A Great Russian Prophet

Anna Akhmatova
Anna Akhmatova; drawing by David Levine


No poet has been more photographed or painted than Anna Akhmatova: the unique profile with its imperious nose is instantly recognizable. Since her debut as a poet in the 1910s her contemporaries were fascinated with her image: tall, slender, very pale with deep-set eyes and a melancholy, pensive expression; she was often likened to a nun. All who met her were struck by her regal bearing, the more impressive in her later years in its contrast with the shabbiness of her clothes and the poverty of her surroundings as a pariah under Stalin’s regime. Of all the great Russian poets whom he persecuted, she, more than Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, or Marina Tsvetaeva, is renowned as a resister and martyr.

She grew into that image after the Revolution, when the theme of renunciation (blending with eroticism in her early lyrics on the topic of hopeless love) took on a heroic dimension in her poetry and her life. Refusing to leave her country, but labeled an internal émigré by the new order, she came under attack for her “aristocratic” poetry and was soon prohibited from publishing it. There followed decades of extreme privation and official hounding, culminating in the Central Committee’s public attack on her work in 1946. Her son was arrested and incarcerated three times in the Stalin era. Many of her friends perished in camps or were shot; undeterred, she pursued a campaign of passive resistance, commemorating the sufferings of her people in poems. The best known of them, “Requiem,” has been seen as the most powerful evocation of the horror of Stalinism by a Russian writer.

The symbolic significance Akhmatova began to acquire at this time is expressed in a comment by her Boswell, the writer Lidiya Chukovskaya, whose diary records of their meetings continued until just before the poet’s death: “Before my very eyes, Akhmatova’s fate—something greater even than her own person—was chiselling out of this famous and neglected, strong and helpless woman, a statue of grief, loneliness, pride, courage.”

Amanda Haight’s biography (the first to be published in the West) presents the same picture of the poet as chosen by fate to test the inherited values of her contemporaries against the Revolution’s dream of an earthly paradise and its hideous embodiment in the Stalinist state. However, both Haight and Roberta Reeder (author of the most comprehensive biography of Akhmatova to date) neglect one aspect of her image: her own active part in its creation.1 Contemporaries and close friends, such as the poet Anatoly Nayman and the critic Emma Gerstein, have commented on the strong element of self-dramatization that she brought to her poetry readings and personal encounters, and they have noted her businesslike concern with controlling what would be written about her after her death, choosing and closely monitoring her biographers (including Haight, then a young British graduate student), and correcting their accounts.

The appearance in recent…

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