Tsvetaeva, Marina (1892–1941)

views updated

Tsvetaeva, Marina (1892–1941)

Innovative Russian poet, long undervalued for political reasons, who is now generally recognized as a national treasure. Name variations: Marina Cvetaeva; Marina Tsvetayeva or Tsvétaieff; Marina Tswetajewa-Efron. Pronunciation: Ma-PEE-na Tsve-TAH-ye-va. Born Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva in Moscow, Russia, on September 26, 1892 (according to the Julian calendar used then in Russia; the date would be October 6 "New Style" on the Gregorian calendar used in the West); committed suicide on August 31, 1941, in Yelabuga, USSR; daughter of Maria A. Meyn and Ivan V. Tsvetaev; married Sergei Efron, in 1912; children: Ariadna Efron (b. 1912); Irina Efron (1917–1920); Georgii Efron (b. 1925).

Published first book (1910); emigrated from the Soviet Union (1922); returned to USSR (1939).

Selected books:

Evening Album (Moscow, 1910); The Magic Lantern (Moscow, 1912); From Two Books (Moscow, 1913); Mileposts (Moscow, 1921 and 1922); Mileposts I (Moscow, 1922); The End of Casanova: A Dramatic Study (Moscow, 1922); Parting (Moscow-Berlin, 1922); Poems to Blok (Berlin, 1922); The Tsar-Maiden (Moscow, 1922 and Berlin, 1922); Psyche Romanticism (Berlin, 1923); The Swain (Prague, 1924); After Russia (Paris, 1928).

Major poems not in books: "Poem of the End" (Prague, 1926); "Poem of the Mountain" (Paris, 1926); "The Rat-Catcher" (Prague, 1926); "The Stairs" (Prague, 1926); "Attempt at a Room" (Prague, 1928); "From the Sea" (Paris, 1928); "New Year's Greeting" (Paris, 1928); "Poem of the Air" (Prague, 1930).

Major plays:

Adventure (Prague, 1923); Phoenix (Prague, 1924); Theseus: A Tragedy (Paris, 1927); Phaedra (Paris, 1928).

One icy winter evening in 1921, Marina Tsvetaeva joined eight other women on stage for a poetry reading. Though the Civil War that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was drawing to a close, Moscow was hungry and cold. The audience, from the smell at least, was mainly Red Army soldiers, unfamiliar with "aristocratic" poetry. The poets were outfitted in nice dresses, furs and elegant shoes. But Tsvetaeva wore a man's coat and thick felt boots; she also wore a leather belt and carried a leather bag over her shoulder—the belt and field pouch of an officer in the tsar's army. These accessories declared her loyalty to the defeated royalist White Army, in which her husband had been an officer.

A prominent male poet introduced the readers, explaining that women could only write about love and passion. Tsvetaeva quickly leafed through her notebook, marking pages with matches. She then read seven rousing, risky poems about the White Army, against the new Bolshevik government. The audience applauded loudly, responding to the sounds rather than the meaning, while the moderator anxiously ushered her offstage. Political imprudence and artistic courage were typical of Tsvetaeva: she wrote poems about what she loved, regardless of political expediency. Her Romantic world-view convinced her that a poet's work and life could not be neatly separated, and that a poet must take certain risks.

Tsvetaeva's mother Maria Alexandrovna Meyn was a gifted pianist of Polish and German ancestry. Maria Alexandrovna's father, however, considered a concert career unsuitable for a decent young woman, so Maria performed only at home. At 22, she married Ivan Vladimirovich Tsvetaev, a 44-year-old widower with two small children. She soon concentrated her ambitions on the child she was expecting, sure it would be a son to name Alexander after her beloved, despotic father. Instead, the child was a girl, Marina, born on September 26, 1892. Sighed Maria Alexandrovna: "At least she will be a musician." A second girl—Marina's sister Anastasia Tsvetaeva , known as Asya—was born in 1894.

Ivan Tsvetaev was the son of a poor village priest. First educated at seminary, with hard work he became a university professor, museum director, and recognized authority on classical languages. His life's work was funding and building a museum of copies of ancient Greek sculpture, for poor Russian students to study. Tsvetaeva described her father as absorbed in his work, affectionate but inattentive to his children, and eternally mourning his beautiful first wife.

