by Anna Akhmatova
Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale
No, neither under an alien sky nor
Under the protection of alien wings—
I remained with my own people then,
Where my people, in their misfortune, were.
Instead of a Preface
During the terrifying years of the Yezhov repressions, I spent seventeen
months in Leningrad prison lines. One time, someone thought they
recognized me. Then a woman standing behind me, who of course had
never heard my name, stirred from her own, though common to all of
us, stupor and asked in my ear (there, all spoke in a whisper):
—Could you describe this?
And I said:
Then, something akin to a smile slipped across what once had been
April 1, 1957, Leningrad
Before such trials all mountains crumble,
A mighty river ceases to flow to the sea,
Yet a dungeon’s barred gates remain rigid,
Beyond which gape the prisoners’ cells
And the deathly isolation of loneliness.
For one living, a brisk wind freshly fans,
For someone else, a sunset’s sweet caress—
We know none of these, the same everywhere:
We only hear the stilled screech of the keys
And the thundering pacing of the guards.
Arising as though for an early Mass
We tramped the capital, reverting to wild,
To meet up, with the breathlessness of the dead,
The sun risen lower, the Neva more fogged-in,
With hope’s sirens singing, invisibly distant.
Sentence passed . . . The floodgates flung open;
She is now already cut off from all the rest,
As though with pain, life’s excised from the heart,
As though rudely knocked over on her back,
She walks on . . . Staggering . . . Entirely alone. . . .
Where are they now, my unwilling girlfriends
Of these past two gone-to-the-devil years?
What hallucination in the Siberian blizzard,
What apparition haunts their lunar disk?
To them I send regards, this last farewell.
This occurred when only a dead man
Would smile, taking pleasure in rest.
And like a useless appendage Leningrad
Swayed in the vicinity of its prisons.
When, bereft of mind from torture,
Marched divisions already condemned,
The short and sweet song of parting
And the trains’ railing whistles,
The stars of death hanging over us,
Writhing in pain, innocent Russia
Under the bloody soles of the boots,
Under the tires of the Black Marias.
They led you away before sunrise.
After you, as at a bearing out, I trudged,
In the dim chamber children whimpered,
And Mary’s candle was snuffed out.
Upon your lips was an icon’s iciness,
And death’s sweat was on your brow.
Don’t forget! I will, like the mutineers’
Wives under Kremlin’s crenels, weep.
[November] 1935, Moscow
The quiet Don is flowing quietly
And the yellow moon enters my house.
He enters wearing his hat askew and
Meets a shadow, the yellow moon.
This woman is not well,
This woman is all alone.
Husband in the grave, son jailed,
Please offer a prayer for me.
This isn’t me, someone else suffers.
I couldn’t survive that. And what happened,
May it be covered in coarse black cloth,
Let them carry away the streetlights . . .
Shall I show you then, my dearest mocker
And the dear beloved of all of your friends,
You, Tsarskoe Selo’s carefree sinner,
What will soon become of your life—
Three hundredth in line, care package in hand,
Under The Crosses prison wall you’ll stand
And with the heated waters of your tears
Dissolve the surface of Christmas-time ice.
How the prison poplar sways side to side
Without a sound—how many innocent lives
This very moment come there to an end. . . .
For seventeen months straight I scream,
Calling for you to come home, please,
Throwing myself at the executioner’s feet;
You are my son and also my nightmare.
Now, everything is confused for the ages.
Now I will never manage to untangle
Who is an animal and who a human being,
Nor how long I’ll wait till the death sentence
Is carried out. Only the dust-covered flowers,
And the ringing of the censer, and the tracks
Into some unknown realm of uncertainty.
Staring in my face, directly into my eyes,
It threatens me with an impending death,
That all-engulfing and engorged star.
The lighthearted weeks are flying by,
What’s happened, I’ll never understand.
How did the white nights, my dear son,
Peek through the window of your cell,
And now how again they glance
With their inflamed predator eyes
At your cross, set there on the high place,
And mutter about the end of your days.
And the stony logos lapsed
Upon my still-living breast.
No matter what, I was prepared,
I would survive with this some way.
I have so many things to do today.
I must slaughter memory to the end,
I need for my soul to turn to stone,
I must once again relearn to live.
But not that . . . Summer’s fevered rustle,
As though a holiday beyond my window.
So long ago I had a premonition of this,
A bright day, and a house grown empty.
[June 22] 1939, Fontanka House
You will come anyway—why not today?
I wait for you—with great difficulty.
I turned out the light and opened the door
For you, so simple and yet so mysterious.
You may take any disguise you like.
Barge in as a poison gas bombshell
Or like a criminal creep with a dumbbell.
Or infect me with a dose of typhus.
Or come, a fairy tale, invented by you
And so familiar it brings on nausea—
That I may see the top of a blue cap,
And the pale from fright apartment super.
All’s the same to me now. The Yenisei
Eddies and the North Star shines brightly.
Like a sky-blue spark in beloved eyes
The final horror takes me under its cover.
August 19, 1939, Fontanka House
Already madness with its wing
Has blanketed half of my soul
And feeds me on its fiery wine,
And tempts into its black valley.
