Russian modernist poet Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova. Photo of the early 1960s
Photo of the early 1960s. Anna Akhmatova

Russian modernist poet Anna Akhmatova (June 23 1889 — March 5, 1966) was the leader and the heart and soul of St Petersburg tradition of Russian poetry in the course of half a century. Akhmatova (real name Anna Andreyevna Gorenko) was born near Odessa, the Russian Empire. Her childhood was not happy, as her parents separated in 1905. She studied in the Smolny Institute of St Petersburg. Anna started writing poetry at the age of 11. She was inspired by her favorite poets: Pushkin and Baratynsky. And as her father did not want to see any verses printed under his “respectable” name, she had to adopt the surname of one of her Tatar ancestors, as a pseudonym.

In 1910, Anna Akhmatova married the boyish poet Nikolay Gumilyov. But very soon, he left her for hunting lions in Africa, the battlefields of the World War I, and the society of Parisian grisettes. Her husband didn’t take her poems seriously and was shocked when Alexander Blok declared to him that he preferred her poems to his. Their son, Lev, born in 1912, was to become a famous Neo-Eurasianist historian.

Anna Akhmatova. Lyova Gumilev with her mother - Anna Akhmatova. Leningrad, 1926
Lyova Gumilev with her mother – Anna Akhmatova. Leningrad, 1926

In 1912, Anna Akhmatova published her first collection, entitled “Evening”. It contained brief, psychologically taut pieces which, for example, English readers may find distantly reminiscent of Robert Browning and Thomas Hardy. They were acclaimed for their classical diction, telling details, and the skillful use of color.

By the time, her second collection, the Rosary, appeared in 1914. And there were thousands of women composing their poems “after Akhmatova”. Her early poems usually picture a man and a woman involved in the most poignant, ambiguous moment of their relationship. Such pieces were much imitated and later parodied by Nabokov and others. Once, Akhmatova exclaimed: “I taught our women how to speak but don’t know how to make them silent!”.

Together with her husband, Akhmatova enjoyed a high reputation in the circle of Acmeist poets. Her aristocratic manners and artistic integrity won her the titles of the “Queen of the Neva” and the “soul of the Silver Age”, thus this period became known in the history of Russian poetry. Many decades later, she would recall this blessed time of her life in the longest of her works, the “Poem Without Hero” (1940–65).

Young Akhmatova. Odessa
Young Akhmatova. Odessa

Nikolay Gumilyov was executed in 1921 for activities considered anti-Soviet. And Akhmatova presently remarried, first, a prominent Assyriologist Vladimir Shileiko, and then another scholar, Nikolay Punin (later died in the Stalinist camps). After that, she spurned several proposals from the married poet Boris Pasternak.

During the whole period from 1925 to 1952, Akhmatova was effectively silenced, and unable to publish poetry. So, she earned her living by translating and publishing some brilliant essays on Pushkin in scholarly periodicals. In addition, all of her friends either emigrated or were repressed.

Only a few people in the West suspected that she was still alive, and especially when she was allowed to publish a collection of new poems in 1940. During the Great Patriotic War, when she witnessed the nightmare of the 900-Day Siege, her patriotic poems found their way to the front pages of the Pravda. After Akhmatova returned to Leningrad following the Central Asian evacuation in 1944, she was disconcerted with “a terrible ghost that pretended to be my city”.

Upon learning about Isaiah Berlin’s visit to Akhmatova in 1946, Stalin’s associate Andrei Zhdanov publicly labelled her “half harlot, half nun”, and had her poems banned from publication. Her son spent his youth in Stalinist gulags, and she even resorted to publishing several poems in praise of Stalin to secure his release. Their relations remained strained, however.

After Stalin’s death, Akhmatova’s preeminence among Russian poets was grudgingly conceded even by party officials. Her later pieces, composed in neoclassical rhyming and mood, seem to be the voice of many she has outlived. Her dacha in Komarovo was frequented by Joseph Brodsky and other young poets, who continued Akhmatova’s traditions of St Petersburg poetry into the 21th century.

Akhmatova got a chance 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 the honorary doctoral degree from Oxford University. Besides, in the trip, her life-long friend and secretary Lydia Chukovskaya accompanied her. In 1962, Robert Frost visited her dacha.

Song of the Last Meeting (1911)

My breast grew helplessly cold,
But my steps were light.
I pulled the glove from my left hand
Mistakenly onto my right.

It seemed there were so many steps,
But I knew there were only three!
Amidst the maples an autumn whisper
Pleaded: “Die with me!

I’m led astray by evil
Fate, so black and so untrue.”
I answered: “I, too, dear one!
I, too, will die with you…”

Akhmatova’s reputation continued to grow after her death, and it was in the year of her centenary that one of the greatest poetic monuments of the 20th century, Akhmatova’s Requiem, was finally published in her homeland.

My friends, light up the candles for me still,
And in the smoke, your image is outlined,
And I don’t want to know that time will heal,
That everything will pass away with time.

No longer will I ever lose my verve,
For any burden on my soul and any pain,
Unknowingly, she took along with her–
At first, into the port, then on the plane.

Inside my soul there are deserted lands.
What are you seeking in this fruitless blur?!
There are just fragments of old songs and webs,
And all the rest she took along with her.

Inside my soul are goals without means.
Go dig inside,– you’ll find there, by chance,
Two simple phrases and unfinished scenes,
And all the rest is now in Paris, France.

Russian modernist poet Anna Akhmatova