Gippius, Zinaida (1869–1945)
Gippius, Zinaida (1869–1945)
Russian Symbolist poet, playwright, novelist, short-story writer, critic, and memoirist, whose emigration after the 1917 revolution prevented her from receiving the critical attention she deserved until the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Name variations: (spelling) Hippius; Z.N. Gippius, Zinaida or Sinaida Nikolaevna Gippius-Merezhkovskaia, and Zinaida Nikolaevna Merezhkovskaia or Nikolayevna Merezhkovski; (pseudonyms) Anton Krainii (Anthony "The Extreme"), Tovarisch German (Comrade Herman), Lev Pushchin, Roman Arenskii, V. Vitovt, and Anton Kirsha. Pronunciation: Zin-ay-EE-da Nik-a-LI-yev-na GIP-pee-us Me-rezh-KOF-ska-ya. Born Zinaida Nikolaevna Gippius in Belev (district of Tula), Russia, on November 8, 1869; died in Paris, France, on September 9, 1945; daughter of Nikolai Gippius (assistant procurator of the St. Petersburg Senate and later chief justice of Nezhin, a district of Chernigov); name of mother unknown; married Dmitrii Sergeevich Merezhkovskii (the Symbolist writer and philosopher) in Tiflis (Tbilisi), on January 8, 1889.
Initiated the Religious-Philosophical Meetings in St. Petersburg (1901); began publication of the literary journal, The New Path (1903); moved to Paris (1906); returned to Russia (1908); emigrated from Russia to Poland (December 24, 1919); left Warsaw for Paris (October 20, 1920); organized the literary society, The Green Lamp, in Paris (1926).
Collected Poems: 1899–1903 (Moscow, 1904); Collected Poems: Second Book (Moscow, 1910); Final Poems: 1914–1918 (St. Petersburg, 1918); Poetic Diary: 1911–1921 (Berlin, 1922); Radiances (Paris, 1938); The Last Circle (and the Modern Dante in Hell) (Paris, 1968).
New People: Stories (St. Petersburg, 1896); The Victors: A Novel (St. Petersburg, 1898); The Mirror: Second Book of Stories (St. Petersburg, 1898); Third Book of Stories (St. Petersburg, 1902); The Scarlet Sword: Fourth Book of Stories (St. Petersburg, 1906); (co-authored with Dmitrii Merezhkovskii and Dmitrii Filosofov) Le Tsar et la Révolution (Paris, 1907); (signed Anton Krainii) Literary Diary: 1899-1907 (St. Petersburg, 1908); (co-authored with Merezhkovskii and Filosofov) The Color of Poppies: A Drama in Four Acts (St. Petersburg, 1908); In Black and White: Fifth Book of Stories (St. Petersburg, 1908); The Devil's Doll: A Biography in Thirty-three Chapters (Moscow, 1911); Lunar Ants: Sixth Book of Stories (Moscow, 1912); Roman-Tsarevitch: The History of One Beginning (Moscow, 1913); (signed Anton Kirsha) How We Wrote to the Soldiers and What They Responded to Us (Moscow, 1915); The Green Wheel: A Play in Four Acts with an afterward "Green-White-Scarlet" (Petrograd, 1916); Heavenly Words and Other Stories (Paris, 1921); (co-authored with Merezhkovskii and Filosofov) The Kingdom of the Antichrist (Munich, 1921); Living Faces (2 vols., Prague, 1925); The Blue Book: Petersburg Diary, 1914–1918 (Belgrade, 1929); (co-authored with V.P. Kocharovskii) What Is the Russian Emigration To Do (Paris, 1930); (co-edited with Merezhkovskii) Literary Review: A Free Anthology (Paris, 1939); Dmitrii Merezhkovskii (Paris, 1951).
Zinaida Gippius was an influential figure in Russian Symbolism, a literary movement which endured from around the turn of the century to the 1920s and had a distinctly religious and mystical orientation. She wrote poetry, plays, short stories, novels, memoirs, and literary criticism, though she is best known for her poetry, which is characterized by its religious and metaphysical themes and its innovative versification patterns. In addition to distinguishing herself as a first-rank poet, Gippius hosted one of the leading literary salons in St. Petersburg and later, in emigration, in Paris. She also organized the Religious-Philosophical Meetings in St. Petersburg, which played a major role in the Russian religious renaissance at the turn of the century. Playfully dubbed "Miss Tification" by her contemporaries, Gippius was as notorious in her day as she was influential. Among other things, she held idiosyncratic views of sex and marriage, assumed contradictory gender roles in her life and art, and fostered religious views that were considered heretical.
