Anna Akhmatova: where to start with her literature

Anna Akhmatova: where to start with her literature
Image: Collage by Ike Okwudiafor, based on a 1921 photograph of Anna Akhmatova by N. Appelbaum

27 May 2021

Anna Akhmatova is one of the best known and most loved Russian poets. Her contemporary, poet Marina Tsvetaeva, dubbed her the “golden-mouthed Anna of All the Russias”, an expression which resonated widely with Akhmatova’s uncanny ability to voice the sentiments of the entire nation. Today, she is one of the acclaimed poets of the Russian Silver Age, a period of prolific creativity that covered the end of the 19th century and the first three decades of the 20th. But as much as the artistic scene thrived in that period, the rise of Stalin and the state’s violent repression of individual freedoms soon made it a dark and dangerous time for many intellectuals. Akhmatova’s poetry put into words the suffering of millions, offering a tool of invisible resistance to those defending freedom against Stalin’s iron fist.

Born in 1889 in Odesa, Anna Andreevna Gorenko chose to write under a pseudonym after her father, a marine engineer from a modest bourgeois background, forbade her from publishing poetry under his “respectable name”. Her maternal Tatar roots inspired her nom de plume: her great-grandmother claimed to descend from the Khan Akhmat, who had Gengis Khan as an ancestor.

Akhmatova’s life and work are a striking testimony to the horrors of the 20th century. She survived two wars, a revolution, and the siege of Leningrad, as well as the gradual departure, killing, or arrests of her closest friends and family. The repeated detentions and eventual sentence to the gulag of her son Lev deterred her from writing: the fear that her poetry would worsen his fate, coupled with an unofficial ban on her works, silenced her for almost 20 years. Akhmatova’s ability to express this historical tragedy in the first person is what makes her prodigious corpus relatable to this day.

This first-timer’s guide to Akhmatova journeys through five works that encapsulate the creative universe of the poet, from the intimate to the political.


​The Evening

The poet’s first collection, published in 1914, brought Akhmatova instant acclaim. The classic form, as well as her clarity, demarcated her from the Symbolists, from whose mysticism and profusion Akhmatova wished to distance herself. As a result, in 1912, along with her husband Nikolay Gumilyov and their friends Sergey Gorodestky and Osip Mandelstam, she founded Acmeism — a movement based on the ancient Greek concept of “acme”, or “the best age of man”. It symbolised the preference of the poets for Apollonian clarity over Dyonisian frenzy. Entering Akhmatova’s world through The Evening plunges the reader into the intimate world of the young poet before the “real 20th century”, as she later called it, arrived in Russia, bringing its heavy toll on human life. This is also one of the few collections that the poet collated herself, as her later works were compiled and censored by the Soviet authorities. It is both accessible and profound, focusing on nature, love, and heartbreak, with the poet reflecting on the collapse of her first marriage. Short and very personal, these poems put Akhmatova’s sense of rhythm and musicality on full display.


Requiem

Started in 1935 after the arrests of Akhmatova’s son, Lev Gumyliov, and her former partner, Nikolay Punin, Requiem tells a horrifically common tale of the Soviet Great Terror: the arbitrary imprisonment of loved ones. Its famous “Instead of a Foreword” describes a woman standing in line with hundreds of others beside a prison wall, waiting for the doors to open so they can hand parcels to prisoners. This woman learns that Akhmatova is a poet and asks her if she can put the horror they are living through into words. Akhmatova answers affirmatively, conscious that through her poem she does not only tell her own story, but “a nation of one hundred million cries out.”

Written over five years during which she was unofficially banned from publishing, Requiem is a testimony to Akhmatova’s love for her country and the city she moved to as an infant, St Petersburg, known by its Soviet name, Leningrad, for most of Akhmatova’s life. Despite the tragedies that befell her, Akhmatova never left Russia (apart from when she was forcibly exiled to Central Asia during the brutal siege of Leningrad in the Second World War). It stood her in opposition to many of her contemporaries, who left the country by choice. As she wrote: “I feel some pity for an exile
 / Like somebody sick, or a prisoner.
 / A refugee has to walk a dark road,
 / And foreign bread has a bitter flavour.”

Both the emphasis on place and the classic form of her poetry secured her reputation as a poet of the historical tradition of St Petersburg. To this day, this timeless poem is one of the most loved and memorised in Russia.


