ANNA AKHMATOVA brilliance unbowed

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A poet and writer of the highest personal and literary standards, during her lifetime, Anna Akhmatova was denied her deserved international reputation as one of Russia’s greatest writers. Of noble birth, Anna Gorenko was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1889. In an indication of the independent nature that became her hallmark, she changed her name when she was seventeen. She went on to study law at university, but always wrote poetry. During this time, she met Nikolai Gumilev, a poet and literary critic with whom she shared a love of literature. They married in 1910 and together threw themselves into Acmeism, a literary school dedicated to clear and tightly constructed verse in reaction to the ruling style of the day, Russia’s popular symbolism. Gumilev, a romantic figure with distant dreams, took off for Africa, leaving his new bride on her own for great stretches of time. Focused on her poetry, Anna had her first book, Evening, published to high praise in 1911. A striking Tartar beauty, Akhmatova developed a great following and read to doting crowds at an underground cabaret, the Stray Dog café. That same year, she gave birth to son Lev. Domesticity was not Anna’s destiny, however, and Gumilev’s mother, who despised Anna, took Lev from her.

While the couple explored their craft, chaos surrounded their home in St. Petersburg. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Russia’s tsars had been under attack politically, and parties formed illegally in opposition to the royal rulers. One such party was the Social Democratic Party, a faction of which was led by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin’s sect, the Bolsheviks, were fairly radical in their fervor to effect the overthrow of the tsar, seemingly by any means.

Anna’s second book, Rosary, debuted in 1913 to even greater fervor, so much so that the book inspired a parlor game in which each person took turns quoting a verse until the entire book was finished.

Anna’s success caused strife at home; her husband was quite jealous, and they both began relationships outside the marriage. The two writers eventually divorced, and Anna married Voldemar Shileiko, but she and her first husband maintained a friendship. Anna suffered a severe shock when the Bolsheviks executed her first husband in 1921 over a trumped-up charge of a plot to overthrow the government. Anna’s book Anno Domini came out the following year. She in turn suffered at the Bolsheviks’ hands and became something of a pariah.

This was a time of great hardship when Anna’s household rarely had enough to eat or fuel for heat. Most of their friends left Russia during this terrible time of persecution. By 1924, in the wake of Lenin’s death, Stalin took power and wreaked even greater terror upon the Russian people. During his “purges,” millions of people were killed and imprisoned, including any writer who didn’t bow to the dictates of the new regime. Anna’s son Lev was arrested in 1933 and 1935, and her writings were banned from 1925 to 1940. She turned to literary criticism and translation and Pushkin scholarship. During the 1930s, she courageously composed an epic poem, “Requiem,” in honor of Stalin’s victims, which went unpublished in Russia until 1987. In 1940, an anthology of her poetry, From Six Books, was published, only to be withdrawn a month later.

During Germany’s siege of the Soviet Union in 1941, Anna urged the women of Leningrad, formerly St. Petersburg, to be brave during this war. Astoundingly, the government, aware of her status as a beloved and respected figure in Russian culture, had asked her to do this even though they forbade the publication of her writing.

The postwar period found Anna briefly enjoying popularity once again, but Andrei Zhadanov, Secretary of the Central Committee, soon removed her from the Writer’s Union and decreed a ban on her writing, destroying a book of her poems and decrying her as “half nun, half harlot.” Expulsion also lost Anna her ration card and any means of access to food and supplies, forcing her to ask for support from friends until the end of her life. in 1949, Lev Gumilev was arrested again and imprisoned for seven years, until Nikita Khrushchev took leadership of the party, denounced Stalin, and released prisoners.

Anna’s poetry was published in the late 1950s with heavy-handed censorship. Now a legend to the youth of Russia for her staunch idealism and enduring dedication to poetry, budding Russian literati including Joseph Brodsky sought her out as a connection to pre-Communist Russia. A great admirer of the great lady of letters from the “Silver Age” of Russian poetry who had survived the devastation of the Communist holocaust, Brodsky named Anna Akhmatova “the muse of keening” for her elegies for the dead and for a dying culture.

We thought: we’re poor, we have nothing, but when we started losing one after the other
So each day became remembrance day.

Anna Akhmatova, from In Memoriam, July 19, 1914


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