the material culture of The Terror...

posted on 06 Dec 2012 21:10 by Elena Pinto Simon
Comments - 0


During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. 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.
— Anna Akhmatova, Requiem

These powerful words by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova,come very near the beginning of her seminal poem cycle on the Soviet Terror, Requiem. Written between 1935 and 1940, Akhmatova introduces the poems to her readers by telling the story above, citing it instead of a preface to the series of poems that flow one from another, capturing the terror years as well as any documentary.


The poems came from the over three hundred hours Akhmatova spent waiting on line outside the infamous Leningrad prison that took her second husband and her son for many years during the Stalinist purges. Her first husband was also killed by the repressive regime.

Women waited outside the prison, day after day in the cold and snow, hoping to be picked by the guards to visit their loved ones inside the prison. The poem brims with the agony of those on the outside, feeling hopeless, anxious for loved ones who might never be released. Another woman on the long, mostly silent line, asks her if anyone could ever describe the agony of what that moment represented. And Akhmatova, answers, “I can”.

This is the power of poetry —.the ability to transform even the most horrific into something haunting and indelible. As indelible as a photograph.

Requiem becomes a reverie of the smallest detail — the sounds of the prison wagon, coming to get the men in the dead of night, the clanging noise of the old keys in the prison yard’s door, the ever-present sound of soldier’s boots, crossing the yard.

Akhmatova says, later in the poem, that she has work to do today: she has to kill memory, and then learn to live again… She says it calmly and the irony of this impossibility is not lost on her readers.

It is such poetry that reminds us not just of the resilience of the human spirit, no matter how battered, but also how the keen eye of description can also be a powerful tool. No need for embellishments – these words are worth a thousand pictures.