11 Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1996)

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1996)

Selected Poems



Anna Akhmatova was born on June 11, 1889 in Bolshoi Fontan, near the Black Sea, to an upper-class family; she was the third of six children. Both of her parents came from wealthy land-owning families. Over the course of her life, Akhmatova struggled with government oppression. After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, she made the decision to remain in Russia, over the objections of many friends who fled to Europe or the U.S. Her first husband, Gumilev, was executed by Lenin; her second husband died in the Gulag, and her son Lev was frequently imprisoned. Akhmatova’s poems were generally, under Lenin, suppressed.

Anna Akhmatova is regarded as one of the greatest Russian poets. As a young poet, she helped form a group that would come to be called the “Acmeists,” which arose in Russia in opposition to the Symbolist movement. While symbolists relied on the extensive use of metaphor and mysticism, the Acmeists focused instead on the material world, portraying human emotions, and careful crafting of their poems.

Because Akhmatova remained in Russia during the regimes of Lenin and Stalin, she was very popular with the Russian people. Her poems Requiem (1935–1940) and Poem Without a Hero (1965) are reactions to the Stalinist repression. Akhmatova also translated the works of Victor Hugo, Rabindranath Tagore, Giacomo Leopardi, and various Armenian and Korean poets. Additionally, 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. Akhmatova died in Leningrad in 1966.

Requiem is generally considered to be Akhmatova’s masterpiece. She took it with her wherever she moved and worked on it for years. Requiem depicts the suffering of the Russian people under the oppressive Soviet regimes, examining a range of emotions depicted in a cycle of 10 short poems that together make up a singular long work.

Like “Requiem,” the poem “Lot’s Wife” (1922-1924) depicts suffering on the part of someone who is forced to leave her home but turns one last time to witness its destruction. It is based on the Biblical story in Genesis 19, which you may wish to review before reading the poem. “Why is this Age Worse?” (1919) suggests that Russia has a long and violent history; even so, the oppression that the people were experiencing at the time was still extraordinary.
Consider while reading:

  1. In “Lot’s Wife,” how does Akhmatova use Christian imagery to depict the suffering of the Russian people?
  2. What emotions does Akhmatova evoke in her poetic cycle Requiem?
  3. How would you characterize Akhmatova’s poetic style?

Written by Anita Turlington


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Modern World Literature: Compact Edition Copyright © 2020 by Amy Jo Swing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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