Anna Akhmatova – a joint piece from Lucy London and Michael Bully

From Michael Bully  

Realise that this website has not been updated for nearly a year. I am currently working on two blogs ( on 17th century war related poetry and literature)


On the latter blog I had written a shorter post about  Anna Akhmatova, but focusing on her life and work from the 1930’s onward. Lucy had written about Anna’s early life in her book ‘Female Poets of the First World War.’ So thought that it would be great to combine our research, it is also worth bearing in mind that biographers do not always agree on some details. 

Lucy also runs the excellent blog

Modigliani sketch of Anna Akhmatova 1911, in public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia Netherlands

Anna Akhmatova ( Lucy- extract from ‘Female Poets of the First World War, Volume Two’).

Born 23rd June 1889, Odessa, Ukraine

Died 5th May 1966, Leningrad, Soviet Union.

Anna Akhmatova was the pen name of Anreyevna Gorenko. She was a prolific, internationally acclaimed poet but her work was condemned during Stalin’s rule. However, she chose to remain in Russia in order to take note of what was happening.

Anna was born in Bolshoy Fontan near Odessa on the Black Sea. Her father was a naval engineer and her mother, Inna Stagnova – they were descended from Russian nobility and Anna’s grandfather Erasm Ivanovich was related to the poet Anna Banina. The family moved to Trasrkoye Selo near St. Petersburg before Anna was a year old.

She began writing poetry when she was eleven. Anna studied law at Kiev University, then went to study literature in St. Petersburg. She met Nokolay Gumilev also a poet in 1903 and he encouraged her writing, publishing some of her in poems in his publication ‘Sirius’. The couple married in Kiev in 1910 and honeymooned in Paris, where Anna met Modigliani, who painted her several times.

Anna soon became a very popular and acclaimed poet. The First World War and the 1917 Revolution in Russia had a profound effect on Anna’s style. In 1918, she divorced Gumilev and married Assyrian specialist Vladimir Shilejko (1891- 1930). In 1921 Gumilev was arrested and shot. Anna’s work was banned in 1925.

One of the poems that Lucy selected for her book was ‘Petrograd 1919’:

Petrograd, 1919

Caged in this savage capital,

We have forgotten forever

The townships, the lakes, the steppes,

The dawns, of our great motherland.

In the circuit of blood-stained days and nights,

A bitter languor overcomes us….

No one wishes to come to our aid,

Because we choose to remain here,

Because, in love with our city,

More than the wings of liberty,

We preserved to ourselves,

Its palaces, flames, and waters.

Now another time draws near,

The window of death chills the the heart,

And Peter’s sacred city,”



Comment from Bully

From what I can work out  collections of  Anna’s first poetry collection ‘Evening’ appeared in 1912. Two more in 1914 and 1917. Its worth noting that she was part of a movement known as the Acemists, opposed to symbolism and futurism,  and initially her career survived the revolution. Her fourth poetry collection appeared in 1921, but closeness to  Gumilyov made Anna suspect with the authorities. ‘Petrograd 1919’  was from ‘Anno Domini MCMXXI’ , actually published in 1922.  Anna was a poet associated with the pre-revolutionary era, and from a wealthy background ; religious, romantic and individualistic themes of her poetry were increasingly out of favour.  ‘Petrograd 1919’ is so intriguing because it hints at the calamities to come as the century wore on.

After Anna  Akhmatova’s work was banned in 1925, she was not published again until 1940.  Anna survived as a translator and literary critic ,becoming a specialist on the work of Pushkin

Would also  add that Anna had a son from her first marriage, Lev Gumilyov , born 1st October  1912 which was a major theme of ‘Requiem’ as discussed below.

Anna Akhmatova was present when the Secret Police came for her close friend, the fellow poet Osip Mandelshtam on 30th April 1938. An all night search of Mandelshtam’s flat took place, as the police tried to seek out incriminating poetry. At 7 AM Mandelshtam was taken away. He was later exiled, had  a breakdown, released and re-arrested soon after, then died in a transit camp on 27th December 1938. Her third husband, the art critic Nikolai Punin, died in the camps in 1953.

1940 and World War 2 

When World War 2 began, Russia had already  signed the Nazi-Soviet pact with Germany. Anna Akhmatov’s poetry was allowed to be published again in 1940, One of her 1940 poems – ‘ To The Londoners,’ was a written dedication to those who were facing the London Blitz. 

Following the launching of Operation Barbarossa ,Stalin permitted Anna Akhmatov to broadcast live to the women of Leningrad as the blockade of the city began in September 1941, but she departed the city in the October 1941 for Tashkent, Uzbekistan. One account has Anna flying out of the city , clutching the manuscript  for   Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony – The Leningrad Symphony’, but this sounds unlikely as this work was not completed until December 1941.

Whilst absent from Leningrad, Anna Akhmatov read poetry to the wounded troops. In June 1944 Anna Akhmatov returned to the city. During this time her poetry began to be published again, and in 1945 she performed her work to an audience of some 3,000 people at an event in Moscow, and received a standing ovation.  Other recitals took place. 

