Religious Symbolism as Rebellion in Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem’

In the Catholic Church, a requiem is a mass dedicated to the souls of the departed. Therefore, it serves as a fitting title for Anna Akhmatova’s poem written for those who suffered in the prisons and were executed under Stalin’s regime. Akhmatova wrote ‘Requiem’ in stages between 1935 and 1940, a time of unrest in the Soviet Union. After the prelude and dedication, the poem details the pain and anguish the people of the Soviet Union experienced during this time through the viewpoint of a widow who lost her husband to injustice and whose son is imprisoned. The point of view then changes briefly to the son then to third person when Akhmatova describes what she labels the crucifixion. Finally, it ends with an epilogue in the voice of Akhmatova, who seeks to remember the dead.

Throughout the poem, Akhmatova weaves Catholic religious references and symbolism into her condemnation of the events of 1935-1940. The title alone carries Catholic connotations, as previously mentioned. The first reference occurs when the widow describes the day her son was taken away. The line reads, “A candle flared, illuminating the Mother of God…/ The cold of an icon was on your lips, a death-cold sweat…”[1] Given that the Communists outlawed the Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union, the presence of icons in a person’s household is illegal and dangerous. A second instance of an allusion to Catholic symbols is, “And, upon your cross, the talk/ Is again of death.”[2] However, the section entitled “Crucifixion” contains the most obvious religious implications.  Quoting directly from the Bible, two lines read, “To his father he said, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me!’/ But to his mother, ‘Weep not for me. . .’”[3] These lines appear to be attributed to the imprisoned son, which would provide a connection between the Soviet prisoners and Jesus, a martyr and savior.

It is apparent that Akhmatova condemns the policies of Stalin and his government, especially their treatment of prisoners. Her use of Catholic imagery only highlights this and serves as an additional form of rebellion against the regime. She calls for the prisoners, or martyrs as she sees them, to be remembered even though she fears she and the rest of the world will forget.

[1] Anna Akhmatova, Requiem, http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/requiem, accessed March 14, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

One thought on “Religious Symbolism as Rebellion in Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem’

  1. Having Catholic symbolism is a rather unique choice for the poem, as there were very few Catholics in Russia, even before the Soviet Union came about. Perhaps she is using Russian Orthodox symbols, as it would appeal to many more of her Russian readers?

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