The household in old Moscow was complicated, between Ivan's older children and his second wife. Marina was a talented and difficult child who later recalled that her mother had favored her older half-brother and the younger, fragile Asya. Tsvetaeva had the musical talent, however, and her mother began teaching her to play piano when she was four. Throughout her childhood, she practiced every day, hating the metronome but never leaving the bench before her time was done. The children were educated by French and German governesses and tutors, and their mother read to them in French and German as well as in Russian: they grew up practically trilingual. It was a demanding childhood, full of mysterious hidden conflicts and burdensome expectations. Worst of all, her mother made fun of Marina's attempts at writing poetry (she began at the age of six). At the same time, this upbringing provided a rich cultural and literary background which Tsvetaeva would draw on all her life. She insisted that she learned everything important before the age of seven, and the important things included love, passion, longing, and the lure of forbidden fruit—mainly literary fruit, books her mother considered too adult for her.

In 1902, when Tsvetaeva was almost ten, her mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the lungs; she left for treatment in Italy, taking her two daughters along. Tsvetaeva and her sister spent the next three years in various émigré hotels and boarding schools, and their mother's absences forced them to become good friends. Their unusual closeness appears in Tsvetaeva's first published poems. In Italy, she met Russian anarchist revolutionaries and wrote poems in their honor. In a friendly boarding school in Switzerland, the Tsvetaeva sisters were drawn to Catholicism; later, in Germany, a less pleasant boarding school effectively soured that impression.

Trying to acclimate her lungs to colder climates, Maria Alexandrovna moved from Italy to Switzerland and then Germany. Instead, she caught a bad cold, and her illness returned, worse than ever. In 1905, she and her daughters went back to the Russian Empire, to the temperate southern climate of Yalta. Tsvetaeva was thrilled by reports of revolutionary activity; her mother, afraid that her passionate and headstrong children might give all their money to revolutionary organizations, wrote in her will that they would receive only the interest from the money she left them until they reached the age of 40. She died in 1906, saying, "I'm only sorry for music and the sun."

Maria Alexandrovna's death left Tsvetaeva motherless at 13. Her father, vague and preoccupied, was hardly able to guide her (he died in 1913), and no one else took on the task. Tsvetaeva attended a series of high schools: always a top student in Russian, French and German, always a miserable failure in mathematics. Her closest companions were her sister Asya and Asya's school friends. In time, Tsvetaeva stopped attending school regularly, hiding in the attic until her father left home in order to read or write in her room, living an intense and solitary life. She discovered the Romantic plays of the French writer Edmond Rostand (best known today for Cyrano de Bergerac) and fell in love with Napoleon and his ill-fated son. When her pious father discovered with horror that she had covered Saint Nikolai the Wonder-Worker in her bedroom icon with a painting of Napoleon, she refused to remove the painting.

Gradually, Tsvetaeva became aware of the literary excitement around her in Moscow. During her childhood and youth, poetry was the most important literary genre in Russia (following the decades of great novelists such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy). Tsvetaeva's lifelong sense of being a poet, therefore, let her enter the country's cultural life on her own terms. She met a minor but fascinating Symbolist poet, who wrote under the pseudonym "Ellis," and she enjoyed a brief romance with his roommate. Through them, she came to Musaget, a society of writers and philosophers where many major poets discussed their artistic theories. Tsvetaeva and her imitative sister cut their hair short (many years before this was fashionable), started smoking, wore high heels, and generally rebelled against the conservative background of their father's house.

After Ellis was accused of stealing from the museum Tsvetaeva's father directed, she was forbidden to see him. Though she had rejected proposals of marriage from both him and his roommate, she still missed them very much and decided to publish a book of poems to convey her feelings. At the time, nothing was easier for a well-off young Russian than publishing a book: she took her verses to a printer, chose the binding, and paid for an edition of 500 copies. Her first book, The Evening Album, appeared in 1910, the year she turned 18. The poems were well crafted but childish in content. Amazingly, three major Russian poet-critics wrote about the book, sensing the author's significant poetic gift. With one of these critics, Maximilian Voloshin, Tsvetaeva struck up a lasting friendship.

Marina Tsvetaeva">

In order for the gods not to play with us, we must play with them!

