Nathan Altman (1889-1970), Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1914, oil on canvas, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.
Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) was one of Russia’s great poets of the twentieth-century. Descended from Russian nobility, her upbringing in St Petersburg was privileged and comfy. As Vladimir Nabokov described in his memoir Speak, Memory, it was a world of ‘All sorts of snug, mellow things [that] came in a steady procession from the English Shop on Nevski Avenue: fruitcakes, smelling salts, playing cards, picture puzzles, striped blazers, talcum-white tennis balls.’
Part of the Acmiest school of poetry, which was concurrent with the emerging influence of Imagism in the United States and Western Europe, Akhmatova’s second collection of poetry, The Rosary (or Beads – Chetki) appeared in March 1914 and firmly established her as one of the most popular and sought after poets of the day. However, in 1914, as Akhmatova would later put it in her poem Requiem (which was composed between 1935-1940) – ‘Frightening times are approaching / Soon fresh graves will cover the land.’
With the outbreak of war in 1914 and the revolution of 1917, Akhmatova’s early fame as a poet and legendary beauty of bohemian St. Petersburg gave way to decades of forced silence and official denunciations. Akhmatova’s poetry was deemed to represent an introspective and bourgeois aesthetic, reflecting trivial preoccupations not in keeping with the revolutionary politics of the time. She was an anachronism. Although what was about to happen could never be imagined, it is this moment of transition and fear for the future that seems to be etched over Akhmatova’s face in Nathan Altman’s cubist portrait.
Akhmatova’s life after the revolution was one of continual hardship and grief. In 1921 Akhmatatova’s former husband Nikolay Gumilev was prosecuted for his alleged role in a monarchist anti-Bolshevik conspiracy, and on 25th August was shot. Akhmatova’s son with Gumilev, Lev, was later arrested in the purges and terrors of the 1930s because of being his father’s son. He was not released until 1956.
During World War II, Akhmatova read her poetry to soldiers in military hospitals and on the front line. Her work, now more direct and psychological in comparison to her work pre-1914, possessed a voice that resonated with those struggling, and belonged to the thousands of contemporaries she had outlived. Dubbed ‘half harlot, half nun’ by Soviet politician Andrei Zhadanov, her work was banned for being, as he viewed it, ‘political indifference’.
When Akhmatova died in 1966, Isaiah Berlin said of her:
‘The widespread worship of her memory in Soviet Union today, both as an artist and as an unsurrendering human being, has, so far as I know, no parallel. The legend of her life and unyielding passive resistance to what she regarded as unworthy of her country and herself, transformed her into a figure […] not merely in Russian literature, but in Russian history in [the Twentieth] century.’ ■
For more on this subject, The Victims Return by Stephen F. Cohen – leading scholar of Soviet Russia – traces the lives and stories of the survivors of the gulag after Stalin. Published this month, you can read an extract from the book here.