Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem”

December 10, 2021

Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem”
This new translation of Anna Akhmatova’s poetic cycle by Stephen Capus is available in print in Cardinal Points, vol. 11.


Anna Akhmatova was born in Odessa in 1889, but lived most of her life in Saint Petersburg, the city with which so much of her poetry is intimately connected. She frequented The Tower, the famous literary salon of the symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov, and in 1910 she married fellow poet Nikolay Gumilyov. The couple were divorced in 1918, three years before Gumilyov was executed by the Bolsheviks.

Akhmatova achieved fame with her first collection of poems, Evening, published in 1912, and her subsequent collections Rosary and While Flock consolidated her reputation as one of Russia’s leading poets during the period preceding the October Revolution. After 1917 she took the conscious decision to remain in Russia, rather than join those of her fellow writers who were opting to go into exile in the West. Following the publication of the second edition of Anno Domini MCMXXII in 1923 she found herself increasingly subject to censorship, and in 1946 she was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union in the wake a notorious speech by the Communist Party cultural boss Andrey Zhdanov, in which he described her as “a cross between a nun and a whore”; but although she faced much personal hardship and a protracted poetic silence as a consequence of her decision to remain in Russia, she was also able to create Requiem, her great affirmation of solidarity with the victims of the Stalinist purges. After Stalin’s death in 1953 the restrictions on Akhmatova’s work were gradually relaxed and a selection of her poems, entitled The Course of Time, was published in 1958. She died in Moscow in 1966.

Akhmatova’s early collections of poetry reflect the values of the Russian literary group known as Acmeism, which was founded in reaction to Symbolism, the dominant movement of fin-de-siècle Russia. Acmeism advocated the virtues of craftsmanship, reticence, and clarity. Her poems written before Word War I are concerned above all with intimate personal themes, including the disappointments — and occasionally the joys — of romantic love, and show a predilection for the use of concrete imagery to allude to complex emotional dilemmas. With the publication of White Flock she broadened her range to include the public themes of war and exile, a trend that reaches its culmination in the cycle Requiem.

Requiem was written between 1935 and 1940. Requiem 1 was inspired by the arrest in 1935 of Nikolay Punin, Akhmatova’s common-law husband, but the cycle is chiefly concerned with the arrest of her and Nikolay Gumilyov’s son Lev in 1938 and his subsequent trial and sentencing. In the poems of the cycle, the lyrical heroine gives voice to the collective experience of the Russian people through the articulation of her private pain as a mother and lover. Although now regarded as one of Akhmatova’s supreme achievements, Requiem was never published in Russia during her lifetime.

— Stephen Capus


Unmoved by the glamour of alien skies,
By asylum in faraway cities, I
Chose to remain with my people: where
Catastrophe led them, I was there.



In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months queuing outside the prisons of Leningrad. On one occasion someone “recognized” me. It was a woman who was standing near me in the queue, with lips of a bluish color, and who, of course, had never before heard my name. And now, waking from that state of numbness which was characteristic of us all, she quietly asked me (for everyone spoke in a whisper in those days):

“And can you write about this?”

And I replied:

“I can.”

And then something like a smile flickered across what was once her face.

April 1, 1957



Mountains are known to bend beneath such sorrow
And mighty rivers to cease to run;
But the prison doors will still stand firm tomorrow,
And behind them the cells will still resemble burrows,
And sadness will long for death to come.
For some cool breezes blow as day is dawning,
Others rejoice in sunsets — but here
Our days are all alike, monotonous, boring:
The hateful grating of keys on locks each morning
And the tramp of boots is all we can hear.
We arose at dawn, as if to pray together;
Through the ravaged city we made our way;
And the morning sun was low in the sky, the Neva
Was veiled in mist as, paler than ghosts, we gathered
And the sound of hope seemed so far away.
The sentence falls … She feels the tears searing
Her eyes, and now she’s all alone;
And they’ll cast her down, their fingers tearing
The life from her heart, coarse and uncaring;
But she’ll stagger on down her lonely road …
We were thrown together in hell — and yet still I miss them,
Those random friends; and I wonder where they are:
What memories crowd the bright full moon, what visions
Haunt them now in their cold Siberian prison?
And I send this farewell greeting from afar.

March 1940



This was a time when the corpses
All smiled, as though glad to have died,
When the city, reduced to an adjunct
Of its prisons, looked on from the side;
When driven half crazy by suffering,
The ranks of condemned shuffled by
And the trains on the point of departure
Whistled a song of goodbye.
The star of death glimmered wanly,
Far below an innocent land
Was trampled by blood-stained jackboots
And crushed beneath black prison vans.



They took you as day was dawning,
Like a mourner I followed behind,
In the hallway the children were bawling,
The icon light guttered and died.
I’ll never forget: when you kissed me —
The chill of your lips; on your brow —
Cold sweat. Now like wives throughout history,
I’ll stand by the Kremlin and howl.

Autumn 1935



Quietly flows the quiet Don,
The yellow moon, strolling along,

Enters a house without a care
And chances upon a shadow there.

Not long ago that shadow was still
A woman — but now she’s lonely and ill.

Her husband is dead, her son is in jail.
Remember her in your prayers without fail.



No, this isn’t me, this is someone else who is suffering.
I wouldn’t be able to do it — but let what’s happened
Be veiled in black cloth, let the lamps be removed …
                                                            And then night.