Marina Tsvetaeva

Voloshin invited Tsvetaeva to spend the summer of 1911 at his seaside house on the Black Sea. This was a kind of artists' colony where painters, actors and writers worked, joked and enjoyed walking over the sun-baked landscape. Tsvetaeva often told how she met a young man on the beach, which was covered with pretty pebbles, and thought, "If he brings me my favorite stone, I will marry him." Sergei Yakovlevich Efron, then 17 (a year younger than Tsvetaeva), found the carnelian bead she preferred, and the two immediately became inseparable. Efron was an orphan from a half-Jewish, half-Russian family and suffered from tuberculosis, a disease close to Tsvetaeva's heart. She protected and mothered him, encouraging him to write stories and to behave in a noble, suitably Romantic manner. The two married in January 1912, aged 19 and 18.

The first years of Tsvetaeva's married life were happy, the best of what a woman of her class could enjoy. She published her second book and Efron's first in 1912; the couple bought things they liked, spent time on the Black Sea, and paid servants to do the cooking and housekeeping. Their daughter Ariadna Efron (usually given the more Russian-sounding pet name Alya) was born in September 1912; Tsvetaeva first nursed her herself, then hired wet-nurses. Tsvetaeva's poetry grew more mature, she won a Moscow literary prize, and occasionally published in journals or read at friends' houses. She published a selection from her first two books in 1913, but the next book would not appear until several years after the 1917 Revolution.

Tsvetaeva's poetry leaped in significance during her intense love affair with an older poet, Sophia Parnok . Parnok matured slowly as an artist and would write her best poems, many of them beautiful evocations of a woman's love for a woman, in the 1920s and 1930s. Tsvetaeva was immediately attracted to Parnok, and the two traveled, read and wrote together, with frequent stormy quarrels, from the fall of 1914 until early 1916. Parnok encouraged Tsvetaeva to read 19th-century Russian women's poetry, took her on trips to the provinces, and helped her form connections in the publishing world. When the relationship ended, Tsvetaeva was becoming aware of other poets writing in Russia, meeting many personally. She turned to her native city, Moscow, in exploring her own poetic voice. It was a time of intense emotional, spiritual and artistic growth, as she began to write what is clearly great poetry. She also did not need to worry about making ends meet or taking care of her daughter if she were not in the mood; freedom from everyday cares let her consolidate a sense of herself as a serious artist.

The First World War left little mark on Tsvetaeva's poetry. But a month before her daughter Irina's birth, the February Revolution of 1917 forced the Russian tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. The often oppressive tsarist autocracy was replaced with unheard-of personal and political freedoms and an unwieldy Provisional Government (led by Alexander Kerensky). Most Russian artists and intellectuals welcomed this change, but it did not impress Tsvetaeva; she wrote gloomy poems about the faceless masses of soldiers, seeming to predict what was to follow. As the Bolsheviks opposed Kerensky's government, ongoing war and political agitation made it hard to continue the outwardly peaceful, inwardly turbulent life that Tsvetaeva had set up. October 1917 found her on the Black Sea, while Sergei Efron, now an officer in training, defended the Kremlin against Revolutionary forces. Tsvetaeva published an account of those days based on her journals: panic on the first train north to Moscow; fear that Efron had died in the fighting; their trip back south to her sister Asya and Voloshin; Voloshin's prophetic description of the Civil War ahead; her trip back to Moscow to collect the children; and, finally, realization that she could not leave Moscow, that she was isolated in a city gripped by revolution.

Toward the end of 1917, after a week of bloody fighting, Moscow fell to Lenin's followers, the Bolsheviks. In December, opponents of the Bolsheviks formed the first units of the White Volunteer Army to battle Lenin's "Reds." When Lenin was nearly assassinated in September 1918, his colleagues launched a "Red Terror," in which thousands of opponents were executed. By the close of 1918, Lenin's party, now renamed the Communists, had established a dictatorship. The White Army continued its opposition. These Civil War years in Moscow were both trying and triumphant for Tsvetaeva. She had no profession besides her poetry, was horribly nearsighted and was frightened of busy city streets. The new Communist government confiscated the money she would have inherited at 40. Her difficult childhood had not equipped her to meet all her children's physical and emotional needs, and selling books and furnishings did not bring much money. She chopped attic beams and furniture to feed the stove and used the fancy samovar to cook potatoes and porridge rather than tea. In late 1919, during the worst winter, friends convinced her to put her daughters into one of the new state-run children's homes in hopes they would be better fed there. On one visit, she found Alya sick and brought her home to take care of her. She then heard that Irina, stunted physically and mentally from malnourishment, had died of starvation before her third birthday.

At the same time, Tsvetaeva refused to cut back her work on poetry. Instead, she befriended young actors who were passionately excited about new artistic trends and freedoms, and she made her daughter Alya into a household helper and junior poet. Numerous love affairs and infatuations fueled wonderful poems. The hardships of this new life strengthened Marina's sense of artistic mission. She dressed in whatever she had, smoked whatever tobacco she could find, and defended her husband's and the White Army's fight to depose the new Bolshevik government. But in November 1920, the Whites were decisively defeated and forced to leave Russia. Many creative artists in the Soviet Union tried for years to understand the new Communist system, overlooking or rationalizing its flaws. Tsvetaeva liked many Communists personally, but she uncompromisingly rejected the political system which had presided over her daughter's starvation in the children's home. If she had stayed in the USSR, she would surely have been arrested long before the great Stalinist terror in the 1930s.

Through a friend, Tsvetaeva learned that her husband was alive in the newly restored country of Czechoslovakia. It took more than a year to get money, permission for visas, and train tickets; in that time, she published two new books of poetry. In May 1922, she and Alya (almost ten) left Russia. Tsvetaeva spent six weeks in the hectic literary climate of Berlin, where new publishers were flourishing, and managed to publish several more new books. Then she and Alya joined Efron in an almost rural suburb of Prague, and their émigré life began. The new government of Czechoslovakia wisely offered financial support to scholars and artists who had fled the Soviet Union; Efron studied literature at Charles University on scholarship, and Tsvetaeva received a subsidy as a poet.

Tsvetaeva remembered Prague fondly after leaving. She loved the landscape around the suburban villages, for walks and inspiration. The subsidy let her write a great deal—cycles of lyric poetry, a long folkloric poem, two long lyric poems based on an unhappy love affair, and a "lyrical satire" based on "The Pied Piper of Hamelin." The family combined resources to rent cheap rooms, where Tsvetaeva hauled water, scrubbed floors, cooked, washed, mended, and stoked the stove in winter. Efron, a student with tuberculosis, was never expected to do housework or find a paying job. After the birth of their third child, Georgii (with the pet name "Mur," after the cat in a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann), in February 1925, Tsvetaeva dreaded another bleak village winter, and she moved to Paris on November 1.

By 1925, Paris was the center of Russian émigré political and literary life. Journals and newspapers were run by various party groups, from leftist to moderate and right wing. Tsvetaeva at first published almost everywhere (except the right wing, she explained, because they lacked culture). She came to Paris a recognized poet, and her successful first reading earned praise and enough money for a holiday in Brittany. Soon, however, Tsvetaeva's pugnacious literary statements and flouting of convention made enemies among the émigré community. This made her life in Paris more interesting and difficult. In France, passportless Russian émigrés could not hold regular jobs, and Tsvetaeva, as always, was only qualified as a writer. The family lived in a series of grimy, working-class suburbs, often behind on their rent, and Tsvetaeva's earnings from publication and donations from admirers of her writing were the main source of income.

In France, Tsvetaeva enjoyed correspondence with Boris Pasternak, a great poet who remained in the Soviet Union, Rainer Maria Rilke, the Austrian poet who died at the end of 1926, and many less famous friends. She continued to write prolifically, short lyric poems and long narrative poems. Everyone agreed that she doted on her son Georgii, a brilliant child who grew into a self-centered, unpleasant adolescent. At the same time, her husband came to consider the White Army a terrible mistake and to favor the Soviet Union; young Alya adopted his opinions, at least partly to rebel against her mother's demands that she do housework and mind her little brother.

By the 1930s, economic depression made life precarious, and Tsvetaeva wrote more critical and autobiographical prose, which sold and paid better than poetry. Many of her stylistically innovative prose works are memoirs of writers she knew who had recently died; others examine the roots of her own poetry in childhood. Her uncompromising and unpopular political comments, combined with Efron's dubious political evolution, set editors against her. Right-wing publications objected to her "revolutionary" formal innovations, while left-wing publications did not want writing that presented the tsar or the White Army favorably.

