Requiem, never published in the Soviet Union, describes an intensely personal and national struggle for survival. The preface, dedication, two epilogues, and the intervening series of poems combine to form a brief epic about the grieving mother of a prisoner and her fellow sufferers who stand in the prison lines of Leningrad. Although never acknowledged, the first-person-narrator “I” leaves little doubt of the directly autobiographical nature of the poem.
The preface, “Dedication,” and “Prologue” provide the exposition for the work, establishing the historical scene and providing the introduction to the persona—a grieving mother longing to know the fate of her imprisoned son. In the preface the narrator answers, “Yes, I can,” to a woman’s inquiry about her ability to describe the awful terror of “where, unhappily, my people were.” She identifies the cars of the secret police as the dreaded symbols of death and despair, as carrying people, including her son, away at dawn.
The literary devices of her previous works form a multilayered journey into a terrifying time in human history. Akhmatova uses concrete imagery and symbolism, both universal and biblical, to convey the significance of the story she has to tell. For example, when she addresses death, she uses a series of similes to dramatize the various forms it may take: “like a bandit,” “like a typhus-germ,” or “like a fairy tale of your own invention.” (This last simile alludes to the imaginary crime that was often used to convict a political prisoner.) In addition, physical descriptions capture the terror of the time: “There I learned how faces fell apart/ How fear looks out from under the eyelids.”
In addition to imagery and symbolism, she utilizes biblical allusions to dramatize the stages of the mother’s suffering as they coincide with the stages of Mary’s suffering for Christ. Christ was taken away, wrongly convicted, then crucified in front of his mother. The persona’s son proceeds through the same steps. Moreover, as the poet becomes a symbol of Mary’s suffering, so does she represent her people’s suffering. Requiem speaks of not only one person, but a people, in torment.
Like an epic hero, the poet does not give in but lends courage to her people through her poetry: “I see, hear, touch/ all of you.” She, essentially, becomes them. In the final lines of the poem, she wishes to become a bronze monument placed in front of the Leningrad prisons, where she waited with millions like her.