Writing Poetry during Difficult Times—Anna Akhmatova

Even though it is only the beginning of April, this year of 2022 has already brought us startling news from around the world. Western media is focused on the fighting in Ukraine as Russian troops continue to bombard cities and force thousands of people to leave their homes and seek safety elsewhere.

A hundred years ago, in 1922, things were much the same. Western newspapers were carrying stories of fighting, destruction, and hunger in Eastern Europe. The first World War had triggered a revolution in Russia. The Tzarist government fell and the Bolshevik party, under Vladimir Lenin, changed the face of Russia forever. During the early 1920s, as Lenin’s health declined, there was a struggle to take over leadership of the new government. The eventual winner of that struggle was Joseph Stalin whose power would determine the future of Russia and all of Eastern Europe for decades to come.

Russian writers and artists who had grown up during the Tsarist regime were deeply affected by this change in government; perhaps none more so than Anna Akhmatova. She had been hailed as one of Russia’s greatest poets but was to lead a very different and more difficult life under the new regime.

Anna was born near Odessa in 1889. Her father came from a Ukrainian Cossack family and was a stern, harsh man. He did not want poetry published under the family name, so at a very young age Anna chose the pen name Akhmatova, the name by which she was known for the rest of her life. Her father divorced his wife, Anna’s mother, and left the family while Anna was a child, so she grew up mostly in St. Petersburg. Her education was informal, but she soon joined a circle of young poets, artists and writers and began publishing poetry.     

When her second book of poetry,  Rosary, appeared in 1915, it became immensely popular. The poems she wrote were short lyric pieces filled with images of life and love:

Anna Akhmatova

The sun fills my room,

Yellow dust drifts aslant.

I wake up and remember:

This is your saint’s day.

(Translated by D.M. Thomas)

The poems were so popular that by 1916 many young people began playing a game called “Telling Rosary”. Someone would start reciting one of the poems and someone else would finish it. There was no shortage of fans who memorized her works.

Akhmatova flourished in the vibrant cultural world of St. Petersburg. She was young, beautiful, and fascinating to both men and women. In 1910 she married her first husband, Nikolay Gumilev, two years later their son Lev was born. During the first few years of their marriage Akhmatova continued to write and publish poetry, even after the Russian Revolution started in 1917 and brought new turmoil to the country. Although many young writers and intellectuals left Russia and moved abroad during the years of revolution, Akhmatova refused to leave. As usual, she expressed her feelings in poetry I am not one of those who left their country/ For wolves to tear it limb from limb. (Translated by D.M. Thomas)

When the revolution ended in 1921 and Lenin became the country’s leader, Akhmatova and her friends hoped that a new, more democratic society would develop. Unfortunately, when Lenin died, his leadership role was taken by Joseph Stalin, who quickly became a harsh, unforgiving dictator. Soon after he came to power, Akhmatova’s poetry was denounced as “no longer relevant.” Akhmatova began to have difficulty finding a publisher and she was unable to continue giving the public readings that had been popular and an important source of income. For more than ten years her voice was almost silenced in Russia.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Akhmatova’s personal life was difficult. She was virtually penniless for many years; her former husband, Nikolay Gumilev, was imprisoned. Their son, Lev, was denied entry into schools. Eventually he was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in Northern Siberia. Akhmatova depended on the generosity of friends and lovers for her survival. During World War II she survived the 800-day siege of Leningrad, although her health deteriorated badly. Records of these years are difficult to find because she destroyed letters and journals so the authorities could not seize them and use them to justify additional punishment for her son or their friends.

Akhmatova’s health never completely recovered after the deprivations she suffered during World War II, but after the war, her reputation and fame began to return. In 1963, her masterpiece, a series of poems called “Requiem” was published in Germany, although it was not available in Russia until after her death. In 1965, Akhmatova was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and later that year she was allowed to travel to England to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University. These tributes must have been precious to her as she neared her end, but by the time they came, she was very ill. She died of a heart attack in 1966.

Since her death, Akhmatova has been recognized as one of Russia’s most important poets. She is also one of the most popular. Her poems have been published around the world in many different languages. The translations that I have included above are by D.M. Thomas and are available in the Everyman Pocket Poets series (Knopf). Various translations of her work can be found in libraries and bookstores everywhere.

Details of Akhmatova’s life are still difficult to find, but a fascinating biography Anna of All the Russians: A Life of Anna Akhmatova (Vintage 2007) is available in libraries and bookstores. Feinstein gives a good picture not only of the poet, but also of Russia and Eastern Europe during the difficult years of the early twentieth century.