I understood that I must yield
To him, must admit his victory,
Attending more carefully to my own,
As though to someone else’s, delirium.
It will not permit me neither to carry
Away with me nor to retain anything
(No matter how I try to persuade him,
No matter I pester with supplications):
No, not my son’s terrifying eyes—
Suffering that has become stone,
Not the day the thunder arrived,
Not the hour of the prison visit,
Not the dear to me coolness of hands,
Not the linden trees’ shadow trembling,
Not the remote and liberating sound—
The words of his final consolations.
May 4, 1940, Fontanka House
Do not weep for Me, Mother,
seeing as I am in the grave.
An angel’s choir glorified the blessed hour,
And the skies dissolved in the living flame.
He to His Father: “Why hast Thou forsaken Me!”
And to His Mother: “Do not weep for Me. . . .”
Mary Magdalene beat her breast and wept,
Her beloved disciple turned white as stone,
And there, where His Mother stood silent,
Not a soul dared to cast their glance.
1940, Fontanka House
I know now how the faces have fallen,
How from under lids peeks out terror,
How cuneiform’s coarse pages are
Incised by suffering upon their cheeks,
How curls from ashen and black turn
In a single moment completely silver,
And a smile withers on defeated lips,
And in dry laughter shudders fear.
So that now I pray not for myself alone
But for all of us, who stood there with me
In the intense cold and in July’s heat
Under that red and blinded wall.
Yet once again nears the funeral hour.
I see, I hear, I sense you are all here.
The one they barely led to the window,
One who, though born, doesn’t walk the earth,
One who, having shook her beautiful head,
Said: “I arrive here as though I am home.”
How I wish I could name them all,
But the list, confiscated, cannot be found.
For them I have sewn this broad shroud from
Words, though poor, yet borrowed from them.
I remember them always and everywhere,
Nor will I forget them in needs’ new hour.
And should they shut my tortured mouth
From which a hundred million people shout,
Then let them remember me as well
On the anniversary of my funeral.
And if they ever in this, our country,
Consider erecting to me a monument,
I give my whole-hearted consent,
But with one condition—do not
Put it by the sea where I was born;
My last connection with the sea is torn.
Not in Tsar’s Garden, by the famous stump,
Where an unrequited shade searches for me,
But here, where I stood three hundred hours
And where for me the gate opened never.
Because even in blessed death, I am afraid
I will forget the Black Maria’s thundering.
Forget how, the frozen door slamming shut,
An old woman like a wounded beast howled.
And may from under immobile bronze lids
A flood of tears run as a stream of snowmelt,
And a prisoner’s pigeon coo in the distance,
And on the Neva River ships glide quietly.
Approx. March 10, 1940, Fontanka House
Not under foreign skies
Nor under foreign wings protected -
I shared all this with my own people
There, where misfortune had abandoned us.
INSTEAD OF A PREFACE
During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone 'picked me out'.
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) - 'Could one ever describe
this?' And I answered - 'I can.' It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.
[The 1st of April in the year 1957. Leningrad]
Mountains fall before this grief,
A mighty river stops its flow,
But prison doors stay firmly bolted
Shutting off the convict burrows
And an anguish close to death.
Fresh winds softly blow for someone,
Gentle sunsets warm them through; we don't know this,
We are everywhere the same, listening
To the scrape and turn of hateful keys
And the heavy tread of marching soldiers.
Waking early, as if for early mass,
Walking through the capital run wild, gone to seed,
We'd meet - the dead, lifeless; the sun,
Lower every day; the Neva, mistier:
But hope still sings forever in the distance.
The verdict. Immediately a flood of tears,
Followed by a total isolation,
As if a beating heart is painfully ripped out, or,
Thumped, she lies there brutally laid out,
But she still manages to walk, hesitantly, alone.
Where are you, my unwilling friends,
Captives of my two satanic years?
What miracle do you see in a Siberian blizzard?
What shimmering mirage around the circle of the moon?
I send each one of you my salutation, and farewell.
It happened like this when only the dead
Were smiling, glad of their release,
That Leningrad hung around its prisons
Like a worthless emblem, flapping its piece.
Shrill and sharp, the steam-whistles sang
Short songs of farewell
To the ranks of convicted, demented by suffering,
As they, in regiments, walked along -
Stars of death stood over us
As innocent Russia squirmed
Under the blood-spattered boots and tyres
Of the black marias.
You were taken away at dawn. I followed you
As one does when a corpse is being removed.
Children were crying in the darkened house.
A candle flared, illuminating the Mother of God. . .
The cold of an icon was on your lips, a death-cold
On your brow - I will never forget this; I will gather
To wail with the wives of the murdered streltsy (1)
Inconsolably, beneath the Kremlin towers.
[1935. Autumn. Moscow]
Silent flows the river Don
A yellow moon looks quietly on
Swanking about, with cap askew
It sees through the window a shadow of you
Gravely ill, all alone
The moon sees a woman lying at home
Her son is in jail, her husband is dead
Say a prayer for her instead.
It isn't me, someone else is suffering. I couldn't.
Not like this. Everything that has happened,
Cover it with a black cloth,
Then let the torches be removed. . .
