Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva
Her work is considered among some of the greatest in twentieth century Russian literature. She lived through and wrote of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Moscow famine that followed it. In an attempt to save her daughter Irina from starvation, she placed her in a state orphanage in 1919, where she died of hunger.
Tsvetaeva left Russia in 1922 and lived with her family in increasing poverty in Paris, Berlin and Prague before returning to Moscow in 1939. Her husband Sergei Efro and her daughter Ariadna Efron (Alya) were arrested on espionage charges in 1941; and her husband was executed. Tsvetaeva committed suicide in 1941. As a lyrical poet, her passion and daring linguistic experimentation mark her as a striking chronicler of her times and the depths of the human condition.
Marina was born in Moscow into a family where her father was Professor of Fine Arts and her mother was a concert pianist
She was sent to school in Lausanne, Switzerland where she acquired Italian, French and German. She turned away from music and wrote poety.
In 1908, aged 16, Marina studied literary history at the Sorbonne in Paris. Her first set of poetry was self publsihed in 1910 and it catapulted her into public notice as a talented poet.
She marrie at 18 years, Sergei Efron, a cadet from the Officers’ Academy.
Not a Monagamist Woman and had affairs with men and women.
One women was the poetess Sofia Parnok who was 7 years older than Marina. This deeply destressed Efron. The women fell madly in love, and the relationship profoundly affected both women’s writing.
If this was a tempetuous affair, it may have been recorded in a cycle of poems which she called The Girlfriend and at other times, The Mistake. Two daughters were born to Marina and Efron. Her husband joined the army and after the Revolution of 1917, he chose the White Army which fought against Lenin.
. She was trapped in Moscow for five years, where there was a terrible famine.[
She wrote six plays in verse and narrative poems. Between 1917 and 1922 she wrote the epic verse cycle Lebedinyi stan (‘‘The Encampment of the Swans’’) about the civil war, glorifying those who fought against the communists.
The Moscow famine was to exact a toll on Tsvetaeva. Starvation and worry were to erode her looks. With no immediate family to turn to, she had no way to support herself or her daughters. In 1919, she placed both her daughters in a state orphanage, mistakenly believing that they would be better fed there. Alya became ill, and Tsvetaeva removed her, but Irina died there of starvation in 1920. The child’s death caused Tsvetaeva great grief and regret. In one letter, she wrote, “God punished me.” During these years, Tsvetaeva maintained a close and intense friendship with the actress Sofia Evgenievna Holliday, for whom she wrote a number of plays. Many years later, she would write the novella “Povest’ o Sonechke” about her relationship with Holliday.
In May 1922, Tsvetaeva and Ariadna left the Soviet Union and were reunited with Efron in Berlin, whom she had thought killed by the Bolsheviks. There she published the collections Separation, Poems to Blok, and the poem The Tsar Maiden, much of her poetry appeared in Moscow and Berlin, consolidating her reputation. In August 1922, the family moved to Prague. Living in unremitting poverty, unable to afford living accommodation in Prague itself, with Efron studying politics and sociology at the Charles University and living in hostels, Tsvetaeva and Ariadna found rooms in a village outside the city. She writes “we are devoured by coal, gas, the milkman, the baker…the only meat we eat is horsemeat”. When offered an opportunity to earn money by reading her poetry, she describes having to beg a simple dress from a friend to replace the one she had been living in.
Tsvetaeva began a passionate affair with Konstantin Boleslavovich Rodzevitch, a former military officer, a liaison which became widely known throughout émigré circles. Efron was devastated.[Her break-up with Rodzevitch in 1923 was almost certainly the inspiration for her The Poem of the End and “The Poem of the Mountain”. At about the same time, Tsvetaeva began correspondence with poet Rainer Maria Rilke and novelist Boris Pasternak. Tsvetaeva and Pasternak were not to meet for nearly twenty years, but maintained friendship until Tsvetaeva’s return to USSR.
