Anna Akhmatova Akhmatova, Anna (Vol. 126) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anna Akhmatova 1888–1966

(Pseudonym for Anna Andreyevna Gorenko) Russian poet, translator, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Akhmatova's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 11, 25, and 64.

Anna Akhmatova spent a major part of her career not being able to publish her work in her own country, yet she refused to be silenced. By remaining one of the few artists who did not emigrate during the years of Stalinist oppression in Russia, and by having friends memorize her verse when committing it to paper would have been dangerous, she guaranteed herself and the Russian people a voice. As such she has become one of the most important artistic figures in twentieth-century literature.

Biographical Information

Akhmatova was born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko in Kiev, Russia. Her father was a naval architect and moved the family to the Baltic in 1905. After her father and mother separated, the family settled in Tsarkoe Selo, just outside St. Petersburg. In 1910, Akhmatova married the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, who was at first reluctant for her to pursue poetry. When he saw her talent, however, he encouraged her, and together with poets such as Osip Mandelstam they began the Acmeist movement in Russian poetry. The movement was in opposition to the prevailing Symbolist poetry of the era. At the age of 22, she published her first volume Vecher (1912; Evening). Her middle-class father had asked her not to dishonor their family name with literary pursuits, so she published under the pseudonym Anna Akhmatova, the Tartar name of her maternal great-grandmother who had descended from Genghis Khan. She developed a cult following in the literary world of St. Petersburg with her second volume, Chetki (1914; Rosary), and she gained a brilliant reputation in russia where her poetry was widely read. In 1913 she left Gumilev and eventually married Vladimir Shileiko, an Orientalist, whom she divorced in 1921. The Revolution of October 1917 changed both Akhmatova's life and career. In 1921, her first husband Gumilyov was executed after being charged with involvement in a counter-revolutionary conspiracy. She did not emigrate like other artists, and in 1925, there was an unofficial ban on her work. During this period, Akhmatova continued to write poetry, often about the cruel acts being committed in the name of the Revolution and un-der the rule of Stalin. She memorized her verses and had friends memorize them, fearing arrest if a written copy were found. She married again at this time, to Nikolai Punin, a critic and historian, but this marriage also ended in separation. Many of her friends were arrested and died under Stalin's persecution, and she suffered another great loss in 1935 when her son, Lev Gumilyov, was arrested and subsequently spent fourteen years in prison and in exile in Siberia. The poems in her Rekviem (1964; Requiem) were inspired by her trips to visit her son in prison in Leningrad and express the sense of loss she felt by the separation. In 1939, Stalin allowed several of her poems to be published, but Akhmatova again fell out of government favor in 1946 when she was denounced by Andrey Zhadanov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Zhadanov began an ideological campaign against her work, calling it too personal to be relevant to a socialist society. She was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers and ostracized from the Russian literary world for the next ten years. She was only readmitted to the Union after the death of Stalin. The ban on Akhmatova's work was not officially lifted until 1988, but interest in her work burgeoned anyway and by the 1960s Akhmatova was world famous. In 1964 she won the Etna-Taormina international poetry prize, and in 1965 she received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University.

Major Works

A major influence on Akhmatova's work was her relationship to the Acmeists—writers who attempted to restore clarity to poetic language and who utilized the ordinary objects and events of daily life for their subject. Her poems explore her search for identity as a woman, a poet, and a Russian, as they delve into the complexities of human nature. In many of her early volumes the theme of love dominates along with attendant motifs of romantic meetings and separations, togetherness and solitude, and jealousy is often present. The poems in Evening paint a portrait of love as long periods of suffering broken up by rare moments of happiness and joy. In Rosary she deals with her feelings of guilt and loss over the breakup of her marriage with Gumilev. The poems in this collection contain many religious elements, expressing her strong belief in Christianity. With her third book, Belaya Staya (1917; The White Flock), Akhmatova turns to more civic-minded themes, including the foreshadowing of World War I in "July 1914." Requiem tells the story of a mother separated from her only son and was inspired by Akhmatova's own story and those of the thousands of other Russian women with whom she waited outside prison walls. This cycle of poems chronicles the era of Stalinism and the grief and horror suffered during these years. Poema Bez Geroya; Triptykh (1960; Poem Without a Hero; Triptych) chronicled her life before and after World War II. The poems described such personal events as love affairs and the suicide of a young cadet who was in love with Akhmatova's friend, but through these autobiographical accounts, she chronicled an epoch time period in world history. In this collection are many veiled statements and complex allusions that are much more opaque than her previous work.

