In Russia, poets enjoy the kind of popularity that Western cultures reserve for film and rock stars. Like many other Russian children, Lydia Chukovskaya read and memorized poetry from an early age, and her favorite poet was Anna Akhmatova. Lydia’s father, Korney Chukovsky, a well-known writer of children’s stories and a literary critic, took his thirteen-year-old daughter to meet Akhmatova, and Lydia was overwhelmed that she was meeting her idol in person. In 1938, Chukovskaya met Akhmatova once again, in Leningrad, and she was to become Akhmatova’s close friend and confidante. Chukovskaya’s The Akhmatova Journals begin with that meeting and go on to describe the way Akhmatova and other Russians struggled to survive during the Stalinist era, a time of wholesale persecution and mass murder during which no Russian was safe.
Students of Akhmatova’s life and work are fortunate that Chukovskaya’s diaries were written and survived. Chukovskaya was accepted by Akhmatova both because of her loyal support and because she had a vast knowledge and intuitive grasp of Russian literature. As their friendship developed, Akhmatova came to rely on Chukovskaya’s help not only with the difficulties of daily life in one of the darkest eras of Russian history, but also with advice regarding the poet’s work. Chukovskaya helped Akhmatova organize her works for publication, check and correct proofs of her works, and determine how the works should be punctuated. Ultimately, however, Chukovskaya provided the most important service to Akhmatova and her readers by memorizing Akhmatova’s works, thereby ensuring their survival in an era when many of the poet’s greatest works could not be committed to paper because of the political persecution that would be sure to follow. In a ritual that recurs throughout the journals, Chukovskaya would study a poem until she had memorized it, after which Akhmatova would light a match and burn the manuscript.
Anna Akhmatova’s life had not always been one of suffering and deprivation. Born in 1889 into the aristocratic Gorenko family, Akhmatova fell in love with poetry early on, and she never considered being anything except a poet. She took the name Akhmatova when her father told her that her poetry would bring shame to the Gorenko name. She selected the name because her family traced its history back to Khan Akhmat, the last of the Tatar rulers to control Russia. By selecting the name Akhmatova, the young poet both rejected her father’s attitude toward poetry and paid tribute to her family’s history.
Akhmatova began to publish her verses in her early twenties; her first verse collection, Vecher(evening), came out in 1912, and her second, Chetki (rosary), was published in 1914. Almost immediately, she achieved the kind of success that most writers dream about all their lives. It was clear to everyone who had any understanding of literature that Akhmatova was a powerful force in Russian poetry. Like many other writers of her time, she wrote most often about love, and particularly about unrequited love; unlike all but a handful of poets, however, she wrote in a new way. Because of her tremendous knowledge and understanding of Russian literature, she was able to assimilate the techniques of the past. For this reason, Akhmatova’s work can be seen as falling squarely within the tradition of Russian poetry. At the same time, however, she found new ways to convey meaning.
When Akhmatova began her writing career, the work of the Symbolists held sway in Russia. She respected the Symbolists—especially Aleksandr Blok—but, along with Osip Mandelstam, Nikolay Gumilyov (who became her first husband in 1910), and a few others, she founded a school of poetry called Acmeism, which declared symbolic writing passé. The Acmeists rejected the techniques of Symbolism in order to create works that focused on the details of daily life. Akhmatova’s writing used concrete images to portray the psychological states experienced by the people about whom she wrote, and it did so in a way that was acclaimed not only by critics, but also by the reading public.
Akhmatova became a kind of icon of Russian literature in the tremendously creative era that literary critics call the Silver Age of Russian literature and art. In the years before the Russian Revolution broke out, Akhmatova came to symbolize all that was best in Russian...
(The entire section is 1793 words.)