She was born Anna Gorenko into an upper-class family in Odessa, the Ukraine. Her interest in poetry began in her youth, but when her father found out about her aspirations, he told her not to shame the family name by becoming a ‘decadent poetess’. He forced her to change her name and she took the name of her maternal great-grandmother.
Primary sources of information about Akhmatova’s life are relatively scant, as war, revolution and the totalitarian regime caused much of the records to be destroyed. For long periods she was in official disfavor and many of those who were close to her died in the aftermath of the revolution. Her first husband, Nikolai Gumilev was executed the Soviet secret police, and her son Levi and her common-in law husband Nikolay Punin spent many years in a labor camp where Punin died.
Upon the publication of her first book Evening in 1912, Akhmatova became a cult figure amongst the intelligentsia and part of the literary scene in St. Petersburg. Her second book Rosary (1914) was critically acclaimed and established her reputation. With her first husband Gumilev, she became a leader of a movement which praised the virtues of lucid, carefully crafted verse and reacted against the vagueness of the Symbolist style which dominated the Russian literary scene of that period. Thousands of women composed poems ‘in honour of Akhmatova’, mimicking her style. Her aristocratic manners and artistic integrity won her the titles of ‘Queen of the Neva’ and ‘Soul of the Silver Age’, as the period became 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 years later, she would recall this as the blessed years of her life. She became close friends with Boris Pasternak (who, though married, proposed to her many times) and rumours circulated that she was having an affair with influential lyrical poet Alexander Blok. She also had an affair with the mosaic artist and poet Boris Anrep and many of her poems in the period are about him.
In February, 1917, the revolution started in Petersburg (then Petrograd); soldiers fired on marching protesters, and others mutinied. In a city without electricity or sewage service, with little water or food, they faced starvation and sickness. Anna’s friends died around her and others left in droves for safer havens in Europe and America (including poet Anrep). She had the option to leave but chose to stay and was proud of her decision to remain.
You are a traitor and for a green island,
Have betrayed, yes, betrayed your native
Abandoned all our songs and sacred
And the pine trees over a quiet lake.
(Translated by Jane Kenyon)
Akhmatova’s writing can be said to fall into two periods-the early work (1912-1925) and her late work from around 1936 until her death.
Her work was condemned and censored by Stalinist authorities and she is notable for choosing not to emigrate, and remaining in Russia, acting as a witness to the events around her. She had little food and almost no money and from a new Marxist perspective her poetry was deemed to represent an introspective ‘bourgeois aesthetic’, reflecting only ‘trivial female’ preoccupations, not in keeping with the new revolutionary politics of the time. Her work was unofficially banned by a party resolution of 1925 and she found it hard to publish, though she did not stop writing poetry. She also worked as a critic and essayist, though many USSR and foreign critics and readers concluded she had died.
At the end of 1949, her son Lev was arrested again and sentenced to 10 years in a Siberian prison camp. She spent much of the next years trying to ensure his release, 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.
Many suggest that her period of pro-Stalinist work may also have saved her own life. With the press still heavily controlled and censored under Nikita Khruschev, a translation by Akhmatova was praised in public view in 1955, and her own poems began to re-appear in 1956.
She was beautiful, dark-haired and angular- with a prominent hooked nose. Artists loved to draw her in profile, and there are thought to be 200 portraits of her, including more than a dozen by the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, who fell in love with her in Paris in the early 20th century.
During the last years of her life, she lived with her common-law husband Nikolai Punin’s family in Leningrad, still translating, researching and writing her own poems, official memoirs and working on her epic Poem without a Hero, 20 years in the writing which she considered her masterpiece, 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 eventually made their way into the pages of Pravda, and visited 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.
In 1966, she died of a heart attack at the age of 76 years old.
Forty years later, a statue of her was erected in St. Petersburg, across from the prison where she and countless others used to wait for love ones.
She remains a figure of universal admiration and affection. There are two museums in her honour and statues in her memory in the courtyard of the philological faculty of St. Petersburg State University, in front of a secondary school and in the garden of the famous Fountain House in Russia.
*I am ashamed to admit that I was totally unfamiliar with the life and work of Anna Akhamatova until recently during a delightful conversation with my good friend Twinkle Rudberg.
Thank you, Twinkle, for introducing me to this special Calla Lily. Doing the research on her utterly blew me away!