Anna of All the Russias
At the beginning of her great poem Rekviem (1963; Requiem, 1964), Anna Akhmatova wrote,In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. . . . Standing behind was a young woman, with lips blue from the cold, who . . . asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there), “Can you describe this?” And I said, “I can.” Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
In Requiem, Akhmatova made good her word, becoming, as she said in that work, the voice of a hundred million Russians enduring Stalin’s reign of terror. In another of her masterpieces, Poema bez geroya (1960; A Poem Without a Hero, 1973)over which she labored for more than twenty years, from 1940 to 1962she would compose an elegy for the beauty and the beautiful destroyed by revolution and two world wars.
Born in Bol’shoy Fontan, a small town near Odessa, on June 23, 1889, Anna Andreevna Gorenko was the third child of naval engineer Andrey Gorenko and his second wife, Inna. Anna grew up outside St. Petersburg at Tsarskoe Selo, where the tsars had their summer palace. Her family was not literary: Anna recalled that there was only one book of poetry in the house. Yet by the age of eleven she had begun to write poems, and by thirteen she had read the French symbolists, who deeply influenced her early work. The family spent their summers in a dacha near the Black Sea. Anna told her parents that someday that house would bear a plaque stating that she had lived there. It does.
In her last year at the Fundukleyevskaya gymnasium in Kiev, Anna published her first poem, “On His Hand Are Many Shiny Rings” (1907), in the short-lived periodical Sirius edited by the poet Nikolay Stepanovich Gumilyov, who dedicated his second volume of poetry to her and who, after a long and tempestuous courtship that included at least two suicide attempts by him, married Anna on April 25, 1910. Because Anna’s father objected to her publishing poetry under the family name, she adopted the nom de plume of a Tatar prince and descendant of Genghis Khan, Akhmat, who, she believed, was related to her through her mother.
Whatever passion Gumilyov and Akhmatova had for each other quickly evaporated. Both soon began to take lovers, and after the birth of Anna’s only son, Lev, on October 1, 1912, they agreed to an open marriage, though Gumilyov’s affairs depressed Anna. The year 1912 also saw the publication of her first volume of verse, Vecher (evening), containing forty-six poems, most of them about the pangs of love. Although she initially admired French and Russian symbolist poetsAlexander Blok and Innokenty Annensky served as early Russian modelsshe, along with Gumilyov and Osip Mandelstam, soon became a leading exponent of Acmeism. In Anna of All The Russias, Elaine Feinstein compares this movement to the contemporary imagism in its quest for clarity and precise imagery about specific experiences.
Her second volume, Chetki, meaning “beads” but usually translated as “rosary,” appeared in 1914; its poems again largely concern lost love. “The Voice of Memory,” for example, written in June, 1913, and subtitled “For O. A. Glebova-Sudeikina,” recalls the suicide of Vsevolod Knyazev after he saw his lover coming home with another man. Sudeikina would reappear in A Poem Without a Hero as “Confusion Psyche” and “The Columbine of the 1910’s.” Akhmatova may herself have been in love with Sudeikina, just as later she had a passion for another actress, Faina Ranevskaya. Akhmatova had many lovers throughout her life, and they became subjects of her poems. The artist Boris Anrep, whom she met in early 1915, looms large in her verse of this period and, indeed, throughout her life. When Anrep fled to England, she accused him of deserting not only her but all of Russia. Her third volume of poetry, Belaya staya (1917; The White Flock , 1978), already reflects this fusion of the personal and the national that...
(The entire section is 1,825 words.)