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Akhmatova: Biographical/Historical Overview
by Jill Dybka
A Life Amid Change
In the late 19th Century, Russia’s Tsarist autocracy was under siege. Oppositional political parties were formed, in violation of the law. One of these parties was the “Social Democratic Party.” Vladimir Lenin was the leader of a faction of this group called the “Bolsheviks,” or “majority,” though they were actually the minority (Kublin 123). The factions were divided on certain philosophical opinions, but like the rest of the Social Democrats, the Bolsheviks were devoted to socialism and worked toward the goals of revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar. The Bolsheviks would eventually succeed. It was on the cusp of these revolutionary events that the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova was born in 1889. She witnessed as a child the reign of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II. In her lifetime she also witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution, the Stalinist Terror and Purges, and Russia’s involvement in both World Wars. She would be persecuted by the Soviets for her links to pre-Revolutionary Russia, but she survived, a symbol of truth and integrity. Today she is considered one of the four great Modern Russian lyric poets, with Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelshtam and Marina Tsvetaeva (Herschemeyer vii).
Akhmatova was born Anna Andreevna Gorenko. She was raised in an upper class family in the town of Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg. At an early age, she became interested in poetry, though it was not fashionable at the time. When her father found out about her aspirations, he told her not to shame the family name by becoming a “decadent poetess” (Kenyon 2). He forced her to take a pen-name, and she chose the last name of her maternal Great-Grandmother, a Tartar, from whom she inherited high cheekbones and striking features. She started signing her name “Anna Andreevna Akhmatova.” That same year, the Revolution of 1905 took place. Thousands marched to the Tsar’s palace, and many were shot by palace guards on “Bloody Sunday.” From then on, the downfall of the Autocracy was near. Nicholas II implemented reforms to try to stop the strikes and unrest, but his government was weakening.
In 1910, Akhmatova married Nikolai Gumilev. He was a romantic figure, a poet and adventurer enamored with North Africa. Gumilev founded a literary movement in Russia called “Acmeism,” which was a reaction to the current Symbolism. The Acmeists emphasized clarity and directness, in contrast to the Symbolists, who the Acmeists believed clouded their poetry with ideologies and intangibilities like mysticism and symbols (Gibian 1). Shortly after Gumilev and Akhmatova were married, he left on a journey to Abyssinia, leaving her behind. While Gumilev was away, Akhmatova wrote many of the poems that would be published in 1912 in her first book, Evening.
Akhmatova’s first book was wildly popular. She became a cult figure among the intelligentsia, and often read at a cabaret in a St. Petersburg cellar called the Stray Dog Cafe. She became well-known as a part of the St. Petersburg literary scene and remained forever connected with that city. In her early lyric poems she concentrates on love, with a confessional, frank style. Akhmatova was a master of the Acmeist ideals of real experience and clarity. The same year she found success as a poet, her son Lev was born. He was raised by his paternal grandmother, who disliked Akhmatova. Akhmatova protested this situation, but her husband took the side of his family. She would visit with her son during holidays and summer. Later, Akhmatova would write that “motherhood is a bright torture. I was not worthy of it” (Kenyon 3).
Two years later, Akhmatova’s second book, Rosary, was published. It, too, was widely read and critically popular. A parlor game based upon the book was even invented. One person would recite a line of poetry and the next person would try to recite the next, until the entire book was recited. Though Akhmatova was enjoying professional success, her personal life was falling apart. Her marriage to Gumilev–in trouble from the start–was failing. They were unfaithful, and Gumilev was jealous of Akhmatova’s success. That year was a time of great tumult, politically, as well. World War I broke out in Europe, and in August Germany declared war on Russia. Also, Akhmatova’s beloved St.Petersburg was renamed Petrograd. Akhmatova would write about the war in her next book of poems, White Flock, which was published in 1917. Russia suffered heavy losses during WWI and this helped to contribute to the downfall of the Romanov empire.
Akhmatova’s fourth book of poems was published in 1917, the same year the Bolshevik revolution took place and changed Russia forever. Early in 1917 the “March Revolution” occurred and the Tsar was forced to abdicate and a Provisional Government was installed. Meanwhile, World War I was still raging. The Russian troops did not have enough food or weapons and other necessary supplies. The people did not want Russia’s involvement in the war to continue, yet the Provisional Government continued it. Following the March Revolution, Lenin seized an opportunity for the Bolsheviks to gain power. Almost as powerful as the Provisional Government was the “Soviet,” a council of citizens such as workers or soldiers. The Soviets wielded enormous influence. Lenin maneuvered Bolsheviks into influential Soviets like the Petrograd Soviet. This set the stage for the Bolshevik Revolution in the Fall of 1917 (Kublin 154). After the Revolution, a civil war was fought in Russia that ended in 1921. When the Civil War ended, the Bolsheviks (known also as “Communists”) were in control of Russia’s government and military. Three years after the Civil War ended, Lenin died.
Plantain was published the year the Civil War ended, 1921. It was Akhmatova’s fifth book of poetry. By this time she had divorced Gumilev, but the two poets still remained friends. After the divorce she married Vol’demar Shileiko, the next in a series of failed relationships in Akhmatova’s life. He, too, was jealous of Akhmatova’s fame. Like many during this time period, they didn’t have enough to eat, or enough fuel to keep warm. In the fifth book, several poems appear about this period of time.
Lenin, after he seized power, began using tactics of terror. The Cheka, or secret police, had the power to arrest and to execute without a trial. It was used to liquidate the opposition, or anyone else they wished to get rid of. In 1921, Akhmatova’s ex-husband, Nikolai Gumilev, was arrested and executed for anti-government activities. He was falsely accused of taking part in a plot to overthrow the government. Akhmatova was devastated.
The government’s agenda to spread fear was a response to the fact that the Bolsheviks were never a majority. If the Bolsheviks could keep an opposition from being organized, they could stay in power. If the citizens were afraid to trust anybody–including their families–an opposition could not be organized. Many of Akhmatova’s friends left Russia and the terrible persecution.
Joseph Stalin gained power in 1924, after the death of Lenin. He perfected the tactics of terror that his predecessor had initiated. The Communist rule turned into a totalitarian dictatorship fueled by paranoia. In the 1930′s the Terror peaked. The Stalinist Purges claimed millions of victims. Public show trials were performed, where the accused were forced to read prepared confessions. Many of Akhmatova’s friends and fellow writers were arrested or executed. In 1933 her son Lev was arrested, and again in 1935.
One of the agendas of the Bolsheviks, once they took control, was to eliminate all vestiges of pre-revolutionary culture. “Petit bourgeois” culture like lyric poetry had no place in the new Communist society. The government formally established “Socialist Realism” as the guideline for all of the arts. Writers were required to evoke an ideal Socialist State (Reeder 225). There was an unofficial ban on Akhmatova’s poetry from 1925 until 1940. During this time, Akhmatova devoted herself to literary criticism, particularly of Pushkin, and to literary translation work. During the latter part of the thirties, she composed a long poem, Requiem, dedicated to the memory of Stalin’s victims. In 1940, a collection of previously published poems, From Six Books, was published. A few months later it was withdrawn.
In 1941 Germany declared war on Russia. Akhmatova gave a radio speech in 1941 during the Siege of Leningrad urging the women of Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg/Petrograd) to be courageous. Even though Akhmatova was forbidden to publish her poems, she was asked by the government to speak because she symbolized Russian culture and was associated with the city of Leningrad. During the war, Akhmatova was evacuated to Tashkent with other writers as well as artists and musicians.
Immediately after the war, Akhmatova enjoyed popularity. In 1946, however, there was an official decree banning publication of her poetry. Andrey Zhadanov, the Secretary of the Central Committee, expelled her from the Writer’s Union. Zhadanov called her “half nun, half harlot” and said, “What positive contribution can Akhmatova’s work make to our young people? It can do nothing but harm” (Reeder 292). When Akhmatova was expelled, it meant that her ration card was taken away. The poet had no means of support. She relied on her friends for the rest of her life.
Lev Gumilev, Akhmatova’s son, was arrested again in 1949. He was not released until 1956. To try to win her son’s release, Akhmatova wrote a few poems in praise of Stalin and the government, but it was of no use. Later she requested that these poems not appear in her collected works.
In 1953 Joseph Stalin died, and Nikita Krushchev became leader. In 1956 Krushchev gave an infamous speech to high ranking Party leaders. He denounced Stalin, calling him a tyrant. That same year, Akhmatova’s son was released from prison.
Akhmatova’s poetry was again published in 1958 and 1961 but with heavy censorship. Young poets like Joseph Brodsky flocked to her. To them, she represented a link with the pre-Revolutionary past–that which had been destroyed by the Communists. Brodsky would later call Akhmatova “The muse of keening” (McFadden).
On March 5, 1966, Akhmatova died peacefully. It was the 12th anniversary of Stalin’s death. Akhmatova is considered one of the finest Russian lyric poets, and perhaps the finest female Russian poet of all time. She has been compared to Antigone because she kept the memory of pre-revolutionary Russian culture alive when the government was trying to destroy it. Akhmatova also kept the memory of the victims of the Terror alive in her poetry.
Poetry and the Times
Anna Akhmatova is considered a poet of the “Silver Age” of Russian poetry, which lasted from approximately 1894 to 1922. Albert C. Todd, in his editor’s preface to Twentieth Century Russian Poetry, describes how the poets of the Silver Age are forever connected with the October Revolution that brought the Soviets to power. The editor writes:
“This generation was endowed with poetic genius
that first foresaw then fully witnessed the
imponderable, inescapable, mad experiment with
history whose awesome cost in life and culture is
still being tallied.” (lxviii)
The poetry of Akhmatova is often a response to the “mad experiment,” the post-revolutionary Soviet State. Her role as witness to the horrors of the twentieth century is a major theme in her verse, which she wrote in a ground-breaking, concise modern style.
Akhmatova’s first husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilev, founded the Acmeist movement as a response to Symbolism. Both Akhmatova and Gumilev were influenced by Symbolism at an early age, but grew restless. Acmeism was founded in 1912 and “rejected the vague, the vatic, the ethereal, and otherworldly aspects of Symbolism” (Herschemeyer ix-x). Jane Kenyon explains that Acmeism proposed that “a rose is beautiful in itself, not because it stands for something” (Kenyon 4). The same year that Acmeism was founded, Akhmatova’s first book of poetry, Evening, was published.
Evening was critically successful. Akhmatova became a leading figure in the literary scene in St. Petersburg. A major theme in Akhmatova’s first book of poetry is love, particularly the ending of a relationship. It is fitting that she has a crater on Venus, the planet of love, named after her (Batson). Akhmatova’s concise, clear style is evident even in these early poems. In the poem “He Loved…” translated by Judith Hemschemeyer, the succinct details convey more by leaving much unsaid and without the use of flowery Symbolic images:
He loved three things in life:
Evensong, white peacocks
And old maps of America.
He hated it when children cried,
He hated tea with raspberry jam
And women’s hysterics.
…And I was his wife. (1-7)
Akhmatova’s intimate lyric style was strikingly clear and candid–a quality that fulfilled the Acmeist ideal of “beautiful clarity” and imparts a quiet strength (Kenyon 2). After the revolution, the government would point to these poems and criticize Akhmatova’s writing as “useless to the revolution” (Fear and the Muse).
Rosary was Akhmatova’s second book and was published in 1914. The book of poems was immensely popular throughout Russia with critics and readers alike. Akhmatova became famous. In Rosary, she continued writing of love, but she also took on religious themes as well. The Russian Orthodox Church was important to her, and she was deeply religious. Because of these themes, love and religion, the Soviets would later call Akhmatova “half nun, half whore” in their criticism of her non-Soviet Realist style of writing (Reeder 69). The same year that Rosary was published, World War I began. Her subsequent books of poetry would begin to incorporate broader themes in conjunction with the upheavals in Russian society.
In 1917, during World War I, Akhmatova’s third book, White Flock, was published. Russia experienced extremely heavy losses during the war, and Akhmatova often gave poetry readings for the benefit of the wounded (Reeder 89). White Flock contains Akhmatova’s famous poem about World War I, “In Memoriam, July 19, 1914.” It begins with the lines, “We aged a hundred years, and this/Happened in a single hour” (Herschemeyer 210). Another poem in this book, “We thought: we’re poor,” gives voice to the suffering of those who lost loved ones in the war:
We thought: we’re poor, we have nothing,
but when we started losing one after the other
so each day became
we started composing poems
about God’s great generosity
and–our former riches. (1-7)
With this book, Akhmatova’s connectedness with the suffering of her country began to be an important theme in her writing. In the poem, “Prayer,” this is an almost mystical union:
Give me bitter years of sickness,
Suffocation, insomnia, fever,
Take my child and my lover,
And my mysterious gift of song–
This I pray at your liturgy
After so many tormented days,
So that the stormcloud over darkened Russia
Might become a cloud of glorious rays. (1-8)
Roberta Reeder calls Akhmatova “Poet and Prophet,” and this poem is tragically prophetic of the adversity that would occur later in Akhmatova’s life.
The next few years brought revolution and great strife to Russia. Plantain, Akhmatova’s forth book, was published in 1921, the same year her ex-husband Gumilev was executed by the state. Akhmatova wrote the following stanza in the winter of 1919, and it has been translated by Richard McKane:
Now no one will listen to songs.
The prophesied days have begun.
Latest poem of mine, the world has lost its
Don’t break my heart, don’t ring out. (1-4)
During this period of time, terrible persecution by the state, famine, and shortages were occurring. Many of Akhmatova’s friends emigrated, mostly to Paris. Akhmatova refused to emigrate. She felt it would be a betrayal to her culture and language. In Plantain she wrote:
A voice came to me. It called out comfortingly,
It said, “Come here,
Leave your deaf and sinful land,
Leave Russia forever.
I will wash the blood from your hands. . . .(9-13)
In the last three lines of the poem she answers, “I covered my ears with my hands/So that my sorrowing spirit/Would not be stained by those shameful words” (18-21) (Hemschemeyer 254). That year brought condemnation from the state. A Marxist critic denounced her poetry, saying that it was “unworthy of consideration in a revolutionary Communist society” (Hemschemeyer 4). Akhmatova’s next book of poetry would be her last publication until 1940.
Akhmatova’s fifth book of poetry was Anno Domini MCMXXI, published in 1922. Lenin’s Red Terror was in full swing, and some of Akhmatova’s poems in this volume give voice to the afflicted–the persecuted citizens of the Soviet Union. There is an element of fear in some poems in this book that was unseen in Akhmatova’s previous poetry. One poem, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer, begins with an image of terror:
Terror, fingering things in the dark,
Leads the moonbeam to an ax.
Behind the wall there’s an ominous knock…. (1-3)
A poem about Gumilev’s death also appeared in this book. This version has also been translated by Judith Hemschemeyer:
You are no longer among the living,
You cannot rise from the snow.
A bitter new shirt
For my beloved I sewed.
The Russian earth loves, loves
Droplets of blood.
Roberta Reeder has written that with the publication of Anno Domini MCMXXI, Akhmatova declared to the people “I–am your voice” (163). At this time, the Communists were busy dismantling all vestiges of the old Russian society, including literature. In 1924 there was an unofficial Communist Party resolution banning the publication of Akhmatova (Reeder 174). The same year, Stalin took control of the government after the death of Lenin. Stalin’s reign brought death to millions through exile, execution and starvation.
Akhmatova’s book, Reed, was prepared for publication, but was released in 1940 only as part of a collection of her poetry called From Six Books. It was withdrawn from publication after a few months. Reportedly, Stalin did not like one of the poems (Reeder 230). The Reed verses were written from 1924 to 1940, which were difficult times. The Stalinist Terror was in full force during the thirties. In “Voronezh,” from Reed, Akhmatova writes:
But in the room of the poet in disgrace
Fear and the Muse keep watch by turns.
And the night comes on
That knows no dawn. (14-17)
According to Akhmatova’s friend Lidiya Chukovskaya, who kept a meticulous journal of their conversations and friendship, Akhmatova added the lines above in 1958. The subject is Akhmatova’s close friend, the poet Osip Mandelshtam, who died in a labor camp (Chukovskaya 219). It remains a mystery that Stalin did not have Akhmatova herself exiled or executed. Reed contains other poems which dealt with the Terror. In an untitled poem, translated by the poet Jane Kenyon, Akhmatova writes:
Wild honey has the scent of freedom,
dust–of a ray of sun,
a girl’s mouth–of a violet,
and gold–has no perfume.
and like an apple–love,
but we have found out forever
that blood smells only of blood. (1-8)
The poem ends with an image from Macbeth, “And the Scottish queen/In vain washed the spattered red drops/From her slender palms/In the stifling gloom of the king’s home…” (Herschemeyer 382). In Russian literature there is a tradition of using literary allusions to represent political situations. In this instance, Akhmatova is using Shakespeare to help depict the blood shed by the Communists (Reeder 194).
Akhmatova outlived Stalin by exactly eight years and also lived to see him denounced by Khrushchev in 1961. In 1965 a collection of Akhmatova’s poetry was finally published again, and she was “rehabilitated” by the government. She outlived her persecutors while giving voice to the truth.
Akhmatova’s life spanned the time between the pre-Revolutionary and post-Stalin eras of Russian history. Despite terrible persecution and censorship by the State, her poetry gave voice to the Russian people during times of great upheaval in Russian society. She did so with verse that is original and strikingly modern. Akhmatova outlived her persecutors, and her life has become a symbol of truth and integrity.
The poetry of Akhmatova fulfills the Acmeist ideal of “beautiful clarity.” In her poems she uses everyday speech and simple language, and her poetry appealed to all segments of Russian society. Today she is known as one of the four great Modern Russian lyric poets.
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