Giggling, poking fun, everyone's darling,
The carefree sinner of Tsarskoye Selo (2)
If only you could have foreseen
What life would do with you -
That you would stand, parcel in hand,
Beneath the Crosses (3), three hundredth in
Burning the new year's ice
With your hot tears.
Back and forth the prison poplar sways
With not a sound - how many innocent
Blameless lives are being taken away. . .
For seventeen months I have been screaming,
Calling you home.
I've thrown myself at the feet of butchers
For you, my son and my horror.
Everything has become muddled forever -
I can no longer distinguish
Who is an animal, who a person, and how long
The wait can be for an execution.
There are now only dusty flowers,
The chinking of the thurible,
Tracks from somewhere into nowhere
And, staring me in the face
And threatening me with swift annihilation,
An enormous star.
Weeks fly lightly by. Even so,
I cannot understand what has arisen,
How, my son, into your prison
White nights stare so brilliantly.
Now once more they burn,
Eyes that focus like a hawk,
And, upon your cross, the talk
Is again of death.
The word landed with a stony thud
Onto my still-beating breast.
Nevermind, I was prepared,
I will manage with the rest.
I have a lot of work to do today;
I need to slaughter memory,
Turn my living soul to stone
Then teach myself to live again. . .
But how. The hot summer rustles
Like a carnival outside my window;
I have long had this premonition
Of a bright day and a deserted house.
[22 June 1939. Summer. Fontannyi Dom (4)]
You will come anyway - so why not now?
I wait for you; things have become too hard.
I have turned out the lights and opened the door
For you, so simple and so wonderful.
Assume whatever shape you wish. Burst in
Like a shell of noxious gas. Creep up on me
Like a practised bandit with a heavy weapon.
Poison me, if you want, with a typhoid exhalation,
Or, with a simple tale prepared by you
(And known by all to the point of nausea), take me
Before the commander of the blue caps and let me
The house administrator's terrified white face.
I don't care anymore. The river Yenisey
Swirls on. The Pole star blazes.
The blue sparks of those much-loved eyes
Close over and cover the final horror.
[19 August 1939. Fontannyi Dom]
Madness with its wings
Has covered half my soul
It feeds me fiery wine
And lures me into the abyss.
That's when I understood
While listening to my alien delirium
That I must hand the victory
However much I nag
However much I beg
It will not let me take
One single thing away:
Not my son's frightening eyes -
A suffering set in stone,
Or prison visiting hours
Or days that end in storms
Nor the sweet coolness of a hand
The anxious shade of lime trees
Nor the light distant sound
Of final comforting words.
[14 May 1940. Fontannyi Dom]
Weep not for me, mother.
I am alive in my grave.
A choir of angels glorified the greatest hour,
The heavens melted into flames.
To his father he said, 'Why hast thou forsaken me!'
But to his mother, 'Weep not for me. . .'
[1940. Fontannyi Dom]
Magdalena smote herself and wept,
The favourite disciple turned to stone,
But there, where the mother stood silent,
Not one person dared to look.
I have learned how faces fall,
How terror can escape from lowered eyes,
How suffering can etch cruel pages
Of cuneiform-like marks upon the cheeks.
I know how dark or ash-blond strands of hair
Can suddenly turn white. I've learned to recognise
The fading smiles upon submissive lips,
The trembling fear inside a hollow laugh.
That's why I pray not for myself
But all of you who stood there with me
Through fiercest cold and scorching July heat
Under a towering, completely blind red wall.
The hour has come to remember the dead.
I see you, I hear you, I feel you:
The one who resisted the long drag to the open window;
The one who could no longer feel the kick of familiar
soil beneath her feet;
The one who, with a sudden flick of her head, replied,
'I arrive here as if I've come home!'
I'd like to name you all by name, but the list
Has been removed and there is nowhere else to look.
I have woven you this wide shroud out of the humble
I overheard you use. Everywhere, forever and always,
I will never forget one single thing. Even in new
Even if they clamp shut my tormented mouth
Through which one hundred million people scream;
That's how I wish them to remember me when I am dead
On the eve of my remembrance day.
If someone someday in this country
Decides to raise a memorial to me,
I give my consent to this festivity
But only on this condition - do not build it
By the sea where I was born,
I have severed my last ties with the sea;
Nor in the Tsar's Park by the hallowed stump
Where an inconsolable shadow looks for me;
Build it here where I stood for three hundred hours
And no-one slid open the bolt.
Listen, even in blissful death I fear
That I will forget the Black Marias,
Forget how hatefully the door slammed and an old woman
Howled like a wounded beast.
Let the thawing ice flow like tears
From my immovable bronze eyelids
And let the prison dove coo in the distance
While ships sail quietly along the river.
[March 1940. Fontannyi Dom]
1 An elite guard which rose up in rebellion
against Peter the Great in 1698. Most were either
executed or exiled.
2 The imperial summer residence outside St
Petersburg where Ahmatova spent her early years.
3 A prison complex in central Leningrad near the
Finland Station, called The Crosses because of the
shape of two of the buildings.
4 The Leningrad house in which Ahmatova lived.