If only you’d known, wicked woman
Who once cared for nothing but fun,
Who used to be Petersburg’s favorite,
That the day will finally come
When, along with three hundred others,
Clutching your parcel, you’ll go
To wait in line while your tears
Burn through the New Year’s snow.
The poplar tree sways near the prison
In silence — but so many lives
Are ending inside for no reason …



At the feet of the cruel hangman,
Prostrating myself, I’ve groaned —
For seventeen months, my terror,
My son, I’ve called you back home.
Everything’s muddled forever,
To me it’s no longer clear
Who’s a beast, who’s a human being,
And whether the end is near.
And incense and blossoming flowers
And tracks on a road leading nowhere
Are all that remain … From the sky
A huge star looks into my eyes
And I finally understand
That destruction is close at hand.




The weeks flutter by on light wings;
What’s happened — I scarcely can say:
How the white summer nights looked in
Through the bars of the cell where you lay,
How still they look down on you there
With the pitiless eyes of a hawk
While the voices of strangers talk
Of death and the cross which you bear.




The Sentence

And I felt the heavy verdict,
So long anticipated, fall
On my living breast. No matter,
I’ll manage somehow. After all,

I’ve so many chores to attend to:
I must turn my heart into stone,
I must liquidate all my memories
And learn how to live alone.

And if not … Through my window summer
Is celebrating somewhere out of sight.
I’ve foreseen it: this house, so empty,
On this day, so desolate and bright.

Summer 1939



To Death

You’ll come one day for certain — then why not now?
Life is so hard; and while I wait, I’ve dimmed
The light and left the door ajar to allow
You in your simple splendor to enter in.
Assume for this purpose whichever guise you like:
Burst in like a shell with its load of death;
Sneak in like a skillful burglar as midnight strikes,
Or kill me like typhus, inhaled with a breath.
Or tell once more the well-known story we all
Have heard so often by now it’s grown stale,
In which the men in military caps will call
And make the janitor’s face turn pale.
To me it makes no difference. Quietly flows
The Yenisey. The North Star shines above.
All I can do is watch as terror enfolds
In mist those bright blue eyes I loved.

August 19, 1939
The Fountain House



I’m drunk on the harsh wine of madness
And all but concealed beneath
Its wing; and now it invites me
To enter the valley of death.

And I knew that I had to acknowledge
Defeat: that now it was time
To obey these delirious ravings
As if they weren’t even mine.

And it won’t allow me to carry
Any of my memories away,
However I try to persuade it,
Whatever I do or say:

Not the eyes of my son, filled with terror —
His suffering as adamant as fate,
Nor the day of the storm’s arrival,
Nor the vigil at the prison gate,

Nor the hands’ seductive coolness,
Nor the restless shadow of the lime,
Nor the sound of words offering comfort
From afar for one last time.

May 4, 1940
The Fountain House





Don’t weep for me, Mother,
As I lie in my grave.

Choirs of angels hymned the glorious hour,
Dissolved in flame, the heavens glowed overhead.
“Why hast though forsaken me, my Father?”
And “Mother, do not weep for me,” he said.


Magdalen sobbed and wrung her hands in anguish,
The disciple whom he loved was still as stone.
But no one dared to look toward the place where
The Mother stood in silence, all alone.



Epilogue 1

I learned how to read the meaning of downcast faces,
To notice the way in which terror furtively peeks
From beneath half-lowered lids, how suffering traces
Its stern cuneiform script on ravaged cheeks,
How the hair which only the day before appeared
Lustrously black, can turn ashen grey overnight,
How smiles can fade on trembling lips, how jeers,
However dry, can betray a tremor of fright.
And if I now venture to offer up this prayer,
It’s not for myself alone, but rather for all
Who, enduring the changing weather, stood with me there
Beneath the indifferent gaze of that blank red wall.


Epilogue 2

Once more the hour of remembrance draws near
And it’s almost as though I can see them all here:

The one who queued to the point of collapse,
And the one whose time on this earth has now passed,

And the one, who shaking her head, used to groan:
“When I enter this place, it’s like coming back home!”

And I would have recorded you all in my verse,
But they’ve taken the list where your names were preserved.

So instead I’ve made you a shawl out of words,
Saved from the talk which I once overheard.

And I’ll never forget you, wherever I go,
Whatever new horrors I’m destined to know.

And even if one day they somehow suppress
My voice through which millions of lives were expressed,

I ask that you all still remember to pray
For my soul on the eve of my burial day.

And if in the future they give the command
To raise up a statue to me in this land,

I consent to this honor — but only so long
As they solemnly pledge not to place it upon

The shore of the sea by which I was born,
For my link with the sea has long since been torn;

Nor in the park of the Tsars, by the tree
Where a restless soul is still searching for me;

But to raise it instead near the prison’s locked door
Where I waited for three hundred hours and more.

For I fear I’ll forget in the vacuous peace
Of the grave that old woman who howled like a beast,

Or the rumbling wheels of the black prison vans,
Or the sound of the hateful jail door when it slammed.

And from motionless eyelids the melting snow,
Like tears, down my cheeks of bronze will flow

As the dove in the watchtower calls from on high
And the boats on the Neva go drifting on by.

March 1940
The Fountain House


Anna Akhmatova was born near Odessa in 1889, but lived most of her life in Saint Petersburg. As a consequence of her decision to remain in Russia after the October Revolution she faced much personal hardship and a protracted poetic silence, but was also able to create Requiem, her great affirmation of solidarity with the victims of the Stalinist purges. She died in Moscow in 1966.

Stephen Capus has published poems, translations, and reviews in various magazines, including Acumen, Modern Poetry in Translation, and Stand. His pamphlet 24 Hours was published by Rack Press in 2020.


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