity and identity of Akhmatova's people despite the hardship they must endure. "know" is filled with assurance. This is not a guess or a wish, but the inevitable. "that history" History is always connected to us- nothing in the present could ever have happened without history- there is an unbreakable link between the two. "will" Again, this word gives me a feeling of assurance, that the speaker knows what is about to happen. "vindicate" At first this word did not seem to fit, since the definition that pops into my head first is "to get revenge". But I looked "vindicate" up, and it can also mean "to clear of blame". To Akhmatova, it is inevitable that anyone who looks at history- the events that lead up to the current situation- will see that the name of her people is clear of blame. They are only victims. "our" Again, this word has a sense of unity, of belonging together. This is not just about Akhmatova, but her people as well. "every hour . . ." Every injustice, every humiliating and painful moment will be understood through history. They will be neither forgotten nor blamed for their situation.
There is no one in the world more tearless,
more proud, more simple than us.
What an interesting choice of adjectives- tearless, proud, and simple. Why tearless? It seems that Akhmatova's people are suffering in silence, with the faith that in time, the injustices they endure will be exposed. Or maybe it is connected with the next word- pride- which is expressed throughout the poem. Perhaps they are just too proud to show those in power that they are suffering. And finally, simple. Their requests are very simple- all they want is to life in freedom in their own homeland.


The Life and Times of Anna Akhmatova

&hellipI 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):

&ldquoCan you describe this?&rdquo

And I said: &ldquoI can.&rdquo

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

&mdashexcerpt from &ldquoRequiem&rdquo by Anna Akhmatova

Though reading Akhmatova&rsquos poetry does not require an understanding of Russian and Soviet history, knowing a little about her life certainly enriches the experience.

Born near the Black Sea in 1888, Anna Akhmatova (originally Anna Andreyevna Gorenko) found herself in a time when Russia still had tsars. In 1910, she married poet Nikolai Gumilev with whom she had a son, Lev. As her poetry from those years suggests, Akhmatova&rsquos marriage was a miserable one.

Then Akhmatova experienced a series of other disasters: the First World War, her divorce, the October Revolution, the fall of the Tsardom, Gumilev&rsquos execution at the order of Soviet leaders.

Starting in 1925, the government banned Akhmatova&rsquos works from publication. Though Akhmatova continued to write during this time, the prohibition lasted a decade. Then, in 1935, her son Lev was imprisoned because of his personal connections. His arrest was merely one in a long line that occurred during Soviet leader Josef Stalin&rsquos Great Purge, in which the government jailed and executed people who were possible political threats. An estimated 600,000 people, including Akhmatova&rsquos friends and literary colleagues, were killed in the Purge.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these horrors, Akhmatova&rsquos creative life flourished. Her poems from this period speak of surviving violence and uncertainly within Russia, of the Second World War, of feeling fierce kinship with her fellow countrymen.

&ldquoHalf harlot, half nun,&rdquo the man in charge of Soviet cultural policy sneered about her.

Yet Akhmatova kept writing.

Akhmatova&rsquos son was arrested again in 1949 and sentenced to 10 years labor in a Siberian prison camp. In an attempt to gain his release, she began to write more positive propaganda for the USSR. She only regained a measure of public respect and artistic freedom following Stalin&rsquos death in 1953. In 1966, Akhmatova herself died at age 76 of heart failure.

I wonder if she found it a dark coincidence to die of heart issues after that organ was repeatedly broken for so many years.


Anna Akhmatova

Lorne Patterson is a psychiatric nurse and community educator who has worked in a number of countries, including Ireland, Britain, the United States, South Africa and Russia. For almost a decade, he worked in a women’s resource centre in Co. Longford, Ireland. A past runner-up in the Sean Ó Faoláin short-story competition, he has been included in several anthologies, and his novella on mental illness and its treatment, Bad Blood (Wordsonthestreet, Galway, Ireland) published to critical acclaim.

Anna Andreevna Akhmatova used poetry to give voice to the struggles and deepest yearnings of the Russian people, for whom she remains the greatest of literary heroines. She has lately come to symbolize for the world beyond Russia the power of art to survive and transcend the terrors of the century.

–Judith Hemschemeyer, A Stranger to Heaven and Earth

Wild honey smells like freedom,
Dust – like a ray of sun.
Like violets – a young maid’s mouth,
And gold – like nothing.
The flowers of the mignonette smell like water,
And like an apple – love.
But we learned once and for all
That blood only smells like blood.

–Anna Akhmatova, The Scent of Freedom (1933)

Anna Andreevna Akhmatova (1889-1966) remains one of the towering figures of Russian literature. Though she first came to prominence as a romantic poet during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, it was as Russia’s ‘Cassandra’ during the violent days of Revolution and even bloodier years of Sovietisation that she achieved lasting fame. Enduring decades of persecution on top of illness with profound dignity, Akhmatova became one of the country’s great moral as well as literary beacons. For the generation of dissident poets that succeeded this enemy of the Soviet State, there was no prouder boast than they were ‘Akhmatova’s orphans’.

