So this summer I had the opportunity to take my husband and my parents to Russia and Ukraine to see my favorite places on earth and meet all of my friends from those places. I’m only now getting around to writing about it because immediately after I got back from my three week trip I started teaching Russian at two different universities. So life is busy. But I will start writing about this dream-come-true trip as the time arises.
I’m not a fan of Petersburg. Let’s just get that out first and foremost. I don’t know why. I didn’t like it, okay, I wouldn’t say I don’t like it, I just don’t feel the awe and adoration for it like I feel for Moscow and Kiev. People are always baffled by this, but I like the parts of Russia where Russia looks RUSSIAN and not European. But it’s a very important place in Russian history, I understand that. I wasn’t super impressed with it the first time I went there in 2003 and I wasn’t super impressed with it when I went there 10 years later.
I took my parents to all the must-see places: The Hermitage, the Peterhof, The Bronze Horseman, Nevskiy Prospect. But I felt kind of underwhelmed by all of it. Which was unfortunate because it was our first stop on our journey and I wanted to feel my heart swell with love and joy.
Anyway, there were two things I liked in Petersburg: The Russian Museum (Had lots of RUSSIAN art and folk art, which I just love) and the monument to Anna Akhmatova across the river from Kresty.
Since my parents didn’t really know who Anna Akhmatova is I just made my husband come with me to the monument. I printed off directions about how to get there from a website and made my way there. I had been reading about this monument since it was first erected in 2006. I can’t even describe what I felt to finally see it in person. Even my husband, who only knows what I’ve told him about her poetry and her life, said he got major chills as we stood there at the foot of the monument.
Anna Akhmatova has a very special place in my heart. You can find a previous post I did on one of her love poems here. She was actually the first Russian poet that I fell in love with, yes, even before Pushkin.
Her poem Реквием, or Requiem in English is about a very interesting time in Russian history that we didn’t study when we studied history in my classes in Russia. It is about the Stalinist repression or Большой террор (Lit. Big Terror) of the 1930’s when artists, scholars and anyone that was considered a threat to the regime was sent to prison, gulags or executed altogether. The infamous prison Kresty in Petersburg had housed many political prisoners since 1730. Akhmatova’s husband, Nikolay Gumilev, a fellow poet had been executed in 1921 by the Cheka.
Then her terror continued when, in 1938 her son, Lev Gumilev, was arrested and imprisoned in Kresty in addition to her second husband, Nikolay Punin (who later died in prison). If anyone could be considered a victim of political repression, it was she. Requiem talks of the terror of the people who waited outside that prison hoping to speak with their loved ones.
Her poem captured the struggles and despair of the people who were living through this terror and she wanted this to be her legacy. She held onto this poem until after Stalin died before she even brought it out for anyone to read. It wasn’t officially published in Russia until 1987. What makes this monument so powerful is its location and how it is the perfect embodiment of this part of her life. In a section of her poem Requiem she writes:
And by “here” she means outside of Kresty, which is just across the river. And sure enough, in 2006, marking the 40th anniversary of her death, they made this monument to her. This site is so haunting, the statue is so powerful, she stands in despair looking helplessly at the prison that has her son locked in and her locked out.
Closer down near the river bank there are a few more vague monuments to “Victims of Political Repression” This is the only such monument I’ve seen of its sort. Interesting that no specific mention is made to Stalin himself.
This was my favorite place in Petersburg, hands down. Perhaps because there were no tourists. It felt like a little treasure that I had found. It really is in the middle of a bunch of apartment buildings and a parking lot. Someone who didn't know about Akhmatova or her poem would never know just how powerful this site is. And maybe that's why I enjoyed it so much.