Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration


Anna Andreevna Akhmatova
Kresty Prison, Saint Petersburg, Russia

PLOT SUMMARY: Written over the course of nearly three decades (1935-1961), Requiem is a cycle of poems forming a single narrative arc, depicting the experience of a mother whose son has been arrested. Day after day, she waits in line outside the gates of the holding prison, both dreading and anticipating the pronouncement of his sentence. Though the focus remains on the mother, parallels are drawn between the son and Christ, the absent father (also arrested by the government and executed) as the Heavenly Father, and the mother as Mary, mother of Jesus.

     The narrative broadens in the last poems of the cycle to encompass all the other women who stand in line with the mother outside the prison. By extension, their voices represent all of Russia under Soviet rule, with an emphasis on their resilience and humanity despite the pain and suffering they have undergone.

ANALYSIS: Two of the fifteen poems comprising Requiem are further divided into two sub-sections, forming a total of seventeen shorter poems. This reflects the seventeen months Akhmatova herself spent in line outside the prison; the poet-narrator speaks of being “three hundredth in line,” an allusion to the three hundred hours Akhmatova herself waited. Despite the evident personal connection, the use of religious imagery like the household “icon” (I) and request to “Please, say a prayer” (II), as well as larger religious parallels such as the “Crucifixion” of the son, abstracts Akhmatova’s experience to the experience of any of the women who waited in line alongside her, anxiously awaiting the verdict for their imprisoned fathers, husbands, brothers, sons.

     From the very title of the poem cycle, Requiem stands in clear defiance of Soviet authority. Though Akhmatova never openly condemns the government in this work, the elegiac structure of Requiem and the continuous invocation of religious figures are in opposition to the atheist agenda they were pushing for at the time. Furthermore, Akhmatova closes the cycle with an epilogue that states, “if, in this country, they come to agree/To raise up a statue in remembrance of me,” she would consent to its construction only if it was erected “here, where I stood for three hundred hours.” By insisting that her memorial be intrinsically linked to the memory of her waiting in line and, therefore, the “Yezhov terror” (Instead of a Preface), Akhmatova has ensured that her experiences and that of all those who waited in line with her outside the prison will not be erased from history.


“...a woman standing behind me with blue lips, who, surely, has never heard my name in her life… whispered in my ear (everyone there spoke only in whispers):
- Can you depict this?
And I said:
- I can.
At that moment, something akin to a smile flashed by across what was once her face.”
—Instead of a Preface

“Guiltless Russia ached to her roots,
Beneath the tires of black marias,
And the weight of blood-splattered boots.”

“I’ve come to know how tired faces shrivel,
How fear, from underneath the eyelids, peeks,
How suffering and torment leaves a scribble
Of cuneiform across the dried up cheeks...”

BIOGRAPHY: Born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko on June 23, 1889, Akhmatova was a Russian Silver Age poet. Her first two books of poetry, Evening (1912) and Rosary (1914), led to her establishment in the literary scene of Saint Petersburg. Her best-known works, Requiem and Poem Without a Hero (both only published in their entirety posthumously), were inspired by the horror of Stalin’s reign, which both personally and professionally affected Akhmatova.

     Akhmatova married her first husband, poet and literary critic Nikolai Gumilyov, in 1910. The couple had a son, Lev, in 1912. Though they divorced in 1918, Akhmatova continued to be associated with Gumilyov, leading to an unofficial ban of her poetry from 1925-1940 (after Gumilyov’s execution in 1921). During this time, she devoted herself to literary criticism and translation work. From 1949-1956, Lev Gumilyov was arrested and imprisoned. At this time, Akhmatova wrote poems praising Stalin and the government in hopes of securing his release, an effort which was unsuccessful, but may have prevented her own arrest.

     She was able to begin writing and publishing her work again in 1958, albeit with heavy censorship. The last decade of her life saw her internationally recognized, as circulation of her work began to reach a wider audience. Her final collection of poetry, The Flight of Time, was published in 1965. She passed away on March 5, 1966, in Domodedovo (near Moscow).


“Anna Akhmatova.”, Accessed 6 May 2019.

“Анна Ахматова - стихи. Биография Ахматовой.” Стихи о любви классиков, стихи про любовь, Accessed 6 May 2019.


Bailey, Sharon M. “An Elegy for Russia: Anna Akhmatova's Requiem.” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 43, no. 2, 1999, pp. 324–346.
An in-depth analysis of Requiem, drawing from Russian history and the broader history of terror and imprisonment worldwide. Bailey dissects each line with precision and care, contextualizing allusions and events within Soviet culture.

Forché, Carolyn. “Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art.” Poetry, vol. 198, no. 2, pp. 159-174.
Beginning with Requiem and Akhmatova and expanding outwards across the globe, Forché writes on twentieth-century poetry of witness, and the experiences of the poets who produced such work.

Harrington, Alexandra. The Poetry of Anna Akhmatova: Living in Different Mirrors. Anthem Press, 2006.
Akhmatova’s work is frequently categorized as one of two halves: the “earlier” Akhmatova or the “later,” with a period of silence (during which the events of Requiem took place) dividing the two. In this book, Harrington bridges this divide, providing a detailed overview of Akhmatova’s life and career.

Katz, Boris. “To What Extent Is Requiem a Requiem? Unheard Female Voices in Anna Akhmatova's Requiem.” The Russian Review, vol. 57, no. 2, 1998, pp. 253–263.
An insightful analysis on the musicality of Akhmatova’s work, focusing on Requiem. From Mussorgsky to Chopin to the traditional Catholic Mass for the Dead, Katz compares and contextualizes Akhmatova’s lines to the music that may have inspired or serve as an accompaniment to them.

Kluge, Friedemann. Die Musikforschung, vol. 51, no. 3, 1998, pp. 377–378.
As an accompaniment to Katz, Michael John’s “Auf dem Wege zu einer neuen Geistigkeit? Requiem-Vertonungen in der Sowjetunion (1963-1988)” within this volume describes the setting of Requiem to music.

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