Debbie Bell Fish
Dr. Thomas Dubose
18 November 2008
Anna Akhmatova: A Painful Journey Remembered
While it is obviously a good practice to remember with gratitude one’s privileges and comforts, occasionally a reminder in the stark contrast of the life of another is helpful. During a century filled with violence and social upheaval, the life of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova spanned the time of upheaval in Russia, as she lived through both World Wars, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the reign of Stalin. Akhmatova’s life was filled with hardship, loss, discomfort, anxiety and poverty, and yet, she took the suffering and with it created some of the most beautiful poetry of loss and love to come of the 20th century.
Born Anna Andreevna Gorenko on June 23, 1889, Anna would take the surname of a maternal ancestor, rather than bring shame to her father, who belonged to the aristocracy and was appalled at the thought of his daughter as a poet. She was one of six siblings, two of whom would die before Anna was twenty. While Anna, one of the middle children in the family, was always in poor health, she would outlive all but one of her siblings, as robust health was not one of the family’s gifts. Family harmony was also not enjoyed, as father Andrey was a handsome womanizer, and mother Inna, raised in wealth, had great difficulty tolerating his unfaithfulness and the family’s modest means. A beautiful woman, Inna was always loved by her daughter, and when the inevitable marital breakup came, Anna would distance herself from her father (Feinstein14-21). Through her mother’s behavior, Anna would see great religious piety, and both parents were fairly liberal in their political leanings, sympathizing with the aims of “People’s Will,” which has been described as “a Socialist revolutionary group responsible for several political assassinations” (15).
Although aristocrats by birth, the family lived on the salary of a modest civil servant, as her father, a naval engineer, was demoted because of an acquaintanceship with a political bomb-maker. The family lived in the small town of Tsarskoye Selo, the home of the famous literary giant Alexander Pushkin. Her childhood was fairly typical, although at an early age she exhibited a marked propensity for sleep-walking, sometimes being found on the roof of the home. She believed this, and her ominous birth on St. John’s Eve, a day when the superstitious believed the powers of good and evil are especially strong, to mean that fate held something special in mind for her (Feinstein 12-17). She was right. It was perhaps not a fate to be envied
An introspective child, Anna developed into a beautiful young girl. Her beauty and regal bearing, even in old age, would lead to a remarkable array of suitors, lovers, and husbands. She would be known for her immense poise and dramatic appearance, as she was nearly 6’ in height, and thin to the point of emaciation for most of her adult life. She did, however, develop a sudden corpulence as a much older woman due to a thyroid illness (Feinstein 8, 208).
In 1905, when she was 15 years old, she heard gunshots for the first time, as the Revolution of 1905 began the downward spiral towards the horrors to come. It was a calamitous year for her personally as well, as her older sister was hospitalized with the tuberculosis from which she would die the following year. Her father’s infatuation with a local widow would propel her parents toward a shameful breakup, and many believe that this greatly influenced Anna’s own choices in men and her attitudes towards love. She would lose her virginity that year as well. And it certainly would not be the last time she would hear violent gun-fire (Feinstein 12-21).
She fell in love for the first time with Vladimir Gulinishev-Kutuzov, a student ten years her elder, and was miserable when he returned to school. She went to Kiev to take school examinations, the first in a countless series of nomadic journeys and second homes. And while she was longing for the older Vladimir, another was longing for her, a man who would become her first husband. Nikolay Gumilyov, a poet, had first fallen for Anna when she was only thirteen, and pursued her relentlessly for years. In 1905, he declared his love, was rejected, and made a suicide gesture that appalled Anna. He would make his second suicide attempt in 1907 when he learned that his beloved Anna was no longer a virgin. When Anna enrolled in Kiev University to study law, she vacillated between love for the older Kutuzov and admiration for Gumilyov (Feinstein 23- 27). Of her formal schooling, Ronald Hingley, in his book Nightingale Fever, wrote that she did not “seem to hanker after higher education in any formal sense… [but she would come] to know Russian and world literature more thoroughly than many an honours graduate in those subjects” (15).
Gumilyov loved her and encouraged the poetry she had begun to write at age twelve. His brilliant poetry and intense personality finally persuaded her, and in 1910 they married. Friends would speculate that she married him because this would ensure her entrance into the literary world of St. Petersburg she so wished to join. It also enabled her to escape the horrible poverty that had been her family’s lot since her father abandoned them. Honeymooning in Paris, Anna must have had little inkling of the chaos that would soon engulf her. Their marriage was a battle of two high-strung, brilliant, aggressive people (Feinstein 28-33).
