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Sam N. Driver (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: Driver, Sam N. “Later Works.” In Anna Akhmatova, pp. 125-55. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.

[In the following excerpt, Driver offers a thematic overview of Akhmatova's Requiem.]

Unlike the Poem Without a Hero,Requiem is not a private poem. It is not so much a new experiment in Akhmatova's poetry as a culmination of a style perfected over the decades preceding; Akhmatova organizes her characteristic devices and techniques into an amazingly powerful statement which requires no elaboration or “explanation.”

Neither is the Requiem a private poem in the sense that the subject, unlike that of the “Petersburg Tale,” is immediately accessible to anyone with a knowledge of Russia's recent history—and all too well-known to those who lived in Russia during the late 1930's. The poem is, if not private, deeply personal: but Akhmatova is able to generalize her own shattering experience into an epic cry for her people. It was a time when “The stars of death stood above us, / And guiltless Russia huddled trembling / Under bloody boots / And under the tires of the Black Moriahs.”

For the introduction to Requiem, Akhmatova wrote: “In the terrible years of the Ezhovshchina1, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines in Leningrad.” Time has dulled the mind to the enormity of what happened in Russia in the late 1930's, but Akhmatova's contemporaries can recall the horror bound up in her simple statement.

After the murder of the Leningrad Party Secretary Sergey Kirov in 1934, there started a chain reaction of political arrests, interrogations and executions which climaxed in the Great Purge of 1935-38. The show trials and the liquidation of the “enemies of the people” began. The population of the prison camps grew from six million in 1937 to ten million by 1940-42.2 Even ordinary and innocent people were denounced in the general hysteria. In the cities, the prisons filled the minds of everyone; scarcely a family was not in some way affected. Long lines of mothers, wives and sisters formed beneath the prison walls. It is here that Akhmatova stood, waiting for news of her imprisoned son, Lev; it is here that she raised her cry for Russia's suffering, and it is here she would have her monument raised:

And if someone in this land
Thinks to raise a monument to me,
I agree to this honor
But with a condition—place it not
Near the sea, where I was born,
My last tie with the sea is broken,
Nor near that sacred stump in the garden at Tsarskoe,
Where an inconsolable shade searches for me,
But here where I stood for three hundred hours,
And where they did not draw back the bolts for me.
Because, even in blessed death I'm afraid
I'll forget the rumble of the Black Moriahs,
Forget how the hateful door clanged shut,
And how an old woman howled like a wounded beast.

As part of the introduction, Akhmatova gives a brief reminiscence from the days spent in the prison lines:

Once somebody somehow “recognized” me. Then a woman behind me, lips blue from the cold, who had never before heard my name, wakened from the stupor common to us all and asked close to my ear (we all spoke in whispers there): “And you can describe this?” And I said, “I can.” Then something like a smile slipped over what had once been her face.

It is to these women that Akhmatova dedicates her poem, and with their voices that she speaks:

 I would like to name them all by name, But the list has been taken away...

(This entire section contains 2714 words.)

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 and there's nowhere to find out.
For them I wove a wide cover
Out of the poor words I overheard from them.
I remember them always and everywhere,
And I shall not forget them even in some new sorrow.
And if they shut my tortured mouth
Which shouts with the voices of a hundred million,
Let the women remember me likewise
On the eve of my memorial day.

These lines come from the “Second Epilogue”; the structural divisions in the poem are quite complex. There is the prose “In Place of an Introduction,” a dedication, a poetic “Introduction,” and then a series of ten lyrical poems, not directly related to one another, and employing a variety of styles and moods, but each representing a step in a progression which replaces the usual poetic narrative. The two epilogues follow, returning from the lyric to the epic stance of the “Dedication” and “Introduction.”

The “Dedication” begins: Pered etim gorem gnutsya gory, / Ne techyot velikaya reka / (Before such grief mountains bend, / The great river does not flow).

Akhmatova's genius at orchestration makes the opening line a wonderfully powerful one.3 The “Dedication” continues to state the theme of the poem, and the “Introduction” repeats it: “It was when only the dead / Smiled, glad to be at peace. / And Leningrad, like a useless appendage, / Flapped beside its prisons.”

From the general and epic tone of the prefatory pieces, the first poem of the cycle shifts to the specific and individual, a short lyric with the distinctive marks of Akhmatova's style:

They led you away at dawn;
I walked behind you as in a funeral,
The children wept in the darkened chamber,
The candle at the shrine overflowed.
On your lips, an icon-like coldness.
Deathly sweat on your brow … not to be forgotten.
And I like the wives of the Streltsy(4)
Will howl under the Kremlin's towers!

The suggestion of a funeral is not an unusual one in Akhmatova's early poetry (compare from 1916 the lines: ya plakal'shchits stayu vedu za soboy—I lead behind me a flock of mourners).

Also, the rich lexicon borrowed from an older Russia is, as we have seen, a characteristic feature of Akhmatova's earlier work: the almost obsolete gornitsa (chamber), the Orthodox associations of the word bozhnitsa (shrine, perhaps icon stand or icon corner), and the comparison using the word “icon” itself.

The breathless hesitancy of the lyrical moment which marks so many of the early lyrics is here. At the full realization of the emotion, there is a breaking point; the melted wax on the votive candle trembles and spills over. The wire snaps; control is gone: “Budu ya kak streletskie zhonki / Pod kremlyovskimi bashnyami vyt'!”/(And I like the wives of the Streltsy / Will howl under the Kremlin's towers!)

This is an astonishingly forceful evocation of another tragic time in Russian history: the wives wailing near the walls of the Kremlin, their husbands executed before their eyes. Into this powerful image, Akhmatova introduces a note of pathos in the unexpected diminutive of “wives” (zhonki). In the tension created, she has produced two of her most striking lines. The wail of the Streltsy women is echoed again in the “Epilogue”—in the howl of the old woman as the prison door slams shut on her loved one. There arises a whole series of associations with the brave and loyal Russian women who followed their men into prison and exile—from Nataliya Dolgorukaya to Maria Volkonskaya and beyond.

After a complete emotional break in Akhmatova's poems, we have come to expect a quick return to calm. In the early lyrics, it is often the calm of resignation, or that brought on by force of will. In the later poetry, there is the suggestion of an unnatural calm, a calm that is not quite sane. It is as though the mind, to protect itself, loses touch with reality and its unbearable grief. The tendency in some early poems for the persona to stand aside and apparently observe herself as a separate person is even more marked in the later poetry. Here, the separation can become complete.

The second lyric has meaning in this sense: a calm with a suggestion of madness after intense grief, and the dissociation of the poet from herself.

Quietly flows the quiet Don,
Into the house comes the yellow moon.
Comes in with his hat cocked jauntily,
The yellow moon sees a shadow.
This woman is sick,
This woman is alone
Husband in the grave, son in prison,
Pray for me a little.

The shift from the emotional break in the first lyric is abrupt; quiet is introduced in one line. The evocation of the Don also suggests a kind of epic calm, and is part of the epic motif of Russia's mighty rivers: the unnamed “great river” and the misty Neva of the “Dedication,” the quiet Don here, the swirling Yenisei, and at the very end, once more the Neva.

Calm is reestablished, but it is only apparent: the odd impression of the moonlight suggests the mind disordered by grief, and there is a confusion between first and third persons. In the following lyric, the confusion is resolved: the persona divorced entirely from the suffering self. “No, that is not I, that is someone else who is suffering. / I couldn't suffer like that, and as to what happened— / Let it be covered over with black cloths, / And let the lamps be carried out … / Night.”

The gesture of covering here is not simply suggestive of covering the dead; there is a subtle use here of a mainly Orthodox association which is not infrequent in Akhmatova's verse. It carries the idea of comfort and protection. In the “Epilogue,” Akhmatova wrote of the women standing in the prison lines: “For them I wove a wide cover / Out of the poor words I heard from them.”

The word used for cover is pokrov, and the Orthodox association is with the veil of the Virgin, its comfort and protection.5

With the finality of the single word “night” of the last line, the poem draws to a complete stop. The next part takes up a theme which is to be central to The Poem Without a Hero: time past in the present. The young noblewoman and fashionable poetess of Petersburg in 1913 reappears momentarily standing “three hundredth or so” in the line under the grim walls of the Kresty prison. There are now three personae present, the same and yet not the same: the grief-stricken mother, the person speaking here who cannot bear to suffer so, and the “gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo.”

You should be shown, you who loved to make fun of things,
You who were the favorite of all your friends,
The gay little sinner of Tsarskoe Selo,
What will happen in your life—
As three hundredth or so in line
You will stand under the Kresty walls,
And with your hot tear
Burn through the New Year's ice.
And not a sound—and how many
Innocent lives are ending there …

The next two poems are lyrical treatments of the poet's apprehension of her terror and despair. They are followed by the central poem of Requiem, wonderfully simple and deeply moving in its simplicity.


And the stone word fell
Upon my still living breast.
Never mind, I was ready after all,
I'll manage somehow or other.
I have lots to do today:
I have to kill my memory utterly,
I've got to turn my soul to stone,
I've got to learn to live again—
And if not … The hot rustle of summer
Is like a holiday outside my window.
For a long time I've had a presentiment of this
Bright day and empty house.

For the central poem in her long work, Akhmatova chooses restraint where one might expect a complete breakdown or histrionics. After all, the fifth poem in the cycle begins “For seventeen months I've been crying out, / I am calling you home. / I have thrown myself at the feet of the hangman; / You are my son and the terror of my life.”

In “The Sentence,” however, there is extreme understatement, a simple, workaday vocabulary and tone. It is not simply epic calm in the face of tragedy, or a kind of resignation and acceptance. The intensity of the moment is increased many times by the pathetic effort of the will to overcome a grief that borders on madness.

In the context of all Akhmatova's poetry up to this point, the poet's very own familiar devices and symbols, already perfected in less tragic days, lend an extraordinary pathos. The conversational tone, the stone imagery, the suggestion of clairvoyance, the peculiar use of bright/radiant, the pervasive symbol of the empty or abandoned house—all these things were once, after all, the stock-in-trade of the “gay little sinner of Tsarskoe Selo.” Their reappearance here subtly compounds the emotional charge of this “restrained” lyric.

An apostrophe to death follows: “You will come anyway—so why not now?” The persona will greet death in any form he chooses—even in “the little game which he himself invented, and with which everyone is familiar to the point of nausea”: “That I may see the top of a blue cap6 / And the superintendent pale from fear. / It's all the same to me. The Yenisei swirls / And the polar star shines …”

The next poem and the last lyric in the series takes up directly the theme of madness, again with the suggestion of another person suffering:

Madness has already covered
Half my soul with its wing,
And gives to drink of a fiery wine
And beckons into a dark valley.
And I understood that
I must lose the battle to it,
Listening to my own raving
As though it were someone else's.

The last part of the poem proper is entitled “Crucifixion.” In the brief space of two quatrains, Akhmatova is able to generalize the intensely lyrical emotion of the preceding cycle of nine poems. To do this, she relies once again on the universality of the mother suffering for the son sentenced and persecuted. From the mother and son, the poem moves to the Mother and the Son:

A mighty choir of angels praised the hour,
And the skies melted in fire.
To the Father He said: “Why hast thou forsaken me!”
And to the Mother: “Oh, do not weep for me …”
The Magdalene struck her breast and sobbed,
The beloved disciple turned to stone,
But there, where the Mother stood silent
No one dared even to glance.

The poem ends with this brief and extremely effective generalization of human experience, and in the “Epilogues,” the epic stance of the introductory poems is again assumed. In the second “Epilogue,” the theme receives its final statement. The pounding, compelling amphibracs give the impression that no force can stay the completion of that statement. And when it is completed, the poet returns again to the motif of the great rivers of Russia, here as in the first part, to the Neva and its association with Pushkin, The Bronze Horseman, with Peter the Great and Russian history:

I tikho idut po Neve korabli.
And the ships go quietly along the Neva.


  1. The “Ezhov time”; from N. I. Ezhov, head of the N.K.V.D. (Secret Police) from 1936-38, who led the Terror.

  2. Georg von Rauch, History of Soviet Russia. New York: Praeger (1967), p. 242.

  3. The close juxtaposition of gutturals suggests a throat constricted by grief. Akhmatova consciously used juxtapositions of glottal stops for emotional signification; elsewhere she notes the use of juxtaposed “k”s to suggest extreme agitation. The vowel sounds are carefully ordered in a progression from front to back. The line descends in intonation as in physical articulation. The following line, as characteristic of Akhmatova's earlier orchestrations, reverses the procedure.

  4. The Streltsy were a standing infantry which sided with the Tsarevna Sophia against Peter the Great in an attempt to preserve their power and privileges. After their second rebellion in 1698, Peter executed over seven hundred of the Streltsy, and many of them were killed before the walls of the Kremlin.

  5. The Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God, which is little known in the West, is an important Orthodox festival, commemorating her appearance in Constantinople in the Tenth Century. Kneeling in tears in the center of a church, she extended her veil over all the people, who felt the grace of her protection. See Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons. Boston: Book and Art Shop (1952), pp. 153-54.

  6. The blue cap (golubaya shapka) is meant to suggest the N.K.V.D.; the superintendent (upravdom) is a kind of concierge and also a minor functionary who manages the building.

Sonia I. Ketchian (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Ketchian, Sonia I. “An Inspiration for Anna Akhmatova's Requiem: Hovannes Tumanian.” In Studies in Russian Literature In Honor of Vsevolod Setchkarev, edited by Julian W. Connolly and Sonia I. Ketchian, pp. 175-188. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, 1986.

[In the following essay, Ketchian proposes that one source of inspiration for Akhmatova's Requiem was a Tumanian.]

Numerous literary, cultural, and historical sources have enriched Akhmatova's masterpiece Requiem (1935-1961). Some have been studied, but many more await their turn.1 The present objective is to illuminate a source of inspiration for Requiem, the poem “Requiem” (“Hogehangist”) by Hovannes Tumanian (1869-1923).2 While there is no written reference to familiarity with Tumanian's poem and its translator Naum Grebnev, the likelihood of Akhmatova being familiar with the poem is great, particularly in interlinear translation.3 For, on the one hand, attested acquaintance of Akhmatova with Armenian poetry dates to the mid-thirties, when she commenced her own Requiem. At that time she published her translation of the Symbolist poet Daniel Varuzhan's (1884-1915) poem “First Sin” in the journal Zvezda (1936) and was translating two poems of the fiery Eghishe Charents (1897-1937), according to her prose piece “What I Am Working on”:

I have devoted much time to translations. Recently in Zvezda appeared my translation of a long poem by the Armenian poet Daniel Varuzhan—“First Sin.” Now I have completed the translation of two poems by the contemporary Armenian poet Charents.4

On the other hand, Akhmatova's poem “Imitation from the Armenian,” broadly dated “the 1930's,” most certainly designates an Armenian source through its title alone, which specifies the poem's genre and general source. This poem of Akhmatova derives from a quatrain from the philosophical cycle Quatrains by Tumanian, as demonstrated in my article “The Genre of Imitation and Anna Akhmatova.”5 The allegoric theme of Tumanian's quatrain is the Turkish genocide of the Armenian nation in 1915. There are three translations of the quatrain into Russian, that of M. Pavlova, K. Lipskerov, and N. Grebnev.6 A literal translation from the Armenian reads:

In my dream a ewe
Came up to me with a question:
“May God protect your son,
How was the taste of my child?”


In her “Imitation” Akhmatova retains the forced servility of the wronged one, who can seek no justice from the perpetrator:


I shall come into your dream
As a black ewe, approach the throne
On withered and infirm
Legs, bleating: ‘Padishah,
Have you dined well? You who hold
The world like a bead, beloved
Of Allah, was my little son
To your taste, was he fat enough?’

(the 1930's)

Given these premises connecting Akhmatova with Tumanian in a certain theme, I will investigate similarities in the two Requiems with attention directed first to general parallels and then to the individual pieces which comprise Akhmatova's poem. A literal translation of Tumanian's poem (1915) and its Armenian title reads:


And I arose that, in accordance with our ancestral laws,
I might read the last repose for the hapless victims of
                                                                                                                                  my nation,
Who in the country and city, and on the hills and plains,
                                                                                                                        from sea to sea
Are expired, dead, sprawled and scattered in myriads …
And I took fire from the red flames of the Armenian
And I relighted one by one in the bosom of the serene and
                                                                                                                                  cold heaven
The great votive candles of the Armenian land,
The Massis and the Ara, the Sipan and the Sermantz, the
                                                                                                                        Nemruth, the Tandurek,
As well as the lamp of the Holy Arakadz, which, like
                                                                                                                                  the distant sun,
Is unattainable, interminable, refulgent, and bright
                                                                                                                                            above my head.
I stood, grave, alone, and solid, like Mount Massis,
I called out to those tragic souls, scattered forever,
As far as Mesopotamia, Assyria, the Armenian Sea,
As far as Hellespont, as far as the stormy shores of Pontus.
“Repose, my orphans … in vain is sorrow, in vain and
                                                                                                                                            useless. …
Man—the man-eating beast—will remain so for yet a long
                                                                                                              time” …
To my right the Euphrates, to my left the Tigris passed by,
Reading psalms in formidable voices and going through
                                                                                                                                  deep-deep valleys.
And the clouds arising from the Tsirac, the enormous censer,
Set out from the Flowering Hills, from the Armenian Range;
Fragrant, aromatic, they moved toward faraway places,
To sprinkle gems, to make flowers fragrant, to incense
As far as Mesopotamia, as far as Assyria, as far as the
                                                                                                                                  Armenian Sea,
As far as Hellespont, as far as the stormy shores of
                                                                                                                                            Pontus …
“Repose, my orphans … in vain is sorrow, in vain and
                                                                                                                                  useless. …
Man—the man-eating beast—will remain so for yet a long
                                                                                                              time”. …(7)

The similarities in the two poems are not at all obvious, as they were in the poem titled “Imitation from …” Still, if Akhmatova once achieved striking emphasis in equating the Genocide of the Armenians with Stalinist Terror (for which now in Requiem she employs the narrower definition of Ezhovist Terror to protect herself), she could easily have resorted to the same theme a second time, if more obliquely, in conjunction with various other allusions from Russian and world culture and literature.

Both of Tumanian's poems were created in the same period, 1915-1917, and treat the theme of “man—the man-eating beast.” Both works of Akhmatova involve a mother, a son, and a seen, or unseen (in Requiem), villain (palach—executioner). The villain of Requiem, Stalin, is intimated in the poem and understood by those conversant with the times. In the case of both poets the main perpetrator of the crimes comes from a different ethnic origin—a Georgian persecuting Russians and other peoples in Akhmatova's work, Turks persecuting Armenians in Tumanian's work. There is, then, the distinct possibility that the title for Akhmatova's work was inspired by Tumanian's Armenian equivalent, without discounting the influence of musical requiems. Importantly, Tumanian's title refers mainly to a ceremony for the dead and only incidentally calls out to the orphans of the atrocities, whereas many of Akhmatova's victims are still living.8 Yet she fears a terrible death for them. Akhmatova develops funereal images for her living son, Lev Gumilev: “I followed you as at a wake.” In this way she underscores the fate of those who perished and those who are to follow.

In composition, the poems are dissimilar: Tumanian has twenty-six long, ponderous lines of fourteen and fifteen syllables. The verse is syllabic—customary for Armenian prosody. By contrast, Akhmatova's long poem consists of sixteen pieces. One is in prose—“In Lieu of a Foreword” (1957). Among the verse pieces there are one epigraph, two introductions—“Dedication” and “Introduction,” a two-part “Epilog” and ten core poems, all featuring various metrical and compositional form.

The Requiems of both poets commemorate the tragic fate of a nation and of millions of its victims. Their striking similarity lies in the fact that neither poet eulogizes a singular or single fate. As Sam Driver has aptly observed in his book Anna Akhmatova, in this deeply personal poem, “Akhmatova is able to generalize her own shattering experience into an epic cry for her people.”9

Further, there is correspondence of ambience in both poets. Tumanian and even Akhmatova, despite her poetic persona being three hundredth in line, stand isolated in the face of personal and national tragedy. Both are observers, but secondhand observers, or outside participants in the calamity. For Tumanian, the persona stands alone with the aftermath of the slaughter beneath him in the distance; he was spared this fate, because he is an Eastern Armenian, less subject to these particular horrors, insofar as the massacres engulfed chiefly the greater, Western part of the Armenian nation. His speaker moves magically in thought over distance to places beyond the borders of historical Armenia. Akhmatova, too, moves great distances in imagination over land. Similarly, although residing in the same political entity as the prisoners, Akhmatova is physically removed from them, i.e. from those suffering firsthand in prison and in concentration camps. She is, however, surrounded by sufferers like herself, the families of the incarcerated—secondhand, as it were, sufferers, while Tumanian mourns the victims alone and is removed from all other people. Both speakers, then, are grieving for others, not for themselves.

Both personas are strong and brave. Tumanian's speaker is almost detached from his sorrow. As for Akhmatova, Sam Driver points out her method of “extreme understatement” in the piece “Sentence.” Still, Akhmatova's speaker breaks down emotionally following the sentencing of her son; hers is an attempt to seek oblivion in madness and death. Tumanian's speaker, on the other hand, is beyond the stage of sentencing. In fact, the victims he mourns were slaughtered without trial. Nonetheless, Akhmatova's speaker is sufficiently stoic to create, in the words of Pushkin, her “monument unwrought by human hands” to personal and national tragedy.10 In light of these facts, it is difficult to agree with the Soviet composer Dmitrii Shostakovich's statement that in Requiem “protest is lacking, the note of Christian humility is too strong” or with Alexander Solzhenitsyn who chided the poet, “This was a tragedy of the people, but you have only the tragedy of a mother and son.”11 On the contrary, Akhmatova merely avoids histrionics. Her main protest is firmly embodied in her monumental poem, as noted by M. Yovanovich (171).

Neither poet attempts to describe the atrocities committed. For Akhmatova, such reticence is in keeping with her unique circumspect style. Indeed, it is well known that she rarely describes in the true sequential sense, notwithstanding the presence in Requiem's prefatory prose piece, “In Lieu of a Foreword,” of the query by the emaciated woman in the line:

“And can you describe this?”

“And I said, ‘I can.’”

Conversely, Tumanian's customary style is not devoid of sequential description; still, he presents here images without detailing, or naming the crimes. His attitude is: the less said, the better one is able to cope with the atrocities and to assume the difficult task of living.

Above all, both poets try to kill memory. Akhmatova is specific: “I must kill my memory totally.” Tumanian eradicates memory by meticulously avoiding mention of the perpetrators of the heinous crimes: to name the brutes would be to immortalize them. Instead, in the words of the contemporary poet Vahagn Davtian, the universal criteria denominating Tumanian's poem break down the general concepts of power and subjugation, and

… the weak and the strong acquire relative values. You begin to feel and realize, quite unexpectedly, the purity and strength of the slaughtered, dead people, whose literary patriarch is sufficiently strong to suffer his immense sorrow in dignity and has the power to say, “Repose, my orphans … vain are the emotions … vain and inept …”12

In Akhmatova the distancing of the self in her mind—that is intellectually—from the grief exhibited physically and emotionally, is akin to the stoicism in Tumanian. Compare the piece, “No, it is not I,” which clarifies the image in the “Dedication”—“Yet goes … swaying … Alone.”—as well as that in the piece “Gently flows the quiet Don”—“Of a woman lying ill.” Understandably, making personal experience intellectually strange through defamiliarization results in a form of muting or killing of memory.13 The quietness of the religious rites discharged by Tumanian's persona, the matter-of-fact manner of their performance is the result of numbness. Correspondingly, his attitude deadens the pain sufficiently to give rise to philosophical and social contemplation, which will raise the persona above disruptive depression. Thus for both poets a kind of numbness exists as a result of horror. It can, in the words of Sam Driver, “take the form of madness (losing one's right mind, seeing oneself as someone else) or apparent calm in monumental self-abnegation, mechanically following rituals (another kind of madness).”14

In surveying vast expanses of the land, both speakers, in addition to the epic range, provide specific geographic names. Clearly, through toponymy (Tsushima, the epic rivers of the Soviet Union—the Yenisei, the Neva, and the Don, the steppes of Central Asia, the Black Sea shore where she was born) Akhmatova demonstrates the magnitude of the tragedy's grip on her country. Following this she moves out into the realm of Russian history through her comparison with the seventeenth century wailing wives of the executed strelets soldiers and of religion—to Jerusalem and to Christ. Tumanian intimates the devastated barrenness of an area, whose formerly thriving roots go back to Biblical times and places. He appears to be negating the painful present and the current sole masters of the area by using classical and purely Armenian toponymy in some cases (“Pontus” for “Black Sea”; the Armenian “Massis” for “Ararat”). The two speakers also present mountains in a figurative sense. Akhmatova alliterates the dr and gr sounds in “Dedication” to evoke Marina Tsvetaeva's Poem About a Mountain in introducing her mountain imagery: “Pered etim gorem gnutsia gory” (The mountains buckle before this grief).15 Akhmatova even replicates the stressed front vowels and the repeated o. While Yovanovich, like others before her, has noticed the play in Akhmatova on the root gor, she does not connect it with the interplay of gore—gor'kii (grief—bitter), so pivotal to Akhmatova's poetics.16 Nor does she draw parallels with Tsvetaeva.

After naming mountains, Tumanian speaks of them symbolically, as religious votive candles:

And I relighted one by one …
The great votive candles of the Armenian land,
The Massis and the Ara, the Sipan and the Sermantz,
                                                                                                    the Nemruth, the Tandurek, …

Through simile Tumanian equates stoicism with mighty Mount Massis: “I stood, grave, alone and solid, like Mount Massis.” Both speakers mention rivers. Akhmatova shows that tears are more multitudinous and swift than a certain river: “The great river does not flow.” Instead, “tears gush.” The river in question is not the Don, it is probably the Volga, or one of the great Siberian rivers or none at all. Later the speaker will refer to the Don: “Tikho l'etsya tikhii Don” (The quiet Don quietly pours), using the verb “pours” in lieu of the more usual “flows” to bring movement closer to an image of tears. Sam Driver comments on the river:

The evocation of the Don also suggests a kind of epic calm, and is part of the epic motif of Russia's mighty rivers: the unnamed “great river” and the misty Neva of the “Dedication,” the quiet Don here, the swirling Yenisei, and at the very end, once more the Neva.


The tautology of the word tikhii (quiet) in the line is probably an ironic reference to Mikhail Sholokhov's Tikhii Don (Quiet Flows the Don) and evokes images of tears of despair.17 The image of the Siberian river in the piece “To Death” adds scope to the poem's geographic space and, conceivably, incorporates indignant supportive emotion. Similarly, Tumanian's mind and voice reach out to Mesopotamia with its two famous rivers and to other bodies of water:

I called out to those tragic souls, scattered forever,
As far as Mesopotamia, Assyria, the Armenian Sea,
As far as Hellespont, as far as the stormy shores of Pontus.

He then names two rivers that participate openly in the rites:

To my right the Euphrates, to my left the Tigris passed by,
Reading psalms in formidable voices …

Tumanian, then, is clear about the rivers' participation in the lament, whereas Akhmatova intimates it.

The perpetrated evil represents such immense proportions in Requiem that the normal benevolent mind cannot grasp it; in the piece “The light years are flying” Akhmatova's speaker says, “What has happened, I can't take in.” There is the same bewilderment in Tumanian, although he is less vocal and accepts philosophically, as it were, the atrocities due to their recurring nature. Although convinced of the evil's inevitability, he, like Akhmatova, transcends spiritually, and even physically, the tragedy at hand. Further, Tumanian's image of “man—the man-eating beast” is reflected in Akhmatova's piece “For seventeen months I have called you” in the lines:

… I can't say who's
Man, who's beast any more. …

Both utterances evoke the devouring image in the quatrain of Tumanian used by Akhmatova in her “Imitation from the Armenian.”

In Akhmatova's piece “The Sentence” the stony word of the sentencing—“There fell the word of stone”—induces the persona's desire for numbing her heart or “turning her soul into stone” in order to relearn how to continue living. Tumanian's heart is likewise numbed through the horrors, yet he masks the numbness under valor.

In the piece “To Death” Akhmatova calls for death so that she may not witness the living sacrifices. The thought of death never even crosses Tumanian's mind, since he must live on to remember and to record the atrocities through art. Where Akhmatova alludes to the culprit—the NKVD, the Secret Police, whose uniform sports a blue-topped hat—through “the top of the light-blue cap,” Tumanian maintains a chilling silence on the topic of the executioners, unlike in his quatrain with its startling revelation at the end. Only a hint is provided in the ominous “man—the man-eating beast” that the deaths were not caused by any natural disaster, such as an earthquake.

Since requiems are religious rites, it is to be expected that both personas appear to find solace in religion. Akhmatova's imagery includes the Crucifixion of Christ, Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, “the cold of an icon,” “your high cross,” “the ringing of censers,” “Rising as though for early mass,” “in the image-case candlelight guttered.” The name of the prison, Kresty (Crosses), resounds with irony, evoking both the image of graveyard crosses and the Russian idiom “nesti svoi krest” (to bear one's cross). Mountains as lighted candles figure in Tumanian in performing the mechanical aspect of the ancient rites for the dead; the rivers intone psalms. In Akhmatova the Biblical imagery gains prominence in the piece “Crucifixion,” when insanity seems to overcome her narrator, conceivably, as the only salvation, and certainly as a fitting comparison between the loss of an only son by the Virgin Mary and by the persona. Insanity, however, eludes the speaker, as if the popular denouement of literary tragedies were too simplistic a solution in “real life.” Importantly, both mothers grow stony in their grief, and one of the memories the speaker must leave behind is the terrible eyes of her son which embody “petrified suffering.”

As already mentioned, the bipartite “Epilog” to Akhmatova's Requiem represents a hymn whose tribute surmounts the personal sorrow. In its first part the narrator becomes specific:

And I pray not only for myself,
But also for all those who stood there.

Her focus rests on those suffering outside the prisons and the camps:

And if they shut my tormented mouth,
Through which a hundred million of my people cry, …

The second piece of “Epilog” finds the persona disassociating herself from the perpetrators of the terrors through her protest that a future monument to her may be erected only at the site of the Kresty Prison to memorialize her tears and anguish:

And if ever in this country they should want
To build me a monument
I consent to that honor,
But only on condition that they
Erect it not on the sea-shore where I was born: …
But here, where I stood for three hundred hours
And where they never, never opened the doors for me.
Lest in blessed death I should forget
The grinding scream of the Black Marias,
The hideous clanging gate, the old
Woman wailing like a wounded beast.

Curiously, the speaker uses the phrase “in this country,” which may sound neutral in English, since it is used by Americans to speak of their own country; however, in Russian only a foreigner would use the expression within Russia itself. A Russian would say “v nashei strane,” or “u nas (v Rossii)” (in our country). Her use distances the country.

Most important, in the “Epilog” Akhmatova overtly transcends the particular, or personal, in favor of the general. In this narrative poem she has crafted a lasting monument to the victims of the years of the Terror on both sides of the bars, while depicting only the families outside the prisons. The prisoners remain a blur, as if they were already in Hades, or their suffering were too terrible for poetry. The silence with which Akhmatova shrouds the prisoners is akin to that of Tumanian for the dead victims. Tumanian proffers a spiritual monument, as it were, by transforming the mountain peaks into religious votive candles, where Akhmatova, in turn, rejects any future monument to herself as a poet, with one possible stipulation for acceptance—that it be erected on the very site of her greatest torment and where so many suffered with her. Accordingly, she transforms even a personal literary monument into a general one with political overtones.

Tumanian's rhythm and sounds are beautifully solemn. Their resigned majestic notes evoke a musical requiem for his dead victims. Akhmatova's victims, on the other hand, are mostly living at present, which is one reason she does not imitate a single-motif piece of music. Nor does she evoke Tumanian's rhythm. If Akhmatova had tried to imitate the fourteen and fifteen syllabic line in Russian, the result would have sounded like a throwback to the eighteenth century and to Vasilii Trediakovskii's verse in particular. Its impact would have been negligible. Instead, she chose variation, as if she were searching in all directions and trying to release the prisoners in a thousand ways. In her imagination, at least, she was. The ten core poems are preceded by an epigraph and three introductory pieces, as if a work on imprisonment were difficult to commence. Once begun, however, the surge subsides slowly, as evidenced by the ponderous bipartite “Epilog.” Lacking consecutive narration, these poems of diverse rhythm shift their focus to various aspects of the leitmotif of prison and suffering. Each poem has a different rhythmic approach, as if anguish had sent the mother's head reeling, with her mind fixated on her loss.

Akhmatova's Requiem is not totally isolated from the body of her oeuvre. Its continuation is observed by Jeanne van der Eng-Liedmeier in her seminal article “Reception as a Theme in Achmatova's Later Poetry,” where Akhmatova's heroic attempt will be paralleled in her later war poems in which she emerges as a poet crying out on behalf of her countrymen, her “people.” Eng-Liedmeier states that the poem Requiem, which describes the reign of terror:

… contains at the same time an accusation of those responsible and preserves the memory of what happened for future generations. “Do not forget,” “remember always,” is indeed the central motif in Requiem.18

The same statements are true of Tumanian.

Both poets display guarded optimism at best for the future, expressed by nature imagery. Tumanian turns to the clouds that:

Set out from the Flowering Hills, from the Armenian Range; …
To sprinkle gems, to make flowers fragrant, to incense perfume.

The tears bringing rain that will renew nature and life in the form of growth and development are far away from the present locus. Akhmatova's perorating lines likewise feature the image of tears in the guise of snow melting on the persona's future statue. She seems to be dispatching the prison pigeon far away with a message to distant friends. The image of the ships sailing down the Neva River evokes trips to foreign shores. There is a hint here at the dispersal of her family and people. Her two brothers, Andrei and Victor Gorenko, were living abroad. Similarly, the remnants of Tumanian's people had dispersed throughout the world.

