This blog post was written by Hannah Leavitt, Humanities Center Student Fellow
This month, 100 years will have passed since the October Revolution of 1917, the uprising that shook Europe and demolished the Russian Empire and its monarchy. During the ensuing civil war, the rise of communist power, and the changes and chaos that Bolshevik cataclysm brought to Eastern Europe—Anna Akhmatova, a poet fiercely loyal to her native-born Russia, penned her poem often titled by its first line, in reference to the horrors Russia had experienced during World War I:
When the nation, suicidal,
awaited German guests,
and Orthodoxy’s stringent spirit
departed from the Russian Church,
when Peter’s city, once so grand,
knew not who took her,
but passed – a drunken harlot –
hand to hand,
I heard a voice. It called me.
“Come here,” it spoke consolingly,
“and leave your senseless, sinful land,
abandon Russia for all time.
I’ll scrub your hands free of the blood,
I’ll take away your bitter shame,
I’ll soothe the pain of loss
and insults with a brand new name.”
But cool and calm, I stopped my ears,
refused to hear it,
not letting that unworthy speech
defile my grieving spirit.
Nathan Altman’s Portrait of Anna Akhmatova
As a Russophile and an Akhmatova-enthusiast, I find her words genuinely stirring, even spiritual. But even without a love of Russia or Akhmatova, her words and their implications in “When a Nation Suicidal” are relevant to people across all of the United States and Europe. In moments of deranged terrorism, natural disaster, inhumane legislation, disunion within our social and family kinship groups, many of us, no doubt, feel that the Statue of Liberty’s call to “Give [her] your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to [her], [she] lift[s her] lamp beside the golden door!” has lost some of its promise. Like Akhamotva, I have felt at times that America has “sold herself” and “does not know who has her.” I have heard people—both red and blue and everyone in between—question how we became such a “senseless, sinful land.” Every day we ingest the latest hysteria. Consoling voices call us to “scrub [our] hands free of the blood, … take away the bitter shame, … soothe the pain of loss” by abandoning our America, rejecting people who think differently, or acquiescing into cold and jaded indifference. When such voices come, let us “stop our ears,” and “refuse to hear.” Let us not embrace unworthy speeches that “defile [our] grieving spirit[s].”
Let us not only refuse to hear, let us refuse to think: not only will we not listen, we will not entertain inflammatory, hopeless thoughts. Though we may feel sometimes a nation suicidal—wretched, refused, yearning to breathe free—may we remember that Lady Liberty’s gentle invitation applies to us as well. May we relocate her lamp beside the golden door and allow ourselves to be warmed by its kind light. May it illuminate a path that diverges from the well-worn road of hatred, violence, and militancy—commemorated this year as we reflect on 1917—and instead inspires in us a humble change of heart, a reverent bowing of our heads.