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My Response to: Requiem

Updated on June 16, 2014


In the poem, “Requiem,” by Anna Akhmatova, the narrator goes through a journey “in the terrible years of the Yezhov terror” (“Instead of a Preface”). While on the journey, the narrator experiences personal changes, although her grief is present throughout. In “Requiem,” Akhmatova attempts to bear witness to the purge occurring in the country.

In the beginning, a woman asks the narrator, presumably Akhmatova, “Can you describe this?” and the narrator replies, “I can” (“Instead of a Preface”). This sets up the rest of the poem, which is the narrator describing the physical and emotional experience of living through the purge. The narrator first begins by describing how she “spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad” (“Instead of a Preface”). Emotionally, she says the grief of this “might make the mountains stoop” (“Dedication,” 1). She goes on to reveal that her husband is dead, and her son is in jail. She questions “how many / innocent lives are ending” (“Prologue,” IV, 10-11), clearly taking a stand against the purge by pointing out that those being arrested and killed are not guilty of any crime.

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Poem VII was entitled "To Death," so wasn't she talking about welcoming in death, not her son?

You're probably right about that. That interpretation makes more sense, I just didn't put the pieces together. Thanks for pointing this out.


As the poem goes on, the reader only sees the desperation of the situation increase. The narrator says that by this point, “I am powerless to tell / somebody brute from something human” (“Prologue,” V, 6-7). This quote shows how there is no morality left in the government and its agents that would do this to the citizenry. At one point, the narrator experiences denial, thinking that her son will one day be allowed to return. She says, “How long I wait and wait … / I have put out the light and opened the door / for you, because you are simple and magical” (“Prologue,” VIII, 2-4). However, she quickly abandons her false hope, as shortly after, she says, “I admit my defeat” (“Prologue,” IX, 6). This also is demonstrative of another major idea and theme of the poem, which is that there is no hero. No one was there to help the Russians in this situation, and that’s why the poem lacks a happy ending. By the Epilogue, the narrator says, “I have learned how faces fall to bone, / how under the eyelids terror lurks / how suffering inscribes on cheeks” (“Epilogue,” I, 1-3). She has learned this because this is what has happened to her. She is describing how physically and emotionally draining this whole ordeal has been for her. Perhaps the most significant line comes at the end of the poem, when the narrator says,

And if my country ever should assent

to casting in my name a monument,

I should be proud to have my memory graced,

but only if the monument be placed

not near the seas on which my eyes first opened–

my last link with the sea has long been broken–

nor in the Tsar's garden near the sacred stump,

where a grieved shadow hunts my body's warmth,

but here, here I endured three hundred hours

in line before the implacable iron bars (“Epilogue,” II, 17-26).

This line is the narrator saying not to let anyone do revisionist history on this horrible time in Russia’s history. If a statue were placed by the sea, or in the Tsar’s garden, it would create a romanticized view of all this. Instead, she wants her monument, should she be lucky enough to get one, placed right by the prison, so no one forgets what all this was really about. Also interesting, is how closely Akhamatov's description of the narrator's changing emotion matches Kubler Ross's five stages of grief. Clearly demonstrated is the narrator's denial of the situation, her depression, and her final acceptance of it. One could also argue that the narrator experiences anger at some points, although there doesn't seem to be as much evidence for bargaining. Regardless, changes in the narrator are clear throughout.


Have You Read Requiem? (Did You Enjoy It?)

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Interestingly Enough...

This poem appears to have been written before Kubler-Ross'sTheory was published.


Although not as obvious as some more classical journeys, the narrator of Requiem follows a similar path of other heros throughout literary history. The poem shows the narrator’s journey through grief. Her country has left the normal world, and now she is forced to live in this new, repressive, world, and she does her best to describe it to the reader. Along the way, she endures all the trials inherent in the new world of the Great Purge. She is not sent to prison or killed, but she has this happen to her family, and she stands outside of the prison, waiting for them. As for the return aspect, although the purges would eventually end, the narrator returns not quite as whole as before, which comprises the political message of the poem.

Considering that this poem was never published until after Stalin’s death and the end of the purges, one important question is whether this poem had any real impact. And while it would appear the poem had no direct impact, it does not mean the poem is politically meaningless. History has a tendency to repeat itself, and someone documenting a terrible event in such a profound way may very well serve to create a warning for people in the future. In this way, the poem is still a significant form of political protest. Not to mention that releasing it at a time when it was sure not to be censored guaranteed that it would survive to be seen. The poem probably wouldn’t have been enough to stop the purge--although every bit of awareness helps--so it may actually be better that Akhmatova waited to release the poem.

Requiem shows the narrator’s journey through Stalin’s purge. Her country has changed, and now she must endure physical and emotional hardships. Akhmatova’s description of the Great Purge, combined with her ability to convey what the narrator is feeling throughout, makes this such a powerful and timeless poem.


Akhmatova, Anna. Requiem. Trans. Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Ronnow Poetry. Web. 12 June 2014. <>.

University of Kentucky. "Kubler-Ross and Other Approaches." University of Kentucky: Department of Philosophy. Web. 12 June 2014. <>.

Anna Akhmatova


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