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Anna Akhmatova: Poet, Muse and Witness
January 17, 2018
Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova is considered to be one of the greatest poets of the Russian canon. Her work, distinguished by its pithy elegance and sober tone, aches with emotional truth to a spiritual register.

Born Anna Gorenko in Odessa, Ukraine, to an aristocratic Russian family, Akhmatova adopted her maternal grandmother’s maiden name for a pen name and began writing poetry as a child. By her early twenties, the young woman writer would align herself to the practices of Acmeism in reaction to the vagueness of Symbolist aesthetics, advocating for searing clarity and diligently crafted use of language instead. Upon the acclaim of her fist published collection of poetry, Evening, in 1912 at the age of 23, she would also begin her career as a target for censorship and defamation.

With the advent of the revolution’s more oppressive measures, Nikolay Gumilyov, her first husband, was executed in 1921 for alleged anti-Bolshevik activities. Akhmatova would go on to marry Vladimir Shilejko, and later, art critic, Nikolay Punin, who would be detained by Soviet officials only to perish in the Gulag camps. Famous for her disarming tone and sexual charisma, Akhmatova conducted numerous love affairs throughout the course of her life, often with her eminent contemporaries, such as the likes of Boris Pasternak and Amadeo Modligliani.

The central, unavoidable themes of her extensive body of work center on grief, devotion, fear, vulnerability, and her experience as both survivor of and witness to the atrocities of Stalinist Russia. In 1935, Akhmatova’s son Lev was arbitrarily arrested and detained by the state. Standing in the daily queues before the prison gates to visit for news of her son, Akhmatova recognized how her shared suffering with some thousands of other women in grief served as an impetus to document the experience, both for herself and her community of bereaved compatriots, so as to perhaps achieve some sort of reprieve. Requiem, a cycle poem that took six years to write and fifteen to finally appear in printed form, became a text of numinous reckoning and a plea for healing, which had only started at first as a few epigrammatic verses, spoken a trusted few who circulated it in secret who learned it by heart. It would become the most devastating literary document of Russia’s suffering at the hands of Stalinist terror, the slow end to which she would come to witness before her death in 1965.

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