The Corner


Some people, at least, knew how to remember the Stalin years. Writing in 1957, the poetess Anna Akhmatova recalled an encounter from the time she was trying to visit her son, who had been jailed by the secret police:

“In the fearful years of the…terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day someone ‘identified’ me. Besides me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there): “Can you describe this?” And I said: “Yes I can.” And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face.”

And describe it, Akhmatova did:

“In those years only the dead smiled,

Glad to be at rest:

And Leningrad city swayed like

A needless appendix to its prisons.

It was then that the railway-yards

Were asylums of the mad:

Short were the locomotives’

Farewell songs.

Stars of death stood

Above us, and innocent Russia

Writhed under bloodstained boots, and

Under the tires of Black Marias”

From Requiem (1957)


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