The tragic queen of Russian poetry, Anna Andreyevna Akhmatova, was born on June 23, 1889. She died on March 5, 1966, 11 years after Stalin. In 1946, Stalin’s ideological henchman, Andrey Zhdanov, carried out his master’s order and denounced her poetry as “decadent” and called her “half nun, halh harlot.” Her first husband, poet Nikolay Gumilyov, was executed as a “counter-revolutionary” under Lenin. Their son, Lev, spent years in the Gulag. In her celebrated poem “Lot’s Wife,” Akhmatova uses a biblical reference to the story of Lot’s wife (who goes unnamed in the Bible), a woman given the chance to escape her home as it is destroyed by God, but who makes a fatal sacrifice to look back at her city one, final time.
The just man followed then his angel guide
Where he strode on the black highway, hulking and bright;
But a wild grief in his wife’s bosom cried,
Look back, it is not too late for a last sight
Of the red towers of your native Sodom, the square
Where once you sang, the gardens you shall mourn,
And the tall house with empty windows where
You loved your husband and your babes were born.
She turned, and looking on the bitter view
Her eyes were welded shut by mortal pain;
Into transparent salt her body grew,
And her quick feet were rooted in the plain.
Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not
The least of our losses, this unhappy wife?
Yet in my heart she will not be forgot
Who, for a single glance, gave up her life.
—Translated from the Russian by Richard Wilbur