Anna Akhmatova's most revered poem, "Requiem," found in The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, 1992, gives voice to the suffering and punishment of Russian citizens during the years of the Stalin regime. Joseph Stalin, who was the dictator of Communist Russia in all but name, ordered the imprisonment or execution of over one million Russians who were perceived as enemies of the state. The worst of the persecutions took place throughout the 1930s. Indeed, "Requiem" was written over a wide period of time, likely from the 1930s through the 1940s. Little is known about the details of the poem's initial release, but it was first published abroad in Munich, Germany, in 1963. Because the poem portrays the pain that thousands of Russians experienced, the government banned the poem's publication in Russia until 1989.
The poem is told from the perspective of a mother whose son is imprisoned for political resistance against the new Communist regime. The narrator, without resorting to overt sentimentality, shares the emotional trauma of having to wait for extended periods of time to learn of what has happened to her son. In the process of expressing her sorrow and torment, the narrator gives a voice to every Russian who was in a similar situation.
In the beginning of this poem, a stranger asks the narrator if she is able to describe the atrocities that they are experiencing. The narrator answers: "Yes, I can." This poem is Akhmatova's proof of that statement. Of all the poems that Akhmatova wrote, "Requiem" is the one that is most often quoted from and used to demonstrate the poet's skill. The writing evokes emotion through the simplest of phrases. Lines such as "Husband in the grave, son in prison" demonstrate Akhmatova's minimal use of words to express the greatest of personal tragedies. At the end of the poem, the narrator speaks of creating monuments in order to remember the dead. This poem is itself a monument for Akhmatova and for all who have lost loved ones to political persecution. That is why "Requiem" is not only read as one of Akhmatova's greatest poems, but as one of the greatest poems by any Russian poet, and even as one of the outstanding literary achievements to encompass the tragedies of Communism.
Akhmatova, whose birth name is Anna Gorenko, was born on June 23, 1889, in Bol'shoi Aontain, the third of six children. She grew up in Tsarskoe Selo, outside of St. Petersburg in northern Russia. Akhmatova is a penname that the poet adopted because her father was afraid that her interest in poetry would mar their upper-class family name. Indeed, Akhmatova tried to begin a more accepted career by entering law school in 1907. However, after one year, she decided to write instead.
When she turned twenty-one, Akhmatova married fellow poet, Nikolay Gumilyov, the creator of a new poetic movement in Russia called the Acmeists. Akhmatova gave birth in 1912, to their son, Lev. That same year, Akhmatova's first poetry collection, Vecher ("Evening"), was published in Russia. Her second collection, Chyotky ("Rosary"), was published two years later in 1914, solidifying her reputation as a serious poet. Akhmatova's marriage to Gumilyov ended in 1918, the same year Akhmatova married Vladimir Shileiko, a relationship that would end in divorce eight years later. One of the main themes of Akhmatova's poetry at this time reflected her challenges with romantic love.
For the next few years, Akhmatova continued to publish poetry collections, earning high praise from more established poets and acclaim from Russian readers. However, as the Communist government took root, Akhmatova and most poets and artists of the day were persecuted. In 1921, Akhmatova's ex-husband Gumilyov was accused of treason and was subsequently executed. Two years later, Akhmatova's poetry, which was criticized by the government for being too focused on romantic and religious ideas, was completely banned.
Akhmatova married scholar Nikolay Punin and lived with him during the 1920s. This relationship also ended tragically. Punin and Akhmatova's son from her first marriage, Lev, were imprisoned in 1935, as were many of Akhmatova's friends. Akhmatova wrote letters to Stalin, pleading for her husband's and son's release, and she also wrote flattering poems about him. Her requests were eventually granted, but both men would again be arrested. Punin would later die in prison. Akhmatova's son would suffer through a series of releases and re-imprisonments throughout the years but he was released for the final time in 1956. Lev went on to become a cultural geographer, producing questionable theories that nonetheless became very popular, especially after his death in 1992. The imprisonments of her husband, son, and friends inspired Akhmatova's poem "Requiem." The poem was likely written through the 1930s and 1940s, though it was first published in 1963.
Akhmatova struggled with poverty after she could no longer publish her writing, which was her main source of income. Although she continued to write regardless, in order to keep small earnings coming in, she translated famous books into Russian. It was not until after Stalin's death and the subsequent loosening of restrictions on writers that Akhmatova's work became available again to Russian readers. Beginning in 1958 and continuing through the 1960s, Akhmatova's previously written works were once again published in Russia. In 1964, Akhmatova won the Etna-Taormina Prize, an international award for poetry. Two years later, Akhmatova died of a heart attack in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) on March 5, 1966, the same day that Stalin had died in 1953.
Akhmatova opens her poem "Requiem" with a four line stanza that is dated 1961, the latest date attributed to any of the other sections of this poem. This means that she wrote this opening section more than twenty years after the events that inspired the poem—the imprisonment of her son, Lev, in 1935.
In these opening four lines, the narrator makes a statement that connects her personally with the events she is about to describe. The narrator did not seek shelter in a foreign country, she states. She was there with everyone who was, "unfortunately," forced to face the atrocities that are described later in the poem. This poem, in other words, is not based on something the narrator has imagined. The narrator was there, she saw the events described, and she lived through them with others who suffered just as she did.
Because "Requiem" comprises a series of poems, each with their own titles or numbers, the Poem Summary of the poem is divided in a way that reflects this. Each section title matches each poem title in "Requiem." The only exception is this section, which appears as untitled in the poem. Also, while some of the sections are dated, others are not, and the overall work does not present events in chronological order.
Instead of a Preface
This second part of the poem is the only section that is written in a prose style. In this section, the narrator mentions the "Yezhov terror," a particularly savage year during the Stalinist regime when the imprisonments of suspected rebels were increased tenfold or more from previous years. Stalin, through one of his officials, Nikolai Yezhov, was intent on ridding the country of everyone who might threaten his power. This is the time when the poet's son and husband were arrested.
Through what appears as a simple description of the narrator standing in a line outside a prison in Leningrad, the narrator turns to a morbid portrayal of what life is like for those who have loved ones on the other side of the fortified prison walls. The narrator then states that she is "recognized." This offers the image of a person standing in a crowd, forgetful of herself as she worries about the people who are inside the prison until she is reminded of herself when she is recognized. She and the woman who has spoken have awoken "from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed." At that moment, the narrator comes back to her own situation and turns to the woman who has recognized her. The woman whispers to her, and the narrator uses the act of whispering to imply the cautious overtones of the crowd, the paranoia that has swept over the country, and the solemnity of the atmosphere. The woman asks: "Can you describe this?" The narrator responds: "Yes, I can" (indeed, Akhmatova's "Requiem" provides this very description). The woman, with "bluish lips," makes an expression that resembles a smile. In the midst of the suffering, the narrator suggests, this woman is touched by the fact that these events, as horrible as they are, will be recorded and remembered.