The eldest of four daughters, Gippius was born on November 8, 1869, in Belev, Russia, in the district of Tula. Her father Nikolai Gippius served as assistant procurator of the St. Petersburg Senate and later as chief justice of Nezhin in the district of Chernigov. During Gippius' childhood, her family moved frequently in search of an adequate climate for Zinaida and her father, who both suffered from tuberculosis. In 1881, Gippius' father died, making it necessary for Zinaida and her family to take up residency with various relatives in Moscow and later in the Crimea and Caucasus.
Because of her family's constant moves and her ill health, Gippius never completed her formal education. With the exception of a few months spent at the Kiev Institute for Girls from 1877 to 1878 and at a classical gymnasium in Moscow in 1882, she received her education at home from governesses and private tutors. Despite her unsystematic education, Gippius became well versed in literature, history, music, and foreign languages. She spoke French, English, and German fluently as well as her native Russian and was familiar with the literary traditions of these languages. She was particularly fond of Russian literature and developed a profound interest in the works of the novelist Fyodor Dostoevski (1821–1881), whose influence can be felt in her poetry as well as her prose.
Gippius reportedly developed an early interest in poetry. Her secretary, Vladimir Zlobin, maintains in his memoirs, A Difficult Soul, that she began writing poetry as young as the age of seven. According to Zlobin, the lyrics that Gippius wrote as a young girl display "the invariable masculine gender [of her lyrical "I"] and the same attitude toward the world—offended and contemptuous" that are characteristic of many of her mature poems. While scholars have been unable to confirm that Gippius began writing poetry at such a young age (let alone that she chose to identify with the masculine gender so early on), it is known that she spent much of her adolescence writing poetry. While living with relatives in the south of Russia, she wrote comic verses about friends and family members, which she frequently read aloud, as well as more serious poetry, which she reportedly hid or destroyed. Like many youths of the day, Gippius was taken by the civic poetry of Semion Nadson (1862–1887), whose popular verses were often set to music. Her first published poems were written in the style of Nadson and appeared in the avant-garde journal, The Northern Herald, in 1888, under the signature Z.G.
That same year, Gippius met the well-known Symbolist poet, writer, and philosopher, Dmitrii Sergeevich Merezhkovskii (1865–1941), in the town of Borzhom in the Caucasus. Gippius, who had been dubbed "our little poetess" by the inhabitants of the resort town, was initially jealous of the attention that the famous Merezhkovskii received. Gradually, however, her competitiveness with Merezhkovskii dissipated and, as she writes in her memoirs, Dmitrii Merezhkovskii, "we—and it was important that it was both of us—suddenly began to speak as if it had been decided long ago that we would marry and that it would be good if we did." On January 8, 1889, Gippius and Merezhkovskii were married in a simple religious ceremony in Tiflis (Tbilisi), beginning what was to become one of the most intriguing, yet creative, literary marriages.
Gippius' marriage to Merezhkovskii was hardly "typical" in the traditional sense. Although the couple lived together for 52 years, never parting for so much as a day, they never had any children and purportedly never engaged in conjugal relations. In her memoirs, Gippius recalls that after the marriage ceremony which occurred "by itself," as if in some kind of a dream, they each retired to their separate quarters:
[Dmitrii Seregeevich] went to his hotel rather early, and I went home to bed and forgot that I was married. I forgot to such an extent that in the morning I barely remembered it, even when my mother called through the door: "You're still sleeping, and your husband has arrived. Get up!"
"Husband? What a surprise!" [thought Gippius.]
She clearly intimates in this passage that their marriage was not consummated on their wedding night. Whether or not this was the case, Gippius actively fostered the myth that their marriage remained chaste. As her contemporary Sergei Makovskii recalls in On the Parnassus of the "Silver Age," Gippius would appear in society with "her thick, gently wavy, bronzish-red hair in a long braid as a sign of her virginity (in spite of her ten-year marriage)."
While the Merezhkovskiis' marriage may not have been productive in the traditional, reproductive sense, it was very productive in the intellectual sense. The couple collaborated on numerous projects and developed a creative relationship that seemed to replace the need for a procreative one. Vladimir Zlobin clearly suggests this:
Strange as it may seem, at least at first glance, the guiding male role belonged not to him, but to her. She was very feminine and he masculine, but on the creative and metaphysical plane their roles were reversed. She fertilized, while he gestated and gave birth. She was the seed, and he the soil, the most fertile of all black earths.