In summer 1924, Efron and Tsvetaeva left Prague for the suburbs, living for a while in Jíloviště, before moving on to Všenory, where Tsvetaeva completed “The Poem of the End”, and was to conceive their son, Georgy, whom she was to later nickname ‘Mur’. Tsvetaeva wanted to name him Boris (after Pasternak); Efron insisted on Georgy. He was to be a most difficult child but Tsetaeva loved him obsessively. With Efron now rarely free from tuberculosis, their daughter Ariadna was relegated to the role of mother’s helper and confidante, and consequently felt robbed of much of her childhood. In Berlin before settling in Paris, Tsvetaeva wrote some of her greatest verse, including Remeslo ( ‘‘Craft’’, 1923) and Posle Rossii ( After Russia 1928). Reflecting a life in poverty and exiled, the work holds great nostalgia for Russia and its folk history, while experimenting with verse forms.
I Know the Truth
I know the truth – forget all other truths!
No need for anyone on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what will you say, poets, lovers, generals?
The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep beneath the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.
“I know the truth” Tsvetaeva (1915).
Trans. by Elaine Feinstein
In 1925, the family settled in Paris, where they would live for the next 14 years. At about this time Tsvetaeva contracted tuberculosis. Tsvetaeva received a small stipend from the Czechoslovak government, which gave financial support to artists and writers who had lived in Czechoslovakia.
In addition, she tried to make whatever she could from readings and sales of her work. She turned more and more to writing prose because she found it made more money than poetry. Tsvetaeva did not feel at all at home in Paris’s predominantly ex-bourgeois circle of Russian émigré writers. Although she had written passionately pro-‘White’ poems during the Revolution, her fellow émigrés thought that she was insufficiently anti-Soviet, and that her criticism of the Soviet régime was altogether too nebulous. She was particularly criticised for writing an admiring letter to the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. In the wake of this letter, the émigré paper The Latest News, to which Tsvetaeva had been a frequent contributor, refused point-blank to publish any more of her work.
She found solace in her correspondence with other writers, including Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, the Czech poet Anna Teskova, the critics D. S. Mirsky and Aleksandr Bakhrakh, and the Georgian émigré princess Salomea Andronikova, who became her main source of financial support. Her poetry and critical prose of the time, including her autobiographical prose works of 1934–7, is of lasting literary importance. “Consumed by the daily round”, resenting the domesticity that left her no time for solitude or writing, her émigré milieu regarded Tsvetaeva as a crude sort who ignored social graces. Describing her misery, she wrote to Teskova “In Paris, with rare personal exceptions, everyone hates me, they write all sorts of nasty things, leave me out in all sorts of nasty ways, and so on”. To Pasternak she complained “They don’t like poetry and what am I apart from that, not poetry but that from which it is made. [I am] an inhospitable hostess. An young woman in an old dress.” She began to look back at even the Prague times with nostalgia and resent her exiled state more deeply.
Soviet police photo of Ariadna Efron, Tsvetaeva’s daughter (1949)
Meanwhile, Tsvetaeva’s husband was developing Soviet sympathies and was homesick for Russia. Eventually, he began working for the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB. Alya shared his views, and increasingly turned against her mother. In 1937, she returned to the Soviet Union. Later that year, Efron too had to return to USSR. The French police had implicated him in the murder of the former Soviet defector Ignaty Reyss in September 1937, on a country lane near Lausanne, Switzerland.
After Efron’s escape, the police interrogated Tsvetaeva, but she seemed confused by their questions and ended up reading them some French translations of her poetry. The police concluded that she was deranged and knew nothing of the murder. Later it was learned that Efron possibly had also taken part in the assassination of Trotsky’s son in 1936. Tsvetaeva does not seem to have known that her husband was a spy, nor the extent to which he was compromised. However, she was held responsible for his actions and was ostracised in Paris because of the implication that he was involved with the NKVD. World War II had made Europe as unsafe and hostile as USSR. In 1939, she became lonely and alarmed by the rise of fascism, which she attacked in Stikhi k Chekhii (“Verses to the Czechia” 1938–39).
Last years: Return to the Soviet Union
Сenotaph to Tsvetaeva
In 1939, she and her son returned to Moscow, unaware of the reception she would receive. In Stalin’s USSR, anyone who had lived abroad was suspect, as was anyone who had been among the intelligentsia before the Revolution. Tsvetaeva’s sister had been arrested before Tsvetaeva’s return; although Anastasia survived the Stalin years, the sisters never saw each other again. Tsvetaeva found that all doors had closed to her. She got bits of work translating poetry, but otherwise the established Soviet writers refused to help her, and chose to ignore her plight; Nikolai Aseev, who she had hoped would assist, shied away, fearful for his life and position.
Efron and Alya were arrested for espionage. Alya’s fiancé was actually an NKVD agent who had been assigned to spy on the family. Efron was shot in 1941; Alya served over eight years in prison. Both were exonerated after Stalin’s death. In 1941, Tsvetaeva and her son were evacuated to Yelabuga, while most families of the Union of Soviet writers were evacuated to Chistopol. Tsvetaeva had no means of support in Yelabuga, and on 24 August 1941 she left for Chistopol desperately seeking a job. On 26 August, Marina Tsvetaeva and poet Valentin Parnakh applied to the Soviet of Literature Fund asking for a job at the LitFund’s canteen. Valentin Parnakh was accepted as a doorman, while Tsvetaeva’s application for a permission to live in Chistopol was turned down and she had to return to Yelabuga on 28 August.
On 31 August 1941, while living in Yelabuga (Elabuga), Tsvetaeva hanged herself. She left a note for her son Mur: “Forgive me, but to go on would be worse. I am gravely ill, this is not me anymore. I love you passionately. Do understand that I could not live anymore. Tell Papa and Alya, if you ever see them, that I loved them to the last moment and explain to them that I found myself in a trap.” Many of her friends felt the blame was theirs, Pasternak felt that he had personally failed her. Soviet poets often preferred to blame her desperation on her fellow emigres in Paris and Berlin. Writers further west tended to view Efron’s and Alya’s arrest as the cause, which may have left Tsvetaeva feeling burdensome to her son. Alya blamed Mur directly. There have always been rumours that Tsvetaeva’s death was not suicide. On the day of her death she was home alone and it is alleged that NKVD agents came to her house and forced her to commit suicide. Kudrova in The Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva posits three causes for Tsvetaeva’s death: that her sister Anastasiia insisted that she kill herself to save her son, that she suffered from mental illness, or that she feared recruitment by the local NKVD. Tsvetaeva was buried in Yelabuga cemetery on 2 September 1941, but the exact location of her grave remains unknown.
In the town of Yelabuga, the Tsvetaeva house is now a museum and a monument stands to her. Much of her poetry was republished in the Soviet Union after 1961, and her passionate, articulate and precise work, with its daring linguistic experimentation, brought her increasing recognition as a major poet.
In 1989 in Gdynia, Poland, a special purpose ship was built for the Russian Academy of Sciences and named Marina Svetaeva in her honor. From 2007 she was operated as a tourist vessel to the polar regions by Aurora Expeditions. In 2011 she was renamed MV Ortelius and is currently operated by Oceanwide Expeditions as a tourist vessel in the polar regions.
Amidst the dust of bookshops, wide dispersed
And never purchased there by anyone,
Yet similar to precious wines, my verse can wait
Its time will come.
Trans. Vladimir Nabokov, 1972
Tsvetaeva’s poetry was admired by poets such as Valery Bryusov, Maximilian Voloshin, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Anna Akhmatova. Later, that recognition was also expressed by the poet Joseph Brodsky, pre-eminent among Tsvetaeva’s champions. Tsvetaeva was primarily a lyrical poet, and her lyrical voice remains clearly audible in her narrative poetry. Brodsky said of her work: “Represented on a graph, Tsvetaeva’s work would exhibit a curve – or rather, a straight line – rising at almost a right angle because of her constant effort to raise the pitch a note higher, an idea higher (or, more precisely, an octave and a faith higher.) She always carried everything she has to say to its conceivable and expressible end. In both her poetry and her prose, nothing remains hanging or leaves a feeling of ambivalence. Tsvetaeva is the unique case in which the paramount spiritual experience of an epoch (for us, the sense of ambivalence, of contradictoriness in the nature of human existence) served not as the object of expression but as its means, by which it was transformed into the material of art.” Critic Annie Fitch describes the engaging, heart-felt nature of the work. “Tsvetaeva is such a warm poet, so unbridled in her passion, so completely vulnerable in her love poetry, whether to her female lover Sofie Parnak, to Boris Pasternak. […] Tsvetaeva throws her poetic brilliance on the altar of her heart’s experience with the faith of a true romantic, a priestess of lived emotion. And she stayed true to that faith to the tragic end of her life.
