Reprise Society

Requiem by Anna Akhmatova

Bearing witness: Portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaya (1914)

Bearing witness: Portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaya (1914)

As glasnost swept across the then Soviet Union in 1988, many writers and thinkers were ‘un-banned’, making their books available again. Literature considered “anti-Soviet” was published, like Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem.

The story goes that from 1935 to 1940, the Russian poet Akhmatova composed the verse cycle, Requiem, in her mind. Bearing witness to the thousands of people rounded up and sent to the Gulag, it survived only in the memory of a few close friends she narrated it to. In the Stalin era, the words she had been thinking of were considered “too momentous and too truthful” to be written down. It was first published in 1963 by the Society of Russian Émigré Writers, perhaps from a samizdat (underground manuscript) copy, but never saw the light of day in the Soviet Union till its dissolution.

Suffering with them

Later, British novelist and poet D.M. Thomas and a host of other writers including Stephen Capus translated Requiem, Poem without a Hero, and Akhmatova’s other poems. In his introduction to her collected writings, You will Hear Thunder, Thomas contends that there were two ways of dealing with the horrors — one by piling on the details, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did in TheGulag Archipelago, about the Siberian labour camps, and the other was Akhmatova’s “intensity of understatement”, as exemplified in Requiem.

After the mass arrests of the 1930s, Akhmatova spent 17 months waiting in long queues outside a jail in Leningrad to find out what had happened to her son, picked up during a purge. With her stood many other women with food parcels, hoping to hear something about their loved ones. Akhmatova begins Requiem with these lines: “No, not under a foreign sky/ Nor in the shelter of a foreign wing,/ With my people, there stood I / With them, in their suffering.”

Killing memory

She goes on to describe the tragedy that befalls a family after a loved one’s arrest: “This woman is not well/ This woman is all alone./ Husband in the grave, son jailed./ Please offer a prayer for me”; or the helplessness that inmates must feel: “For someone, somewhere, a fresh wind blows,/ For someone, somewhere, wakes up a dawn — / We don’t know, we’re the same here always,/ We just hear the key’s squalls, morose,/ And the sentry’s heavy step alone.”

“Akhmatova spent 17 months waiting in long queues outside a jail in Leningrad to find out what had happened to her son”

In ‘The Sentence’, she narrates how human beings accept suffering: “So much to do today:/ kill memory, kill pain,/ turn heart into stone,/ and yet prepare to live again.” The ‘Epilogue’ is Akhmatova’s solemn prayer to memory, telling us why it is imperative not to forget: “I should like to call you all by name,/ But they have lost the lists…” She says she has woven a “great shroud” out of the “poor words” she heard being spoken of lost loved ones. “I remember them always and everywhere,/ And if they shut my tormented mouth,/ Through which a hundred million of my people cry,/ Let them remember me also…”

Born in Odessa, Anna Andreevna (Gorenko) (1889-1966) studied literature in St. Petersburg and published her first book of poetry, Evening, in 1912 using Akhmatova as her surname, taken from her Tatar great-grandmother. The Handbook of Russian Literature, edited by Victor Terras, points out that Akhmatova’s creative career falls into three periods: 1910-1922, 1922-1940 (the period of forced silence) and 1940-1966. Early on, she was associated with Nikolay Gumilev and the Acmeists, and their tenets of classical form and poetry.

She married Gumilev, and though they eventually separated, his execution in 1921 shocked her. Her friends, including the poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife Nadehzda, stood by her, till Osip too was arrested and finally died in the Gulag in 1938. Her son’s arrest may have led Akhmatova to write Requiem, but by doing so she was also giving voice to countless mothers whose irreparable losses must be remembered forever.

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Printable version | May 14, 2022 5:08:54 pm |