Zlobin's usage of a reproductive metaphor to describe the Merezhkovskiis' intellectual and artistic relationship is hardly arbitrary. Like many of the Russian Symbolists, Gippius and her husband substituted intellectual affiliation for filiation. Not only did they prefer to produce works of art, rather than children, but they readily formed intellectual and social affiliations that served as a substitute for filiation or the family. This is a fact that Gippius and Merezhkovskii clearly alluded to in their later years, when they referred to the young writers and poets who attended their salon in Paris as their "embryos," thus envisioning themselves as spiritual parents of Russian literature in emigration.
The Merezhkovskiis began their distinctly Symbolist "family" in 1889 in the capital city of St. Petersburg. And it was here that Gippius distinguished herself as a major figure in the Russian Symbolist movement. Together with Merezhkovskii, Gippius began hosting their famous literary soirées or "Sundays," which were attended by the leading poets, writers, and philosophers of the day. Gippius seemed to relish playing the role of grande dame of their salon. According to the accounts of her contemporaries, she would appear in the salon in outrageous feminine costumes and hairstyles that not only overstepped the boundaries of so-called "good taste" but pushed cultural notions of femininity to a parodic extreme. As Sergei Makovskii recalls:
[Gippius] dressed in a fashion that was not customary in writers' circles and not typical for "society," in a very unique manner, with the obvious intention of being noticed. She wore dresses of her "own" design that either clung to her like scales or had ruches and flounces. She loved beads, chains, and diaphanous scarves. Need I even mention her infamous lorgnette? Not without affectation would Gippius draw her lorgnette up to her nearsighted eyes and peer at her interlocutor. With this gesture she emphasized her absentminded arrogance. And her "make-up!" When she grew tired of her braid, she concocted a hairdo that gave her a ridiculously unkempt look with curls flying about in every direction. In addition, there was a time when she dyed her hair red and put on an excessive amount of rouge. (In Russia, "proper" ladies refrained from such maquillage.)
Despite the fact that Gippius projected an ultra-feminine image in salon society, she managed to distinguish herself as more than simply a salon "poetess" or the wife of the famous Merezhkovskii. She received major critical acclaim with the publication of her poem, "The Song," in The Northern Herald in 1893. In "The Song," the speaker of the poem yearns, "I need that which is not of this world,/Not of this world," expressing the concern with "otherworldliness" and metaphysical ideas that was the earmark of Russian Symbolism. Shortly thereafter in 1896, she published her first collection of short stories, New People, and in 1904 she came out with her first anthology of poetry. Gradually, Gippius expanded her creative endeavors to all major literary genres, including novels, plays, memoirs, and literary criticism, a genre which, at that time, was practiced almost exclusively by men.
As soon as I would speak in verse, Like now this very moment with you, I quickly metamorphosed into a man.
In On the Parnassus of the "Silver Age," Sergei Makovskii praises Gippius' poetry for its "masculinity." Masculinity or, more appropriately, androgyny is a characteristic that Gippius aspired to in her writing. She sought to write, in her own words, "like a human being, not just like a woman." Accordingly, she frequently employed the masculine voice in her poetry, rather than the feminine voice, typical for a female poet. (That is to say, she used unmarked masculine adjectives and past tense verbal forms for her lyrical "I.") In addition, she exclusively employed the gender-neutral signature, Z. Gippius or Z.N. Gippius, for her poetry, rather than the feminine signature, Zinaida Gippius or Zinaida Gippius-Merezhkovskaia, which would mark her not just as a woman, but also as the wife of Dmitrii Merezhkovskii. As she explicitly stated to one of her editors, "My signature should, of course, be Z. Gippius. I have never in my life signed as 'Zinaida.'" For her literary criticism, she frequently used the masculine pseudonyms, Anton Krainii (Anthony "The Extreme"), Tovarisch German (Comrade Herman), Lev Pushchin, Roman Arenskii, and V. Vitovt.
