Anna Akhmatova was a prominent voice in Russian poetry for more than fifty years. When she died in 1966, she was hailed as one of the eminent poets of Russia, ranked with Aleksandr Blok, Boris Pasternak, and Osip Mandelstam. Her several collections attest the high quality of her craft. She drew attention to her poetry at the very start of her career, participating in a short-lived but eclectic group of poets called the Acmeists in the second decade of the twentieth century. She then struck her own path and, although she was frequently regarded with suspicion by Soviet authorities, she managed to retain the aura of brilliance and integrity until her last days.
It is generally agreed that her highest achievements are two cyclical poems, Poema bez geroya (1960; A Poem Without a Hero, 1973) and Requiem. Both are Akhmatova’s poetic answers to the vicissitudes of life in Russia under communism and, because of that, their publication was delayed; Requiem first appeared abroad and was not published in Russia until many years later.
Requiem was written between 1935 and 1943, with a brief prose foreword added in 1957. Since its publication in Germany in 1963, it has been symbolic of both the suffering and silent defiance of the Russian people during the reign of terror perpetrated by Joseph Stalin and his henchmen. The poem is more than a protest against tyranny; it reflects the poet’s personal tragedy. Her only son, Lev Gumilev, a prominent young scholar, was arrested on trumped-up charges and exiled to hard labor. Released during World War II, he was arrested again and released only in 1956. During his imprisonment, Akhmatova stood waiting in lines in front of the prison off and on for seventeen months, trying to learn the fate of her son and secure his release. Although Requiem is basically autobiographical, it should not be read purely as such, but primarily as any mother’s grief. The poem itself is not as much a direct accusation of the inhumane treatment of the Soviet citizen, but a deeply felt outcry against the injustice done to all the children of Russia. Through her outcry, Akhmatova expresses a great love of and loyalty to Russia, and it is in this manner that one mother’s grief and tragedy become a symbol of all of Russia, expressed in a perfect fusion of content and form.
Requiem opens with the brief prose introduction written in 1957, which places the poem in the fearful years of the secret police. She relates that, as she stood in line before the prison walls, an unknown woman asked, “Can you describe this?” “Yes, I can,” Akhmatova replied. The first lines of the motto explain why she chose not to become an émigré: “No, not under a foreign heavenly dome,/ Not under the shield of foreign wings—/ I was with my people in those hours,/ There where, unhappily, my people were.” These four lines are the best example of the style that follows—direct, precise, brief, and simple. They represent the full power of emotion that characterizes the entire poem.
In the opening poem, Akhmatova dedicates Requiem to all who suffered during the purges of the 1930’s, those who waited before prison gates, wept upon hearing the sentences, and lived in the relentless fear of the powerless. Although the wind is still refreshing and the sunset beautiful, that beauty is lost on those in the vigil. The poet combines brief, contrasting sketches of the prison and Leningrad with the mood of the frightened, yet still hopeful, participants of the vigils. Recalling her friends from the two-year ordeal in 1940, she sends them her greetings, wherever they may be.
The spirit of the dedication is preserved in the introduction to the entire poem. Here she weeps for the “ranks of the condemned” and for the “innocent Rus’” (a poetic, endearing term for Russia) that “contorts under bloody boots and the tires of Black Marias” (black-painted prison vans). In these first two poems, Akhmatova is able to surmount personal grief and become a speaker for all who suffered with her, indeed for all victims of the country and perhaps all of humankind. In the following poems, she concentrates on her own grief as she...