Tsvetaeva’s lyric poems fill ten collections; the uncollected lyrics would add at least another volume. Her first two collections indicate their subject matter in their titles: Evening Album (Vechernii al’bom, 1910) and The Magic Lantern (Volshebnyi fonar’, 1912). The poems are vignettes of a tranquil childhood and youth in a professorial, middle-class home in Moscow, and display considerable grasp of the formal elements of style. The full range of Tsvetaeva’s talent developed quickly, and was undoubtedly influenced by the contacts she had made at Koktebel, and was made evident in two new collections: Mileposts (Versty, 1921) and Mileposts: Book One (Versty, Vypusk I, 1922).
Three elements of Tsvetaeva’s mature style emerge in the Mileposts collections. First, Tsvetaeva dates her poems and publishes them chronologically. The poems in Mileposts: Book One, for example, were written in 1916 and resolve themselves as a versified journal. Secondly, there are cycles of poems which fall into a regular chronological sequence among the single poems, evidence that certain themes demanded further expression and development. One cycle announces the theme of Mileposts: Book One as a whole: the “Poems of Moscow.” Two other cycles are dedicated to poets, the “Poems to Akhmatova” and the “Poems to Blok”, which again reappear in a separate volume, Poems to Blok (Stikhi k Bloku, 1922). Thirdly, the Mileposts collections demonstrate the dramatic quality of Tsvetaeva’s work, and her ability to assume the guise of multiple dramatis personae within them.
The collection Separation (Razluka, 1922) was to contain Tsvetaeva’s first long verse narrative, “On a Red Steed” (“Na krasnom kone”). The poem is a prologue to three more verse-narratives written between 1920 and 1922. All four narrative poems draw on folkloric plots. Tsvetaeva acknowledges her sources in the titles of the very long works, The Maiden Tsar: A Fairy-tale Poem (Tsar’-devitsa: Poema-skazka, 1922) and “The Swain”, subtitled “A Fairytale” (“Molodets: skazka”, 1924). The fourth folklore-style poem is “Byways” (“Pereulochki”, published in 1923 in the collection Remeslo), and it is the first poem which may be deemed incomprehensible in that it is fundamentally a soundscape of language. The collection Psyche (Psikheya, 1923) contains one of Tsvetaeva’s best-known cycles “Insomnia” (Bessonnitsa) and the poem The Swans’ Encampment (Lebedinyi stan, Stikhi 1917-1921, published in 1957) which celebrates the White Army.
The topic of hell
Tsvetaeva was so infatuated by the subject that she was looking for the topic in other poets writings and even used their lines as a base for her narrative, for example:
But as I ran,
Grabbed me by the hair with her heavy hand
We are sure to end up in hell,
O my ardent sisters.
(November 1915, a poem about lawless women)
Their hands I will not sunder,
I would rather
I would rather
Blaze in scorching flames in hell!
Two suns are growing cool, O God have mercy!
One in heaven in one in my breast. How these suns – will I ever forgive myself? – How these suns used to drive me wild [with love]! And both are growing cool, their rays no longer hurt.
And the more ardent one the first too cool.
—Frantz Shubert, Die Nebensonnen, Die Wintereise
The poem “For my poems” by Tsvetaeva on a wall of the building at Nieuwsteeg 1, Leiden, The Netherlands
Subsequently, as an émigré, Tsvetaeva’s last two collections of lyrics were published by émigré presses, Craft (Remeslo, 1923) in Berlin and After Russia (Posle Rossii, 1928) in Paris. There then followed the twenty-three lyrical “Berlin” poems, the pantheistic “Trees” (“Derev’ya”), “Wires” (“Provoda”) and “Pairs” (“Dvoe”), and the tragic “Poets” (“Poety”). “After Russia” contains the poem “In Praise of the Rich”, in which Tsvetaeva’s oppositional tone is merged with her proclivity for ruthless satire.
In 1924, Tsvetaeva wrote “Poem of the End”, which details a walk around Prague and across its bridges; the walk is about the final walk she will take with her lover Konstantin Rodzevich. In it everything is foretold: in the first few lines (translated by Elaine Feinstein) the future is already written:
A single post, a point of rusting
tin in the sky
marks the fated place we
move to, he and I
Again, further poems foretell future developments. Principal among these is the voice of the classically-oriented Tsvetaeva heard in cycles “The Sibyl,” “Phaedra,” and “Ariadne.” Tsvetaeva’s beloved, ill-starred heroines recur in two verse plays, Theseus-Ariadne (Tezei-Ariadna, 1927) and Phaedra (Fedra, 1928). These plays form the first two parts of an incomplete trilogy Aphrodite’s Rage.
