Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) Heart & Soul

“Hordes of women and battalions of men of the most widely differing ages can testify to her great gift for friendship, to a love of mischief which never deserted her even in her declining years, to the way in which, sitting at a table with vodka and zakuski, she could be so funny that everybody fell off their chairs from laughter.” ~~Nadezhda Mandelstam

One of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th-century, who became a legend in her own time as a poet and symbol of artistic integrity. Akhmatova’s work is characterized by precision, clarity, and economy. She wrote with apparent simplicity and naturalness and her rhyming was classical compared to such radical contemporary writers as Marina Tsvetaeva and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

“Our sacred craft has existed
For thousands of years…
With it, luminous even in darkness is earth.
But no poet has ever insisted,
Through laughter or tears,
That there is no wisdom, no age, no death.”

Anna Akhmatova was born Anna Gorenko in Bolshoy Fontan, near Odessa, Ukraine, as the daughter of a naval engineer. She began writing poetry at the age of 11, and adopted a pseudonym to allay her father’s fears that as a”decadent poetress” she would dishonour the family. The pseudonym was the Tatar name of Akhmatova’s great-grandmother. When she was sixteen, her father abandoned his family. Akhmatova attended a girls’ gymnasium in Tsarskoe Selo and the famous Smolnyi Institute in St. Petersburg. She continued her studies in Kiev in Fundukleevskaia gymnasium (1906) and in a law school (1907) before moving to St. Petersburg to study literature. Among her teachers were the poet, dramatist and essayist Innokenty Annensky (1856-1909), who influenced her deeply.At the age of 21 Akhmatova became a member of the Acmeist group of poets, whose leader, the poet and literature critic Nikolai Gumilyov she married in April 1910, in a church near Kiev. Nikolai was also friend of Annensky, and from Tsarskoe Selo. Nikolai, three years her senior, had fallen in love with Akhmatova when she was just fourteen. Akhmatova become “Gumi-lvitsa” (Gumi-lioness) and her husband was “Gumi-lev” (Gumi-lion).

After honeymoon in Paris, Gumilyov left his young bride and went to Africa. “He loved his mother and was a good son,” said Ahkmatova much later on her unfaithful husband. However, in 1912 they had a son, Lev Gumilyov. He became also a writer.

Between the years 1910 and 1912 Akhmatova visited Paris, where she met the painter Amedeo Modigliani, and northern Italy. Modigliani drew sixteen portraits of Akhmatova, some of them nudes. One of the most famous is a portrait, in an Egyptian mode, which has been reproduced on several jackets of Akhmatova’s books.

Akhmatova’s first collection of poetry, VECHER, appeared in 1912. She gained a wider fame two years later with CHYOTKI. “I filled the vacancy for a woman poet,” she said. With the Acmeist group Akhmatova shared their striving for simplicity and clarity in expression. Her poems dealt mostly love or examined the Russian cultural tradition. In ‘Love’ from 1911 she wrote: “It knows how to sob so sweetly / In the prayer of a yearning violin, / And how fearful to divine it / In a still unfamiliar smile.” Later Akhmatova’s sense of history became a dominant theme in her work. At the age of twenty-three she he recorded the decadence of the time: “We’re all drunkards here, and harlots: / how wretched we are together!” . Like a number of other Russian writers, she also indentified the image of Petersburg with the fate of Russia. Maria Tsverayeva, her contemporary poet, called Akhmatova “Anna Chrysostom of all the Russians.”

When the war broke out, Gumilyov received news enthusiastically, and enlisted in the cavalry. While in Paris he fell in love with a Russian-French woman, for whom he wrote a collection of poems. In 1918 Gumilyov returned from Paris to Petrograd, where he resumed his literary activities. In the same year Akhmatova divorced him to marry Vladimir Shileiko, a distinguished Assyriologist. They separated in 1920, and divorced in 1928.

