death and the maiden
What to do when it all seems hopeless and dissenters are summarily arrested —and executed.
“It was a time when only the dead smiled, happy in their peace.”—anna Akhmatova
Outside the gates of the darkened prison, for 17 months, she stood in endless lines to pass parcels of food and clothing to her son. One day, in the shadow of those iron gates, someone in the crowd recognised her as the poet well-loved by many: Anna Akhmatova. The woman standing behind her, “with lips blue with cold”, whispered to her: “Can you describe this?” The poet replied, “I can.”
It was a decisive moment for Akhmatova, one that completed her metamorphosis from a lyric poet to a poet of bearing witness. It urged Akhmatova to compose one of her most powerful works, “Requiem”, an elegiac cycle of poems for her absent son and all her fellow countrymen who suffered a similar fate. At the hour of desperation, even the act of prayer seems futile against the magnitude of loss and grief.
No use to fall down on my knees and beg for mercy’s sake. Nothing I counted mine, out of my life, is mine to take: not my son’s terrible eyes, not the elaborate stone flower of grief, not the day of the storm, not the trial of the visiting hour…
This was Russia in 1937-’38, the most brutal years of Stalin’s Great Purge. These years became known as the “Yezhov Terror”, after Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the Soviet secret police who presided over mass arrests, torture and executions. At least 600,000 lost their lives in the Great Purge, while millions more were victims of political repression
or languished in unbearable living conditions. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s ritual ‘cleaning of the party ranks’—which took place periodically, starting with the Bolshevik purge of 1921 and continued under Joseph Stalin—now assumed a far more sinister form. Anyone suspected of, or “denounced” for, overt or covert opposition to Stalin was summarily eliminated. Many members of the Old Bolshevik Guard were tried in the infamous Moscow show trials and sentenced to death.
Intellectuals, writers and artists were not spared the terror. Among the victims of the Great Purge was Akhmatova’s
close friend and fellow Acmeist poet Osip Mandelstam, who was arrested in 1934 after reciting his satirical “Stalin Epigram” to a gathering of friends, one of whom betrayed him to the authorities. Mandelstam was eventually released and exiled to Voronezh; he was rearrested in 1938 and died of illness in transit to a labour camp. Stalin’s persecution of writers led to Mandelstam’s dark observation: “Only in Russia is poetry respected—it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”
Other prominent writers who died during the Great Purge included the
Georgian symbolist poet Titsian Tabidze, who was charged for treason and executed. The modernist short story writer Isaac Babel was shot after being forced to confess that he was a Trotskyist and foreign spy.
Akhmatova’s son Lev Gumilyov, a historian and an ethnologist, was arrested in 1938 and sentenced to five years of hard labour at the Norilsk Gulag in Siberia. He was rearrested in 1946 in a new wave of purges; this time, he was imprisoned for 10 years. Lev’s father, Nikolay Gumilyov, Akhmatova’s first husband, had been charged with being involved in a monarchist conspiracy and was executed in 1921. In “Requiem”, Akhmatova likens the persecution of her son to the suffering of Christ. In a section called “Crucifixion”, she imagines the voice of her captive son speaking to her: “Do not weep for me, Mother, when I am in my grave.” Akhmatova then invokes the figures of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, the latter a symbol of the poet herself as the grieving yet stoic mother: “No other looked into her secret eyes. No one dared.”
“Requiem” is a meditation on death and the hopelessness that pervaded Stalin’s Russia. Akhmatova’s language in “Requiem” approaches liturgical incantations of mourning while putting forth imagery that is at once surreal and savage.
The stars of death stood over us. And Russia, guiltless, beloved, writhed under the crunch of bloodstained boots, under the wheels of Black Marias.
While, in her later years, she grappled with the tragedy of human beings caught in the maelstrom of history and politics, Akhmatova was “essentially a poet of human ties: cherished, strained, severed,” as the poet Joseph Brodsky reminds us. “She showed these evolutions through the prism of the individual heart, then through the prism of history.”
In the decades leading up to the Great Purge, Akhmatova had already secured her place as one of Russia’s most beloved poets. Born in 1889, she belonged to a generation of poets now referred to as the “Silver Age of Poetry”, the Golden Age being that of Puskhin and Lermontov. The Silver Age encompasses Symbolist poets such as Aleksandr Blok; Acmeist poets including Akhmatova, her husband Nikolay Gumilyov and Osip Mandelstam; Futurists such as the flamboyant Vladimir Mayakovsky; and poets like Ivan Bunin, Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak, who did not align themselves with a particular aesthetic group.
Akhmatova used to read her poetry at gatherings at the Stray Dog Café in St Petersburg. Her bold, sensual poems and striking beauty made her a phenomenon. Her first book, Evening, was described by Korney Chukovsky as having “accompanied the next two or three generations of Russians whenever they fell in love”. Akhmatova was more than a fleeting sensation: her nuanced understanding of emotional and psychological aspects of human relations, combined with lyrical brilliance, gave birth to some of the most unforgettable lines in Russian poetry:
And it seemed to me that there were fires Flying till dawn without number And I never found out things—those Strange eyes of his—what colour?
Everything trembling and singing and Were you my enemy or my friend, Winter was it or summer?
Akhmatova’s popularity was troubling to Soviet authorities. She was famously denounced by one of Stalin’s ministers, Andrei Zhdanov, as “half-nun, half-whore” and was prohibited from publishing her work for decades. All attempts to silence the power of Akhmatova’s poetry ultimately failed. In Akhmatova’s work, the traditions of classical Russian poetry were remembered and renewed, surviving both the wild experimentations of the 20th century avantgarde as well as the stifling aesthetic impositions of Soviet socialist realism.
Anna Akhmatova photographed by Soviet artist, Moisei Solomonovich Nappelbaum.
Akhmatova in 1966, the year of her death.