Thus, although Akhmatova never translated Tumanian's poetry, she appears to have been sufficiently familiar with it to incorporate aspects of it into her own verse in an attempt to render more memorable and forceful her own art. Her own leitmotif acquired a greater universality through her homage to another master and the tragedy of another people.


  1. For influences from various literatures see Milovoe Yovanovich “K razboru ‘chuzhikh golosov’ v Rekvieme Akhmatovoi,” Russian Literature, 15, No. 1 (1984), 10.

  2. For the text of Akhmatova's Requiem see A. Akhmatova, Sochineniya, 2 ed., ed. G. P. Struve et al. (Munich: Inter-Language Literary Associates, 1967-68, vols. I-II; Paris: YMCA, 1983, vol. III), I, 359-70. All translations of texts into English are mine, other than the translations of Akhmatova's “Imitation from the Armenian” and Requiem, which are translated by D. M. Thomas. See his A. Akhmatova, Way of All Earth (London: Secher and Warburg, 1979), 22; A. Akhmatova, Requiem and Poem without a Hero (London: Paul Elek, 1976), 23-32. In some instances, where exact wording was needed for Requiem, I have used my own literal translation.

  3. This is the only Russian version known to me. It was published three years after Akhmatova's death in 1966, long after it would have been useful to her. Grebnev alters the poem noticeably, beginning with his title “Oplakivanie” (“Mourning”). Compositionally, he reduces it to fourteen rhyming couplets, where the Armenian has four stanzas of uneven length (4+6+6+10). For Grebnev's translation see Ovannes Tumanyan, Izbrannye proizvedeniya v trekh tomakh (Yerevan: Ayastan, 1969), I, 100-101. Grebnev has translated a fair amount of Tumanian, including an entire booklet of the Quatrains: Ovannes Tumanyan, Chetverostishiya (Yerevan: Ayastan, 1968). For the Armenian text of Tumanian's “Requiem” see H. Tumanian, Banasteghtsutiunner (Constantinople: K. Keshishian, 1922), 37-38.

  4. A. Akhmatova, Sochineniya, III, 126. Interestingly, Charents has a long poem with the title partly in Latin, similar to Akhmatova's, Requiem Aeternam Komitasu. Otryvki, dedicated to the great Armenian composer Komitas, who lost his mind when witnessing the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915. See Egishe Charents, Stikhotvoreniya i poemy. Biblioteka poeta. Bol'shaya seriya. (Leningrad: Sov. pisatel', 1973), 471-82.

  5. S. Ketchian, “The Genre of Podražanie and Anna Achmatova,” Russian Literature, 15, No. 1 (1984).

  6. The two Russian translations, other than Grebnev's, are found in Ovannes Tumanyan, Izbrannye proizvedeniya (M.: Gos. izd. khud. lit., 1946), 89 (the translation of M. Pavlova) and in Ovannes Tumanyan, Izbrannye sochineniya (Yerevan: Arm. gos. izd., 1956), 101 (the translation of K. Lipskerov). Mention of Akhmatova's friendship with Lipskerov is found in Lidiya Chukovskaya, Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi (Paris: YMCA, 1976-), II, 533, 29.

  7. I am indebted to poet Diana Der Hovanessian and Dr. Marzbed Margossian for locating the Armenian version of the poem for me after I had found the English excerpts in Kroonk (1982). An English poetic translation, “Rest in Peace,” is available in Hovannes Toumanian, Selected Works (Moscow: Progress, 1969), 25.

  8. Apart from Requiem … by Charents mentioned in note 4, similarly titled poems can be found in other literatures. My thanks to Prof. Helen Vendler of Harvard University who has found a “Requiem” by the Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson. It is like a final instruction from the deceased on the site of his burial and on the contents of his epitaph. The time for the poem's action is projected into the future. See The Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1900), 293. Aleksandr Blok has translated a “Rekviem” (“Requiem”) by the Latvian poet Vilis Plūdons (1874-1940). Written in 1912, it was translated in 1915. Like Stevenson's, it is a final instruction, the statement of a young man who has died for love in this case. Begging forgiveness of his mother, he brings his instructions to the act of burial. A. Blok, Sobranie sochinenii v vos'mi tomakh (Moscow: Gos. izd. khud. lit., 1960-62), III, 399-402. By contrast, Tumanian's poem is a requiem for the dead by a third party, where the present glosses over the past and bravely tries to project into the future. Akhmatova's poem is a requiem that probably intended to include past (dead) victims but concentrates on those living under hellish conditions on both sides of the bars. Since many will perish, her poem projects from the present into the not very distant future.

  9. Sam Driver, Anna Akhmatova (New York: Twayne, 1972), 139.

  10. Quoted from Pushkin's poem “Monument” (“Ya pamyatnik sebe vozdvig nerukotvornyi”). A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow: AN SSSR, 1962-68), III, 373.

  11. S. Volkov, “‘Rekviem’ Anny Akhmatovoi i Dzhona Tavenera,” Novoe russkoe slovo, April 4, 1984, 10. For a truly personal focus on the suffering of the speaker and her son see Akhmatova's five-piece cycle “Cherepki” (“Shards”), written in the late 1940's and early 1950's in A. Akhmatova, Sochineniya, III, 73-74.

  12. Vahagn Davtian, “The ‘Requiem’ of Hovannes Toumanian,” Kroonk, No. 4 (1982), 19.

  13. This impactful image has served as a title for the last volume, … Kill Memory … (N. Y.: New Directions, 1983), in the political trilogy by William Herrick.

  14. Quoted from Sam Driver's letter of comments.

  15. Compare Tsvetaeva's opening lines:

    Vzdrognut'—i gory s plech,
    I dusha—gore!
    Dai mne o gore spet':
    O moei gore.
    (To shudder—and a load off one's shoulders,
    And one's soul to grief!
    Let me sing of grief:
    About my mountain.)
  16. On the interplay of grief—bitter see S. Ketchian, The Poetry of Anna Akhmatova: A Conquest of Time and Space, Slavistische Beiträge, vol. 196 (Munich: Otto Sagner, 1986), 39-55. Intonations of Nikolai Nekrasov are evident in the sound play as well (the repetition of the “u” sounds, as in his poem “Zheleznaya doroga” (“The Railroad”).

  17. For a different explanation see Yovanovich, 170.

  18. Jeanne van der Eng-Liedmeier, “Reception as a Theme in Achmatova's Later Poetry,” Russian Literature, 15, No. 1 (1984), 110.

Susan Amert (essay date fall 1990)

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SOURCE: Amert, Susan. “Akhmatova's ‘Song of the Motherland’: Rereading the Opening Texts of Rekviem.Slavic Review 49, no. 3 (fall 1990): 374-89.

[In the following essay, Amert offers a close reading of the first two texts of Akhmatova's Requiem.]

Pokoinyi Alig'eri sozdal by desiatyi krug ada.

Anna Akhmatova

Hostias et preces tibi,
Domine, laudis offerimus:
tu suscipe pro animabus illis,
quarum hodie memoriam facimus:
fac eas, Domine, de morte
transire ad vitam.

the requiem mass

Anna Akhmatova's Rekviem is a deceptively simple piece. Compared to the opacity and self-conscious literariness of Poema bez geroia,Rekviem seems transparent, much like Akhmatova's early lyrics, and appears to demand little in the way of commentary or elucidation.1 Its very form and scope, however, as well as the dates of its composition (1935-1961), identify it as a product of the “later Akhmatova”—the Akhmatova who resumed writing in the mid-1930s after a decade of relative poetic inactivity, the Akhmatova who created Poema bez geroia.Rekviem fully adheres to the poetics of the later work,2 most strikingly in the salient role of intertextual references—allusions to Russian literature and the western European literary tradition—in the generation of meaning, a role that has only recently begun to be acknowledged.3 The workings of intertextuality in Rekviem are a primary focus of this article, which offers a close reading of the first two texts of the poema4—“Vmesto predisloviia,” the short prose preface written in 1957, and the “Posviashchenie,” twenty-five lines of verse composed in March 1940. Although they have as yet received little critical attention,5 these texts are of pivotal importance in Rekviem: Together, they image the poet and her addressees, defining their relations through references to Dante and Pushkin, among others. By incorporating these allusions into Rekviem, Akhmatova places herself in the tradition of Dante and Pushkin, claiming their moral authority as her own. The opening text, “Vmesto predisloviia,” tells the story of the genesis of Rekviem, concomitantly elucidating its very nature and purpose. The “Posviashchenie,” which constitutes a brilliant recasting of the genre of the “mass song,” serves as the overture of Rekviem, prefiguring the tragic progression of the ten numbered texts and the restorative impulse of the “Epilog.”

The laconic “Vmesto predisloviia” sets the stage. Its power in large part stems from the author's use of understatement; a strong tension exists between the text's matter-of-fact narrative tone, recalling reportage, and its subject matter. Understatement and restraint are, of course, distinctive features of Akhmatova's poetry, and, despite its markedly unpoetic tone, “Vmesto predisloviia” is in fact couched in terms of Akhmatova's poetic idiom; it employs a number of devices central to the early poetry, and likewise recasts certain prominent images and motifs. Here is the whole text:

V ctrasnyi gоdy izоvsiny y prоvila cimnadцats micyцiv v tyrimnyk оciridyk v Liningradi. Kaк-tо raz кtо-tо «оpоznal» miny. Tоgda ctоysay za mnоj zinsina c gоlubymi gubami, коtоray, коnicnо, niкоgda ni clykala mоigо imini, оcnulacs оt cvоjctvinnоgо nam vcim оцipininiy i cprоcila miny na ukо (tam vci gоvоrili sipоtоm):

—а etо vy mоziti оpicats?

I y cкazala:


Tоgda ctо-tо vrоdi ulybкi cкоlsznulо pо tоmu, ctо niкоgda bylо ii liцоm.6

This first-person narrative begins by identifying the historical context, seventeen months during the “terrible years of the Ezhovshchina.”7 Declaring her presence in Leningrad's prison lines during that period, the author goes on to relate a specific incident that occurred. An estranged act of recognition initiates the episode: “Kak-to raz kto-to ‘opoznal’ menia.” The neutral verb uznal is replaced here by the specialized opoznal, which literally means “identified,” as in the judicial expression “opoznat' prestupnika,” suggesting the narrator's complicity in the crime of being closely related to an “enemy of the nation” inside the prison—a crime often sufficient during those years to result in incarceration. The verb also figures in the forensic expression “opoznat' trup,” and connotations of lifelessness predominate in “Vmesto predisloviia.” The woman behind the speaker is distinguished by her “golubye guby” (replacing the customary alliteration “golubye glaza”), an emblem of lifelessness.8 In the phrase “svoistvennoe nam vsem otsepenenie,” this deathlike condition is defined as the common bond uniting all those present, for otsepenenie conjures up paralysis, insensibility, and even rigor mortis.

The theme of lifelessness finds its ultimate development in the telling evocation of a gesture in the final sentence: “Togda chto-to vrode ulybki skol'znulo po tomu, chto nekogda bylo ee litsom.” The foregrounding of this gesture recalls the importance of gestures in Akhmatova's early poetry, their crucial role in conveying emotion.9 Movements of the mouth and lips are particularly prominent in the early lyrics. Smiles, for instance, serve to express a whole range of emotions—from happiness and pleasure, to mere civility, to contempt, to intense pain and anguish. As Boris Eikhenbaum observed, movements of the lips are not just described but are accentuated in the sound orchestration of the poetry.10 This reflects the special valuation of the lips in the early lyrics: Besides conveying emotion, they figure as bearers of eros (for example, “I ulybaesh'sia, o ne odnu pchelu / Rumianaia ulybka soblaznila” [1:207]; compare the prominent motif of the “potselui”); moreover, they are both integral to speech and instrumental in the creative process (compare their prominence in “V to vremia ia gostila na zemle”).11 In “Vmesto predisloviia,” lips are first mentioned in passing in the phrase “zhenshchina s golubymi gubami.” The early lyrics paint lips in shades of red and pink, connoting vitality and sensuality (compare “Rumianaia ulybka” [1:207]; “Eti vishnevye videt' usta” [1:178]; “Moi rot trevozhno zaalel” [1:81]), or else in pale hues, to express tension or anxiety. The unprecedented appearance of the epithet golubye in “Vmesto predisloviia” measures the change from the world of the early poetry to the lifeless world of Rekviem. The modifier suggests numbness from a lack of air or from the cold, precluding sensation and hindering movement. Devoid of eros, these lips are impaired in their ability to convey emotion, and speech itself is threatened.

The final sentence of “Vmesto predisloviia” portrays a movement made by these selfsame lips: “I togda chto-to vrode ulybki skol'znulo po tomu, chto nekogda bylo ee litsom.” Estrangement operates on a number of levels here to undermine the meaningfulness of this gesture. The indefinite locution “chto-to vrode ulybki” leaves in question the actual identity of the gesture by telling what it resembles but not naming it directly. The locus of this quasi-smile is described in similarly indefinite terms; it is named by what it was formerly (nekogda) but is no longer—the woman's face. There is a play here on the idiom “net na nei litsa,” a figurative expression used to describe momentary yet drastic changes in a person's face effected by an intense emotional or physical shock. Literally the phrase means “there is no face on her,” and it is precisely this grotesque notion which is conveyed in “Vmesto predisloviia” through the use of the past tense: The state of “facelessness” dominates the present and shows no signs of passing.12 The notion of facelessness has ominous implications, for the face has long been valued as the incarnation of spirituality, as in Cicero's aphorism “imago animi vultus est.” The Russian Orthodox church teaches that the face embodies the highest spiritual qualities and values, reflecting the divine in human beings;13 accordingly, facelessness would betoken the loss of the spirit or soul and would represent yet another sign of lifelessness. By metonymy, the word litso also means individual or person (compare the latter's grammatical usage); from this perspective, loss of the litso would symbolize a loss of individuality, of personal identity. All those standing in line are indeed shown to be depersonalized, from the blue-lipped woman to the narrator herself, for the verb “opoznat'” in the text's second sentence “identifies” the narrator's former personal identity, which no longer applies in the present context.14 All this reveals the absolute devastation of the lyric realm, the domain of the lichnoe—the personal and the individual. Yet, there is a faint hope in the fleeting glimpse of something resembling a smile on that “no-longer-face;” a hint, however disfigured, of a solace that is possible if their shared suffering is not ceded to oblivion—faceless and nameless horror—but described and thus remembered as a testimonial to endurance and love.

What elicits the quasi-smile is a dialogue,15 a dialogue that tells the story of the genesis of Rekviem. By narrating the origins of Rekviem, “Vmesto predisloviia” explains the very nature and purpose of the poema.16 As has been already noted, the faculty of speech is imperiled in this setting, and the dialogue reflects this peril in two ways: First, for fear of reprisal, it is conducted in whispers (“tam vse govorili shepotom”), and, second, it is maximally abbreviated, consisting of just six words. Brief as it is and softly as it is uttered, the dialogue does nevertheless occur, marking a break with the prevailing state of lifelessness. Symbolically, the dialogue represents the relationship between the author and her people, for its participants are the poet and a random, anonymous woman of the people. One crucial fact about the nameless woman's relation to the poet is supplied: “[ona], konechno, nikogda ne slykhala moego imeni.”17 This statement clearly reflects the poet's peripheral place in society during the 1930s: Her work had been barred from publication since the mid-1920s, her readership for the most part no longer existed, and her life as a poet was generally believed to be over, another level of meaning inherent in the verb opoznat'.

An ironic reversal of the Stalinist sotsial'nyi zakaz, the woman's question—“A eto vy mozhete opisat'?”—challenges the poet to render in words the nightmarish reality of the Ezhovshchina. The challenge is a daunting one. Those standing in line resemble the dead, and the task of describing the scene recalls Dante's task in the Inferno, with one crucial difference: Dante visited the Underworld as a living man, but in “Vmesto predisloviia” the poet inhabits the deathly realm and shares the lifeless state of the others. Despite her condition, however, the poet self-confidently declares her ability to carry out the task: “‘Mogu.’” This bold assertion of her verbal powers contrasts forcefully with the enervation and lifelessness that dominate the scene, foreshadowing the poet's ultimate triumph over these conditions through the writing of Rekviem.

Dante's importance as a model for Akhmatova in Rekviem finds confirmation in her lyric entitled “Muza”; its final lines record an exchange between the poet and her Muse: “Ei govoriu: ‘Ty l' Dantu diktovala / Stranitsy Ada?’ Otvechaet: ‘Ia’” (1:230). The resemblance of this exchange to that recorded in “Vmesto predisloviia” is striking: Both consist of a brief question and a one-word affirmative response. Akhmatova is underscoring here that her Muse and the Muse of Dante's Inferno are identical, establishing a parallel, as Milivoe Iovanovich has noted, between the object of Dante's description and what Akhmatova is to depict.18 While Rekviem's indebtedness to the Inferno merits separate treatment, two key connections between them are germane to the present discussion. First, the condition of the women as portrayed in “Vmesto predisloviia” and elsewhere in the poema recalls Dante's experiences in the frozen ninth circle of hell. Their otsepenenie, for example, echoes the evocation in Canto 33 of Dante's numbness: “sì come d'un callo, / per la freddura ciascun sentimento / cessato avesse del mio viso stallo.”19 In Canto 34, Dante describes his terror upon seeing Satan: “Io non mori' e non rimasi vivo; / pensa oggimai per te, s'hai fior d'ingegno, / qual io divenni, d'uno e d'altro privo.”20 Dante's fear deprives him of life yet does not kill him, a state paralleled by the women's lifelessness in “Vmesto predisloviia.” The “Posviashchenie” goes on to describe the women as “mertvykh bezdykhannei” (1:362), a phrase that separates the women from both the living and the dead, implying that their condition is worse than that of the dead.21 The “Posviashchenie” also qualifies the poet's two years in Leningrad's prison lines as osatanelye, from the root satana, implying that the city was under Satan's dominion during that period; the epithet could be translated as “hellish,” for it bears connotations of madness, evil, and frenzy. These similarities to Dante's Inferno point back to the title of Akhmatova's poema and illuminate her intention in writing it: to bring requiem aeternam to the victims of the Ezhovshchina. The second crucial link between Rekviem and the Inferno involves another key aim of the poet. As Dante reveals in Canto 29, his mission is to preserve a memory of the dead “nel primo mundo,” among the living.22 As revealed in the “Epilog,” Akhmatova's aim in Rekviem is similar—to preserve for posterity the memory of those who suffered in the Ezhovshchina.

The poet's declaration of her ability “to describe this” immediately raises questions as to the form such a description could take. With what kind of voice could Akhmatova, a lyric poet par excellence, convey the devastation of the lyric domain? What kind of poetry could adequately express the depersonalized, lifeless state of those evoked in “Vmesto predisloviia”? These questions are addressed in the “Posviashchenie,” given below in full (1:362):

Pirid etim gоrim gnutcy gоry,
Ni ticit viliкay riкa,
Nо кripкi tyrimnyi zatvоry,
а za nimi «кatоrznyi nоry»
I cmirtilsnay tоcкa. 5
Dly коgо-tо viit vitir cvizij,
Dly коgо-tо nizitcy zaкat—
My ni znaim, my pоvcydu ti zi,
clysim liss кlycij pоctylyj cкrizit
Da sagi tyzilyi cоldat. 10
Pоdymalics кaк к оbidni rannij,
Pо ctоliцi оdicalоj sli,
Tam vctricalics, mirtvyk bizdykannij,
cоlnцi nizi i Niva tumannij,
а nadizda vci pоit vdali. 15
Prigоvоr … I crazu clizy klynut,
Otо vcik uzi оtdilina,
clоvnо c bоlsy zizns iz cirdцa vynut,
clоvnо grubо navznics оprокinut,
Nо idit … Sataitcy … Odna … 20
Gdi tipirs nivоlsnyi pоdrugi
Dvuk mоik оcatanilyk lit?
Ctо im cuditcy v cibircкоj vsygi,
Ctо mirisitcy im v lunnоm кrugi?
Im y sly prоsalsnyj cvоj privit. 25

The “Posviashchenie” begins impersonally, with a powerful double image of the misfortune that has struck—“eto gore”—as reflected in the natural world: The mountains' bending down [l. 1] vividly depicts catastrophe (in the sense of an unexpected, violent change in the earth's surface); the great river's ceasing to flow [l. 2] suggests that life itself has been brought to a standstill, harking back to the theme of otsepenenie in “Vmesto predisloviia.”23 This use of natural imagery recalls the rendering of disaster in the Russian epic tradition, specifically in Slovo o polku Igoreve and the Zadonshchina, which sing of national misfortune through the anthropomorphized image of trees bowing down to the earth in sorrow. Akhmatova's choice of mountains, which is obviously motivated by the phonological similarity between góre and góry, accentuates the immense scale of the misfortune.24

The catastrophe proper is revealed in the evocation of the prison realm [ll. 3-5]. The quotation “‘katorzhnye nory’” (l. 4)—puts the scene into perspective. The source is Pushkin's 1827 lyric “Vo glubine sibirskikh rud,” an epistle to the Decembrists sentenced to hard labor in Siberia, exhorting them to endure in the first stanza and predicting relief in the final three quatrains:

Niccactsy virnay cictra,
Nadizda v mracnоm pоdzimilsi
Razbudit bоdrоcts i vicilsi,
Pridit zilannay pоra:
Lybоvs i druzictvо dо vac
Dоjdut cкvоzs mracnyi zatvоry,
Kaк v vasi кatоrznyi nоry
Dоkоdit mоj cvоbоdnyj glac.
Oкоvy tyzкii padut,
Timniцy ruknut—i cvоbоda
Vac primit radоctnо u vkоda,
I bratsy mic vam оtdadut.(25)

Far from simply reiterating Pushkin's words, Akhmatova foregrounds the fact of quotation by supplying his collocation with quotation marks. In addition, she preserves Pushkin's rhyme “zatvory”/“nory,” establishing “Vo glubine sibirskikh rud …” as one of the primary subtexts of the “Posviashchenie.”

While both texts conjure up scenes of captivity, the striking differences between them effectively contrast Stalin's rule with that of Nicholas I a century before. Pushkin's text is dominated by the antithesis between the inner realm of captivity—bounded by the “mrachnye zatvory”—and the outer domain of freedom and traces freedom's incursion into the prison in the form of the poet's “svobodnyi glas.” It concludes by envisaging freedom's complete triumph in the prison's destruction and the liberation of those incarcerated. The “Posviashchenie” borrows Pushkin's zatvory to demarcate its prison realm, but while “Vo glubine” underscores the bolts' penetrability, Akhmatova emphasizes their strength (“No krepki tiuremnye zatvory”).26 By naming what is situated behind those bolts with Pushkin's phrase “katorzhnye nory,” she alludes to the katorga in prison camps awaiting those within the Leningrad prison. While the prison's gloom in “Vo glubine” is alleviated by the presence of hope, which inspires courage and good cheer, the prison realm in the “Posviashchenie” is dominated by “smertel'naia toska” (l. 5), suggesting that what the prisoners face is death, not liberation, as Pushkin predicts for his addressees.27

The grim import of line 5—“I smertel'naia toska”—is accentuated in the way it violates the metrical scheme of the “Posviashchenie”: the line is truncated, containing only four feet.28 This violation, the only one of its kind in the “Posviashchenie,” is motivated in another way as well, for Akhmatova is recalling a line from the following quatrain of Pushkin's 1826 “Zimniaia doroga”:

Ctо-tо clysitcy rоdnоi
V dоlgik picnyk ymsiкa:
Tо razgulsi udalоi,
Tо cirdicnay tоcкa.(29)

Akhmatova's echoing of the last line in “I smertel'naia toska” once again contrasts Pushkin's age with her own; Pushkin's “dull” winter road has been transformed a century later into the road to prison, the road to Siberia. Under Stalin, not only is Russian life devoid of “razgul'e” and full of misery, it is lived in extremis, as underscored in the replacement of the epithet serdechnaia by smertel'naia. This change eloquently testifies to the devastation of the lyric domain.30

Another key difference between the “Posviashchenie” and “Vo glubine sibirskikh rud” involves the portrayal of the world outside the prison: while “Vo glubine” represents it as the realm of freedom, in the “Posviashchenie” life outside the prison mirrors that within. In the first stanza, the deep sorrow of the outer world (ll. 1-2) reflects the “smertel'naia toska” within the prison. This mirroring becomes more explicit in the second stanza, where the adverb povsiudu (l. 8) in the phrase “my povsiudu te zhe” blurs the distinction between those outside and inside. That all share the captive state is also suggested in what is heard: “Slyshim lish' kliuchei postylyi skrezhet / Da shagi tiazhelye soldat.” The mirroring of the prison in the outside world is likewise supported by the image of Leningrad evoked in the “Posviashchenie.” The third stanza's “Po stolitse odichaloi shli” (l. 12), as Sharon Leiter has observed, harks back to the beginning of Akhmatova's 1923 lyric “Sograzhdanam,” which like the “Posviashchenie” is spoken in the first-person plural:

I my zabyli navcigda,
Zaкlyciny v ctоliцi diкоj,
Ozira, ctipi, gоrоda
I zоri rоdiny daliкоj.


The city is pictured here as a place of confinement; later in the same text it is pointedly associated with the absence of freedom. In Rekviem, the prison-like nature of the former capital is explicitly expressed in the grotesque portrayal of the city in the “Vstuplenie” (1:362-363):

I ninuznym privicкоm bоltalcy
Vоzli tyrim cvоik Liningrad.
I коgda, оbizumiv оt muкi,
Sli uzi оcuzdinnyk pоlкi. …

Here, in what constitutes a brilliant image of the prison lines, the city proper has been reduced to a useless appendage to its prisons; dominated by those prisons and the masses of condemned innocents, the scene reeks of butchery, through the use of the word privesok.32

One other important difference between Pushkin's epistle and Akhmatova's “Posviashchenie” concerns the status of the poet. “Vo glubine” emphasizes the poet's freedom when it pictures his “free voice” reaching the prisoners and inspiring them with courage. In the “Posviashchenie,” by contrast, the “free voice” of the poet is conspicuous by its absence. The poet is just one of the many languishing in captivity, a point made directly in the text's final stanza, when the women who stood in line together are in retrospect called “nevol'nye podrugi,” companions through circumstances beyond their control, those circumstances themselves—nevolia—named by the epithet nevol'nye. The first-person plural my, which dominates lines 8-10, belongs to these women, and the poet is just one of their number.33

Pushkin is not the only Russian poet to whom Akhmatova alludes. Toward the beginning of the text there is an enigmatic reference to some person or persons evidently untouched by suffering: “Dlia kogo-to veet veter svezhii, / Dlia kogo-to nezhitsia zakat” (ll. 6-7). Set apart by their markedly unpoetic anaphora, flat diction, and banal imagery,34 these lines conjure up a state of well-being that clashes with the prevailing misery and grief.35 The solution to this riddle lies in a most unlikely subtext. “Dlia kogo-to veet veter svezhii” pointedly recalls “Nad stranoi vesennii veter veet, / S kazhdym dnem vse radostnee zhit'”—lines penned by Vasilii Lebedev-Kumach. The text in question is his “Pesnia o rodine” (1935),36 a paean to Soviet life under Stalin. It epitomizes the aggressively nationalistic, radiantly optimistic spirit of Stalinism in the later 1930s, when it enjoyed the status of a “sort of unofficial national anthem.”37 An exemplar of the propagandistic genre of the “mass song,” “Pesnia o rodine” is mainly spoken in the first-person plural and purports to represent the voice of the people. Employing the same meter—trochaic pentameter—as Lebedev-Kumach, Akhmatova weaves into her “Posviashchenie” allusions to his Stalinist hymn only to subvert its claim to speak for the people: By replacing Lebedev-Kumach's my with the indefinite pronoun kto-to in ll. 6-7, she indicates that his song speaks only for some unspecified individuals and not for the people as a whole. When the first-person plural sounds forth emphatically in l. 8 of the “Posviashchenie” (“My ne znaem, my povsiudu te zhe”), immediately following the allusion to “Pesnia o rodine,” it represents the authentic voice of the Russian people, singing the truth about the motherland under Stalin's rule.38

Akhmatova's intention for Rekviem to be, at least in part, a recasting of the “mass song” is confirmed in the second part of the “Epilog,” when the theme of the mass song resurfaces in the following lines: “I esli zazhmut moi izmuchennyi rot, / Kotorym krichit stomil'onnyi narod” (1:369). Akhmatova is referring here to a different poet of the masses, Vladimir Maiakovskii, and specifically to the fourth line of his blatantly propagandistic massovaia poema 150,000,000 (1919-1920): “150 000 000 govoriat gubami moimi.”39 In Akhmatova's treatment, the mass song becomes a vehicle for protest, not for propaganda. The dirgelike “Posviashchenie” bitterly parodies Lebedev Kumach's joyful mass song, giving the lie to it, contradicting point by point the picture of Russian life it draws. “Pesnia o rodine” extols, for instance, the plenitude of Russian life in a trite metaphor: “Vsiudu zhizn' i vol'no i shiroko, / Tochno Volga polnaia, techet.”40 The “Posviashchenie” clearly harks back to and negates that metaphor in the line “Ne techet velikaia reka” (l. 2). Lebedev-Kumach time and again praises the freedom enjoyed in his homeland, most saliently in the last two lines of the song's famous refrain:

Sirокa ctrana mоy rоdnay,
Mnоgо v nij licоv, pоlij i riк.
Я drugоj taкоj ctrany ni znay,
Gdi taк vоlsnо dysit cilоviк!(41)

Akhmatova, by contrast, as has already been amply demonstrated, portrays the Russian people in a state of captivity. For the women of the “Posviashchenie,” the question of breathing freely does not even arise, for they are described as “mertvykh bezdykhannei.”42 Two other lines from “Pesnia o rodine” are pertinent to the representation of the women in the “Posviashchenie,” namely, the final stanza's concluding lines: “Kak nevestu, rodinu my liubim, / Berezhem, kak laskovuiu mat'.”43 This hackneyed comparison of the motherland to bride and mother points toward the symbolic dimension of the women's representation in the “Posviashchenie”: In their captivity and suffering, they stand for the nation as a whole, and their plight represents a travesty of the lofty pledge of love and protection sounded in “Pesnia o rodine.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the critical fourth stanza, the climax of the “Posviashchenie.” Until this point in the text, in keeping with the mass song model, the women have been portrayed en masse, emphasizing their lack of individuality—a theme first sounded in “Vmesto predisloviia” and expressed in the “Posviashchenie” both explicitly (“my povsiudu te zhe”) and indirectly (through the use of impersonal verbal forms in the third stanza's account of the women's common actions: “Podymalis' … / … shli, / Tam vstrechalis'” [ll. 11-13]). In the fourth stanza, however, the focus unexpectedly shifts from the mass of women to just one of their number:

Prigоvоr … I crazu clizy klynut,
Otо vcik uzi оtdilina,
clоvnо c bоlsy zizns iz cirdцa vynut,
clоvnо grubо navznics оprокinut,
Nо idit … Sataitcy … Odna …

Individuality is restored here to one woman through a brutal prigovor isolating her from the others. The prigovor clearly refers to the sentencing of her loved one within the prison, yet it is portrayed solely through its violent effect on the woman herself,44 an effect that is likened both to a painful deathblow (l. 18) and to her being thrown on her back (l. 19), an oblique yet unmistakeable reference to rape. On the symbolic level of Lebedev-Kumach's “bride” and “affectionate mother,” Akhmatova is evoking here the murder and rape of the motherland.

The “Posviashchenie” hinges on the fourth stanza's shift in focus from the many to the individual: The text traces an arc from a national catastrophe of epic proportions, as sketched in the first stanza, to the personal catastrophe of one woman, as evoked in the fourth stanza. This arc is inscribed in the text through a number of parallels between the two stanzas. Phonetically, the beginning of the first line—“Pered etim gorem”—is echoed in the first word of the fourth stanza, “Prigovor.” The dominant theme of the first stanza—the gore that has struck—is clearly evidenced in the woman's reaction to the sentence, the flood of tears she sheds; in addition, likening the sentence's effect to a deathblow quite pointedly recalls the idiom ubita gorem. Finally, the bowing down of the mountains (l. 1) is mirrored in the image of the woman's being cast down (l. 19). Through this series of correspondences, the national catastrophe is embodied in the fate of one woman.45 The movement traced in the “Posviashchenie” from captivity to a sentencing cast as a figurative execution foreshadows the progression from arrest to execution in Rekviem's central sequence of ten poems.46

The fifth and final stanza leaves behind the mass song model, for in it there emerges a new, truly lyric voice that speaks in the first-person singular of the present tense:

Gdi tipirs nivоlsnyi pоdrugi
Dvuk mоik оcatanilyk lit?
Ctо im cuditcy v cibircкоj vsygi,
Ctо mirisitcy im v lunnоm кrugi?
Im y sly prоsalsnyj cvоj privit. 25

These lines reverse the theme of the suppression of the poet's voice, introduced through the multiple allusions to “Vo glubine sibirskikh rud,” for what sounds forth is the voice of the poet, speaking in a present tense that for the first time in the “Posviashchenie” refers to the time of the text's writing (emphasized in l. 21's “teper'”), not to the time of the narrated events. Having recollected the Ezhovshchina in a voice speaking for her people, the poet now speaks for herself, turning her attention to the present circumstances of the women who stood in the prison lines with her.

