Considered Russia's finest female poet, Akhmatova is known for her accessible style and concrete images. Her poems deal with personal issues of love and suffering, but are often interpreted as metaphors for the plight of the Russian people as a whole. Her work, considered subversive during the Stalinist era, was banned for many years. After Stalin's death in 1953, her reputation was gradually restored and she was able to resume publishing original verse.
Akhmatova was born Anna Andreevna Gorenko on June 11, 1889, near Odessa, on the coast of the Black Sea. Her father was a retired maritime engineer who moved his family to Tsarskoye Selo near St. Petersburg the year after Akhmatova was born. There she attended the classical school for girls where she was, by her own account, a less-than-dedicated student. She began writing poetry at the age of eleven after recovering from a mysterious illness that nearly proved fatal. In 1905, Akhmatova's parents separated and her mother took the children south to Evpatoria where Akhmatova continued her education with a tutor; the following year, she attended the Fundukleyev school in Kiev. Although she entered Law School at the University of Kiev, she found the subject of literature more interesting, and transferred to St. Petersburg, attending Rayev's Higher Historico-Literary Courses. On April 25, 1910, Akhmatova married the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, whom she had met as a student and who had published her first poem in his literary journal Sirius in 1907. The couple honeymooned in Paris and took up residence in Tsarskoe Selo, spending their summers in Slepnyovo. Their son, Lev, was born in 1912, the same year Akhmatova published her first volume of poetry, Vecher (Evening). The pair had little in common except their love of poetry, and the marriage was further strained by Gumilyov's frequent trips abroad and Akhmatova's increasing fame and success. In 1913, Gumilyov enlisted in the cavalry and the couple was separated for almost six years. They divorced in 1918 and both remarried soon afterward, Akhmatova to Vladimir Kazimirovich Shileyko, another poet to whom she remained married for only a short time.
After the October Revolution in 1917, Akhmatova withdrew from literary society and began working in the library of the Agronomy Institute. At this time, her poetry began attracting unfavorable attention from the government and the Communist Party. Gumilyov was executed for treason in 1921, and Akhmatova's work was unofficially banned in 1925. She published no original poetry for many years although she continued to write, translate verse, and research her literary hero, Alexander Pushkin, a subject that occupied her attention for twenty years. She produced several critical essays on Pushkin, but the book-length study she planned never materialized. The Stalin years were a period of isolation and silence for Akhmatova; she lost many literary friends and associates to the purges, and her son, Lev, was arrested and imprisoned several times. By 1941, Akhmatova was living in Leningrad, but managed to escape to Moscow during the siege. She spent most of the war in Tashkent, returning to Moscow and then to Leningrad in 1944. After Stalin's death in 1953, Akhmatova's standing as a major poet was reevaluated and restored over a period of several years. She was readmitted to the Union of Soviet Writers, from which she had earlier been expelled, and she resumed publication of her poetry, some of which she had committed to memory rather than risk producing a written record during the Stalin years. Two of her most acclaimed works, Poema Bez Geroya: Triptykh (1960; Poem without a Hero) and Rekviem: Tsikl Stikhotvorenii (1963; Requiem), were published during this second, very productive period of her career. Akhmatova lived to the age of 78. She died on March 5, 1966, and is buried in a small village near Leningrad.
Akhmatova's work is generally divided into two periods: the first associated with the love lyrics she produced in her youth, from the beginning of her publishing career until 1922, and the second associated with poems composed during and after her long period of silence. Her early work, published in the collections Evening, Chetki (1914; Rosary), and Belaya Staya (1917; The White Flock) were enormously popular among her contemporaries. She developed a cult following in St. Petersburg where young lovers committed her verse to memory and recited it to each other. The religious imagery that characterized her later work began to appear in these early volumes. Her reputation today is based on the two major works of her later period. The first, Requiem, is a collection of short poems that loosely form a narrative related to the Crucifixion, but more literally related to her personal suffering and, by extension, the suffering of her fellow citizens in the Soviet Union. The second, Poem without a Hero, was composed and revised over a twenty-year period and deals with the brutality of war and revolution.
Akhmatova's work is often considered part of the Acmeist movement, a reaction to the late-nineteenth-century Symbolist poetry that preceded it. Her work is praised for its concrete images and a style that is far more straightforward and accessible than that of the Symbolists. Scholars also consider the political nature of some of her work, which reflects the tumultuous events she experienced throughout her long life; they maintain that she acted as spokesperson for the Russian people during those years of war and civil unrest. Recently, feminist scholars have suggested that she was particularly able to articulate the suffering of the women of Russia and to serve as their leader during the most intense periods of hardship, such as the siege of Leningrad in 1941. Often cited is Akhmatova's radio address praising the women of Leningrad for their work in civil defense and care of the wounded and assuring the citizens that "a city which has bred women like these cannot be defeated."