It’s impossible to be in St Petersburg for any length of time, as I was recently on holiday, without engaging with Anna Akhmatova’s long poem Requiem. It was written out of her experience of Stalin’s arrests and purges of the 1930s, and in particular of going to the Kresty prison, where her son Lev was detained, in the hope of getting food to him.
As she writes in her own preamble to the poem,
One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’. On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear (everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face.
Requiem was mostly written between 1935 and 1940; one sequence is dated later. In the climate of the times, it was impossible to publish such a poem in the Soviet Union, and in fact it was too dangerous even to be found with drafts or fragments of the manuscript. (Akmatova’s first husband was shot in 1921, her second arrested several times and eventually died in the gulag.) Her rooms were bugged by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, after 1946. So Akhmatova would be visited by an actress friend, and the poet would write lines of the poem in the margins of a newspaper, while making small talk. These she would pass across, and as the actress memorised each one she would write another to be remembered. And then, before the end of the meeting, the newspaper would be burnt in the stove.
This reminded me of the “human books” that are part of (small spoiler alert) Ray Bradbury’s story Fahrenheit 451.
And of something else. The picture of women petitioning authorities, in many countries, for information about relatives who have been arrested or disappeared is a defining image of the 20th century, in Chile, in Argentina, in Russia. Akhmatova was writing of the USSR and Stalin, but the story she told in Requiem – as with so much of her work – is a universal one.
The photograph at the top of the post, of the image of Ahkmatova outside of her former house, now museum, in St Petersburg, was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence.