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​A singer of love and sorrow

· ​Artists ·

When her father learned that Anna was to publish some verses, he prevented her from using the family name, Andreevna Gorenko. Thus she chose the last name of a great-grandmother, a princess descending from the Tartar Khan Akhmat, and from that time on published under the name of Anna Achmatova. According to the great poet Joseph Brodsky, these five “A”s of her name were like an incantation for the Russian people: Anna was the first woman to become a classic of the country’s literature.

Achmatova, born in Odessa in 1889, was immediately recognized on both the Russian and international literary scenes as a new voice for her poetry which was simple and concise and adhered to the reality of feelings: a factual objectivity – in open opposition to symbolism – theorized by the Acmeist Movement of which Anna was a member, together with other young poets, including her husband Gumilev and Mandelstam.

Amedeo Modigliani, “Anna Achmatova” (1911)

In the Russia of the Great War, when she was only just 20 years old, Achmatova, the only woman in the literary salons of St Petersburg, was celebrated for her passionate, vibrant verses capable of expressing, in contemplation of a reawakening nature, the passionate sentiments of a young body in ferment. She had clear grey-green eyes, a strong nose, a dark fringe, a proud bearing and was 1 m 80 tall: Anna was beautiful and knew it. She sang of love and of the ontological sorrow present in love itself, of which she experienced above all the limits. Her marriage with the poet Gumilev, in fact, lasted only eight years and was not a happy relationship: after a rapid courtship and having obtained her as his wife, Gumilev lost his passion for her and left for six months in Africa on his own. Achmatova sought refuge in Paris, in the home of Modigliani who portrayed her several times, presenting her with his drawings, most of which have been lost. Her later relationships were also tormented, unhappy and conflicting.

The year 1914 marked a watershed in Anna Achmatova’s poetry and life. The poet did not belong to the Communist regime which wanted intellectuals to be disciplined and servile. Her poetry was banned and Stalin’s persecutions dramatically involved her relatives: in 1921 her husband, accused of counter-revolutionary activities, was shot, while her son Lev was imprisoned from 1935 to 1940 during the period of Stalin’s great purges. Anna was never arrested, perhaps because she was too well known, but she could no longer publish; moreover in Pravda in 1946 she was condemned as a “residue of the old aristocratic culture… now a nun, now a whore, or rather at the same time a nun and a whore in whom debauchery is combined with prayer”. Deprived of her ration card, she lived on the food that her friends gave her.

She entrusted her despair to the poems in the cycle entitled Requiem: “The quiet Don is flowing quietly, / And the yellow moon enters my house. / He enters wearing his hat askew and / Meets a shadow, the yellow moon. / This woman is not well / This woman is all alone / Husband in the grave, son jailed / Please offer a prayer for me” Requiem is a key text which shows how Anna had taken the burden of history upon herself: having stayed on in Russia, she subjected herself every day to exhausting hours of waiting, queuing in the snow together with the other mothers, with provisions and clothes, outside the Leningrad prison where her son Lev was incarcerated. His only crime was to have been the son of a counter-revolutionary. If the packet was accepted it was a sign that the prisoner was alive. If it was not, this meant he had certainly died. “I spent 18 months in a queue outside the prison of Leningrad. Once someone ‘recognized’ me. Then a woman behind me with livid lips, who had certainly never heard my name, shook herself from the torpor which characterized us all and, speaking into my ear (there they spoke in whispers), asked me ‘But can you describe this?’. And I said ‘I can’. Then the hint of a smile slid over what had once been her face”.

Portrait of Anna Achmatova by  Nathan Altman (1914)

For Anna Achmatova the poetic word became the place of her salvation, the place of her strength and the possibility of resistance. She also spoke on the radio to encourage Russian women during the siege of Leningrad; she incited them to resist, to stay in their places, just as she was doing; in some way she became what she hoped to be, that is, the voice of the Russian people or “Anna of all the Russias”, as her friend Marina Tsvetaeva described her. Although many artists emigrated, Achmatova, like Pasternak, never left her country: “A voice came to me. It called out comfortingly, / It said ‘Come here, / Leave your deaf and sinful land, / Leave Russia for ever. . / […] But calmly and indifferently / I covered my ears with my hands, / So that my sorrowing spirit / Would not be stained by those shameful words”. Anna succeeded at last in saving Lev, dedicating to Stalin a cycle of 15 celebratory texts.

Like the poems of Mandelstam, the poems of Achmatova have come down to us thanks to the love and esteem of her companions among whom was Lydia Chukovskaya, the writer, who memorized the verses that Anna was writing while she drank her tea, forced to throw the page away immediately.

From a girl who spoke of love and feelings this poet thus became a witness of the tragedy of her epoch. From 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, to her own death in 1966 Anna Achmatova at last experienced a period of tranquillity and international recognition. For the young generations her voice represented the possibility of an interior freedom that defeated the brutality of history.

Elena Buia Rutt




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 5, 2019