This section is dated 1940, putting this piece closer to the time when the events that influenced this poem were actually taking place. The section begins with references to nature: mountains and rivers, which react to the grief that the people of Russia are experiencing. The grief is so devastating that the "mountains bow down" and the "Mighty rivers cease to flow." This is an example of pathetic fallacy, where inanimate objects are used to embody a human emotion.
A few lines later in the poem, the narrator will contrast this reaction in nature. In line 6, there is "someone" in the world who is enjoying a "fresh breeze." In line 7, there is someone is enjoying a sunset. These are people who live far away from the terror. But the women who stand outside the prison walls do not notice the wind or the sun. They are focused only on the sounds of the prison, the guards, and the key that keeps their loved ones locked away from them. The waiting women are described like zombies "more lifeless than the dead" who "trudged through the "savaged capital." Nevertheless, the women feel a distant hope. This hope exists because many of the prisoners have not yet been formally tried or sentenced. Thus the women hope, however faintly, that their husbands, fathers, and sons will be pardoned or released.
When a "verdict" is finally decreed, the individual waiting to hear it is "cut off" from the women who still have some hope. The narrator wonders where her "chance friends" (the women who waited with her) are now, and she states that she is "sending my farewell greeting to them." Again, it is reasonable to assume that "Requiem" is the farewell that is being sent.
This section in the poem has no date, and the narrator speaks in a general voice, calling upon "locomotive whistles" that sing "short songs of farewell." There is movement in this section as opposed to the more static previous sections. The prisoners are being taken from inside the penitentiary walls to trains and Black Marias (black police wagons), which will transport them to other prisons or perhaps to be tortured or executed. In the opening lines of this section, the narrator succinctly captures the dismal state of events: "That was when the ones who smiled / Were the dead, glad to be at rest."
The section numbered with a Roman numeral I returns with the narrator again using a personal pronoun "I," which was missing in the previous two sections. "I followed you, like a mourner." There are several allusions (references) to death in this stanza. Children are crying, a candle is dying, the prisoner's lips are cold, calling a corpse to mind. Then the narrator says, "I will be like the wives of the Streltsy." This is a reference to a group of special guards called Streltsy, who at one time protected Russia's tsars. However, the Streltsy formed a mutiny against the tsar and were captured and executed. This is why the narrator relates to the tears of their wives.
This brief section describes a sick woman who is all alone, presumably the narrator. The power of this stanza is a simple but effective line, one that is often quoted from this poem because it sums up the suffering of the women in general: "Husband in the grave, son in prison." There is not much that needs to be said after that, except that the narrator asks for a prayer to be said for her.
In this section, which is also quite brief, the narrator quickly takes on a completely different stance. "No, it is not I, it is somebody else who is suffering." This statement is not actually true, but the narrator is saying that her suffering can no longer be endured.
In part IV, the narrator wishes she had been "shown" what would happen to her and her loved ones. She refers to herself as a "minion," or someone inferior, and also as a "sinner" The reference to Tsarskoye Selo, where the poet was born, brings up memories of her youth. The narrator's depiction of herself as "three-hundredth in line, with a parcel" emphasizes her insignificance. The narrator also notes that she is standing outside Kresty prison. This is the holding prison on the banks of the Neva River, so the narrator is returning to the setting at the beginning of the poem as related in "Instead of a Preface."
The next four sections including this section are all dated 1939. At the beginning of this section, however, "seventeen months" have gone by, filled with tears and petitions to the hangman, which well might be a reference to the poems that Akhmatova wrote about Stalin or in his honor, flattering the man, trying to get him to release her son. The narrator still does not know her son's sentence, and she can no longer tell the difference between "a beast" and "a man." She can only see her senses all reflect negativity, such as "dusty flowers," "tracks" that lead to "nowhere," and a "star" that stares relentlessly "straight in the eyes, / And threateing impending death."
The narrator refers to the "light weeks" and "white nights" that "are staring again, / With the burning eyes of a hawk." These images convey a sense of restlessness. The feeling in this part of the poem is that the narrator cannot rid herself of the thought of the possibility of her son's death. It is the first time in this poem that the narrator directly addresses her son. Up until this point, the narrator might have been speaking about any of the prisoners, including her husband and friends. However, in this stanza, she calls out to her son, "dear son," narrowing her focus as well as her suffering to the loss of her child.
VII, The Sentence
Light is still used in this stanza, but not until the last line, where the narrator uses the phrase "Brilliant day." To demonstrate that this phrase should be taken in a negative tone, immediately following this phrase is: "deserted house." The brilliance is to be taken not so much as the warmth of the sun but rather as the stark reality that the narrator must face, that of the "deserted house." The "stone word" in the first line is the reason the house is deserted. It can be presumed from the title of this section and from the preceding phrase that the son has been sentenced. The narrator then states: "I must turn my soul to stone, / I must learn to live again." In other words, in order for the narrator to survive, she must learn to live without feeling her grief. Notably, at one point in Akhmatova's son's imprisonment, he was sentenced to death, although that sentence was later reversed. Given that this poem is largely autobiographical, at this point in the poem, the reader can assume that the narrator does not yet know that her son's life will be spared, as the next stanzas imply.
VIII, To Death
The narrator addresses death directly and says "I am waiting for you." She invites death to "come in any form," as "a gas shell," (a gas bomb) "Or like a gangster … with a length of pipe," among other things. It is suggested that death, at least, "dims / the blue luster of beloved eyes," meaning that the narrator's constant pain at the loss of her beloved son will only be lessened by her own death. Here, the narrator also notes that the Yenisey River still swirls and the North Star still shines. Nature continues as if nothing has happened, and this is in direct contrast to the "Dedication" stanza in which the mountains "bow down" and the "rivers cease to flow." This change might suggest that the narrator has lost hope. It might also suggest that the tragedy that has befallen all of the women as a whole (as described in "Dedication") is enough to affect nature, while a single personal tragedy (as it is described here) is not.
While death may end the speaker's anguish, so too will madness, and the narrator has "realized / That I must give in" to insanity. However, in order to escape her grief, the speaker is not allowed to retain her memories; madness "does not allow me to take / Anything of mine with me." Following this statement the speaker lists the things she cannot "take" with her, all of which are her last memories of her son.
In this tenth section, the narrator takes a scene from the Bible, the scene of Christ's crucifixion, to portray her own feelings about her son's death sentence. The narrator mentions Mary Magdalene and Christ's mother, the Virgin Mary. Mary Magdalene is pictured beating her breast and crying. But there is no image, according to the narrator, of Christ's mother. This is because the loss of a son, the narrator suggests, is too powerful an emotion; one so strong that "no one would have dared" to look at the Virgin Mary and witness her grief.
In the first epilogue, the narrator turns her focus, once again, to the those waiting outside the prison wall. Thus, in this section, the sorrow that is expressed is not the personal sorrow of the narrator but the more universal sorrow embodied by the crowd and expressed in their "eyelids," "cheeks," and "lips." The narrator continues to use the personal pronoun "I," however, describing all that she saw and "learned" while standing in the crowd. The speaker also prays for all who "stood there with me."
