No foreign sky protected me,
no stranger's wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time and place.
Instead of a Preface
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
And I said: "I can."
The something like a smile
passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
Leningrad 1 April 1957
Such grief might make the
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!
That was a time when only the
could smile, delivered from their wars,
sign, the soul, of Leningrad
dangled outside its prison house;
and the regiments of the condemned,
herded in the railroad yards,
shrank from the engine's whistle song
whose burden went, "Away, pariahs!"
The stars of death stood over us.
And Russia, guiltless, beloved, writhed
under the crunch of bloodstained boots,
under the wheels of Black Marias.
At dawn they came and took you
You were my dead: I walked behind,
In the dark room children cried,
the holy candle gasped for air.
Your lips were chill from the icon's kiss,
sweat bloomed on your brow--those deathly flowers!
Like the wives of Peter's troopers in Red Square
I'll stand and howl under the Kremlin towers.
Quietly flows the quiet Don;
into my house slips the yellow moon.
It leaps the sill, with its cap askew,
and balks at a shadow, that yellow moon.
This woman is sick to her
this woman is utterly alone,
with husband dead, with son away
in jail. Pray for me. Pray.
No, not mine: it's somebody
I could never have borne it. So take the thing
that happened, hide it, stick it in the ground.
Whisk the lamps away
. . . Night.
They should have shown
delight of your friends, hearts' thief,
naughtiest girl of Pushkin's town--
this picture of your fated years,
as under the
glowering wall you stand,
shabby, three hundredth in line,
parcel in your hand,
and the New Year's ice scorched by your tears.
See there the prison poplar bending!
No sound. No sound. Yet how many
innocent lives are ending . . .
For seventeen months I have
calling you back to your lair.
I hurled myself at the hangman's foot,
You are my son, changed into nightmare.
Confusion occupies the world,
and I am powerless to tell
somebody brute from something human,
or on what day the word spells "Kill!"
Nothing is left but dusty flowers,
the tinkling thurible, and tracks
that lead to nowhere. Night of stone,
whose bright enormous star
stares me straight in the eyes,
promising death, ah soon!
The weeks fly out of mind,
I doubt that it occurred:
how into your prison, child,
the white night blazing, stared;
and still, as I draw breath,
they fix their buzzard eyes
on what the high cross shows,
this body of your death.
The word dripped like a stone
on my still living breast,
Confess: I was prepared,
am somehow ready for the test.
So much to do today:
kill memory, kill pain,
turn heart into a stone,
and yet prepare to live again.
Not quite. Hot summer's feast
brings rumors of carouse.
How long have I foreseen
this brilliant day, this empty house?
You will come in any case--so
why not now?
How long I wait and wait. The bad times fall.
I have put out the light and opened the door
for you, because you are simple and magical.
Assume, then, any form that suits your wish,
take aim, and blast at me with poisoned shot,
or strangle me like an efficient mugger,
or else infect me--typhus be my lot--
or spring out of the fairy tale you wrote,
the one we're sick of hearing, day and night,
blue hatband marches up the stairs,
led by the janitor, pale with fright.
It's all the same to me. The Yenisei swirls,
the North Star shines, as it will shine forever;
and the blue luster of my loved one's eyes
is clouded over by the final horror.
The House on the Fontanka, 19
Already madness lifts its wing
to cover half my soul.
That taste of opiate wine!
Lure of the dark valley!
Now everything is clear.
I admit my defeat. The tongue
of my ravings in my ear
is the tongue of a stranger.
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,
not the dear coolness of his
not the lime trees' agitated shade,
not the thin cricket sound
of consolation's parting word.
4 May 1940
"Do not weep for me,
when I am in my grave."
A choir of angels glorified the
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
"Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me . . ."
Mary Magdalene beat her breasts
His disciple, stone-faced, stared.
His mother stood apart. No other looked
into her secret eyes. Nobody dared.
