It is daunting, for me, to to try to wrap my head around the immense fortitude of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.
Akhmatova was a budding scholar, poet and artist, building a reputation in Russia and internationally, when the Russian Revolution erupted in 1917. In the midst of violence, famine and death, an artist of her prominence had ample opportunity to flee Russia, and many of her contemporaries did. Akhmatova refused to flee, and wrote passionately about her decision to stay in her native Russia, no matter what horror was to come.
That patriotism and devotion to her homeland did little good for Akhmatova, however, as for the bulk of her post-Revolution life she faced a brutal regime that aggressively cracked down on intellectuals and artists.
Her ex-husband, also a writer, was executed in 1921; many of her closest friends were imprisoned and died in the gulags; Akhmatova herself was blacklisted, subjected to state surveillance and intense state criticism (including the pointed, personal ire of Stalin himself); and she lived in abject poverty and constant fear of arrest for decades.
Beginning in the mid-1930’s, Akhmatova’s son – a public intellectual in his own right – was targeted, and ultimately imprisoned for years, by the Stalinist purges.
This led Anna Akhmatova to compose one of her best-known, and arguably most-powerful works, Requiem: an unsparing chronicle of the brutal Stalin regime, of her agony over her son’s imprisonment, and the subject of this week’s Rebel Art Friday.
Requiem plays out over the course of many years spent standing, both literally and figuratively, outside the gates of Akhmatova’s son’s prison, praying for his release, fearing, incessantly, his death.
Akhmatova’s son was first imprisoned – and she began her work on Requiem – during the “Great Purge,” a systematic Stalinist repression campaign in the late 1930s which resulted in as many as 700,000 executions, and 1.2 million total deaths.
In that climate, discovery of Akhmatova’s dissident work could have resulted in her son’s death, or her own, and so she went to extraordinary lengths to keep it hidden, writing the verse out long-hand, then memorizing the lines and destroying all evidence of the written text.
Concerned that she could be arrested and executed at any moment, Akhmatova made her closest friends memorize portions of the poem; if she were to amend a phrase or even a word in her mental “draft,” Akhmatova made sure these friends re-memorized the latest version, to ensure that the purest, strongest possible version of Requiem might someday find the light of day.
The result of this bizarrely secretive and repressed artistic process is a piece marked by inevitable and fascinating tonal shifts, all of which reveal the machinations of the artist’s anguished mind.
Akhmatova goes from from elegiac, lyrical imagery in one verse – “A yellow moon looks quietly on / Swanking about, with cap askew/ It sees through the window a shadow of you” – to raw anger just two verses (and many months) later:
I can no longer distinguish
Who is an animal, who a person, and how long
The wait can be for an execution.
In navigating and attempting to articulate the grim, precarious uncertainty of her son’s imprisonment, Akhmatova vacillates between expressions of desperate madness:
For seventeen months I have been screaming,
Calling you home.
I’ve thrown myself at the feet of butchers
For you, my son and my horror.
…to steely resignation:
The word landed with a stony thud
Onto my still-beating breast.
Nevermind, I was prepared,
I will manage with the rest.
I have a lot of work to do today;
I need to slaughter memory,
Turn my living soul to stone
Then teach myself to live again.
…and then melds that madness and resignation into a potent, channeled rage:
Madness with its wings
Has covered half my soul
It feeds me fiery wine
And lures me into the abyss.
That’s when I understood
While listening to my alien delirium
That I must hand the victory
If Requiem is tonally and thematically a bit fragmented, its unfolding narrative is a powerfully simple story of resilience, and evolving, hard-earned humility.
Anna Akhmatova was a towering figure, an historically consequential artist (nominated many times for the Nobel Prize) with a remarkable, unique voice. But by the conclusion of Requiem, her eye has shifted from the injustice of her personal tragedy – “the moon sees a woman lying at home / her son is in jail, her husband dead / say a prayer for her instead” – to a somber recognition of her status as but one grim face amidst a haggard, beaten crowd.
The “Epilogue” of Requiem describes not just Akhmatova’s pain, but the pain of untold thousands, standing hopelessly outside a “blind red wall,” wailing for a loved one unjustly imprisoned:
I have learned how faces fall,
How terror can escape from lowered eyes,
How suffering can etch cruel pages
Of cuneiform-like marks upon the cheeks.
I know how dark or ash-blond strands of hair
Can suddenly turn white. I’ve learned to recognise
The fading smiles upon submissive lips,
The trembling fear inside a hollow laugh.