Like many men, Gumilyov’s love seemed to grow on rejection, and now that he had his prize, he soon lost interest. Like her father, his affairs were legion, and their marriage eventually became what would now be termed “an open marriage” with both parties openly philandering. Gumilyov and Anna soon would become two of the best known artists in St. Petersburg, a group made up of poets from the Symbolist movement, who attempted to paint a picture of a “higher reality,” and the Acmeists, who “demanded sharpness and clarity above all,…about objects in the real world” (Feinstein 39). Sam Driver, in his book Anna Akhmatova, states: “In historical perspective, the poetic movement now generally accepted as Acmeism was not so much a rebellion against the reigning Symbolist school as a continuation of it—a continuation and reform” (42). The Gumilyovs were leaders in the Acmeist movement. Both groups met regularly at the Stray Dog, a coffee house frequented by Bohemian types who would read their poems aloud. In 1912, Gumilyov published a book of Anna’s poetry, and she found herself suddenly quite famous (Feinstein 39-40).
The marriage was losing ground, however, and Gumilyov traveled often for long trips, leaving Anna lonely and vulnerable. Anna occasionally traveled with him, and soon was pregnant with her only child. Lev, born in the fall of 1912, would lead a life of great hardship, largely because of the fame of his parents. He would be raised until his mid-teens by his paternal grandmother, with Anna visiting often. Theirs would be a tumultuous relationship, and Lev never fully recovered emotionally from her choice to let another woman raise him (Feinstein 40, 239).
The marriage continued to unravel, and in the fall of 1913, Gumilyov had a son with another woman, an actress named Olga. The couple discussed divorce, which Anna readily agreed to, stipulating only that she would have custody of Lev, a request that enraged and terrified her mother-in-law. When Anna visited her son in 1914, she realized that he was happy and doing well there, and although she loved him desperately, she recognized that her lifestyle was less than suitable for the raising of a small child. The poets’ finances had declined precipitously, and there were rumors of the world war that was looming. She was also ill with tuberculosis.
It would prove to be a horrible war for the Russians. Gumilyov joined the army, and the young intellectuals were hopeful that the war might have some positive results. Anna’s second book of poetry, Rosary, had been published. She had begun to speak for her people at a young age, but she was to mature quickly, as the bulk of her generation would be lost to the war in Europe. Her poetry demonstrates that she still retained the Christian faith of her upbringing, and was developing an enormous compassion for her people and their suffering (Hingley 56). The symbolic angels in this early poetry reflected her mood, as “the angels hovering above her city are threatening rather than benevolent (Leiter 31). Anna would share her people’s suffering for the rest of her life.
Although her marriage was essentially over, she and Gumilyov would continue to have a relationship, in one form or another, until his death (Feinstein 57). Her own health continued to deteriorate, and she spent part of 1915 in a sanitarium. It was also in that year that she would meet the man who many thought was the true love of her life, Boris Anrep, an artist specializing in mosaic. Athletic and bohemian, he was like most of the men in her life, a committed womanizer (58).
Although their relationship was rocky, Anna would soon face far more serious problems. The Bolshevik Revolution, and its aftermath, would affect her life dramatically. Although many intellectuals greeted the beginning of the uprising with wild hope, many left for voluntary exile. Anna refused to leave her country and follow Anrep, who left for London. Her love for him did not fade, but bordered on obsession. Many of the poems in her third book, White Flock, speak of lost love, and many speak of the suffering of war (Feinstein 73). Anrep returned once more to Russia, and the couple said their goodbyes; Anna gave him a necklace that he wore until the Second World War. They would not meet again until they were in their seventies (239).
Anna had learned a belief in God from her devout mother, and in spite of the violence and upheaval of first the war, and then the revolution, she continued to have faith. She did wonder, however, if the horror was retribution for the excesses and insensitivity of the upper class. Although still married to Gumilyov, she had had a series of lovers while he was away at war; her faith did not include belief in traditional Christian ideas of morality. She would soon enter into her second marriage, which would be even more disastrous than her first (Feinstein 12, 75).
Shileiko was not an artist, but a student of the ancient tablets of Egypt and Babylon and eventually would be a professor at the Petrograd Archaeological Institute. They married in late 1918, as soon as Anna was legally free, and she entered this marriage determined to be a loyal and monogamous spouse. It would prove to be an impossible goal (Feinstein 89-92).