Besides distinguishing herself as a major figure in the Russian Symbolist movement, Gippius, together with her husband, played a leading role in the Russian religious renaissance at the turn of the century. The couple envisioned their primary religious mission to be the creation of a new church. They felt that the Russian Orthodox Church, based on the principles of what they termed "Historical Christianity," put too much emphasis on the spirit at the expense of the revitalizing potential of the flesh. Only through a synthesis of Historical Christianity's emphasis on the spirit with paganism's emphasis on the flesh could humanity be saved through the creation of a third type of religion based on "consecrated flesh." The attainment of this new religion, which they called "Apocalyptical Christianity," would herald the beginning of a new era based on the Second Coming of Christ and the establishment of "the kingdom of God on earth."
Gippius and Merezhkovskii worked toward the establishment of Apocalyptical Christianity through discussions with other philosophers and intellectuals of such issues as the "unsolved mystery of sex" and its relationship to God. Eventually, however, Gippius came to believe that their mission could best be served if they created a secret inner body that would be completely devoted to their religious mission, which they referred to as "The Cause." Gippius decided that this secret body should be comprised of three members, Gippius, Merezhkovskii, and their young friend and colleague, Dmitrii Filosofov, in imitation of the Holy Trinity. Therefore, on March 29, 1901, the three signified their initiation into this new religion by performing a secret religious rite based on Russian Orthodox Church practices. This marked the birth of the Merezhkovskiis' mystical ménage à trois. For the next two decades, Gippius, Merezhkovskii, and Filosofov lived together, working toward the promotion of "The Cause."
A temporary rift between the Merezhkovskiis and Filosofov in 1901 led them to seek a larger forum for the discussion and promotion of their religious ideas. In 1901, Gippius and Merezhkovskii organized the Religious-Philosophical Meetings, which were attended by members of the intelligentsia as well as members of the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy. Through these meetings, the Merezhkovskiis attempted to increase the number of their converts as well as to mend the ever-widening gap that was occurring between the intelligentsia and the Russian Orthodox Church. These meetings were held regularly from November 29, 1901, until April 5, 1903, when Konstantin Pobedonotsev, the procurator of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, abolished them on the basis of their "outspoken character."
As well as organizing the Religious-Philosophical Meetings, Gippius and her husband founded the monthly journal, The New Path, in 1903. The journal not only served as a medium for the religious issues discussed at the Religious-Philosophical Meetings, but also for literature and literary criticism. With the abolishment of the Religious-Philosophical Meetings in 1903, the journal lost one of its primary functions, and, in December 1904, Gippius stepped down as editor of the journal. At this point, Sergei Bulgakov and Nikolai Berdiaev assumed editorship of The New Path which they renamed Questions of Life and began devoting the journal primarily to sociological and political questions.
With the 1905 revolution, Gippius and Merezhkovskii turned their attention from religion to politics. Like many Russian intellectuals, they supported the 1905 revolution and were disillusioned by its inability to yield concrete results. Disenchanted with the political and social climate in Russia after 1905, the Merezhkovskiis, together with Filosofov, moved to Paris in the spring of 1906. While in France, the three collaborated on Le Tsar et la Révolution (1907) which discusses the failed 1905 revolution and the problems inherent in autocracy. They also met with various political émigrés, including the Socialist-Revolutionary terrorist, Boris Savinkov. Sensing the Messianic element in the political ideas of many of these revolutionaries, Gippius tried unsuccessfully to convert them to her unique form of mystical revolution.
In 1908, she and her husband returned to Russia, where they resumed their literary and religious activities. For Gippius, the period after her stay in France was particularly productive. In 1908, together with Merezhkovskii and Filosofov, she published the play, The Color of Poppies. In this same year, she issued a collection of short stories, entitled In Black and White, as well as an anthology of literary criticism, Literary Diary: 1889–1907. Two years later, she came out with her second volume of collected poems. Shortly thereafter, she published the first and third sections of her uncompleted trilogy, The Devil's Doll (1911), the collection of short stories Lunar Ants (1911), and Roman the Tsarevich (1913).
Gippius continued to work and live in Russia through World War I and the revolutions of 1917. Although she supported the February revolution and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, she did not support the October revolution and the Bolsheviks' seizure of power. Believing the Bolsheviks to be the embodiment of the Antichrist, Gippius, along with Merezhkovskii and Filosofov, fled Russia on December 24, 1919, for Poland, where they began organizing a military opposition against the Bolsheviks. Having lost faith in the White counter-revolutionary effort, they staked their hopes in Polish president Jozef Pilsudski's military offensive against Russia. They invited Boris Savinkov to join them in Warsaw to assist them in their anti-Bolshevik efforts. However, once Pilsudski signed a peace agreement with Russia, the Merezhkovskiis realized that their "Russian cause" was hopeless. On October 20, 1920, Gippius and her husband left Warsaw to settle permanently in Paris, leaving Dmitrii Filosofov behind to work on the Communist opposition with Savinkov.