As anticipated by the fourth stanza's portrayal of one woman's separation from the group, the poet has been separated from the other women. She speaks of them through a network of references to a different poem by Pushkin, one that brings out the profoundly lyric tenor of the concluding lines of the “Posviashchenie.” The text in question is the 1826 “Niane,” written shortly after the end of Pushkin's exile in Mikhailovskoe:

Pоdruga dnij mоik curоvyk,
Gоlubкa dryklay mоy!
Odna v glusi licоv cоcnоvyk
Davnо, davnо ty zdiss miny.
Ty pоd окnоm cvоij cvitliцy
Gоryiss, budtо na cacak,
I midlyt pоminutnо cpiцy
V tvоik namоrsinnyk ruкak.
Glydiss v zabytyi vоrоty
Na cirnyj оtdalinnyj puts:
Tоcкa, pridcuvctviy, zabоty
Ticnyt tvоy vcicacnо gruds.
Tо cuditcy tibi …(47)

These lines invoke Arina Rodionovna, the poet's faithful companion in exile, about whom he wrote from Mikhailovskoe in 1824, “vecherom slushaiu skazki moei niani, originala niani Tat'iany; … ona edinstvennaia moia podruga—i s neiu tol'ko mne ne skuchno.”48 Akhmatova is recalling Pushkin's address to Arina Rodionovna—“Podruga dnei moikh surovykh”—when she calls the women who stood with her outside the prison “podrugi / Dvukh moikh osatanelykh let.” She actually spent seventeen months in the lines, as the first sentence of “Vmesto predisloviia” and the beginning of the fifth numbered text of Rekviem (“Semnadtsat' mesiatsev krichu, / Zovu tebia domoi” [1:364]) indicate;49 two years was the term of Pushkin's days in exile at Mikhailovskoe.

Akhmatova is drawing a parallel between Pushkin's exile and her own plight during the Ezhovshchina, while highlighting the radical differences between their experiences through the two telling epithets in lines 21-22. First, her characterization of those years as osatanelye contrasts with Pushkin's assessment of his days of exile as surovye. Second, while Pushkin spent his exile in the company of his doting nurse, Akhmatova's companions were bound to her not by love but by force of circumstance (“nevol'nye podrugi,” 1. 21).50 The stance of the poet, however, is identical in “Niane” and the “Posviashchenie”: Just as Pushkin looks back on the difficult period of his exile and evokes his faithful nanny alone at Mikhailovskoe, so Akhmatova looks back on the Ezhovshchina and recalls those who stood in the prison lines with her. Pushkin describes Arina Rodionovna and her activities in detail, but Akhmatova is uncertain of the fate of her former companions, and she builds this uncertainty into the text by posing three questions about them. While the first question echoes Pushkin's address to Arina Rodionovna, the second and third are inspired by the phrase on which his text breaks off—“To chuditsia tebe”; they both articulate the question implicit in the truncation of “Niane” by asking what “appears” to the women (Pushkin's verb chudit'sia and the synonymous mereshchit'sia are used). The query “Chto im chuditsia v sibirskoi v'iuge” indicates that at least some of them are in Siberia, whether in prison camp or in exile.51

The repetition of the pronoun im in each of the last three lines of the “Posviashchenie” sounds the theme of dedication, harking back to the title of the text. Literary dedications are typically addressed to acquaintances or close personal friends of the author as a sign of respect or affection. Pushkin, for example, dedicated Kavkazskii plennik to his good friend N. N. Raevskii, Poltava to an unnamed but beloved woman, and Evgenii Onegin to his friend and publisher P. A. Pletnev. The “Posviashchenie” of Rekviem, by contrast, is addressed to a large group of nameless women; yet it similarly expresses the author's feelings toward them, suggesting that they provided the impetus for the writing of the poema.52 The story of the work's genesis given in “Vmesto predisloviia” confirms this,53 as does the “Niane” subtext in the “Posviashchenie.” “Niane” provides at least a partial answer to the questions posed by Akhmatova about the women's fate. Pushkin writes to Arina Rodionovna, “Davno, davno ty zhdesh' menia.” On one level, this indicates that the women from the prison lines are alone, still separated from their loved ones. On another level, however, it implies that they are waiting for the poet, for Akhmatova, to describe their shared experience.54 Still troubled (“Toska, predchuvstviia, zaboty / Tesniat tvoiu vsechasno grud'”), they await the peace that Rekviem will bring.

Through the allusions to Pushkin's “Niane,” Akhmatova likens the women to Arina Rodionovna, suggesting their importance as a source not only of comfort but of inspiration as well. Pushkin drew many memorable verse portraits of Arina Rodionovna, but what distinguishes “Niane” among them is its heightened lyricism: The poet's strong affection for her is reflected in the text's tender forms of address, as well as in the sharp detail with which her image is evoked. When Akhmatova couches her questions about the women in Pushkin's words, she demonstrates her profound concern and solicitude for them, elevating them to the status of intimate friends. In so doing, she restores to them their dignity as human beings, symbolically redressing the wrongs they suffered during the Ezhovshchina.

This restorative impulse is the mainspring of Rekviem. Prefigured in “Vmesto predisloviia,” it resurfaces at the end of the poema to dominate the “Epilog,” where it is manifested in the poet's stance as intercessor for her “nevol'nye podrugi,” in her memorialization of their shared suffering, as well as in the ritual of remembrance that she creates to ensure the preservation of their memory. Evident everywhere in the “Epilog,” the healing impulse is emblematized in the image of the text as a pokrov for the poet's former companions: “Dlia nikh sotkala ia shirokii pokrov / Iz bednykh, u nikh zhe podslushannykh slov” (1:369). The pokrov, woven from the bednye slova of these ordinary women,55 is a burial shroud that preserves and sanctifies; it is the shroud that the Virgin Mary spreads “nad skorbiami velikimi,”56 providing comfort and protection; it is, finally, a shroud woven of words, bringing deliverance from oblivion and silence.


  1. Compare Sam Driver's description of Rekviem as “an amazingly powerful statement which requires no elaboration or ‘explanation’” (Anna Akhmatova [New York: Twayne, 1972], 125).

    Unlike Poema bez geroia, Rekviem has received relatively little critical attention. The most comprehensive study of it to date is Efim Etkind's “Die Unsterblichkeit des Gedächtnisses: Anna Achmatovas Poem ‘Requiem’,” Die Welt der Slaven 29,2 (1984): 360-394. Kees Verheul discusses Rekviem in his “Public Themes in the Poetry of Anna Achmatova,” Russian Literature 1 (1971): 73-112, especially 79-82, 89-90, 93, 98-100, 105-112. Among others who have written on it are Sam Driver, Anna Akhmatova, 125-132; Sharon Leiter, Akhmatova's Petersburg (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 90-97, and Amanda Haight, Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 99-108. Two specialized studies of Rekviem also deserve mention: Milivoe Iovanovich treats the problem of intertextual references in his valuable “K razboru ‘chuzhikh golosov’ v Rekvieme Akhmatovoi,” Russian Literature 15 (1984): 169-182, while T. Voogd-Stojanova provides an extensive syntacticometrical analysis in “Tsezura i slovorazdely v poeme A. Akhmatovoi Rekviem,” in Dutch Contributions to the Seventh International Congress of Slavists, ed. André Van Holk (The Hague: Mouton, 1973), 317-333.

    For decades unpublished in the Soviet Union, Rekviem was long off-limits to Soviet specialists and could be referred to only in passing or obliquely. Its recent publication in Oktiabr', No. 3 (1987), and Neva, no. 6 (1987), however, may pave the way for the appearance of serious critical studies of it in the Soviet Union.

  2. Compare Milivoe Iovanovich's dating of the beginning of Akhmatova's later period: “pozdniaia Akhmatova nachinaetsia imenno s Rekviema” (“K razboru ‘chuzhikh golosov’,” 171).

    Here is Akhmatova's own characterization of her later poetry: “I tak pozdniaia A[khmatova] vykhodit iz zhanra ‘liubovnogo dnevnika’ … i perekhodit na razdum'ia o roli i sud'be poeta, o remesle, na legko nabrosannye shirokie polotna. Poiavliaetsia ostroe oshchushchenie istorii” (quoted in V. M. Zhirmunskii, Tvorchestvo Anny Akhmatovoi [Leningrad, 1976], 26). Rekviem reflects the new thematic concerns—in particular, the preoccupation with history and with the poet's role in society—and the turn to larger forms, which in Akhmatova's view typify the later poetry. For a fuller discussion of the poetics of her later work, see the first chapter of my “Axmatova's Later Lyrics: The Poetics of Mediation” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1983), 1-39.

    Verheul sees Rekviem as transitional between Akhmatova's early and later styles (“Public Themes,” 112). While the ten numbered texts of the poema do manifest certain features of the early style, as Verheul notes, together they trace a distinct narrative progression from arrest to execution, which sharply distinguishes them from the early work.

  3. Milivoe Iovanovich's “K razboru ‘chuzhikh golosov’” is the only article specifically devoted to the problem of intertextuality in Rekviem. Particularly useful are Iovanovich's remarks on Akhmatova's incorporation of reminiscences—mainly for parodic ends—from Nekrasov's “Russkie zhenshchiny,” Lermontov's “Kazach'ia kolybel'naia pesnia,” and Blok's Na pole Kulikovom (170-171). Kees Verheul explores some of the biblical and liturgical subtexts in Rekviem (“Public Themes,” 111-112), and Sharon Leiter discusses some examples of a different kind of intertextual references in Rekviem—Akhmatova's incorporation of self-reminiscences—allusions to her own poetry (Akhmatova's Petersburg, 90-97).

  4. Akhmatova herself classified Rekviem as a poema. The list of titles she intended to publish in the collection Beg vremeni concludes with a section called “Poemy,” to consist of Putem vseia zemli, Rekviem, and Poema bez geroia. See Pamiati Anny Akhmatovoi (Paris: YMCA, 1974), 29-30.

    For a discussion of Rekviem's status as a poema, see Etkind, “Die Unsterblichkeit des Gedächtnisses,” 362-365. Compare Verheul's remarks on the same issue (“Public Themes,” 107-108).

  5. “Vmesto predisloviia” has been widely quoted but has received virtually no commentary. Neither Verheul nor Etkind mentions it in the articles cited above. Among those who quote it without commentary are Sharon Leiter (Akhmatova's Petersburg, 91-92) and Amanda Height (Anna Akhmatova, 99). Sam Driver quotes it and does comment on it, but only by describing the historical context (Anna Akhmatova, 125-127).

    The most detailed comments on the “Posviashchenie” have been provided by Etkind, “Die Unsterblichkeit des Gedächtnisses,” 387-388. Compare Verheul, “Public Themes,” 80-81.

  6. Anna Akhmatova, Sochineniia, ed. G. P. Struve and B. A. Filippov, 2nd ed. ([Munich]: Interlanguage Literary Associates, 1967) 1:361. Henceforth, references to this edition, as well as to volumes 2 (1968) and 3 (ed. G. P. Struve, N. A. Struve, and B. A. Filippov [Paris: YMCA, 1983]), will be given in parentheses in the body of the text.

  7. The epithet strashnye, the sole affective epithet in the text, does not belie the narrative's prosaic tone, since “strashnye gody Ezhovshchiny” is, generally speaking, a fixed expression.

  8. Lidiia Chukovskaia has asserted that the image of the “woman with blue lips” originated in her novel Sof'ia Petrovna, which she read to Akhmatova in February 1940. See Chukovskaia, Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi (Paris: YMCA, 1980) 2:305.

    Milivoe Iovanovich provides an unwitting proof of the strength of the customary formula when he quotes from “Vmesto predisloviia” and twice erroneously replaces Akhmatova's “gubami” with “glazami” (“K razboru ‘chuzhikh golosov’,” 177n7).

  9. In Boris Eikhenbaum's formulation, “emotsiia peredaetsia opisaniem zhesta ili dvizheniia, t.e., imenno tak, kak eto delaetsia v novellakh i romanakh.” Boris Eikhenbaum, Anna Akhmatova: Opyt analiza (Petrograd, 1923; Paris: Izdatel'stvo Lev, 1980), 127. Eikhenbaum is pointing to what Osip Mandel'shtam had described in his 1922 “Pis'mo o russkoi poezii” as Akhmatova's indebtedness to the nineteenth century Russian psychological novel. See Osip Mandel'shtam, Sobranie sochinenii v trekh tomakh (New York: Inter-Language Literary Associates, 1969), 3:34.

  10. Eikhenbaum writes, “Poeticheskaia rech' Akhmatovoi kak by sosredotochena na perednem artikuliatsionnom plane i okrashena mimicheskim dvizheniem gub (‘molitva gub moikh nadmennykh,’ ‘dvizhenie chut' vidnoe gub’)” (Anna Akhmatova, 87).

  11. The persona describes the name given her at baptism, Anna, as “Sladchaishee dlia gub liudskikh” and remarks on the strangeness of the lips of the “inostranka,” a Muse figure who visits her (1:191).

  12. The first volume of Chukovskaia's Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi devotes a number of passages to the faces of the women standing in line. In the entry dated 22 February 1939, Akhmatova is quoted as saying, “Ia ne mogu videt' etikh glaz. Vy zametili? Oni kak by otdel'no sushchestvuiut, otdel'no ot lits.” See Zapiski, 1:18.

  13. “The face of a human being represents the highest spiritual gifts: the forehead represents heavenly love; the eyes—understanding, intelligent contemplation; the ears—understanding and obedience; the nose—the grasping of the good; the cheeks—the grasping of spiritual truths; the mouth—thought and teaching; the lips—spiritual praise. …” See Vladimir Dal', Tolkovyi slovar' zhivago velikorusskago iazyka, 2nd ed., 4 vols. (St. Petersburg and Moscow: Vol'fe, 1881), 2:258.

  14. This imagery resurfaces in the collective portrait of the faces of those who stood outside the prison given in the first part of the “Epilog,” which begins “Uznala ia, kak opadaiut litsa” (1:368) and proceeds to trace, in a technique reminiscent of time-lapse photography, the impact of the Terror on the fragile human visage.

  15. Akhmatova's early lyrics abound in reported speech, another mark of their indebtedness to the novelistic tradition. V. V. Vinogradov devotes a chapter of his study of the early Akhmatova to this feature of her work; see “Grimasy dialoga” in his O poezii Anny Akhmatovoi (Stilisticheskie nabroski) (Leningrad, 1925), reprinted with a commentary by R. D. Timenchik and A. P. Chudakov in V. V. Vinogradov, Poetika russkoi literatury (Moscow: Nauka, 1976), 451-459. Timenchik and Chudakov's comments on “Grimasy dialoga” are directly relevant to Rekviem: “‘adresaty’ i ‘personazhi’ ee poezii privnosiat s soboi v tekst fragmenty i obraztsy razlichnykh stilisticheskikh sistem, ‘sbornye tsitaty’ iz literaturnykh i bytovykh ‘stilei rechi.’ Eto vvedevnie razlichnykh vidov ‘chuzhogo slova’ sluzhit glavnym sredstvom ‘polifonizatsii’ ee liriki, pridavaia ei v tselom dialogicheskii kharakter” (506). In “Vmesto predisloviia” and the “Posviashchenie,” two different types of “chuzhoe slovo” are foregrounded through the use of direct quotation, signaling their prominent role in Rekviem—discourse from everyday life and literary discourse.

  16. To indicate the origins of a phenomenon is to explain it. Compare Iu. M. Lotman on the category of beginnings: “Nachalo … ne tol'ko svidetel'stvo sushchestvovaniia, no i zamena (sic) bolee pozdnei categorii prichinnosti. Ob''iasnit' iavlenie—znachit ukazat' na ego proiskhozhdenie” (Struktura khudozhestvennogo teksta [Moscow, 1970; Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1971], 260).

  17. In her entry for 10 November 1938, Chukovskaia records Akhmatova's account of an episode antithetical to this one: “‘Zhenshchina v ocheredi, stoiavshaia pozadi menia, zaplakala, uslykhav moiu familiiu’” (Zapiski, 1:16). In “Vmesto predisloviia,” Akhmatova chooses to portray the contrary—the nonrecognition of her name—as typical of the 1930s.

  18. “K razboru ‘chuzhikh golosov’,” 176-177, n. 6. Iovanovich does not discuss the role of references to the Inferno itself in Rekviem.

    While “Muza” bears the date 1924, it was in the later 1930s that Dantean themes and motifs became prominent in Akhmatova's work; compare the obviously related line—“I prosto prodiktovannye strochki” (1:251)—from the 1936 poem “Tvorchestvo”; her “Dante” (“On i posle smerti ne vernulsia” [1:236]) dates from the same year. For an excellent introduction to the role of Dante in Akhmatova's life and works, see M. B. Meilakh and V. N. Toporov, “Akhmatova i Dante,” International Journal of Slavic Linguistics and Poetics 15 (1972): 29-75. The authors do not comment directly on Rekviem.

  19. In Singleton's translation, “as in a callus, all feeling, because of the cold, had departed from my face.” Dante Alighieri, Inferno, trans. and with a commentary by Charles S. Singleton, 2nd ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977), 354-355, ll. 100-102.

  20. In Singleton's translation, “I did not die and I did not remain alive: now think for yourself, if you have any wit, what I became, deprived alike of death and life!” (ibid., 362-363, ll. 25-27).

  21. According to the beginning of Rekviem's “Vstuplenie,” true death brings peace: “Eto bylo, kogda ulybalsia / Tol'ko mertvyi, spokoistviiu rad” (1:363). Compare the suppressed tenth and eleventh stanzas from the “Reshka” segment of Poema bez geroia, which deal with the Ezhovshchina and share much of Rekviem's imagery. In stanza 11, the condition of the poet and her female contemporaries is defined in a sentence that plays on the notion of the “potustoronnii mir”: “‘Po tu storonu ada—my!’” (3:116).

  22. Dante, Inferno, 310-311, ll. 103-105.

  23. Sam Driver has described well the first line's brilliant sound orchestration: “The close juxtaposition of gutturals suggests a throat constricted by grief. … The vowel sounds are carefully ordered in a progression from front to back. The line descends in intonation as in physical articulation” (Anna Akhmatova, 155-156, n 18).

  24. Tsvetaeva exploits almost the same resemblance in her Poema gory (góre / gorá); compare the phrase in English poetry “mountains mourn.” Akhmatova's gnutsia gory appears to hark back to and realize the apocalyptic prediction of the “glas vopiiushchego v pustyne” in Isaiah 40:3-4 that “vsiakaia gora i kholm da poniziatsia.”

  25. Aleksandr Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v desiati tomakh (Moscow, 1974-1978) 2:97. This edition will henceforth be referred to as SS.

  26. Milivoe Iovanovich notes a somewhat similar line in a Russian translation of Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis, where Clytemnestra says, “O, tam zapory krepki” (“K razboru ‘chuzhikh golosov’,” 173). The lack of a series of textual correspondences between the “Posviashchenie” and Euripides' tragedy in translation suggests that the parallel is coincidental.

  27. The motif of hope is not entirely absent from the “Posviashchenie”; l. 15 locates it not within the prison, as in Pushkin's text, but in the distance: “A nadezhda vse poet vdali.” What is portrayed in ll. 16-20 dashes even this distant hope.

    One of Akhmatova's remarks to Chukovskaia, recorded in the entry of 18 May 1939, helps elucidate this line's significance in the poema: “Vy znaete, chto takoe pytka nadezhdy? Posle otchaianiia nastupaet pokoi, a ot nadezhdy skhodiat s uma” (Zapiski 1:24). Compare the deployment of imagery relating to madness throughout Rekviem.

  28. In her metrical analysis of the “Posviashchenie,” T. Voogd-Stojanova notes this violation but comments only that the line is perceived as “contrastive in form” in relation to the rest (“Tsezura i slovorazdely,” 318).

  29. Pushkin, SS 2:92.

  30. Voogd-Stojanova suggests that the “Posviashchenie” represents a variation on what Kiril Taranovsky has identified as the trochaic pentameter theme initiated in Lermontov's “Vykhozhu odin ia na dorogu,” where the “dinamicheskii motiv puti protivopostavliaetsia staticheskomu motivu zhizni, odinochestvu i razdum'iam o zhizni i smerti” (“Tsezura i slovorazdely,” 319). In Akhmatova's transformation of this theme, the road leads only to imprisonment and death.

  31. Sharon Leiter, Akhmatova's Petersburg, 92-93, 73-74. See also 61-64 for a discussion of the first occurrence of this imagery in a 1915 poem about the beginning of World War I, “Tot avgust, kak zheltoe plamia” (1:194-195).

    “Sograzhdanam” appears under the title “Petrograd, 1919” with a number of substantial changes in Anna Akhmatova, Stikhotvoreniia i poemy (Leningrad, 1976), 149. See that volume, 471, and 1:398-399, for its publication history.

  32. Compare Akhmatova's description of the city to Lidiia Chukovskaia in 1939; confessing that she is fed up with the city, she explains, “Dal', doma—obrazy zastyvshego stradaniia” (Zapiski 1:21). The final phrase recalls the prominent motif of “okameneloe stradanie” in Rekviem.

  33. The theme of the suppression of the poet's voice, introduced obliquely into the “Posviashchenie” through the allusions to Pushkin's “Vo glubine,” looms large in Rekviem, emerging explicitly in the second part of the “Epilog”: “I esli zazhmut moi izmuchennyi rot” (1:369).

  34. Compare with l. 6 the young Akhmatova's “Zharko veet veter dushnyi” (1:58).

  35. This conflict is vividly embodied in the sound orchestration of the text: first, the mellifluous paronomasia of l. 6—“veet veter svezhii”—contrasts with the first line's abrasive “gorem gnutsia gory”; similarly, the pleasing near rhyme “svezhii” / “nezhitsia” in ll. 6-7 finds a jarring third in l. 9's “skrezhet,” which itself recalls the apocalyptic gospel phrase “tam budet plach i skrezhet zubov,” envisaging the suffering of those in hell.

  36. My thanks go to Alexander Lehrman for calling this subtext to my attention in the fall of 1986. See V. Lebedev-Kumach, “Pesnia o rodine,” in Kniga pesen (Moscow, 1938), 9-10. The lines occur in the third verse, which has since Stalin's death been regularly excised from printings of the song for praising the “Vsenarodnyi Stalinskii Zakon.” Compare, for instance, Lebedev-Kumach, Pesni i stikhotvoreniia (Moscow, 1960), 27-29.

    Akhmatova's use of Lebedev-Kumach's hacksong as a subtext in the “Posviashchenie” forces one to recall the lines from her “Tainy remesla” cycle: “Kogda b vy znali, iz kakogo sora / Rastut stikhi, ne vedaia styda” (1:251).

  37. See Gleb Struve, Russian Literature under Lenin and Stalin (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 312. Featured in the popular film Tsirk, the song was played repeatedly on the radio and was “printed in Pravda, Izvestiia, Komsomol' skaia pravda, and in a number of newspapers, journals, and collections” (Lebedev-Kumach, Kniga pesen, 193).

  38. In the rest of Rekviem, the first-person plural occurs only once, in passing, making its role in the “Posviashchenie” highly marked. It comes toward the end of the “Vstuplenie” in the line “Zvezdy smerti stoiali nad nami” (1:363). “Eto bylo, kogda ulybalsia” became the “Vstuplenie” of Rekviem only in 1962, when the first typewritten copy of the poema was prepared. See Chukovskaia, Zapiski 2:473-474.

  39. Vladimir Maiakovskii, Sobranie sochinenii v dvenadtsati tomakh, 12 vols. (Moscow: Pravda 1978) 1:317. On the poema's failure as a work of propaganda, see Edward J. Brown, Mayakovsky: A Poet in the Revolution (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973), 204-206.

    Akhmatova's allusion to Maiakovskii calls to mind Kornei Chukovskii's 1921 comparison of the two writers (Korney Chukovsky, “Akhmatova and Mayakovsky,” trans. John Pearson, in Major Soviet Writers: Essays in Criticism, ed. E. J. Brown [London: Oxford University Press, 1973] 33-53). Maiakovskii figures as “the poet of the colossal” for whom “words like ‘thousand,’ ‘million,’ and ‘billion’ are commonplace” (44), a fact that, in Chukovskii's view, reflected the cataclysmic times (45). Akhmatova, on the contrary, is the poet of “the microscopic detail” (40), in whose verse “not a single ‘million’ is to be found” (46). The appearance of the epithet “stomil'onnyi” in Akhmatova's poetry in 1940 is unprecedented, but not the theme to which it is attached—the fate of the Russian nation. As Chukovskii wrote in 1921, “When the war broke out Akhmatova … saw only Russia” (46); the same could be said of her response to the revolution. By contrast, Chukovskii calls Maiakovskii an internationalist (“Work is our homeland!”) with “no feeling” “for the motherland” (47). Maiakovskii's point of departure in 150,000,000 is identical to Akhmatova's in Rekviem—the destruction of Russia: “Propala Rosseichka! / Zagubili bednuiu!” (Maiakovskii, Sobranie, 1:318). Rather than mourning this fact, as Akhmatova does in Rekviem, Maiakovskii immediately calls for the creation of a “new Russia,” a universal one (“Novuiu naidem Rossiiu. / Vsekhsvetnuiu!” [Maiakovskii, Sobranie, 1:318]), which gives rise in turn to the poema's plot—an allegorical treatment of class struggle.

  40. Lebedev-Kumach, Kniga pesen, 9.

  41. Ibid., 9-10.

  42. Akhmatova seems to echo “Pesnia o rodine” in other parts of Rekviem as well. To give but one example, the line “Starikam—vezde u nas pochet” is contradicted in the second part of the “Epilog”: “I vyla starukha, kak ranenyi zver'” (1:370).

  43. Ibid., 10.

  44. This is yet another instance of the outside world mirroring life within the prison. In his brief discussion of the “Posviashchenie,” Efim Etkind speaks of the woman as “die Verurteilte,” without noting that she is “sentenced” only figuratively. See “Die Unsterblichkeit des Gedächtnisses,” 387-388.

  45. This design vividly illustrates Akhmatova's fusion in the “Posviashchenie” of lyric and epic elements, of the personal and the national. That the two are conjoined in Rekviem is a commonplace in the critical literature, although the actual workings of this conjunction have received little attention. Kees Verheul has written that in Rekviem the “lyrical-autobiographical and the national … coincide” (“Public Themes,” 108). According to Efim Etkind, “‘Requiem’ ist ein episches Poem, das aus einzelnen lyrischen Gedichten aufgebaut ist. Jedes dieser Gedichte ist dem Aufbau nach lyrisch, hat aber eine Tendenz zur Epik” (“Die Unsterblichkeit des Gedächtnisses,” 392). See also Lidiia Chukovskaia's discussion of the tension in Rekviem between the personal and the national (Zapiski 2:473-474), and Joseph Brodsky's comments on the same in Akhmatova's poetry as a whole in “The Keening Muse,” published in his collection Less than One: Selected Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1986), 34-52, especially 42-44.

  46. The close link between the dedicatory poem and that central sequence is signaled at the beginning of the fourth stanza of the “Posviashchenie,” for its first word—“Prigovor”—recurs as the title of the sequence's seventh poem. Rekviem in fact offers two versions of the same event, one as described in the third person and the other as told from the point of view of a single victim. This is another salient example of the blending of epic and lyric elements in Rekviem.

  47. Pushkin, SS 2:85. In the first volume of her memoirs of Akhmatova, Lidiia Chukovskaia unwittingly hints at the importance of allusions to Pushkin in Rekviem by enciphering references to it as “Rekviem Pushkina.” For instance, she encodes a reference to the “Posviashchenie” as follows: “Potom ona prochitala mne novonaidennye pushkinskie stroki—iz ego Rekviema. ‘Lunnyi krug.’” See the entry for 3 March 1940, Zapiski 1:76.

  48. Pushkin, SS 9:120. The source of these remarks is a letter to D. M. Shvarts dated 9 December 1824. In his commentary to Evgenii Onegin, Nabokov argues that Pushkin intentionally encouraged the confusion of Arina Rodionovna “with the generalized nurse [he] gives the Larin girls” and claims that Pushkin generally “romanticized her in his verse.” See Eugene Onegin, trans. with a commentary by Vladimir Nabokov, rev. ed., 4 vols. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975) 2:452.

    In an essay called “Iavleniia muzy,” V. F. Khodasevich offers some concrete textual evidence linking Tat'iana's nanny to Arina Rodionovna. Khodasevich traces the connection between Arina Rodionovna and the poet's many-faced Muse, asserting that the Muse appeared to Pushkin in the guise of his nanny. It appears in Khodasevich's O Pushkine (Berlin: Petropolis, 1937), 8-38; see especially 37-38 and 14-20.

  49. Lev Gumilev was arrested on 10 March 1937 and was imprisoned in Leningrad until 17 or 18 August 1939 (Haight, Anna Akhmatova, 97). Compare Lidiia Chukovskaia's description, in the entry for 28 August 1939, of Akhmatova's visit to the prison to see her son on the eve of his transfer to a prison camp in the north (Zapiski 1:38-40).

  50. Friendship was for Akhmatova an expression of spiritual freedom; compare her definition of druzhba as “Dushi vysokaia svoboda” (1:229) in “Nadpis' na knige,” written in May 1940, just two months after the “Posviashchenie,” and dedicated to Mikhail Lozinskii.

  51. The same notion is conveyed in the second part of the “Epilog,” when the speaker recalls one woman “chto rodimoi ne topchet zemli” (1:369). The question posed in l. 23 recalls yet another text from the period of Pushkin's exile in which Arina Rodionovna figures—“Zimnii vecher” (1825), which conjures up a snowstorm weathered by the persona and his “dobraia podruzhka” at Mikhailovskoe.

  52. I am indebted here to Stephanie Sandler's discussion of the dedication of Kavkazskii plennik in chapter 4 of her Distant Pleasures: Alexander Pushkin and the Writing of Exile (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989), 155-161. Sandler writes, “To say to someone ‘I write these lines for you’ is to say that a prior relationship exists to make the addressee an especially knowledgeable or valuable reader; it is also to say that he or she has in some way made it possible for the lines to be written in the first place” (160).

  53. So does the following couplet from the second part of the “Epilog”: “Dlia nikh sotkala ia shirokii pokrov / Iz bednykh, u nikh zhe podslushannykh slov” (1:369). Not only did those she addresses impel the poet to write Rekviem, they unwittingly provided her with the material from which it was composed.

  54. I am grateful to Catherine Ciepiela for calling to my attention this parallel between “Niane” and the “Posviashchenie.”

  55. Akhmatova is underscoring here once more that Rekviem is a genuine massovaia poema, representing the true voice of the Russian people. The words of these women, quoted directly in “Vmesto predisloviia” and at the beginning of the second part of the “Epilog,” are called “poor” in contrast to the bombast of which official mass songs are made, as demonstrated, for instance, in the following lines from Lebedev-Kumach's “Pesnia o rodine”: “Etikh slov velichie i slavu / Nikakie gody ne sotrut: /—Chelovek vsegda imeet pravo / Na uchen'e, otdykh i na trud!” (Lebedev-Kumach, Kniga pesen, 10).

  56. The reference is to Akhmatova's “Iiul' 1914”: “Bogoroditsa belyi rasstelet / Nad skorbiami velikimi plat” (1:134).

This article is part of a broader study of the framing texts of Rekviem, to be published as the second chapter of my forthcoming book In a Shattered Mirror: The Poetics of Akhmatova's Later Work (Stanford University Press).

Sam Driver (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Driver, Sam. “Anna Akhmatova.” In European Writers: The Twentieth Century, vol. 10, edited by George Stade, pp. 1521-42. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Driver provides a brief overview of Akhmatova's Requiem.]

Now that Akhmatova has been for so long fixed among the premier poets of Russia, it is difficult to recall that in the middle to late 1950's she was very nearly forgotten in the West and that in the Soviet Union she was considered to be an obscure figure, certainly not one who was very “relevant.” Older readers typically remembered “the left-hand glove drawn onto the right” and often a good deal more, but most were surprised that Akhmatova was still among the living. As individual poems found their way into print both in the Soviet Union and abroad, it became clear that Akhmatova not only had retained both a high level of creativity and a consistency of style throughout the decades of enforced silence but had also undergone a remarkable development in her worldview. Her themes and images once carefully restricted to the worlds familiar to her from personal experience, now open out to encompass the whole world, and draw deeply on the European cultural tradition as well as the Russian.

This is partially illustrated by the rather spare total of representative poems from the 1920's and 1930's. At critical times during those years Akhmatova had to burn her archive, and much was lost simply in the vicissitudes of those years. Around 1939-1940, however, there was an extraordinary burst of creative activity. Along with a large number of poems in the usual short format, Akhmatova wrote the better part of two long narrative poems. She brought to completion Requiem and composed the “Petersburg Tale,” which served as the narrative line for the lengthy and complex Poem Without a Hero. If the latter was a markedly new departure for Akhmatova, Requiem was a natural development from her earlier work, a kind of culmination.

It is clear from Akhmatova's comments on Blok's Vozmezdie (Retribution, 1939) that she thought narrative poems could be successful only if they did not repeat forms already used (like Pushkin's, for example). Akhmatova worked out an original form for Requiem, a combination of the epic and the lyric. In one sense, it is an epic lament for Russia caught in the Terror, but it is made up of short lyrical poems and incidental pieces (introductions, dedication, epilogues). The means of expression in the lyric poems is essentially the one worked out in the six books up to 1922. Her techniques and versification, her idiosyncratic symbolic system, her diction and tone are all immediately recognizable here. The central poem of the work is an excellent example. It is entitled “Prigovor” (“The Sentence”), and while its simplicity and understatement suggest an epic calm in the face of tragedy, the intensity of the moment is increased many times by the pathetic effort of the will to overcome a grief that borders on madness:

And the stone word fell
On my still living breast.
Never mind, I was ready after all,
I'll manage somehow or other.
I have lots to do today:
I have to kill my memory completely,
I've got to turn my soul to stone,
I've got to learn to live again—
And if not … The hot rustle of summer
Is like a holiday outside my window.
For a long time, I've had a presentiment of this
Bright day and empty house.

Summer 1939

The quiet conversational tone, the simple, workaday words contrast with the high seriousness of the content. The transformation of abstracts into concretes, the special meaning given the interior through the image of the window, and finally the image of the abandoned house all have—just because they fall within the context of Akhmatova's poetry—an immeasurably greater impact than they would in isolation.

According to the short prose introduction, Requiem had its genesis in Akhmatova's experience of the long lines of women outside the Leningrad prisons, where they waited for news of their loved ones imprisoned there. It was a time when “only the dead smiled, glad to be at peace, and Leningrad flapped like a useless appendage around its prisons.”