The form of the second epilogue is completely different from any of the other sections in this poem. It is written in couplets, stanzas of two lines each, and the tone of the poem specifically emphasizes those who have died and the speaker's intent to remember and to pray for them. In this way, as mentioned in "Epilogue I," "Epilogue II" reads like a prayer. The narrator is remembering the women who waited with her outside the prison, and, by extension, she is also attempting to honor the dead and the imprisoned. The narrator states that she has "woven a wide mantle for them." The mantle, which is like a shawl or large scarf, could be seen as a symbol for the poem itself, something the narrator has "woven" together to honor the women. The narrator also suggests that a monument might one day be erected in her honor, and she asks for it to be placed where she and the women stood, waiting to see or to hear from their loved ones.
Following this, the speaker indicates that the statue will prevent her from forgetting the horrors she witnessed, even after she has died (a direct contrast from her request to forget everything in "VIII, To Death" and in "IX." Here, the speaker portrays nature as proceeding both with and without regard to the tragedies described in the poem. While the "melting snow" will "stream like tears" from her statue, "the ships of the Neva [will] sail calmly on."
Death and Suffering
A requiem is a mass (church service) or song memorializing the dead, thus the title of the poem, which was inspired by the death or imprisonment of Akhmatova's friends and relatives during the communist purges. As the poem progresses, the narrator's depiction of the waiting women leads readers to realize that those who have been left behind (herself, and the women outside of the prison) suffer as much, if not more than, their loved ones. In reality, this poem honors the waiting women. Because of this, the poem is not truly a requiem.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- The suffering in Akhmatova's poem "Requiem" is caused by a ruthless leader attempting to turn his country into a communist state. Other leaders in other countries were also ruthless in their attempts to accomplish the same goal. Research the beginnings of communist China and communist North Korea. What were the effects of early communism on the citizens of these countries? How were they similar in their development to the development of communist Russia? How were they different? How successful were all three governments at achieving their ends? Provide information for your class on your findings.
- Akhmatova uses very simple phrases to achieve an emotional effect in her poetry. Read another poet who speaks of suffering, such as Sylvia Plath in her poem "Daddy." Are the phrases used in Plath's poem as easy to understand as those in "Requiem?" Are they as effective? Do the poems have anything in common other than suffering? What emotions do you feel after reading "Requiem?" What emotions do you feel after reading Plath's poem "Daddy?" Write your own poem to these two poets, expressing your emotional reactions to their works.
- According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2005, almost one and a half million people were in prison. Research current statistics about imprisonment in the United States. What are the most common crimes that offenders commit? What are the average terms, or number of years, of their sentence? How do U.S. prison statistics compare to countries in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East? Include statistics on political prisoners. Prepare your statistics and report on them with visual aids such as graphs or slides.
- Research classical composers, listening to recordings of the various requiems they have written. Write a report detailing your findings and your reactions to the music. Next, select your favorite musical piece and prepare a presentation of Akhmatova's poem for your class. First, read the poem aloud without any music. Then read the poem aloud a second time while playing the music in the background. Be prepared to lead a discussion with your class about their different reactions to the poem when it is read with or without the music.
Suffering is often linked with death, as it is in this poem. The prisoners suffer not knowing whether they will live or be executed or if they will ever see their families again. Those who wait for them also suffer, and they stand outside the prison walls waiting and hoping for any news of their loved ones. In some ways death would at least put an end to their uncertainty. Akhmatova's simple images of suffering are emphasized by the plain and yet evocative language that is understated, yet easily understood. Indeed, in "Dedication" simple phrases such as "her tears gush forth," "As if they painfully wrenched life from her heart," and "As if they brutally knocked her flat," are powerful yet straightforward. This allows readers to understand the poetic passages in light of their own experiences of suffering.
The most obvious form of confinement, of being held prisoner, is quite literal, but there are also metaphorical images of confinement in this poem. The women outside of the prison whisper to one another, which represents the confinement of conversation (or the lack of free speech). There is also the confinement of emotions, as the women are afraid to express any form of hope or joy. The women are also confined to the wall outside of the prison, as much as their loved ones are confined within it. And then there is the confinement of death, not, according to this poem, for the ones who have died and have thus been liberated, but for the ones who are left behind, permanently confined by their grief and loss.
Loss abounds through this poem, both literally and figuratively. Due process is lost when citizens are arrested without having committed a crime. There is the loss of freedom of speech as the women whisper because they realize that what they say might be held against them or their loved ones. A loss of identity is insinuated in the poem when the narrator is surprised when someone recognizes her. This might be the loss of public identity but it could also suggest a loss of self-identity, too, as if, in the midst of both a personal and a historical tragedy, the narrator has forgotten who she is. Of course, there is loss of freedom and loss of life, as many are imprisoned or executed. There is also the loss of the ordinary, and even of sanity, as sections of "Requiem" clearly indicate. Most importantly, the poem is a chronicle of lost hope. The narrator first hints that some hope remains and then shows how each woman at the wall loses this hope, the only thing left to them, after hearing a loved one's sentence. The speaker herself also loses hope for the same reason.
Memory becomes particularly important in the last sections of this poem. When one person dies, their memory is said to live on in their surviving friends and relatives. When one considers such an immense loss of life (as occurred under Stalin) in light of the belief that those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it. The theme of memory becomes even more essential to understanding Akhmatova's "Requiem," her mass for the memory of the dead.
Thus, it is important, and maybe even imperative, as this poem suggests, that all those who died in Russia under the Stalinist regime be remembered. A monument, in the least, must be erected to that memory. This poem is such a monument, and the narrator goes even further than this. By hinting that, as a well-known poet, she is likely to be memorialized, the speaker states that she does not want to be remembered as a poet but rather as one of the countless women who stood outside the prison wall. If she is memorialized, she wants to include not just her memories, but the memories of all those prisoners, as well as all those who mourned for those prisoners. The poem itself is famous for these very reasons, not because it memorializes a personal loss or sorrow, but because it memorializes the sorrow of an entire nation.
All of the stanzas in "Epilogue II," one of the most important sections in the poem, are couplets. Couplets are stanzas that have only two lines, usually ending in rhyme. Couplets are also a form commonly found in some Christian prayers.
Because of the couplet form, when "Epilogue II" is read out loud, it sounds as if the narrator is saying a prayer to the dead. The shortness of the stanzas makes the reader pause and more carefully consider what is being said. This part of the poem also signals a sense of closure not only of the poem (it is the last section, after all), but of the narrator's mourning, which is now transforming from grief into a call for remembrance. This may have been why the poet chose this different format, signaling a final transition of emotions in the whole cycle of this poem.
