A moving destiny forged amid terror


Poet Anna Akhmatova faced the horrors of Stalin's time with courage, lyricism

February 23, 2003|By Michael Collier

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

"Can you describe this?"

And I said: "I can."

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

And so begins "Requiem," Anna Akhmatova's unflinching masterpiece written between 1935-1940, during the first period of Stalin's Great Terror.

Anna Akhma-tova was born near Odessa in 1889, but soon moved with her family to Tsarskoye Selo, where she grew up. As a young woman, she lived in St. Petersburg where, with her husband, Nikolay Gumilyov, and Osip Mandelstam, she founded the Poet's Guild and started the Acmeist movement.

Except for a few periods of travel abroad and short stays in other Russian cities, Akhmatova was closely associated with Petersburg, through its transformation as Petrograd and Leningrad, for the rest of her life. The Acmeist movement reacted against the refined and beautiful obscurities of Symbolism, which had influenced Russian poetry for more than a decade.

Acmeists believed the things of the world comprised a palpable and immediate reality that was more important than symbolic correspondences. By the time of her death in 1966, Akhmatova had become one of Russia's greatest poets of the 20th Century. She was equally revered for how she faced the horrors of her times with dignity and unstinting courage.

Until recently, the destiny of Russian poets, perhaps more than any other group of 20th-century poets, had been shaped by the totalitarian tragedies of the past century. Osip Mandelstam once remarked that poetry was something one could be killed for in Russia. About his own fate, Mandelstam was prescient. He died in 1938, shortly after beginning a five-year sentence of hard labor for "counter-revolutionary activity."

Like Mandelstam, Akhmatova possessed early on a sense of her own destiny. As a young girl, she had premonitions and presentiments she believed marked her for a particular purpose. At the age of four or five, she found a pin shaped like a lyre in a park. "This means you will be a poet," her nanny told her.

Akhmatova was not afraid to speak the truth to power, and as a result, her life in Stalinist Russia was one of persecution. On two occasions, her poetry was banned for long periods. Andrei Zhdanov, a Politburo member and Stalin's surrogate in Leningrad, accused her of poisoning "the minds of our youth with the pernicious spirit of her poetry."

When her son Lev was arrested in 1938, Akhmatova took up the practice of standing in lines outside the prisons to deliver a modest package of supplies. Although Ahkmatova was already well known as a poet, it was there, standing in line with other Russian women, that her destiny to embody the conscience and the memory of the Russian people became more sharply focused.

"Requiem" is a cycle of poems that gives voice to the women who suffered the loss of their husbands and sons. The Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, who as a young man knew Akhmatova, characterizes the poem as containing a "piercing, almost unbearable lyricism" that reveals a "uniqueness of heart."

As a poem, it rivals the most highly regarded works of the last century, such as T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" or his "Four Quartets." At times, it reminds me of the chorus in Greek tragedy, where the speakers seem to be both inside of and outside of the play's action. And there is a timeless quality to it that makes a reader understand that Akhmatova not only describes a very personal loss, but also one that is universal.

Michael Collier is Maryland's poet laureate. ''Poet's Corner" appears monthly in Arts & Society.


Such grief might make the mountains stoop,

reverse the waters where they flow,

but cannot burst these ponderous bolts

that block us from the prison cells

crowded with mortal woe. ...

For some the wind can freshly blow,

for some the sunlight fade at ease,

but we, made partners in our dread,

hear but the grating of the keys,

and heavy-booted soldiers' tread.

As if for early mass, we rose

and each day walked the wilderness,

trudging through silent street and square,

to congregate, less live than dead.

The sun declined, the Neva blurred,

and hope sang always from afar.

Whose sentence is decreed? ... That moan,

that sudden spurt of woman's tears,

shows one distinguished from the rest,

as if they'd knocked her to the ground

and wrenched the heart out of her breast,

then let her go, reeling, alone.

Where are they now, my nameless friends

From those two years I spent in hell?

What specters mock them now, amid

the fury of Siberian snows,

or in the blighted circle of the moon?

To them I cry, Hail and Farewell!


Remembrance hour returns with the running year

I see, I hear, I touch you drawing near:

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