The body of the work itself opens with a lyric poem about someone beloved who was swept up in the Terror, someone who might stand for Lev, for Mandelshtam, for Akhmatova's third husband Nikolai Punin, or for all those arrested in the night and taken away in those frightful years. Note once again how the images and devices already characteristic of Akhmatova in the first period transmit the import of the poem. There are rich lexical borrowings from an earlier Russian culture with its Orthodox foundations. (The word for chamber, gornitsa, is almost obsolete; bozhnitsa, here translated literally as “shrine,” could be an icon corner or icon stand; an icon itself figures in one image.) Further, there is the familiar image of an interior setting and the symbolic doorway. And again, the Russia of history, of medieval Muscovy, is evoked—this time through the reference to the Kremlin walls—in “Uvodili tebia na rassvete” (“They Led You Away at Dawn”):

They led you away at dawn;
I went after, as if following your coffin.
Children wept in the darkened chamber
The candle at the shrine spilled over.
The cold of an icon on your lips,
A deathly sweat on your brow … Can't be forgotten!
And I, like the wives of the Streltsy
Shall howl under the Kremlin's towers.

(Sochineniia 1. 355)

The Streltsy were a standing infantry at the time of Peter the Great who sided against him in a palace plot. Many were beheaded on the square in front of the Kremlin, others hanged before its wall—in full sight of their wives and families. In this context, then, Peter figures as cruel despot (and in the eyes of the Orthodox common folk of his time, the Antichrist). The relationship is clear enough between the “poor little wives of the Streltsy”—the tender diminutive is used—and the women of Requiem standing in lines at the prison walls.

The breathless hesitancy that marks so many of the early lyrics is also here. There is a rapid build-up to a breaking point; the melted wax on the votive candle spills over. Control is gone, and the lyric persona “howls like the wives of the Streltsy.”

But it is restraint of emotion, rather than release, that we have come to expect in Akhmatova's poetry, or at least a return to a kind of resignation after the breaking point. In Requiem this indeed follows; in the next lyric, the contrast is complete. There is a certain calm, but it is a calm that is not quite sane, for the persona of the poem is divorced from her suffering self. A jingly meter jars with the content, and madness hovers:

Quietly flows the quiet Don,
Into the house comes the yellow moon,
Comes in with his hat cocked jauntily,
The yellow moon sees a shadow.
This woman is sick,
This woman is alone,
Husband in the grave, son in prison,
Pray for me a little.

In the following brief lyric, “Net, eto ne ia” (“No, That Is Not I,” 1940), the separation becomes complete, and before the halting rhythms quite resolve themselves, the poem comes to a full stop: “… what happened, let black cloths cover over / And let the lamps be carried out … Night.”

There follows a jumble of impressions: a memory of happier days, before the revolution in Tsarskoe Selo, contrasted with the lines of disheartened women outside the prisons in the bitter winter cold; the utter horrors of the time, and of men of the time; the poet's grief for her son and for her people.

And only dusty flowers,
And the clinking of the censer chain, and footprints
Going nowhere.

This leads to the central poem, “The Sentence.” The extraordinary effect of this poem and those preceding it depends in large part on recognition of the style of the early Akhmatova, and on the irony engendered as a result of the discrepancy between her younger self and the present person—between “the gay little sinner of Tsarskoe Selo,” as she is called here, and the shabby, gray-faced woman standing in the prison lines, just another among a nation of suffering women.

From “The Sentence,” the Requiem moves on again through changes of atmosphere and diction until it reaches the end in two final, moving quatrains. Here, Akhmatova generalizes the properly lyrical cry of the passages just preceding into the universality of the Mother suffering for the Son.

The Magdalene struck her breast and sobbed,
The beloved disciple turned to stone,
But there, where the Mother stood silent,
No one even dared to look.

(Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, p. 192)

The two epilogues that follow take up the themes, progressing once again from lyric to epic in stance. Here, the poet becomes not only witness and chronicler, but ultimately judge.

The epilogues close with a reference to the great rivers of Russia, echoing the first lines of the dedication: “Before such grief, mountains bend, / The great river cannot flow. …” There are reprises in the body of the poem—the quietly flowing Don, the swirling Yenisei—resolving at the end in the river of Petersburg/Leningrad: “And ships go quietly along the Neva.”

Michael Basker (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Basker, Michael. “Dislocation and Relocation in Akhmatova's Rekviem.” In The Speech of Unknown Eyes: Akhmatova's Readers on Her Poetry, edited by Wendy Rosslyn, pp. 5-25. Cotgrave, Nottingham, England: Astra Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Basker examines aspects of Akhmatova's Requiem that project qualities of disorientation and dislocation.]

The American critic Sam Driver has described Rekviem as ‘an amazingly powerful statement which requires no elaboration or “explanation”’.1 A ‘public’ work, woven, we are told, from the ‘poor words’ of the ordinary victims of the events described,2Rekviem indeed seems readily accessible and intensely moving. In lines such as:

Я zdu tiby—mni оcins trudnо

it achieves a pathos-laden directness, and an absolute simplicity at the very limits of poetic art, which make the critical elucidation vital to an appreciation of so much of Akhmatova's later poetry appear lamely redundant. This, as much as previous political constraints, perhaps accounts for a relative critical neglect of this major work.

Naturally enough, those who have written in most detail on Rekviem have concentrated primarily on ‘ideational’ aspects and, to a lesser extent, on narrative progression and structural unity. The main themes of the cycle have been identified as memory, the poetic word, and their triumph over persecution and death, Akhmatova's main endeavour being ‘to eternally preserve the memory of what occurred; and to distill from that experience its innermost spiritual significance’.3 Haight has written lucidly on the cycle as the ‘map of a journey leading through hell into the light’, ‘an organic unity documenting a precise progression through all the stages of suffering’;4 while Etkind, in the fullest study to date, has paid particular attention to architectonic symmetry and to a series of bipartite structural oppositions.5 It has also been made increasingly clear, by revealing asides in the articles of distinguished Soviet-based critics, by Etkind, and in an article by Milivoe Jovanović,6 that beneath its apparent simplicity Rekviem, too, reveals an extensive tajnоnics, a more complex, hidden structure, based in considerable part on intertextual allusion. The smooth unelaborated reading in other words proves insufficient. Under the broad heading of dislocation and relocation this paper looks briefly at various aspects of Rekviem to suggest that in some respects the cycle is in fact challengingly disorienting.


Something of its disorienting, dislocative quality might be illustrated at the outset by Akhmatova's choice of epigraph:

Nit, i ni pоd cuzdym nibоcvоdоm,
I ni pоd zasitоj cuzdyk кryl,—
R byla tоgda c mоim narоdоm,
Tam, gdi mоj narоd, к niccactsy, byl.

This is, most obviously, an impassioned statement of location (tоgda—tam), in which the resounding negative of the first two lines emphasised by syntactic parallelism and repetition of key lexemes (nit—ni—ni; cuzdym—cuzdyk), is forcefully juxtaposed to the no-less-insistently repetitive, unequivocally positive identification of self with time, place and people in lines 3-4. The epigraph takes up a theme familiar from earlier poems by Akhmatova, of the moral opposition between emigration and Russia, and reads in context as ‘a triumphant vindication of a conviction Akhmatova had first formulated in 1917, that it was right and necessary for her to stay in Russia and die with her country if need be’.7 Yet beneath their powerful rhetorical sweep the precise meaning of Akhmatova's lines is perhaps not entirely clear: in particular, the metaphor of the ‘shelter of alien wings’ might seem obscure. The imagery of wings is ubiquitous in the poetry of Akhmatova, and recurs with connotations of madness in a striking instance of etymological root-play (кpylо—zaкpylо) in poem “#9” of the cycle.8 A different gloss might be provided here, however, by the opening verses of the 90th (91st) Psalm:

Zivusij pоd кrоvоm Vcivysnygо pоd ciniy Vcimоgusagо pокоitcy. Gоvоri Gоcpdu: “pribizisi mоi i zasita mоy Bоg mоj, na Kоtоragо y upоvay!:” … Pirsymi cvоimi оcinit tiby, i pоd кrylsymi Igо budiss bizоpacin …

If the words of the Psalm suggest that the ‘defending wings’ might be those of God, then the cuzdyi кpylsy of Akhmatova's epigraph would allude to a foreign faith.9 At the head of Rekviem, the implications are profoundly disjunctive: for if an alien faith, as well as an alien land, might seem to beckon, this is presumably because in the people's misfortune the Russian faith has failed to provide that defence from ‘terror by night and the arrow that flieth by day’ promised by the 90th Psalm (appropriately enough, one of those included in the Orthodox funeral service).10 The poet, though united with her people, may have been abandoned by her God: and her overtly religious poem-cycle thus opens with a covert note of religious disquiet. This will be sustained through such dislocated religious symbolism as the cipnyi Mapucsi of poem “#1,” Kresty as name of a Communist prison (“#4”), or the оgpоmnay zvizda (with its obvious allusion to the stars on the Kremlin towers) which presages not the Nativity but the imminent death of mother or son (“#5”), to culminate, as we shall see, in poem #10, “Raspiatie”.

Though the epigraph, dated 1961, adumbrates a theme familiar from such poems as “Mne golos byl. On zval uteshno” and “Ne s temi ia, kto brosil zemliu”, its meaning is perhaps also modified in the light of the notorious Party resolution of 1946. Despite a disorienting anachronism in relation to the main subject matter of Rekviem, it is difficult not to detect in Akhmatova's prominently positioned later lines a defiant rejoinder to Zhdanov's denunciation of her poetry as ‘utterly remote from the people’, even, perhaps, an implicit reply to his rhetorical question: ‘What is there in common between this poetry, the interests of our people and the State?’11 in Rekviem the interests of poet and people are one, and though the epigraph draws an overt distinction between napоd and emigration, Russia and abroad, the shadow of Zhdanov brings into consideration an underlying third force. The fundamental disjuncture, it is intimated, is an eternal one, between the interests of poet and people on the one hand, and those of the State on the other, between bizvinnay Rucs (“Vstuplenie”) and the ‘alien’ force of her nalaci (“#6”). The powerful locative statement of Akhmatova's epigraph is thus predicated upon an apprehension of profound dislocation. The sense of disjuncture, disunity and fragmentation that it introduces is the central experience of the cycle.

From the very start of Rekviem the natural order is disrupted. The mountains are bowed with grief, the ‘great river’ does not flow, and the ‘capital’ (which, unnervingly, is no longer the capital) has ‘grown wild’ (“Posviashchenie”). The experience of the prison queues has blotted out all ordinary perception, so that a very literal dis-location has taken place:

I ninuznym privicкоm bоltalcy
Vоali tyrim cvоik Liningrad


Subsequent locations shift, abruptly and disconcertingly, from Leningrad to Moscow and back again, from the Neva to the Don to the Enisei, but in a sense this is immaterial: My ni znaim, my nоvcydu ti zi (“Posviashchenie”). All places coalesce undifferentiatedly into one, the only significant topography a ‘blind red wall’ which might itself be either Kremlin or prison (“Epilog (1)”). Essentially, it seems, the place which the poet shared with her people (Я byla tоgda c mоinnapоdоm) was a non-place.

Further disorientation is expressed through a series of unnatural inversions and conceptual incongruities. The condemned walk in regiments like soldiers. Picni pazluкn mark their disappearance, but they are sung by locomotive whistles, not the loved ones we might expect in a military context (“Vstuplenie”). The son whose return is longed for passionately for seventeen months is equated with horror: ty cyn i uzac mоj (“#5”), his eyes are ctpasnyi (“#9”). Amongst other elements of religious inversion, leaving each day for the prison queues is like leaving for early-morning service (“Posviashchenie”). Much else, from the oxymoron miptvyk bizdykannij in the opening poem, betrays a confusion of life and death. Living is dependent upon killing memory and stifling the soul (“#7”), and death, in whatever odious guise, is npоctay i cudnay (“#8”). Only the dead smile, pleased to have found peace; and if this defies logic, then another emphatically locative statement—Etо bylо, коgda ulybalcy / Tоlsко miptvyj … at the start of “Vstuplenie”—is also divested of its overt meaning to suggest that time too (300 hours or 17 months), is out of joint: a dislocated non-time or a time suspended. All is subject to the irreality of a sickeningly ‘familiar’ cкazкa, utterly disruptive of familiar life (“#8”).

At worst the poet and the people with whom she identifies are divorced each from the other in the depths of their suffering (“Posviashchenie”), while the numbing dislocation of normal perception obliterates, seemingly irrevocably, moral as well as physical distinctions:

Vci piriputalоcs naviк,
I mni ni razоbrats
Tipirs, кtо zvirs, кtо cilоviк …


Victims as well as executioners are dispossessed of their human attributes: poet and people cease to be people. Rekviem is framed by the ‘semblance of a smile that flits across something that was once a face’ (“Vmesto predisloviia”) and the closing memory of an old woman who ‘howled … like a wounded animal’ (“Epilogue (2)”). In between we see the harrowing and protracted process of dislocation of personality: of loss of identity (“#3”); self-dissociation (“#3,” “#4,” “#9”); surrender of moral integrity: Kidalacs v nоgi nalacu (“#5”); attempted moral suicide through extinction of memory and feeling (“#7”); longing for physical death (“#8”) and incipient descent into the oblivion of madness (“#9”). The emergence from such experience of the poetic self with whom the poem begins and ends is, indeed, a spiritual and moral triumph, a nоdvig to which no purely literary commentary can do justice. As we shall see, however, it involves not a restoration of the dislocated self and world, but their denatured re-location.


Motifs of dislocation are amply mirrored in the style and structure of Rekviem. Indeed, the cycle abounds in what Roman Timenchik defines as devices of avtоmitaоnicanii:

the presence within a poetic text of an ideational motivation for the reduction of sense precisely to a given number of syllables and—more broadly—any emphasis within a poetic text of the ideational link between different levels.12

There is, in other words, an exceptional degree of correlation between form and content, and the reader is in consequence subjected to a variety of dislocative devices.

Some of the simplest of such devices are syntactic. To cite just two examples, the declaration of a final indifference at the end of poem “#8” (Mni vci pavnо tinips …) is mirrored by the disorienting syntactic indifference of the last lines, in which subject and object cannot ultimately be distinguished:

I cinij blicк vоzlyblinnyk оcij
Pоclidnij uzac zactilait.

And in “Posviashchenie” suspension of pronominal reference, temporal shifts and fragmentation of syntax combine to convey the violent separation of the individual both from the mass and from her own sense of reality. After a passage of first person plural past tense narrative the reader is disoriented by the shift from a naturally assumed first person (оtdilina) to third (idit):

Prigоvоr … I crazu clizy klynut,
Otо vcik uzi оtdilina,
clоvnо c bоlsy zizns ia cirdцa vynut,
clоvnо grubо navznics оprокinut,
Nо idit … Sataitcy … Odna …

Confusion is increased by the switch to third person impersonal verbs, and from past through future perfective to present, until by the fifth line the syntax is clearly disrupted (sataitcy), and the words expressive of dislocation themselves become graphically isolated.

Metrical irregularity, too, may be an autometapoetic expression of dislocation. So, in “Prigovor” (“#7”), the unexpected truncation of a regular five-foot trochaic metre to four feet:

cpravlycs c etim кaк-nibuds

might be construed as a significant subversion of stated meaning: the failure, as it were, to cope with metre is silent testimony to an underlying inability to cope with the sentence that has been passed. More striking is the suspension of entire lines—as in poem “#4”, where the twelfth line, the anticipated completion of the third rhyming quatrain, is withheld. The poem breaks off at the end of line 11, with the suggestion of a thought too awful to articulate, while the descent into distressed silence is also the formal realisation of the deathly hush described in the preceding line:

Tam tyrimnyj tоpоls кacaitcy,
I ni zvuкa—a cкоlsко tam
Nipоvinnyk ziznij коncaitcy …

Such fragmentation is more complete in poem “#3” (“Net, eto ne ia, eto kto-to drugoi stradaet”), where the regular structure of metre and rhyme is abandoned to represent the disintegration of self. The poem moves from prosaic colloquialism and complete rhythmic irregularity towards ‘poetic’ metaphor and an emergent amphibrachic metre, but the fourth line tails off with suspension points, and all development is halted by the single disruptive monosyllable of the fifth: Nоcs. The poem breaks off into another premature silence, the formal counterpart of unutterable darkness.

In broad outline, at least, it might also be argued that the entire structure of Rekviem is mimetic of the thematics of dislocation. It is made up of a series of short poems (some ostensibly fragmented), of differing length and metre and, where given, of widely differing date,13 preceded by an anachronistic epigraph which is itself a fragment from a longer poem,14 and a brief passage of prose which, however conventional its designation in Russian, is denied the full-fledged status of a foreword (“Vmesto predisloviia”). Although Haight and others demonstrate a general narrative progression (more obvious, in fact, over the second half of the cycle), Rekviem shifts abruptly from poem to poem in mood and tone as well as metre and setting, and lacks both a conventional plot (contrast, for example, Blok's polymetric Dvenadtsat') and consistent personal referents: autobiographically, as we know, poem “#1” was written on the arrest of Punin;15 others refer to L. N. Gumilev. Within the text, however, there is a more striking discontinuity, reinforced by shifts of grammatical person and point of view, between, say, the woman who will wail like the wives of the Strel'tsy at the Kremlin wall (“#1”) and the woman associated with the muted madness of the quiet Don (“#2”); or between these women, and the цapcкоcilscкay vicilay gpisniцa and her dispossessed heir (“#4”), and Mary (“#10”); or between the woman who descends into madness (“#9”) and the poetic voice of the epilogue poems. The opening of poem “#3,” “Net, eto ne ia, eto kto-to drugoi stradaet”, points, in other words, to a fundamental contradiction, realised not just within the self of individual poems, but between the (dislocated) selves of the different fragments. Dislocation of experience and personality is presented as a cycle of disparate, discontinuous fragments, without a consistently recognisable, conventional persona.

Other elements of style and structure, which cannot be deemed mimetic or autometapoetic, further contribute to the overall sense of dislocation. In some poems there is discordance between the thematic expectation created by choice of metre, and actual content.16 Clash of semantic registers is another effective device, as in the jarring intrusion of modernity into a description ‘which at first seems to be presented in a purely traditional allegorical form’:17

I bizvinnay коrcilacs Rucs
Pоd кrоvavymi capоgami
I pоd sinami cirnyk marucs.

Broadly analogous is the chilling substitution of guby for the strongly anticipated glaza in Zinsiny c gоlubymi gubami (“Vmesto predisloviia”), or the incursion of ‘Soviet reality’ (the ‘blue hat’ which we realise must belong to the NKVD, and the unpavdоm, pale from fright) into the seemingly timeless, folk-tale-based evocation of death's monstrous guises in “K smerti” (“#8”). Despite elements of structural symmetry between the disparate component parts of Rekviem (in particular with regard to the outer framework of “Posviashchenie”, “Vstuplenie” and the epilogues),18 there is also a pervasive undercurrent of contradiction between one segment of text and another, clearly disruptive of any symmetrical patterning. Thus, cinij blicк vоzlyblinnyk оcij (“#8”) conflicts with cyna ctpasnyi glaza (“#9”); vci gоvоpili sinоtоm (“Vmesto predisloviia”) with Budu … vyts (“#1”); Ni ticit viliкay piкa (“Posviashchenie”) with Tikо lsitcy tikij Dоn (“#2”); or the grand pathetic fallacy of the opening with the depiction of nature's ordinary dispassionate round, painfully out of step with emotional trauma (“#6”). The strong implication that the present era is without precedent is at variance with historical reference which suggests a continuity of suffering (the wives of the Strel'tsy, the Bronze Horseman); and emphatic statements of location (tam, tоgda, etо bylо, коgda) contrast with shifting scenes and a sense of irreality. Beneath, as we have seen, lies the disjuncture of the Ni y. Plainly such contradictions, hitherto largely neglected by critics, vary in both significance and degree of eventual resolution. At one extreme, the contrary impulses to remember and forget (Ni zabyts! [“#1”]; Nadо namyts dо коnцa ubits [“#7”]) are resolved in the second epilogue (O nik vcnоminay vcigda i vizdi). At the other, the assertion that the cycle is composed of the simple words of other women, ia bidnyk, u nik zi nоdclusannyk clоv, is so at odds with the profusion of literary allusion that Akhmatova's much-quoted assertion can only be considered deliberately misleading. In all, however, such inconsistency evidently further contributes to the disturbing sense of dislocation with which Rekviem confronts the reader.


Literary allusion is itself also frequently used to dislocative effect, creating and simultaneously subverting a context of expectation for what is described. Milivoe Jovanović, in an article on Rekviem dealing primarily with Akhmatova's use of quotations from Euripides and Shakespeare, has made brief reference to certain parodic or polemical reworkings of Russian literary tradition: of Nekrasov's “Russkie zhenshchiny”, Lermontov's “Kazach'ia kolybel'naia pesnia”, and, perhaps most significantly, Blok's “Na pole Kulikovom”.19 In fact, Rekviem is replete with other such dissociative echoes of Russian literature, Blok, together with Mandel'shtam and, above all, Pushkin, providing their most frequent source.20

Jovanović is persuasive in detecting in Ni ticit viliкay piкa at the start of Akhmatova's “Posviashchenie” an inversion (or what R. Timenchik has defined as a ‘shadow quotation’)21 of Riкa pacкinulacs. Ticit, gpuctit linivо from the opening of “Na pole Kulikovom”, and thus the first in a series of implicit refutations of the historiosophical vision of Blok's cycle. However, the most obvious literary allusion of Akhmatova's opening poem (uniquely in Rekviem accorded the emphasis of quotation marks) is to the кatоpznyi nоpy of Pushkin's “Vo glubine sibirskikh rud”. Yet the confident optimism of Pushkin's epistle to the incarcerated Decembrists:

… Lybоvs i druzictvо dо vca
Dоjdut cкvоzs mracnyi zatvоry,
Kaк v vasi кatоrznyi nоry
Dоkоdit mоj cvоbоdnyj glac.
Oкоvy tyzкii padut,
Timniцy ruknut—i cvоbоda
Vac primit radоctnо u vkоda …(22)

stands in jarring contrast to Akhmatova's poem, throwing into emphatic relief the utter bleakness of the modern period, in which all else distintegrates but prison bolts remain firm and prison walls impenetrable (Nо кpinкi typimnyi zatvоpy, / а za nimi «кatоpznyi nоpy»), ‘love and friendship’ have been replaced by cmiptilsnay tоcкa,and the ‘free voice’ by howls and silence. To similar effect, in the description of the оdicalay ctоliцa in which the women met ritually together (кaк к оbidni pannij) while hope still sang in the background (vci nоet) “Posviashchenie” perhaps also contains an understandably more muted evocation of Mandel'shtam's “V Peterburge my soidemsia snova”, where the ‘capital’ (already, as in Akhmatova, a misnomer) is hunched like a ‘wild’ cat (diкоj коsкоj) but the ‘blessed women’ with their singing eyes (Bci nоyt blazinnyk zin pоdnyi оci) at least live on together as an enduring source of inspiration during present darkness, the guardians of a cult and token of spiritual survival and reunion.23 In “Posviashchenie” in Rekviem, by contrast, the community of women seems irrevocably broken asunder, and a final oxymoron underlines that no future meeting can be envisaged (Gdi tinips nivоlsnyi nоdpugi … Im y sly npоsalsnyj cvоj npivit). Not only Pushkin's optimism, but also Mandel'shtam's sombre prognostication has proved an inadequate measure of the blackness of the ‘Soviet night’ by which he had himself been engulfed. For as Akhmatova later remarked to Lidiia Chukovskaia:

What we lived through then … has not been recorded by any literature. Shakespeare's dramas—all those flamboyant villains, passions, duels—are trivia, child's play, by comparison with the lives of each one of us. I dare not speak of what those who were sentenced to execution or camp underwent. It cannot be named in words. But each one even of our fortunate (blagоnоlucnyj) lives was a Shakespearean tragedy a thousand times over.24

The disjunctive allusion, evoking unprecedented horror by its distance from the familiar pattern of a more ordered past, thus assumes special importance.

The voices of Mandel'shtam and Pushkin might again be heard in Akhmatova's already quoted lines:

Vci piriputalоcs naviк
I mni ni razоbrats
Tipirs, кtо zvirs, кtо cilоviк …


The finality of Akhmatova's naviк contrasts with the now appropriate equivocation of another of Mandel'shtam's political poems of the Tristia period, “Dekabrist”:

Vci piriputalоcs, i niкоmu cкazats,
Ctо, pоctipinnо kоlоdiy,
Vci piriputalоcs i cladко pоvtоryts …(25)

while the attendant confusion between man and animal might recall Pushkin's Evgenii, beaten by coachmen because оn ni pazbipal dоpоgi / Uz niкоgda:

… I taк оn cvоj niccactnyj viк
Vlacil, ni zvirs, ni cilоviк …(26)

In Mednyi vsadnik, Evgenii is a lone victim who loses his human respect. In Rekviem, the calamity extends to all around.

Similar use of allusion might also provide a clue towards deciphering in poem “#2”:

Tikо lsitcy tikij Dоn
Ziltyj micyц vkоdit v dоm.
Vkоdit v sapкi nibiкrins.
Vidit ziltyj micyц tins.
Eta zinsina bоlsna,
Eta zinsina оdna,
Muz v mоgili, cyn v tyrmi,
Pоmоlitics оbо mni.

The poem is based on a number of startling incongruities, culminating in the agonised immediacy of the final line, where impersonal presentation is suddenly disrupted both by the supplication of an imperative address, and by the disorienting double shift from third person to first of the final mni, which displaces both ‘this woman’ as the subject of depiction, and ‘husband and son’ as the strongly anticipated object of the imperative verb. The poem is also troublingly enigmatic in its relation to other poems of Rekviem, not least, as Lidiia Chukovskaia's bewildered question ‘Pоcimu Dоn? indicates,27 in its seemingly unparalleled remoteness from the known facts of Akhmatova's biography. By a characteristic twist, however, it is possible that beneath the painful urgency of its first-person conclusion this seemingly least autobiographical poem conceals an exceptional intrusion of autobiographical reality. Approaching it as the deliberate puzzle which Chukovskaia's remarks suggest, one might detect encoded anagrammatically in the words muz v mоgili the name of Akhmatova's dead husband Gumilev;28 and if he is indeed intended, then the phrase muz v mоgili contains a further jarring contrariety. Gumilev had no grave, and the missing grave was an enormity on which Akhmatova wrote elsewhere with encoded eloquence.29 The possibility of verbal play might also lead one to re-examine the poem's opening lines, to recognise if not the name of Lev/Leva, then that stifled sighing of his name (‘dazi ni zvuк—tins zvuкa, ctоna ili zоva’) which Chukovskaia heard in 1940,30 or, perhaps, to regard Dоn as abstract sound, evoking one of those ‘infrequent and remote strokes of the funeral bell’ which Akhmatova described as the only fitting accompaniment, besides silence, to her Rekviem.31 The opening of another poem by Pushkin might, however, provide a more straightforward explanation for Akhmatova's ‘quietly flowing quiet Don’:

Blisa crids pоlij sirокik
Vоn оn lsitcy! … Zdravctvuj, Dоn!

Pushkin's poem (which includes the epithet tikij Dоn) coincides with Akhmatova's in metre as well as in its first main verb, and the point of the correspondence becomes clear from its continuation:

Ot cynоv tvоik daliкik
Я priviz tibi pокlоn.(32)

Pushkin brings advance greetings from those soon to return victorious from the Russo-Turkish war.33 Akhmatova, too, is concerned with ‘distant sons’, but as victims not victors, and from them no news issues forth: in place of Pushkin's ebullient nокlоn the only messenger is the intruding, seemingly malevolent moon. Once again, the preoccupations of a more ordinary age form a dislocative background, chilling not least in the implication that the words of the nipvyj nоet have become comfortlessly redundant. In Akhmatova, this alone is perhaps tantamount to divorce from self.34

To similar contrastive effect, Akhmatova instills new content into old forms in “K Smerti” (“#8”). The pattern of her familiar invocation of death (Ty vci pavnо npidiss, zacim zi ni tinips? / Я zdu tiby … Ppimi dly etоgо кaкоj ugоdnо vid … Mni vci pavnо tinips) seems to be modelled, amongst other possible sources,35 upon Pushkin's invocation of the deceased Leila in his “Zaklinanie” (… Я tins zоvu, y zdu Lijlu: … Яvics vоzlyblinnay tins … Pridi, кaк dalsnay zvizda, / Kaк ligкij zvuк ils dunоvinsi, / Ils кaк uzacnоi vidinsi, / Mni vci ravnо: cyda! cyda! …).36 But where Pushkin, in wistful sorrow, addresses a dead lover,37 Akhmatova's desperate appeal, from one forcefully deprived of her loved ones, is the sombre conjuration of a violent death.

Given the extensive Pushkinian background, one might also read Akhmatova's ninth poem, on encroaching madness, in the context of Pushkin's famous treatment in “Ne dai mne Bog soiti s uma”38—with the difference that in Akhmatova God, as we have seen, does not forestall madness, while the bpans cmоtpitilij nоcnyk, / Da vizg, da zvоn окоv, with abjuration of which Pushkin's poem closes, has become ubiquitous reality. The short dramatically disrupted third poem might seem by contrast an intensification of Pushkin, at least in terms of Akhmatova's own observations on the Malen'kie tragedii, where ‘everything has already happened (clucilоcs) somewhere outside the given work’ and where, ‘in essence … the tragedy begins when the curtain falls’:39

Nit, etо ni y, etо кtо-tо drugоj ctradait.
Я by taк ni mоgla, a tо, ctо clucilоcs,
Pucts cirnyi cuкna pокrоyt,
I pucts unicut фоnari …

In this case, however, the main disjunctive voice is perhaps that of Blok. Etkind has described the poem as ‘Shakespearean’, and Jovanović discerns here echoes of both Shakespeare and Euripides;40 but it seems equally possible to detect behind at least the closing words of Akhmatova's short piece an inverted echo of Blok's almost equally short, no less formally self-conscious poem from “Pliaski smerti”, “Noch', ulitsa, fonar', apteka”.41 The implication is clear. The purely abstract horror of a metaphorical living death has been replaced by the concrete reality of physical annihilation, the apparently hopeless, meaningless eternal round of the beginning of the century (Ickоda nit. / Umpiss—nacniss оnyts cnacala …) broken by the onset of that unrelieved darkness which Akhmatova, in the lines added after Mandel'shtam's death to her poem on his Voronezh exile, called ‘the night which knows no dawn’.42 The horror of the Ezhov terror surpasses anything of which Blok—or his comtemporary, the цapcкоcilscкay vicilay gpisniцa, castigated in the following poem, primarily, it would seem, for the insouciant immorality characteristic of her age—were able to conceive.43


It now remains to consider how far the darkness is indeed unrelieved, or to what extent the last numbered poem of the cycle, “Raspiatie”, and the two epilogues, present a resolution of dislocation.

There can be little doubt that “Raspiatie”, with its image of a Mary who ‘understands that the Crucifixion is the greatest moment in history’,44 concludes the numbered poems on a cathartic note of high solemnity and awe-inspiring spiritual triumph. By ordinary criteria it is, nevertheless, a poem of considerable dislocation. It consists of two stanzas written at different times,45 in different metres (five-foot iambic and five-foot trochaic), and with opposing sequences of masculine and feminine rhymes. The triumphant opening, Xоp angilоv viliкij cac vоcciavil, constitutes an abrupt shift from the encroaching madness of poem “#9.” Yet it might also seem a shocking, almost irreverent disruption of the sombre tone of all that has preceded (the funeral bell, not the angelic host, is indeed the appropriate accompaniment to Rekviem), all the more discordant in that the viliкij cac which the angels praise is that of the Crucifixion, not, as might be expected, the Resurrection. The words of Christ which follow also seem harsh and divisive. Father is set off against Mother; and although the possibility of an autobiographical reading, with further reference to the dead Gumilev, would cast the son's reproach (Pоctо Miny оctavil!) in a different light, its obvious sense is that, as elsewhere in Rekviem, Mother and Son are abandoned by God to a cruel world. The words to the Mother (O, ni pydaj Mini) suggest, moreover, that they are scarcely united in their suffering. In the Orthodox Eastern ritual these are words of tender comfort, connected with the promise of resurrection (Bоcctacnu bо i npоclavlycy …);46 in the context of the sustained and powerful ‘mother's lament’ of Rekviem, the injunction not to lament seems curiously heartless. And though the Passion might seem a more fitting analogue for the Ezhov terror than any of the secular texts discussed above, it is difficult to see how the promise of resurrection on the third day, traditionally implicit in Christ's words to Mary, might be appropriate to the modern reality. As title, epigraph and opening line imply, the emphasis of this poem is entirely upon death.

The second stanza is accordingly also one of disassociation. In further contrast to traditional expectation, Mary is emphatically separated from Mary Magdalene and from the ‘beloved disciple’ with whom, in the Gospels, the dying Christ sought to reconcile her.47 As Amanda Haight has indicated, these three figures may readily be identified with different stages of suffering:48 Mary Magdalene (bilacs i pydala) with the initial ‘howl’ of poem “#1”; the disciple turning to stone perhaps not just, as Haight suggests, with the stone imagery of poem “#7,” but with the entire process of spiritual and emotional atrophy depicted in poems [“#2,” “#3,” “#4,” “#5,” “#6,” “#7,” “#8,” “#9,”]; and the silent, inscrutable Mary presumably with transcendence of these stages of self-dislocation—not, however, to the restoration of human aspect but to a state which appears impersonal or supra-personal. To the extent that the three disunited figures may be seen as projections of the self, Mary evidently symbolises no harmonious, healing reintegration; while the final locative statement establishes that her place is a kind of no-man's land, inaccessible to normal human emotion (а tuda, gdi mоlca mats ctоyla / Taк niкtо vzglynuts i ni nоcmil.) From the context of the entire poem it must be concluded that Mary has come to terms with suffering and terror not through mystic transcendence or divine intervention, but by complete divorce of self from all that is most dear in the normal world, a fiercely cruel purging of all ordinary emotional response.

