From an early age, Anna Akhmatova seemed destined to live a remarkable life. Born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko on June 23, 1889, she was fascinated by poetry and began to write at the age of seven. Most of her childhood was spent in Tsarskoye Selo (czar’s village), which later became a symbol of the aristocratic lifestyle of the prerevolutionary era. She was brought up to prize education and aesthetics, to be a proper child of the aristocracy, but even as a child she learned to keep her own counsel, never hesitating to flout convention when she believed it was in her own best interest to do so. Once when she was out walking, she found a pin in the shape of a lyre. Her governess told her that the find meant that she would someday become a poet.
Young Anna’s father did not share his daughter’s enthusiasm for poetry, and he told her that her penchant for verse would bring shame to the Gorenko name. Anna never considered giving up poetry. Instead, she adopted the name Akhmatova, which she selected because one of her maternal ancestors was Khan Akhmat, the last of the Tatar rulers to exact tribute from Russia. Akhmat was also a descendant of Genghis Khan, and Akhmatova was proud that the blood of Tatar royalty flowed in her veins. In her celebration of her Asian heritage, Akhmatova was truly Russian. For centuries, Russians have prided themselves on the fact that their country, which is located between Asia and Europe, has been the beneficiary of both Western and Eastern influences in every area of culture, a true melting pot of disparate elements.
Akhmatova’s first collection of poetry, Vecher (evening), was published in 1912, and the second, Chetki (rosary), was published in 1914. Akhmatova was a success with both critics and the public. Her verses, which often dealt with unrequited love, tended to express psychological reality indirectly, by means of precise, evocative imagery. Her work, which never indulged in the flaccid sentimentalism of most love poetry, electrified the Russian reading public. In addition, Akhmatova was beautiful and charismatic, and she soon became an icon of romantic verse, a true celebrity.
In 1912, along with Nikolay Gumilyov, the poet and critic whom Akhmatova had married in 1910, the poet and prose writer Osip Mandelstam, and several others, Akhmatova founded a new school of poetry called Acmeism. There were few tenets that truly bound the Acmeists together; their primary goal was to move away from the techniques of Symbolism, whose foremost exponent was Aleksandr Blok, and to work with specific, realistic imagery rather than the more mystical, flowery imagery that was the specialty of earlier writers. Among the Acmeists, only Akhmatova and Mandelstam achieved lasting renown, and their success was the result of their own innate poetic gifts, not of the ideas of Acmeism.
Akhmatova’s life, like that of all Russians, was disrupted in 1914, when World War I broke out. Gumilyov volunteered for military service and was soon sent to the front. In 1915, Akhmatova’s father died and she contracted tuberculosis. In 1917, she and Gumilyov separated, and they were divorced the following year. Also in 1917, the Russian Revolution began and the Bolsheviks seized power. Akhmatova had entered a period of difficulty and deprivation that would last the rest of her life. In 1918, Akhmatova married the Assyriologist Vladimir Shileiko, but the relationship was a failure, and she left him in 1921 to live with friends.
Akhmatova published a third collection of verse, Belaya staya (white flock), in Petrograd in 1917. It was not long, however, before the new government banned publication of her works, holding her up as an example of writers who wrote for their own selfish interests rather than for the good of the state. In 1921, Gumilyov was executed by the government on charges of conspiring against the state. It became dangerous for anyone to be associated with or to praise Akhmatova. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose talent Akhmatova admired, was one of many to denounce her as a relic of a dead era. She continued to produce great work, although she was able to publish her works only sporadically. Much of her best work survived only because it was memorized by those who loved it. Often, Akhmatova’s friend...
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