Requiem (1935-61)

From Akhmatova, Anna. "Requiem." As reproduced in Twentieth Century Russian Poetry, trans. Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward, ed. Albert Todd and Max Hayward (New York: Anchor Books, 1993), 180-187.

During the Yezhov terror of 1937-38, the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of those imprisoned without trial held vigil outside of ‘the Kresty’, the Leningrad prison for political criminals. The women hoped for news of their loved ones’ official sentences.  Anna Akhmatova's (1889-1966) had long experience with political terror during the Soviet era. In 1921 she saw her husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, arrested and shot by the NKVD. In 1937, her son Lev Gumilyov and her third husband, Nikolai Punin were imprisoned in 1938, Her son remained in prison and prison camps until the death of Stalin and the thaw in the Cold War made his release possible in 1956. Punin, was imprisoned in 1949 and thereafter died in 1953 in a Siberian prison camp.   Her writing was banned, unofficially, from 1925 to 1940, and then was banned again after World War Two was concluded.  Unlike many of her literary contemporaries, though, she never considered flight into exile. The poem "Requiem," reproduced below, offers her testimony of the Stalin era. (More)


No foreign sky protected me,
no stranger's wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time and place.


Instead of a Preface

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror[j1] , I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

"Can you describe this?"

And I said: "I can."

The something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

Leningrad 1 April 1957


Such grief might make the mountains stoop,
reverse the waters where they flow
[j2] ,
but cannot burst these ponderous bolts
that block us from the prison cells
crowded with mortal woe . . .
For some the wind can freshly blow,
for some the sunlight fade at ease,
but we, made partners in our dread,
hear but the grating of the keys,
and heavy-booted soldiers' tread.
As if for early Mass, we rose
and each day walked the wilderness,
trudging through silent street and square,
to congregate, less live than dead.
The sun declined, the Neva blurred,
and hope sang always from afar.
Whose sentence is decreed? . . . That moan,
that sudden spurt of woman's tears,
shows one distinguished from the rest,
as if they'd knocked her to the ground
and wrenched the heart out of her breast,
then let her go, reeling, alone.
Where are they now, my nameless friends
from those two years I spent in hell?
What specters mock them now, amid
the fury of Siberian snows,
or in the blighted circle of the moon?
To them I cry, Hail and Farewell!

March 1940


That was a time when only the dead
could smile, delivered from their wars,
and the sign, the soul, of Leningrad
dangled outside its prison house
[j3] ;
and the regiments of the condemned,
herded in the railroad yards,
shrank from the engine's whistle song
whose burden went, "Away, pariahs!"
The stars of death stood over us.
And Russia, guiltless, beloved, writhed
under the crunch of bloodstained boots,
under the wheels of Black Marias
[j4] .


At dawn they came and took you away.
You were my dead: I walked behind,
In the dark room children cried,
the holy candle gasped for air.
Your lips were chill from the icon's kiss,
sweat bloomed on your brow--those deathly flowers!
Like the wives of Peter's troopers
[j5] in Red Square
I'll stand and howl under the Kremlin towers.



Quietly flows the quiet Don[j6] ;
into my house slips the yellow moon.
It leaps the sill, with its cap askew,
and balks at a shadow, that yellow moon.

This woman is sick to her marrowbone,
this woman is utterly alone,
with husband dead, with son away
in jail. Pray for me. Pray.


No, not mine: it's somebody else's wound.
I could never have borne it. So take the thing
that happened, hide it, stick it in the ground.
Whisk the lamps away
. . . Night.


They should have shown you--mocker,
delight of your friends, hearts' thief,
naughtiest girl of Pushkin's town
[j7] --
this picture of your fated years,
as under the glowering wall
[j8] you stand,
shabby, three hundredth in line,
clutching a parcel
[j9] in your hand,
and the New Year's ice scorched by your tears.
See there the prison poplar bending!
No sound. No sound. Yet how many
innocent lives are ending . . .


For seventeen months I have cried aloud,
calling you back to your lair.
I hurled myself at the hangman's foot,
You are my son, changed into nightmare.
Confusion occupies the world,
and I am powerless to tell
somebody brute from something human,
or on what day the word spells "Kill!"
Nothing is left but dusty flowers,
the tinkling thurible
[j10] , and tracks
that lead to nowhere. Night of stone,
whose bright enormous star
stares me straight in the eyes,
promising death, ah soon!


The weeks fly out of mind,
I doubt that it occurred:
how into your prison, child,
the white night blazing, stared;
and still, as I draw breath,
they fix their buzzard eyes
on what the high cross shows,
this body of your death.


The Sentence

The word dripped like a stone
on my still living breast,
Confess: I was prepared,
am somehow ready for the test.

So much to do today:
kill memory, kill pain,
turn heart into a stone,
and yet prepare to live again.

Not quite. Hot summer's feast
brings rumors of carouse.
How long have I foreseen
this brilliant day, this empty house?

Summer 1939


To Death

You will come in any case--so why not now?
How long I wait and wait. The bad times fall.
I have put out the light and opened the door
for you, because you are simple and magical.
Assume, then, any form that suits your wish,
take aim, and blast at me with poisoned shot,
or strangle me like an efficient mugger,
or else infect me--typhus be my lot--
or spring out of the fairy tale you wrote,
the one we're sick of hearing, day and night,
where the blue hatband
[j11] marches up the stairs,
led by the janitor, pale with fright.
It's all the same to me. The Yenisei
[j12]  swirls,
the North Star shines, as it will shine forever;
and the blue luster of my loved one's eyes
is clouded over by the final horror.

The House on the Fontanka, 19 August 1939


Already madness lifts its wing
to cover half my soul.
That taste of opiate wine!
Lure of the dark valley!

Now everything is clear.
I admit my defeat. The tongue
of my ravings in my ear
is the tongue of a stranger.

No use to fall down on my knees
and beg for mercy's sake.
Nothing I counted mine, out of my life,
is mine to take:

not my son's terrible eyes,
not the elaborate stone flower
of grief, not the day of the storm,
not the trial of the visiting hour,

not the dear coolness of his hands,
not the lime trees' agitated shade,
not the thin cricket sound
of consolation's parting word.

4 May 1940



"Do not weep for me, Mother,
when I am in my grave."


A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
"Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me . . ."


Mary Magdalene beat her breasts and sobbed,
His disciple, stone-faced, stared.
His mother stood apart. No other looked
into her secret eyes. Nobody dared.




I have learned how faces fall to bone,
how under the eyelids terror lurks,
how suffering inscribes on cheeks
the hard lines of it cuneiform texts,
how glossy black or ash-fair locks
turn overnight to tarnished silver,
how smiles fade on submissive lips,
and fear quavers in a dry titter.
And I pray not for myself alone . . .
for all who stood outside the jail,
in bitter cold or summer's blaze,
with me under that blind red wall.


Remembrance hour returns with the turning year.
I see, I hear, I touch you drawing near:

the one we tried to help to the sentry's booth,
and who no longer walks this precious earth,

and that one who would toss her pretty mane
and say, "It's just like coming home again."

I want to name the names of all that host,
but they snatched up the list, and now it's lost.

I've woven them a garment that's prepared
out of poor words, those that I overheard,

and will hold fast to every word and glance
all of my days, even in new mischance,

and if a gag should blind my tortured mouth,
through which a hundred million people shout,

then let them pray for me, as I do pray
for them, this eve of my remembrance day.

And if my country ever should assent
to casting in my name a monument,

I should be proud to have my memory graced,
but only if the monument be placed

not near the sea on which my eyes first opened--
my last link with the sea has long been broken--

nor in the Tsar's garden near the sacred stump,
where a grieved shadow hunts my body's warmth,

but here, where I endured three hundred hours
in line before the implacable iron bars.

Because even in blissful death I fear
to lose the clangor of the Black Marias,

to lose the banging of that odious gate--
and the old crone howling like a wounded beast.

And from my motionless bronze-lidded sockets
may the melting snow, like teardrops, slowly trickle,

and a prison dove coo somewhere, over and over,
as the ships sail softly down the flowing Neva.

March 1940

"Requiem" by Anna Akhmatova translated by Gordon McVay, from 20TH CENTURY RUSSIAN POETRY by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, copyright © 1993 by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

The execution in 1921 of her former husband, Gumilyov, on charges of participation in an anti-Soviet conspiracy (the Tagantsev affair), turned members of the regime against her. She was referred to in public as the ‘harlot-nun’. In 1923 she entered a period of almost complete poetic silence and literary ostracism, and no volume of her poetry was published in the Soviet Union until 1940. In that year several of her poems were published in the literary monthly Zvezda (The Star), and a volume of selections from her earlier work appeared under the title Iz shesti knig (From Six Books). A few months later, however, it was abruptly withdrawn from sale and libraries. Nevertheless, in September 1941, following the German invasion, Akhmatova was permitted to deliver an inspiring radio address to the women of Leningrad. Evacuated to Tashkent soon thereafter, she read her poems to hospitalized soldiers and published a number of war-inspired lyrics; a small volume of selected lyrics appeared in Tashkent in 1943. At the end of the war she returned to Leningrad, where her poems began to appear in local magazines and newspapers. She gave poetic readings, and plans were made for publication of a large edition of her works.

In August 1946, however, she was harshly denounced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party for her "eroticism, mysticism, and political indifference." Her poetry was castigated as "alien to the Soviet people," and she was again described as a "harlot-nun," this time by none other than Andrey Zhdanov, Politburo member and the director of Stalin's program of cultural restriction. She was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers; an unreleased book of her poems, already in print, was destroyed; and none of her work appeared in print for three years.

Then, in 1950, a number of her poems eulogizing Stalin and Soviet communism were printed in several issues of the illustrated weekly magazine Ogonyok (The Little Light) under the title Iz tsikla Slava miru (From the Cycle Glory to Peace). Her capitulation to the Soviet dictator--in one of the poems Akhmatova declares: "Where Stalin is, there is Freedom, Peace, and the grandeur of the earth"--was motivated by Akhmatova's desire to win the freedom of her son, Lev Gumilyov, who had been arrested again in 1949 and exiled to Siberia. The tone of these poems is far different from the moving and universalized lyrical cycle, Rekviem (Requiem), composed between 1935 and 1961 and occasioned by Akhmatova's grief over an earlier arrest and imprisonment of her son in 1937. This masterpiece--a poetic monument to the sufferings of the Soviet peoples during Stalin's terror--was only published in Moscow in 1989.





 [j2]Vast Soviet construction projects included attempts to reverse the flow of rivers and strip mine mountains. (Compare to the first lines of The Bronze Horseman.)

 [j3]Gogol’s Barbershop sign “Blood Let Here.”

 [j4]Paddy Wagons

 [j5]The Strelsy: imperial horseguards whose rebellion was crushed by Peter the Great. Mass executions in Red Square.

 [j6]Soviet novel: Quiet Flows the Don

 [j7]Tsarkoye Selo: the writers’ colony

 [j8]Leningrad political prison: ‘The Krelsy”

 [j9]Care Packages of food and clothes fro prisoners.

 [j10]Censer used in Russian Orthodox religious ceremonies

 [j11]Uniform of NKVD officers

 [j12]Huge river system in central Russia