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Akhmatova's Requiem--Women's Suffering, the Cross, and Remembrance
Akhmatova's Requiem is a poem of terror and atrocity. Set during the Stalinist purges in Soviet Russia, the poem's fragmentary nature is a result both of political necessity (Akmatova had to commit each short section to memory) and of a high modernist vision that stresses the  shredded, pointillist quality of a world without a cohesive, centering vision.  The poem's evocative, pregnant symbols ask the reader to complete their meaning by taking cues from the poet's text. This is true of the poem's religious symbols and language--the kissing of the icon, the poet's need for prayer, the apocalyptic language of the censer and the "enormous star," even the title of the poem itself which betokens a mass for the dead.   This symbolism is especially pronounced in Akhmatova's use of the crucifixion in section X and the day of remembrance in the two epilogues. Why does she invoke such symbols?  Is her artistic purpose primarily political and/or ethical, or does it also take the political and ethical and frame it within a religious vision?

Look over the following five ways in which sufferers, especially women sufferers, respond to the meaning of Christ's crucifixion. Which category or categories best describe Akhmatova's use of the cross in Requiem, particularly section X? What key lines would suggest one or another model?

  1. Pragmatic: Suffering and atrocity need to be practically addressed, coped with, minimized, and possibly eliminated. The cross is a reminder of the agony and pain of suffering and a reminder to act.
  2. Existential: The cross as a metaphor or symbol helps make meaning of the otherwise meaningless and overwhelming condition of misery.  By comparing our pain to that which surrounded the cross, we better understand our own. The cross becomes a frame or a narrative that gives a shape to formless human suffering.
  3. Exemplary: Christ's suffering on the cross is an example for us in how to undergo affliction (cf. I Pet 2:21-25, 4:1-2, 4:12-14). Christ's own actions show us what to do when we suffer, for example, teaching us to move from self-absorption to cooperation and compassion for others in their pain.
  4. Mystical: Some in the Christian monastic traditions believe that one can experience Christ's own suffering in moments of spiritual awareness and that this awareness allows one to transcend one's own misery. Another version of this holds that the Christian's suffering participates in some way in Christ's own anguish (cf. Col 1:24, also cf. Rom 6:1-14, Gal 6:14, Phil 3:10). Simone Weil takes this even further, arguing that affliction is God's tight embrace as a Lover and that this mystical knowledge balances off the sufferer's experience of ruin.
  5. Honorific: The work of the cross is that of the infinite God who honors us, purifies us, and makes our lives beautiful by consenting to suffer with us as a human being in the person of Jesus, by becoming a curse for our separation from God, and by giving our lives a stable aesthetic form that allows us to tell the truth about our suffering. The work of the cross reverses the shame, impurity, and ugliness that victims feel as a result of the affliction and atrocities they have experienced.

In other words, can Akhmatova be said to invoke the cross as a call to action, as a way of making meaning of Russian women's suffering, as an example of how to undergo suffering, as a higher experiential knowledge that transcends the horror, and/or as God's work on behalf of victims' ravaged selves?


The Day of Remembrance (Panikhida)

You Who wield authority over the dead and the living as an immortal King, Christ, who rose from the dead, our true God:  At the supplications of Your irreproachable, holy Mother; of the holy, glorious, and all-blessed Apostles; of our blessed and God-bearing Fathers; of the holy, glorious Prophets, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; of Christ's holy and righteous friend, Lazarus, four days entombed; and of all the Saints: Accord the soul of Your servant who has fallen asleep, [name], a place in the abodes of the righteous; grant him/her rest in Abraham's bosom; and number him/her among the righteous. Have mercy on us, as the One Who is good and cherishes the human race. 

May your memory be everlasting, our [brother(s) (and) sister(s)], worthy of   blessedness and undying memory.
        --from the Litany of the Panikhida (memorial service)

At the prayers of your Martyrs, Lord, give rest to the soul of your servant. In heavenly bridal chambers, the noble Martyrs implore you, O Christ: Grant to your faithful servant who has passed from earth the enjoyment of eternal good things. His soul will dwell among good things.
          --from the odes of the Panikhida

Priest: May the One Who has power over both the living and the dead, Who Himself rose again from the dead, Christ our true God--through the prayers of His all-pure Mother, the Holy glorious and all-worthy Apostles, our holy and God-bearing Fathers, and all of the Saints--establish in the mansions of the righteous the soul(s) of His servant(s) who have been taken away from us.  May He give him/her/them rest in Abraham's bosom, and number him/her/them among the righteous.  And may He have mercy on us, for He is good and cherishes the human race. 

Choir:  Amen.

Priest:   Grant eternal rest in blessed repose, Lord, to the soul(s) of Your servant(s) [name(s)], departed from this life; and cause his/her/their memory to be everlasting.

Choir:  Memory everlasting!  (thrice)
           --Dismissal Portion of the Panikhida

The Russian Orthodox Day of Remembrance actually takes place 12 times a year: the deceased are remembered in memorial services on the third, ninth, and fortieth days, at the half-year and one-year anniversary, and during important liturgical days of the calendar including the Saturday before Pentecost, and Saturdays of the Great Fast. Traditionally the observant give alms, say private prayers for the dead, and bake Kolyva bread which is blessed and eaten by the faithful. The Orthodox prayer service includes several important hymns that stress the Triune nature of God, the Incarnation, and prayers for rest for those who have died. The prayers of the holy martyrs are also enjoined in some of these services. Such a service focuses on the eternal destiny of the dead but also on the spiritual unity of the faithful, living and dead. [Click here for an English example of the orthodox service.]

Question: What is Akhmatova suggesting by invoking the Day of Remembrance, including its prayers, in the epilogues? Is she invoking the service for religious or secular purposes?

Additional Questions

"If the chief value of an image was it capacity to present an intellectual and emotional complex simultaneously, linking images in a sequence would clearly destroy most of their efficacy. Or was the poem itself one vast image, whose individual components were to be apprehended as a unity? But then it would be necessary to undermine the inherent consecutiveness of language, frustrating the reader's normal expectation of a sequence and forcing him to perceive the elements of the poem as juxtaposed in space rather than unrolling in time."
--Joseph Frank, "Spatial Form in Modern Literature"

  1. Does the fragmentary (perhaps even spatial rather than sequential) nature of the poem keep us from ultimately decoding Akhmatova's purpose for the crucifixion imagery? Why or why not? How would such a dilemma contribute to or detract from the poem's overall purpose?
  2. Likewise, does the symbolism in the poem leave a number of possibilities open? Does the poem's language close any down or make some more likely than others?
  3. If we decide the poem does have a religious meaning, what does the crucifixion and the Panikhida tell us about the ethical and political meaning of the poem? How does it give a larger or deeper view to what happened in Russia?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding