Weave Me a Wreath of White Roses: 30 Years of Publishing Anna Akhmatova in English

Today’s blog post was contributed by Leora Zeitlin, co-director of Zephyr Press.


Towards the end of her life, Anna Akhmatova wrote:

What is lurking in the mirror? Grief.

What is stirring beyond the wall? Calamity.

Having lived through the violent upheavals of the Russian Revolution, two world wars, and the Stalinist terror, she had chronicled both her personal grief and calamities, and those of Russia, in more than eight hundred poems. Her early poems, often expressing anguished love, inspired a generation of Russians in the years before World War I. Later, refusing to leave the Soviet Union, she gave voice to the suffering of all of Russia.

Seventeen years after her death in 1966, a proposal to publish her complete poems arrived at the fledgling Zephyr Press in Somerville, Massachusetts. Poet Judith Hemschemeyer had already spent a decade translating Akhmatova’s poems before her friend and colleague Susan Gubernat—one of five editors then at Zephyr—presented them to us. We were young and audacious enough to think we could undertake this massive task: publish what would become a 1,600-page, two-volume, bilingual edition that would be the first of its kind in either Russian or English.

No one imagined that preparing the first edition would take seven years. Zephyr editor Ed Hogan spearheaded the project, coordinating myriad details to create, finance, and design the encyclopedic edition. We enlisted Dr. Roberta Reeder, a scholar at Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Center, who became the book’s overall editor, wrote a 160-page introduction, and compiled notes to the poems. British philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin gave us permission to reprint his famous essay about his few but fateful conversations with Akhmatova between 1945 and 1965. Two of Akhmatova’s protégés, Dmitry Bobyshev and Anatoly Naiman, provided invaluable feedback on the manuscript and information about the poet. Numerous others were involved. In March 1990, The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova was published to immediate acclaim. Two years later, we published an English-only, single-volume edition.

Several tragedies befell the project, most notably the death of Ed Hogan in 1997. Diverse factors sustained it. Thirty years later, the book remains in print and Akhmatova’s fame as one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets continues to grow. To honor our book’s 30th anniversary, Zephyr Press has planned two events in one weekend:

  • Saturday, October 17, 1:30 EDT: As part of the Boston Book Festival, Zephyr co-editors Jim Kates and Leora Zeitlin, and former editor Susan Gubernat, will present a reading of Akhmatova’s poems—chosen by translator Judith Hemschemeyer —and a discussion about The Complete Poems
  • Sunday, October 18 (time TBA): Zephyr will present a dramatic reading online of The Akhmatova Journals, a play by Ginger Lazarus based on the journals kept by Akhmatova’s associate, Lydia Chukovskaya. Through conversations between the two women and poems—notably from Akhmatova’s monumental “Requiem”—the play dramatizes the terror, anguish, poverty, and losses they experienced under Stalin. Actresses Lisa Bostnar and Gillian Mackay-Smith will perform. Full details will be posted at zephyrpress.org.
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