The Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City Committee raised money to help an archivist in that great Russian city begin a conservation and digitization of the works of the famous poet during Stalin times, Anna Akhmatova. The story of that brave woman is heartrending and her writing under such deathly circumstances is incredible. That such feelings could be put into words is so powerful. The following is a universal favorite and says so much with so little.
“In the awful years of Yezhovian horror, I spent seventeen months standing in line in front of various prisons in Leningrad. One day someone “recognized “me. Then a woman with blue lips, who was standing behind me, and who, of course, had never heard my name, came out of the stupor which typified all of us, and whispered into my ear (everyone there spoke only in whispers):
“Can you describe this?
And I said, “I can.”
Then something like a fleeting smile passed over what once had been her face.”
April 1, 1957
Akhmatova suffered much, yet in the indirect Soviet style of effecting the desired intimidation of popular people, by imprisoning or killing their loved ones and relatives. N. I. Yezhov: head of the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police from 1936 to 1938, was noted for his ferocity. He presided over the great purges, and this period is therefore known as “Yezhovshchina.” The poet lost two husbands and a son was imprisoned for eighteen years. Her greatest poem, “Requiem,” recounts the suffering of the Russian people under Stalinism─specifically, the tribulations of those women with whom Akhmatova stood in line outside the prison walls, women who like her waited patiently, but with a sense of grief and powerlessness, for the chance to send a loaf of bread or a small message to their husbands, sons, lovers. The poem was not published in Russia in its entirety until 1987, though the poem itself was begun about 1938, the time of her son’s arrest. It was his arrest and imprisonment, and the later arrest of her husband Punin, that provided the occasion for the specific content of the poem, which is a sequence of lyric poems about imprisonment and its affect on those whose loved ones are arrested, sentenced, and incarcerated behind prison walls.. Akhmatova was awarded and honorary doctorate by Oxford University in 1965. She died in 1966 in Leningrad.
We, at the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City Committee have contributed funds for the conservation and preservation of Akhmatova’s work, an ongoing task.