Akhmatova, Anna (1889–1966)

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Akhmatova, Anna (1889–1966)

Russian poet, translator, and literary scholar, who was perhaps the most famous 20th-century Russian poet. Name variations: Axmatova, Achmatowa, Akhmátova, Anna Andreevna Akhmatova, Anna Gorenko. Pronunciation: AHN-na An-DRAY-ev-na Akh-MAH-tohva (Gah-RYEN-kuh). Born Anna Andreevna Gorenko on June 11, 1889, in Bol'shoi Fontan, Russia; died in Domodedovo, a sanatorium outside Moscow, on March 5, 1966; daughter of Andrei Gorenko and Inna Stogova; married Nikolai Gumilyov, in 1910 (separated 1916; divorced 1918); married Vladimir Shileyko, in 1918 (separated 1921); lived 15 years with Nikolai Punin; children: (first marriage) son Lev Nikolaevich Gumilyov (b. 1912). Awarded honorary degree from Oxford University, 1965.

Selected poetry:

Evening (St. Petersburg, 1912); Rosary (St. Petersburg, 1914); White Flock (Petro-grad, 1917); Plantain (Petrograd, 1921); By the Very Sea (1921); Anno Domini MCMXXI (Petrograd, 1922); From Six Books (Leningrad, 1940); Selected Works (1943); Selected Verses (Moscow, 1946); Verses (Moscow, 1961); The Flight of Time (Moscow-Leningrad, 1965); Requiem (Munich, 1965). Major poem: "Poem Without a Hero." Criticism: On Pushkin (1977).

After her son was arrested for the second time in 1938, Anna Akhmatova spent over 300 hours standing in line outside prisons in Leningrad. Since she frequently ate only black bread and tea without sugar, she was often feverish with illness or hunger. The lines contained mostly women, grey with exhaustion and the horror of their relatives' arrests, their legs swollen and aching with the long hours of standing. Some carried packages they hoped to get to their husbands, brothers or sons; others just wanted to learn where their men were and how long their sentences would be. One day when Akhmatova's name was called, the woman behind her recognized it and burst into tears. Indeed, 20 years earlier the name Anna Akhmatova had symbolized the height of grace and elegance in Russian poetry, and a whole generation conducted their romances with her love poems. The contrast underlined the tragic changes in Russia through which Akhmatova's generation lived.

When she mentioned this episode as part of the introduction to her long poem "Requiem," Akhmatova changed the details, writing that the woman behind her had never heard her name before. In this version, the woman, upon hearing Anna was a writer, gestured toward the line and asked, "Can you describe this?" Akhmatova answered, "I can." She had grown into a very different poet.

Anna Akhmatova was born Anna Gorenko near the Black Sea port of Odessa; her father Andrei Gorenko was a naval engineer with a Ukrainian last name. Akhmatova's mother Inna Stogova was an aristocrat with some radical political activity in her past, distantly related to the early Russian poet Anna Bunina . Akhmatova had five brothers and sisters; one sister died at the age of four, the first of many premature deaths among the siblings. The Gorenko family moved in 1890 to Tsarskoe Selo ("Tsar's Village"), located outside the capital city of the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg. This royal residence was later renamed Pushkin after the great poet Alexander Pushkin, who studied at the elite lyceum there in the early 19th century: the town was a showplace for palace architecture, gardens, and statuary. Akhmatova received a good education, was fluent in French, and later in life learned Italian and English so as to read Dante and Shakespeare. She started writing poetry at 11, though poetry was not yet widely in fashion when she was a girl.

Akhmatova's parents separated in 1905, and she moved with her mother and siblings to live in the Crimea. She continued studying with tutors at home and then, in 1907, finished the Gymnazia (high school with a demanding classical curriculum) in Kiev. She later recalled a day when she and her mother were walking home to their summer cottage and Akhmatova absent-mindedly said: "Some day there will be a memorial plaque on this house." Her mother answered, "I've brought you up so badly!"

Akhmatova studied briefly at the Faculty of Law in Kiev, largely because it was one of the places a woman could receive a higher education, but she found the Latin and history courses more interesting than the law itself. She moved to St. Petersburg to advanced courses in the study of literature; the city and its rich literary history would become one of the major themes of her writing.

Anna had met the poet and critic Nikolai Gumilyov in Tsarskoe Selo, and he had been courting her for years. In 1910, she finally agreed to marry him. Though Gumilyov thought she should become a dancer—since she had the build and was flexible enough to touch the back of her head with her foot—he also took her seriously as a poetic talent. Since her husband liked to make long trips to exotic places, which he then used as material for his poems about pirates and safaris, Akhmatova was often alone during their marriage, which was not very stable or happy, as both partners were strong-willed and seemed to thrive on crisis and discord. In the end, they loved each other more as fellow poets, though Gumilyov's writing had hardly any influence on Akhmatova's work. It seems, rather, that her poems, much simpler than the ornate Symbolist style of the time, served as a model for his "Acmeist" literary theories and manifestos. The only literary influence Akhmatova acknowledged was the poetry of Innokentii Annenskii, who died in 1909.

