Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Requiem has a history as chaotic and yet enduing as its theme. No Russian in Joseph Stalin’s time could think of publishing or even committing to paper such a protest to official injustice. Akhmatova trusted one person to memorize her poem. It was smuggled out of Russia and published in Germany in a bilingual German-Russian edition. It was also brought clandestinely to the United States.

Before the Communist revolution in 1918, Akhmatova was already famous. Then came decades of silence. Her first and second husbands both died as political prisoners, as did many of her close friends and fellow poets. Requiem records the experience of her son’s imprisonment against the background of previous terrible losses to the political abuse of power.

It is typical of Akhmatova’s greatness that what she relates in a modest and personal tone resonates in the experience of millions of people in this century. In the tradition of Russian aristocrats who fought for democracy in the nineteenth century, she suffered censorship but spoke for other silenced people. On the first level, Requiem voices a single mother’s grief: Akhmatova’s son, Lev Gumilyov, is in prison. On the second level, the poem addresses the women who stood with her, bundles in hand, outside the closed gates of the Leningrad prison.

A third level of meaning comes when one considers similar situations in other countries, such as the plight of the “madres de la plaza” in Argentina, who gather to protest silently the “disappearance” of their children in the years of military government. The American organization Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) reflects the message of Requiem: Women can stand together to protect their children.

The poem draws on the model of Christian redemptive suffering. It does not try to rationalize or analyze the causes of suffering, but lives the experience fully in solidarity with others, showing human love enduring in the face of evil. Akhmatova’s loyalty to the nation is never questioned; temporary evils are overcome by acknowledged suffering and by poetry that outlasts the dictator.