An elegy is, by definition, a song or poem composed to lament someone who has died. Some of the literary elements of an elegy include the loss of a loved one, the universal significance of loss, a progression from grief to consolation or acceptance, and a resolution of mourning. "Requiem" can easily be read as an elegy to the narrator's son. On a more universal level, the poem could be referred to as an elegy for all of the Russian people who suffered under the communist regime. There is no denying, whether this poem is focused on the poet's son or on the country as a whole, that death is a prominent theme in this work. In this, two elements of elegy are fulfilled: the loss of a loved one and the universal significance of loss. Through the cycle of Akhmatova's poem, readers also sense the progression of the narrator's emotions from grief to acceptance, another important element found in elegies. By the end of the poem, the narrator is no longer wishing for death or insanity, but is instead thinking about a monument built to ensure that those who have died will never be forgotten. In these ways, this poem can be, and often is, referred to as an elegy.
The Acmeism movement in Russian poetry, an artistic movement that Akhmatova was a part of, promoted the use of simple, straightforward language, meaning, and allusions. Thus simplicity becomes one of the focal elements of the poem. There are probably no allusions in Akhmatova's poem that Russian-speaking readers would have trouble with. English-speaking readers might have to look up a few details about Russian geography and history, but in spite of this, the emotional impact of Akhmatova's poem is easily translated. Images are kept simple, with a few references to nature, which anyone can appreciate, as well as simplistic descriptions of grief, such as phrases like: "Smiles fade on submissive lips" and "How locks of ashen-blonde or black / Turn silver suddenly" (both in "Epilogue I"); "You are my son and my horror" (in section V); and "Now madness half shadows / My soul with its wing" (in section IX). The poetic images are fresh and emotional but also basic and simple.
Akhmatova's original poem included end rhymes (words at the ends of the line that rhymed with one another), but in English translation these rhymes do not appear. English-speaking readers are able to gain an understanding and appreciation of the meaning of the poet's work but not an appreciation for all the poetic elements and form that also affect the meaning and interpretation of "Requiem." Unless readers understand both languages, it is difficult to comprehend what, if any, poetic elements in the structure of the poem have been saved. Therefore the appreciation of the meaning of this poem takes on a greater emphasis than the actual construction of it.
The Acmeist movement in poetry was developed in Russia in the early part of the twentieth century by Akhmatova's first husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov (1886-1921). Prior to this movement, Russian poets were influenced by symbolism, a writing style that spread from France and throughout Europe to Russia. The symbolists wrote poetry that was metaphysical, or spiritual, in nature, and used romantic and lofty images. In contrast, the Acmeists preferred to have their poetry grounded in ordinary reality; it was an expression of, or reaction to, events in everyday life.
The Acmeist group included Gumilyov, Akhmatova, the poet Sergei Gorodetsky (1884-1967), and the poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), among others. Some of the underlying tenets of this type of poetry were not only to keep language simple, but also to write with a focus on culture. Acmeists practiced the use of restraint in language and imagery and strove to capture an authentic representation of life. The official movement lasted only a couple of years, as Gumilyov, the leader of the group, traveled extensively outside of Russia and therefore was absent much of the time; he later joined the Russian army. The effect of this movement, however, was reflected in later generations of Russian poets. Acmeist poetry reached its peak in the middle of what is often called the Silver Age of Russian poetry, an exceptional period of creativity in poetry, lasting from the end of the nineteenth century until the early twentieth.
"Requiem" mentions a prison by the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. This prison is called Kresty Prison, a type of holding station for people who have been arrested but have not yet gone to trial. The word kresty means "cross" and refers to the cross-like shape of two of the buildings that make up the prison. There is also the possibility that this might be a reference to the crucifixions that once took place there. The prison was built in 1892. Today, the prison is still used as a place of pretrial confinement. As in Akhmatova's poem, the relatives and friends of prisoners still gather at the side of the river, in an attempt to gain a glimpse of the prisoners inside. Messages are often sent back and forth through hand movements that depict various letters, spelling out words.
In the beginning lines of Akhmatova's poem, the narrator mentions the Yezhov terror. Although Stalin's time in power was marked by repression, there was one particular year that was worse than any other. The rise in deaths and mass imprisonments was overseen by the Soviet government (the term Soviet became the name of choice for the Communist regime after the Russian Revolution and referred to the primary unit of government) under the direction of Nikolai Yezhov between 1937 and 1938. During this time, arrests increased tenfold from the previous year (1936); and by then arrests were already estimated to be in the millions. Accurate records were not kept due to the extreme secrecy of the Communist regime. Before Yezhov came to power, people were arrested and not given the benefit of a trial, but this was much more common during the Yezhov Terror. Those who were not immediately executed were sent to labor camps, forced to build roads, canals, and factories. Many later died in the camps or in prison.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1930s: Writers in Russia are forced to become members of a government controlled union. If their work deviates from the strict union standards, such as including non-socialist beliefs in their writing or criticizing the government, their works are banned from publication. Some defiant writers, such as Osip Mandelstam, are also arrested.
Today: It is once again becoming more and more dangerous for writers in Russia. Journalists who have criticized the Russian government have been killed, though their murderers have not been brought to justice.
- 1930s: Joseph Stalin heads the Soviet Union, which is in transition from a system of individual land ownership to a system of collective agriculture. The new communist economy realizes some success, mostly due to progress made in the area of industrialization, where convicted citizens provide free labor.
Today: Vladimir Putin heads the Russian government as the country continues to transition away from a government controlled economy to a free-market economy. According to a February, 2007, report from the U.S. State Department, however, a shrinking labor force, mostly caused by a birth rate that is lower than the death rate, is likely to contribute to the country's continued economic difficulties.
- 1930s: The Soviet Union signs an agreement with Nazi Germany to invade Poland. Later, Germany attacks the Russians.
Today: Russia agrees to work with the United States in the war against terrorism, providing items and services such as hospitals in Afghanistan.
In 1936, Yezhov was named the head of the Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs. He directed his forces to arrest anyone who was known to be critical of Stalin. Prisoners were tortured and their families threatened until the newly arrested victims signed statements admitting that they were attempting to overthrow the government. Yezhov even became suspicious of the man whom he had replaced and ordered his predecessor's execution. It has been assumed that Yezhov himself was executed as well—supposedly for treason in 1939—two years after he had instigated his year of terror.
Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in 1879, in Georgia, which was then a part of Russia. He was raised in poverty and became interested in socialism as a youth after reading Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto (1848). Stalin promoted socialism in Georgia, working toward the overthrow of the tsarist Russian government. In 1902, he was arrested for leading a workers' strike. He was arrested and exiled several more times throughout the next few years leading up to the Russian Revolution. Stalin's rise to power in Russian politics began when he became friends with Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), leader of the Russian October Revolution and first head of the Soviet Union. In order to increase his political clout, Stalin was known to eliminate his political rivals either by falsely accusing them of treason and deporting them or by having them executed.
After Lenin was shot in an attempted assassination, Stalin's political power intensified. Although Lenin tried to rid the party of Stalin's aggressive and brutal tactics, Lenin had grown too physically weak on account of his injuries to do so effectively. After Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin assumed total power. Beginning in the 1930s, Stalin eliminated any political person whom he thought was a threat to his power, including those who had helped him to secure his position. This period of time was known as the Great Purge. It has been estimated that more than one million people were arrested and almost half of them eventually died either through torture, execution, or from perishing while in prison or at labor camps. Another 14 million people may have died due to Stalin's collectivization reform in agriculture, which forced many farmers to give up their farms and move to more barren land. On the positive side, many historians credit Stalin for creating a vital industrial economy during his reign, but this was due in large part to having significantly lowered the wages of workers and also stemmed from the use of prison labor. Another of Stalin's purges involved the military. Stalin had many military leaders killed, and this made the Soviet Union particularly vulnerable to Germany's invasion in 1941. Stalin managed to be victorious in these battles but at an enormous cost, as an estimated 27 million Russians died during World War II.
Stalin died of a stroke in 1953. Three years later, Nikita Khrushchev, then Soviet leader, denounced Stalin in a famous speech before the twentieth Communist Party Congress. Following this, political prisoners were released and authors who had once been unable to publish their work were once again allowed to do so, telling of their horrifying experiences under Stalin's reign. Thereafter, in effect, the Soviet Union attempted to purge Stalin from its history. In 1961, Stalin's remains were removed from their honorary position in a tomb next to Lenin.
Praised and loved by Russians as well as readers around the world, Akhmatova's "Requiem" has been referred to by many critics as the best of all of her poems. Although known for her eloquence in writing about emotions, this particular poem demonstrates this skill to a far greater degree than many of her other works.
Writing for the Seattle Times, Douglas Smith (in his review of Elaine Feinstein's biography, Anna of All the Russias: A Life of Anna Akhmatova), states that Akhmatova is "one of the most revered poets in Russia." Smith adds: "yet she is regrettably little known, and much less read, in the West." Smith explains that Akhmatova wrote "her epic poetic cycle ‘Requiem,’ as a testament to the horrors of Stalin's Great Terror that for years she kept in her head, too fearful to set it down on paper." Smith adds that "Requiem" marks "Akhmatova's transformation from a poet of intimate personal emotions to ‘the voice of a whole people's suffering.’"
In "Bearing the Burden of Witness: Requiem," Nancy K. Anderson states that Akhmatova was not only able to write about the devastation that she experienced, but she was also able to convey what almost every Russian citizen was experiencing at that time. Anderson explains that because of this, the poem is both lyric and epic. "As befits a lyric poem," Anderson writes, "it is a first-person work, arising from an individual's experiences and perceptions." Anderson continued: "Yet there is always a recognition, stated or unstated, that while the narrator's sufferings are individual, they are anything but unique: as befits an epic poet, she speaks of the experience of a nation." It is this universal statement of suffering that makes this poem so appealing. Anderson then continues, stating that the appeal of Akhmatova's poem is also due to the poet's ability "to express intense and almost overwhelming emotion within a precisely designed artistic structure, giving her words the force that confinement within a narrow channel gives to flood waters." Anderson further attempts to explain why Akhmatova's poem is so universal in its appeal. She writes: "Paradoxically, it is precisely Akhmatova's consciousness that she is just another woman in the line [outside the prison] that makes her more than just another woman in the line, that gives her the unique power of being able to speak not just for herself, but for them all." Another aspect of this poem that Anderson praises is the narrator's victory over oppression. "When the suffering woman overcomes the first and most natural impulse of fleeing from pain and is able to perform the great spiritual feat of choosing to stand and endure, she can no longer be crushed," Anderson states. "She has gained the stature necessary for the role of witness." And for this reason, "‘Requiem,’ the monument that she [Akhmatova] built, will stand throughout the ages, watching over the dead with grief and faithfulness and love."
David N. Wells, writing in Anna Akhmatova:Her Poetry, points out that this poem, although it looks, at first sight, like a simple poem, is deceptively complex and carefully formatted to convey deep emotions in relatively few words. "The superficial clarity and simplicity" of the poem "belie a considerable underlying complexity of imagery, allusion and compositional technique." The ten sections of this poem are "situated within a symmetrical framework of two introductory and two concluding poems which emphasise the courage and persistence of Russian women outside the prisons of the 1930s and lay great weight on the power of poetry to record their sufferings and to transcend them."
Finally, Ervin C. Brody, writing for the Literary Review, describes the poet in this way: "A chronicler of the isolated and intimate psychological events of a woman's emotional and intellectual life as well as the political events in the Soviet Union, Anna Akhmatova is one of Russia's greatest poets and perhaps the greatest woman poet in the history of Western culture." Brody then praises "Requiem" by stating that it is "majestic, bitter, lamenting." Brody went on to note that "the poems are written in classical form with … customary simplicity and intensity. There is no better or more sensitive account of those dramatic historical days." Brody finds that Akhmatova's poem "cuts an iconoclastic swath through Soviet literature, stirs the heart, and opens the mind in its interaction between this woman-poet and her society. Rarely have the impoverished and powerless had such an eloquent advocate."
Joyce M. Hart
Hart has degrees in English and creative writing and is a freelance writer and published author. In the following essay, she examines Akhmatova's poem for the five stages of dealing with death as proposed by the psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
In 1969, shortly after Akhmatova died, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying. The book is famous for defining the psychological process (the five stages of grief) that people go through when faced with death, either news of their own impending death, or the death of a loved one. Although Akhmatova obviously did not read the book, her poem "Requiem" displays this very process. Kübler-Ross defined the psychological stages of grief as progressing through denial or isolation, then onto anger, which is followed by bargaining, then depression or despair, and, finally, acceptance. Although the five stages are expressed in Akhmatova's poem, they are not presented in the same order as Kübler-Ross has suggested. This discrepancy can be attributed to the lack of chronology in the dating of the various sections of Akhmatova's poem. Readers do not know for certain when Akhmatova wrote these sections or in what order, and they do not appear to progress in strict chronological order.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Poems of Anna Akhmatova (1997), translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward, is presented both in Russian and in English. This collection offers poems written over Akhmatova's lifetime, from those written in her early years to those written just before her death, and "Requiem" is included. This collection provides an excellent introduction to Akhmatova's body of work.
- Emma Gerstein knew Akhmatova during the Yezhov Terror and the years surrounding it. In the book Moscow Memoirs: Memories of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Literary Russia under Stalin (2004), Gerstein recounts those times. Gerstein was included in the same circle of poets as Akhmatova and kept journals of the time she shared with these now famous writers.
- Marina Tsvetaeva was a contemporary of Akhmatova. Some literary critics claim she was even more powerful as a Russian poet than Akhmatova, who is better known to English-speaking audiences. The poems in Tsvetaeva's Selected Poems, republished in 1999 (5th edition), recounts Tsvetaeva's journey from teenage poetess to political exile.
- Together with Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, Bella Akhmadulina is also considered one of the most important Russian female poets. Akhmadulina's poetry can be found in the 1993 publication The Poetic Craft of Bella Akhmadulina. Akhmadulina is a more modern poet, first published in 1955, and is not known for writing about politics. Rather, her work explores love and relationships.