Critical Reception

Critics often discuss Akhmatova's work in its relation to the Acmeist movement. As with other Acmeists, reviewers find Akhmatova's work more straightforward than that of her Symbolist predecessors. Critics often discuss Akhmatova's literary debt to Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, including her unselfconscious impulses, use of allusions, and superb diction and rhythms. Stanley Kunitz states, "[Akhmatova's] poems exist in the purity and exactness of their diction, the authority of their tone, the subtlety of their rhythmic modulations, the integrity of their form." Reviewers praise Akhmatova's unique voice, many arguing that her verse is definitive. John Simon says, "I do see a poet with an original vision and a personal voice who manages to maintain her individual talent within the tradition." Many reviewers discuss the impact the Russian political climate had on Akhmatova's career and how it helped to infuse a civic element in her work. Many assert that she was the veritable voice of the Russian people during one of its most harrowing periods in history. More specifically, some critics claimed Akhmatova was the mouthpiece for subjugated Russian women and a true feminist leader before Feminism. Ervin C. Brody asserts, "A chronicler of the isolated and intimate psychological events of a woman's emotional and intellectual life as well as the political events in the Soviet Union, Anna Akhmatova is one of Russia's greatest poets and perhaps the greatest woman poet in the history of Western culture."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vecher [Evening] (poetry) 1912
Chetki [Rosary] (poetry) 1914
Belaya Staya [The White Flock] (poetry) 1917
Skrizhal: Sbornik [Ecstasy Collection] (poetry) 1918
U Samogo Morya [At the Very Edge of the Sea] (poetry) 1921
Podorozhnik [Plantain] (poetry) 1921
Anno Domini MCMXXI (poetry) 1921
Anno Domini (poetry) 1923
Stikhi [Poems] (poetry) 1940
Iz Shesti Knig [From Six Books] (poetry) 1940
Izbrannie Stikhi [Selected Poems] (poetry) 1943
Tashkentskie Stikhi [Tashkent Poems] (poetry) 1944
Koreiskaya Klassicheskaya Poeziya [Korean Classical Poetry; translator] (poetry) 1956
Stikhotvoreniya 1909–1957 [Poems 1909–1957] (poetry) 1958
Poema Bez Geroya; Triptykh [Poem without a Hero; Triptych] (poetry) 1960
Stikhotvoreniya 1909–1960 [Poems 1909–1960] (poetry) 1961
Collected Poems: 1912–1963 (poetry) 1963
Rekviem: Tsikl Stikhotvorenii [Requiem: A Cycle of Poems] (poetry) 1964
Beg Vremeni [Race of Time] (poetry) 1965
Golosa Poetov [Voices of the Poets; translator] (poetry) 1965
Lirika Drevnevo Egipta [Ancient Egyptian Lyrics; translator; with Vera Potapova] (poetry) 1965
Stikhotvoreniya 1909–1965 (poetry) 1965
Klassicheskya poeziya Vostoka [Classical Poetry of the East; translator] (poetry) 1969

Stanley Kunitz (essay date 1935)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Translating Akhmatova," in his A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly, Little, Brown and Company, 1935, pp. 39-46.

[In the following essay, Kunitz discusses the difficulty in translating Akhmatova's poetry from its original Russian.]

Pasternak was once rebuked by a pedant who came to his door bearing a long list of the poet's mistakes in translating Hamlet. The complaint was greeted with laughter and a shrug: "What difference does it make? Shakespeare and I—we're both geniuses, aren't we?" As if to justify his arrogance, Pasternak's Hamlet is today considered one of the glories of Russian literature. My Russian friend who passed the anecdote on to...

(The entire section is 2335 words.)

Yelena Byelyakova (essay date April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anna Akhmatova: 'Mother Courage' of Poetry," in Unesco Courier, Vol. 43, April, 1990, p. 48.

[In the following essay, Byelyakova provides an overview of Akhmatova's career.]

