Of all the Russian poets of the twentieth century, none voiced the suffering of their people more directly than Anna Akhmatova. The drama of her life is an intimate reflection of her country’s tragic history, the passion of her poetry drawn from both. Born in 1889, Akhmatova was already at the height of her success just before the outbreak of World War I, an extraordinary poetic talent and celebrated beauty in the bohemian world of imperial St. Petersburg. But then her life was caught up in the storm of the Russian Revolution and the civil war, the mass terror of the 1930s, the siege of Leningrad from 1941–1944, and the repressions of the postwar years, when she was singled out for particular attack by Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s chief of ideology. All of this Akhmatova endured with the stoicism that is perhaps the main hallmark of the Russian people in the twentieth century. As Elaine Feinstein writes in the preface to her moving new biography, Akhmatova “needed exceptional courage in the quarter of a century when she was not allowed to publish, especially in the years when her son and her third husband were held in the Gulag.”
Through her fearless and fiery poetry Akhmatova merged her personal drama with the history of her people, who were suffering at the hands of the Stalinist regime. She became the “mouth through which a hundred million scream,” as she put it in her greatest poem, Requiem, in which she described, through her own experience of standing in the prison lines of Leningrad to hand in a parcel for her son, the anguish felt by every woman who had lost someone in the Yezhovshchina, the Great Terror of 1937–1938.
Like all of Russia’s greatest poets, Akhmatova felt a moral obligation to become the people’s conscience and its voice of memory. In the “Second Epilogue” of Requiem, written in 1940 and today known by heart by millions of Russians, Akhmatova linked herself to that long line of Russian poets, stretching back to Alexander Pushkin in the early nineteenth century, whose public statues and monuments became the symbols of an unofficial republic of sufferers:
I’d like to name them all by name,
But the list has been confiscated and is nowhere to be found.
I have woven a wide mantle for them
From their meager, overheard words.
I will remember them always and everywhere,
I will never forget them no matter what comes.
And if they gag my exhausted mouth
Through which a hundred million scream,
Then may the people remember me
On the eve of my remembrance day.
And if ever in this country
They decide to erect a monument to me,
I consent to that honor
Under these conditions—that it stand
Neither by the sea, where I was born:
My last tie with the sea is broken,
Nor in the tsar’s garden near the cherished pine stump,
Where an inconsolable shade looks for me,