USSR stamp featuring Tsvetaeva (1992)
The satirist in Tsvetaeva plays second fiddle only to the poet-lyricist. Several satirical poems, moreover, are among Tsvetaeva’s best-known works: “The Train of Life” (“Poezd zhizni”) and “The Floorcleaners’ Song” (“Poloterskaya”), both included in After Russia, and The Rat-catcher (Krysolov, 1925–1926), a long, folkloric narrative. The target of Tsvetaeva’s satire is everything petty and petty bourgeois. Unleashed against such dull creature comforts is the vengeful, unearthly energy of workers both manual and creative. In her notebook, Tsvetaeva writes of “The Floorcleaners’ Song”: “Overall movement: the floorcleaners ferret out a house’s hidden things, they scrub a fire into the door… What do they flush out? Coziness, warmth, tidiness, order… Smells: incense, piety. Bygones. Yesterday… The growing force of their threat is far stronger than the climax.” The poem which Tsvetaeva describes as liricheskaia satira, The Rat-Catcher, is loosely based on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The Rat-Catcher, which is also known as The Pied Piper, is considered by some to be the finest of Tsvetaeva’s work. It was also partially an act of homage to Heinrich Heine‘s poem Die Wanderatten. The Rat-Catcher appeared initially, in serial format, in the émigré journal Volia Rossii in 1925-1926 whilst still being written. It was not to appear in the Soviet Union until after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1956. Its hero is the Pied Piper of Hamelin who saves a town from hordes of rats and then leads the town’s children away too, in retribution for the citizens’ ingratitude. As in the other folkloric narratives, The Ratcatcher’s story line emerges indirectly through numerous speaking voices which shift from invective, to extended lyrical flights, to pathos.
Tsvetaeva’s last ten years of exile, from 1928 when “After Russia” appeared until her return in 1939 to the Soviet Union, were principally a “prose decade”, though this would almost certainly be by dint of economic necessity rather than one of choice.
Translators of Tsvetaeva’s work into English include Elaine Feinstein and David McDuff. Nina Kossman translated many of Tsvetaeva’s long (narrative) poems, as well as her lyrical poems; they are collected in two books, Poem of the End and In the Inmost Hour of the Soul. J. Marin King translated a great deal of Tsvetaeva’s prose into English, compiled in a book called A Captive Spirit. Tsvetaeva scholar Angela Livingstone has translated a number of Tsvetaeva’s essays on art and writing, compiled in a book called Art in the Light of Conscience. Livingstone’s translation of Tsvetaeva’s “The Ratcatcher” was published as a separate book. Mary Jane White has translated the early cycle “Miles” in a book called “Starry Sky to Starry Sky,” as well as Tsvetaeva’s elegy for Rilke, “New Year’s”, (Adastra Press 16 Reservation Road, Easthampton, MA 01027 USA) and “Poem of the End”(The Hudson Review, Winter 2009; and in the anthology Poets Translate Poets, Syracuse U. Press 2013) and “Poem of the Hill”, (New England Review, Summer 2008) and Tsvetaeva’s 1914-1915 cycle of love poems to Sophia Parnok. In 2002, Yale University Press published Jamey Gambrell’s translation of post-revolutionary prose, entitled Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922, with notes on poetic and linguistic aspects of Tsvetaeva’s prose, and endnotes for the text itself.
Music and songs
The Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich set six of Tsvetaeva’s poems to music. Later the Russian-Tatar composer Sofia Gubaidulina wrote a Hommage à Marina Tsvetayeva featuring her poems. Her poem “Mne Nravitsya…” (“I like that…”)], was performed by Alla Pugacheva in the film Irony of Fate. In 2003, the opera Marina: A Captive Spirit, based on Tsvetaeva’s life and work, premiered from American Opera Projects in New York with music by Deborah Drattell and libretto by poet Annie Finch. The production was directed by Anne Bogart and the part of Tsvetaeva was sung by Lauren Flanigan. The poetry by Tsvetaeva was set to music and frequently performed as songs by Elena Frolova, Larisa Novoseltseva, Zlata Razdolina and other Russian bards