Debbie Bell Fish
Dr. Thomas Dubose
18 November 2008
Anna Akhmatova: A Painful Journey Remembered
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 inRussia,
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 20thcentury.
Anna Andreevna Gorenko onJune
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
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 ofTsarskoye
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).
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 toKievto take school examinations, the first
in a countless series of nomadic journeys and second homes. And while she was longing for the olderVladimir, 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 inKievUniversity
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 bookNightingale Fever, wrote that she did not "seem to hanker after
higher education in any formal senseâ€¦ [but she would come] to know Russian and
world literature more thoroughly than many an honours graduate in those
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 ofSt. Petersburgshe 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 inParis, 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).
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,â€¦about objects in
the real world" (Feinstein 39). Sam
Driver, in his bookAnna 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
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).
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
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 inEurope. 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.
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).
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 forLondon. 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 toRussia, 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).
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).
was not an artist, but a student of the ancient tablets ofEgyptandBabylonand 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).
new husband was as unable to provide a stable home for her as her last one had
been, but then, a stable home inRussiawas 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 inPetrograd,
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. Plantainwas a tiny book of her poems, published in 1921. As horrible as things were, they were soon to
get worse. (Feinstein 90-106).
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 â€¦ was
to intensify the somber tone dominant in the small spate of lyrics with which
she briefly resumed creative work (106).
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).
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).
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"
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 â€¦ 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
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).
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).
is perhaps best remembered for her long poemRequiem,composed about the years to follow. Sharon Leiter, inAkhmatova's Petersburg, describes Anna's most famous poem by
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, butCalvary. As she stands, three hundredth in line with
her parcel, beneath the oldLeningradprison,
"Crosses," she is Mary standing before the cross. To the city she had designated her spiritual birthplace, she now
bequeaths her own legacy: a bronzestatue,
to be placed on the spot where she waited in that prison line, an eternally
grievingand remembering figureâ€¦. (196)
health was very poor, as she endured fairly serious heart and lung
problems. She made several long trips to
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 forRequiemcould 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
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 devastatedPetrogradand its literary smart set when she had been
half her present age. (223)
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.
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 inSiberia. 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).
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
she returned toLeningrad
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'sUnionin 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).
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 inMoscow" (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
(Feinstein 238). Stalin still ruledRussiawith an
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 inSiberia. 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 IsaiahBerlin, but refused to meet him, terrified
it could have negative ramifications for Lev (236).
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 literatureâ€¦.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"
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 inRussia, 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 toItalyto accept the Etna-Taormina
Prize, and then toEngland
to accept an Honorary Doctorate fromOxford
University. InEnglandshe was to see many people
from her past, including IsaiahBerlin,
and the true love of her life, Boris Anrep, in whom she was intensely
disappointed. They had been separated
since 1917. Anna returned toRussia
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.
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.
Cited and Consulted
Driver, Sam N. Anna
Akhmatova. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972.
Feinstein, Elaine. Anna of
All theRussias: 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
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,
Vickery, Walter N. "Zhdanovism (1946-53). Literature
and Revolution in Soviet Russian.
Eds. Hayward, Max and Leopold Labedz. London: