Parnok, Sophia (1885–1933)

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Parnok, Sophia (1885–1933)

Russian poet. Name variations: Sonya Parnokh; (pseudonym) Andrey Polyanin. Born on July 30, 1885, in Taganrog, Russia; died in August 1933, in Kirinsky, USSR; daughter of Yakov Solomonovich Parnokh (a pharmacist and apothecary owner) and Alexandra Parnokh (a doctor); married briefly to Vladimir Volkenshtein, in 1907; no children.

Published first book of poetry (1916); wrote successful libretto for an opera staged at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater (1930).

Selected writings:

Poems (1916); Roses of Pieria (1922); The Vine (1923); Music (1926); In a Hushed Voice (1928); Almast (libretto, 1930).

Sophia Parnok, named Sonya Parnokh at birth, was born in 1885 into an affluent Jewish professional home in Taganrog, Russia. A southern port town on the inland Azov Sea, Taganrog was outside the immediate influence of Russian politics at a time when religious minorities, including Jews, were pervasively persecuted; while

most Jewish settlers were forced to live within the Pale of Settlement, Parnok and her siblings were raised to think of themselves first and foremost as Russians. Their father, the local apothecary, was indifferent to religion and highly assimilated into Russian culture, and the family was materially comfortable and lived among the intellectual elite. While she was still quite young, however, her mother Alexandra Parnokh , a doctor, died while giving birth to twins.

Parnok attended the Empress Marie Gymnasium for Girls for ten years, studying a wide range of topics, including several languages, music, and math. She was also educated by a governess who became her stepmother, and she "carried away from her childhood the strong feeling that she had had no childhood, that she had emerged into adulthood at too young an age," wrote her biographer Diana Burgin . Already beginning to write poetry in her youth, Parnok was rebellious against her family's settled existence, believing it restrained her creativity. When she was about 20, she left to study music in Geneva, Switzerland. Before completing a degree there, she moved back to Russia, this time to St. Petersburg, where she studied history, philosophy, and law.

Beginning to write seriously, Parnok was first published in a literary journal in 1906. Several of her literary reviews at this time were published under the male name Andrey Polyanin, as she believed that her work thus would be more seriously accepted within the male-dominated literary circles. In 1907, Parnok married Vladimir Volkenshtein, but the marriage was brief in large part due to her lesbianism, of which she had become aware very early in her youth. She accepted and celebrated this facet of her self, frequently invoking mythological goddesses and the poet Sappho in her work: in one poem, using the voice of Aphrodite, Parnok writes, "There's talk, Sappho: / They want to know to whom you write your eternal love songs, / Nectar of the gods! To young men or to maids?"

As the strictures of the Victorian era faded and then were swept away in the sea change brought by World War I, women's contributions to and acceptance in Russian poetry increased. Using her own name, Parnok published her first book of poetry in 1916, simply titled Poems. During this time she maintained intimate relationships with several women, including Nadezhda Polyakova , and began writing freely about her experiences. Her love affairs directly influenced her work, leading to surges of creativity that linked artistry and eroticism. An intense two-year relationship with poet Marina Tsvetayeva , who was married and the mother of a child, coincided with a particularly creative period.

Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Parnok moved to Sudak, in the Crimea, where she continued writing poetry and also wrote a libretto for an opera. She returned to Moscow in 1922, the same year she published her second book of poetry, Roses of Pieria. This was followed in 1923 by The Vine and in 1926 by Music. In an effort to avoid Soviet censorship, with some others she established a small press called Uzel (meaning "knot" or "group"). The government soon learned of the operation and shut it down. Her final book of poetry, 1928's In a Hushed Voice, was published after it had been edited by censors. Later considered by critics a major work, the book went essentially unnoticed at the time. In 1930, Parnok completed a libretto for an opera, Almast, which was successfully staged at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow; it was the last of her work made public in her lifetime. In 1931, she met her last love and companion, physicist Nina Vedneyeva , who greatly influenced her work during the following years. Parnok's health grew steadily worse until she died of heart problems in August 1935, in the village of Kirinsky, near Moscow. Her death barely received mention in the Moscow papers.

Much of Parnok's literary career corresponded to a time of increasingly severe repression in Russia, as the group became idealized and prized far above the individual; Joseph Stalin denounced lyric poetry in particular for being out of step with his political goals for the country. Despite the very limited printings of her work and her small audience, Parnok persisted in writing in a bold style, publishing five volumes of poetry, a significant quantity of literary critiques, and the libretti to several operas. (It is believed that much of her unpublished work has been lost.) She was the only openly lesbian voice in Russian poetry at a time when homosexuality was considered psychologically abnormal and a sign of moral degradation in Russian society. Beginning in the 1970s, interest in Parnok's work grew significantly. A collection of Parnok's poetry, Sophia Parnok: Collected Works, was published in the United States in 1979 by Sophia Polyakova of Leningrad University (it was not published in the USSR), and her life and work have become the subject of several books, including 1994's Sophia Parnok: The Life and Works of Russia's Sappho by Diana Lewis Burgin.


Burgin, Diana Lewis. Sophia Parnok: The Life and Work of Russia's Sappho. NY: New York University Press, 1994.

Contemporary Authors. Vol. 148. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

suggested reading:

Polyakova, Sophia. The Sunset Days of Yore: Tsvetayeta and Parnok. Ardis Press, 1983.

Richard C. C. , freelance writer, Eugene, Oregon