From tragic love stories to open resistance against political tyranny, the soft, simple words of Anna Akhmatova’s poems reminded Russia of its humanity.
Saint Petersburg, 1924. Then it was called Leningrad. A woman runs out of the Marble Palace along the Neva embankment. It is a little after daybreak and the streets are empty and cold. No colder than the rooms inside the palace though, she reflects as she waits.
Finally, a passer by. She runs up and asks the comrade for a match. Anna Akhmatova, once a Russian aristocrat, now cannot light her cigarettes.
She was born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko in pre-revolutionary Odessa. Her world was a gilded one of nobility, beauty, travel, art, and romance. For the first part of her life, she wrote poems on love; simple, restrained images that somehow conveyed powerful emotion, “worlds of meaning through precise details.”
“On his hand you may see many glittering rings,
Those are tender girls’ hearts,”
Her verses were feminine and apolitical, her language simple, her themes so universal and intrinsically human that they spoke to all readers:
“He loved three things alone:
White peacocks, evensong,
Old maps of America.
He hated children crying,
And raspberry jam with his tea,
And womanish hysteria.
… And he married me.”
At a time when ideology was beginning to erect walls between nations, Anna’s poems were bringing them down between people, reminding them they were human. Liberal, communist, patriotic, or religious, the life they shared was the same.
“Chaos and poetry;
poetry and love and again, complete chaos.
Pain, disorder, occasional clarity;
and at the bottom of it all:
Anna’s world would disappear and her convictions be challenged when Joseph Stalin assumed the leadership of the Soviet Union. Under his reign, dissenting voices and opinions were stifled. Literature was censored. Much of it disappeared. People did too, into gulags, or onto trains crossing the border to the West. Not Anna. She kept on writing.
Her poems, still soft, romantic, and restrained, now took on a different mission: to bear witness to the oppression, speak on behalf of those who couldn’t:
“If a gag should blind my tortured mouth,
through which a hundred million people shout,
then let them pray for me, as I do pray
Among those detained was her son.
Every day for seventeen months, Anna stood outside the jail, waiting for news in the cold and in a crowd of people, just people, like her. In this crowd, ideology, religion, and social status did not matter. From this experience came her magnum opus: A poem entitled Requiem.
In it, she spoke out against censorship, silencing, grief, and political tyranny. She called for resistance to darkness with hope, compassion,
“Courage: Great Russian word,
fit for the songs of our children’s children,
pure on their tongues,
A message so powerful that not even the regime could silence it: that our shared humanity overrides any barriers we could erect. The poem was memorized in segments by Anna’s friends, passed on by mouth, and smuggled across the border and to the world. It has outlived Stalin.
“I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time, that place.”
I’d like to name them all by name,
But the list has been confiscated and is nowhere to be found.”
With her words, Anna Akhmatova restored identity to her people.