I have learned how faces fall to
how under the eyelids terror lurks,
how suffering inscribes on cheeks
the hard lines of it cuneiform texts,
how glossy black or ash-fair locks
turn overnight to tarnished silver,
how smiles fade on submissive lips,
and fear quavers in a dry titter.
And I pray not for myself alone . . .
for all who stood outside the jail,
in bitter cold or summer's blaze,
with me under that blind red wall.
Remembrance hour returns with
the turning year.
I see, I hear, I touch you drawing near:
the one we tried to help to the
and who no longer walks this precious earth,
and that one who would toss her
and say, "It's just like coming home again."
I want to name the names of all
but they snatched up the list, and now it's lost.
I've woven them a garment that's
out of poor words, those that I overheard,
and will hold fast to every word
all of my days, even in new mischance,
and if a gag should blind my
through which a hundred million people shout,
then let them pray for me, as I
for them, this eve of my remembrance day.
And if my country ever should
to casting in my name a monument,
I should be proud to have my
but only if the monument be placed
not near the sea on which my
eyes first opened--
my last link with the sea has long been broken--
nor in the Tsar's garden near
the sacred stump,
where a grieved shadow hunts my body's warmth,
but here, where I endured three
in line before the implacable iron bars.
Because even in blissful death I
to lose the clangor of the Black Marias,
to lose the banging of that
and the old crone howling like a wounded beast.
And from my motionless
may the melting snow, like teardrops, slowly trickle,
and a prison dove coo somewhere,
over and over,
as the ships sail softly down the flowing Neva.
"Requiem" by Anna
Akhmatova translated by Gordon McVay, from 20TH CENTURY RUSSIAN POETRY by
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, copyright © 1993 by Doubleday, a division of Random
House, Inc. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House,
execution in 1921 of her former husband, Gumilyov, on charges of
participation in an anti-Soviet conspiracy (the Tagantsev affair), turned
members of the regime against her. She was referred to in public as the ‘harlot-nun’.
In 1923 she entered a period of almost complete poetic silence and literary
ostracism, and no volume of her poetry was published in the Soviet Union
until 1940. In that year several of her poems were published in the
literary monthly Zvezda (The Star), and a volume of
selections from her earlier work appeared under the title Iz shesti knig (From Six Books). A few months later,
however, it was abruptly withdrawn from sale and libraries. Nevertheless,
in September 1941, following the German invasion, Akhmatova was permitted
to deliver an inspiring radio address to the women of Leningrad. Evacuated
to Tashkent soon thereafter, she read her poems to hospitalized soldiers
and published a number of war-inspired lyrics; a small volume of selected
lyrics appeared in Tashkent in 1943. At the end of the war she returned to
Leningrad, where her poems began to appear in local magazines and
newspapers. She gave poetic readings, and plans were made for publication
of a large edition of her works.
In August 1946, however, she was
harshly denounced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party for her
"eroticism, mysticism, and political indifference." Her poetry
was castigated as "alien to the Soviet people," and she was again
described as a "harlot-nun," this time by none other than Andrey
Zhdanov, Politburo member and the director of Stalin's program of cultural
restriction. She was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers; an
unreleased book of her poems, already in print, was destroyed; and none of
her work appeared in print for three years.
Then, in 1950, a number of her
poems eulogizing Stalin and Soviet communism were printed in several issues
of the illustrated weekly magazine Ogonyok
(The Little Light) under the
title Iz tsikla Slava miru (From the Cycle Glory to Peace). Her
capitulation to the Soviet dictator--in one of the poems Akhmatova
declares: "Where Stalin is, there is Freedom, Peace, and the grandeur
of the earth"--was motivated by Akhmatova's desire to win the freedom
of her son, Lev Gumilyov, who had been arrested again in 1949 and exiled to
Siberia. The tone of these poems is far different from the moving and universalized
lyrical cycle, Rekviem (Requiem), composed between 1935 and
1961 and occasioned by Akhmatova's grief over an earlier arrest and
imprisonment of her son in 1937. This masterpiece--a poetic monument to the
sufferings of the Soviet peoples during Stalin's terror--was only published
in Moscow in 1989.