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Great European Lives: Anna Akhmatova

Poetess Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images - Credit: Heritage Images/Getty Images

Anna Akhmatova, June 11, 1889 – March 5, 1966

In 1965, the Randolph Hotel, Oxford, was about as far from Leningrad as one could imagine. With its gothic arches and windows in the fabled city of dreaming spires, cycling dons and freewheeling debates, the Soviet Union must have seemed as if it was on another planet.

On June 6 that year Anna Akhmatova, a week shy of her 77th birthday, sat in the Randolph, leaned forward in her chair, looked the man from the Times right in the eye and emphasised the bond with her home city that had kept her there when others had left or fled.

‘You have to understand,’ she said, eyes flashing, bunching her fist and holding it against her chest, ‘Leningrad is inside me.’

The city had been St Petersburg when her family moved from Odessa to its outskirts when Akhmatova was less than a year old, and she had lived through the best and worst of its times since – from when, culturally, it rivalled Vienna to the descent into war, revolution, siege, famine and oppression. In that balled fist were clutched memories of loves, losses and experience that had helped to sculpt Anna Akhmatova into one of Russia’s finest modern poets.

The previous day she’d received an honorary D.Litt from Oxford University, participating in all the pseudo-medieval convocation rituals of the ancient institution. She and three other honorary graduates, including Siegfried Sassoon, paraded through the city dressed in academic robes before enduring a ceremony conducted entirely in Latin. Having come via Sicily, where she was awarded the Taormina Prize in recognition of her literary achievements, the elderly Akhmatova was exhausted by the time she sat down with her British interviewer. But talk of the city she called home saw her animated and energised.

Her life had spanned the city’s – and by extension the nation’s – most tumultuous and oppressive period, while her poetry captured in concise, clear language, experiences common to everyone, shot through with Akhmatova’s considerable eloquence and personal charisma.

Hers were poems with global appeal that spoke of and to a greater Russia, a ‘mother’ Russia, a nation and a consciousness that transcended the Soviet Union. As someone who had survived some of Russia’s darkest moments, remaining proud despite repeated humiliations and privations, in Oxford that day, in poor health and in the final months of her life, Anna Akhmatova was almost the living embodiment of Mother Russia herself.

She’d been greeted and entertained on her arrival in Oxford the previous day by the political theorist and philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The pair had met more than 20 years earlier when Berlin visited the Soviet Union shortly after the end of the Second World War.

An admirer of Akhmatova’s work, Berlin had called on the poet one evening in her St Petersburg apartment. Berlin left the next morning utterly charmed by and not a little infatuated with his hostess. The consequences for Akhmatova were not quite as exhilarating: receiving a foreign guest without permission was frowned upon and the entire episode had been related to the KGB by informers. The incident caused Stalin himself to muse, ‘So, our nun has been receiving foreign spies, has she?’

Within months Akhmatova was denounced in a newspaper by Stalin’s chief propagandist and cultural overseer Andrei Zhdanov as ‘half nun, half whore, or rather both nun and whore with her petty, narrow private life and her trivial experiences’. It was a potentially career-ending damnation, of which Akhmatova learned from the newspaper wrapped around some fish she’d bought.

Her crime in the eyes of the state was two-fold. First she wrote poems of decadence, about hopes and dreams and the indomitability of the human spirit. Perhaps most grievously, however, her first husband Nikolay Gumilyov had been executed as a traitor in 1921, an association that would taint Akhmatova for decades until the death of Stalin himself. The couple had divorced by the time Gumilyov was shot as the result of spurious charges, but his death still devastated her, not least because she learned of it by perusing a copy of Pravda pasted onto the wall of a railway station.

‘A garment of new grief I made, I sewed it for my love,’ she wrote in tribute. ‘Oh Russian earth, it loves the taste, it loves the taste of blood.’

The Gumilyov association would also condemn their son Lev, who would spend a total of 13 years in the Gulag in spells separated by forced conscription into the Red Army. Later, in 1953, Akhmatova’s third husband, the art critic and scholar Nikolai Punin, would die in a Siberian prison camp.

‘I brought destruction to all those I loved,’ she lamented in her later years.

Akhmatova had emerged onto the pre-Soviet literary scene at the age of 20 as one of the St Petersburg poets known as Acmeists. The Acmeists aimed for ‘beautiful clarity’ in their verse in response to the abstract Russian symbolist and modernist poetry prevalent at the time.

Akhmatova, 6ft tall with auburn hair, cut a striking figure among the group performing her intense, concisely-written verse, and in 1910 she acceded to years of wooing by Gumilyov by marrying him. The couple travelled widely after their marriage, basing their honeymoon in Paris where Akhmatova spent much of her time with the painter Amedeo Modigliani.

‘Whenever it rained Modigliani took with him a huge old black umbrella,’ Akhmatova recalled in a later memoir. ‘We would sit together under this umbrella on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg in the warm summer rain.’

She returned to Paris alone the following year, taking an apartment near Saint Sulpice and reigniting her close friendship with the ill-fated artist of whom she wrote in A Heart to a Heart is Never Chained, ‘Why oh why should I find you/Better than the one I chose?’

Through her first poetry collection Evening, published in 1912, and then Rosary two years later Akhmatova established herself as not just important voice among the Acmeists but a leading modern Russian poet in her own right. The writer Kornei Chukovksy said of Evening that it ‘accompanied the next two or three generations of Russians whenever they fell in love’.

The 1917 brought revolution and the split with Gumilyov and with suspicions of decadence hanging the prospect of official disapproval heavily over her, Akhmatova’s life became a nomadic one, never leaving Russia but moving from shabby apartment to shabby apartment, struggling to make ends meet through translation work.

Although she was denounced she was never arrested and, in 1939 in an effort to secure the release of Lev from his first stint in the Gulag she even applied to join the Union of Soviet Writers. Her acceptance tied her officially to a state whose morality she detested but it helped to free her son and, two years later, earned her a Stalin-sanctioned escape by aircraft from the Siege of Leningrad.

In 1950, with Lev serving his second sentence in the Gulag, Akhmatova gritted her teeth and wrote a hagiographic ode to Stalin called In Praise of Peace in the hope she might again help secure his release. It was a gesture born out of love by a Russian mother for Mother Russia but would never sit comfortably with a woman of fiercely independent will.

She had even adopted the name ‘Akhmatova’ at 17 when her father Andrei Gorenko, an engineer in the navy, told her he was ashamed of sharing a name with a daughter who wrote poetry.

‘I don’t need your name,’ she responded, immediately adopting the name of her maternal grandmother’s family – who were descended from Tartar princes of the Golden Horde – and never using her father’s again.

Aware that she was under constant surveillance, her masterpiece poem cycle Requiem was composed over three decades from the mid-1930s almost entirely in her head and committed to memory, her own and those of a couple of trusted friends.

Fiercely critical of the regime, Requiem was too controversial to risk writing down and would not be published until 1963. By that time Akhmatova had been rehabilitated during the cultural thaw under Khrushchev and presented with a dacha in a writers’ colony outside Leningrad, where at last she was able to live in relative peace and comfort in the country she’d never abandoned despite its frequent attempts to abandon her.

As she wrote in Requiem,

No, not under the vault of alien skies,

And not under the shelter of alien wings –

I was with my people then,

There, where my people, unfortunately, were.

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