After her first husband was shot on charges of antirevolutionary activities in 1921 and the death of Aleksandr Blok – Gumilyov used to read out provocatively monarchist poems and make the sign of the cross – Akhmatova entered a period of silence. Her work was often mentioned in the literary disputes of the 1920s but she was not able to publish new works. Between the years 1921 and 1953 many of the people closest to her emigrated or were killed or imprisoned. Publication of her work was banned from 1925 to 1952, with only a brief respite during World War II in 1940, when several of her poems were published in the literary monthly Zvezda. Akhmatova’s poem “Courage” appeared in 1942 on a front page of Pravda.

When the siege of Leningrand had been lifted, Akhmatova returned to her home town in 1944. Later she recalled how she had been struck by the “terrible ghost that pretended to be my city.” In 1946 Akhmatova was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers. However, her poems eulogizing Joseph Stalin appeared in weekly magazine Ogonyok in the 1950s, but they were designed to gain freedom for her son, who had been exiled to Siberia.

Excluded from public life and from the Soviet Writers’ Union, Akhmatova lived on a meager pension, and earned extra income by translating works of other writers, such as Victor Hugo, Rabindranath Tagore, and Giacomo Leopardi. She also wrote memoirs on Aleksandr Blok, Amedeo Modigliani, and Osip Mandelstam.

In 1946 Akhmatova and the humorist Mikhail Zoshchenko were singled out as target of new attacks against artists and intellectuals. Lev, who had served in the air force, was again arrested in 1949 and sentenced 15 years of exile at hard labor. After Stalin’s death Akhmatova was slowly rehabilitated. Lev was freed in 1956 and from the mid-1950s Akhmatova gradually became reaccepted on the literary scene. In 1964 she was permitted to travel to Italy to receive the Taormina Poetry Prize and in 1966 a book-length study was published about her. When the American national poet Robert Frost had visited her at a dacha in 1962, Akhmatova wrote: “I’ve had everything – poverty, prison lines, fear, poems remembered only by heart, and burnt poems. And humiliation and grief. And you don’t know anything about this and wouldn’t be able to understand it if I told you…” Two years before her death at the age of 76, Akhmatova was chosen president of the Writers’ Union. She did not live to see the publication of her collected works in 1986 in Moscow.

“Tomorrow, her children… O, what small things rest
For her to do on earth – only to play
With this fool, and the black snake to her dark breast
Indifferently, like a parting kindness, lay.”
(from ‘Cleopatra’)

Among Akhmatova’s best-known works are Requiem, a poetic cycle on the Stalin purges, and POEMA BEZ GEROYA (Poem Without a Hero), on which she began in Leningrad in 1940 and continued to revise her text for over 20 years. The Poem, divided in three parts, lacks a consistent plot as well as a conventional “hero”. The first part follows the poet into a masquerade drama, there also is theme of a suicide of a young soldier, who had fallen in love with Olga Sudeikina, an actress, the lover of the poet Aleksandr Blok, and Akhmatova’s close friend. In part two the poet becomes the voice of those she has outlived. In the third part the mass graves of war and destruction define the essence of the “new” century.

Akhmatova’s third husband, Nikolai Punin, died in the 1950s in a Siberian camp. The writer Boris Pasternak, who was married, proposed to her at least twice.

Requiem, Akhmatova’s poem-cycle, was a literary monument to the victims of Stalin’s Terror. The earliest poem dates from 1935 and the remainder was apparently written in 1938-40. The prose foreword was added in 1957. The work was first published in 1963 in Munich and in Russia it appeared in 1987. The central core of Requiem consists of ten short, numbered poems. The first originally reflected the arrest of her husband Nikolai Punin in 1935 and other close friends, but primarily the poems deal with the author’s experiences and her agony following the arrest of her son Lev Gumilyov in 1938. Lev had been arrested first time in 1935 and released after Akhmatova wrote a letter to Stalin, ending with the words, “Help, Iosif Vissarionovich!” The tenth poem switches from contemporary Russia to the scene of the Crucifixion. The wails of grief reflect the voice of others who had suffered loss during the terror.