The life of Anna Akhmatova was a tragic one. Although she had her moments of glory she also experienced terrible humiliations.

She was born in 1889, and her youth coincided with an extraordinary literary flowering, the silver age of Russian poetry. Her first volume of verses, Vecher (Evening) was published in 1912. It was followed two years later by Chyotki (Rosary) which was reprinted eight times and made her name. The themes of most of her early poems are...

(The entire section is 778 words.)

Susan Salter Reynolds (21 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Shards of Russian History," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 21, 1993, pp. 3, 9.

[In the following review, Reynolds discusses the world evoked by the essays in Akhmatova's My Half Century.]

On the morning of May 13, 1934, Anna Akhmatova and Nadezhda Mandelstam began to clean up the scattered books and papers left by the agents who had arrested Nadezhda's husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, the night before. While some papers, including the incriminating poem about Stalin ("And every killing is a treat / for the broad-chested Ossete") had already been smuggled out by friends and visitors, one pile still lay by the door. "Don't touch it," said Akhmatova....

(The entire section is 1530 words.)

John Bayley (review date 13 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anna of All the Russias," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 40, No. 9, May 13, 1993, pp. 25-7.

[In the following review, Bayley presents an overview of Akhmatova's life and career in his discussion of three works concerning the poet: The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer: Remembering Anna Akhmatova, by Anatoly Nayman; and In a Shattered Mirror: The Later Poetry of Anna Akhmatova, by Susan Amert.]

Poetry must somehow proclaim its authority. However mysteriously this comes about, its achievement can always be recognized; a great poem continues to assert its magisterial spell in the face of all the tyranny or...

(The entire section is 4241 words.)

Simon Franklin (review date 14 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Empress of Poets," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4702, May 14, 1993, p. 26.

[In the following review, Franklin judges the quality of the discussion and presentation of Akhmatova's work in In a Shattered Mirror, by Susan Amert; My Half Century, edited by Ronald Meyer; and The Complete Poems, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer.]

Anna Akhmatova, empress of poets, died in 1966. She had grown up in Tsarskoe Selo, the Tsar's Village outside St Petersburg, where Pushkin had been to school. In 1911 in Paris, Modigliani drew her "in the attire of Egyptian queens". With Osip Mandelstam and her husband Nikolai Gumilev she was at the centre of the...

(The entire section is 1570 words.)

Sonia I. Ketchian (essay date Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Axmatova's Civic Poem 'Stansy' and Its Pushkinian Antecedent," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 37, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 194-210.

[In the following essay, Ketchian traces many of the devices and allusions in Akhmatova's poem "Stansy" to Pushkin.]

The purpose of this paper is to analyze Axmatova's poem "Stansy" ("Stances"), first in terms of its obvious Pushkinian predecessor and then in terms of its structure and content. A look into the genre and the distinguishing specifics for each of the two poems involved will precede the discussion of Axmatova's "Stansy." It will be followed by an examination of the poem's evolution through textual variants...

(The entire section is 5083 words.)

Rosette C. Lamonte (review date Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of My Half Century: Selected Prose, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 628-29.

[In the following review, Lamonte discusses the ghosts that haunt the pages of Akhmatova's My Half Century.]

In his preface to My Half Century, a splendid selection of the translated prose writings of Anna Akhmatova, Ronald Meyer, the editor of the volume, explains that the author never conceived of composing a chronicle of her life and times. Although, as Meyer points out, it is futile to imagine what the completed work might have been, a model could perhaps be sought in Pasternak and Mandelstam's "autobiographical fragments," as...

(The entire section is 1111 words.)

Sonia I. Ketchian (review date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, in Slavic Review, Vol. 52, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 642-43.

[In the following review, Ketchian praises that The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova is an important resource for lovers of Russian poetry, but complains that further editions need better editing to correct mistakes in translation.]

Judith Hemschemeyer's handsome two-volume verse translation of Anna Akhmatova's poetry with parallel Russian texts and a substantial biographical introduction, "Masks and Mirrors" by Roberta Reeder, was a milestone in 1990 for English-speaking enthusiasts of Russian literature and for admirers of Akhmatova in...

(The entire section is 838 words.)

John Simon (essay date May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anna Akhmatova," in New Criterion, Vol. 12, No. 9, May, 1994, pp. 29-39.

