Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A requiem for the victims

May Day is an odd sort of holiday (where it is treated as such). The day after Walpurgis Night, when the witches fly in many countries, it had many pagan connotations and continued to be a feast in Christian Europe well into the sixteenth and seventeenth century, later in some places.

More recently, however, it had been taken over by the rather notional international workers' movement. Actually, rather a lot of events seems to have taken place on this day including the birth of the great Duke of Wellington in 1769 and the issuance of the first penny black stamp in 1840. Nevertheless, since the 1890s the association between May Day and the international workers' movement has become ever firmer, especially promoted in the various Communist countries and by trade unions in the non-Communist ones.

It seems to me that this is a goo day to recall the many victims of Communism and to remind people of what that international workers' movement really led to.

So, I have been re-reading Anna Akhmatova's Requiem, the great sequence of poems about the years of Yezhovschina, that is the Great Terror, dedicated to its many victims. It seems to me that it is a long time since I translated any Russian poetry and the time has come for a return to that occupation. What better way to start than Akhmatova's wonderful cycle. Completed sections will be posted on the blog but in the meantime, here is the easy bit, the quatrain and the prose introduction, both of which I have posted before in a long blog on EUReferendum2 on the subject of an exhibition of art from Russia in the Royal Academy and the disgracefully mealy-mouthed curating.

No, I did not live under an alien sky 
And was not protected by alien wings - 
I was then among my own people, 
Where my unhappy people were. 


In the terrible years of yezhovschina I spent seventeen months in Leningrad’s prison queues. One day somebody recognized me. The woman immediately behind me, whose lips were blue with cold, and who, presumably, had never heard of me, seemed to shake off the numbness that had overtaken us all. Leaning close to my ear she whispered (we all spoke in whispers): 

- And this. Can you write about this? 

 I said: 

- Yes I can. 

Then something resembling a smile glided across what had once been her face.


  1. Philately will not get you everywhere Helen...the Penny Black was 6th May 1840, not the the former Editor of Britain's best selling stamp magazine (at least a decade after the issuing of the Penny Black and Twopenny Blue), those dates are engraved on my Editor's Visor...

  2. Ah but of course it WAS actualy sold on 1st May - I had forgotten this, and by an extraordinary coincidence I was just clearing out my files and came across an article about the design of it and the fact that one or two turned up postmarked a day or two earlier...(an article, er, I had written back in the days of the dear late Queen...). Blame age...

  3. In France 1st May is known as Le Jour de Travail (the day of working).

    Yet the majority of people are not working - Bizare

  4. From mediaeval times May was the month of Mary, Mother of God.

  5. Damian, are you saying that the Royal Mail was actually ahead of itself rather than days late? Of course this was in the days of the dear late Queen when one could send an invitation to tea in the morning, receive a reply and actually have the person arriving at around 4.30.

    Peter, I had not realized that dancing round the Maypole was in honour of Mary, Mother of God. An interesting new view for me.

  6. Indeed, by the best part of 6 days - the envelope dated 1st May 1840 when the stamps were due on 6th has great value - as would a mail service today which could achieve the possible (never mind the impossible...).

  7. It saddens me how few realise the evil of communism, sure everyone knows the lesser evil of the nazis though! I have read enough to realise it was communism that was the root cause of the rise of Nazi Germany, it was Stalin who fed and armed Hitler's war machine, it was the communists who dismantled the world leading French aero industry and knee capped the once impressive french military, and the same culprits in England this time swayed public opinion to get Chamberlain to sue for peace at any cost. Can you imagine how better off , overall, humanity would be if the lessor left wing ideology had won the second world war ?

  8. Chamberlain did not sue for peace at any cost. His government declared war on Germany. One must not buy into the carefully tended Churchill myth.

    However, I completely agree about the lack of knowledge about the evils of Communism. We must all do what we can to counter that.