Anna Akhmatova (June 23, 1889 — March 5, 1966) was the pen name of Anna Andreevna Gorenko, the leader, heart, and soul of the Saint Petersburg tradition of Russian poetry for half a century.
Akhmatova's work ranges from short lyric poems to universalized, ingeniously structured cycles, such as Requiem (1935-40), her tragic masterpiece about the Stalinist terror. Her work addresses a variety of themes including time and memory, the fate of creative women, and the difficulties of living and writing in the shadow of Stalinism.
Akhmatova was born at Bolshoy Fontan in Odessa, Ukraine. Her childhood does not appear to have been happy; her parents separated in 1905. She was educated in Tsarskoe Selo (where she first met her future husband, Nikolay Gumilyov) and in Kyiv. Anna started writing poetry at the age of 11, inspired by her favorite poets: Racine, Pushkin, and Baratynsky. As her father did not want to see any verses printed under his "respectable" name, she chose to adopt the surname of her Tatar grandmother as a pseudonym.
Many of the male Russian poets of the time declared their love for Akhmatova; she reciprocated the attentions of Osip Mandelstam, whose wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, would eventually forgive Akhmatova in her autobiography, Hope Against Hope. In 1910, Anna married the boyish poet, Nikolay Gumilyov, who very soon left her for lion hunting in Africa, the battlefields of World War I, and the society of Parisian grisettes. Her husband did not take Anna’s poems seriously, and was shocked when Alexander Blok declared that he preferred her poems to his.
In 1912, Anna Akhmatova published her first collection, entitled Evening. It contained brief, psychologically taut pieces which English readers may find distantly reminiscent of Robert Browning and Thomas Hardy. They were acclaimed for their classical diction, telling details, and the skilful use of color.
By the time her second collection, the Rosary, appeared in 1914, there were thousands of women composing poems "in honor of 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. Akhmatova was prompted to exclaim: "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 "Queen of the Neva" and "Soul of the Silver Age," as the period came to be 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, "Poem Without a Hero" (1940–65), inspired by Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.
Nikolay Gumilyov was executed in 1921 for activities considered anti-Soviet; Akhmatova then married a prominent Assyriologist Vladimir Shilejko, and then an art scholar, Nikolay Punin, who died in the Stalinist Gulag camps. After that, she spurned several proposals from the married poet, Boris Pasternak.
After 1922, Akhmatova was condemned as a bourgeois element, and from 1925 to 1940, her poetry was banned from publication. She earned her living by translating Leopardi and publishing essays, including some brilliant essays on Pushkin, in scholarly periodicals. All of her friends either emigrated or were repressed.
Only a few people in the West suspected that she was still alive, when she was allowed to publish a collection of new poems in 1940. During World War II, when Anna witnessed the nightmare of the 900-Day Siege, her patriotic poems found their way to the front pages of Pravda. After Akhmatova returned to Leningrad following the Central Asian evacuation in 1944, she was distressed by "a terrible ghost” that used to be her city.
Upon learning about Isaiah Berlin's visit to Akhmatova in 1946, Stalin's associate in charge of culture, Andrei Zhdanov, publicly labeled Anna "half harlot, half nun"; he had her poems banned from publication, and attempted to have her expelled from the Writers' Union, tantamount to a death sentence by starvation. 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.
Although officially stifled, Akhmatova's work continued to circulate in samizdat form and even by word of mouth, as she became a symbol of suppressed Russian heritage.
After Stalin's death, Akhmatova's preeminence among Russian poets was grudgingly conceded, even by party officials, and a censored edition of her work was published; conspicuously absent was Requiem, which Isaiah Berlin had predicted in 1946 would never be published in the Soviet Union. Her later pieces, composed in neoclassical rhyme 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 21st 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 an honorary doctoral degree from Oxford University. 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.