Anna Akhmatova Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Akhmatova was one of the most acclaimed and revered poets of twentieth century Russia, struggling throughout her life to express with intimacy and insight the plight of a woman in an adversive society. For long periods she was forbidden to publish her works, but by the end of her life her constant poetic inspiration of others had earned for her the International Taormina Poetry Prize (Italy, 1964) and an honorary degree from the University of Oxford (England, 1965).

Early Life

Anna Andreyevna Gorenko was born in a suburb of Odessa, in the czarist Ukraine, on June 23, 1889. Her father, Andrei Gorenko, was a naval officer who left the military soon after her birth to take a position as maritime engineer with the government. This position required him to move to Tsarskoe Selo (now Pushkin), a town near the capital city of St. Petersburg (now Leningrad) in which one of the czar’s palaces was located together with the residences of many of the nobles and highly placed government functionaries. This move well suited Anna’s mother, the aristocratic Inna Erazmovna (née Stogova), since her family, the Stogovs, claimed a noble heritage. She liked to socialize with the nobility, yet she took pride in her early associations with members of the “People’s Will” Party of radicals who had assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881. This ambiguity of sympathies had the effect upon young Anna and her four siblings, Inna, Andrei, Iya, and Victor, of restraining them from political alignments throughout their lives.

Anna grew up in the privileged atmosphere of Tsarskoe Selo, attending school in the same town where the great poet Alexander Pushkin had once been a student. She was attracted to poetry and could recite both French and Russian verse from memory. She attended poetry readings at the home of Innokenty Annensky, an influential Symbolist poet, and began to write verse of her own in about 1904. Through her elder brother, she met the talented young poet Nikolai Gumilyov, who was immediately attracted to her. Anna’s slim figure and distinctive face, with its slightly humped Roman nose, gave her a prepossessive presence which later attracted the attention of artists. Gumilyov courted her persistently, sponsoring her into participation in the “Guild of Poets,” an organization seminal to the development of “Acmeism,” a philosophy of poetry which demanded communicative clarity and a sense of connection with the poetic heritage of Western Europe. In 1907, Gumilyov was the first to publish one of Anna’s poems in his journal Sirius. It was in this year also that Anna’s father’s extravagant life-style and his constant womanizing caused a separation in the Gorenko family. Anna went to Kiev with her mother, finishing her studies at the Fundukleevskaya Gymnaziya there and enrolling in the faculty of law at the Kiev College for Women. She soon withdrew from the study of law and moved back to St. Petersburg to study literature. It was at this time that she chose the pseudonym “Akhmatova,” the name of her maternal great-grandmother, a Tatar princess. She took a pseudonym at the request of her father that the Gorenko family not be embarrassed by her publication of poetry.

Life’s Work

In 1910, Akhmatova married Gumilyov. For the next two years they traveled abroad, spending much of the time in Paris, where Akhmatova became friendly with the still unknown artist Amadeo Modigliani, who sketched her as a dancer and as an Egyptian queen. The marriage, however, soon foundered, with both Akhmatova and Gumilyov chafing under its traditional confinements. Gumilyov traveled on his own to Abyssinia to collect African folksongs, and Akhmatova returned to stay with her mother at a cousin’s estate in order to give birth to her son, Lev Nikolayevich Gumilyov, in October of 1912. In 1912 also, Akhmatova’s first collection of verse, Vecher (evening), appeared. The collection’s lyrics on a young woman’s realization of love and her expectation of grief brought Akhmatova both acclaim and popularity in a degree only to be envied by Gumilyov. The subsequent successes of Akhmatova’s collections—Chetki (1914; rosary) and Belaia staia (1917; white flock)—and her long poem, “U samogo morya” (1914; “By the Seashore,” 1969), only served to increase their estrangement. In 1914, Gumilyov joined the cavalry and went off to fight in World War I, where he was decorated for bravery. Akhmatova stayed with a succession of friends, leaving her son to be reared by Gumilyov’s widowed mother.

The social turmoil associated with the end of the war, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the subsequent civil war effectively beheaded the country, with a great many intellectuals and people of established artistic reputations leaving to live and work elsewhere. Akhmatova, however, would not leave, even though her life became more difficult. In 1918, she divorced Gumilyov to marry Vladimir Shileiko, a scholar of Assyrian antiquity who opposed his wife’s poetic activities. Nevertheless, Akhmatova managed to publish the collection Podorozhnik (1921; plantain), giving therein her poetic refusal to emigrate. She visited frequently with other poets, including Osip Mandelstam, and she attended the funeral of Aleksandr Blok. In 1921 she grieved over the death of Gumilyov, who was executed by the Soviet Cheka for his alleged involvement in a counterrevolutionary plot. In the 1922 collection Anno Domini...

(The entire section is 2264 words.)