Poetry in times of terror

In the month that marked the culmination of the Russian Revolution a little over a century ago, Pramod K Nayar through Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem connects the eerie similarities between Stalinist Russia and today’s trying times

By   |  Pramod K Nayar  |  Published: 10th Nov 2019  12:20 am

Exiled and migrant authors mourning the loss of their motherland, families and ties is now a commonplace in literature. Then there are those who, despite clear and present danger, refused to flee. Anna Akhmatova captured the stresses and strains of living under tyranny as perhaps no 20th century poet has.

 Fifty years ago, in 1969, the English translation of Akhmatova’s poetry, by Richard McKane, appeared in the ‘Penguin Modern European Poets’ series.

Born in Odessa (Ukraine), Akhmatova is believed to have started writing poetry from a very early age, although she published her first work only at 17 in a journal edited by Nikolay Gumilev, whom she later married. She anticipated the coming of Russia’s dark times as early as 1914. When the Russian Revolution began in 1917, many of Akhmatova’s friends were arrested, tortured and killed. Others fled Russia but, though offered the opportunity to do so herself, she stayed on.  

Nissim Ezekiel in a gesture of poetic bravado declared ‘my backward place is where I am’ (‘Background, Casually’), and Akhmatova demonstrated it in Stalinist Russia, as the opening of Requiem shows:

No, not under the vault of another sky,
not under the shelter of other wings.
I was with my people then,
there where my people were doomed to be.

This is a declaration of faith and courage: to stay on with her ‘doomed’ people, and not seek shelter under ‘other wings’.

Troubling Blip on Stalin’s Radar

Akhmatova’s son from Gumilev – Gumilev himself was executed for an anti-Bolshevik conspiracy in 1921 – Lev, was arrested and exiled to hard labour. Released during World War II, he was arrested again and released only in 1956. Her biographies tell us that during his imprisonment, Akhmatova stood outside the prison, with several such mothers, for over 17 months, seeking information about Lev.

Her poem cycle, Requiem, written between 1935 and 1943 in unimaginable secrecy – Akhmatova was already a well-known author, and therefore clearly a troubling blip on Stalin’s radar – was smuggled out of Russia and published in Germany in a bilingual German-Russian edition in 1963.  The famous foreword was added in 1957.  The famous ‘Instead of a Foreword’ anticipates what the poetic vocation is, in Akhmatova’s view:

During the terrible years of Yezhovshchina [Yezhov was head of Stalin’s secret police in the late 1930s] I spent seventeen months in the prison queues in Leningrad. One day someone recognized me. Then a woman with lips blue with cold who was standing behind me, and of course had never heard of my name, came out of the numbness which affected us all and whispered in my ear (we all spoke in whispers there) :

‘Can you describe this?’ I said, ‘I can!’ Then something resembling a smile slipped over what had once been her face.

What follows is the promised description: of a mother’s grief, but also of the pernicious psychological war that a totalitarian state wages against its own citizens, the suffering of the ‘disappeared’ (those about whom there were no records) and the survivors. A difficult-to-classify text, Requiem is at once an autobiographical poem, an elegy, a social commentary on totalitarianism’s victims and an expression of love for one’s country. This last is, of course, the reason why elegies are written: as Akhmatova watches Russia collapse, lose its way and become the epitome of all that one hopes one’s country never becomes.  (‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry’, WH Auden would say of Yeats in ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’, in a profound statement on why poets write poetry: it is in honour, and mourning, of a beloved country that has gone ‘mad’).

In the place of an opening topographical account of one’s beloved country, Akhmatova offers us this:

The mountains bend before this grief, the great river does not flow but the prison locks are strong and behind them the convicts’ holes, and a deathly sadness.

For Akhmatova, Russia and Leningrad have morphed into something terrifying:

It was a time when only the dead smiled, happy in their peace.
And Leningrad dangled like a useless pendant at the side of its prisons.
A time when, tortured out of their minds, the convicted walked in regiments, and the steam whistles sang their short parting song.

The mothers walk to the ‘savage capital’ and begin their wait. It is not a country they recognise any more because ‘innocent Russia squirmed under the bloody boots/under the wheels of black Marias’. Yet Akhmatova with the use of ‘innocent’ refuses to reject her country in toto: it is the regime that has ruined the country.

Bars, Wire and Walls

Lapsing into the personal, Akhmatova determines that she will, in endless vigil, ‘howl by the Kremlin towers’ for her son and friend (the reference is to her friend Punin, also incarcerated) taken away to prison.  And what of those left behind?

This woman is sick, this woman is alone, Husband in the grave, son in prison pray for me.

This is a picture of the country: made up of those who cannot reach their loved ones, placed behind bars, wire and walls.

At times there is a slide into despair, of not wanting to see the horror, an instance of what Diana Taylor writing about the Argentinian ‘Dirty War’ termed ‘percepticide’: the end of perception because to see, to witness, is to risk swift and terrible retribution by the state, so that people began to pretend not to see. Akhmatova writes:

I couldn’t stand this: let black drapes cover what happened, and let them take away the street lights… Night. There is nothing to do but scream, she says: I will howl by the Kremlin towers

Man as Beast

The mother’s grief then explodes: For seventeen months I have been screaming, calling you home. I flung myself at the executioner’s feet. You are my son and my terror. Everything is confused for ever, and I can no longer tell beast from man, and how long I must wait for the execution.

