“No foreign sky protected me
No stranger’s wing shielded my face
I stand as witness to the common lot
Survivor of that time, that place”
“I have a lot of work to do today
In person, she was a femme fatale and it was common that male poets in her entourage fell in love with her.
Her melancholy beauty, deep set eyes, and even her broken nose inspired Modigliani, among other artists, but it was her mind and heart that inspired her people. Her haunting poetry bore witness to the unrelenting grief of the revolution and the decades of terror that ensued.
Give me bitter years of sickness,
Suffocation, insomnia, fever,
Take my child and my lover,
And my mysterious gift of song-
This I pray at your liturgy
After so many tormented days,
So that the stormcloud over darkened Russia
Might become a cloud of glorious rays.
Akhmatova (1889–1966), the most famous Russian poet of her time, was persecuted by the Stalinist government, prevented from publishing, regarded as a dangerous enemy , but was at the same time, so popular on the basis of her early poetry that even Stalin would not risk attacking her directly. In tribute to her greatness, her work circulated from mouth to mouth, by memory. Akhmatova survived the terror of the 1930’s and 40’s and gave to the world the most haunting testament of the struggle of the Russian people under Stalin in her cycle of poems, Requiem . The central core of Requiem consists of ten short, numbered poems. The first originally reflected the arrest of her husband Nikolai Punin in 1935 and other close friends, but primarily the poems deal with the author’s experiences and her agony following the arrest of her son Lev in 1938. “Requiem,” recounts specifically, the tribulations of those Russian women with whom Akhmatova stood in line outside the prison walls, women who like her waited patiently, but with a sense of great grief and powerlessness, for the chance to send a loaf of bread or a small message to their husbands, sons, lovers. It was not published in Russia in its entirety until 1987, though the poem itself was begun about the time of her son’s arrest. It was his arrest and imprisonment and that of her husband, that provided the inspiration for this sequence of lyric poems about imprisonment and its impact on those whose loved ones are incarcerated. It begins with a famous passage, entitled ‘Instead of a Preface’:
“In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent 17 months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind was a young 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 over what had once been her face.”