The first stage of grief in Kübler-Ross's list is that of denial or isolation. In the poem's section called "Instead of a Preface," the narrator refers to a woman who wakes up from a "stupor to which everyone had succumbed." This image implies a self-imposed isolation on the part of everyone standing at the wall (or even everyone in Russia). This state of mind causes each person to withdraw into him- or herself, thus avoiding any further pain. In essence, this is the definition of being in a state of shock, and certainly shock would be a reasonable reaction to the emotional terror of having to face so many deaths during the days of Stalin's reign, and of grappling with the uncertainty of the fates of friends and loved ones.
Denial, still part of Kübler-Ross's first stage of dealing with death, appears in the poem's section simply titled "III." This stanza begins with "No, it is not I, it is somebody else who is suffering." At this point, the narrator denies a connection with her own feelings. There is no way, the narrator states, that she could have possibly withstood so much suffering. The narrator has instead submerged herself into darkness, or as she says it, the "Night." She does not want to see what is happening around her: "Let them shroud it in black, / And let them carry off the lanterns." The narrator does not want to face the pain that she will feel upon looking at the dead, and so she denies that pain by denying death, hiding it from the light ("let them carry off the lanterns"). In the darkness, or in her state of denial, she can pretend that the murders are no longer real, thus alleviating her pain.
Kübler-Ross's second stage in the process of accepting death is anger, and in "Requiem," anger is expressed in section IV. In this part of the poem, the narrator berates herself. She yells at herself, "you mocker, / Minion of all your friends." This suggests that the narrator thinks of herself as a fraud or as less worthy than her friends. In this section, the narrator is critical of her past behavior, and she rebukes herself for being young and naive and unaware of the terrible tragedies that would occur in the future. Indeed, she even calls herself a "Gay little sinner." In section V of the poem, there are also hints of anger. Here the narrator's anger is more connected to her son and his impending death, as if the narrator does not know where else to aim her feelings. She tells him how she has been struggling, and the narrator even appears to blame the son for her distress: "For seventeen months I've been crying out, / Calling you home." When the narrator states that "Everything is confused forever," this is a reference to her conflicting feelings ("You are my son and my horror"). The speaker's confusion is also caused by her inability to tell the difference between a "beast" and a "man." The narrator's anger is a way of lashing out at death, of attempting to assert some force or control over a situation in which that narrator feels, and is, totally powerless—a phenomenon that Kübler-Ross also discusses.
Bargaining is the third stage of grief as defined by Kübler-Ross. In "Requiem," the bargaining aspect presents itself in a line from section V, in which the narrator mentions that she has begged the hangman for her son's release ("I flung myself at the hangman's feet"). In actuality, Akhmatova wrote flattering passages dedicated to Stalin, the man who was responsible for imprisoning her son. She did so in the hopes that Stalin would commute her son's sentence, which Stalin eventually did. The reference to the hangman, in this poem, most likely alludes to Stalin, and further confirms the bargaining element. It could also be said that the speaker's attempts to achieve oblivion from her grief by seeking insanity in section IX is also a form of bargaining. More explicitly, going mad will cause the speaker to lose her memories of her son (madness "does not allow me to take / Anything of mine with me"), and the speaker attempts to bargain with this requirement to no avail: "No matter how I plead with it, / No matter how I supplicate."
Section IX of the poem begins with the lines, "Now madness half shadows / My soul with its wing," and this could signal the onset of the fourth stage of grief, that of depression or despair. The narrator's depression is so strong that she contemplates either succumbing entirely to insanity or to death. Indeed, the speaker clearly indicates that she wants to die in "VIII, To Death." The depression (or madness) "beckons toward the black ravine." In the second stanza of section IX, several of Kübler-Ross's stages are apparent. Here the narrator is "Raving as if it were somebody else," and this line implies denial—a denial of selfhood and a denial of the pain and depression she is experiencing.
"Epilogue I" also carries heavy overtones of depression and despair. In this section, the narrator recounts all that she has seen and "learned"; she has learned what despair looks like. The narrator uses phrases such as "faces fall," and "terror darts from under eyelids." She also mentions "How suffering traces lines / Of stiff cuneiform on cheeks." This section continues with descriptions of hair that turns grey overnight ("suddenly"), and "Smiles [that] fade on submissive lips." Then the narrator changes her focus and prays for herself and for all those who have suffered what she has suffered. While a prayer can take the form of bargaining, this prayer signals instead the final stage of grief: acceptance. This is because the speaker widens her focus from her own pain to the pain of those around her. Furthermore, the section that follows, "Epilogue II," attempts to channel this pain into a monument of remembrance. Thus, the narrator accepts her grief because she is no longer fighting against it; instead, she embraces it by using it to honor the dead.
There is also a hint of acceptance in section VII of this poem. Her son's sentence has been decreed, and in some way the narrator feels relief for having finally found out what the sentence will be. "Never mind, I was ready. / I will manage somehow," the first stanza reads. In what could also be perceived as a further gesture of acceptance, the speaker admits: "I must learn to live again." Still, it is at the poem's end, in "Epilogue II," where true acceptance occurs. When the section opens, it is clear that some time has passed ("Once more the day of remembrance draws near"). The tone of the narrator's voice is more tempered and reflective. The anger and depression are missing in the lines of this last section of the poem. Here, the narrator simply states without emotion: "I see, I hear, I feel you," and she recounts her past pain in a neutral manner. The narrator no longer beseeches death or insanity, and she no longer attempts to make sense of the situation by determining who is a man and who is a monster. The sense of immediate anguish has passed, and the tone of this section is exceedingly calm. The narrator also mentions that she wants to name all those who have died (and all those who waited at the wall with her) so that they will always be remembered. And, even without the list, "I will remember them always," she states. The narrator will remember by writing about them, and by talking about them with "my exhausted mouth / Through which a hundred million scream." Even the last two lines of the poem embody acceptance or peace, as "a prison dove coo[s] in the distance, / And the ships of the Neva sail calmly on."
Source: Joyce M. Hart, Critical Essay on "Requiem," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2008.
Sharon M. Bailey
In the following excerpt, Bailey explores the ways in which "Requiem" serves as an elegy to the entire country of Russia. Bailey focuses on a concept that she calls the "pathetic fallacy," which "springs from the rupture—caused by death—of the human's perception of his relationship to nature."
… In "Requiem," it is apparent perhaps to a greater degree than in the traditional elegy, that the subject is not so much the son as the mother. In fact, the framing poems make no mention of the son, and barely discuss the prisoners at all. The epigraph, which answers the question "Where did this happen?," answers without alluding to the arrests, and defines, for the remainder of the cycle, the subject as "I"—Akhmatova herself. Dan Latimer also emphasizes the survivor over the deceased in his definition of the elegy. The most essential theme, he writes, is the disruption of the survivor's sense of justice in the universe:
The first [essential theme of any elegy] is the expression of disbelief that death would come to one so beautiful, so vital (Adonis), so gifted (Bion, Keats), so noble (Caesar, Lincoln), so earnest and dedicated (Eduard King). This question involves what Rilke calls "des Unrechts Anschein," the appearance of injustice.
