The Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) is the best-known member of the Acmeist movement. Her work is characterized by subtle understatement, careful variations in rhythm, and spontaneous recording of everyday emotions.
Anna Akhmatova, the pen name of Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, was born on June 23, 1889, near the Black Sea port of Odessa. Her father, a retired naval officer, moved the family to St. Petersburg when Anna was a young girl. She attended the Tsarskoe Selo Women's Gymnasium near St. Petersburg, where she met Nikolai Gumilev, whom she married in 1910. He was also a poet of the Acmeist movement, which proclaimed a return to precise, direct expression of poetic emotion.
Anna Akhmatova lived mainly in St. Petersburg and at her nearby country home, Komarovo, but traveled abroad several times: in 1910-1911 to Paris; in 1912 to northern Italy; and in 1965 to Oxford, England, where she was awarded an honorary degree. Throughout her life St. Petersburg played an important thematic role in her poetry. It was the city of such great writers as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, and Aleksandr Pushkin, and it represented Anna Akhmatova's affinity to the 19th-century Russian prose tradition.
Her early life was marked by immediate success in poetry and the anguishing failure of her marriage to Gumilev, whom she divorced in 1918. Her first books, Evening (1912), Rosary (1914), and Anno Domini MCMXXI (1921), testify to the trials of her marriage. Gumilev was executed in 1921 as a counterrevolutionary, and their only son, a historian, spent most of the years from 1939 to 1956 in a Soviet prison camp. These events compounded Anna Akhmatova's misfortune and led to the book of poems Requiem (1963), which is a testament to the suffering not only of the poet but of all Russians during the horrifying days of Stalin's purges. In 1946 Anna Akhmatova was hounded by Stalin's minister of culture, Andrei Zhadanov, called "a mixture of nun and harlot," and expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers. She had been reduced to silence before, from 1925 to 1940; she did not emerge from this final rebuke until after the death of Stalin. During the late 1950s and the 1960s she devoted herself to translations and to her own poetry.
Anna Akhmatova's poetic diction and her predominantly psychological themes were drawn from the humanistic tradition of 19th-century Russian prose. Her poetry imitates the rhythm and structure of conversational speech. Her work, like that of Boris Pasternak, whom she admired, was a sincere response to the inhuman cruelties of the age.
Anna Akhmatova was at work on her book The Death of Pushkin, a tribute to the perishing of genius at the hands of an insensitive society, when she died of a heart attack on March 6, 1966. She was accorded a Russian Orthodox funeral and was buried near Komarovo.
Further Reading on Anna Akhmatova
There is no adequate biography of Anna Akhmatova. Personal reminiscences about her are in the moving account by Osip Mandelstam's widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope against Hope: A Memoir (trans. 1970). Helen Muchnic, Russian Writers: Notes and Essays (1971), has an interesting discussion of Anna Akhmatova and her contemporaries. The definitive critical book on her poetry is in Russian: Boris M. Eikhenbaum, Anna Akhmatova (1923). A useful study is Leonid Strakhovsky, Craftsmen of the Word: Three Poets of Modern Russia (1949). The broadest selection of her poetry in English is Forty-seven Love Poems, translated by Natalie Duddington (1927).
Additional Biography Sources
Anna Akhmatova and her circle, Fayetteville, Ark.: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
Davies, J. (Jessie), Anna of all the Russias: the life of Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), Liverpool: Lincoln Davies, 1988.
Haight, Amanda., Anna Akhmatova: a poetic pilgrimage, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Reeder, Roberta., Anna Akhmatova: poet and prophet, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.