The question Akhmatova asks in her first line is one which many have asked.
Of course she, like many others, asked it in the 20th century, and she pursued the answer pretty determinedly in her own life.
When she was a youthful poet she was attracted to a movement called Acmeism. This was inspired by the poet Gumilev, her future husband, who was already out of favour with the Soviet regime and was later executed.
Out of step with the 'New Age' in Russia, her own later life was marked by poverty, difficulties with publication and, in due course, the deaths in the Gulag of her son Lev, her partner Punin, and her close friend Osip Mandelstam.
Her Poem Without A Hero is an extended analysis of those bleak times and her own role in them.
Akhmatova does not answer her own question in the poem, only saying that we know what is wrong, but not how to change it.
Is our time worse than all the times that went before it,
Except that in the frenzy of its anxious grief
It touched the blackest of our sores and wished to cure it
But had no strength to bring relief?
There, in the West, Earth's sun still shines serene and steady,
And in its setting glow the roofs are glittering;
But here Death marks the houses with a cross already,
And calls the ravens on. Ravens are on the wing.
Sunday Indo Living