A slight reformulation of this idea would be that the events have disrupted the survivor's sense of a rational and predictable order in his or her own life. At the same time as Akhmatova is grieving the loss of her son in "Requiem," she is also grieving, for example, the lack of continuity between her own happy youth in Tsarskoye Selo in poem "IV" or her childhood by the sea in "Epilogue II" and her present misery. The arrest of her son initiates a breakdown of the poet's perception of an understandable reality.
The loss in "Requiem," however, is more than nostalgia for lost youth. At this point "Requiem" exhibits a complexity that goes beyond that of a traditional elegy. In the traditional elegy, much of the suffering of the survivor stems from a consciousness that he/she is not immune from the fate of the deceased. In "Requiem," the suffering of the survivor is real and not just the result of an awareness of potentialities. The same political machinery which is responsible for the arrests and executions of the sons also sentences the wives and mothers to a different type of suffering. The uncertainty, helplessness and injustice that accompany arrest of a family member is a fate that makes life outside the prison no more desirable than arrest itself, and in this sense, "Requiem" is an elegy written on the occasion of the arrest of the son and the subsequent "living death" of the mother. This living death is reflected in the depictions of the women, which show them lacking social qualities, such as speech and identity, and physical qualities, such as warmth and breath.
Analogous to the isolation imposed on the prisoners, the wives and mothers are shown to be essentially deprived of speech—a deprivation which prevents them from joining into a healthy community. On the one hand, this speechlessness is a consequence of the physical suffering. Even to produce her whispered question, one of only two examples of spoken communication in the cycle, the woman of "Instead of a Preface" had to rouse herself from a stupor into which everyone had fallen. On the other hand, there is a disconcerting absence of anyone to whom the women could speak. The arresting soldier is represented only by a blue-topped cap ("To Death"), the executioner by feet ("V"), and guard and warden by bolted doors ("Epilogue II") or the rasping key ("Dedication"). Denied articulate, human speech, the women wail like the wives of the Streltsy ("I"), cry like the mother pleading for her son or Mary Magdalene ("V" and "Crucifixion"), howl like the woman against whom the door is slammed ("Epilogue II"), or fall silent like John and the Mother ("Crucifixion"). Speech is above all a social act, but the arrest of their sons and husbands have left the women isolated, not only from the one arrested, but even from each other. Even though the women stand in line together, they are unable to form a community. In this respect, their experience is much like the isolation imposed on the prisoners within the prison …
It has been shown that "Requiem" achieves universal significance by appealing to a broad audience and, more importantly, by emphasizing the magnitude of the atrocity—repeatedly focusing first on the victims as individuals and then on the victims as part of a countless mass. Sacks also stresses the importance of generic convention to the universal appeal of an effective elegy. He argues throughout his book that the conventions are not artificial literary devices, but are reflections of natural human impulses. Due to space limitations it is not possible to list all of the conventions and their examples in "Requiem." I will therefore limit my discussion to the one convention which, in my opinion, is used most effectively in the cycle. The pathetic fallacy, according to Lambert, is one of the most universal conventions of the elegy and basic to grief itself:
In funeral laments from all cultures and from all stages of civilization we see a desire on the part of the mourner (expressed either as wish or as fact) to involve the whole world in his own particular sorrows. Nature is made culpable, is made to suffer, is made to sympathize.
A predictable, perhaps even cliché, example of this can be found in the first lines of the "Dedication": "Pered etim gorem gnutsia gory, / Ne techet velikaia reka" ("Mountains bow down to this grief, / Mighty rivers cease to flow"). In other instances, the moon visits the grieving woman of "II," and the White Nights keep watch over the son and speak of his suffering. However, it is not only nature that participates in the grief, but also the man-made environment of Leningrad, and even Russia as a symbolic cultural and ethnic entity.
The pathetic fallacy springs from the rupture—caused by death—of the human's perception of his relationship to nature. For the conscious and self-contemplating human, the natural cycle of death and rebirth creates a dilemma … In short, the death of an individual tears apart the mourner's perception of unity between nature, death and humanity—death comes out of season, spring branches wither and freeze, and the eternal cycle is broken. Thus the pathetic fallacy has its root in the human need to recreate an order in which man, rather than nature, is supreme. Sacks, who like Smith essentially subordinates all other elegiac conventions to the pastoral, writes that the pathetic fallacy allows the elegist to create a fiction whereby the mutability of nature is not the cause of his suffering, but rather changes in nature appear to depend on him (20) …
The sense of injustice in a traditional elegy lay not in the fact that death strikes, but in that death struck this once, in an untimely manner, an individual whom we wish would have stayed with us longer. Death is cruel, it is arbitrary, it is indifferent to the accomplishments or promise of its victims, but for all this, it is not without rationale (Smith 8). An atrocity such as the Holocaust or the Terror, on the other hand, defies comprehension. What words can describe a situation that has no meaning? However, this leads to the moral problem of acknowledging the events; if there are no words with which to speak of the atrocity, how will it be remembered? Thus Brodsky writes, "At certain periods of history it is only poetry that is capable of dealing with reality by condensing it into something graspable, something that otherwise could not be retained by the mind" (52). Theodor Adorno, who is famous for his proclamation that it is "barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz" (87), also admits that poetry is indispensable: "Suffering—what Hegel called the awareness of affliction—also demands the continued existence of the very art it forbids; hardly anywhere else does suffering still find its own voice, a consolation that does not immediately betray it" (88). The successful poem portrays the events without rationalization, preserving the memory of those who suffered, while at the same time preserving the sense of overwhelming chaos. The elegy for such an atrocity must find consolation through memory that does not impose reason.
This complicated task is achieved even within the ten central poems of "Requiem." In addition to expressing her grief with nearly textbook accuracy, Akhmatova conveys historical information about what happened, and more importantly its toll on the men who were arrested and the women who were left behind. Many of the images used to describe the poet's state of mind are images of arrest and death and serve the dual function of describing what happened to the son and what the mother felt as a result. For example, in "To Death" the poet wishes desperately to be in her son's place: to be arrested, dead or in Siberia, and in "IX" she recreates the experience of half-death, "Uzhe bezumnie krylom / Dushi zakrylo polovinu" ("Now madness half shadows / My soul with its wing") …
However, it is a final, moral aspect that sets "Requiem" apart from the traditional elegy and forces us to look for a new definition of consolation. The vicarious arrest and imprisonment of the mother conveys the memory of the suffering felt both by the arrested men within the prison and the women waiting outside. "Requiem" aspires not only to immortalize the son or even the mother's love for her son, but to acknowledge the reality of the Terror in such a way that will not allow history to forget. The poetic consolation, which Adorno writes does not immediately betray the suffering it portrays, is the memorialization of the events as they truly happened. Akhmatova's overarching goal in the ten central poems is to immortalize an entire nation victimized by the Terror. …
The grief expressed in the central ten poems is raw, internal, not inherently within the realm of language, and expressed without a strong sense of an implied reader. This is not the case in the framing poems. These poems, as already pointed out above, seem to address the reader directly. The "Dedication," for example, prepares the reader with an outline of the sequence of events to be portrayed in the cycle: the arrest and imprisonment, the waiting in line, and the sentencing and isolation (Amert 45-46). The "Prologue" and "Epilogue I" summarize the Terror from the perspective of the arrested and the women left behind, respectively. These three poems demonstrate the successful resolution of the poet's work of mourning, insofar as they state with relative directness what the poet only intimates in the central poems. However, it is in "Epilogue II" and "Instead of a Foreword" that Akhmatova most clearly articulates her strategies to overcome the suffering of the Terror.