That beast and man are interchangeable in this context portrays a regime where the victim is brutalised as a non-human. Once the human is classified as a beast, as less-than-human, then the moral imperative to treat her/him as human is erased. As the ‘moral neutralisation’ theory of perpetrators suggests (Kjell Anderson), this dehumanisation enables the torturers to do what they will because their victim is no longer human and, therefore, deserving of humane treatment. But Akhmatova also points to the dehumanisation of the perpetrators, who also, now, function as beasts. Thus, she suggests that in a totalitarian state, both victim and perpetrator become beasts.

The mother can only speculate on the events that befall her son: I will never grasp what happened. How the white nights looked at you, my son, in prison

In order to survive, she has to ensure that her ‘soul can turn to stone’, having ‘killed’ his memory. Yet, she too yearns for death, and asks why he, death, does not come ‘now’. Descending into madness, the mother remains tormented, forgetting nothing: ‘not the terrible eyes of my son, the rock-like suffering’.

The dignity, however, in Akhmatova is the refusal to make this elegy entirely personal when she writes:

I pray not for myself alone, but for everyone who stood with me, in the cruel cold, in the July heat, under the blind, red wall. Dignity is also the refusal to be memorialised in such a totalitarian state. Akhmatova says she would refuse a memorial to be built to her anywhere but at one place: here, where I stood three hundred hours, and they never unbolted the door for me.

Frozen in her sadness, the poet-mother is herself a statuary: and let the melting snow stream like tears from my motionless, bronze eyelids. Often, the landscape is indifferent to what is going on. Referring to the concentration camps around the Siberian Yenisey river, Akhmatova writes: The Yenisey rolls on, The Pole Star shines.

As a grieving mother, she hopes and prays for madness that would delete her memories of her son. She ‘listened to [her] delirium’, she admits. But it is inadequate, and even delirium does not allow her to erase her memories: not the terrible eyes of my son, the rock-like suffering, not the day when the storm came, not the prison visiting hour.

She would like to remember the others as well, but they have been erased from collective memory: the records of those taken away by the state do not exist: I would like to call them all by name, but the list was taken away and I can’t remember. The state’s disappeared never were. They have been wiped off, no records survive.

Is poetry, as Adorno famously pondered, possible after such horrors as Auschwitz, and would it not be barbaric to write poetry? Akhmatova believes it is essential for the poet to keep at it, as an elegy, as an act of mourning, as the last civilised act when civilisation as we know it, has collapsed into the mad march of dictators and their cohorts. In the ‘Epilogue’ she writes:

For them I have woven a wide shroud
from the humble words I heard among them.

I remember them always, everywhere,
I will never forget them, whatever comes.

And if they gag my tormented mouth
with which one hundred million people cry,

then let them also remember me
on the eve of my remembrance day.

She speaks with her ‘tormented mouth’, says Akhmatova, on behalf of the many who waited outside the prison with her.

Mode of Mourning

When all other forms of rhetoric fail, perhaps poetry may succeed, as a mnemonic device, as a mode of mourning, and as an elegy for a civilisation that is now demented in its terrifying pursuit of purity, patriotism and the Party, suggests Akhmatova. Auden would agree, in a different key, with this task of the poet in ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Requiem is a poem that qualifies despair with dignity. In the place of the lachrymose whine of the personal – with writers having replaced the feminist slogan, ‘the personal is the political’ with ‘only the personal is the political’! – poem, Akhmatova shades the mother’s grief into national mourning. The stylistic minimalism and the spare symbolism are themselves allegories for the loss of, or prohibition of, a language in which to speak of such excesses. The lean poem is symbolic of the absence of gaiety, of joyous garrulity at a time when people, and their language, are reduced to the bare bones of existence.

In times of terror, where to even think is to be caught by the ‘thought-police’, where language is warred upon, what does poetry do? Akhmatova implies that it is only in poetry that events as horrific as totalitarianism, state-sponsored hate and genocides can be recorded.

Requiem is the volume for anybody who wishes to see how poetry can be written and read in the dark times, a reflection in the most chilling style, on the conditions of fascism and the terror of state repression. It is to be read when we hear of atrocity, of unmitigated violence, of the loss of freedoms, and when we hear, as Akhmatova puts it, ‘how an old woman howled like a wounded beast’.

Yesterday Again?

  • Anna Akhmatova captured the stresses and strains of living under tyranny as perhaps no 20th century poet has
  • Requiem is the volume for anybody who wishes to see how poetry can be written and read in the dark times, a reflection in the most chilling style, on the conditions of fascism and the terror of state repression.
  • It captures the pernicious psychological war that a totalitarian state wages against its own citizens, the suffering of the ‘disappeared’ and the survivors
  • For Akhmatova, it is the regime that has ruined the country. The beast and man have become interchangeable, for the victim is brutalised as a non-human. She suggests that in a totalitarian state, both victim and perpetrator become beasts
  • Akhmatova believes it is essential for the poet to keep at it, as an act of mourning, as the last civilised act when civilisation has collapsed into the mad march of dictators and their cohorts
  • Akhmatova implies that it is only in poetry that events as horrific as totalitarianism, state-sponsored hate and genocides can be recorded

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)