[In the following essay, Simon analyzes what Lydia Chukovskaya's The Akhmatova Journals reveal about Anna Akhmatova, and he also points out what the book is lacking, including better footnotes and better translations of the poet's work.]

"Poetry is what gets lost in translation," observed Robert Frost, and was only partly right. The thrust and sweep of epic poetry translates well enough: there is no dearth of decent translations of Homer, Virgil, Dante. Philosophical poetry also survives quite well: Eliot's Four Quartets, for example, has been successfully rendered into a...

(The entire section is 6955 words.)

Ervin C. Brody (essay date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poet in the Trenches: The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova," in Literary Review, Vol. 37, No. 4, Summer, 1994, pp. 689-704.

[In the following essay, Brody discusses the poems in The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, and Akhmatova's place in Russian literature.]

Poetry not only occupies a central position in Russian society and plays a primordial role in the life of imagination, it is also a moral force. Russian poets have always been known for their assertion of the free spirit and opposition to tyranny both under the Tsars and the commissars. "When spiritual life is suppressed," Bella Akhmadulina, a contemporary Russian poet, told The...

(The entire section is 6653 words.)

John Russell (essay date 1 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Smallest Museum in Russia: Akhmatova Lived Here (and Lives Here Still)," in New York Times Book Review, January 1, 1995, p. 10.

[Russell is an author and writes for art and culture for the New York Times. In the following essay, he describes the museum in St. Petersburg dedicated to Akhmatova.]

The most moving of all the museums in Russia, right now, is also the smallest and the most unlikely. Niched with no fuss whatever in what was a communal apartment high in the annex of the former Sheremetyev Palace in St. Petersburg, it is devoted to a great Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966). A quiet and almost secret place, it has in it virtually no...

(The entire section is 1708 words.)

Michael Specter (essay date 28 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "If Poet's Room Could Speak, It Would Tell of Grief," in New York Times, June 28, 1995, p. A4.

[In the following essay, Specter discusses the museum dedicated to Akhmatova.]

St. Petersburg, Russia—In the diffuse, almost endless light of summer, it is hard to regard this city as a place of suffering. Few people could gaze at the noble mansions and monuments and easily summon thoughts of despair.

In many ways St. Petersburg has, since its creation, always been the spiritual center of the country, the center of science, sophistication, culture and art. But for the last century culture has usually been at war with Russia. Pushkin died here in a...

(The entire section is 938 words.)

Clare Cavanagh (essay date Spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Death of the Book à la russe: The Acmeists Under Stalin," in Slavic Review, Vol. 55, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 125-35.

[In the following essay, Cavanagh discusses how Akhmatova and fellow Acmeist Osip Mandel'shtam refused to be silenced by Stalinist oppression.]

In Of Grammatology (1967), Jacques Derrida apocalyptically proclaims what he calls "the death of the book," the death, that is, of the self-contained, organically unified, self-explanatory text. The postmodern age, he continues, has replaced the now defunct book with the notions of "writing" (écriture) and of a "text" that undermines or explodes any metaphorical bindings that might...

(The entire section is 4944 words.)

Roberta Reeder (essay date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anna Akhmatova: The Stalin Years," in New England Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 105-20.

[In the following essay, Reeder analyzes Akhmatova's poetry from the years of Stalinist oppression.]

… But there is no power more formidable, more terrible in the world, than the poets' prophetic word.

—Anna Akhmatova

For a long time now Anna Akhmatova has been known in her own country as one of the most gifted Russian poets of the twentieth century. Yet in the West she is still relatively unknown.

For many the only poems by Akhmatova that have been read and...

(The entire section is 9188 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Amert, Susan. "Akhmatova's 'Song of the Motherland': Rereading the Opening Texts of Rekviem." Slavic Review 49, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 374-89.

Provides a close analysis of the first two sections of Akhmatova's Rekviem and discusses how the poet has put herself in the tradition of Dante and Pushkin.

Cook, Albert. "The Modified Modernism of Anna Akhmatova." In his Soundings: On Shakespeare, Modern Poetry, Plato, and Other Subjects, pp. 81-95. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Analyzes how Akhmatova's poetry differs from the modernism of her...

(The entire section is 140 words.)