Akhmatova, Anna (Anna Andreyevna Gorenko)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Akhmatova, Anna (Anna Andreyevna Gorenko)

Akhmatova, Anna (Anna Andreyevna Gorenko) (1889-1966) Russo-Ukrainian critic and poet

Through anguished verse, the feminist poet and translator Anna Akhmatova distilled the fall of the last Romanov czar, Stalinist purges, and the quashing of dissent in Soviet Russia. Born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko in Bolshoy Fontan near Odessa on the Black Sea, she came of age outside the royal enclave at St. Petersburg and attended the Kiev College for Women. Anna rejected her father's insistence that she establish a law career. Instead, influenced by the works of VIRGIL, Dante, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY, and ALEKSANDR PUSHKIN, she opened a literary salon in St. Petersburg. Under a surname honoring Akhmat Khan, a 15th-century Tatar rebel against Czar Ivan III the Great, she submitted poems to the journal Sirius. She married the poet Nikolay Gumilyov in 1910 (they later separated) and gave birth to their son Lev two years later. Akhmatova's best-selling anthology Evening (1912) and At the Edge of the Sea (1915), a long elegy reflecting the uncertainties preceding World War I, introduced readers to her lyricism and moral authority, two qualities her work shared with fellow experimentalist BORIS PASTERNAK.

In 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, Akhmatova wrote of PROPHECY fulfilled and the coming of turmoil and starvation. She completed White Flock, a collection of poems on czarist Russia's transformation that she recited to receptive audiences. In the poem “Petrograd, 1919,” she anticipated with regret the savage future that awaited Peter's holy city. By 1921, the same year her former husband was executed, terror at Josef Stalin's control of the Red Army had come to dominate the tone and atmosphere of Akhmatova’s poems. Like the Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke, she wrote of the spirit withering without joy or hope. Her popularity among libertarians resulted in the banning of her works from 1925 to 1940; she earned her living during this time through translating work and publishing essays.

In Requiem (written 1935-40; published 1963), Akhmatova accused Stalin of lawlessness and exposed the loss of Russian civil rights during his tyranny. She criticized the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany in the poem “In 1940,” which derives its fervor from the Luftwaffe’s bombardment of London and the German occupation of Paris, where she had spent her month-long honeymoon in 1911. The Soviet press branded her a traitor; communist authorities censored her work and sentenced her son, ethnographer Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev, to hard labor mining copper and nickel at the Norilsk gulag in northern Siberia from 1938 to 1956.

Anna under Siege

Akhmatova married twice more after Nikolai Gumilyov was executed. She never stopped writing, even when her works were banned before and after World War II. Speaking for the people, she denounced Russia’s humiliation during the war. By commiserating with the Egyptian queen in “Cleopatra” (1940), the poet dramatized the enslavement of the Egyptian royal children and the title figure’s impotence before Octavian, the future first emperor of Rome, whom heralds announce with screaming trumpets and eagle standards. The backdrop mimics the bravado of Hitler’s public speeches in Berlin’s city center. Before her evacuation from Leningrad in 1941, Akhmatova cheered terrified citizens over the radio. Her play Prologue: A Dream within a Dream (1942) reprised the bleakness of the public tribunal in the Czech-German novelist Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925). She filled her verse collections Poem without a Hero (1943) and Winds of War (1946) with images of walls, chains, prisons, guards, tombs, shadows, and a dark wing obscuring the light, a symbol of Soviet paranoia and secrecy. Upon return to Leningrad in 1944, she found the city reduced to a ghost of its former glory. Fans of her silenced verse resorted to samizdat (private publication) by memorizing, hand-copying, or typing forbidden poems for clandestine circulation.

Banishment from print raised Akhmatova’s esteem among Russians. Ousted from the writer’s guild, she served as godmother to a generation of post-Stalin libertarian writers and continued to earn her living by translating the works of others. In 1950, she wrote a series of sham propaganda pieces in the monthly journal Ogonek (Cedilla) that praised Stalin with cliches. When Premier Nikita Khrushchev introduced a thaw in Soviet rigidity in 1953, public acclaim welcomed her keen observations, but her painful fawning failed to release her son Lev from prison for three more years. Furthermore, her third husband, Nikolai Punin, died in a Siberian gulag in 1953.

Akhmatova’s stature as a preeminent Russian poet grew, and in 1964, new collections of her verses preceded celebration of her 75th birthday. The following year, she received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. She died in Leningrad on March 5, 1966, and was interred in Komarovo Cemetery. Many of her great works, such as Poema bez geroya (Poem without a Hero), reached print after her death. The poets JOSEPH BRODSKY and YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO as well as literary historians exalted her as one of the greatest female lyricists of all time.


Akhmatova, Anna. The Complete Poems of Anna

Akhmatova. Brookline, Mass.: Zephyr Press, 1998. . Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Brookline,

Mass.: Zephyr Press, 2000.

Amert, Susan. In a Shattered Mirror: The Later Poetry of Anna Akhmatova. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.