Her new husband was as unable to provide a stable home for her as her last one had been, but then, a stable home in Russia was a very elusive prospect. Anna would continue to live in a series of places for the majority of her life. The young couple was to find the post-Revolution life filled with more hardship than the modern reader can imagine, since there was no real infrastructure left in Petrograd, and both husband and wife had tuberculosis. Anna was thirty, and found herself involved with a man who would nearly break her spirit. Her few poems from the period suggest that he was oppressive, and eventually he forbade her to write. Although she worked some at a library, they literally nearly starved and froze to death. In 1921, what few poems she wrote hinted at her misery and thoughts of suicide. Plantain was a tiny book of her poems, published in 1921. As horrible as things were, they were soon to get worse. (Feinstein 90-106).
By 1921, the Bolsheviks were in control of the government. Many of her friends had died in the violence and privation of the war and revolution, and it was very dangerous to be an intellectual. Gumilyov was arrested, interrogated and executed as an “enemy of the people.” It was a charge that would haunt Anna, and particularly their son Lev, for decades. Hingley states that “the immediate effect of Gumilyov’s execution … was to intensify the somber tone dominant in the small spate of lyrics with which she briefly resumed creative work (106).
She was emotionally supported during this time by the kindness of fellow artists, particularly the great Russian writer Boris Pasternak (Feinstein 99). Her second marriage had ended, not surprisingly, in divorce, and Anna decided that her nine-year-old son should stay with his grandmother. The poor old woman had very little left in life but Lev, and life in the countryside where they lived provided at least basic food. It was a decision that would haunt the mother-son relationship forever (97).
Now in her thirties, Anna was still stunningly beautiful and still working creatively. She embarked yet again on a series of affairs, and was living with a casual lover when she met Nikolay Punin, a married art historian who had been incarcerated with Gumilyov. It would prove to be the most long-lasting relationship of her life. When it began in 1922, Anna was at the height of her fame as a poet, and had received a substantial sum from her third volume of poetry in 1917. However, that money was long-since gone, and she basically was homeless, living with various friends and lovers (Feinstein 134-142).
Punin was the new father of a baby girl, and his wife, a doctor, would turn out to be an extraordinarily tolerant and gracious woman, even allowing Anna’s eventual move into their small flat to “rent” a room with the family. This situation would endure for many years. Both Anna and Punin would have other sexual relationships during this time period (109), but their relationship was still close and reasonably happy until 1926. Anna was inspired by Punin’s brilliance and worked hard to more fully educate herself, while also working as a translator, and collaborating with Gumilyov’s second wife to create a book telling his life-story. She was also writing poetry, and was close to releasing a two-volume edition of her work, but the government, now ruled by Stalin, intervened and censored her work. She was watched closely as the former wife of Gumilyov and a famous poet in her own right. The years known as Stalin’s Great Terror were about to begin (Feinstein 130) Stalin himself often banned Anna’s work from publication. (136) Walter Vickery, in his article “Zhdanovism” remarks that:
the blackballing of ... Akhmatova and the vicious manner in which this was done were probably partly motivated by a desire to remind writers of the not so distant ugly past, of the purges of the Thirties which had claimed as victims several men of letters. The attack … could be calculated to strike fear into writers’ hearts and so to prevent the formation of anything approaching a cohesive body of opinion, a feeling of solidarity among intellectuals; to prevent the emergence of anything remotely resembling an opposition intelligentsia; to sow fear and mistrust; to divide and so to rule. (104)
The strange dynamics of Punin’s household, containing his wife, his daughter, and his lover, were about to change yet again. Lev, now a teenager, arrived to live with the group, in order to further his education in a large city. He was an extremely bright boy, but his presence in the already cramped house escalated the considerable tensions. He and Punin became sworn enemies, and Punin balked at the expense of another household member (Feinstein 132).
Anna was about to endure her most horrible trial. In 1933, Stalin’s wife committed suicide, and in his anger at the loss, he decreed that anyone arrested of terrorism had no right to any defense, and began to round up suspects by the thousands. Lev, the son of an executed “terrorist” and an intellectual artist, was arrested and spent nine days in prison. He was arrested again in 1935, along with Punin. Punin had made a joke about Stalin’s murder, and this was enough to lead to disaster. Both were eventually released, but Lev was to spend many years in prison because of the fame of his parents. Anna’s friend and fellow poet Pasternak had considerable influence and was instrumental in their release, but eventually, upon Lev’s third arrest, nothing could be done. He was arrested with a group of students accused of trying to “overthrow the regime by means of assassination” and sentenced to ten years (Feinstein 162, 183-7).