No foreign sky protected me,
no stranger’s wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time, that place.
(from Requiem)

For further reading: Anna Akhmatova, silence à plusieurs voix by E.A. Bickert (1970); Anna Akhmátova: A Poetic Pilgrimage by A. Haight (1976); Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatova by Lidiia Chukovskaia (1975-80); The Poetry of Anna Akhmátova by S. Ketchian (1986); Anna of All the Russians by Jessie Davies (1988); Ob Anne Akhmatovoi, ed. by M. Kralin (1990); Remembering Anna Akhmatova by Anatoly Nayman (1991); In a Shattered Mirror by Susan Amert (1992); The Acmeist Movement in Russian Poetry by Justin Doherty (1995); Anna Akhmamatova and Pushkin by David Wells (1994); Anna Akhmatova and Her Circle by K. Polivanov (1994);  Poet and Prophet by R. Reeder (1995); Anna Akhmatova by David Wells (1996); A Concordance to the Poetry of Anna Akhmatova, ed. by Tatiana Patera (1996); The Guest from the Future: Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin by Gyorgy Dalos, et al (1999); Akhmatova’s Petersburg by Sharon Leiter (2001)

– Sir Isaiah Berlin, the famous social historian and essayist, saw Akhmatova several times in Leningrad. “When we met in Oxford in 1965 Akhmatova told me that Stalin had been personally enraged by the fact that she had allowed me to visit her. ‘So our nun now received visits from foreign spies,’ he is alleged to have remarked, 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 missions were spies to Stalin. Of course, she said, the old man was by the out of his mind, in the grip of pathological paranoia. In Oxford she told me that she was convinced that Stalin’s fury, which we had raised, had unleashed the Cold War – that she and I had changed the history of mankind.” (from ‘Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak’, in The Proper Study of Mankind, 1998)

Visit the “Russian Poetry Net” at: Northwestern University Akhmatova Page which contains many examples and links to other Akhmatova sites.

Selected works:
• VECHER, 1912 – Evening
• CHETKI, 1914 – Beads
• IVA, 1940
• STIKHOTVORENIIA 1909-1945, 1946
• ‘Poema bez geroia’, 1960
• STIKHOTVORENIIA 1909-1960, 1961
• REKVIEM, 1963 – Requiem and Poem without a Hero
• BEG VREMENY, 1909-65
• GOLOSA POETOV, 1965 (trans.)
• LEOPARDI. DZHAKOMO. LIRIKA, 1967 (trans., with Anatoli Naiman)
• SOCHINENIIA, 1967-68 (3 vols.)
• Selected Poems, 1969
• Poems, 1973 (bilingual edition)
• Tale Without a Hero and Twenty-Two Poems, 1973
• Selected Poems, 1976
• IZ ARMIANSKOI POEZII, 1976 (trans.)
• O PUSHKINE, 1977
• Way of All the Earth, 1979
• Poems, 1983
• Three Russian Women Poets: Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Bella Akhmadulina, 1983
• Twenty Poems, 1985
• You Will Hear Thunder, 1985
• Selected Early Love Lyrics, 1988
• Poems Without a Hero and Selected Poems, 1989 (trans. by Lenore Mayhew, William McNaughton)
• Evening, 1990
• SOCHINENIIA, 1990 (2 vols.)
• The Complete Poems, 1990 (2 vols.)
• Anna Akhmatova, 1992
• A Stranger to Heaven and Earth, 1993 (trans. by Judith Hemschemeyer)
• Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova, 2000 (trans. by
Judith Hemschemeyer, ed. by Roberta Reeder)

View a rare 17 second videoclip of the poet as she recites some of her verse referring to herself as Dante’s inspiration and muse for the Inferno:

Read a fine selection of her poems categorized by title and subject at: A Collection of Poems by Anna Akhmatova.

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