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Poetry of resistance

Poetry of resistance

Tatiana Liaugminas December 01, 2022

As the world looked on in horror and disbelief while Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine raged on, leaving ruins and cadav-ers in its wake, the Kremlin’s justification for the war was that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was saving Russia by "denazifying" Ukraine. The absurdity of this contention is amplified by the facts that President Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish and his family suffered during the Holocaust.

Undoubtedly some believe that narrative; however there are Russians, thousands of them — academics, celebrities, sports figures and others — who stand up to Putin, who fearlessly proclaim their opposition to the war, some bow their heads in shame. They are the dissidents, the protesters, and they pay a price. Thousands have been arrested.

Putin has no qualms about dealing with those who publicly oppose or criticize him — Levin-Utkin, a reporter, was beaten to death in St. Petersburg; the politician Nemtsov was shot in plain view in Moscow; the defector Litvinenko was poisoned in London; Putin’s critic Navalny has been imprisoned since January 2021. And those are the famous ones.

This brutal repression of enemies, real or imagined, echoes the methods used by Stalin to silence or "liquidate" those who opposed him a century ago.

After the Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks attempted to destroy an entire civilization. During Stalin’s purges, a generation of writers and artists died in prisons or concentration camps or emigrated. Those who survived were silenced. But there was a small group of people who continued to write despite persecution and prohibitions. One of them was the poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). She was barely in her 20s when she became a cult figure, not only for her haunting beauty but for establishing herself as a great poet. Her verse, at once understated and passionate, speaks of the eternally human — love, grief, loneliness, despair.

Nathan Altman, Portrait of Poetess Anna Akhmatova, 1914, State Russian Museum
Nathan Altman, Portrait of Poetess Anna Akhmatova, 1914, State Russian Museum


The values expressed in her poetry — individuality, artistic freedom, emotional truth — were not considered important in the new Soviet regime. Propagandists who worked in the service of the state were rewarded, not poets who glorified human feelings.

Akhmatova’s poems were denounced as reactionary, the hangover from the era of tsarist elitism that 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 ar-rested or murdered, Stalin found the most effective way of punishing and attempting to silence her — repeated arrest and im-prisonment of her son and banishment of those close to her. Inspired by this tragedy, she composed "Requiem," a 14-poem elegy written in secret between 1935 and 1961 but published in Munich only in 1963, and not until 1987 in Russia.

"Requiem" is 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.

Akhmatova is considered the greatest Russian woman poet. She was rehabilitated in 1957 and received an honorary doctoral degree from Oxford in 1965.


Tatiana Liaugminas this term taught a course, Poetry of Resistance and Emerging Feminism Under Stalin, that examined Akhmatova’s poetry as well as the historical, political and cultural background. She is an instructor of global languages and cultures.

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