Whereas the ten central poems are by their very existence a memorial to the victims of the Terror, "Epilogue II" lays emphasis on the act of articulating memory as a defense against the continued suffering. In this poem, Akhmatova purposefully invokes language itself as a weapon. Throughout the cycle the poet, as well as all of the women, are shown bewildered, speechless and defeated. In "Epilogue II," Akhmatova overcomes this. Geographic locations distinguish themselves from each other and remain fixed to their proper historical significance. The women with whom Akhmatova stood in line begin to stand out from the mass as individuals, for as Amert writes,
In contrast to the collective portrait evoked in the first part of the "Epilogue," the poet conjures up brief yet individualized portraits of three of her addressees and then articulates her unrealizable wish to call all of the women by name, thereby commemorating them individually—the antithesis of their depersonalization during the Ezhov Terror.
Akhmatova even restores to the women the power of speech. Aside from the whispered question in "Instead of a Preface," the only moment of articulate speech is by the beautiful woman in the "Epilogue": "Siuda prikhozhu, kak domoi!" ("Coming here's like coming home").
On a more fundamental level, however, "Epilogue II" makes clear that Akhmatova intends for the cycle to itself supply the words to name the atrocities which could only be met with silence at the time. Sacks writes that the poetic form of the elegy is a verbal "presence" which fills the "absence" caused by death (xi-xiii). The need to create a "presence" through language is only that much more acute when the elegy is for victims of an atrocity, since, as we have seen, Terror deprives the victims of the means of articulating their pain and, by isolating the women at the time and then finally scattering them, eliminates the potential audience. Akhmatova uses the image of weaving a cloth of words as a means of creating a tangible "presence" to displace the "absence" created by the Terror. Sacks writes that it is
worth noting the significant frequency with which the elegy has employed crucial images of weaving, of creating a fabric in the place of a void. … To speak of weaving a consolation recalls the actual weaving of burial clothes and shroud and this emphasizes how mourning is an action, a process of work.
Akhmatova uses exactly the image of weaving a cloth of words. Unable to name each woman and not knowing what has become of them, she nevertheless seeks to fill the void of their silence with a veil of their own words: "Dlia nikh sotkala ia shirokii pokrov / Iz bednykh, u nikh zhe podslushannykh slov" ("I have woven a wide mantle for them / From their meager, overheard words"). On the one hand, this cloth she weaves may be seen as a burial shroud, with which, perhaps, she offers a token rite to those who had been executed in secret and buried without a memorial service or grave marker. Perhaps also it is a shroud with which Akhmatova puts to rest her grief of the ten central poems. But more than just covering and concealing what has happened, this cloth also makes it visible. The women have been scattered without any record of their having been there. Akhmatova's veil of words solidifies them into a group, protects them from obscurity, and replaces their physical absence with a verbal presence.
Source: Sharon M. Bailey, "An Elegy for Russia: Anna Akhmatova's ‘Requiem,’" in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 43, No. 2, Summer 1999, pp. 324-46.
David N. Wells
In the following excerpt, Wells discusses the emotional states found in the various poem segments in "Requiem." The critic argues that these various emotional themes are given coherence by the two introductory segments, "Dedication" and "Introduction."
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Source: David N. Wells, "Stalinism and War: Works of the 1930s and 1940s," in Anna Akhmatova: Her Poetry, Berg, 1996, pp. 64-95.
Akhmatova, Anna, "Requiem," in The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, Zephyr Press, 1992, pp. 384-94.
Anderson, Nancy K., "Bearing the Burden of Witness: Requiem," in The Word that Causes Death's Defeat: Poems of Memory, Yale University Press, 2004, pp.181-93.
Bailey, Sharon M., "An Elegy for Russia: Anna Akhmatova's Requiem," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 43, No. 2, Summer 1999, pp. 324-46.
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Brody, Ervin C., "The Poet in the Trenches: The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova," in Literary Review, Vol. 37, No. 4, Summer 1994, pp. 689-704.
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Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, On Death and Dying, reprint edition, Scribner, 1997.
Romano, Carlin, "Russian Literature in the Age of Putin," in Chronicle of Higher Education, March 2, 2007.
Smith, Douglas, "The Voice of Russian People's Suffering," in the Seattle Times, April 2, 2006.
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Wells, David N., "Stalinism and War: Works of the 1930s and 1940s," in Anna Akhmatova: Her Poetry, Berg, 1996, pp. 64-77.
Brown, Clarence, The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, Penguin Classics, 2003.
Brown has brought together an extensive look at the last century's most prominent figures in Russian literature, with works by Akhmatova and her contemporaries Alexander Blok and Olsip Mandelstam. For a broader view of authors, Brown also provides prose works by Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Boris Pasternak, to name a few. This collection provides a great introduction to the masters of Russian literature.
Dalos, Gyorgy, The Guest from the Future: Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
In 1945, Akhmatova met Isaiah Berlin, a Russian-born scholar and diplomat who was living in England. Berlin told Akhmatova stories of living in a free society, something she had not experienced firsthand. Berlin inspired Akhmatova, and she wrote one of her famous poems, "Poem without a Hero," with Berlin as the central figure. In his book, Dalos presents historic details woven together with correspondence between Berlin and Akhmatova.
Mawdsley, Evan, The Stalin Years: The Soviet Union, 1929-53, 2nd edition, Manchester University Press, 2003.
A professor of international history at Glasgow University, Mawdsley discusses the effect of Stalin's politics on the culture and economics of the country, and on Russia's foreign relationships with other countries. Stalin's ideology and its effects are pieced together from historic accounts as well as official documents that have only recently been made public.
Reeder, Roberta, Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet, Picador USA, 1995.
Reeder's biography of Akhmatova has gained much praise over the years. She not only writes about the poet's life, but also includes critical analyses of Akhmatova's work. Reeder also offers glimpses of the poets that influenced Akhmatova, presenting a comprehensive understanding of the poet's life and work.
req·ui·em / ˈrekwēəm; ˈrā-/ • n. (also req·ui·em mass) (esp. in the Roman Catholic Church) a Mass for the repose of the souls of the dead. ∎ a musical composition setting parts of such a Mass, or of a similar character. ∎ an act or token of remembrance: he designed the epic as a requiem for his wife.