That’s why I pray not for myself
But all of you who stood there with me
Through fiercest cold and scorching July heat
Under a towering, completely blind red wall.
I wrote last week about our eagerness, in our dark present, to downplay the gravity of America’s crisis. One of the more effective dodges we tend to cling to is the notion that, because we have not yet matched the deepest darknesses in recent human history, it is simply inappropriate – too soon, too alarmist – to get too upset.
I can’t dispute that we have not yet descended to the depths of Stalin’s Great Purge, and I recognize that no matter how low we do sink, it will never look exactly like the dark moments of history we might compare it to.
But it is just as indisputable that the Trumpist government is aggressively and intentionally inflicting pain – the same pain that Anna Akhmatova suffered at the hands of Stalinism – upon tens of thousands of immigrant families.
There are thousands standing, right now, trembling beneath a variation of Akhmatova’s towering wall, unable to locate their children, their husband, their mother, terrified that they will never see their loved one again, unsure if that loved one is already dead.
Inside those walls, human rights atrocities are being committed against those loved ones. Across America, in every immigrant community, terror has set in.
This is not, to be clear, simply the U.S. “enforcing its laws,” nor is it in any way comparable to the actions of any prior administration.
What the Trump administration is doing– gutting long-standing rights, defying international refugee law, destroying families, abusing the most vulnerable among us – is deliberate cruelty, the systematic weaponization of immigration enforcement with a simple, punitive purpose: to destroy lives.
No, we have not yet sunk to the depths of Stalinism, but institutionalized, racist, deliberate cruelty – by the United States government – is a pretty goddamned bad place to be. And if we know one thing for certain – what we at GTFUP refer to as the “Perpetual Ghastly Premise” – it’s that it is only going to get worse.
Anna Akhmatova closes Requiem with a wish that she be remembered, first and foremost, by this poem, a shroud “woven out of the humble words” she cobbled together from her innumerable compatriots, waiting solemnly beneath the prison walls.
She is not blind to her prominence or her talent, not immune from the vain hope that her work will be remembered in a better, brighter Russia, and she imagines that someday a memorial might be raised in her honor. But Akhmotova pleads that any such memorial be placed not at her birthplace, or among other luminaries in the Tsar’s Park, but rather at the foot of that red wall, “where I stood for thee hundred hours / And no one slid open the bolt.”
We are all muddling through life, building careers and families, seeking a good life, harboring perhaps a fleeting hope that we might just leave a small footprint behind.
Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem is a reminder that, no matter what legacy we might wish to build through our daily deeds, we are all – even great poets – defined most by our times, and in times like these, by where we choose to stand.
This week’s edition of Rebel Art Friday was inspired by my time this past week at an Asylum Law boot camp: 100 attorneys locked in a room, nervously preparing to dive headlong into fray, straining to make the tiniest dent in the immense human rights crisis our nation has created.
It’s easy to feel helpless in times like these, but there are countless opportunities to volunteer for, or donate to, righteous causes, including with any of the higher-profile organizations highlighted here, or with any of the dozens of below-the-radar groups fighting the good fight along the border, groups like Al Otro Lado and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. There are also some terrific non-legal programs like Border Angels, and Freedom for Immigrants.
This weeks’ Friday Rebel Art was also inspired by this excellent piece in ProPublica, about the herculean efforts of an ex-ICE attorney to rescue an unjustly imprisoned immigrant. It’s an “inspirational” piece in its way, but it’s also one of those stories where the tragic necessity of the heroism – “local man pays off lunch debt for entire school!” “community rallies to pay local girl’s cancer bills!” – exposes just how fundamentally broken we really are.
My interest in Anna Akhmatova, meanwhile, was sparked by Iris Dement who, at a concert earlier this year, performed a number of songs from her album “The Trackless Woods,” a collection of songs putting Akhmatova’s poetry to music. My favorite of those songs is the bleak but gorgeous “The Last Toast”:
And because that song, and Ms. Akhmatova, are a little bleak, here’s some video of Ms. Dement and her longtime collaborator John Prine performing the wickedly funny “In Spite of Ourselves”, for a bit of levity:
Finally, the fun thing about reading poetry written by non-English artists is that the translation can be everything … and I’m not even sure who translated this version, which is the one I quoted above, and the one I came to love. My sincere apologies to that unappreciated translator, who deserves better…