This conclusion is borne out by each of the two epilogues. The figure of Mary is clearly implicit behind the ‘I’ of the first: Uznala y, кaк оnadayt liцa. The pun liцa—lictsy of the opening line reintroduces the tree imagery, sustained though ulybкa vynit and v cukоnsкоm cmisкi (cf cukii lictsy), which is one of the leitmotifs of the cycle and, following “Raspiatie”, perhaps evokes the traditional identification of tree and cross:49 unlike those who dare not look upon Mary, the transfigured self is now able to look upon those disfigured each by their own individual Passion. In contrast to the desperate appeal for prayer in poem “#2,” she has crossed beyond the dislocation of self-engrossed suffering to pray on behalf of all who were with her. In this she approaches the traditional role of the Mother of God as Intercessor.

This role is further developed in the immensely powerful lines of “Epilog (2)”, culminating in the theme of the bronze namytniк. And although this final poem, with its temporal distancing from events, marks an obvious movement towards the resumption of calm normality, elements of dislocation remain intense. Instead of looking upon and praying for the suffering and sundered napоd, the poet now merges completely with them as the instrument of their expression, the izmucinnyj pоt / Kоtоpym кpicit ctоmilsоnnyj napоd. The image of the disembodied mouth is one of grotesque dislocation, and suggests an impersonal voice that arises out of agonised obliteration of individual traits. Consistent with this, the siting of the monument represents an explicit rupture from the past self and its dearest associations: the last ties with the person born by the sea have been severed, and the bizutisnay tins in the town of Pushkin and Gumilev is abandoned to its inconsolable search. The cruel severity of this very literal self-renunciation even precludes final repose, in a startlingly paradoxical expression of fear, not of the terror but of forgetting its emblems ‘even in blessed death’. The proximity to the austere, trans-personal figure of Mary is as clear as the contrast to the norm of Pushkin's ‘personal’ monument, erected from the entirety of his work on a basis of cuvctva dоbpyi and lybiznоcts napоdu.50 The identity of poet and Mary is reinforced by an implicit association of the poetic ‘veil’ (Pокpоv) woven from the people's words and the Protecting Veil with which the Mother of God is entreated—in the Troparion of the Feast in its honour (Pокpоv)—to cover the people and deliver them from evil.51 The Russian connotations of Pокpоv—a celebration of Mary's special importance as Intercessor for the Russian people52—deepen the association already implicit in the preceding poem. In addition, it is the chief function of Akhmatova's monument, too, to ‘deliver the people from evil’, perpetuating memory to eschew repetition.

The site of this hypothetical monument could scarcely be more emphatically defined; but its location is that dislocated non-place (by the blind wall, outside the unopened door) which is the main setting of the cycle, and might now be identified as well with the no-man's land of Mary. It is also unmistakably dislocative in relation to the city's most famous bronze statue, the Bronze Horseman. In public terms what it therefore betokens is not restoration of an earlier order but relocation of a tradition horribly distorted and dislocated, a shift from the values of the Petrine (and Pushkinian) city perhaps commensurate with the calamity that has intervened. Previous normality cannot be restored; and thus, though harmony with nature is re-established and the great river flows once more, the pathetic fallacy is also resumed to close in the form of snow that will melt each year as tears from the immovable lids of the bronze statue. Even the ships on the Neva—in contrast to the animated vigour of the Introduction to Pushkin's Mednyi vsadnik53—will pass in fitting silence. Similarly, what the monument signifies in private terms is not restoration of the dislocated self, but a relocation of the stricken centre of personality. The ferociously concentrated trans-personal strength which monument and Mary both represent brings them to occupy the symbolic no-man's land, for their strength is built on inconsolable loss and pitilessly searing detachment from the broken and now redundant ordinary self. Majestic impersonality is perhaps all that can be retrieved from the dislocative trauma of the terror.

It might therefore be argued in conclusion that Rekviem, lacking a conventionally unified persona, finally advances an unconventional model of personality. And by a further disorienting paradox this impersonal personality is presented in very personal terms; for behind the images of Mary and monument stands the real author whom the monument represents, and who speaks in the epilogue with quite exceptional autobiographical directness. We are thus prompted to regard this personality not as a literary convention but as non-literary reality—and consequently, perhaps, to regard the discontinuous personae of the numbered cycle as fragmented projections of the same real self. To the end, literary convention—but to a lesser extent, it may be hoped, conventional literary commentary—remains inadequate to the experience Rekviem records.


  1. S. N. Driver, Anna Akhmatova (New York, 1972), p. 125.

  2. “Epilog (2)”. Rekviem is quoted according to Neva, 6 (1987), 74-9. References to individual sections are given as, for example, #2 in the text. The Neva version is close to that published by G. P. Struve and B. A. Filippov (S, I, 361-70) with variants generally as indicated by L. Chukovskaia (Zapiski, I-II, 1976-80, passim) and Akhmatova's own recordings. It has been preferred to the version in Oktiabr', no. 3 (1987), 130-5.

  3. S. Leiter, Akhmatova's Petersburg (Philadelphia, 1983), p. 92.

  4. A. Haight, Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage (Oxford, 1976), pp. 108, 100.

  5. E. Etkind, ‘Die Unsterblichkeit des Gedächtnisses: Anna Achmatovas Poem “Requiem’, Die Welt der Slaven, 29 (1984) 360-94.

  6. M. Iovanovich, ‘K razboru “chuzhikh golosov” v Rekvieme Akhmatovoi’, Russian Literature, 15 (1984), 169-82.

  7. Haight, Akhmatova, p. 100.

  8. K. Verheul, ‘Public Themes in the Poetry of Anna Akhmatova’, in J. van der Eng-Liedmeier & K. Verheul, Tale Without a Hero and Twenty-Two Poems by Anna Axmatova (The Hague, 1973), pp. 32-3.

  9. It might be recalled that N. S. Gumilev had also used an image of the wings of an alien faith to conclude a 1912 poem on the seductive power of Catholicism: cкоpij! Odnо nоclidnii ucilsi! / Nо vdpug clabiiss, vykоdy na dvоp,— / Gоticicкii basni, clоvnо кpylsy, / Katоliцizm v lazupi pacnpоctip (Sobranie sochinenii [Washington, 1962], vol. 1, p. 237).

  10. Pravoslavnyi tolkovyi molitvoslov (St Petersburg, 1907), p. 27.

  11. KPSS, ‘O zhurnalakh Zvezda i Leningrad: iz postanovleniia TsVKP (B) ot 14-ogo avgusta 1946g.’, Zvezda, nos. 7-8 (1946), 4, 6.

  12. R. D. Timenchik, ‘Avtometaopisanie u Akhmatovoi”, Russian Literature, 10-11 (1975), 213.

  13. Fuller information on dates of composition and the in part fortuitous final shape of Rekviem is to be found in Zapiski, I, 65, 73, 110; Zapiski, II, 414-15, 453, 473-4; and Etkind, ‘Unsterblichkeit des Gedächtnisses’, pp. 381-4.

  14. “Net, ne zria my vmeste bedovali” (S, III, 94-5).

  15. S, II, 181. It is typical of the uncertainty of referents that, as Akhmatova notes here, Mandel'shtam mistakenly took this poem to refer to his own arrest. Yet a clear echo of “Za gremuchuiu doblest' griadushchikh vekov” at the end of poem #8 (see Etkind, ‘Unsterblichkeit des Gedächtnisses’, p. 378) evidently does superimpose the image of the dead Mandel'shtam on that of the son whom the lines overtly concern.

  16. See Etkind, ‘Unsterblichkeit des Gedächtnisses’, pp. 367, 369-70, 373.

  17. Verheul, ‘Public Themes’, p. 32.

  18. Cf Etkind's particularly elaborate but by no means uncontroversial analysis of symmetrical structure, summarised in his ‘Unsterblichkeit des Gedächtnisses’, pp. 362-3.

  19. Iovanovich, ‘K razboru’, pp. 170-1.

  20. Not considered here, for reasons of space, is the question of similar echoes of Akhmatova's own earlier poetry. Etkind, ‘Unsterblichkeit des Gedächtnisses’, provides some valuable observations on the subject.

  21. R. Timenchik, ‘Printsipy tsitirovaniia u Akhmatovoi v sopostavlenii s Blokom’, in Tezisy I Vsesoiuznoi (III) konferentsii “Tvorchestvo A. A. Bloka i russkaia kul'tura XX veka” (Tartu, 1975), p. 124.

  22. A. S. Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii, 10 vols. (Moscow, 1974-78), vol.2, p. 97.

  23. O. E. Mandel'shtam, Sobranie sochinenii, 2nd. edn. (n.p., 1967), vol. 1, pp. 85-6.

  24. Zapiski, II, 137.

  25. Mandel'shtam, Sobranii sochinenii, vol. 1, p. 66.

  26. Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 3, p. 265.

  27. Zapiski, I, 73 fn. 34.

  28. For another possible example of anagram in Rekviem, see Iovanovich, ‘K razboru’, p. 179 fn.22.

  29. “Pushkin i nevskoe vzmor'e”, S, III, 251-61. On Akhmatova's attitude to Gumilev's absent grave, see also Zapiski, II, 432.

  30. Zapiski, I, 143. See also in this context R. D. Timenchik's suggestion of an etymological link between tikij and the surname Gumilev, cited in M. B. Meilakh, ‘Ob imenakh Akhmatovoi: I, Anna’, Russian Literature, 10-11 (1975), 55 fn. 57.

  31. S, III, 159.

  32. “Don”, Sobranie sochinenii, vol.2, p. 186. Pushkin used the same epithet in Kavkazskii plennik (Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 3, p. 89); other possible sources for Akhmatova's line are suggested in Iovanovich, ‘K razboru’, pp. 177-8 fns. 12, 15.

  33. Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii, vol.2, p. 580.

  34. Cf. R. D. Timenchik's comment: ‘For Akhmatova reading Pushkin inevitably became a form of analytical self-cognition’ (‘Anna Akhmatova i Pushkinskii Dom’, in Pushkinskii Dom: Stat'i. Dokumenty. Bibliografiia [Leningrad, 1982], p. 112).

  35. Etkind, ‘Unsterblichkeit des Gedächtnisses’, pp. 376-7, refers to Chénier; Iovanovich, ‘K razboru’, pp. 175-6, 181 fns. 42-3; to Euripides' Andromache and Shakespeare's Macbeth and Hamlet.

  36. Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii, vol.2, p. 245.

  37. Akhmatova herself (S, III, 317) noted the derivation of “Zaklinanie” from the ending of Byron's The Giaour. The name Leila is from Byron. The identity of Pushkin's addressee remains uncertain (see Stikhotvoreniia Pushkina 1820-1830-x godov [Leningrad, 1974], p. 115).

  38. Pushkin, Sobranie sochineii, vol.2, pp. 313-14.

  39. S, III, 182.

  40. Etkind, ‘Unsterblichkeit des Gedächtnisses’, p. 363; Iovanovich, ‘K razboru’, pp. 174-5, 181 fn. 41.

  41. A. A. Blok, Sobranie sochinenii (Moscow-Leningrad, 1960), vol. 3, p. 337. Cf. Akhmatova's more overt reworking of this poem in: “On prav—opiat' fonar', apteka”.

  42. “Voronezh”. On the date of these lines, see Zapiski, II, 233.

  43. Akhmatova, again linked Blok with her own past self in polemic with the immorality of the 1910s in Poéma bez geroia. See, e.g., S. Driver, “Axmatova's Poéma bez geroia and Blok's Vozmezdie’, in Aleksandr Blok Centennial Conference, ed. by W. Vickery & B. Sagatov (Columbus, OH, 1984), p. 95 and passim.

  44. Haight, Akhmatova, p. 100.

  45. Dated ‘1940-1943’ in published versions other than Neva, 6 (1987).

  46. Pravoslavnyi tolkovyi molitvoslov, p. 155.

  47. John xix, 26-7.

  48. Haight, Akhmatova, p. 105.

  49. Cf Akhmatova's own poem of 1946 “V kazhdom dreve raspiatyi Gospod”.

  50. “Ia pamiatnik sebe vozdvig nerukotvornyi”, Sobranie sochinenii, vol.2, p. 385. Contrast the impersonality of Akhmatova's Bоzdvignuts zadumayt namytniк mni.

  51. Pravoslavnyi tolkovyi molitvoslov, p. 212. Driver, Akhmatova, p. 130, and J. van der Eng-Liedmeier, ‘Reception as a Theme in Achmatova's Later Poetry’, Russian Literature, 15 (1984), 110, each refer to the religious connotations of nокpоv in connection with ‘its comfort and protection’.

  52. Pravoslavnyi tolkovyi molitvoslov, p. 212.

  53. Cf Bci фlagi v gоcti budut к nam, / I zanipuim na ipоctоpi; … коpabli / Tоlnоj cо vcik коnцоv zimli / K bоgatym npictanym ctpimytcy (Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 3, p. 255).

Roberta Reeder (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Reeder, Roberta. “The Great Terror: 1930-1939.” In Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet, pp. 211-22. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Reeder provides a biographical and thematic overview of Anna Akhmatova's career during the composition of her Requiem.]

Indeed, Akhmatova had begun to write brilliant poems again. Her “mute” period was over, as the impressions of the many years of quiet suffering finally rose to the surface. Philosophical themes, such as humanity's place in the universe and the role of suffering in the life of those who believe in a benevolent God, now began to play a more dominant role in her work. “In 1936 I began to write again, but my handwriting changed, my voice sounded different, and my life passed under the reins of a Pegasus which somehow reminds one of the apocalyptic White Horse or Black Horse of poems that were yet to be born—a return to my first style is impossible. Whether it is better or worse one cannot judge.”1

When her creative powers returned, Akhmatova wrote the cycle of poems about the Great Terror that have since made her world-famous—Requiem (1935-40). Anatoly Naiman, Akhmatova's literary secretary at the end of her life, points out how very personal this work is:

The hero of this poetry is the people. Not a larger or smaller plurality of individuals called “the people” for political, nationalist, or other ideological reasons, but the whole people, every single one of whom participates in what is happening on one side or the other. … What differentiates it from, and thus contrasts it to, even ideal Soviet poetry is the fact that it is personal, just as profoundly personal. … The personal attitude is not a rejection of anything; it is an affirmation which is manifest in every word of Requiem. This is what makes Requiem poetry—not Soviet poetry, but simply poetry: it could be personal only if it dealt with individuals, their loves, their moods, and their selves in accordance with the officially sanctioned formula of “joys and sorrows.”2

Another critic maintains that the cycle places the suffering heroine in the context of important literary works on the suffering of mothers and wives, such as Nekrasov's portrayal of the wives of Decembrists who followed their husbands into exile at the beginning of the nineteenth century, poems Akhmatova heard as a child. Earlier examples are the heroines of Euripides—Andromache, Hecuba, the Trojan women. All of them share a similar range of emotions: hope, the threat of death, madness, indifference, and a readiness to accept death.3

The portrayal of intense suffering does not mean that the poet has lost her faith. Inherent in the works of great Russian writers like Dostoyevsky and Berdyaev is the Orthodox belief that suffering is an important aspect of life, by which one's faith is tested. One has three choices: to overcome one's doubt and accept the idea that suffering is part of a divine plan, whose meaning is known to a benevolent God; to become immoral, give up one's faith, and turn to demonic forces; or to become totally amoral, in the belief that the individual is the sole arbiter of his or her own destiny. Never in any of Akhmatova's writings or conversations with trusted friends did she admit to doubt or lack of faith in the mysterious and often incomprehensible ways of a Divine Creator. She would not agree with Albert Camus's philosophy of the absurd. In his Myth of Sisyphus, Camus finds no way out of his metaphysical dilemma—either we are not free and almighty God is responsible for evil; or we are free and responsible, but God is not omniscient, all-powerful. Camus prefers to accept a world without God, an essentially amoral universe where good and evil coexist without aim or meaning. But there is another answer—that it is possible to believe in a God who created a universe containing both good and evil, and the individual has the freedom to choose between the two. Only in such a universe, rather than one in which one's fate is predestined, can people be judged as moral human beings who will ultimately be rewarded for their actions.

The poet Joseph Brodsky saw the text of Requiem itself as a confirmation of Akhmatova's faith, saying:

The degree of compassion with which the various voices of Requiem are rendered can be explained only by the author's Orthodox faith; the degree of understanding and forgiveness which account for this work's piercing, almost unbearable lyricism, only by the uniqueness of her heart, herself, and this self's sense of time. No creed would help to understand, much less forgive, let alone survive this double widowhood at the hands of the regime, this fate of her son, these forty years of being silenced and ostracized.4

Akhmatova did not foresee the Terror, but by 1930 she certainly knew what probably lay ahead, considering all that had already occurred to her and to millions of others under the Soviet regime. Yet she chose to stay and suffer with her people. This is made clear in the epigraph to Requiem, which was added in 1961, from the poem “No, we didn't suffer together in vain” (1961), not published in the Soviet Union until after her death:

No, not under the vault of alien skies,
And not under the shelter of alien wings—
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortunately, were.

(II, p. 95)5

The epigraph does not ground the poem in any particular historical context, hence the theme becomes universal. In typical Akhmatova fashion, much is said in few words. Through the metaphor of a sheltering wing, the first two lines convey the idea that no matter where the foreign land may be, it promises comfort, refuge. One word, “unfortunately,” in the last line, is enough to let the reader imagine that in the poet's own land the situation is grimmer; but this situation is unspecific and therefore universal—it could be war, natural catastrophe, or (as is implicit in the cycle) political oppression.

“Instead of a Preface,” a short prose piece, introduces the cycle:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone “recognized” me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there): “Can you describe this?” And I answered: “Yes, I can.” Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.

(I, p. 95)

Now Akhmatova fulfills her destiny as the voice of her people, taking on the persona of the village Wailer and the Madonna—the religious prototype for all mothers who must watch helplessly while their children suffer, somehow fulfilling an incomprehensible destiny. The mother can only provide comfort and prayer so that the pain and agony may be somehow alleviated.

The “Dedication” was written in March 1940, introducing the theme of “mortal woe” that permeates the cycle:

Mountains bow down to this grief,
Mighty rivers cease to flow,
But the prison gates hold firm,
And behind them are the “prisoners' burrows”
And mortal woe.
For someone a fresh breeze blows,
For someone the sunset luxuriates—
We wouldn't know, we are those who everywhere
Hear only the rasp of the hateful key
And the soldiers' heavy tread.
We rose as if for an early service,
Trudged through the savaged capital
And met there, more lifeless than the dead;
The sun is lower and the Neva mistier,
But hope keeps singing from afar.
The verdict … And her tears gush forth,
Already she is cut off from the rest,
As if they painfully wrenched life from her heart,
As if they brutally knocked her flat,
But she goes on … Staggering … Alone …
Where now are my chance friends
Of those two diabolical years?
What do they imagine is in Siberia's storms,
What appears to them dimly in the circle of the moon?
I am sending my farewell greeting to them.

(II, p. 97)

As Michael Basker has shown, the opening reveals that the natural order has been disrupted, part of a general pattern in the entire poetic cycle reflecting a disruption of the universe caused by the Terror.6 The early lines evoking nature mourning in sympathy recall Akhmatova's earlier poem “July 1914,” part of a two-poem cycle, about another catastrophe, World War I:

“JULY 1914”


It smells of burning. For four weeks
The dry peat bog has been burning.
The birds have not even sung today,
And the aspen has stopped quaking. …

(I, p. 427)

Both reach back to the famous medieval Russian epic the Igor Tale. On the day of battle black clouds come in from the sea, streaks of blue lightning quiver within them, the birds in the oak trees lie in wait for misfortune, eagles screech and foxes yelp.7

Through literary allusion Akhmatova adds implicit interpretations to the text. The phrase “prisoners' burrows” refers to Pushkin's poem “Message to Siberia,” where the poet encourages his exiled friends who participated in the Decembrist rebellion to have hope, “his free music pours round their prisoners' burrows,” giving them faith. But Akhmatova's lines are bitterly ironic, for here “the prison gates hold firm,” and hope is distant, “singing from afar.”

Akhmatova progresses from seeing herself at first as one with the other women through most of the poem, to feeling cut off from them while still physically among them, to becoming totally detached, separate: “But she goes on … Staggering … Alone.” The last lines bring us to the present (1940), as the poet asks where those friends are who came together not out of choice but by chance, because they shared one thing in common—they had come to communicate with loved ones in prison through the package they shoved through the little prison window.

The Prologue makes no direct allusion to the poet herself, but to all women:


That was when the ones who smiled
Were the dead, glad to be at rest.
And like a useless appendage, Leningrad
Swung from its prisons.
And when, senseless from torment,
Regiments of convicts marched,
And the short songs of farewell
Were sung by locomotive whistles.
The stars of death stood above us
And innocent Rus writhed
Under bloody boots
And under the tires of the Black Marusyas.

(II, p. 99)

The first line leads us to believe a happy event is being described, but we soon learn that the only ones smiling are the dead. Implicit is the idea that those alive in this situation are going through an unbearable hell, while peace and rest come only to those already beyond. Although rare in Akhmatova's poetry, when simile is used it is a powerful device. Leningrad as a useless appendage becomes a city no longer fulfilling a useful function in life: it has become a city of the dead. Short songs of farewell become a simple, everyday symbol of the thousands leaving Leningrad for exile, for the trip the passengers are taking leads them to Siberia and the camps. Basker perceptively interprets the “stars of death” as the red stars above the Kremlin.

Instead of “Russia,” Akhmatova purposely uses the term “Rus”—the medieval name for the territory which included parts of present-day Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia. It was composed of wealthy city-states equaling Florence and Venice in power and beauty. In this way the poem is transformed from a description of one particular city during the Terror to a symbol of the entire land in historical and mythical time. This ancient land is now writhing under the boots and tires of the modern Soviet police state, conveyed by the metonymic image of the police vans called chyrnaya Marusya or the Black Marusya, taking prisoners away. This was not the big, black van known as chyrnyi voron (“black raven”) which every Russian would recognize, similar to the American Black Maria, but a regular delivery truck carrying bread, milk, and other ordinary products.8 The name “Marusya” is the village version of Maria, and lacks the more elevated overtones of Maria the Madonna, although the allusion to the Madonna is clear—the Black Marusya is a religious inversion. The Madonna is holy, with the ability to intercede between man and God, to bring comfort and solace to humanity; but the Black Marusya strikes terror and fear in the hearts of men and carries out the dark work of the forces of evil.

In “Poem #1” (1935), the poet compares herself to a peasant woman performing the ancient Russian ritual of vynos—the carrying out of the dead from the house to the vehicle that will take the body to the cemetery. Instead of a dead body, however, this time it is a live prisoner, someone beloved, perhaps on the biographical level Punin or Mandelstam.9

They led you away at dawn,
I followed you, like a mourner,
In the dark front room the children were crying,
By the icon shelf the candle was dying.
On your lips was the icon's chill.
The deathly sweat on your brow … Unforgettable!
I will be like the wives of the Streltsy,
Howling under the Kremlin towers.

(II, p. 99)

The vynos is one of several episodes in the funeral rite, which is accompanied by laments, usually sung by a professional wailer from the village, the prichitalnitsa. The laments are improvised recitatives, incorporating traditional stock phrases adapted by the lamenter to the person who has died and the woman who is grieving.

The clue that the speaker is from the peasant milieu is provided by the reference to the gornitsa, a special room where rich peasants received guests. The religious associations are conveyed through motifs such as icons, the sacred images painted on wood to which the Orthodox pray, and the bozhnitsa or icon shelf, placed in a special corner of the house where meals are held and rituals like match-making take place.

In the end the poet compares herself to the wives of the Streltsy, or Archers, the elite military corps employed by Sophia, Peter the Great's half sister. They supported Sophia in her fight for the throne in 1798 because they believed Peter was godless, the Anti-Christ who would destroy Russia. Their wives lamented for them under the Kremlin towers, and the event was immortalized in Vasily Surikov's famous nineteenth-century painting, The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy.

In “Poem #2” a playful moon is contrasted with the lone figure of the suffering woman:

Quietly flows the quiet Don,
Yellow moon slips into a home.
He slips in with cap askew,
He sees a shadow, yellow moon.
This woman is ill,
This woman is alone,
Husband in the grave, son in prison,
say a prayer for me.

(II, p. 101)

The poem sounds like a nursery rhyme or lullaby—a Cossack lullaby because of the reference to the Don, where Cossacks lived. The phrase “quiet Don” connotes folklore since it is used in numerous historical songs.10 For example, there is a famous soldiers' song in which the land has been ploughed with horses' hooves, sown with Cossack heads, and blossomed with orphans. It ends:

What are the waves of the glorious quiet Don filled with?
The waves of the quiet Don are filled with fathers' and mothers' tears.(11)

Cossack sons were constantly exposed to danger, which meant the women were subject to loss, to the pain of a “Husband in the grave, a son in prison.” A “Husband in the grave” may refer to Gumilyov. The deceptively simple structure of the poem accounts for the shock that occurs when we learn only in the last line that the woman ill and alone is the poet herself. Suddenly the objective narrative is transformed into vividly personal perceptions.

“Poem #3” (1940) again shows how Akhmatova's use of structure influences the meaning and impact of a poem:

No, it is not I, it is somebody else who is suffering.
I would not have been able to bear what happened,
Let them shroud it in black,
And let them carry off the lanterns …

(II, p. 101)

Basker has explained that the regular structure of meter and rhyme in Russian is abandoned to represent the disintegration of the self. He adds that “The fourth line tails off with suspension points, and all development is halted by the single disruptive monosyllable of the fifth: Noch [Night]. The poem breaks off into another premature silence, the formal counterpart of unutterable darkness.”12

The next poem, “#4” (no date), articulates the theme underlying Poem Without a Hero, that the “gay little sinner” and her whole generation would pay for their indifference to the sufferings of their land and their people:

You should have been shown, you mocker,
Minion of all your friends,
Gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo,
What would happen in your life—
How three-hundredth in line, with a parcel,
You would stand by the Kresty prison,
Your tempestuous tears
Burning through the New Year's ice.
Over there the prison poplar bends,
And there's no sound—and over there how many
Innocent lives are ending now …

(II, p. 101)

The poet herself pays by standing three-hundredth in line with her parcel by the Kresty [Crosses] prison. The name as well as the cross-shape of the prison evokes the Christian symbolism of the Cross, standing for atonement and redemption.

The poems [“#5,” “#6,” “#7,” “#8,” “#9”] (1939-40) trace the poet's state of mind, moving from a wish for death to being overcome by madness, which she welcomes because she hopes it will help her achieve oblivion, total forgetfulness. In “#8,” “To Death” (1939), the speaker no longer wishes to reconcile herself to the situation and only begs for death to bring her comfort. It is a theme that has a long tradition in Russian literature. In Mussorgsky's song cycle Songs and Dances of Death, death brings peace to a soldier on the battlefield, to a sick child whose mother is grieving; and in Nekrasov's poem “Grandfather Frost,” the cold brings comforting death to a poor peasant woman who has just buried her husband.


You will come in any case—so why not now?
I am waiting for you—I can't stand much more.
I've put out the light and opened the door
For you, so simple and miraculous.
So come in any form you please,
Burst in as a gas shell
Or, like a gangster, steal in with a length of pipe,
Or poison me with typhus fumes.
Or be that fairy tale you've dreamed up—
So sickeningly familiar to everyone—
In which I glimpse the top of a pale blue cap
And the house attendant white with fear.
Now it doesn't matter anymore. The Yenisey swirls,
The North Star shines.
And the final horror dims
The blue luster of beloved eyes.

(II, p. 107)

The fairy tale that death may bring is not a harmless piece of fantasy, but what has by now become an “old story”—the search, arrest, exile, and perhaps death. The secret police wore light blue caps, and a house attendant had to be present at an arrest. The reference to the Yenisey River is not a stereotyped cliché of time being compared to a rolling river, but is directly associated with the Great Terror—the Yenisey is the site of many prison camps in Siberia, including Norilsk, where her son was exiled. As Etkind points out, this recalls a Mandelstam poem from the same period, “Beyond the thundering voice of future centuries” (1931):

Lead me way into the night, where the Yenisey flows
And the pine reaches to the stars
Because I am not a wolf by blood
And only someone my equal will be the death of me.(13)

The real subject of Akhmatova's poem is probably Mandelstam, especially since in 1939 she received the news that he had died.14

The cycle reaches its culmination in “#10,” “Crucifixion,” consisting of two poems. The first was written in 1940:



                                                                                          “Do not weep for Me, Mother,
                                                                                          I am in the grave.”
A choir of angels sang the praises of that momentous hour,
And the heavens dissolved in fire.
To his Father He said: “Why hast Thou forsaken me!”
And to his Mother: “Oh, do not weep for Me …”

(II, p. 109)

The epigraph is in Church Slavonic, the sacred language of the Orthodox Slavs. It is based on lines from the ninth chant of the Holy Week service, which are “Do not weep for Me, Mother, as you gaze upon the tomb.”15 On the Cross, first expressing his human aspect, Christ addresses God the Father, asking why he has been abandoned and forced to experience the suffering of an ordinary man: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? [Mark 15:34]). But to his Mother he says, “Oh, do not weep for Me,” because he knows he is divine and will be resurrected. Christ must feel human pain, or his sacrifice is meaningless, but he suffers as part of a divine destiny in order to bring salvation to humanity—therefore his mother should not weep. In the Annunciation, Mary received the message that her son would have a unique destiny when she was told he would reign over the house of Jacob forever, “and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:33).

Amanda Haight suggests that the cycle's second poem (1943) illustrates different kinds of suffering: Magdalene, the suffering of rebellion, John, the silent suffering of one trying to kill memory and feeling; but the Mother's suffering is so great no one can bear to look at her.16


Mary Magdalene beat her breast and sobbed,
The beloved disciple turned to stone,
But where the silent Mother stood, there
No one glanced and no one would have dared.

(II, p. 111)

Akhmatova is faithful to the original description of the apostle in John 19:26-27, where no specific person is named: “When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, ‘Woman, behold thy son!’ Then saith he to the disciple, ‘Behold thy mother!’ And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.” Over the centuries in depictions of the Crucifixion the disciple has been portrayed as John. Akhmatova's version differs dramatically from the original. Here the disciple, rather than acting as a comforter, himself becomes helpless, and the mother remains alone and unprotected.

In “Epilogue I” the poet reconfirms that hers is the voice of all those who have experienced what she has. The cycle ends with “Epilogue II,” whose theme is “remembrance,” which would become a major motif in Akhmatova's later works. Memory becomes a moral imperative, for the indifference of her own generation to the sufferings of the people, the years of Terror, is a sin.

In the Orthodox ritual, Remembrance Day marks the anniversary of the death of a member of the Orthodox Church, and a service is held in his honor.17 If the poet is to be remembered by her country, she asks that it not be near the sea, the scene of her childhood (Akhmatova was born by the Black Sea and spent many of her childhood summers there), nor near the pine stump in the tsar's garden. Presumably this refers to Tsarskoye Selo, where Akhmatova grew up and spent her early married years. Further, an allusion to a tree stump also appears in her poem “Willow,” written in 1940, the same year as this poem, contrasting the tranquillity enveloping her in the peaceful environment of Tsarskoye, of which the silver willow is a symbol, and her later years, when the tree is nothing but a stump—like the dead willow, the tranquillity of Tsarskoye Selo has disappeared. Instead of these happy allusions, though, the poet wishes her monument to be where she stood for three hundred hours—in front of the prison.

In the fifth stanza, she says she will weave a pokrov (mantle) to protect the women who waited in line with her:

I have woven a wide mantle for them
From their meager, overheard words.
I will remember them always and everywhere,
I will never forget them no matter what comes.
And if they gag my exhausted mouth
Through which a hundred million scream,
Then may the people remember me
On the eve of my remembrance day.

(II, p. 113)

The word pokrov evokes a network of associations in Russian culture. It is connected with the holiday of Intercession celebrated on October 1, the feast day commemorating Andrew, a “holy fool,” gifted by madness and prophecy, who had a vision of the Madonna in a Byzantine church in Constantinople. The holiday is the subject of many icons and the name of numerous Russian churches. The Madonna took off her mantle and laid it over the congregation as a sign of her intercession between humanity and heaven, a gesture symbolizing her role as protector of the people. In the context of Requiem, the word pokrov associates the poet with the Madonna—Akhmatova becomes an intercessor and voice of her people, although her mantle will be “woven of words.”

In the last stanza there is another covert biblical reference, this time an ironic allusion to the dove. Since the time of Noah, the dove has been associated with peace and renewal of life; but in this poem we hear a “prison dove” cooing in the distance, caught like the prisoners in the nightmarish world of the Terror, while boats quietly sail on the Neva River, symbolic of people in the outside world who remain totally indifferent to the suffering of those inside Russia and inside the prison walls.

Akhmatova was afraid to write Requiem down. Lydia Chukovskaya, an author and daughter of the eminent critic Korney Chukovsky, was one of the few people to whom the poet recited the work when it was first composed, and who committed it to memory. Akhmatova would visit her and read her the poems in a whisper, but when Chukovskaya came to see her in her own apartment, Akhmatova would stop suddenly in the midst of a conversation and glance up at the ceiling and walls, where she assumed there were hidden microphones. Then she would say something quite ordinary like, “Would you like a cup of tea?”, while scribbling swiftly on a piece of paper and handing it over. “Autumn is so early this year,” Akhmatova would say, and after Chukovskaya had memorized the lines, Akhmatova would light a match and burn the paper in an ashtray.18

Chukovskaya first came to visit Akhmatova because her own husband, the brilliant physicist Matthew Bronstein, had been exiled, and Chukovskaya had heard about Akhmatova's letter to Stalin which resulted in the release of Punin and her son. She thought Akhmatova could give her good advice. However, times were different, and Akhmatova could no longer even help her own son.19

Chukovskaya kept a diary of her conversations with Akhmatova from 1939 to 1942, when they quarreled. In 1952, they became friends again and Chukovskaya continued her diary until Akhmatova's death in 1966. In her preface to the diaries, Chukovskaya mentions what an important role Akhmatova played in her own life:

I felt drawn to write about her because she herself, her words and deeds, her head, shoulders and movements, her hands, possessed a perfection usually found in this world only in great works of art. The fate of Akhmatova—something more than her own particular personality—carved before my very eyes a statue of grief, orphanhood, pride and courage out of this famous and abandoned, strong and helpless woman. I had known Akhmatova's earlier poems by heart since childhood, but the new ones, together with the movements of her hands burning the paper above the ashtray, together with the aquiline profile standing out like a blue shadow on the white wall of the deportation prison, entered my life as naturally as long ago the bridge, St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Summer Garden or the Embankment had done.20

By this time Akhmatova perceived her relationship with Punin as disintegrating rapidly. In a poem written in 1936, she likens herself to a domesticated animal in his house:

I hid my heart from you
As if I had hurled it into the Neva.
Wingless and domesticated,
I live here in your home.
Only … at night I hear creaking.
What's there—in the strange gloom?
The Sheremetev lindens …
The roll call of the spirits of the house …
Approaching cautiously,
Like gurgling water,
Misfortune's black whisper
Nestles warmly to my ear—
And murmurs, as if this were
Its business for the night:
“You wanted comfort,
Do you know where it is—your comfort?”

(II, p. 83)

According to Chukovskaya, Akhmatova finally left Punin on September 19, 1938. She said they had lived together for sixteen years.


  1. Akhmatova, “Pages from a Diary,” MHC [My Half Century: Selected Prose, ed. Ronald Meyer. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1992], p. 13.

  2. Nayman-Rosslyn [Remembering Anna Akhmatova. London: P. Halban, 1991], p. 127.

  3. Milivoe Jovanovich, “K razboru …,” p. 171.

  4. Joseph Brodsky, “The Keening Muse,” in Brodsky, Less Than One: Selected Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986), p. 51.

  5. Amanda Haight, Akhmatova's first biographer, suggests that these lines harken back to the poems written right after the Revolution, such as “To the Many”:

    I—am your voice, the warmth of your breath,
    I—am the reflection of your face,
    The futile trembling of futile wings,
    I am with you to the end, in any case.

    (I, p. 619)

    H-N [Amanda Haight. Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimmage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990], p. 100.

  6. Michael Basker, “Dislocation and Relocation in Akhmatova's Rekviem,” SUE [The Speech of Unknown Eyes: Akhmatova’s Readers on Her Poetry, ed. Wendy Rosslyn. 2 vols. Nottingham: Astra Press, 1990], I, p. 9.

  7. See “The Lay of Igor's Campaign,” The Heritage of Russian Verse, p. 4.

  8. In America the black prison van is known as “the Black Maria.” A poem by Langston Hughes incorporates this image in his poem “Must be the Black Maria,” in which the poet says he hopes “it ain't coming for me.” See Langston Hughes, Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Vintage Books 1974,), p. 118.

  9. In Akhmatova, “Mandelstam,” MHC, p. 101, Akhmatova says she quoted lines from this poem when she was visiting Mandelstam, and he thanked her for them. However, she makes it clear she originally wrote it for Punin: “That poem is from Requiem and refers to the arrest of Nikolai Punin in 1935.”

  10. See Efim Etkind, “Die Unsterbichkeit des Gedachtnisses: Anna Achmatova's poem ‘Requiem,’” Die Welt der Slaven, 29 (1984), p. 363.

  11. Roberta Reeder, Russian Folk Lyrics, [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993] p. 155.

  12. Basker, “Dislocation,” p. 11.

  13. Trans. Roberta Reeder.

  14. See Etkind, “Ob Fontanki,” p. 373.

  15. Zoya Tomashevskaya, “Introduction” to Anna Akhmatova, “Requiem,” Oktyabr, no. 3 (1987), p. 130.

  16. H-N, p. 105.

  17. The Requiem service, called pannykhida, is held immediately after death, when the reading of the Psalter begins by the dead person's coffin. The body is later taken to a church burial, and a funeral service is held. A manual of the Orthodox Church's Divine Service describes the remembrance days—days set apart by the Church for the commemoration of all deceased Christians, apart from private commemoration of the deceased at the wish of friends and relatives. The services for these general days are called “Universal Requiems” and the days are called “ancestral days.” One of the most important is on Monday or Tuesday of St. Thomas week, the week after Easter, when families go to the cemetery and feast at the side of the ancestral graves. D. Sokolof, A Manual of the Orthodox Church's Divine Services (Jordanville, N.Y.: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1975), p. 157.

  18. Lydia Chukovskaya, ZAA [Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi. Vol. I (1938-1941). Paris: YMCA Press, 1976. Vol. II (1952-1962). Paris: YMCA Press, 1980.], I, p. 8.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid., p. 10. Chukovskaya recorded this conversation November 10, 1938.

David N. Wells (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Wells, David N. “Stalinism and War: Works of the 1930s and 1940s.” In Anna Akhmatova: Her Poetry, pp. 64-95. Oxford, England: Berg, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Wells discusses structure, theme, and inspirational sources of Akhmatova's Requiem.]

Akhmatova's most sustained piece of overtly oppositional writing in the 1930s is the cycle Requiem (I, 359-70).1 Although the epigraph and prose introduction to the cycle were both added later, the cycle as such was put together in 1940.2 The poems which make it up appear to have been inspired by several different episodes in Akhmatova's biography. Although the most immediate impetus is clearly Akhmatova's experience, following her son's arrest in 1938, in the queues of women waiting outside prisons attempting to receive news of their imprisoned menfolk, there are also additional sources. The first of the ten numbered poems, ‘Uvodili tebya na rassvete’ (‘They took you away at dawn’, I, 363) is dated 1935, and according to Akhmatova's memoir of Mandelstam, refers to the arrest that year of Nikolai Punin (II, 181). Mandelstam, it appears, took this poem to refer to his own arrest. But the exact biographical referents are perhaps not important. Akhmatova, by combining them in her cycle has produced what is, in its own way, a comprehensive social history of the Terror, what Haight has called ‘an organic unit documenting a precise progression through all the stages of suffering’.3

Although Requiem has no plot in any conventional sense, the ten numbered poems which form its centre do represent a process of emotional change. They do this through a lyrical examination of a series of emotional states presented in a chronological sequence which is rendered coherent by the two unnumbered introductory poems entitled ‘Posvyashchenie’ (‘Dedication’) and ‘Vstuplenie’ (‘Introduction’). ‘Dedication’ in particular not only makes it clear that the poems which follow are written in the name of a large and anonymous group of women, but also specifies the time frame of the cycle:

Gde teper' nevol'nye podrugi
Dvukh moikh osatanelykh let?
Where now are the chance friends
Of those two demoniacal years?

‘Introduction’, on the other hand, focuses rather on place:

I nenuzhnym priveskom boltalsya
Vozle tyurem svoikh Leningrad.
And Leningrad dangled around its prisons
Like a useless appendage.

By later referring more broadly to the sufferings of ‘Rus'’, it affirms that the description of Leningrad is meant to stand also for the entire country.

The central section of the poem begins with an arrest, laconically described in the first line of poem No. 1: ‘They took you away at dawn.’ The scene is likened to a funeral, but a note of defiance is implied by the heroine's comparison of herself to the wives of the Strel'tsy in the last two lines:

Budu ya, kak streletskie zhenki,
Pod kremlevskimi bashnyami vyt'.
Like the wives of the Strel'tsy
I shall howl under the Kremlin towers.

In the poems which follow, however, this defiance gives way to passivity and to a gradual breakdown of personality. In the second poem the speaker sees herself partly as someone else:

Eta zhenshchina bol'na,
Eta zhenshchina odna,
Muzh v mogile, syn v tyur'me,
Pomolites' obo mne.
This woman is ill,
This woman is alone,
Son in prison, husband in the grave,
Pray for me.

And in the third poem the gap between mental processes that predate the arrest and the current reality is rendered explicit. The speaker is unable to believe that it is indeed her own actions that she is watching:

Net, eto ne ya, eto kto-to drugoi stradaet.
Ya by tak ne mogla
No, it is not I, it is somebody else who is suffering
I should not have been able to bear it.

The fourth poem marks a particular stage in the history of individual prisoners—their mothers and wives queuing outside the Kresty prison in Leningrad in order to hand over parcels, and shows the speaker, more resignedly now, contrasting her present fate with her life in earlier years. The fifth, explicitly situated seventeen months after the arrest, shows increasing disorientation:

Vse pereputalos' navek,
I mne ne razobrat'
Teper', kto zver', kto chelovek
Everything has been muddled for ever,
And now I cannot work out
Who is a beast and who is a human being.

This is also reflected in the sixth poem. The seventh, entitled ‘Prigovor’ (‘Sentence’), initiates a further new stage. Notification that her son has been sentenced—presumably to death—throws the speaker back into despair:

I upalo kamennoe slovo
Na moyu eshche zhivuyu grud'.
And the word fell like a stone
On my still living breast.

She is led into another round of denial and suppression of her emotions:

U menya segodnya mnogo dela:
Nado pamyat' do kontsa ubit',
Nado, chtob dusha okamenela,
Nado snova nauchit'sya zhit'
Today I have many things to do:
I must kill my memory off completely,
My heart must turn to stone,
I must relearn how to live.

The next two poems deal with different and more extreme manifestations of despair: in the first (‘No. 8’) the speaker invites death to come to her to release her from her torments; in the second (‘No. 9’) it is insanity which is seen as the only possible form of consolation even though it will remove all memories of the past, the welcome as well as the terrible.

Up to this point the numbered poems of the narrative sequence had been written almost entirely in the first person. (The exceptions are ‘No. 2’, which is written partly in the third person, and ‘No. 4’, which is written as a second-person address by the speaker to herself.) The tenth and final poem of the inner narrative, which represents the carrying out of the sentence passed in the seventh poem, that is the execution of the heroine's son, switches to the third person, discursively reflecting her inability to speak after this latest shock. In order to describe this culmination of the narrative, Akhmatova has recourse to Biblical history and finds a model in the crucifixion of Jesus, and particularly in the responses of female figures—Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Jesus—to the crucifixion:

Magdalina bilas' i rydala,
Uchenik lyubimyi kamenel,
A tuda, gde molcha Mat' stoyala,
Tak nikto vzglyanut' i ne posmel.
Mary Magdelene beat her breast and sobbed,
The beloved disciple turned to stone,
But no one even dared to look
At where the Mother stood in silence.

Haight has suggested that the three figures here represent three different stages of suffering: Mary Magdalene the defiance of poem ‘No. 1’, John the beloved disciple the paralysis of, for example, ‘No. 7’, and Mary the Mother a deep understanding arrived at by passing through all stages.4 The silence of Mary the Mother at the moment of the crucifixion, however, may represent not so much wisdom as a state of catatonia induced in her, as in the first-person heroine of the narrative, by the finality of her son's death.

However, invoking the crucifixion is not merely a method for projecting the sufferings of women in Russia in the late 1930s on to a universal plane. In theological terms the crucifixion implies the resurrection, and the memorialising function of the Requiem cycle foreshadowed in ‘Dedication’ (and affirmed in the introductory prose passage added in 1957) is rendered explicit in the two poems which form its ‘Epilogue’. Having passed through the Terror documented in the ten poems of the narrative, the speaker finds she has survived and is able to record the experience of her sisters:

I ya molyus' ne o sebe odnoi,
A obo vsekh, kto tam stoyal so mnoyu,
I v lyutyi kholod, i v iyul'skii znoi,
Pod krasnoyu oslepsheyu stenoyu.
And I pray not for myself alone,
But for all those who stood there with me
In the bitter cold and in the heat of July
Under that blind red wall.

The final poem contains an affirmation of the power of words to recall the female, indirect victims of Stalinism and also an assertion that the act of recalling has its own therapeutic and protective effect:

Dlya nikh sotkala ya shirokii pokrov
Iz bednykh, u nikh zhe podslushannykh slov.
For them I have woven a broad shroud
From poor words, overheard from them.

Having established the power of such a monument, Akhmatova then, secure in the knowledge of its durability, turns to the question of a sculptural monument to herself as the author of Requiem. In considering where such a monument should be placed, Akhmatova rejects locations that have associations with her life and poetry before Requiem—the Black Sea coast and the park at Tsarskoe Selo—and insists that it should be outside the prison walls in Leningrad, so that even in death she should not forget the events of the 1930s. This choice too marks a partial rejection of the poetry of Akhmatova's youth now that her pen has found its vocation as public chronicler of the Terror.

The superficial clarity and simplicity of the Requiem cycle belie a considerable underlying complexity of imagery, allusion and compositional technique. As Michael Basker has argued, the disorientation of the heroine is mirrored stylistically in the cycle in many ways.5 Most obviously, there is no unequivocal link between the various poems that make up Requiem: they vary greatly in length, metrical format and rhyme scheme; they do not maintain unity of place—some are clearly set in Leningrad, while others are on the river Don (‘No. 2’) or in Biblical Palestine (‘No. 10’); they do not contain a consistent narrative viewpoint, changing abruptly, for example, between the first and third person (‘Dedication’, ‘No. 2’). Much of the imagery is similarly dislocated, even verging on the surreal, as in the opening lines of ‘Dedication’:

Pered etim gorem gnutsya gory,
Ne techet velikaya reka.
Mountains bend down before this grief,
The great river does not flow.

or the description of prisoners in ‘Introduction’:

Shli uzhe osuzhdennykh polki,
I korotkuyu pesnyu razluki
Parovoznye peli gudki.
Regiments of the already condemned were marching
And the whistles of steam engines
Sang brief songs of farewell.

This is much more nearly the Leningrad of Nikolai Zabolotskii than of Akhmatova's early poems. Expressions from different semantic registers are placed in juxtaposition. Thus ‘Rus'’ (‘Russia’) is made to rhyme with ‘chernykh marus'’ (‘black marias’); in ‘No. 8’ (‘To Death’) terms of Soviet realia—‘verkh shapki goluboi’ (‘the top of a pale blue cap’, alluding to the NKVD uniform), and ‘upravdom’ (‘house manager’)—appear in the middle of an otherwise broadly abstract invocation of death. The religious metaphors which abound in the cycle serve to highlight the enormity of events by their incongruity: ‘Kresty’ (‘Crosses’) is the name of a prison (‘No. 4’); the scene of arrest is compared to a funeral (‘No. 1’). Even the title of the work, Requiem, with its associations above all with Catholic Christianity and the civilisation of western Europe, sits uneasily with the Orthodox tradition evoked in the poems themselves by references, for example, to icons (‘No. 1’), to the ‘pominal'nye dni’ (‘remembrance days’) of the Orthodox funeral ritual (‘Epilogue’) and to the language of the Church Slavonic Bible: ‘Ottsu skazal: “Pochto Menya ostavil!” / A Materi: “O, ne rydai Mene …”’ (‘To the Father he said, “Why hast thou forsaken me”, but to his Mother, “Oh, do not weep for me …”’, ‘No. 10’). The numerous allusions to Old Russia further serve to set the work in an Orthodox historical context rather than in a more broadly European one.

At the same time, as with the early books discussed in chapter three, the architectonics of the cycle are calculated with deliberate rhetorical precision. Various schemes have been devised to show a symmetry of themes and images around a central poem operating as a pivot.6 While these are apt to overstate their case, at the very least it can be said that the ten ‘narrative’ poems are situated within a symmetrical framework of two introductory and two concluding poems which emphasise the courage and persistence of Russian women outside the prisons of the 1930s and lay great weight on the power of poetry to record their sufferings and to transcend them. The ‘narrative’ sequence is organised around three points of transformation, beginning with an arrest (‘No. 1’), ending with an execution (‘No. 10’) and articulating itself around the seventh poem, in which the sentence is pronounced.

As might be expected from a knowledge of Akhmatova's early poems, the superficially limpid poetry of Requiem is rich in evocations of other literary works. Allusions have been detected to a very wide range of authors from Euripides, Dante and Shakespeare to Tyutchev, Nekrasov and Mayakovskii.7 The most salient is highlighted by Akhmatova herself when she places quotation marks around a phrase from Pushkin which occurs in ‘Dedication’:

No krepki tyuremnye zatvory,
A za nimi ‘katorzhnye nory’
But the prison bolts are firm,
And behind them lie the ‘convicts' burrows’.

Pushkin's 1827 poem ‘Vo glubine sibirskikh rud’ (‘In the depths of the Siberian mines’), from which the quoted phrase is taken, is addressed to the participants of the abortive Decembrist uprising.

Pushkin's poem was designed to encourage the convicted Decembrists and to reassure them that the ideals of freedom which they had attempted unsuccessfully to uphold were still alive in the outside world and would eventually prevail. The poem concludes:

Lyubov' i druzhestvo do vas
Doidut skvoz' mrachnye zatvory,
Kak v vashi katorzhnye nory
Dokhodit moi svobodnyi glas.
Okovy tyazhkie padut,
Temnitsy rukhnut—i svoboda
Vas primet radostno u vkhoda,
I brat'ya mech vam otdadut.(8)
Love and friendship will reach you
Past the sombre bolts,
As my free voice reaches you
In your convicts' burrows.
Your heavy fetters will fall,
Your dungeons will collapse,
And freedom will greet you at the entrance,
And your brothers will give you back your sword.

The position in Requiem, however, is quite different. The prisons of the GULag are seen as impenetrable (‘But the prison bolts are firm’); there is no hope of Akhmatova's voice reaching them, and it is to the survivors that the cycle is addressed. The contrast with Pushkin's poem, as Basker notes, throws ‘into emphatic relief the utter bleakness of the modern period’.9

Similar effects are achieved by other references to external texts throughout Requiem. The pathos of the description of the woman crushed by the totalitarian state in poem ‘No. 2’ is increased by its overtly folkloric language, alluding to a pre-industrial world. The invocation of death in ‘No. 8’ achieves a particular intensification of emotion from its similarities to Pushkin's appeal to a dead lover in his poem ‘Zaklinanie’ (‘Incantation’) and from parallels in a poem by Chénier, ‘Vienne, vienne la mort!—Que la mort me délivre’ (‘Let death come!—Let death deliver me’), with its appeals to the notions of justice and truth.10 As Amert has noted, there are also ironic allusions to works of officially promoted Soviet literature which project a contented world grotesquely at variance with the one described by Akhmatova. In ‘Dedication’, for example, the lines ‘Dlya kogo-to veet veter svezhii, / Dlya kogo-to nezhitsya zakat’ (‘For someone a fresh wind is blowing, For someone the sunset is luxurious’) are a contemptuous echo of Vasilii Lebedev-Kumach's widely disseminated hymn to Stalinism, ‘Pesnya o rodine’ (‘Song of the Motherland’), written in 1935, and in particular the lines:

Nad stranoi vesennii veter veet,
S kazhdym dnem vse radostnee zhit'.(11)
A spring wind is blowing across the country,
With every day life is more joyous.

Another function of literary allusion in Requiem is to indicate and memorialise poets known personally to Akhmatova who became victims of Soviet repression. There are, for example, several more or less direct allusions to the work of Mandelstam and Gumilev, who were by this stage completely unable to reach an audience directly.12


  1. The work has also, with some reason, been called a narrative poem (poema). For a discussion of its genre see E. Etkind, ‘Bessmertie pamyati. Poema Anna Akhmatovoi Rekviem’, Studia Slavica Finlandensia, vol. 8, 1991, pp. 100-3.

  2. One poem, ‘Eto bylo, kogda ulybalsya’, although written in 1940, was not included in the cycle until 1962, see Chukovskaya, Zapiski, vol. 1, p. 65.

  3. Haight, Anna Akhmatova, p. 100.

  4. Ibid., p. 105.

  5. M. Basker, ‘Dislocation and Relocation in Akhmatova's Rekviem’, in Rosslyn, The Speech of Unknown Eyes, vol. 1, pp. 5-25.

  6. Etkind, ‘Bessmertie pamyati’; A. L. Crone, ‘Antimetabole in Rekviem: The Structural Disposition of Themes and Motifs’, in Rosslyn, The Speech of Unknown Eyes, vol. 1, pp. 27-41.

  7. See M. Jovanović, ‘K razboru “chuzhikh golosov” v Rekvieme Akhmatovoi’, Russian Literature, vol. 15, 1984, pp. 169-81; Etkind, ‘Bessmertie pamyati’; M. M. Kralin, ‘Nekrasovskaya traditsiya u Anny Akhmatovoi’, Nekrasovskii sbornik, no. 8, 1983, pp. 74-86.

  8. Pushkin, PSS, vol. 3, p. 7.

  9. Basker, in Rosslyn, The Speech of Unknown Eyes, p. 14.

  10. Ibid., pp. 17-18; Pushkin, PSS, vol. 3, p. 193; Etkind, ‘Bessmertie pamyati’, pp. 114-15.

  11. See S. Amert, In a Shattered Mirror: The Later Poetry of Anna Akhmatova, Stanford, Calif. 1992, pp. 42-3.

  12. See Basker, in Rosslyn, The Speech of Unknown Eyes.

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Boris Katz (essay date April 1998)

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SOURCE: Katz, Boris. “To What Extent is Requiem a Requiem? Unheard Female Voices in Anna Akhmatova's Requiem.The Russian Review 57, no. 2 (April 1998): 253-63.

[In the following essay, Katz traces musical, literary, and religious subtexts in Akhmatova's Requiem.]

Some cry up Haydn, some Mozart,
Just as the whim bites. For my part,
I do not care a farthing candle
For either of them, nor for Handel.
Cannot a man live free and easy,
Without admiring Pergolesi?

—Charles Lamb, “Free Thoughts on Several Eminent Composers” (1830).

It is obvious that not every poet would share Charles Lamb's attitude toward music in general, and toward “several eminent composers” in particular. Anna Akhmatova certainly would not. There is no need to cite a great deal of evidence; it is sufficient to recall one passage from the memoirs of Anatoly Naiman, a Russian poet who was close to Akhmatova in her later years. The passage presents a good picture of Akhmatova's diverse and selective preferences in the world of music:

At the head of the truckle-bed was a low table with an electric record player: either I had hired it locally or someone had brought it from town. She listened to music frequently and for long periods; she listened to various kinds of music, but sometimes she would be especially interested in a particular piece or pieces for a certain time. In the summer of 1963 it was the Beethoven's sonatas, in the autumn—Vivaldi; in the summer of 1964—Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet, in the spring of 1963—Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, and in the summer and autumn—Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea and, especially often, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, the British recording with Schwartzkopf. She liked listening to Beethoven's Bagatelles, much of Chopin (played by Sofronitskii), The Four Seasons and other Vivaldi's concertos, and also Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Handel. As we know, Vivaldi's Adagio appears in Midnight Verses: “We shall meet again in music, in Vivaldi's bold Adagio.” One day she asked me to find some music on the radio for a change. I began moving the needle along the dial and observed aloud that it was all light music. Akhmatova replied, “Who needs that?” “Ah, here's some opera.” “Operas aren't always bad.” “When aren't they bad?” “When they're Khovanshchina, or Kitezh Town.1

But since some require evidence to be convinced, one interesting bit of it belongs to Akhmatova herself and is expressed in her poetry—specifically, in the poem with the significant title “A Poet”:

Pоdumaiss, tоzi rabоta,—
Bicpicnоi etо zitsi:
Pоdclusats u muzyкi ctо-tо
I vydats suty za cvоi.
I csi-tо vicilоi cкirцо
V кaкii-tо ctrокi vlоziv,
Pокlyctscy, ctо bidnоi cirdцi
Taк ctоnit crids blisusik niv.(2)

Here we have an authorial confession of a great importance, for one of the distinctive features of Akhmatova's poetry (especially that of the late period) is the abundance of so-called subtexts.3 Akhmatova's poetry of the late period is literally woven from threads connecting a poem with numerous other texts, often of a very different nature. Such texts may be facts of biography, history, art, and so forth. Literary subtexts, of course, play the most essential part. “In the later period,” Susan Amert noted, “the role of literary quotations and references takes on pivotal importance: the identification and interpretation of literary references becomes crucial to an understanding of Akhmatova's poetry, which speaks through such echoes and allusions.”4 That is why intertextual approaches to Akhmatova's poetry have been so widely adopted. Immersion into what Akhmatova herself called “the subtextual depth” seems to be one of the most adequate methods for analyzing her works.

In this regard, at least two points should be emphasized. The first is Akhmatova's well-known, frequent use of the device of concealment. The line from the Poem without a Hero, «U sкatulкi z trоjnоi dnо», could serve as a motto for studies on Akhmatova's way of referring to different subtexts. One of them may conceal another, the latter may conceal yet another, and so on. A different motto for the same kind of research could be borrowed from the early Akhmatova poem “Pesnia poslednei vstrechi,” «Я na pravuy ruкu nadila / Pircatкu c livоj ruкi», for Akhmatova rarely uses any sources directly.5 Usually, she intentionally fuses and transforms them into something new and—quite often—hardly commensurate to the original. That is why it is not easy to recognize Akhmatova's subtexts.

The second point to be emphasized is the most important for these considerations. “The box with a triple bottom” of Akhmatova's poetry conceals not only different literary sources but also musical ones. Akhmatova scholars often neglect these musical sources (especially if they are inclined to share Charles Lamb's attitude toward music). But the stanzas from “A Poet” cited above point to the existence of musical subtexts in Akhmatova's verse, at the same time that they underline their transformation and complex encoding. This being the case, Akhmatova's musical subtexts may be divided into two categories: “heard” and “unheard” melodies. My terms are taken from John Keats' lines from the Ode on a Grecian Urn (1820): “Heard melodies are sweet, / But those unheard are sweeter.”6 By “heard melodies” I mean those musical subtexts which are disclosed to the reader by the author herself; by “unheard melodies,” those which the author either vaguely hints at or entirely conceals. Three examples will make my division clear. In the first “Dedication” from the Poem without a Hero we read:

Ni mоri li?
                    Nit, etо tоlsко kvоy
Mоgissnay, i v naкipansi pin
Vci blizi, blizi …
                    Marche funèbre …
                                                                                Sоpin …(7)

Undoubtedly, the piece by Chopin serves as an audible (as though heard by inner ear) musical accompaniment to these lines. Here we have, so to speak, the heard melody.

The poem “The Call” (“Zov,” from the cycle Polnochnye stikhi), meanwhile, places us in quite another situation: «V коtоruy-tо iz cоnat / Tiby y cprycu оctоrоznо … »8 To whose sonata did Akhmatova refer? The answer may be found in the previous variants of the poem, and in Akhmatova's drafts. In an early variant of “The Call,” the first line reads: «I v pridpоclidnij iz cоnat». This version does not make the reference absolutely clear, but it tells us that the poem deals with a certain musical piece. The reader does not know which piece it is, but the author does. Fortunately, in Akhmatova's drafts one can find the discarded motto to this poem, “Arioso Dolente. Beethoven. Op. 110,” so we now know that Akhmatova had in mind the lamenting melody from the finale of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 31, which is indeed the composer's penultimate sonata.

In this way, Akhmatova transformed the “heard melody” into an “unheard” one. Without touching upon all the reasons for this transformation, let us remember that “unheard melodies are sweeter.”9

The third example presents the first lines from a poem written in 1914: «Vicirnij zvоn u ctin mоnactyry / Kaк niкij blagоvict camоj prirоdy».10 Here we have a telling example of a combination of both types of musical subtexts within one line, or, to put it another way, a combination of heard and unheard melodies. The heard one is the melody of the ringing church bells directly mentioned in the text.

At the same time, the first two words refer to the famous Russian romance which eventually became a folk song. The initial words of the song (as well as its title) are the same: “Vechernii zvon.” Incidentally, the text of the song is a translation of a poem by Thomas Moore (1779-1852) entitled Those Evening Bells, made by the Russian poet Ivan Kozlov, who wrote in the beginning of the nineteenth century. This translation had been set to music several times during the nineteenth century, although the most popular melody belongs to an unknown composer. This melody is well known in Russia and, beyond any doubt, it was known to Akhmatova. Thus her poem imperceptibly evokes two “melodies” at one and the same time: the “heard” sounding of the church bells and the “unheard melody” of the old Russian song.

Turning to the problem of musical subtexts in Akhmatova's Requiem, one might suppose that the very title of the poem points to the musical setting of the Latin text that is used in Roman Catholic liturgy. The first composer to come to mind as a potential reference is, of course, Mozart, for it is his Requiem that became one of the most famous examples of the genre. Considering Akhmatova's lifelong admiration for Mozart's music one could easily conclude that the identity of the main musical subtext for her Requiem is established. The problem cannot be solved so easily, however, because “the box has a triple bottom.” First of all let us note that the only explicit statement by Akhmatova on musical subtexts in her Requiem is found among her notes on Poem without a Hero: “Next to it [this poem] … so motley and saturated with music, went [my] funereal Requiem, which can only be accompanied by Silence and occasional, distant strokes of funeral bells.”11 If these words refer in any way to musical compositions, it may be to those of one of the greatest Russian composers—Modest Mussorgsky, for the funeral bells sounding behind the stage are among the distinctive features of his best-known operas, Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina.

In the first, funeral bells resound in one of the opera's most impressive scenes, when the dying Tsar Boris exclaims, «Zvоn! Pоgribalsnyj zvоn!» But the use of the funeral bells in Khovanshchina is perhaps even more striking, for here we have precisely the combination of Silence and the distant, sparse tolling of funeral bells. I have in mind the scene from Act 4, when the stroke of a bell breaks a terrifying silence and announces the beginning of the mass execution.

As many readers know, Khovanshchina deals with certain historical events at the end of the seventeenth century in Russia. The climax of Act 4 represents the tragic result of the Strel'tsy mutiny of 1698, which Peter I severely suppressed. Many rebels were executed on Red Square in Moscow just at the Kremlin walls. In his opera Mussorgsky presents (not without some deviations from history) the beginning of the execution, and—what is of special importance for our subject—he includes in this scene a choir of female voices. This choir is one of the most impressive musical episodes of the opera. The wives of the doomed victims are crying and wailing. According to Mussorgsky's realistic principles, this musical fragment is more akin to the real wailing of womenfolk than to traditional operatic female choirs.

Remembering that just before this choir the funeral bells ring out in the silence, it is not so difficult to discover the unheard music implied in the last lines of the first poem from Akhmatova's Requiem: «Budu y, кaк ctriliцкii zinкi, / Pоd кrimlivcкimi basnymi vyts».12 And this “unheard melody” is quite definite: it is the abundantly chromatic music of the Choir of Strel'tsy Wives.

It seems that Khovanshchina (incidentally, one of Akhmatova's favorite operas) provided more than one melody as musical subtext for Requiem. The only heroine of the opera, Marfa, stands on the stage in silence listening to the funeral bells. Marfa is a strong, determined woman, extremely (almost fanatically) religious, yet also a passionate lover. She is absolutely fearless, scorns any danger, and in the end burns herself for the sake of the true faith. Moreover, she has the gift of prophesy and is able to predict the future.

This character had a historical prototype in seventeenth-century Russia. The resistance to the innovations being introduced by Peter the Great and his predecessors was supported to a great degree by the Old Believers. There was one woman among their leaders—the noblewoman Morozova, who was sentenced to exile, imprisonment, and eventually to death. In several poems Akhmatova explicitly identified herself with Morozova.13 So it comes as no surprise that Akhmatova may well have identified herself with the character of Mussorgsky's opera—with the Morozova-type character Marfa.

One of the most striking episodes involving Marfa is the scene in Act 2 where she foretells the sad destiny that is awaiting the hero in spite of his current prosperity:

Tiby оzidayt оpala i ccylкa i zatоcinsi v dalsnim кray.
Otnimitcy vlacts, i bоgatctvо i znatnоcts naviк оt tiby.
Ni clava v minuvsim, ni dоblicts, ni znansy, nictо ni cpacit …
Uznaiss viliкuy ctradu, picals i lisinsy …
v tоj ctradi, gоrycik clizak pоznaiss vcy pravdu zimli …(14)

The echoes of this aria, Gadanie Marfy, may be heard at the beginning of the “Epilogue” in Akhmatova's Requiem:

Uznala y, кaк оpadayt liцa,
Kaк iz-pоd viк vyglydyvait ctrak,
Kaк кlinоpici zictкii ctraniцy
ctradanii vyvоdit na siкak.(15)

But Marfa's aria seems to be even closer to the Requiem's “Poem 4,” which also deals with the prophesy, with the foretelling of a prosperous life turned disastrous:

Pокazats by tibi, nacmisniцi
I lybimiцi vcik druzij,
Tarcкоcilscкоj vicilоj grisniцi,
Ctо clucitcy c ziznsy tvоij—
Kaк trikcоtay c piridaciy
Pоd Krictami budiss ctоyts
I cvоiy clizоy gоryciy
Nоvоgоdnij lid prоzigats.(16)

Besides the obvious similarities («gоrycik clizak» and «clizоy gоryciy») it is remarkable that Akhmatova uses «pокazats» (to show) instead of the seemingly more suitable «raccкazats» (to tell). The point is, Mussorgsky's Marfa does not merely foretell the future in her aria, she shows it, because this future became visible to her in water. Gadanie Marfy, then, might well serve as the musical subtext to “Poem 4,” and if this is the case, the sad and gloomy melody sung by a low female voice constitutes its “unheard counterpoint.”

This poem also offers one of the most telling examples of Akhmatova's subtextual technique, for in it we see how the different subtexts are combined and how they intersected in her verse. The phrases «цarcкоcilscкоj vicilоj grisniцi» and «pоd Krictami budiss ctоyts» deserve special attention. “Kresty” is the name of the Petersburg prison where many victims of Stalin's terror, including the poet's son, were held. The word “kresty” means “the crosses,” hence the expression «ctоyts pоd Krictami» means more than “to stand near a prison.” It has the second meaning of “to stand by the cross.” Here it is not difficult to recall the Gospel according to St. John (19:25): “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.” Mary Magdalene is traditionally identified with the woman characterized in the Gospel according to St. Luke (7:37) as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.”

