When the 1917 revolution struck Russia, Anna Akhmatova was 28. Her family members and close friends began to disappear, some were killed by radical Marxists, others were exiled to Siberia or forced to flee abroad. Akhmatova, however, stayed in her beloved St. Petersburg – to become the tsarina of Russian poetry.
The noble palace by the Fontanka River was soon taken over by the Bolsheviks, its endless enfilades split into communal flats. It was here, in one of the poky rooms that Akhmatova spent the following quarter century. She had literally one room to herself, the flat itself being assigned to Akhmatova's ex-husband and the man's new family. In that one room – where the only window gave onto the internal palace courtyard – Akhmatova wrote some of the most poignant poetry ever produced in Europe. Today the entire flat is dedicated to her art and times. It's open to the public as a remarkable museum.
Fontanka River & the Summer Garden
The poet refused to leave her palace even when, much later, she was offered a modest but more comfortable flat in one of the newly built Stalinist blocks outside the city. She preferred to remain near her beloved Fontanka River that you can walk by today, enjoying its quiet beauty. The river will take you eventually to the Summer Garden, where Peter the Great – the tsar who built this great city in just 10 years – once lived by himself in a humble cottage (also open for visits). Anna Akhmatova loved taking long walks in this park. In winter she used to take her neighbor's children here to practice skiing.
Cafe Brodiachaia Sobaka
After you return to Nevsky Prospekt, the main artery of the city, either along Fontanka River or Sadovaya Street, turn right and keep on walking until Hotel Europa, then turn right again. Here Alexander Pushkin, the XIX century poet whom Akhmatova worshipped, will greet you. Or rather his statue will. And to Pushkin's right, on the corner of the Mikhailovsky Theatre, you will see the cafe "Stray Dog", where Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Kuzmin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and many other poets and writers used to spend many a cheery night reciting poetry, performing music, and simply enjoying themselves.
If by then you feel tired (or cold), return to Nevsky and continue right – soon you will notice the impressive modernist building with a quirky cupola. This is the famous St. Petersburg book shop Dom Knigi, The House of Books, which even today boasts dozens of volumes on, or by, Akhmatova. Why don't you pick one and go upstairs to the cafe with the most exciting views? Order a pot of black tea and syrniki (Russian little cheesecakes) – I promise, you won't regret it.
After you've rested, I suggest you take a cab to the Voskresenskaya embankment... "And if my country ever should assent to casting in my name a monument," Akhmatova wrote prophetically, "I should be proud to have my memory graced, but only if the monument be placed... here, where I endured three hundred hours in line before the implacable iron bars." In 1938 her son Lev Gumilyov was arrested and sent to Siberia. Akhmatova, together with thousands of other women, spent many nights outside the old Kresty prison, sometimes in the freezing cold, waiting for a chance to pass a package to the innocent convicts or to get some news. Once an exhausted old woman in the line outside Kresty recognized Akhmatova and asked her, ironically: "And this, can you describe this in one of your poems?" "I can," Akhmatova answered, and did just that in her Requiem.
Today, if you stand on the embankment, Kresty will be right in front of you across the river. And if you turn around, you will see the monument to Akhmatova, facing courageously the water and the prison.
The following day, why don't you take a short trip out of town? Less than an hour away, the old imperial summer residence – Tsarskoye Selo – is still standing in all its turquoise glory. This is the town where Akhmatova grew up and went to high school. This is where she met her first husband, the poet Nikolay Gumilyov (executed in 1921). This is also where Alexander Pushkin spent his formative years. Whilst here you may want to visit the splendid royal residences but, personally, I prefer taking a stroll in one of the parks of Tsarskoye Selo. They are deep, peaceful, and with an old forest-like spirit where the air itself is filled with poetry.