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Anna Akhmatova

(1889—1966) Russian poet

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Soviet poet who was shunned by the Communist Party but whose work was acclaimed after her death. She is regarded as the greatest woman poet in Russian literature.

Born near Odessa, Akhmatova began writing verse at the age of eleven, adopting her pseudonym when she published her first verse in 1907. In 1910 she joined the Acmeist group of poets and married its leader, Nikolai Gumilev (the marriage ended in 1918). Akhmatova's own poetry epitomized the Acmeist principles of clarity, simplicity, and disciplined form. Fame came early, with the publication of collections entitled Evening (1912) and Rosary (1914). Their major theme, love and its sadness, was to remain a continuing preoccupation. After the Bolshevik revolution, Akhmatova was censured by Soviet critics for the inward focus of her genius. She was also tarnished by the execution of her ex-husband in 1921 on charges of anti-state conspiracy. Ostracized and unpublished from 1923 to 1940, Akhmatova had to endure intellectual exile and was further embittered by the arrest of her son, Lev, in 1937. Between 1935 and 1940 Akhmatova composed Requiem, a lyrical cycle lamenting the sufferings of the common people under Soviet terror.

Akhmatova's exclusion from public notice ended during World War II, when she was permitted to make an inspiring radio broadcast to the women of Leningrad in 1941. Subsequently evacuated to Tashkent, Akhmatova gave readings to hospitalized soldiers and published a slim collection of lyrics inspired by the patriotic struggle. Signs of rehabilitation after the war were curtailed in 1946 by a stinging denunciation by the Central Committee of the Communist Party for her ‘eroticism, mysticism, and political indifference’ – uncertain whether Akhmatova's motivations were those of a whore or a nun, her critics accused her of being both. She was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers in the same year and published nothing for the next three years. In 1949 the poet's son, Lev, was again arrested and exiled to Siberia. To secure his release Akhmatova composed poems eulogizing Soviet communism and more especially Stalin himself.

The poems glorifying Stalin were omitted from official Soviet editions of Akhmatova's work after the dictator's death. Requiem also remained unpublished in the Soviet Union. Akhmatova's work was gradually but only partially rehabilitated in the years before her death; her essays on Pushkin and her longest work, Poem Without a Hero, appeared posthumously. Many regard the latter as not only her greatest achievement but also one of the finest poems of the twentieth century. Akhmatova's extraordinary range is illustrated by her translations of the works of poets writing in French, English, Italian, Armenian, and Korean. In 1964 Akhmatova was the first recipient of Italy's Etna-Taormina prize and in 1965 she received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University.

Subjects: Literature

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