The Russia of Akhmatova’s youth was convulsed by near-revolution and Imperial repression. In the midst of all the violence and uncertainty, the arts achieved a Silver Age of apocalyptic creativity. In the capital, St Petersburg,[1] Akhmatova, Blok, and Mandelstam, read their futurist or symbolist or romantic poetry in crowded salons and cafes Gorky, Zamyatin, Bely, and Tolstoy wrote in violent realism, sensualism, prometheism, or diabolism Meyerhold acted in and directed experimental theatre Vrubel and Chagall painted in strange shades of light and darkness Stravinsky and Prokofiev composed in contentiously new forms and Diaghilev – ‘the conqueror of Paris’ – with his independent ballet company of Pavlova and Nijinsky, Fokine and Balanchine, of Benois, electrified Europe with ground-breaking choreography, dancing, music, and sets.

But Petersburg was also Cradle of the Revolution, of Trotsky’s Soviet, and other destructive militants the stage too for Rasputin, the ‘devil-monk’, whose strange relationship with the Tsar and his wife proved so fatal. In late 1917, with the alienated Imperial regime having finally been brought down by World War, Lenin and Trotsky seized power for the Bolsheviks. The capital became Red Petrograd. Akhmatova for her part, described her city as having ‘forgotten her majesty, a drunken harlot who didn’t know who was taking her…’

As early as the winter of 1917 Lenin instigated State controls over the troublesome intelligentsia, particularly the potent culture of prose and verse. The following year, he decreed that every artistic and scientific work, published or unpublished, from creators living or dead, was the property of the State. Of Russia’s literary notables, only the writer Maxim Gorky embraced the ruthless Bolshevik cause with any enthusiasm – criticising the regime as frequently as he praised it – later joined by the poets Mayakovsky and, half-heartedly, the Slavophile Blok. Many fled Russia, wracked as it was by appalling civil war of those who stayed, no few died from cold, hunger, or disease. ‘Petrograd is Paradise’, declaimed one citizen with black irony, ‘for here men walk naked and eat apples.’

1921 marked the end of the Revolution for the Left intelligentsia. As the corpses from the anti-Bolshevik Kronstadt Rebellion were still washing up on Petrograd’s shores, Blok, who in 1917 had celebrated the dreadful transition into a new and terrible Red world, died. Having used morphine to dull Revolution’s inescapable reality, he perished from anaemia brought on by malnutrition, his spirit long broken. Nikolai Gumilyov, Akhmatova’s divorced poet-husband, was arrested for moral complicity in counter-revolution. In spite of pleas for clemency Gumilyov was executed. Zamyatin, an ex-Bolshevik whose post-Revolution writings formed the basis of Orwell’s ‘1984’, wrote openly of his fear for Russian literature and was arrested. Gorky, accused by Lenin of disloyalty, reluctantly emigrated.

Akhmatova, vilified as an ’anachronism’, stayed in Russia, even though she ceased to be published having ‘contributed nothing to Communism’. Not under the vault of alien skies / Not under the shelter of alien wings,’ she later wrote, ‘I was with my people then.’ Hungry, impoverished, frequently homeless, friends kept her alive. As those close to her were purged, Akhmatova calmly prepared for her own arrest. She was with her fellow-luminary Osip Mandelstam the night he was first arrested, and like Pasternak, took the enormous risk of trying to intervene on his behalf.

In the mid-Thirties, the period of intense purges and mass killings known as the Great Terror began, the climax to Stalin’s campaign for absolute power. Nikolai Punin, Akhmatova’s lover, and Lev, her son by Gumilyov, were arrested. Akhmatova humbled herself and wrote to Stalin, pleading with her tormentor. Both were freed – temporarily. Lev was re-arrested, but in spite of torture refused to incriminate his mother. Whilst waiting endlessly in Leningrad’s prison lines trying to discover his fate, Akhmatova’s mighty ‘Requiem’, tribute to the victims of the Purges, was born: ‘…the woman with the blue lips…suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there) ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I can.’ And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face.’

‘Requiem’ could not be trusted to paper, but was stored instead in the memories of a few trusted friends.

Fourteen years after her poetry had been proscribed Stalin granted Akhmatova permission to publish once more. He did so, it is said, to please his only daughter. A heavily edited version of the collection she wished to bring out was produced. Nevertheless, Stalin took exception to it and the book was removed from circulation.

After the Second World War, a war that cost Russia an estimated 25-30 million dead and turned Leningrad, first of the Hero Cities, into a graveyard, Stalin renewed his grip on a nation exhausted by war and repression. The Leningrad Affair, his purge of the city’s intelligentsia, gave notice of the clamp-down. Pride of place went to Akhmatova. ‘Half-nun, half-whore’, sneered Zhdanov, Party ideologue her poetry, ‘pathetically limited’. Akhmatova was expelled from the State-mandated Writer’s Union and placed under constant surveillance. Lev was re-arrested. Punin, was also re-arrested, to die in the camps.