A 1911 drawing of Anna Akhmatova by Amedeo Modigliani

Amedeo Modigliani

Akhmatova’s influence was, and still is, vast — even beyond literature. Her tall and regal figure inspired many artists to paint her portrait (some say that she featured in as many as 200 works). Perhaps the most famous portrait of Akhmatova was made by Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani. The two met for the first time in Paris in 1910, on Akhmatova’s honeymoon trip with husband Nikolay Gumilyov, and she returned on her own the next year for several months. This is when she discovered “the real Paris”, where women “tried to wear trousers” and the cultural scene was colourful and abundant — from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Ida Rubinstein’s interpretation of Salomé to the then still little-known Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso.

She described this memorable time 50 years later, when she wrote about Modigliani and their relationship in a vivid essay. One of Akhmatova’s few prose pieces that is readily available in English, this is a striking account of a meeting of hearts as well as minds. Despite their inability to speak the same language, the artists found ways to communicate: “what he must have found astonishing in me was my ability to guess rightly his thoughts, to know his dreams and other small things.” A profound admiration for the man and his art, and the two artists’ deep affection for one another, are evident throughout the only written legacy of this encounter.


Poem Without a Hero

This long, epic poem that looks back at her entire life is considered to be Akhmatova’s masterpiece: “As from a tower that commands the view / From nineteen-forty I look down”, she writes in the introduction. The poet herself called it the “summit of [her] creative path”. Complete with a motto, a foreword, three dedications, an introduction, three parts, and an afterword, the poem is dedicated to her first listeners, her friends, and her fellow citizens who did not survive the Siege of Leningrad, which the poet herself endured. As a whole, it bestows the responsibility of memory on her audience.

The poem first “appeared” to Akhmatova in 1940, its arrival almost leaving her a simple spectator to the artwork she would continuously refer to simply as “she” (poema in Russian being a feminine noun). Akhmatova worked on it for over 20 years, and the four different versions that are left are a testimony to her uncompromising writing process. The initial structure evolved over time with verses, citations and prose passages making themselves known to Akhmatova over the years. The poem is an attempt to bridge her own past (“Answer this at least: is it really true / That once there lived such a one as you?”) with Russia’s ill-fated present: “Knowing the length of retribution’s reach / And acknowledging its hour had arrived, / Wringing her hands, with dry downcast eyes / Russia went before me to the east.” The numerous references to poets, writers, and thinkers, from Akhmatova’s own beloved poetic inspiration, Russian Alexander Pushkin, to Anglo-American T.S. Eliot, widen the perspective of Akhmatova’s universe, echoing and building on the voices of her predecessors. In this sense, reading the Poem Without a Hero is akin to embarking on an exploration of her complex and layered creative life.


The Akhmatova Journals

Akhmatova’s legacy also survives through the journals of her close friend, Lydia Chukovskaya, who kept a detailed record of their daily conversations between 1938 and 1942. During that period, Akhmatova lived in solitude and ill health, and constantly worried about the fate of her son. A handful of loyal friends would come to her home bringing food and respite in the form of conversation. While not written by Akhmatova herself, the testimony is deeply moving, both in Chukovskaya’s ability to recount intimate details of Akhmatova’s life, and in her candid admiration for the poet: “I was too happy. That I had lived to experience this,” she wrote after hearing Akhmatova recite her own poetry.

Writing about the conditions in which Akhmatova lived, Chukovskaya wrote that “the general appearance of the room was one of neglect, chaos”. She also recalls a “friendly squabble about a coat,” when a friend offered to stand in for the poet and provide some reprieve from her long wait outside the prison walls, where Akhmatova would stand in the hope of giving her incarcerated son a parcel.

But perhaps the most insightful contributions of these three volumes are the ones recounting Akhmatova’s thoughts on her own poetry. The despair of a poet who can’t publish her works regularly resurfaces: “Have you ever seen a poet so indifferent to his own poetry? (...) But then, nothing will come of this anyway… Nobody will publish anything… And I can’t be bothered with it.”

As well as a fascinating vision into the poet’s everyday life, Chukovskaya’s diaries powerfully demonstrate the significance of friendship and loyalty in a world where all usual bearings had vanished.


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