— Anna Akhmatova
By Scott Armstrong
June 23 is the birthday of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, born in a suburb of Odessa in 1889. In 1912, when she 22 years old, she took a pen name and published her first book of poetry. It was a volume of love poems, and it made her a celebrity. But life in Russia was changing. Before a decade had passed, the country had lived through World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, and Akhmatova’s poetry changed as well. She lost her husband in 1921 when he was executed for allegedly taking part in an anti-Bolshevik plot, and the next year, she was told she would no longer be allowed to publish her poetry. She set it aside and worked mainly on criticism and translations.
But when her son was repeatedly imprisoned in Leningrad, she found she couldn’t remain silent any longer. She stood among the women outside the prison, all of them trying to send in packages of food and hoping for word of their loved ones inside. One woman recognized her. “A woman with bluish lips standing behind me … woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear, ‘Can you describe this?'” Akhmatova later wrote. In 1935, she began what would become a 10-poem cycle for Stalin’s victims, called Requiem (1935-40). She couldn’t publish it, and didn’t even dare keep a written copy, so she and her friends memorized the poems and then burned them. She finally published it in 1963, 10 years after Stalin’s death. She died in 1966, and a complete collection of her poetry wasn’t published in the Soviet Union until the late 1980s.
- Even though we read the stories and hear the news about suffering around the world, what can be done? How can we involve ourselves in helping refugees, those persecuted and tortured?
- What does the memorization of poetry by Akhmatova and her friends teach us about Scripture and “hiding the Word in our hearts”? Does the spoken and written and living Word hold more meaning and influence when we memorize it?
- What is courage? Oftentimes we think of bravery as a lone soldier taking a stand against an entire army in an action movie. Yet, could it be that sometimes the most courageous thing we can do is write and describe the world around us, where evil is present and where God is present also?
To read the complete Requiem, clic here: Anna Akhmatova Poem