The great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1888-1966) didn’t live to see the end of the Soviet system. But her work survives as a testimony against it and against all who would, in any way, repeat its errors and crimes.
Her lengthy poem “Requiem, 1935-1940″ begins with an epigram (in the translation by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward) dated to 1961:
No foreign sky protected me,
no stranger’s wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time, that place.
Next occurs a passage (entitled “Instead of a Preface”) that I find both significant and moving:
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I said: “I can.”
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
Leningrad, 1 April 1957
We don’t want to count for nothing. We don’t want our stories to be utterly forgotten. We want our struggles and our joys to mean something.
Among the many consolations of the Gospel is its assurance that our lives do have eternal meaning. God and his angels know us and value us. Our ancestors who have gone before care about us. We will perish, but not really. Our memories and our relationships will pass through the grave.
One of the most inspiring elements of the work of family history research and of vicarious ordinances for the dead, as that work is fostered within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the effort to remember on this earth every individual and every family that has ever lived. It’s a vast work, and we’ll never accomplish it unaided by heaven, but we can make and are making great progress even now.
I’ve sometimes thought that the great totalitarianisms of the twentieth century, which systematically sought, with that century’s industrial techniques, to erase entire ethnic groups and classes of people, were the Luciferian counterpart of the divine doctrine of salvation for the dead, which values and seeks to remember absolutely every individual.