Why Stalin chose to torment Akhmatova instead of destroying her as he had destroyed so many others, is uncertain, for Stalin detested intellectuals and refused to tolerate even the suspicion of opposition. Perhaps simply because it pleased the godhead to act capriciously. Imprisoned Zamyatin had been freed to leave Russia the sick Bulgakov denied the same concession. Pasternak, who pleaded for the doomed Mandelstam, was left alone but Pilnyak and Babel, ardent Revolutionaries, were executed for failing to conform sufficiently. Even Gorky with his correct working-class background and revolutionary credentials, who had left Russia only to make his compromise with a system he professed to despise, failed to stave off his Master’s malice. His death and its timing, just before the first of the great Show Trials, proved remarkably fortuitous to Stalin.

At Stalin’s death in 1953, of Akhmatova’s contemporaries of the Silver Age, Stravinsky, Chagall, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Balachine, Benois, Pavlova had all fled into exile. Vrubel had died insane prior to the Revolution Blok, under surveillance by Lenin’s State Police, died in despair not long after it Mayakovsky, ‘drum-beater’ of the Revolution, committed suicide, broken by Stalin’s tyranny Gorky was most probably murdered on Stalin’s orders Mandelstam – whose incisive epigram on Stalin was known off by heart even by the head of the Secret Police – died in a camp and Meyerhold was executed after being savagely tortured by his gaolers. Well could Akhmatova describe her beloved Petersburg as ‘a granite city of fame and calamity’?

As part of his de-Stalinisation policy, Khruschev instigated cautious intellectual relaxation. But when Pasternak was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature in 1958 for his novel ‘Dr Zhivago’, rejected by the Soviet Censor only to be published abroad, the State excoriated him and forced him to decline the honour. Four years later, at the height of ‘the Thaw’, the most overt period of de-Stalinisation, it took Khruschev’s personal intervention to over-ride Politburo objections and ensure the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag-story, ‘One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich’. Within weeks the final neo-Stalinist backlash began.

Tvardovsky, editor of the risk-taking journal and himself a poet of no little repute, nevertheless encouraged Solzhenitsyn to submit more work. Solzhenitsyn did so (carefully selected pieces), also putting forward Akhmatova’s ‘Poem without a Hero’ and other notable ‘bottom-drawer’ writings by the leading names of dissident literature. None were acceptable. Solzhenitsyn himself only had two more, minor, works published. Tvardovsky was purged and, already an alcoholic, drunk himself to death.

In early 1964 the Leningrad poet Joseph Brodsky was arrested and put on trial for ‘parasitism’. One of the group that Akhmatova called ‘the magic choir’, the public event was rightly interpreted as a reminder of the Leningrad Affair, an indication that the political climate was returning to repression of unregulated art. Akhmatova gave Brodsky her open support. Brodsky was found guilty and sentenced to five years internal exile (later leaving Russia, to be awarded, like Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize for Literature). At the same time, ‘Requiem’ finally began to circulate in samizdat, the remarkably efficient underground publishing system that increasingly neutralised literary censorship. Two years later, the ill Akhmatova died of a heart attack. Not until 1965, twelve years after Stalin’s death and one year before her own, was Akhtamova’s poetry again published. ‘Requiem’ and ‘Poem Without A Hero’ could not be openly printed in her own land until Gorbachev, at the demise of the Soviet State that had failed to break her.

Roberta Reeder, in her magnificent biography, quotes Akhmatova: ‘there is no power more threatening and terrible than the prophetic word of the poet.’ Few have had more right to make such a claim.

[1] Between 1713–1728 and 1732–1918, Saint Petersburg was the imperial capital of Russia. In 1918, the central government bodies moved to Moscow.


Akhmatova, Anna. Poem Without a Hero and other poems. Trans. by Lenore Mayhew and William McNaughton. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, 1988.

——. Selected Poems. Ed. and intro. by Walter Arndt. Trans. Walter Arndt, Robin Kemball, and Carl Proffer. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1976.

——. Selected Poems. Trans. and intro. by Richard McKane. London: Oxford University Press, 1983.

——. Way of All the Earth. Trans. by D.M. Thomas. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1979.

——. Anna Akhmatova: Poems-Correspondence-Reminiscences-Iconography. Comp. by Ellendea Proffer. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1977.

——. The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova. (Bilingual edition.) Trans. by Judith Hemschemeyer. Ed. and intro. by Roberta Reeder. Somerville, MA: Zephyr Press, 1990.

——. Poems. Selected and trans. by Lyn Coffin. NY: W.W. Norton, 1983.

——. Poems of Anna Akhmatova. (Bilingual edition.) Selected, trans. and intro. by Stanley Kunitz, with Max Hayward. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1973.

Chukovskaya, Lydia. The Akhmatova Journals, Vol. I, 1938–41. Trans. by Milena Michalski and Sylva Rubashova. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1994.

Sibelan Forrester , Assistant Professor of Russian, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

"Akhmatova, Anna (1889–1966) ." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Jun. 2021 < https://www.encyclopedia.com > .

"Akhmatova, Anna (1889–1966) ." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. . Retrieved June 18, 2021 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/akhmatova-anna-1889-1966

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.


Watch the video: Сияние - Сероглазый король. на стихи Ахматовой А А Сияние 2012