Anna is perhaps best remembered for her long poem Requiem, composed about the years to follow. Sharon Leiter, in Akhmatova’s Petersburg, describes Anna’s most famous poem by saying:
The degraded Leningrad of Requiem ‘hung like a useless pendant outside its prison,’ impotent to provide either resistance to or spiritual refuge from the evils of the age. But Akhmatova returned the city to holy ground by making it, not a place of meaningless suffering, but Calvary. As she stands, three hundredth in line with her parcel, beneath the old Leningrad prison, “Crosses,” she is Mary standing before the cross. To the city she had designated her spiritual birthplace, she now bequeaths her own legacy: a bronze statue, to be placed on the spot where she waited in that prison line, an eternally grieving and remembering figure…. (196)
Her health was very poor, as she endured fairly serious heart and lung problems. She made several long trips to Moscow in futile attempts to help her son, and spent countless hours in line outside of Kresty prison, hoping to send him a package or get some word of his condition. The poems composed for Requiem could have been used against Lev or other family members, so Anna never wrote them down, rather choosing to commit them to memory (Feinstein 169). Lev, young and healthy, would survive the prison years better than did Anna.
Anna was by now middle-aged. The dairies of friends give us insight as to the woman that she was in these years. Ronald Hingley says that she was:
a woman of such overpowering natural elegance that it transcended her sordid surroundings, her neglected appearance, her worn, tattered clothes. Chukovskaya [friend and diarist] speaks of the old mackintosh; the squashed, faded hat; the darned stockings; the black silk dressing gown with the dragon on the back; the hair, disordered but still with the renowned fringe—now grey—and still surmounted by the famous comb of her prime. The poet’s room was permanently untidy, her legless armchair sprouted springs, the floor was rarely swept, cracks in the windows were plugged with newspaper. She smoked endlessly; she could never seem to find her spoons, her forks, her manuscripts; she drank vodka out of a saltcellar without ever becoming drunk. And yet, while suffering hardships such as crippled others, Akhmatova never ceased to radiate the inner strength that made them turn to her for support. She was never to lose the dignified bearing, the overwhelmingly imposing air that had so devastated Petrograd and its literary smart set when she had been half her present age. (223)
While radiating strength and elegance, she was forced to endure another anxiety in addition to her worry over her son’s nightmarish existence in prison: World War II. In 1941, a group of writers belonging to the Writers’ Union were transported out of the city due to air raids, and Anna went first to the small town of Kazan, and then to Chistopol, the latter a horrible, muddy village. Like many writers, she was in great despair, but somehow survived. Another great Russian poetess, Marina Tsvetaeva, also in Chistopol, committed suicide. Anna considered a similar fate, but she was still a Christian, and found the strength to go on. (Feinstein 195). Having seen so much heartbreak, poverty, hunger and loss, she still found life worthwhile. She continued to write her son in prison, and hope for the best.
Lev however, had been beaten and tortured, and psychologically manipulated to believe that his mother did not care for him, and that she was enjoying the life of a famous poet while he toiled in Siberia. This, added to his doubts about her love stemming from her choice to allow him to be raised by his grandmother, led to an estrangement between the two that would last, with occasional periods of warmth, until Anna’s death. In addition to the stress of this failing relationship was added the deterioration of her relationship with Punin. Eventually, she had exchanged rooms with his wife, but would move back into the outer apartment, signaling an end to the more intimate aspect of their relationship. While the apartment had been the closest to a stable home Anna would have in her life, she eventually moved out and resumed her nomadic life, living with various friends. The relationship with Punin had never been peaceful, settled, or monogamous, for either party (Feinstein 164, 178).
However, one result of the war was positive. Lev was released from prison to join the army. Bizarre as it may seem, he found that life at the front lines was much better (Feinstein 206). Needless to say, the war was, aside from that benefit, enormously costly emotionally to all, especially Anna. Friends noted that “she seemed to respond to huge changes in her circumstances with a strange impassivity” (Feinstein 197). Perhaps by now she had grown somewhat immune to upheaval and loss, and found some inner equilibrium. Or perhaps she was emotionally exhausted. She endured yet another stress during the war as the result of a failed love affair with Vladimir Garshin, a married doctor with two children, whom she first began to see in 1937 (215-216).
When she returned to Leningrad after the war, she was to find that it had been nearly destroyed by German bombs. Nearly all of her belongings had been burned by people trying to stay warm. She was devastated to learn of the death of Punin’s wife, with whom she had eventually grown friendly, and then close (Feinstein 276). She was very lonely, but was surprised to find that the reception to her poetry, up and down over the years depending upon the government’s censorship efforts, was stronger than ever. When she appeared at a performance of the Writer’s Union in 1944, she was stunned to hear a thunderous greeting in the applause of the crowd. Many in wrongfully assumed she had a rich life, full of friends and admirers, however, the post-war years began a very lonely and isolated existence for Anna (205).