However in 1946, the Soviet authorities clamped down on her work. An extensive collection of Anna Akhmatov’s poems being prepared for publication was banned. A high standing member of the Politburo, Anrei Zhadanov, notoriously denounced her work for being “utterly individualistic” and referred to Anna Akhmatov as ” a nun and a whore, who combines harlotry with prayer.” Significantly, Oxford Professor and philosopher Isiah Berlin was attached to the British Embassy in the USSR and tried to trace Anna.   Meetings at Anna’s flat took place in the Autumn of 1945, another in January 1946. At the time of the latter, Randolph Churchill , son of Sir Winston ,was also in Leningrad, and decided to go looking for Isiah Berlin, only to find him with Anna Akhmatova.Such contact with Westerners triggered the interest and suspicion of the Secret Police and led to retribution. (SOURCE ‘The Word That Causes Death’s Defeat- Poems of Memory’ by Nancy K Anderson ) 

However, following ‘The Thaw’ after Stalin’s death, Anna Akhmatov was allowed to have her work published again with 22 of her poems appearing in an official anthology of Soviet poems in 1958 and a censored volume of her own poetry appear. In  1955 the government awarded  Anna a home in a village just outside Leningrad.  In 1959 her membership to the Soviet Union of Writers was restored.


During the final years of her life, Anna lived with the Punin Family in Leningrad….Robert Frost visited her in 1962 and in 1965 she was permitted to travel to Italy and England in order to receive the Taormina Prize and an honorary degree from Oxford University.



Indeed, Anna Akhmatova received her honorary degree from Oxford University in 1965, and Siegfried Sassoon received his degree at the same ceremony. 


The Winds of War 

A cycle of 16 short poems ‘The Winds of War  appeared in ‘Second World War Poems-chosen by Hugh Haughton ‘ ( Faber & Faber, 2004). Here is number three in the series.


And people’s colourful daily round

Suddenly changed drastically

But this was not a city sound,

Not one heard in the villages.

It resembled a distant peal of thunder

As closely as one brother resembles another,

But in thunder there’s the moisture,

Of cool cloud towers

And the yearning of the meadows-

For the news of joyous showers,

But this was like scorching heat, dry,

And we didn’t want to believe

The rumour we heard-because of

How it grew and multiplied,

Because of how indifferently

It brought death to my child

September 1941

Yet there were notes of victory within the poetry cycle. 

 15 JANUARY  27, 1944

And on starless January night,

Amazed at its fantastic fate,

Returned from the bottomless depths of death,

Leningrad salutes itself


A clean wind rocks the firs’

Clean snow covers the ground.

No longer hearing the tread of the enemy,

It rests, my land 

February 1945 



Anna Akhmatova believed that poetry needed to be a witness to the turbulence of the time.

Her opus  ‘Requiem’, devised  between 1935- 1945 is one of the most harrowing and beautiful poems from the 20th century.  And first published in Munich in 1963. Copies were typed out and smuggled into the Soviet Union. A convincing case has been presented in 2004 via Melvyn Bragg’s ‘Within Our Time’ programme  so state that ‘Requiem’ was not written as a text as such. Anna established a group of ten friends, and lines from ‘Requiem’ were written on individual scraps of paper at different time periods, memorised, then destroyed.

And first published in Munich in 1963. Copies were typed out and smuggled into the Soviet Union

Extract from the forward .

” During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’.
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe
this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.
[The 1st of April in the year 1957. Leningrad] ”

( The ‘Yezhov Terror’ was the great purge of 1937-1938 )

Some ten poems follow about life in Stalin’s era not all of them biographical.: However, Anna’s son Lev Gumilyov  would go on to serve three prison sentences in the Gulag; the longest was from 1949- 1956.  So Anna could testify to the   experiences of having a close family in the camps. Of the endless queues with other helpless relatives to see if parcels could be sent on to Lev. If the parcels were accepted, this would indicate that Lev was still alive and that Anna had traced him to the correct prison. The huge number of people incarcerated by the Soviets, particularly during Stalin’s era, would mean statistically most people would have a relative or a friends in one of the labour camps.

  Drawing on Nancy K Anderson’s biography, seems that her son Lev felt bitter towards her after the initial joy of being released in 1956, maintaining  that Anna  did not try hard enough to use her ‘fame’  to get him released from the camps. Lev Gumilyov went on to become a professor at Leningrad University.

Anna Akhmatova seemed to have lost so many people close to her during the Revolution, the Purges, World War 2 that she reached a state evoked in her poem ‘The Return’ from 1944  

“The souls of my dears have all flown to the stars
Thank God there’s no one left for me to lose”

As Lucy mentioned, Anna  Akhmatova did not flee from Russia . Anna also showed immense courage in  supporting Osip Mandelshtam and his family when they were facing the full wrath of the Soviet State.  As a writer she rarely compromised……apart from just after Lev’s third arrest in 1949, when she destroyed some of her work including the manuscript of a play written during World War 2. In 1950, in a bid to assist Lev, she wrote a series  of poems titled  ‘In Praise of Peace’ , which were considered to be loyal to the regime.  After the fall of Stalin, Anna requested that these poems should be omitted from future work.

Lines from Anna Akhmatova poem ‘Anna’ at a wall in Leiden, /’use courtesy of Vysotsky, via Wikipedia Netherlands

Recommended Books

‘Anna Akhmatova Poems’ Selected and Translated by Lyn Coffin -Introduction by Joseph Brodsky’  published by ‘Norton & Company’ London/New York 1983

‘Anna Akhmatova Selected Poems-Selected, Translated and Introduced by Stanley Kuntiz with Max Hayward’  published by Collins Harvill, London 1989

‘Anna Akhmatova-The Word That Causes Death’s Defeat- Poems of Memory’ by Nancy K Anderson, Yale University Press. 

‘The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova ‘ translated by Judith Hemschemteye , edited by Robert Reeder, Zephyr Press 1990, Somerville, Massachusetts


Contemporary websites from St Petersburg, with English language pages.

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