Bunina, Anna Petrovna (1774–1829)

Russian poet. Name variations: Bú;nina. Born in 1774; died in 1829; sixth child born into a gentry family.

Anna Bunina was Russia's first major woman poet. When her father died in 1801, she moved to St. Petersburg where she used her small inheritance to educate herself and to support her writing. Having composed poetry from childhood, she gained immediate prominence with her first volumes An Inexperienced Muse (Vol. 1, 1809, Vol. 2, 1812). In 1815, to seek treatment for breast cancer, she journeyed to England, but, because of illness and pain, wrote very little after 1817. See Barbara Heldt's biography Terrible Perfection.

Akhmatova had published her first poem in 1907, in a small journal edited by Gumilyov. Her father disapproved of her writing and did

not want her to shame the family, so she chose her Tatar great-grandmother's beautiful maiden name Akhmatova as a pseudonym.

Traveling abroad with Gumilyov in 1910 and 1911, she became friends with the artist Amadeo Modigliani in Paris before he was famous, and he drew her portrait. Akhmatova loved French culture and poetry, but it was the architecture of northern Italy that left the most lasting impression. Back in Russia, St. Petersburg was the major center of literary activity at the time, and Akhmatova and her husband were soon very much in fashion. Akhmatova was self-possessed and cool about her own attractiveness and growing reputation, which made her all the more irresistible to her admirers. She eventually became famous for the number and variety of her lovers, though many of the affairs she reportedly had were imagined by her friends and readers. She remained reticent about her private life until her death; her "autobiographical sketches" were brief, and the most interesting details about her personal experiences tended to come scattered in conversations.

Gumilyov helped found a group of young writers called the Guild of Poets, and Akhmatova was its "secretary"; eventually the group was better known as Acmeists. Their theoretical articles demanded a literature of greater simplicity and freshness—very much what Akhmatova was writing, though she preferred poetry to criticism or theory. Another Acmeist was Osip Mandelstam, a great poet and Akhmatova's good friend until his arrest and death in the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s. In 1912, Akhmatova's only child was born, her son Lev Nikolaevich Gumilyov, who was raised mostly by Akhmatova's mother-in-law until he was 16. The same year, Akhmatova published her first book of poems, Evening. She published her second book, Rosary, in 1914, and despite the beginning of World War I, it was a huge success. Poetry lovers spent evenings "telling the Rosary"—reciting the poems in order, one by one, around their circle. Akhmatova's fame was something like the fame of rock stars: well-known, avant-garde artists wanted to paint her portrait, postcards were sold with her photographs, other poets tried to imitate her writing style, and her less sophisticated readers assumed they knew all about her, since they had read what seemed like intimate details in her poems.

Akhmatova and her friends favored the Stray Dog, a fashionable basement nightclub. She had a good theatrical sense and knew how to make the most of her exotic profile (the amazing nose), slender height, pale skin, dark hair, and clear blue eyes, all of which went well with the Oriental-sounding pseudonym. Before long, the best-known older poets in St. Petersburg recognized her talent, inviting her to readings and writing poems to her, or scorning her in a way that proved their envy. Akhmatova was the first Russian woman poet to gain such widespread fame; for other women writers, she was both an inspiration and a threat.

Her early poems are simple but psychologically nuanced, based on the psychological realism of the great 19th-century Russian novel. So much of the story is left out that what is given gains extra resonance and mystery. Many of the poems are about love, but they also include elements of nature, religion, and a concern with poetic creation. Certain poems celebrate the lively Petersburg cultural scene, while others treat it as a fallen, sinful city, far from what real, old-fashioned Russians would approve of.

When the Great War began in the summer of 1914, Gumilyov immediately enlisted as a cavalry officer, and in 1916 the couple separated. Akhmatova later called World War I the beginning of "the real twentieth century," and her poems of anxiety and mourning started the expansion of the poetic voice that would eventually speak for all Russia's people. In the war years, one of Akhmatova's sisters died in her 20s of tuberculosis, a disease that killed many otherwise privileged young people. Indeed, Akhmatova herself suffered from bouts with tuberculosis for decades, but she had a thyroid condition that seemed to balance the tuberculosis, keeping it in check.

