Anna of all the Russias

Anna Akhmatova Poems, to Read when Life, Love, and Politics Are Hard

Anna Akhmatova’s poems combine classical elegance and amazing passion associated with the drama of her own destiny. The poet began to create at a time when the very idea that a woman could be a poet was rather unusual. All significant events of the 20th century became landmarks in the fate of Anna Akhmatova. She survived two world wars, the Russian Revolution and the Siege of Leningrad. What courage she needed when she was forbidden to publish, or when her son and third husband were in the forced labor camp.

Portrait of Anna Akhmatova" by Nathan Altman – Joy of Museums Virtual Tours
Nathan Altman, Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1915, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

I was 16 when I found Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. I don’t entirely remember how the finding happened—I fell in love with many writers in those days—but I do know that I became obsessed with the way Akhmatova captured conflicting emotions.
Loving someone to the point of pain. Pride in a homeland despite its oppressive regime. Offering words in a time when words will never be enough.
Her poem “I Wrung My Hands” was the first poem I ever willing memorized. I learned it in its original tongue.

Anna Akhmatova in 1920s, photographer unknown
Anna Akhmatova in 1920s, photographer unknown


I wrung my hands under my dark veil. . .
Why are you pale, what makes you reckless?”
— Because I have made my loved one drunk
with an astringent sadness.

I’ll never forget. He went out, reeling;
his mouth was twisted, desolate. . .
I ran downstairs, not touching the banisters,
and followed him as far as the gate.

And shouted, choking: “I meant it all
in fun. Don’t leave me, or I’ll die of pain.”
He smiled at me — oh so calmly, terribly —
and said: “Why don’t you get out of the rain?”


Anna Akhmatova (originally Anna Andreyevna Gorenko) Born near the Black Sea in 1888, and found herself in a time when Russia still had tsars. In 1910, she married poet Nikolai Gumilev with whom she had a son, Lev. As her poetry from those years suggests, Akhmatova’s marriage was a miserable one.


“The Guest”
Anna Akhmatova, translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward

Nothing is changed: against the dining-room windows
hard grains of whirling snow still beat.
I am what I was,
but a man came to me.

“What do you want?” I asked.
“To be with you in hell,” he said.
I laughed. “It’s plain you mean
to have us both destroyed.”

He lifted his thin hand
and lightly stroked the flowers:
“Tell me how men kiss you,
tell me how you kiss.”

His torpid eyes were fixed
unblinking on my ring.
Not a single muscle stirred
in his clear, sardonic face.

Oh, I see: his game is that he knows
intimately, ardently,
there’s nothing from me he wants,
I have nothing to refuse.

Amedeo Modigliani, Anna Akhmatova, 1911, Anna Akhmatova Literary and Memorial Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Akhmatova met Amedeo Modigliani in 1910 in Paris. She was there on a honeymoon with Russian poet Nikolai Gumilyov. Amedeo and Anna’s correspondence continued the following year. He wrote to her passionate letters but Anna never revealed their relationship, which remains a mystery until this day. In her memoirs, the poet mentioned 16 drawings presented to her by Modigliani and brought to Russia. But, as Akhmatova herself said, only one of them survived, the rest died in the first years of the revolution. However, her stories about the drawings’ disappearance were always different. Later Modigliani’s heirs confirmed that several more of his sketches portraying the poet survived.


Left: Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1922, The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Right: Anna Akhmatova in 1922, photo taken by Moisey Nappelbaum
Left: Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1922, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Right: Anna Akhmatova in 1922, photo taken by Moisey Nappelbaum.

Then Akhmatova experienced a series of other disasters: the First World War, her divorce, the October Revolution, the fall of the Tsardom, Gumilev’s execution at the order of Soviet leaders.
Starting in 1925, the government banned Akhmatova’s works from publication. Though Akhmatova continued to write during this time, the prohibition lasted a decade. Then, in 1935, her son Lev was imprisoned because of his personal connections. His arrest was merely one in a long line that occurred during Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s Great Purge, in which the government jailed and executed people who were possible political threats. An estimated 600,000 people, including Akhmatova’s friends and literary colleagues, were killed in the Purge.
Despite, or perhaps because of, these horrors, Akhmatova’s creative life flourished. Her poems from this period speak of surviving violence and uncertainly within Russia, of the Second World War, of feeling fierce kinship with her fellow countrymen. “Half harlot, half nun,” the man in charge of Soviet cultural policy sneered about her.


excerpt from “Requiem” by Anna Akhmatova:
…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.”


“Last Toast” by Anna Akhmatova
Translated from the Russian by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky

I drink to our ruined house
To the evil of my life
To our loneliness together
And I drink to you—
To the lying lips that have betrayed us,
To the dead-cold eyes,
To the fact that the world is brutal and coarse
To the fact that God did not save us

Akhmatova’s son was arrested again in 1949 and sentenced to 10 years labor in a Siberian prison camp. In an attempt to gain his release, she began to write more positive propaganda for the USSR. She only regained a measure of public respect and artistic freedom following Stalin’s death in 1953. In 1966, Akhmatova herself died at age 76 of heart failure. I wonder if she found it a dark coincidence to die of heart issues after that organ was repeatedly broken for so many years. Though reading Akhmatova’s poetry does not require an understanding of Russian and Soviet history, knowing a little about her life certainly enriches the experience.

Left: Moisey Lyangleben, Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1964, State Museum of the History of Russian Literature, Moscow, Russia. Arhub.
Right: Anna Akhmatova in Komarovo, Russia, 1964. Bibo.
Left: Moisey Lyangleben, Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1964, State Museum of the History of Russian Literature, Moscow, Russia. Arhub.
Right: Anna Akhmatova in Komarovo, Russia, 1964.

