Anna Andreyevna Gorenko was born on 11 June 1889 near Odessa, her father Andrei Gorenko was a maritime engineer. Her aristocratic mother Inna Stogova was a former member of the radical political group Narodnaya Volya (People's Will). The young Akhmatova knew French poets by heart as well as the Russians. She grew up in Tsarskoe Selo where she attended school, completing her final year at Fundukleyevskaya gymnasia in Kiev (1907). The same year she enrolled at the Faculty of Law at the Kiev College for Women, later withdrawing to study literature in St. Petersburg. In 1903 Akhmatova met the poet Nikolai Gumilyov whose persistent wooing led to their marriage in 1910. They travelled abroad in 1910 and 1911. In Paris Akhmatova became friendly with the yet unknown artist Modigliani who drew her as Egyptian queens and dancers. Together they visited the Louvre and recited French poetry.
Akhmatova's first poem appeared in 1907 in Gumilyov's journal Sinus. She participated in the Guild of Poets organized by Gumilyov and Gorodetsky. Soon it disassociated itself from the symbolists, giving birth to Acmeism, whose avowed principles were an emphasis on clarity, freshness, a return to earth and close ties with the literature and culture of Europe and of all ages. The symbolist Annensky was their acknowledged teacher. The popular Gumilyovs frequented the fashionable artistic cafe The Stray Dog.
The first collection of Akhmatova's verse, Evening (Vecher, 1912), appeared under the pseudonym Anna Akhmatova, taken from her Tatar great-grandmother. Hailed for its Acmeist clarity, conciseness, compressed style and precise details, the collection concurrently espoused the romantic concept of evening as a time of awakening for the sensitive young adult to life, love, and grief. Its miniature love lyrics manifested subtlety of style and message. The collection Rosary (Chetki, 1914) showed marked changes in the poet's voice, from wary expectation of betrayal to disillusionment with love coupled with the worldliness of a femme fatale. The lyrics generated numerous female epigones whom the poet deplored in her "Epigram":
I taught women to speak ...
But, Lord. how to force them to be still!
After 1922 no new works of Akhmatova were published because her apolitical work was considered incompatible with the new order. Labeled an "internal emigre," she was given a meagre pension. Critics believed that her time had passed. Yet her verse continued to be cited by scholars of the Formalist school and admired by poetry lovers.
During her forced silence Akhmatova applied herself to the investigation of the life and works of Pushkin, producing some seminal articles published posthumously under the title On Pushkin (O Pushkine). She worked on The Reed (Trostnik, 1926-40) which contains poems on creation and features dedications to the poets Mandelshtam, Pasternak and Dante. From 1926 to 1940 Akhmatova lived with the art critic, Nikolai Punin. The mass arrests of the 1930s which included her son and Punin generated a dirge to human suffering, Requiem (1935-40), never published in the Soviet Union.
The wartime relaxation of controls on her publications ended with the decision of the Central Committee concerning the journals Zvezda and Leningrad which unleashed attacks on Akhmatova and Zoshchenko, resulting in their expulsion from the Union of Soviet Writers without the right to publish. As a means of support and appearing in print Akhmatova began to translate from numerous languages. Six volumes have appeared as separate imprints. Despite her success, Akhmatova complained that for a poet translating was comparable to devouring one's own brains.
Akhmatova's religious motifs are often laced with superstition and vestiges of paganism such as the willow, tree of water nymphs. Akhmatova's love lyrics, then, earned acclaim through their accessible beauty of content and form as well as for the novelty of a feminine voice expressing women's emotions. Scholars found subtle devices and honed imagery in these simple poems. The later poetry adds themes of poetic creation, readership, war, and death, along with longer lyric forms, sometimes achieved through cyclization, all contributing to a wider thematic scope and deepened content. Akhmatova's late hermetic works led some to insinuate a decline in talent, as others had done for Pushkin. Long unnoticed was the device of extending the limits of her concise verse by incorporating literary allusions, correspondences, and subtexts.
Akhmatova has bequeathed two masterpieces in verse. Requiem, immortalizing a mother's anguish over her son's imprisonment, reaches all peoples and times. The ten core poems are preceded by an epigraph and three introductory pieces, as if a work on imprisonment were difficult to commence. Once begun, the surge subsides but slowly, as evidenced by the ponderous bipartite Epilog. Lacking sequential narration, these poems of diverse rhythm shift their focus on the leitmotif of prison and suffering. Each poem has a different approach, as if grief had sent the mother's head reeling with her mind fixated to her loss. Religious overtones intensify with the mother's suffering. Trees that once murmured to her maintain silence in pain. With the son's sentencing, insanity hovers to obliterate memory, but, like death, it evades her. A picture of the Mother of Christ at the Crucifixion broadens the inexpressible sorrow: "And there, where the Mother silently stood,/No one even dared to glance." Even if things change, the persona vows to accept no monument to herself except beside the prison lest in blissful death she forget the suffering of millions. The poema's impactful content is offset by a melodious, folkish, subdued form.
Poem without a Hero. A Triptych is a complex, ciphered, densely structured narrative in verse whose many layers and possible interpretations contribute to its magnificent mystique. It is permeated with literary and biographical allusions. Like Pushkin in Eugene Onegin, Akhmatova invented her own strophe. Part 1, "1913. A Petersburg Tale," termed "a polemics with Blok" by Akhmatova herself, confines numerous authors within itself. It is based on a stylized recollection of the tragic suicide in 1913 of the young comet and poet Vsevolod Knyazev, out of love for Akhmatova's friend Olga Sudeikina, an actress who preferred the poet Blok. On New Year's Eve 1940 costumed shades from 1913, including the ones in the romantic triangle, visit the persona at her home. They are described enigmatically. Nothing is related; a re-creation is achieved through the Hoffmannesque visit of shades, masks, and a portrait stepping out of its frame which conjures up the final year before the cataclysm of 1914 as well as that before World War II. The second part, "Tails" (Reshka, as in "heads and tails"), claiming to illuminate the preceding, returns to the present to treat the fate of a writer's artistic freedom in the face of editorial philistinism; it parallels Pushkin's "Conversation of a Bookseller with a Poet." Akhmatova provides a coded explanation for the obtuse editor unable to distinguish between the three persons in the triangle. Part 3, "Epilog," returns to postwar Leningrad with the poet's departure from Asia. A vessel for memory and culture, the poem memorializes a bygone era. Form, as important in the poem as content, is more accessible since the former is easily appreciated while the latter must be mined for comprehension. Through this work the poet conquers time and space.