In 1918, after the epochal October Revolution, Akhmatova officially divorced Gumilyov and married Vladimir Shileyko, a scholar of ancient Assyrian cuneiform script. She disliked Lenin's Bolsheviks but chose not to emigrate, though her brother and some of her closest friends did leave Russia for Western Europe. The power of her poetic denial suggests that she was strongly tempted to leave and foresaw the difficulties ahead, but felt even more deeply that she must stay with her people. She mourned Gumilyov's execution in August 1921 (he was supposedly involved in a monarchist counter-revolutionary plot) both as a former husband and as an artistic colleague. Many other important poets died or emigrated, changing the literary geography of Russia drastically. Akhmatova published three more books to continuing acclaim, but then the growing Soviet literary bureaucracy moved to put an end to her publishing career, because her great popularity and increasing moral authority made her a threat. She was condemned as a petty-bourgeois writer, a survivor from the old days, an "internal émigrée." The government granted her a meager pension, and even readers who loved her work assumed she was no longer writing. Only Alexandra Kollontai , herself a thoughtful writer as well as a feminist politician, defended Akhmatova's work for its presentation of women's adaptation to conditions of life in the new society.

Both religion and female sexuality were taboo topics under the new revolutionary puritanism, and Akhmatova, as her critics noted, did write a great deal about religion and love, both of them traditionally associated with women in Russian culture. Akhmatova's new husband Shileyko burned her poetry so she would stop writing, and the two separated in 1921; very few poems survive from these years. Instead, the poet made a living by working in the library of the Institute of Agronomy, and more and more by literary translating. From 1925 until 1940, Akhmatova lived with the art critic Nikolai Punin, in a communal apartment in the former Sheremet'ev Palace, where his ex-wife, also named Anna , was also living.

The mass arrests of the late 1930s included Akhmatova's son and Punin, both arrested in 1935 and both released after a few months. But Lev was arrested again in 1938 (his father, after all, had been executed for alleged involvement in a monarchist plot, and Lev had the same dangerous surname). Akhmatova waited in those long lines and begged people to intervene. At the same time, she wrote more, composing simple poems about the horrifying tragedy her society was undergoing. Eventually, she completed the long poem "Requiem," containing sections written from 1935 to 1940, in its way the Stations of the Cross of a prisoner's mother. The poem runs from the arrest, through the endless lines, to the final blow of the sentencing, where the mother becomes Christ's mother at the crucifixion. The poet takes on the role of mourning mother, the feminine voice of Russia itself, and the full stature of the poet as conscience and recorder of national tragedy. "Requiem" powerfully condemns the crimes of Stalinism; it was not printed in Russia until 1987, two decades after her death.

She was accused of being both nun and whore, of concentrating on the personal to the exclusion of the (approved) political, of talking too much about "love," of being too "subjective." From this point in time it all sounds rather familiar, but Akhmatova was not permitted to counter with "the personal is political," that slogan then being some thirty years in the future.

—Margaret Atwood, 1989

Akhmatova always feared police surveillance, and in these years she worked out a special ritual for her writing: Lidiya Chukovskaya recalled that Akhmatova would talk loudly about something trivial while scribbling a new poem on a scrap of paper. Once her friend had memorized the lines, Akhmatova would burn the paper over her ashtray. From time to time, she would meet with the friends who had memorized her work and tell them what changes she had made, or check to make sure that they still remembered everything properly. It was not safe to keep any writing that was at all critical of Stalinist rule or of Stalin himself. Akhmatova's poems from this period survived only because they had been memorized. Her other strategy was using so-called "Aesopic language," which made things sound innocent but gave enough of a hint of the true meaning that knowledgeable readers would understand it. Even without that practice of concealment, her poetry in the 1930s becomes difficult to decode without knowing the historical and political background. For example, calling a cycle "Poems from a Burned Notebook" could sound like romantic posing, but the writer often felt compelled to burn her papers or notebooks so that the secret police would not find them while searching her room, use them to harass her and her friends, or cause more trouble for her son. Akhmatova was convinced that her room was searched when she was away and complained that someone kept cutting the bindings of precious books to look in them for hidden documents. At this time, Akhmatova began to spend more time with friends in Moscow, and these visits went on until the end of her life. The pressures of her son's arrest, bad health, poverty, and real or imagined surveillance made Akhmatova fear that she would lose her sanity. By staying with friends, she could escape some of the unwelcome attention from the secret police, and her friends would make sure she was well fed and cared for.

When World War II began for the Soviet Union with the surprise German invasion in June 1941, Akhmatova was in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad), and she witnessed the terrible bombardment there before she was evacuated to Tashkent. There she was often sick, worried about the fate of her beloved city during the siege of nearly three years. At the same time, as the government relaxed many of its restrictions on religion and culture in order to encourage all-out participation in the war effort, Akhmatova's poetry was suddenly hot property again because of its resonant patriotism. She combined her wrath at the tragedy of the war with an artist's concern for the survival of the Russian language. Her son Lev was released from camp so he could join the army, and he later told her that fighting at the front was much easier than life in the prison camp. In fact, many Soviet citizens felt a new sense of hope and freedom during the war, as if the lifting of restrictions promised that things would be different after victory. In 1944, Akhmatova returned to Leningrad; on her return trip, she gave a poetry reading in Moscow, where she was greeted by a standing ovation.