Now in her mid-fifties, Anna was beginning to receive a pension as a writer which was substantial. As had often been the case in the past, whenever any money came her way, she gave most of it away. She had grown used to living a nomadic life in abject poverty, and “from the 1950s onward, she came to spend a great deal of her time living ‘secretly’ with friends in Moscow” (Leiter 85). She would have one more love affair in her life, this time with an Oxford historian, who had worked for the Americans during the war, basically as a spy. Needless to say, the Communist government was very interested in this affair, and followed the couple relentlessly, bugging her apartment. Anna was no stranger to situations that necessitated subterfuge from the government, but in time, the much younger Isaiah Berlin would return to England (Feinstein 238). Stalin still ruled Russia with an iron hand.
She would yet have to endure other hardships. Lev, who had become a university professor after the war, was arrested again in 1949, when Anna was sixty. He was again tried and sentenced to ten years in Siberia. Anna had lost her pension by now, but managed to send him small gifts of food. In desperation, she wrote poetry in praise of Stalin, hoping to soften his heart (Feinstein 238). Her heart condition, a problem for many years, grew worse and she was often hospitalized (239). She had had an apartment and acquired a little furniture, but again, she was evicted and became essentially homeless. She spent her time in translation work to bring in some slight income, and writing poetry. As before, Anna also tried, fruitlessly, to help Lev, and many literary friends wrote on his behalf. He would not be released until 1956, three years after the death of Stalin. Shortly before his release, Anna heard from Isaiah Berlin, but refused to meet him, terrified it could have negative ramifications for Lev (236).
At sixty-seven, Anna was again honored by the Writers Union. Her work was enjoying a second period of political acceptance, and Gleb Struve, in his article “The Transition from Russian to Soviet Literature” writes that this acceptance was “only a recognition of the place due to her in Russian literature….What is significant is not that Akhmatova had been readmitted into Soviet literature, but that the latest collection of her poetry, covering the period from 1909 to 1960, has been compiled with a definite bias and represents a carefully sifted selection” (19).
A poem she had worked on for years, Poem Without a Hero, reveals her retrospection and introspection about her life. She had become something of a legend, and “her deep influence on the younger generation was probably one of the reasons for Communist attacks” (Slonim 179). A twenty-three year old student, Anatoly Nayman, began to help her as a literary secretary, and also assist her with the physical chores she was finding so difficult in old age (Feinstein 255). She was about to take two great journeys before the end of her life, to accept the honor of her colleagues and the world. She had become one of the most famous people of her generation in Russia, and was called upon by the famous people of other cultures, including Robert Frost. (264). In 1964, a huge collection of her poetry was published in the Soviet Union, which had censored most of her writing for nearly half a century (269). At last world famous, her poetry was translated into my languages, and she traveled to Italy to accept the Etna-Taormina Prize, and then to England to accept an Honorary Doctorate from Oxford University. In England she was to see many people from her past, including Isaiah Berlin, and the true love of her life, Boris Anrep, in whom she was intensely disappointed. They had been separated since 1917. Anna returned to Russia and soon died of a heart-attach at age seventy-eight (273, 276-77). Given the state of her health, and the times and upheaval that she lived through, it was amazing that she lived to that fairly advanced age.
Anna had little control over the events of her life, a life full of violence and social upheaval, great poverty and personal loss. While she endured the hardships, she lived life deeply and completely, eschewing superficial values of materialism and comfort, instead investing her energies in creativity and relationships. Through her efforts, she managed, in spite of these hardships, to create a lasting legacy that will long endure and help others through similar times. Her work reminds us to value what is real, and her life reminds us to be grateful for peace, tranquility and stability, while we still have it.
Works Cited and Consulted
Driver, Sam N. Anna Akhmatova. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972.
Feinstein, Elaine. Anna of All the Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova. New York, Knopf, 2006.
Hingley, Ronald. Nightingale Fever: Russian Poets in Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Leiter, Sharon. Akhmatova’s Petersburg. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.
Slonim, Marc. Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.
Struve, Gleb. Russian Literature under Lenin and Stalin, 1917-1953. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.
Vickery, Walter N. “Zhdanovism (1946-53). Literature and Revolution in Soviet Russian.
Eds. Hayward, Max and Leopold Labedz. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.