Moisey Langleben painted one of the last portraits of Akhmatova. Akhmatova left her autographs on four of the portraits . It was certainly a sign that she liked the work. Somehow, on this portrait, she reminds us of great Russian queens – and she truly was one.

“To the golden-lipped Anne — to a word
That all of Russia redeems!
Carry away my voice
And my heavy sigh, wind.

About quiet bow of the earth among
Golden fields, O the burning skies,
Tell the story; and also about
From the agony blackened eyes.

You attained once again
In the thundering height!
You — the nameless one!
Carry love of mine
To the gold-lipped Anne —
All of Russia!”
Marina Tsvetaeva, To Akhmatova.9, 1916. 

In 1952, with great displeasure, Akhmatova and the Punins moved out of Fontannyi Dom, which was taken over entirely by the Arctic Institute, and received accommodations in a different part of the city. Despite her deteriorating health, the last decade of Akhmatova’s life was fairly calm, reflecting the political “thaw” that followed Stalin’s death in 1953. Lev was released from prison in 1956, and several volumes of her verse, though censored, were published in the late 1950s and the 1960s. Her most important poetry volume also came out during this period. Appearing in 1965, Beg vremeni collected Akhmatova’s verse since 1909 and included several previously published books, as well as the unpublished “Sed’maia kniga” (Seventh Book). Well into her 70s by this time, she was allowed to make two trips abroad: in 1964 she traveled to Italy to receive the Etna Taormina International Prize in Poetry, and in 1965 she went to England, where she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. During the second trip she stopped briefly in Paris to visit with some of her old friends who had left Russia after the revolution.

Poems by Anna Akhmatova to Read

If you want to begin reading Anna Akhmatova and are looking for a place to start, here are ten of my favorite poems by her. Many of them describe painful experiences, but there is comfort in the beauty that she uncovers from suffering. Just like readers during Akhmatova’s lifetime, we could use that aching bittersweetness now.

by Anna Akhmatova

Everything’s looted, betrayed and traded,
black death’s wing’s overhead.
Everything’s eaten by hunger, unsated,
so why does a light shine ahead?

By day, a mysterious wood, near the town,
breathes out cherry, a cherry perfume.
By night, on July’s sky, deep, and transparent,
new constellations are thrown.

And something miraculous will come
close to the darkness and ruin,
something no-one, no-one, has known,
though we’ve longed for it since we were children.

“I Don’t Like Flowers…”
by Anna Akhmatova

I don’t like flowers – they do remind me often
Of funerals, of weddings and of balls;
Their presence on tables for a dinner calls.
But sub-eternal roses’ ever simple charm
Which was my solace when I was a child,
Has stayed – my heritage – a set of years behind, Like Mozart’s ever-living music’s hum.


“Here is my gift”
by Anna Akhmatova

Here is my gift, not roses on your grave,
not sticks of burning incense.
You lived aloof, maintaining to the end
your magnificent disdain.
You drank wine, and told the wittiest jokes,
and suffocated inside stifling walls.
Alone you let the terrible stranger in,
and stayed with her alone.
Now you’re gone, and nobody says a word
about your troubled and exalted life.
Only my voice, like a flute, will mourn
at your dumb funeral feast.
Oh, who would have dared believe that half-crazed I,
I, sick with grief for the buried past,
I, smoldering on a slow fire,
having lost everything and forgotten all,
would be fated to commemorate a man
so full of strength and will and bright inventions,
who only yesterday it seems, chatted with me, hiding the tremor of his mortal pain.


He Did Love
by Anna Akhmatova

He did love three things in this world:
Choir chants at vespers, albino peacocks,
And worn, weathered maps of America.
And he did not love children crying,
Or tea served with raspberries,
Or woman’s hysteria.…And I was his wife.

In Dream
by Anna Akhmatova

Black and enduring separation
I share equally with you.
Why weep? Give me your hand,
Promise me you will come again.
You and I are like high
Mountains and we can’t move closer.
Just send me word
At midnight sometime through the stars.

by Anna Akhmatova

When, in the night, I wait for her, impatient,
Life seems to me, as hanging by a thread.
What just means liberty, or youth, or approbation,
When compared with the gentle piper’s tread?
And she came in, threw out the mantle’s edges,
Declined to me with a sincere heed.
I say to her, “Did you dictate the Pages
Of Hell to Dante?” She answers, “Yes, I did.”

The Two Of Us Won’t Share A Glass Together
by Anna Akhmatova

The two of us won’t share a glass together
Be it of water or of sweet red wine;
We won’t be kissing, in the morning either
Nor, late at night, enjoy an evening shine…
You breathe the sun, I breathe the moon; however
We are united by one love forever.
I always have with me my true soul mate,
You have with you your ever-merry girlfriend;
Yet I’m acquainted with your eye’s dismay
As you’re the reason of my lifelong ailment.
The length of our dates won’t be increased,
That’s how, it’s doomed, to honor our peace.
Yet, it’s my breath that flows in your rhymes
While in my rhymes your voice is singing clear;
Oh’ neither oblivion, nor fear
Will ever dare to touch this kind of flame.
I wish you knew how I am longing now
To feel your dry and rosy lips somehow.

True Tenderness
by Anna Akhmatova

True tenderness is silent
and can’t be mistaken for anything else.
In vain with earnest desire
you cover my shoulders with fur;
In vain you try to persuade me
of the merits of first love.
But I know too well the meaning
of your persistent burning glances.

2021 /Art/ D&F Magazine

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