For Gippius, the period in emigration was particularly trying. Not only had she suffered the loss of her homeland, but also of Filosofov, who, with the Merezhkovskiis, had formed a mystical trio for the last 19 years. Despite her sense of profound loss, Gippius resumed her former literary activities. Believing that it was her duty to keep Russian literature and culture alive in emigration, she set about reestablishing her elaborate web of literary and cultural affiliations. In the 1920s, Gippius and Merezhkovskii reintroduced their famous "Sundays" or "Resurrections" (the words are the same in Russian), which served as a meeting ground for Russian writers and philosophers in exile until 1940. And in 1926, they organized the literary society, The Green Lamp. Conceived of as "an incubator of ideas," this society drew a much larger audience than their "Sundays," including a host of emerging writers.
In addition to fostering the renaissance of Russian literature and culture in exile, Gippius continued her own writing. In 1921, she published Heavenly Words and Other Stories. Five years later, she published her memoirs, Living Faces, which recount her meetings with some of the major writers, philosophers, and personalities of the day, and in 1938 she published her final book of poetry, Radiances. With the death of Merezhkovskii in 1941, Gippius turned her literary attention to the subject of her husband. She wrote her reminiscences of Merezhkovskii, detailing the complexities of their 52-year literary marriage. And, in the final years of her life, she paid homage to Merezhkovskii by making him the "dark-eyed" (male) muse of her own modern version of Dante's Divine Comedy, titled The Last Circle (and the Modern Dante in Hell).
Gippius continued working until almost the very end of her life. She died from paralysis in Paris on September 9, 1945, at age 75. Because of her status as an émigré writer and her inimical stance toward Communism, Gippius was denounced as a "decadent" in Russia, and her works were rarely published or read until the recent political changes. In the West, she has long been considered a major Symbolist poet and one of the most influential and intriguing figures of the time.
Gippius, Zinaida. Dmitrii Merezhkovskii. Paris: YMCA Press, 1951.
Makovskii, Sergei. "Zinaida Gippius," in On the Parnassus of the "Silver Age" (Na Parnase "Serebriannogo veka"). Munich: Izdatel'stvo Tsentral'ngo Ob'edineniia Politicheskikh Emigrantov iz SSSR, 1962.
Matich, Olga. Paradox in the Religious Poetry of Zinaida Gippius. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1972.
Pachmuss, Temira. Zinaida Hippius: An Intellectual Profile. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
Zlobin, Vladimir. A Difficult Soul: Zinaida Gippius. Ed. and intro. by Simon Karlinsky. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Gove, Antonina Filonov. "Gender as a Poetic Feature in the Verse of Zinaida Gippius," in American Contributions to the Eighth International Congress of Slavists. Vol 1. Linguistics and Poetics. Ed. by Henrik Birnbaum. Columbus, OH: Slavica, 1978, pp. 379–407.
Matich, Olga. "The Devil and the Poetry of Zinaida Gippius," in Slavic and East European Journal. Vol. 16, no. 2, 1972, pp. 184–192.
——. "Dialectics of Cultural Return: Zinaida Gippius' Personal Myth," in Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism: From the Golden Age to the Silver Age. Ed. by Boris Gasparov, Robert P. Hughes, and Irina Paperno. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992, pp. 52–72.
——. "Zinaida Gippius and the Unisex of Heavenly Existence," in Die Welt der Slaven. Vol. XIX–XX, 1974–75, pp. 98–104.
Between Paris and St. Petersburg: Selected Diaries of Zinaida Hippius. Trans. and ed. by Temira Pachmuss. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1975.
Modern Russian Poetry: An Anthology with Verse Translations. Ed. by Vladimir Markov and Merrill Sparks. Indianapolis, IA: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.
A Russian Cultural Revival: A Critical Anthology of Émigré Literature Before 1939. Ed. and trans. by Temira Pachmuss. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.
Translations: Selected Works of Zinaida Hippius. Trans. and ed. by Temira Pachmuss. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1972.
Women Writers in Russian Modernism: An Anthology. Trans. and ed. by Temira Pachmuss. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1978.
Jenifer Presto , Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California