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Echoes from the Past: Poetry of Resistance and Emerging Feminism

By Tatiana Liaugminas

With Russia's invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin continues to escalate the conflict through outrageous statements including promising the cleansing of Russia. Over the years, his heinous actions reflect a pattern of repression—silencing his opposition in various ways, including ordering authorities to meet protests with violence, eliminating opposition politicians, imprisoning dissidents and exploiting the justice system, as well as undermining the power of speech and journalism. 

Déjà vu, echoes from the past—a century ago Russia was also subjected to a cleansing. Stalin’s terror and purges exterminated millions and haunted the survivors long afterwards.

During the purges of the 1920’s and 30’s, a generation of writers and artists died in prisons and concentration camps, or emigrated. Those who survived were otherwise silenced through threats and intimidation, but there was a small group of Russian poets who wrote despite persecution and prohibitions. One of them was Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966).

Akhmatova was barely in her twenties when she became a cult figure, not only for her haunting beauty, but for establishing herself as a great poet. Her verse, at once passionate and restrained, speaks of the eternally human condition—love, grief, loneliness, despair.

No, not under alien skies,
Nor under the shield o alien wings,--
At that time I was with my people,
Where to their misfortune, my people were.
(Akhmatova 384)

The values expressed in her poetry—individuality, artistic freedom, emotional truth—were not considered important after the Revolution of 1917; the Soviet regime wanted its artists to be conformists, working in the service of the state.  Propagandists were rewarded, not poets who glorified human feelings.

Akhmatova’s poems were denounced as reactionary, the hangover from the era of tsarist elitism which had nothing in common with the concerns of the emerging Soviet society.  The official pronouncement was that she failed to address the proletariat, concerning herself only with religion and erotic love.

This assessment of Akhmatova’s poetry is simplistic and unfair. Thematically, her poetic range is immensely varied; her verse reflects not only her own experiences, but the tumult and tragedy that transformed Russia.

After 1925, accused of poisoning the minds of Soviet youth, she was not permitted to publish, and although never arrested, she was under constant surveillance—a microphone was installed in her ceiling.  Yet she continued to write, sharing her work with trusted friends who memorized the poems, then burned the manuscripts.

Akhmatova lived through two world wars, a revolution, a civil war, and the horror of Stalin’s purges, which affected her more than any other cataclysm—her only son, Lev Gumilev, spent 13 years in the Gulag. Afraid of a potential backlash if she was arrested or murdered, Stalin found the most effective way of punishing and attempting to silence her—repeated arrest and imprisonment of her son and banishment of those close to her. Inspired by this tragedy, she composed Requiem, a fourteen-poem elegy written in secret between 1935 and 1961 but published in Munich only in 1963, and not until 1987 in Russia. 

Requiem is a masterpiece of restraint, contrasted with the intensity of the subject, and one of the most powerful evocations of the horror of Stalinism. In this extraordinary work Akhmatova transcends her own grief and becomes the voice of a nation: “The mouth through which a hundred million people shout.”  She always considered that she “had been appointed by God to sing of this suffering.”

Her poetry is a testimony not only of her commitment to her art, but of the human spirit in the face of injustice.

The GLC 311 course, Poetry of Resistance and Emerging Feminism under Stalin, addresses the ensemble of Akhmatova’s oeuvre from two perspectives—examining her universally acclaimed poetry, and studying the historical, political, and cultural canvass which was the background or her poetic expression, and which she chronicled, particularly during her mature years.

Unapologetically rebellious and willful from adolescence, along with an unwavering strong female voice, Akhmatova revealed a developing feminist worldview, not as a strident voice, but as a continuous struggle against male dominance, while moving as an equal among male intellectuals.

This course introduces students to a world-renowned poet who belonged to the legendary Silver Age of Russian literature.  It brings into focus the history and culture of pre- and post-revolutionary Russian society and political upheavals, and the devastation of Stalin’s regime. Through the exploration of Akhmatova’s life and work, students confront key issues of social justice and injustice, artistic censorship, and life within a surveillance state. 

Anna Akhmatova, with her symbolic struggle against the Bolshevik regime, survived and continued to write—a testament to her strength as a woman, and her dedication to her art as she denounced Stalinism.

Shortly before her death, Akhmatova wrote:

“The reader will see that I never stopped writing poems.  In them I have my link with time, with the new life of my people.  As I was writing them, I lived through the rhythms ringing in the heroic history of my country.  I am happy that I lived in those years, and I saw events to which there is no equal.”

As a CAP Diversity and Social Justice course, GLC 311 would not only be of interest to students of history, literature, international studies, political science and women and gender studies, but to all those who are eager to enhance their intercultural competence and are passionate about some of the world’s cataclysmic events, resistance, and influential literary figures. 


Tatiana Liaugminas, Adjunct Instructor, Department of Global Languages and Cultures.

Photo Credit: Natan Altman, Portrait of Poetess Anna Akhmatova, 1914, State Russian Museum.

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