In 1937, Alya returned to the Soviet Union; later the same year, Efron disappeared after a bungled political assassination and also left for the USSR. He turned out to have been working for years for the NKVD (the Soviet secret service), though it is unclear what Tsvetaeva knew about his activities. Left with her son, no longer a welcome contributor or friend, Tsvetaeva realized that she must return to the USSR as well, despite the problems she would face there. Boris Pasternak had often written that important Soviet literary figures valued her new work, so she may have expected more of a welcome than she would receive. She prepared slowly, assembling parts of her archive she could take with her, leaving them with dependable people. (Some of these writings survived the Second World War and are now in print.) Her last cycle of poems was a passionate protest against Hitler's occupation of Czechoslovakia; she must have worried about her son, with his Jewish last name, in a Europe menaced by Hitler. In June 1939, she left France with 14-year-old Georgii, who insisted that things in the USSR would be wonderful.

Of course, things were far from wonderful. Stalin's "Great Terror" reached its height between 1934 and 1939. Working to ferret out "traitors," Stalin and his secret police presided over a system which saw to it that millions of innocent people—including top party and government elites, army officers, artists, writers, scientists, ordinary citizens, and children—spent long years in forced labor camps or were killed. When Tsvetaeva arrived, she learned that her sister Asya was in a labor camp. For two months, the family lived together outside Moscow. In August, Tsvetaeva's daughter Alya, nearly 27, was arrested and disappeared into the Stalinist system of prisons and camps. In October, her husband Efron was arrested. Tsvetaeva would never see either of them again. She and her son were now homeless in a land where almost everyone shunned them as dangerous former émigrés. She found temporary places to live, and Pasternak helped her get work as a literary translator; Tsvetaeva, however, worked too conscientiously to make much money at translating. In 1940, she noted that she had been trying on the idea of death for a year—but there were no ceiling hooks, as chandeliers had all been replaced by electric bulbs.

Still, she lived, occasionally writing poems of her own, standing in lines to send packages to Efron and Alya in prison, until Hitler attacked the USSR in 1941. Tsvetaeva, protective as ever, was terrified that Georgii would get killed in German firebombing. She managed to get them evacuated southward with other writers, and they found a room in the small town of Yelabuga on the Kama River. People say that during her last days Tsvetaeva looked beaten and depressed, though she wanted to move to a town nearby where Georgii could attend school and be less bored. No one knows why she committed suicide on August 31, 1941, when everyone else was out of the house: quarrels with her son, fear of the advancing Germans, indignation at a supposed offer to collaborate with the secret police, or merely depressed exhaustion. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Yelabuga cemetery.

Efron was evidently shot in 1941; Georgii was drafted into the Red Army and disappeared on the battlefield in 1944. Alya spent 17 years in prison, labor camps and exile for her nonexistent crimes. She was "rehabilitated" in 1955 and spent her last 20 years working to publish her mother's writings. At her request, Tsvetaeva's archive in Moscow was closed until the year 2000. Until the "thaw" after Stalin's death in 1953, Tsvetaeva remained a "non-person" in the Soviet Union. By the end of the 1970s, she was recognized as one of Russia's greatest 20th-century poets.


Karlinsky, Simon. Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World and Her Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Schweitzer, Viktoria. Tsvetaeva. Trans. by Robert Chandler and H. T. Willetts, ed. by Angela Livingstone. London: HarperCollins, 1992.

suggested reading:

After Russia-Posle Rossii. (Bilingual edition.) Trans. by Michael Naydan. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1992.

Demesne of the Swans-Lebediny Stan. (Bilingual edition.) Trans. by Robin Kemball. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1980.

Pasternak, Yevgeny, Yelana Pasternak, and Konstantin Azadovsky, eds. Letters Summer 1926: Correspondence Between Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Rilke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva. Trans. by Elaine Feinstein. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971, rev. ed., London, 1986.

Taubman, Jane. A Life Through Poetry: Marina Tsvetaeva's Lyric Diary. Columbus, OH: Slavica, 1988.

Tsvetaeva, Marina. Art in the Light of Conscience. Eight Essays on Poetry by Marina Tsvetaeva. Trans. with intro. and notes by Angela Livingstone. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

——. A Captive Spirit: Selected Prose. Ed. and trans. by J. Marin King. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1980.

Tsvetaeva: A Pictorial Biography. Comp. by Mikhail Baltsvinik and Irma Kudrova. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1980.

Tsvetayeva, Marina: Selected Poems. Trans. by David McDuff. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe Press, 1987.

Sibelan Forrester , Assistant Professor of Russian, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania