(Poetry Criticism)

Requiem Anna Akhmatova

Russian poem of the twentieth century.

The following entry provides criticism of Akhmatova's Requiem from 1972 through 1999. See also, Anna Akhmatova Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 25, 126.

Rekviem (1963), translated into English as Requiem, is the one of the best known works of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. The composition consists of a series of numerous short poems that reflect the anguish of the Russian people during years of persecution and purges under the rule of Joseph Stalin. Although it was composed in large part prior to 1940, Akhmatova considered Requiem too dangerous to be written down, much less published, at the time, so until the mid-1960s it remained unpublished, and existed only as individual verses memorized by the poet and a handful of her most trusted confidants.

Biographical Information

Akhmatova (also transliterated as Axmatova) was born Anna Andreevna Gorenko in Odessa, a coastal town along the Black Sea in the Ukraine, on June 23, 1888. She was raised in Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg. Her affinity for writing poetry began during childhood. In 1910, she married the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, with whom she was a founding member of the Acmeist group of poets who rejected the mysticism and stylistic obscurity of Symbolism and attempted to restore clarity to poetic language. She gave birth to a son in 1912 and was divorced from Gumilyov following an unhappy marriage in 1918. Gumilyov was executed by the Soviet regime for treason in 1921. An unofficial ban by the Communist party on the publication of Akhmatova's works was imposed starting in 1925; this was due in some measure to her previous association with Gumilyov, but it was also a consequence of her popularity as a poet in pre-Revolutionary years and her choice of themes such as death, poverty, and the fear of war. Her son, too, suffered at the hands of the Stalinist regime through repeated arrests for no discernible “crime” other than being the son of literary parents whose works were regarded with suspicion by the political leaders of the day. During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Akhmatova continued to write and translate verse, but much of the work attributed to these decades, including Requiem, remained unpublished until the late 1950s and mid-1960s, well after the death of Stalin. She died on March 5, 1966.

Plot and Major Characters

Requiem is a cycle of fifteen short poems introduced with a paragraph of prose that, taken as a whole, constitutes an epic of grief and remembrance. Although the work possesses no conventionally defined plot, the ten internal numbered poems form a chronological revelation that documents the suffering of the Russian people during the years of Stalinist terror. Through the eyes of the women—who stood outside prisons for days, hoping for word about their loved ones, hoping to deliver a hat or a pair of salvaged gloves or shoes, hoping for one last glimpse before the inevitable sentence of death or exile for a beloved son or husband—Akhmatova plumbs the depths of unimaginable suffering, and charts the journey of mourning and memorial. The poem opens with a declaration of the pain of one woman, an individual circumstance but recognizable to all who lived through the era. With each successive poem, the central figure experiences a new stage of suffering: mute grief, growing disbelief, rationalization, raw mourning, steely resolve. Sometimes writing in the first person, sometimes in the third person, Akhmatova becomes the voice of the people as she universalizes her personal pain over the repeated imprisonment of her son and the loss of friends and literary peers to execution and exile.

Throughout much of the cycle the suffering Russian woman, one yet universal, is the central figure. At the climax of the cycle of grief, however, three figures of Christian religious significance appear: Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of Christ, and John, the beloved disciple. Critics hold various opinions about why Akhmatova incorporated these personages who are closely associated with Catholic religious beliefs, and about whom significant people in the poet's life each figure represents. Within the work as a whole, however, these religious figures, placed outside the context of their New Testament roles, reinforce the poet's subtext of the inevitability of suffering. Akhmatova allows the central figure to transcend her personal circumstances in an almost mystical, supernatural way—not to mitigate her pain or allow her a measure of peace, but to dignify and honor the ability of this woman, and all women, to confront their deepest grief and fear and survive. In Requiem, writes Amanda Haight, Akhmatova “has taken suffering to its limit and so there is nothing to fear.”

Major Themes

Requiem has been called an elegy, a poem of memorial and mourning, for the people of Russia. Critic Sam Driver wrote in 1990 that the work was conceived by the poet as “a combination of the epic and the lyric.” Constructed as a lament for the people of Russia, its scale is simultaneously enormous and intimate: although it chronicles a nearly unfathomable episode of terror and persecution in a specific historic time period, it is characterized by short, almost episodic pieces of verse. Not incidentally, even this characteristic of structure is integral to the work's thematic core: the short elements that comprise the work as a whole are of such length that they could be committed to memory in a short period of time and carried, in secret, in the hearts of those for whom it had meaning. This is how the work was preserved for several decades by the poet and her closest confidants; the danger of being caught with such words on paper was considered too great by Akhmatova. The composition of the poem in this manner is representative of the ways in which the Russian people communicated with each other and offered one another support and assistance during the years of the Stalinist regime: in secret, in veiled language, and without a trail of evidence that could be used in further persecution.

Although the work is recognizable as an epic lament for a particular people in response to specific circumstances of history, Akhmatova couches references to actual times and places in such a way that the work transcends its era and becomes a universal and timeless voice for the victims of persecution anywhere and any time. Images evoked by the poet's words—for example, women waiting wearily outside prisons for word from loved ones, their faces ravaged by raw grief and fear—may be visualized as belonging to a particular episode of Russian history. Yet they also possess a timelessness that allows them to serve as icons of the universality of human cruelty and human pain. Throughout this work, Akhmatova explores the role of the poet as the voice of truth, and the role of poetry, the language of both suffering and redemption, as a weapon of resistance and solidarity. Thematically, the poem also honors love and remembrance as forces that transcend evil and empower the powerless.

Critical Reception

Akhmatova's Requiem is considered to be one of the most significant works of her long career. Until it appeared in print for the first time in the 1960s, Akhmatova's considerable reputation as a poet had been based primarily on the love poems she composed during her youth, and on her role as a founding member of the Acmeist school. She had fallen from favor in her own country, and been virtually forgotten by readers and critics elsewhere. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, Akhmatova gradually felt more secure and safe as a poet in her homeland, and her work was tolerated, though not celebrated, by the Soviet leadership. Her literary voice was renewed, and her works once again came to the attention of scholars and critics. In the years prior to her death works such as Requiem and Poema bez geroya (1960; Poem without a Hero) saw publication, and a new body of work emerged for critical scrutiny. National and international critics had lauded Akhmatova's early works for their blend of graceful language and complex classical Russian forms of poetry. As the full breadth of her achievement became visible and was published first in Russian and then in translation throughout the world, she was recognized as not only one of the few poets of her generation to survive to old age in her country, but as one of the most accomplished Russian poets of the twentieth century. Sam Driver notes that in Requiem, in particular, Akhmatova managed to “generalize her own shattering experience into an epic cry for her people.” The work is accepted as one of the masterpieces of her career, and it continues to receive critical attention, not simply as an example of laudable art emerging from the fire of persecution, but as a carefully crafted masterwork composed by a master poet.