Anna Andreyevna Akhmatova was born Anna Gorenko into an upper-class family in Odessa, the Ukraine, in 1889. Her interest in poetry began in her youth, but when her father found out about her aspirations, he told her not to shame the family name by becoming a “decadent poetess”. He forced her to take a pen name, and she chose the last name of her maternal great-grandmother. She attended law school in Kiev and married Nikolai Gumilev, a poet and critic, in 1910. Shortly after the marriage, he travelled to Abyssinia, leaving her behind. While Gumilev was away, Akhmatova wrote many of the poems that would be published in her popular first book, Evening. Her son Lev was also born in 1912. He was raised by his paternal grandmother, who disliked Akhmatova. Akhmatova protested this situation, but her husband supported his family. She would visit with her son during holidays and summer. Later, Akhmatova would write that “motherhood is a bright torture. I was not worthy of it.”
Upon Evening’s publication in 1912, Akhmatova became a cult figure among the intelligentsia and part of the literary scene in St. Petersburg. Her second book, Rosary (1914), was critically acclaimed and established her reputation. With her husband, she became a leader of Acmeism, a movement which praised the virtues of lucid, carefully-crafted verse and reacted against the vagueness of the Symbolist style which dominated the Russian literary scene of the period. She and Gumilev divorced in 1918. Akhmatova married twice more, to Vladimir Shileiko in 1918, whom she divorced in 1928, and Nikolai Punin, who died in a Siberian labor camp in 1953. The writer Boris Pasternak, who was already married, had proposed to her numerous times.
Nikolai Gumilev was executed in 1921 by the Bolsheviks, and, although Akhmatova and he were divorced, she was still associated with him. As a result, after her book Anno Domini MCMXXI was published in 1922, she had great difficulty finding a publisher. There was an unofficial ban on Akhmatova’s poetry from 1925 until 1940. During this time, Akhmatova devoted herself to literary criticism, particularly of Pushkin, and translations. During the latter part of the 1930s, she composed a long poem, Requiem, dedicated to the memory of Stalin’s victims. In 1940, a collection of previously published poems, From Six Books, was published. A few months later it was withdrawn.
Changes in the political climate finally allowed her acceptance into the Writer’s Union, but following World War II, there was an official decree banning publication of her poetry and Andrey Zhadanov, the Secretary of the Central Committee, expelled her from the Writer’s Union, calling her “half nun, half harlot”. Her son, Lev, was arrested in 1949 and held in jail until 1956. To try to win his release, Akhmatova wrote poems in praise of Stalin and the government, but it was of no use. Later she requested that these poems not appear in her collected works. She began writing and publishing again in 1958, but with heavy censorship. Young poets like Joseph Brodsky flocked to her. To them, she represented a link with the pre-Revolutionary past which had been destroyed by the Communists.
Though Akhmatova was frequently confronted with official government opposition to her work during her lifetime, she was deeply loved and lauded by the Russian people, in part because she did not abandon her country during difficult political times. Her most accomplished works, Requiem (which was not published in its entirety in Russia until 1987) and Poem Without a Hero, are reactions to the horror of the Stalinist Terror, during which time she endured artistic repression as well as tremendous personal loss.
Akhmatova also translated the works of Victor Hugo, Rabindranath Tagore, Giacomo Leopardi, and various Armenian and Korean poets, and she wrote memoirs of Symbolist writer Aleksandr Blok, the artist Amedeo Modigliani, and fellow Acmeist Osip Mandelstam. In 1964 she was awarded the Etna-Taormina prize and an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1965. Her journeys to Sicily and England to receive these honors were her first travels outside Russia since 1912. Two years before her death at the age of 76, Akhmatova was chosen president of the Writers’ Union. Akhmatova died in Leningrad, where she had spent most of life, in 1966.