It seems, then, that the female sinner of Tsarskoe selo who stands by the Crosses in Akhmatova's Requiem, and the female sinner of the city who stood by the cross of Jesus, have much in common. She who stood by Jesus was forgiven by Him, as is mentioned in the Latin text of the Requiem service (in Recordare): “Qui Mariam absolvisti [It was You to Mary pardon gave].”

Hence, in “Poem 4” from Akhmatova's Requiem cycle one may see at least two “hidden” faces belonging to one and the same heroine: she is Marfa from Mussorgsky's opera and she is Mary Magdalene from the New Testament and from the canonical text of the Roman Catholic Requiem. Having established this, it is easy to see why precisely these two very different characters became united: there are two sisters in the New Testament who knew Jesus—Mary and Martha (or Marfa in Russian). However, it seems that our heroine has one more “hidden” face, and perhaps this is the most important one.

Before uncovering this third face, let us note that Akhmatova's text does not contain very many references to the text of the Latin Requiem. In addition to the “sinner of the city” one could point to only one more detail: «Etо bylо, коgda ulybalcy / Tоlsко mirtvyj, cpокоjctviy rad».17 The words «mirtvyj» and «cpокоjctviy» in these initial lines of “Vstuplenie” obviously echo the initial words of the Latin prayer: “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine! [Eternal rest grant to them [the dead], O Lord]!” This complicates matters, however. The Requiem Mass prays for peace for the dead. Akhmatova's Requiem asserts that the dead are happy because they already have been granted peace. They are even smiling, in contrast to those still among the living. Indeed, Akhmatova's poem begins as something like an Anti-Requiem, and it continues in the same direction, contradicting the traditional contents of the Requiem Mass.

Many readers noticed the contradiction between the real biographical events reflected in Akhmatova's poem, on the one hand, and its title on the other. Let us briefly recall these events. In 1935, Akhmatova's husband, Nikolai Punin, and Akhmatova's son by her first marriage, Lev Gumilev, were arrested. Akhmatova did her best to save them: she appealed to Stalin personally («Kidalacs v nоgi palacu»), as a result of which both Punin and Gumilev were soon released. These events inspired Akhmatova's writing some short poems which were eventually turned into the Requiem cycle. In 1938, Gumilev was re-arrested and imprisoned in Leningrad. He was sentenced to death, but in August 1939 his sentence was commuted and he was deported from Leningrad, first to a camp, and then into exile. Later he was released, again re-arrested, and finally freed in 1956. Punin was re-arrested in 1949 and died in prison camp in 1953. It is worth stressing that Requiem as a cycle of poems was completed in a first version in 1940, while both Gumilev and Punin were alive, though the former was still in prison.

The traditional Requiem, however, is a Mass for the Dead (Missa pro defunctis). The implication, therefore, seems to be that when Akhmatova was crafting her Requiem she bore in mind not only her own loved ones, but all the victims of Stalin's terror. Still, there are only two more lines (in “Poem 4”) actually dealing with the dead, or, strictly speaking, with those who are almost dead, or dying: «I ni zvuкa—a cкоlsко tam / Nipоvinnyk ziznij коncaitcy … »18 Are there too few lines about the dead for the genre, then? Is it not strange, in a cycle of poems entitled Requiem, to speak about living (albeit doomed) persons, rather than dead ones?

In view of the numerous discrepancies between Akhmatova's text and that of the Catholic Mass for the Dead (there also are no equivalents to, say, the Dies Irae, Tuba mirum, Rex tremendae, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Lux aeterna, and to other important parts of the Requiem Mass), let us put the crucial question: Is Akhmatova's Requiem a requiem at all? Did the Requiem Mass serve as both a verbal and musical subtext for Akhmatova's poem?

It seems to me that the answer must be no. The title Requiem, in my opinion, illustrates Akhmatova's typical manner of hiding one source under the name of another one, for it was another Catholic prayer that served as verbal and musical subtext for Akhmatova's Requiem. We can easily disclose this subtext, for Akhmatova explicitly points to it in the second part of “Poem 10,” “Raspiatie” (“Crucifixion”):

Magdalina bilacs i rydala,
Uciniк lybimyj кaminil,
а tuda, gdi mоlca Mats ctоyla,
Taк vzglynuts niкtо i ni pоcmil.(19)

The italicized words reproduce almost exactly the initial words of the famous medieval devotional poem about the Virgin Mary's vigil by Christ's Cross—Stabat Mater (“Stabat Mater dolorosa [A grief-striken Mother was standing]”). This text goes back to the thirteenth century and is still sung in the Roman Catholic rites at the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. It was also set to music by many composers (Palestrina, Pergolesi, Haydn, Rossini, Verdi, and Dvorzak, among others) in numerous oratories with the same title.

Indeed, it was not only Mary Magdalene, who stood by the Cross: Mary, the mother of Christ, stood there as well. Her suffering is the main subject of Stabat Mater, and it is a mother's suffering that is the main subject of Akhmatova's Requiem. Let us add to this, that the traditional Requiem does not include a description of the Crucifixion, while Stabat Mater does, and with many touching details.

Comparing Akhmatova's Requiem with Stabat Mater, several parallelisms of different kinds become apparent. Touching upon the lexical ones, let us note the key words common to both texts: “mother,” “son,” “to stand,” “death,” “tears,” “suffering,” and “to weep.” The word “cross” may be found in Akhmatova's text not only as the name of the prison: the cross appears to be a symbolic instrument of execution of the son. Without quoting from “Raspiatie” again, let us note the last two lines from “Poem 6,” addressed directly to the son: «O tvоim кricti vycокоm / I о cmirti gоvоryt».20 Some of Akhmatova's metaphors may be understood as transformed metaphors from Stabat Mater. For example, the sword that pierced the Virgin Mary's grieving, anguished, and lamenting heart (“Cujus animam gementem / Contristatam et dolentem / Pertransivit gladius”) seems to be turned into the “stone word” that fell upon the “still-living breast” in Akhmatova's Requiem: «I upalо кaminnоi clоvо / Na mоy isi zivuy gruds».21

The suffering of the afflicted Mother of an only Son (“O quam tristis et afflicta / Fuit illa benedicta / Mater Unigeneti”) as well as the appeal for compassion to the loving mother grieving for her Son (“Quis non posset contristari / Piam matrem contemplari / Dolentem cum Filio?”) appear to be condensed in Akhmatova's lines dealing with the ill and lonely woman:

Eta zinsina bоlsna,
Eta zinsina оdna,
Muz v mоgili, cyn v tyrsmi
Pоmоlitics оbо mni.(22)

The motif of “Mater Unigeneti” may well have been especially moving for Akhmatova. Certainly in some poems which are close to Requiem, but not included in the cycle, the motif of “an only Son” occurs rather often: «Razlucili c idinctvinnym cynоm», (“Vse ushli, i nikto ne vernulsia”),23 «Razlucinnоj c idinctvinnym cynоm», «Mni оn—idinctvinnyj cyn» (“Cherepki”).24

One more example of Akhmatova's compressing several images of Stabat Mater in her own poems may be shown by comparing the words “Inflammatus at accensus” (“Inflamed and burning”) and “Cruce hac inebriari” (“intoxicated by his Cross”) with the words from “Poem 9”: «I pоit оgninnym vinоm». The notion of “inflamation,” “intoxication,” and “burning” are condensed here in one line.

It is, of course, inappropriate to claim direct structural and metrical influence exerted by the medieval verses of Stabat Mater, with its three-line stanzas (trochaic tetrameter with the dactylic foot to conclude the third line) upon Akhmatova's cycle, with its diverse and changeable meters and stanzas. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that three consecutive poems from Requiem (“4,” “5,” and “6”) provide us with examples of parallelisms. Thus the lines from “Poem 4,” «Tam tyrimnyj tоpоls кacaitcy» and «Nipоvinnyk ziznij коncaitcy», are the only two lines in the whole cycle to have a dactylic foot in their ends. “Poem 5” gives the only example of three-line structures united in one six-line stanza:

I tоlsко pysnyi цvity,
I zvоn кadilsnyj, i clidy
Kuda-tо v niкuda.
I prymо mni v glaza glydit
I cкоrоj gibilsy grоzit
Ogrоmnay zvizda.(25)

Finally, “Poem 6” is the only one written in trochaic tetrameter. The sequence of two rhyming lines coincides almost exactly with a similar pattern in Stabat Mater:

Яctribinym zarкim окоm,
O tvоim кricti vycокоm …
Stabat Mater dolorosa
Juxta crucem lacrymosa …

Perhaps all this is not pure coincidence. In any case, the juxtaposition of the concluding sections of Akhmatova's Requiem with Stabat Mater is certainly fruitful. The last stanza of Stabat Mater reads: “Quando corpus morietur, / Fac ut animae donetur / Paradisi gloria [When my body dies / Let my soul be granted the glory of Heaven].” The end of Requiem is also strongly marked by references to a time when the author of Requiem will be no more: «I icli коgda-nibuds v etоj ctrani / Vоzdvignuts zadumayt pamytniк mni … »26

Yet Requiem—in contrast to Stabat Mater—deals with the dream of glory on Earth, not heavenly glory. It is a dream of a posthumous monument which would represent not only the poet's magnificence but first of all the mother's suffering. This monument of the poet's dreams must be erected on the same place where the mother from Akhmatova's Requiem “was standing for three hundred hours” («Zdics, gdi ctоyla y tricta cacоv»), namely, “by the Crosses”—(«pоd Krictami»). Thus Akhmatova once more identified herself with the Mother of God while at the same time stressing the special aspect of such an identification: a destiny of a mother who is doomed to see her only son being unjustly imprisoned, sentenced, tormented, and executed.

Thus, ultimately, it is not a requiem that Akhmatova wrote, in spite of the title Requiem. Rather, it is a very Russian, even very Soviet, and, of course, very Akhmatovian version of Stabat Mater.

In Akhmatova's opinion, Solzhenitsyn was wrong when in a conversation with the poet (as recorded by one of her friends), he said: “It was a national tragedy, but you made it only the tragedy of a mother and son.” According to the same source, Akhmatova “repeated these words with her usual shrug of the shoulders, and a slight grimace.”27

Indeed, another writer (an émigré who belonged to Akhmatova's generation) seems to have had a better understanding of Requiem when he called it a “lament, a female, motherly, lament, not only for herself but also for all those who are suffering, for all wives, mothers, brides, and in general for all those who are being crucified.”28 Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn's judgment contains a grain of truth. Akhmatova's Requiem, although it presents, of course, the tragedy of the entire nation, does so through the prism of her personal tragedy, of a mother watching her tormented and dying son.

This fact explains why precisely Stabat Mater—the best exemplification of such a Mother-Son tragedy in European literature—may be considered the hidden subtext of Akhmatova's Requiem. Akhmatova's knowledge of Latin is beyond any doubt. Her acquaintance with medieval Catholic prayers might have its origin in her close contacts (in the mid-1910s and early twenties) with Arthur Lourie (1892-1966), the avant-garde composer who, after his conversion to Catholicism, wrote several liturgical compositions on the texts of medieval Latin prayers. One of them—Salve Regina—is mentioned (rather enigmatically) in Akhmatova's long poem Putem vseia zemli, written the same year in which Akhmatova completed her Requiem, 1940.29

Akhmatova may have had several reasons for hiding the subtext Stabat Mater in “the box with a triple bottom” (and the very deepest one at that). For one thing, we know that Akhmatova, for both political and personal reasons, would carefully conceal everything that could shed light on her relationship with Arthur Lourie. For another, Stabat Mater was too closely connected with Catholic liturgy and had no equivalents among the Orthodox prayers. Moreover, “requiem” was a term that (at least in Russian culture) had lost, to a certain degree, both its religious and Catholic flavor and turned into something neutral enough to be applied to secular memorial works of art. Finally, if I may say it again, “unheard melodies are sweeter.”

With respect to the melodies which Akhmatova's Requiem may have secretly implied, this issue is fairly easy to resolve. One of the most famous musical settings of Stabat Mater is the oratorio composed by Giovanni Batista Pergolesi (probably in 1739). Anatoly Naiman, as we remember, mentions this oratorio among Akhmatova's favorite musical pieces. It seems to be particularly important that Pergolesi's Stabat Mater (in contrast to Mozart's Requiem, which usually is performed by a mixed choir with orchestra) is to be sung only by female voices—by two female singers (Soprano and Alto) accompanied by strings and harpsichord. This feminine-sounding image, so to speak, strengthens, in my opinion, the resemblance between Pergolesi's oratorio and Akhmatova's poem.

So, Lamb's ironic question, “Cannot a man live free and easy, / Without admiring Pergolesi?” may be answered: Perhaps men can, but women cannot. At least one of them could not.


  1. Anatoly Naiman, Remembering Anna Akhmatova, trans. Wendy Rosslyn (New York, 1991), 147. Both operas mentioned by Akhmatova were written by Russian composers—Khovanshchina by Modest Mussorgsky, and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

  2. Anna Akhmatova, Posle vsego (Moscow, 1989), 145. Unless otherwise noted, all further citations of Akhmatova's texts are from this excellent edition, which combines Akhmatova's works with numerous valuable materials for Akhmatova studies and comprises five books published simultaneously by the Moscow Pedagogical Institute in 1989 (compilers and commentators R. Timenchik, K. Polivanov, and V. Morderer). Unfortunately, the edition lacks any general title and none of the books (Desiatye gody, Poema bez geroia, Rekviem, Posle vsego, and Fotobiografiia) has a number. Therefore, all further references mention the title of each book and the page number.

  3. By “subtext” I mean, following Kirill Taranovskii and Omry Ronen, the source of a literary citation or allusion.

  4. Susan Amert, In a Shattered Mirror: The Later Poetry of Anna Akhmatova (Stanford, 1992), 14.

  5. Desiatye gody, 57.

  6. These lines were used as the motto to the only (posthumous) collection of the poems by Vsevolod Kniazev (Stikhi [St. Petersburg, 1914]) who was to become the prototype for “dragunskii kornet” in Akhmatova's Poem without a Hero. For more details see Roman Timenchik, “Zametki o ‘Poeme bez geroja,’” in Akhmatova, Poema bez geroia, 4-9.

  7. Poema bez geroia, 33.

  8. Posle vsego, 188.

  9. For elucidation of links between Beethoven's Sonata, op. 110 and Akhmatova's poem The Call see B. Kats and R. Timenchik, Anna Akhmatova i muzyka (Leningrad, 1989), 148-52.

  10. Anna Akhmatova, Stikhotvoreniia i poemy (Leningrad, 1977), 280.

  11. Poema bez geroia, 62.

  12. Rekviem, 304.

  13. «Mni c Mоrоzоvоy кlacts pокlоny … » (Posledniaia roza, 1962), «O, icli by vdrug оtкinutscy / V кaкоj-tо cimnadцatyj viк … c bоyryniy Mоrоzоvоj / cladimyj midок pоpivats … Kaкоj cumacsidsij curiкоv / Mоj pоclidnij napisit puts?» (Ia znaiu, s mesta ne sdvinut'sia …, 1939 [?]). Judith Hemschemeyer comments on the last lines: “A picture of the Boyarynya Morozova by Vasily Surikov (1848-1916) depicts her on a sleigh, in chains, being taken into exile. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam in Hope against Hope … the last two lines of this poem originated in a remark made by Punin to Akhmatova in the Tretyakov Gallery: ‘Now let's go and see how they'll take you to your execution.’” See The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, trans. Judith Hemschemeyer, vol. 2 (Somerville, MA, 1990), 784. Perhaps it is worth adding that another famous picture by V. I. Surikov depicts the execution of Strel'tsy (Utro Streletskoi kazni).

  14. M. Mussorgskii, Khovanshchina: Narodnaia muzykal'naia drama (Moscow, 1932), 140-42.

  15. Rekviem, 311.

  16. Ibid., 306.

  17. Ibid., 304.

  18. Ibid., 306.

  19. Ibid., 310 (emphasis added).

  20. Ibid., 307.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Ibid., 304.

  23. Ibid., 293.

  24. Ibid., 282.

  25. Ibid., 306.

  26. Ibid., 312.

  27. Natalia Roskina, “Good-by Again,” in Anna Akhmatova and Her Circle, comp. Konstantin Polivanov, trans. Patricia Beriozkina (Fayetteville, AR, 1994), 193.

  28. Boris Zaitsev, “Dni,” Russkaia mysl' (Paris), 7 January 1964, cited in Akhmatova, Rekviem, 299.

  29. Posle vsego, 120. For more details about this reference to Lourie's Salve Regina, as well as about Lourie himself (he emigrated in 1922) and his influence upon Akhmatova's life and works, see Kats and Timenchik, Anna Akhmatova i muzyka, 147, 31-36, 170-72; and Poema bez geroia, 338-51.

Sharon M. Bailey (essay date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Bailey, Sharon M. “An Elegy for Russia: Anna Akhmatova's Requiem.Slavic and East European Journal 43, no. 2 (summer 1999): 324-46.

[In the following essay, Bailey defines Akhmatova's Requiem as an elegy of mourning, particularly giving voice to the grief of the women whose loved ones were imprisoned or executed during the years of Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union.]


In the final lines of Akhmatova's Requiem is the image of a bronze monument to the poet, standing motionless in front of the Leningrad Prison and crying with each spring thaw. Although this statue has not yet been erected, Requiem itself is nothing less than such a monument. Within the course of the cycle, Akhmatova reconstructs her experience of the Stalinist Terror. After the arrest of her son, the fabric of her life dissolves in grief, loneliness and despair. Reconciliation is, however, eventually found in the verbal commemoration of the grief. With Requiem, Akhmatova weaves a veil of words that articulates her pain of those years, acknowledges the crimes which were the cause, and perpetuates the memory of it in defense against the forgetfulness of time.

This complex cycle of fifteen poems and one prose paragraph was written during the height of the Stalinist Terror, in which as many as 40 million people were arrested, exiled or executed. The earliest poems were written in 1935, after her son Lev Gumilev and her third husband Nikolai Punin were arrested within two weeks of each other. Lev Gumilev was arrested probably for no other reason than that he was the son of Nikolai Gumilev (Akhmatova's first husband), who had sympathized with the White Army during the Civil War and was executed for that in 1921. Lev Gumilev was released shortly after his arrest, rearrested in 1937, held for 17 months, and sentenced to death. Gumilev's sentence was commuted to exile and hard labor, however, when those who had handed down his sentence were themselves purged (see Haight 92-100). The subject of Requiem is the experiences of the mother during the 17 months of waiting to hear from her son and the experience of hearing the sentence. The cycle consists of an epigraph, three introductions, and ten poems which are organized chronologically documenting the arrest and sentencing, periods of overwhelming grief, denial, incomprehension, and withdrawal. The cycle closes with a two-part “Epilogue” in which Akhmatova begins to react against the destructiveness of the Terror by consciously developing a verbal strategy of remembrance.

A requiem is a mass for the dead or a musical composition in honor of the dead. The funeral elegy, the literary equivalent of a requiem, is traditionally a poem written on the occasion of a death, serving the dual function of commemorating the deceased and of contemplating the nature of death in general.1 At first glance, Akhmatova's Requiem would seem to have little in common with either a requiem or an elegy, for the son had not died, and in fact very little is said about the son personally. However, despite the lack of funeral or eulogistic elements, many of the most fundamental elegiac conventions can be found in the cycle. In particular, the elements which I will be discussing in this paper include the loss of the loved one, usually by death in a traditional elegy but represented by arrest in Requiem, the universal significance of that loss, the pathetic fallacy, which is intimately tied to the theme of the universality of death, the progression from grief to consolation, and the ultimate resolution of the work of mourning.

Critics of the elegy repeatedly point out that the conventions of the genre have their roots in the human psyche. Far from being artificial, writes Ellen Zetzel Lambert, “A literary convention is, like a convention of behavior, always something more than a series of allusions or inherited forms: it is a way of seeing things” (xi). Many of the images in Requiem spring from the author's experience of and need to express grief, and most can be understood as permutations of elegiac conventions. Yet even while much of Requiem can be understood within the paradigm of the traditional elegy, the unique circumstances of the Terror also add a moral aspect to the process of elegiac commemoration. Akhmatova's articulation of her son's and her own suffering is a monument to the suffering of an entire nation. As David Wells writes, Requiem emphasizes “the courage and persistence of Russian women outside the prisons of the 1930s and lay[s] great weight on the power of poetry to record their sufferings and to transcend them” (75). Akhmatova has written this cycle not only for herself, but for all of the women of Leningrad and for their sons and husbands.


The definition of the word elegy in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics is representative of that given by most critics and handbooks of literature. It states that “the elegy is a short poem, usually formal or ceremonious in tone and diction, occasioned by the death of a person” (322). The first obvious question is whether a poem written on the occasion of an arrest can be described as an elegy. One response to this objection would be to point out that, for a vast number of victims of the Terror, arrest resulted in death, whether immediately by execution or slowly in Siberia, so that it might be assumed that the one leads directly to the other. This correlation is in fact present within Akhmatova's cycle. In the “Prologue,” for example, we read,

Zvizdy cmirti ctоyli nad nami,
I bizvinnay коrcilacs Rucs
Pоd кrоvavymi capоgami
I pоd sinami cirnyk marucs.
The stars of death stood above us
And innocent Russia writhed
Under bloody boots
And under the tires of the Black Marias.(2)

Similarly, in the fifth poem, the final lines tell of a star which threatens impending death. Akhmatova also knew intimately how arrest could result in death; the final lines of “VIII,” “I sinii blesk vozliublennykh ochei / Poslednii uzhas zastilaet” (“And the final horror dims / The blue luster of beloved eyes”), have been read as a homage to Osip Mandelstam, whose death in a camp near Vladivostok Akhmatova heard rumored in 1939 (Etkind 378), and the first poem, “Uvodili tebia na rassvete” (“They led you away at dawn”), with its reference to execution in both the first and the last lines, might easily be read as an allusion to the arrest and execution of Nikolai Gumilev in 1921.3 Even though Akhmatova was not present at N. Gumilev's arrest, and though his arrest predated the purges by a decade, this potential reading is reinforced by the second poem, “Muzh v mogile, syn v tiur'me” (“Husband in the grave, son in prison”), which leaves it yet ambiguous as to whether the first poem refers to husband or son. Michael Basker also points out that the first half of this line may have been intended as an anagram for Gumilev (16-17). Finally, in “IV,” the executions which took place in the cellars of the prison are alluded to through a missing line of verse:

Tam tyrimnyj tоpоls кacaitcy,
I ni zvuкa—a cкоlsко tam
Nipоvinnyk ziznij коncaitcy …
Over there the prison poplar bends,
And there's no sound—and over there how many
Innocent lives are ending now …

Through most of the cycle the events are couched in aesthetic euphemism; reality is displaced by a literary reflection. The amount of time the mother stood in line, for example, is said to be 300 hours (“Epilogue II”), and her place in the line is 300th (“IV”; cf. Basker 9). In these lines, however, the aesthetic mask has fallen away, and poet and reader are faced with a reality that defies speech. Efim Etkind writes,

Das autobiographische Element dieses “Ichs” steigert sich fast bis zur Deckung mit dem Leben und wird derart verstärkt, daß außerliterarische Realität ins Gedicht eindringt und den Text abbricht. … Der vierte Vers fehlt, das Versende “tam” bleibt ohne Reim im Raum stehen, die Stimme wird von Schluchzen unterbrochen: der letzte Vers sollte wohl von den Erschießungen in den Kellern des Lubjanka-Gefängnisses berichten.

The autobiographical element of this “I” approaches a direct correlation to life and intensifies to the point that extra-literary reality breaks into the poem and silences the text. … The fourth verse is missing, the word “tam” remains standing in space without a rhyme, the voice is interrupted by sobbing: the final verse should probably inform us of the executions in the cellars of the Lubjanka Prison.

(370; Translation mine)4

Although it is never stated explicitly that the son has been executed (on the contrary, we know that he has been exiled), his impending death is the occasion for which Requiem is written.

However, in spite of the fact that incarceration likely meant death for those arrested, the dead are for the most part absent from the cycle. For example, despite its allusions to a funeral procession and to execution, the first poem shows a still living person being led out of the house. Instead of playing the central role in the cycle, death is used as a foil or as a background against which the experiences of the poet and her son are projected. In contrast to the pain of living during those times, actual physical death is portrayed as desirable, as in the first lines of the “Prologue”: “Eto bylo, kogda ulybalsia / Tol'ko mertvyi spokoistviiu rad” (“That was when the ones who smiled / Were the dead, glad to be at rest”). Likewise, in “To Death,” death becomes an avenue of escape from the misery of living. With death presented more as a leitmotiv against which arrest is projected, we again return to the question of whether a poem written on the occasion of an arrest can be described as an elegy.

This question loses its relevance if we recognize the fact that mourning is necessitated not so much by death as by loss, and that it is the sudden absence of a loved one that is the cause of grief. Peter Sacks begins his discussion of the elegy with the statement, “An elegist's language emerges from, and reacts upon, an originating sense of loss” (1). He argues that there is a fundamental similarity between the mourning process and the oedipal resolution, in that both processes consist primarily of coming to terms with separation from or depravation of an object of affection (8-17). However, since historically many of the most famous elegies were written for people whom the elegist barely knew, if at all (e.g., Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard), the emphasis should be placed on the elegist's sense of loss of the object of affection, and not on that object itself (see Sacks 1, quoted above). It is in this sense that Eric Smith defines the elegy as a poem about “what is missing and also about what is more certainly known to have been formerly possessed” (2). Thus, while an elegy may be (and usually is) occasioned by death, it is more accurately defined as a poem about loss. Consequently, the grammatical subject of the elegy, so to speak, is the poet, who experiences the loss, and not the deceased, who functions in the poem only by his/her absence.

The suffering of the survivor is, even in traditional criticism, a recognized aspect of the elegy. The tragedy of death (or of arrest in the case of Requiem) is not so much the changes that have taken place for the victim, but rather the implications of that event for the lives of the survivors. Kinereth Meyer writes,

Smith's formulation of the elegy […] takes on its full significance only when we realize that for the elegist, “what is missing” refers not only to the subject of the poem, but also to the poet's projection of his own absence, and that “what is … known to have been formerly possessed” refers to his own life as well as to that of another.


In Requiem, it is apparent perhaps to a greater degree than in the traditional elegy, that the subject is not so much the son as the mother. In fact, the framing poems make no mention of the son, and barely discuss the prisoners at all. The epigraph, which answers the question “Where did this happen?,” answers without alluding to the arrests, and defines, for the remainder of the cycle, the subject as “I”—Akhmatova herself. Dan Latimer also emphasizes the survivor over the deceased in his definition of the elegy. The most essential theme, he writes, is the disruption of the survivor's sense of justice in the universe:

The first [essential theme of any elegy] is the expression of disbelief that death would come to one so beautiful, so vital (Adonis), so gifted (Bion, Keats), so noble (Caesar, Lincoln), so earnest and dedicated (Eduard King). This question involves what Rilke calls “des Unrechts Anschein,” the appearance of injustice.


A slight reformulation of this idea would be that the events have disrupted the survivor's sense of a rational and predictable order in his or her own life. At the same time as Akhmatova is grieving the loss of her son in Requiem, she is also grieving, for example, the lack of continuity between her own happy youth in Tsarskoye Selo in poem “IV” or her childhood by the sea in “Epilogue II” and her present misery. The arrest of her son initiates a breakdown of the poet's perception of an understandable reality.

The loss in Requiem, however, is more than nostalgia for lost youth. At this point Requiem exhibits a complexity that goes beyond that of a traditional elegy. In the traditional elegy, much of the suffering of the survivor stems from a consciousness that he/she is not immune from the fate of the deceased. In Requiem, the suffering of the survivor is real and not just the result of an awareness of potentialities. The same political machinery which is responsible for the arrests and executions of the sons also sentences the wives and mothers to a different type of suffering. The uncertainty, helplessness and injustice that accompany arrest of a family member is a fate that makes life outside the prison no more desirable than arrest itself, and in this sense, Requiem is an elegy written on the occasion of the arrest of the son and the subsequent “living death” of the mother.5 This living death is reflected in the depictions of the women, which show them lacking social qualities, such as speech and identity, and physical qualities, such as warmth and breath.

Analogous to the isolation imposed on the prisoners, the wives and mothers are shown to be essentially deprived of speech—a deprivation which prevents them from joining into a healthy community. On the one hand, this speechlessness is a consequence of the physical suffering. Even to produce her whispered question, one of only two examples of spoken communication in the cycle, the woman of “Instead of a Preface” had to rouse herself from a stupor into which everyone had fallen. On the other hand, there is a disconcerting absence of anyone to whom the women could speak. The arresting soldier is represented only by a blue-topped cap (“To Death”), the executioner by feet (“V”), and guard and warden by bolted doors (“Epilogue II”) or the rasping key (“Dedication”). Denied articulate, human speech, the women wail like the wives of the Streltsy (“I”), cry like the mother pleading for her son or Mary Magdalene (“V” and “Crucifixion”), howl like the woman against whom the door is slammed (“Epilogue II”), or fall silent like John and the Mother (“Crucifixion”). Speech is above all a social act, but the arrest of their sons and husbands have left the women isolated, not only from the one arrested, but even from each other. Even though the women stand in line together, they are unable to form a community. In this respect, their experience is much like the isolation imposed on the prisoners within the prison.

In addition to being deprived of perhaps the most fundamental of social functions, speech, the women are also depicted as lacking even more basic human qualities, such as warmth, breath, and identity. Nearly all of the physical descriptions of the women in the lines show them to be like corpses; in “Epilogue I” their cheeks are stiffened and etched as if petrified and their hair is turned gray, and in “Instead of a Preface” the woman is described as faceless with blue lips, the second image of which is also echoed in “I,” where the arrested son is described as having cold lips. These descriptions of the women emphasize the loss of individuality and a reduction to an almost animal-like state, for as Susan Amert writes, “Russian Orthodoxy teaches that the face embodies the highest spiritual qualities and values, imaging the divine in human beings; accordingly, facelessness would betoken the loss of the spirit or soul” (34). Just as the women are faceless, hence without souls, they are also nameless. The woman in “Instead of a Foreword” has “identified” (opoznal) the poet, but even this does not imply that Akhmatova's individual worth had been validated. Whereas to “recognize” a person is to separate that person out from the crowd as someone with familiar characteristics and a history, to “identify,” here with its implication of guilt, strips the person of individuality and worth and broadly classifies that person as criminal. Finally, in the “Dedication” the women are described as more breathless than dead, and when the sentence is announced, it is as if the life is wrenched from their hearts. Amert compares this limbo between death and meaningful human life to Dante's experience in the ninth circle of hell, where “fear deprives him of life yet does not kill him” (36). Even more than mourning the arrest and possible death of the son, Requiem is an elegy mourning the loss of life for the wives and mothers left behind.

The occasion of an elegy, we have established, is absence and loss. In Requiem the loss takes place on several levels. First, the mother has lost her son to arrest, and with justification she anticipates a final loss through death. Second, at the same time as the poet is experiencing the absence of her son, she is aware of the loss of her earlier belief in a just and secure natural order. But above all, the poet has lost a part of herself to a living death at the hands of the Terror.


At the foundation of the elegy is the rediscovered knowledge on the part of the poet and reader that they are also subject to the same fate, that all are mortal. The loss felt by one individual (the poet) only becomes a compelling theme, when it appeals to similar sentiments in another individual (the reader). The failure to tap into this universal emotion or to reawaken the reader's sense of mortal vulnerability is, warns Sacks, the failing of many contemporary elegies:

How many elegies console more readers than the poet, the particular bereaved, and their immediate circle? This question suggests both a problem besetting the contemporary elegy and a criterion by which to judge its individual examples. Often, these poems are too narrowly based, too private in their expression of grief and too idiosyncratic in their use of anecdote, description, or recollection.


Although Sacks chides the modern elegist in particular for a disregard for generic convention and literary tradition, his overriding concern is for the lack of thematic universality to which the elegy should appeal, through its roots in human psychology and expressed through its natural conventions. The arrest that occasioned the writing of Requiem does not seem to be one that would naturally tap into universal sentiment, for as time passes, an ever larger percentage of the readers of the cycle will not have experienced an atrocity of this kind. Yet we know that Requiem does hold appeal for readers. One reason for this appeal may be the tone of the framing poems, in which Akhmatova invites the reader to place him/herself into the setting of the cycle. In “Instead of a Preface,” Akhmatova uses a narrative tone to define the time and place: “V strashnye gody ezhovshchiny ia provela semnadtsat' mesiatsev v tiuremnykh ocherediakh v Leningrade” (“In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad”), and in “Epilogue I” she again steps back, almost as if to gloss the ten poems with a brief but straight-forward summary: “Uznala ia, kak opadaiut litsa, / Kak iz-pod vek vygliadyvaet strakh” (“I learned how faces fall, / How terror darts from under eyelids”). The reader is drawn into the cycle without having the feeling of eavesdropping on the poet's private grief. In addition to inviting the reader to witness her grief, Akhmatova also makes clear that the grief she expresses is not hers alone. She accomplishes this by overlaying the specific subjects of Requiem (mother and son) with a collective subject, developed through grammatical ambiguity and cultural subtexts. Thus, she raises the private expression of grief to the level of a national and cultural outcry.

Just as the fear occasioned by one death, as addressed in a traditional elegy, is the realization that all people are mortal, in Requiem the significance of the Terror lay in the fact that what happened to the poet and her son could and did happen to countless others. This is reflected in the cycle on several levels. Most intimately, Akhmatova had not only to mourn the arrest of her son, but also that of her third husband Nikolai Punin and of her close friend Osip Mandelstam. Furthermore, references such as that in the “Prologue” to “regiments of convicts” or in the “Dedication” and “IV” to the long lines outside the prisons—women in the same predicament as Akhmatova—indicate how common and how much a part of life in Leningrad the arrests had become. Akhmatova uses references to Russian history, such as the reference to the wives of the Streltsy Guard in “I,” particularly in the cultural incarnations, to place the events on a more national scale. Boris Katz has argued that the reference to the Streltsy wives in “I” is more accurately a reference to V. I. Surikov's painting as well as to Modest Mussorgsky's opera Khovanshchina, both of which depict the execution of the Streltsy (256-57). In this manner, Akhmatova places the arrests within a Russian tradition of oppression and suffering and herself within a continuum of Russian cultural self-identity.

