It's the birthday of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, (books by this
author) born in a suburb of Odessa in 1888. She was a beautiful,
fashionable, 22-year-old woman when she published her first collection of
poetry in 1912. The book was filled with love poems inspired by her affair
with the then-unknown Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, and no Russian
woman had ever written so frankly about love. Akhmatova became a celebrity
But within a few years, life in Russia became much more complicated, and
Akhmatova had a lot more to write about than love affairs. In her poem "In
Memoriam July 19, 1914" — about the start of World War I — she wrote, "We
grew a hundred years older in a single hour." After the Bolshevik
Revolution, most writers and intellectuals tried to flee the country, but
Akhmatova and her husband decided to stay. Her husband was shot in 1921
for allegedly participating in an anti-Bolshevik plot, and the following
year, the government informed Akhmatova that she would no longer be able
to publish her poetry. She began working on translations and more or less
stopped writing her own poems.
Then Akhmatova's son was arrested by the government. She was horrified.
For 17 months, she went to the prison in Leningrad every day to try to get
news about her son's well-being. There were crowds of other women there,
doing the same thing, and one day a woman recognized Akhmatova as the
formerly famous poet.
Akhmatova later described the incident, writing, "A woman with bluish lips
standing behind me ... woke up from the stupor to which everyone had
succumbed and whispered in my ear, 'Can you describe this?'"
That woman's question helped inspire Akhmatova to begin writing her
10-poem cycle "Requiem," which many Russians consider the greatest piece
of literature written about Stalinist Russia.
Even though she wasn't allowed to publish her poetry, the government
remained suspicious of her activities. To take precautions that her poetry
would be preserved, she developed a system. Whenever she wrote a new poem,
she would invite a friend over to read and memorize it. Then, she would
burn the only copy.
By the end of her life, she had gained more freedom, and she'd become one
of the most renowned poets in the world. She died on the 13th anniversary
of Stalin's death, on March 5, 1966. A complete collection of her poetry
didn't come out in Soviet Union until the late 1980s.