One day in 1946, Akhmatova opened the package of salted herring she had just brought home from market and glanced at the newspaper in which it was wrapped. That is how she first learned that Stalin's literary hatchet man Andrei Zhdanov had just denounced her in the crudest terms, as "half-nun, half-whore," a sign of the postwar return to cultural restriction and repression in the Soviet Union. She was expelled from the Writers' Union and lost her ration card. Worst of all, Lev was rearrested in 1949, and Akhmatova became desperate enough to write and publish a cycle of 15 poems praising the dictator Stalin, called "Glory to Peace," in a futile attempt to free her son. She continued her own reading and work in literary scholarship, especially on Pushkin, and earned what she could by doing literary translation. Though she eventually published several whole volumes of translations, she complained that, for a poet, translating was like eating your own brain.

Akhmatova's poor health was not improved by her grinding poverty and forced dependence on friends and well-wishers. Partly as a strategy to protect her working time, she cultivated a kind of helplessness in everyday matters, but she was also terrified of the large, anonymous cities and the speeding, sinister cars of police and political figures. She had to borrow money to send to her son in prison and had no place of her own for decades. The squalid rooms where she lived retained only a few leftovers of past luxury: a fine wood-framed mirror and Modigliani's portrait of her on the wall. Her appearance seemed to depend on her mood: she could look ancient, puffy, and bad-tempered one day, but the next day she could be as charming and imposing as ever, even in very old age.

Like her friend Boris Pasternak, Akhmatova outlived Stalin and saw the "thaw," the relative expansion of freedom in the years when Nikita Khrushchev was at the head of the Soviet government. Her son Lev was finally released from camp in 1956, but he returned home very scarred. (He had been told that his mother was to blame for his arrest and continuing imprisonment, which may have reinforced childhood memories of being left at his grandmother's house.) Akhmatova was never officially "rehabilitated" after Zhdanov's denunciation of her writing, but she was able to publish her own original poetry again. In the new atmosphere, she was acknowledged as the grand old lady of Russian literature and attracted a fresh generation of readers and young poets who sought her advice and blessing. She had become a legend in her lifetime, a living link with the great literary culture of the Silver Age. Her admirers took care of the everyday tasks that she had always, half-intentionally, been unable to do for herself. Akhmatova preferred the young male poets; she liked beautiful women but perhaps did not want any to compete with her verbal preeminence. She also continued to write love poems, always in very good taste, which shocked some of her readers, who evidently did not think such things possible at her advanced age. She continued to write and publish poems with clear Aesopic content of protest and criticism, and she petitioned the authorities directly to help persecuted poets such as Joseph Brodsky.

Most Russian women writers have been forgotten in their old age, but the elderly Akhmatova was renowned throughout the world. In 1965, she was the third Russian ever to be invited to Oxford University in England to receive an honorary doctorate in literature. She relished the position of senior poet and took the role seriously, using her memories to teach about the history of Russian literature. Her intricate and often-revised work "Poem without a Hero" also served to teach. It is full of musical and cultural references and comments on its own difficulty for the unqualified reader. Learning what is needed to read and understand this poem quite thoroughly introduces the reader to the Russian Silver Age in St. Petersburg and the historical events that followed it. As the last major poet of her generation to survive, Akhmatova was anxious to preserve her view of literary history, and her own role in it, which she felt had often been distorted. She enjoyed judging the literary value of the young poets who came, or did not come, to hear her opinions, and she also made caustic, clever comments about the many famous contemporaries who had not lived to contradict her. She finally received a dacha (summer house) outside Leningrad from the Writers' Union and spent a great deal of time there in the last decade of her life.

Akhmatova's health had always been bad, and she spent many weeks in hospital or bedridden at home. She died in Domodedovo, a sanatorium outside Moscow, on March 5, 1966, at the age of 76. Her funeral was a major event, and hundreds of mourners came to the cathedral in Leningrad to view her body. As the last great Russian poet of that generation, her death marked the end of an era.

Akhmatova is one of the best-known Russian poets abroad, both for her writing and for the civic courage that sustained her work through personal and national tragedies. Her early poetry, spare and simple, and the later, opaque long poems with their baffling musical complexity all make her a challenge to the poetic or scholarly translator, but she is one of the most-translated 20th-century Russian writers. In the world, as in Russia, her reputation is secure.


Atwood, Margaret. "Two Poems," in Canadian Studies. Winter 1989.

Chukovskaya, Lidiya. Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi (Notes on Anna Akhmatova). 2 vols. Paris: YMCA Press, 1976, 1980.

Haight, Amanda. Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1976.

suggested reading:

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

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Akhmatova, Anna (1889–1966)

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