The magnitude of this atrocity can also be seen in poem “IV,” in which Akhmatova invokes details of her personal life, not only to show how much of her individual identity had been lost, but also to show the extent to which her fate has dovetailed with the fates of so many other women:

Pокazats by tibi, nacmisniцi
I lybimiцi vcik druzij,
Tarcкоcilscкоj vicilоj grisniцi,
Ctо clucitcy c ziznsy tvоj—
Kaк trikcоtay, c piridaciy,
Pоd Krictami budiss ctоyts.
You should have been shown, you mocker,
Minion of all your friends,
Gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo,
What would happen in your life—
How as the three-hundredth in line, with a parcel,
You would stand by the Kresty prison.

Finally, the experiences of the women in the prison lines are described in terms of arrest and death, pointing to a common experience for those inside the prison and those waiting in the lines outside its walls.

The transferal of emphasis from the arrested sons to the mothers and the element of a shared experience is foreshadowed in the “Dedication,” which functions as an overture to the whole cycle. The first five lines of the “Dedication” describe those arrested and in the prisons, and the next five lines, quoted here, continue a description of despair and fear:

Dly коgо-tо viit vitir cvizij,
Dly коgо-tо nizitcy zaкat—
My ni znaim, my pоvcydu ti zi,
clysim liss кlycij pоctylyj cкrizit
Da sagi tyzilyi cоldat.
For someone a fresh breeze blows,
For someone the sunset luxuriates—
We wouldn't know, [we are everywhere the same],
We hear only the rasp of the hateful key
And the soldiers' heavy tread.

The ambiguous, collective “we” may be the prisoners of the previous stanza, but it might well refer also to the wives and mothers of the following stanza. Here Akhmatova uses an ambiguous grammatical construction to create a complex subject. In the second half of the “Dedication” she further develops this multi-leveled subject. The subject of the third and fourth stanzas could be either third person (“they” and “she,” respectively) or else first person (“we” and “I”). We do not know whether the poet is describing her own experiences or that of the other women. The use of first person in the second stanza and the third person in the fifth may justify the translation of the subjects as “we” and “she” in the third and fourth stanzas respectively, as Judith Hemschemeyer, D. M. Thomas and others have done. However, the second and fifth stanzas are in the present tense while the third and fourth stanzas are in the past tense. Thus the “they” of the fifth stanza may be referring to the subjects remembered in the third and fourth stanzas, justifying the use of a third person subject in both of those stanzas. On the other hand, the facts that the poet's own son was also sentenced (“The Sentence”) and that in the fifth stanza the poet is separated from her “involuntary friends,” a separation which could be seen as taking place in the fourth stanza, the subject of the fourth stanza could justifiably be first person. Anna Ljunggren points out that Akhmatova moves easily from “we” to “she” to “I”: “All these variations on the protagonist are seen as though through various foreshortening” (111). Many critics have commented on this device, finding significance on many levels. Basker writes that this grammatical ambiguity is a reflection of the dislocation of the individual's sense of self and of temporal continuity: “In ‘Posviashchenie’ suspension of pronominal reference, temporal shifts and fragmentation of syntax combine to convey the violent separation of the individual both from the mass and from her own sense of reality” (10). Anna L. Crone likewise comments on this multi-leveled subject and its function in the cycle when she writes, “In no work does Akhmatova merge with the nation and set herself apart from it so many times. Paradoxically, the shared common experience is the loneliness and isolation of grief” (28). The experiences described can not be understood as simply the poet's own or as those of another woman; the ambiguous syntax points to the paradoxical reality of blurred distinction between the free and the captive, between community and isolation, between self-recognition and self-estrangement.

At its simplest, an elegy can be defined as a poem occasioned by the death of an individual, but even at its simplest there is an allegorical essence to the genre. A poem about one death becomes a meditation on mutability and mortality. For Akhmatova, the arrest of her son becomes the starting point for a meditation on the pain and suffering caused by the arrests for those arrested, and even more importantly, for the families left behind, as she grammatically and figuratively proceeds to include all of these individuals under the rubric of son and mother. As Joseph Brodsky writes, “[It is] autobiographical indeed, yet the power of Requiem lies in the fact that Akhmatova's biography was all too common. This requiem mourns the mourners. … This is a tragedy where the chorus perishes before the hero” (51). Just as the traditional elegist foresees his own death in the death which he mourns, Akhmatova recognizes an essential correlation between the experiences of all Russians, whether locked inside the prisons or waiting outside its walls.


It has been shown that Requiem achieves universal significance by appealing to a broad audience and, more importantly, by emphasizing the magnitude of the atrocity—repeatedly focusing first on the victims as individuals and then on the victims as part of a countless mass. Sacks also stresses the importance of generic convention to the universal appeal of an effective elegy. He argues throughout his book that the conventions are not artificial literary devices, but are reflections of natural human impulses. Due to space limitations it is not possible to list all of the conventions and their examples in Requiem. I will therefore limit my discussion to the one convention which, in my opinion, is used most effectively in the cycle. The pathetic fallacy, according to Lambert, is one of the most universal conventions of the elegy and basic to grief itself:

In funeral laments from all cultures and from all stages of civilization we see a desire on the part of the mourner (expressed either as wish or as fact) to involve the whole world in his own particular sorrows. Nature is made culpable, is made to suffer, is made to sympathize.


A predictable, perhaps even cliché, example of this can be found in the first lines of the “Dedication”: “Pered etim gorem gnutsia gory, / Ne techet velikaia reka” (“Mountains bow down to this grief, / Mighty rivers cease to flow”). In other instances, the moon visits the grieving woman of “II,” and the White Nights keep watch over the son and speak of his suffering. However, it is not only nature that participates in the grief, but also the man-made environment of Leningrad, and even Russia as a symbolic cultural and ethnic entity.

The pathetic fallacy springs from the rupture—caused by death—of the human's perception of his relationship to nature. For the conscious and self-contemplating human, the natural cycle of death and rebirth creates a dilemma; as Smith writes, “The one thing which appears to be exempt from rebirth is conscious being. Thus the conservation of Nature's store in endless cycles is not calculated to inspire confidence in the immortality, the eternal significance, of the individual” (5). The immortality humans wish for is not so much of the body as of the mind, and essential to that immortality is eternal communion with other humans. Smith points out, if the human soul were subject to rebirth within the natural order, eventual reunion of mourned and mourner would be impossible, the dream of eternal spiritual communion between individuals would be shattered, and the loss would be permanent. Human souls would become trapped in what Smith calls an “unearthly game of tag” (6). On the other hand, nature is the elemental force “which govern[s] man in all his social relations and all aspects of his conscious being” (5). In short, the death of an individual tears apart the mourner's perception of unity between nature, death and humanity—death comes out of season, spring branches wither and freeze, and the eternal cycle is broken. Thus the pathetic fallacy has its root in the human need to recreate an order in which man, rather than nature, is supreme. Sacks, who like Smith essentially subordinates all other elegiac conventions to the pastoral,6 writes that the pathetic fallacy allows the elegist to create a fiction whereby the mutability of nature is not the cause of his suffering, but rather changes in nature appear to depend on him (20).

The loss grieved in a traditional elegy falls within the natural order, and consequently nature is appropriately implicated in grief. The loss in Requiem is a result of arrest and transpires at the hands of the poet's own government. Therefore, following the logic of Smith and Sacks, the most appropriate place to grieve would be the city. Just as nature and death are in essence intricately bound, but forcibly separated and made independent of each other within the context of the elegy, the city and the government are two aspects of civilization in general and of Russian identity in particular which are forcibly divorced from each other. In other words, the city, the government and the citizen depend on each other for their identity, but when the government turns on its citizens, the unity is broken and order falls apart. Basker describes a pervasive dislocation and disjuncture throughout the cycle, indicating the extent to which nothing is as it once was or as it should naturally be:

Locations shift, abruptly and disconcertingly, from Leningrad to Moscow and back again, from the Neva to the Don to the Enisei, but in a sense this is immaterial: My ni znaim, my pоvcydu ti zi (“Posviashchenie”). All places coalesce undifferentiatedly into one, the only significant topography a “blind red wall” which might itself be either Kremlin or prison.


The government is reduced to disjointed physical minutia: the boots of the soldiers (“Dedication,” “Prologue”) or of the executioner (“V”), the blue-topped cap of the secret police (“To Death”), the Black Marias (“Prologue,” “Epilogue II”), and the bolted prison door (“Dedication,” “Epilogue II”; cf. Jeanne van der Eng-Liedmeier 324). Meanwhile, the city becomes savage (“Dedication”) and train whistles sing songs of farewell (“Prologue”). Leningrad in the “Prologue” is described as hanging uselessly from its prisons and filled with people being marched to the trains that will take them into exile. In “V” the city is reduced to tracks that lead from somewhere to nowhere, suggesting that all of Russia has been transformed into a prison.7 The epigraph implies that Russia should and normally would protect its citizens:

Nit, i ni pоd cuzdym nibоcvоdоm,
I ni pоd zasitоj cuzdyk кryl,—
Я byla tоgda c mоim narоdоm,
Tam, gdi mоj narоd, к niccactsy, byl.
No, not under the vault of alien skies,
And not under the shelter of alien wings—
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortunately, were.

However, throughout the cycle, Leningrad and Russia are the homeland which has been made impotent by the terror and forced to share in the suffering.

Akhmatova not only implicates the Russian cityscape, but also the very idea of the Russian nation in the grief of the years of the Terror. Amert shows that in the “Dedication” there is a parody of an unofficial national hymn of the late 1930's (43-45). In “Song of the Motherland,” Vasilii Lebedev-Kumach extols life in the Soviet Union under Stalin's rule. The line “Dlia kogo-to veet veter svezhii” (“For someone a fresh breeze blows”) refers to Lebedev-Kumach's lines, “Nad stranoi vesennii veter veet, / S kazhdym dnem vse radostnee zhit'” (“Over the country a spring wind blows, / With every day living grows more joyful”; quoted in Amert 43), and in every following line, Akhmatova continues to parody and lay bare the lie of Lebedev-Kumach's patriotic optimism. In “Song of the Motherland,” Lebedev-Kumach presumes to voice the sentiments of the entire Russian nation, but Akhmatova alienates his sentiment from its intended subject, ascribes it to “someone” (kogo-to), and proceeds to give voice to the reality of Russians' daily experiences. Ironically, in the fourth stanza, where the “Dedication” becomes most personal—the only stanza in the “Dedication” to have a singular subject—the allusion to Lebedev-Kumach's hymn implies a broad, allegorical intention. This stanza, about the mother who has heard the sentence of her son, plays off two other lines of “Song of the Motherland”: “Kak nevestu, rodinu my liubim, / Berezhem, kak laskovuiu mat'” (“We love our motherland like a bride, / We cherish it like an affectionate mother”). Amert writes that in Requiem,

[The] sentence is portrayed solely as mirrored in its violent effect on the woman herself, an effect that is likened both to a painful deathblow (line 18) and to her being thrown on her back (line 19), an oblique yet unmistakable reference to rape. On the symbolic level of Lebedev-Kumach's “bride” and “affectionate mother,” Akhmatova is imaging here the murder and rape of the motherland.


Juxtaposed with the “Song of the Motherland” and its allegorical treatment of mother and bride, the assault of a single woman in “Dedication” or in “The Sentence” is likewise lifted to the allegorical level of the rape of Mother Russia.

In this far-reaching elegy, not only nature, but also the cityscape and even the cultural self-identity of Russia are laid low before the suffering. Yet the shared suffering of the city and nation offers little comfort to the women, and indeed only throws into sharper relief the extent to which the women and their arrested sons and husbands have been betrayed and abandoned by the social structures which molded them. Smith writes that the fallacy fulfills the basic human need for a sense of kinship between man and nature to offset a feeling of the “essential loneliness of man in the face of forces which appear to make a mockery of all that he holds valuable” (7). It is then a gross irony that the values which are undermined—e.g., freedom, security, community and cultural identity in Requiem—originally spring from the same “forces” which have now violated the poet.


The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics definition, quoted at the beginning of this article, continues, “The elegy frequently includes a movement from expressed sorrow toward consolation” (322). While this may seem a very straight-forward statement, G. W. Pigman argues that the two elements—expressed grief and consolation—are, in fact, in opposition to each other. He writes, “The major purpose of consolation is to induce the bereaved to suppress grief” (2), and that “for the consoler, in prose or in verse, consolation is a defense against the breakdown of an ideal of rational self-sufficiency” (6). Pigman argues that, while any given elegy may both express grief and offer consolation, the balance between these two elements indicates the degree to which the elegist (and his or her contemporaries) are comfortable with the inherently irrational displays of sorrow (3-4). While such exercises are admittedly artificially schematic, it is possible to find markers of the poet's grief at various stages in the mourning process. However, consolation plays a minor role in the cycle as a whole. The ten central poems of Requiem fall exclusively into the realm of expressions of sorrow, while the framing poems, in particular the “Epilogue,” offer a degree of consolation, albeit in a form that testifies to the flexibility of the genre in general.

Therese A. Rando outlines three broad grief reactions: 1) avoidance, 2) confrontation, and finally 3) reestablishment (28). In Requiem the poet progresses through these three stages twice, once after the arrest, portrayed in “I,” and the second time after the sentencing in “VII.”8 The first stage is characterized by shock, disbelief and denial. The bereaved may be unable or unwilling to comprehend the loss, or she/he may carry out social obligations (making funeral arrangements, etc.) while emotionally denying the loss (29). In Requiem this can be seen in “III,” in which the poet states, “Net, eto ne ia, eto kto-to drugoi stradaet. / Ia by tak ne mogla” (“No, it is no I, it is somebody else who is suffering. / I would not have been able to bear what has happened”), and again after hearing her son's sentence in “VII,” “Nichego, ved'ia byla gotova, / Spravlius' s etim kak-nibud'” (“Never mind, I was ready. / I will manage somehow”). In the second stage, Rando writes, extremes of emotions are felt, including anger, depression (its symptoms including withdrawal, apathy, feelings of helplessness, feelings of depersonalization, somatic problems, etc.), thoughts of suicide, obsessive rumination about the deceased, active searching for the deceased, identification with the deceased, spatial disorientation, and a feeling of going crazy (30-35). Nearly all of these symptoms can be found in poems [“II,” “III,” “IV,” “V”] and “VIII”-“IX.” In “II” we find the grieving woman distressed and unable to sleep. In “IV” the poet remembers her youth, full of friends and gatherings, but the present shows her in line at the prison and crying, oblivious to the festivities which should mark the New Year. In “V” the poet is confused and there are images of spatial bewilderment, as if she is unable to recognize the city in which she lives. In “VIII” the poet expresses anger at the death (by extension also at life, and in particular at the government) for its cruelly arbitrary approach to choosing whom and when to attack. And in “IX” the poet is perilously close to insanity, though not yet insane, for as Crone points out, the poet is able to list off what she claims insanity will not allow her to remember (38). J. Bowlby delineates another stage of disorganization and despair, which would mark the beginning of final reestablishment, when the bereaved resumes social contacts. In this stage, the bereaved loses hope of recovering the deceased, he/she begins to form more accurate memories of the deceased, the intense emotions subside, and the bereaved may become depressed (quoted in Rando 23; cf. Also Rando 26, Pigman 7-9). A mixture of memory, sorrow and reconciliation is especially noticeable in “VI,” in which the confusion and anger expressed in “V” have given way to a relatively clear-minded reflection on the year that had passed while the son was in prison. And in “X” the sense of the mother having accepted her loss and her burden of sorrow is so strong that ironically there is no hint of the resurrection and the promise of eternal life that the Crucifixion usually signifies. Akhmatova only begins to show signs of having reached the final stage of reestablishment in “Epilogue II.”

If it is indeed the case, as Pigman writes, that “consolation is a defense against the breakdown of an ideal of rational self-sufficiency” (6), one might infer that Akhmatova is not terribly concerned with imposing a rational explanation on the events which occasioned Requiem. The greater bulk of the cycle is devoted to her grief, leaving only the “Epilogue” to the task of finding some kind of consolation. This, John Harris suggests in “An Elegy for Myself: British Poetry and the Holocaust,” is the appropriate response, possibly the only response, to a large-scale atrocity. The traditional elegist places the tragedy of an individual's death within a larger context that grants it reason, makes it understandable and leads to consolation.9 Harris writes that there is no larger, rationalizing context to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany:

The first problem facing any attempt to write about the atrocities of those times is that of conceiving their scale, both in sheer numbers and in terms of the lack of humanity which caused them. … Secondly, in claiming that we can conceive the horror of the Holocaust we lay ourselves open to the accusation that by imposing a critical form and structure on it we are ipso facto justifying it; by attributing a rationale of any sort to it, we admit that the Holocaust could be seen as a rational act.


It is in fact for this reason that George Steiner speaks of the necessity not to write at certain points in history:

The temptation of silence [is] the belief that in the presence of certain realities art is trivial or impertinent. … The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason. To speak of the unspeakable is to risk the survivance of language as creator and bearer of humane, rational truth.

(123; emphasis in original)

The sense of injustice in a traditional elegy lay not in the fact that death strikes, but in that death struck this once, in an untimely manner, an individual whom we wish would have stayed with us longer. Death is cruel, it is arbitrary, it is indifferent to the accomplishments or promise of its victims, but for all this, it is not without rationale (Smith 8).10 An atrocity such as the Holocaust or the Terror, on the other hand, defies comprehension. What words can describe a situation that has no meaning? However, this leads to the moral problem of acknowledging the events; if there are no words with which to speak of the atrocity, how will it be remembered? Thus Brodsky writes, “At certain periods of history it is only poetry that is capable of dealing with reality by condensing it into something graspable, something that otherwise could not be retained by the mind” (52). Theodor Adorno, who is famous for his proclamation that it is “barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz” (87), also admits that poetry is indispensable: “Suffering—what Hegel called the awareness of affliction—also demands the continued existence of the very art it forbids; hardly anywhere else does suffering still find its own voice, a consolation that does not immediately betray it” (88).11 The successful poem portrays the events without rationalization, preserving the memory of those who suffered, while at the same time preserving the sense of overwhelming chaos. The elegy for such an atrocity must find consolation through memory that does not impose reason.

This complicated task is achieved even within the ten central poems of Requiem. In addition to expressing her grief with nearly textbook accuracy, Akhmatova conveys historical information about what happened, and more importantly its toll on the men who were arrested and the women who were left behind. Many of the images used to describe the poet's state of mind are images of arrest and death and serve the dual function of describing what happened to the son and what the mother felt as a result. For example, in “To Death” the poet wishes desperately to be in her son's place: to be arrested, dead or in Siberia, and in “IX” she recreates the experience of half-death, “Uzhe bezumnie krylom / Dushi zakrylo polovinu” (“Now madness half shadows / My soul with its wing”). Here, insanity is personified as one who comes to arrest her:

I ni pоzvоlit nicigо
Onо mni unicti c cоbоy
(Kaк ni uprasivaj igо
I кaк ni dокucaj mоlsbоy)
And it does not allow me to take
Anything of mine with me
(No matter how I plead with it,
No matter how I supplicate)

The image of insanity again sets on equal terms death, which allows nothing to be carried away, and arrest, against which supplication is useless (see “V”: “Kidalas' v nogi palachu”; “I flung myself at the hangman's feet”). Also, in “The Sentence”, the poet entertains two possible reactions to the news of her son's sentence:

Nadо pamyts dо коnцa ubits,
Nadо, ctоb dusa окaminila,
Nadо cnоva naucitscy zits,—
а ni tо …
I must kill memory once and for all,
I must turn my soul to stone,
I must learn to live again—
[Otherwise] …”

The former wish—to turn her soul to stone—echoes her son's fate in “IX,” where suffering has turned his eyes to stone, the new life which the poet must learn echoes the new life of exile which the son is now learning, and the final “Otherwise” represents the possibility of escaping suffering through death—an option for mother and son alike (see Etkind 375). Even though the mother's experience was in actuality not the same as her son's, she constructs the events and her feelings in terms which strongly imply a shared experience.

The correlation between the son's actual experience and the mother's perception of her own has significance on several levels. In psychological terms, the mother's construction of her own experiences in terms reminiscent of arrest and imprisonment is yet another step in the mourning process. Sigmund Freud writes that one of the symptoms of mourning is “loss of capacity to adopt any new object of love, which would mean replacing of the one mourned, [and] turning from every active effort that is not connected with thoughts of the dead” (“Mourning” 153). In light of this, one might argue that the poet attempts to live her son's experiences, perhaps even to become him, in order to postpone the separation. In generic terms, the vicarious death of the poet is the avenue by which the poet explores the meaning of loss, the nature of the self, and the function of art. Meyer writes,

The poet undergoes a self-imposed death and catharsis, achieving a reconstruction of the self through the construction of the poem. The mythology of modern death, one may say, represents not a radical shift away from the elegiac tradition, but rather a further intensification of its basic concerns: the “I” and the other, the contemplation of death and the celebration of life, the fragmentation of the self and its reconstruction through art.


However, it is a final, moral aspect that sets Requiem apart from the traditional elegy and forces us to look for a new definition of consolation. The vicarious arrest and imprisonment of the mother conveys the memory of the suffering felt both by the arrested men within the prison and the women waiting outside. Requiem aspires not only to immortalize the son or even the mother's love for her son, but to acknowledge the reality of the Terror in such a way that will not allow history to forget. The poetic consolation, which Adorno writes does not immediately betray the suffering it portrays, is the memorialization of the events as they truly happened. Akhmatova's overarching goal in the ten central poems is to immortalize an entire nation victimized by the Terror.

The consolation which Adorno speaks of, which does not betray suffering by offering rationale, is not the same kind of consolation which Pigman discusses. The former consolation is the result of the knowledge that the suffering has been recognized as the atrocity it is, while the latter consolation is the result of a belief that grief is not necessary, for the deceased is not truly lost and the separation is only temporary. The former consolation involves admission of suffering, the latter suppression. Requiem as a whole can be said to offer consolation of the former type, but lacks the latter type completely. This does not, however, imply that Requiem is in some way an abortive elegy. Sacks, in his discussion of the psychological foundations of the elegy, speaks not so much of consolation as of resolution, i.e., of the successful result of the work of mourning, or what Rando calls “reestablishment.” The work of mourning, as Freud calls it, consists of detaching one's affection (libido) from the lost object and reattaching it elsewhere (“Mourning” 154; cf. Rando 35-36). This is not the same as consolation, for Freud also writes,

Although we know that after such a loss the acute state of mourning will subside, we also know we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually this is how it should be. It is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish.

(Letters 386)

According to Sacks, for the elegist, whose reality is intimately bound together with words, the object to which affection is reattached is language (xii, 1, 18-19).12

The grief expressed in the central ten poems is raw, internal, not inherently within the realm of language, and expressed without a strong sense of an implied reader. This is not the case in the framing poems. These poems, as already pointed out above, seem to address the reader directly. The “Dedication,” for example, prepares the reader with an outline of the sequence of events to be portrayed in the cycle: the arrest and imprisonment, the waiting in line, and the sentencing and isolation (Amert 45-46). The “Prologue” and “Epilogue I” summarize the Terror from the perspective of the arrested and the women left behind, respectively. These three poems demonstrate the successful resolution of the poet's work of mourning, insofar as they state with relative directness what the poet only intimates in the central poems. However, it is in “Epilogue II” and “Instead of a Foreword” that Akhmatova most clearly articulates her strategies to overcome the suffering of the Terror.

Whereas the ten central poems are by their very existence a memorial to the victims of the Terror, “Epilogue II” lays emphasis on the act of articulating memory as a defense against the continued suffering. In this poem, Akhmatova purposefully invokes language itself as a weapon. Throughout the cycle the poet, as well as all of the women, are shown bewildered, speechless and defeated. In “Epilogue II” Akhmatova overcomes this. Geographic locations distinguish themselves from each other and remain fixed to their proper historical significance. The women with whom Akhmatova stood in line begin to stand out from the mass as individuals, for as Amert writes,

In contrast to the collective portrait evoked in the first part of the “Epilogue,” the poet conjures up brief yet individualized portraits of three of her addressees and then articulates her unrealizable wish to call all of the women by name, thereby commemorating them individually—the antithesis of their depersonalization during the Ezhov Terror.


Akhmatova even restores to the women the power of speech. Aside from the whispered question in “Instead of a Preface,” the only moment of articulate speech is by the beautiful woman in the “Epilogue”: “Siuda prikhozhu, kak domoi!” (“Coming here's like coming home”).

On a more fundamental level, however, “Epilogue II” makes clear that Akhmatova intends for the cycle to itself supply the words to name the atrocities which could only be met with silence at the time. Sacks writes that the poetic form of the elegy is a verbal “presence” which fills the “absence” caused by death (xi-xiii). The need to create a “presence” through language is only that much more acute when the elegy is for victims of an atrocity, since, as we have seen, Terror deprives the victims of the means of articulating their pain and, by isolating the women at the time and then finally scattering them, eliminates the potential audience. Akhmatova uses the image of weaving a cloth of words as a means of creating a tangible “presence” to displace the “absence” created by the Terror. Sacks writes that it is

worth noting the significant frequency with which the elegy has employed crucial images of weaving, of creating a fabric in the place of a void. … To speak of weaving a consolation recalls the actual weaving of burial clothes and shroud and this emphasizes how mourning is an action, a process of work.


Akhmatova uses exactly the image of weaving a cloth of words. Unable to name each woman and not knowing what has become of them, she nevertheless seeks to fill the void of their silence with a veil of their own words: “Dlia nikh sotkala ia shirokii pokrov / Iz bednykh, u nikh zhe podslushannykh slov” (“I have woven a wide mantle for them / From their meager, overheard words”). On the one hand, this cloth she weaves may be seen as a burial shroud, with which, perhaps, she offers a token rite to those who had been executed in secret and buried without a memorial service or grave marker. Perhaps also it is a shroud with which Akhmatova puts to rest her grief of the ten central poems. But more than just covering and concealing what has happened, this cloth also makes it visible. The women have been scattered without any record of their having been there. Akhmatova's veil of words solidifies them into a group, protects them from obscurity, and replaces their physical absence with a verbal presence.

The poet does not simply present the atrocity to the reader, but she incorporates it into herself. She succumbs together with the other victims to the Terror, knows first-hand their suffering, but then overcomes the silence, resurrects herself, and presents herself verbally, not only on behalf of the victims but also for her own sake. When in “Instead of a Foreword” Akhmatova answers the nameless woman's question “Can you describe this?”, Akhmatova is accepting the call to be a prophet and taking upon herself the burden of not forgetting nor allowing history to forget. She accepts the call to perpetually relive the pain through her poetry and, above all, to speak it. Sam Driver writes, “It is this self-abnegation and acceptance of responsibility for universal brotherhood that raises ‘Poem without a Hero’ and ‘Requiem’ to the level [Osip] Mandel'shtam foresaw—where the true poet stands on moral grounds, not only as a symbol of rectitude, but as judge” (“Theory and Practice” 349). It is she who weaves the veil of words to spread over the other women, giving them definition and protecting them from obscurity, just as the veil of the Virgin protects her people (see Amert 52-53; Driver, Akhmatova 155 n. 19). It is she who with the confidence of a prophet affirms with a simple “Mogu”/“I can” her ability to describe the unspeakable.


  1. Elegy can be understood as two distinct types of poetry. The first classification, often also called the “elegiac mode,” is defined primarily by form. This type of elegy can be written on any subject, but the content most often is dominated by themes of love and the passage of time, and is usually pervaded by a melancholic mood. This application of the term “elegy” is the most common one in Russian poetics. According to L. G. Frizman, for example, the elegy is above all characterized by the melancholic mood, sadness, lamentation, etc., but it is usually not related to death and mourning. This definition fits Akhmatova's Northern Elegies, but not Requiem. The second definition of elegy, the definition which I will be using, is “a poem about death and mourning.” Meter and rhyme do not usually play a role in this generic classification; psychology, however, does. This type of elegy is also often called the “elegy of mourning,” the “funeral elegy,” or sometimes in discussions of twentieth-century elegies “poetry of mourning.”

  2. All translations of Requiem are by Judith Hemschemeyer. Where the translation has been modified to be more literal, brackets have been used. Quotes from the cycle are identified by either the title of the poem or its Roman numeral.

  3. Amanda Haight writes that the first poem (I) was written on the occasion of the arrest of Punin, Akhmatova's third husband, and that Akhmatova's son was arrested shortly before Punin (92). Furthermore, the loss of Akhmatova's third husband and son may have triggered grief for her first husband, especially if she had not yet resolved her grief for that loss. Rando outlines various social factors which may inhibit normal grief work, two of which may apply to Akhmatova's situation at the time of N. Gumilev's death. First, Akhmatova and Gumilev were already divorced at the time of his death. Consequently, her loss would not necessarily be socially recognized as a loss, since it might be assumed that he was not a significant part of her life. Second, the fact that he was executed for his service in the White Army might make his death a “socially unspeakable loss” (66). In these cases of “social negation of loss” and “socially unspeakable loss,” Rando writes, “Although grief work is necessary, the social support for it is inadequate or non-existent,” and in the latter case, “members of the social system … tend to shy away [from the bereaved] out of ignorance of what to say to help or moral repugnance” (66).

  4. Michael Basker also discusses this missing line, with its “suggestion of a thought too awful to articulate,” adding that “the descent into distressed silence is also the formal realization of the deathly hush described in the preceding metrical line” (11). Basker further points to two other examples of metrical truncation in the cycle. In “the Sentence,” the last line of the first stanza is four rather than five metrical feet, formally undermining the verbal statement that the author will cope with what has happened. Finally, in III, the last monosyllabic line “Noch'” represents a break, as in IV, into a formally premature silence (11).

  5. Boris Katz also notes the irony of a requiem written about living, “albeit doomed,” persons. He concludes that the penultimate line of “Crucifixion,” “A tuda, gde molcha Mat' stoiala” (“But there, where the silent Mother stood”) alludes to the opening lines of the Sabat Mater (260). He writes, “Thus, ultimately, it is not a requiem that Akhmatova wrote, in spite of the title Requiem. Rather, it is a very Russian, even very Soviet, and, of course, very Akhmatovian version of Sabat Mater” (262).

  6. To give two examples, Sacks describes how the procession of mourners, which functions to place a distance between the dead and the still living, can be traced to the yearly departure and return of the vegetation god (19-20), and he traces the convention of a repetition of words and phrases to the cycle of the seasons (23-24). Sacks summarizes the elegiac conventions on pages 18-37.

  7. Sharon Leiter writes, “Living in a city which for thousands, in point of fact, became a ‘transfer point’ to Siberian imprisonment, Akhmatova, who was spared, experienced this freedom as both exile and imprisonment” (89). Leningrad had become a prison and intermediate station for all of its citizens, not just for those who had been arrested.

  8. “Anticipatory grief” might be experienced, writes Rando, when a family member becomes terminally ill, when a family member is missing in action or a prisoner of war, or even when one is scheduled for amputation of a limb (37-39). One might argue that Akhmatova experiences anticipatory grief after the arrest of her son, and the true loss is marked by the sentence—the difference between a death sentence and exile being negligible for the family, after all. Support for this can be found in IX, in which we learn that Akhmatova did have at least one opportunity to meet with her son in prison, giving her an opportunity to resolve unfinished business with him and to prepare an image of him to endure after the final loss (see Rando 37-38). Also, in “The Sentence,” the reference to the empty house implies that Akhmatova had not yet really felt her son to be absent until that time. However, a detailed psychological analysis of Akhmatova's grief work based on a reading of Requiem would certainly have a large margin of error.

  9. This larger context usually involves immortality of one of two kinds. Elegies such as John Milton's Lycidas or Percy Shelley's Adonis offer the consoling argument that the deceased is now in the immortal company of God (or the Muses). These two elegies remove the deceased from Earth to an eternal Hereafter, where the poet hopes to eventually join the deceased. Other elegies, such as Brodsky's “Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot,” argue that the works of the deceased will perpetuate his existence; although the body has died, the soul of the deceased has achieved immortality. In either case, the grief caused by loss and the fear of mortality is countered by the projection of an immutable realm in which the deceased continues to exist.

  10. This is perhaps one reason why the elegy has traditionally been a proving-ground for young poets (see Pigman 43). The paradoxes of the human versus nature and of the feeling that death is unjust versus the knowledge that death is both inevitable and not necessarily bad make the writing of the elegy an excellent language exercise.

  11. Adorno's justification for the prohibition of poetry is that poetry threatens to make the atrocity aesthetically pleasing. Even as he admits that effective poems have been written about the Holocaust and even as he recognizes the futility of calling for an end to poetry, he argues that the memory of the victims is compromised if a reader were to derive even a small amount of pleasure from reading about their suffering. This is a very different argument than Harris's, Steiner's or Brodsky's. Insofar as Requiem is a well-wrought and effective cycle, Akhmatova can hardly be defended against this charge. Furthermore, whether we would want to defend Akhmatova, and the manner in which it could be done, are questions of theory and beyond the scope of this paper.

  12. Sacks defines the process of writing an elegy as one analogous to the psychological paradigm of Lacan, for whom language emerges as a result of the loss of a child's undifferentiated union with the mother (8-12).

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Sacks, Peter M. The Engligh Elegy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.

Smith, Eric. By Mourning Tongues: Studies in English Elegy. Ipswich, England: Boydell, 1977.

Steiner, George. Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman New York: Atheneum, 1967.

Thomas, D. M. “Introduction.” Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Trans. and ed. D. M. Thomas. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Wells, David. Anna Akhmatova: Her Poetry. Oxford: Berg, 1996.


Principal Works


Further Reading