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Anna Akhmatova was a Russian poet known for addressing many different issues facing modern Russians, including political oppression and the struggles of the poor. She chose not to emigrate during the Stalin regime and much of her work covers her experiences and the experiences of those around her during that time.

Youth and Writing

Anna Akhmatova was born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko on June 23, 1889, in Bolshoy Fontan, nearby the port of Odessa on the Black Sea, at the time part of the Russian Empire, now Ukraine. Andrey Antonovich Gorenko, her father, worked as a naval engineer. Gorenko and Inna Erazmovna Stogova, her mother, descended from Russia’s nobility. The Gorenko family moved to Tsarskoye Selo, outside of St. Petersburg, when Anna was almost a year.[1] She spent her summers from ages 7-13 in a dacha, Russian for a second home, in Sevastopol on the Baltic Sea.[2]

Anna Gorenko began writing poetry at 11-years-old and, by her late teens, she had already been published. None of these early writings survive.[3] Her father did not approve of her dream to become a member of the Russian poets. Andrey Gorenko forced his daughter to use a pen name, and she chose the surname of her maternal great-grandmother, Akhmatova.[4]

In 1903, Akhmatova met Nikolay Gumilev on Christmas Eve. In 1907, she published her first poem, entitled On his hand you may see many glittering rings, at age 17 in Gumilev’s journal Sirius. The artistic circles in St. Petersburg soon knew her name and invited her for regular public readings. Gumilev pursued relentlessly her beginning in 1905 and they married in April 1910 in Kiev with none of her family present.[5]

Anna Akhmatova studied at Mariinskaya High School at first. Her parent’s separated in 1905 and she moved to Kiev to finish her schooling between 1906 and 1910. She studied law at Kiev University for one year before moving to St. Petersburg to study literature.[6]

The Guild of Poets and Revolution

In 1910, Anna Akhmatova joined Sergey Gorodetsky, Osip Mandelstam, and other Russian poets to found the Guild of Poets. The Guild chose to use concrete themes, unlike symbolists, and helped develop the anti-symbolist Acmeist school, similar to the ones occurring with Imagism in the United States and Europe.[7] Gumilev did not take well to the confines of married life and, by the end of 1910, he went to Africa for six months.[8] She and Osip Mandelstam began an affair. In 1912, Akhmatova bore her son with Gumilev, named Lev.[9]

The same year, the Guild of Poets published Akhmatova’s first book of selected poems called Vecher, or Evening in English. She chose 35 of the 200 poems she authored by the close of 1911.[10] Her poems I don’t need my legs anymore, Over the Water, In the Forest, and Grey-eyed king made her famous.[11]

Anna Akhmatova wrote prolifically throughout her entire life, regardless of age, censorship, or danger.

In March 1914, they published Akhmatova’s second collection of selected poems called The Rosary.[12] Her artistic prowess and aristocratic manner landed her the title, “Soul of the Silver Age,” and “Queen of the Neva.” She befriended Boris Pasternak and it was rumored she had an affair with Alexander Blok, an influential lyrical poet.[13]

In 1917, Akhmatova published her third collection of poems called Belaya Staya, or White Flock in English. In February, the revolution began in St. Petersburg, Petrograd at the time, and the city crumbled under the fighting between soldiers, protestors, and mutineers. She witnessed her friends die or flee the country. She considered leaving for a time, but decided against it, writing several poems describing her turmoil in deciding to stay. In 1918, Akhmatova divorced Gumilev and married poet and Assyriologist Vladimir Shilejko, against her friends’ advice.[14]

Anna Akhmatova, Poems, and "The Vegetarian Years”

In 1921, Anna Akhmatova’s first husband was tried by the secret police, after they tortured a professor to get names of Petrograd’s intelligentsia. They then accused those named of conspiring in the Kronstadt Rebellion. He was one of those and shot with 61 others on August 25. This destroyed their poetry collective and turned the public’s opinion of Akhmatova and her poetry. Suddenly, the now Marxist society viewed her poems as “bourgeois aesthetic,” focusing on trivial “female” issues, and not adapting to the revolutionary times.

Akhmatova referred to this time as “The Vegetarian Years” since the new government banned her work unofficially in 1925 and she found it difficult to publish her work. She kept writing and translated the work of authors Giacomo Leopardi, Rabindranath Tagore, and Victor Hugo while studying Dostoyevsky and Pushkin. Many foreign readers and USSR critics thought she died.[15]

Poverty engulfed Anna Akhmatova and many schools denied her son, Lev.[16] She narrowly escaped arrest, but the Stalinist government imprisoned Lev multiple times.[17] Her most acclaimed works, Requiem and Poem without a Hero, explored her reaction to the Stalinist regime’s oppression.[18]

World War II

A collection of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, From Six Books, received approval from Stalin for publication, but it was withdrawn and canceled soon afterward. She continued to circulate her work in secret. Groups of poets would memorize each others work and Akhmatova wrote on scrap paper for guests, making them burn the paper before leaving. She witnessed the Siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and this inspired her Poem without a Hero, began in 1940. It would be another 20 years before she finished it.

The pro-Stalin work done by Anna Akhmatova in an attempt to secure her son’s release may have saved her life as well as his.

Akhmatova evacuated in early 1942 to Chistopol. Then to Uzbekistan, where she contracted typhus. In May 1944, she returned to Leningrad. She read to injured soldiers in the hospital and her later work reflected the struggles of those who fought and perished in the wars. In 1949, Akhmatova’s son was arrested and sentenced to a prison camp in Siberia for 10 years. She managed to secure his release in 1956 by writing pro-Stalinist propaganda.[19]

Later Life and Death

In 1951, the Stalinist government allowed Anna Akhmatova back into the union of Writers. After Stalin’s death in 1953 and a positive review of her work in 1955, Nikita Khrushchev’s government allowed her poems to be printed in 1956. In 1958, she published Poems, and Poems: 1909-1960 in 1961.[20]

Akhmatova lived her last years in Leningrad, working on more poetry and finishing Poem Without a Hero. Soviet authorities eventually let her travel and considered a positive representation of the USSR. She received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, England, and the Italian Taormina Prize in 1965.

In November, Anna Akhmatova returned from Oxford and suffered a heart attack. In early 1966, they moved her to Moscow. She died on March 5 of heart failure and is buried in the Komarovo Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Russia.[21]

References

Bibliography

Harrington, A. K. (2006). Living in Different Mirrors: The Modernist and Postmodernist Incarnations of Anna Akhmatova. London: Anthem Press.


Martin, R. E. (2007). Collecting Anna Akhmatova. Journal of the Caxton Club, XV(4).[1]

Poets.org. (2015, October 6). Anna Akhmatova. Poets.org[2]

Wells, D. N. (1996). Anna Akhmatova: Her Poetry. Washington, D.C: Berg Publishers.


Footnotes

  1. Harrington, 2006
  2. Martin, 2007
  3. Wells, 1996
  4. Poets.org, 2015
  5. Martin, 2007
  6. Wells, 1996
  7. Wells, 1996
  8. Martin, 2007
  9. Harrington, 2006
  10. Wells, 1996
  11. Martin, 2007
  12. Wells, 1996
  13. Wells, 1996
  14. Harrington, 2006
  15. Harrington, 2006
  16. Martin, 2007
  17. Harrington, 2006
  18. Poets.org, 2015
  19. Wells, 1996
  20. Martin, 2007
  21. Wells, 1996

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