Marina Tsvetaeva


Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow. She was one of the most original of the Russian 20th-century poets. Her work was not looked kindly upon by Stalin and the Bolshevik régime; her literary rehabilitation only began in the 1960s. Tsvetaeva's poetry arose from her own deeply convoluted personality, her eccentricity and tightly disciplined use of language. Among her themes were female sexuality, and the tension in women's private emotions; she bridges the mutually contradictory schools of Acmeism and symbolism.

Much of Tsvetaeva's poetry has its roots in the depths of her displaced and disturbed childhood. Her father was Ivan Tsvetaev, a professor of art history at the University of Moscow, who later founded the Alexander III Museum, which is now known as the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Tsvetaeva's mother, Maria Alexandrovna Meyn, was Ivan's second wife, a highly literate woman. She was also a volatile (and a frustrated) concert pianist, with some Polish ancestry on her mother's side.

Marina had two half-siblings, Valeria and Andrei, who were the children of Ivan's deceased first wife, Varvara Dmitrievna Ilovaisky (daughter of the historian Dmitry Ilovaisky). Her only full sister, Anastasia, was born in 1894. Quarrels among the children were frequent and occasionally violent.

There was considerable tension between Tsvetaeva's mother and Varvara's children. Tsvetaeva's father maintained close contact with his children from the first marriage. Maria favored Anastasia over Marina. Tsvetaeva's father was kind, but deeply wrapped up in his studies and distant from his family. He was also still deeply in love with his first wife; he would never get over her. Maria, for her part, had had a tragic love affair before her marriage, from which she never recovered. Maria Alexandrovna particularly disapproved of Marina's poetic inclination. She wished her daughter to become a pianist and thought her poetry was poor.

In 1902, Tsvetaeva's mother contracted tuberculosis. Because it was believed that a change in climate could help cure the disease, the family travelled abroad until shortly before her death in 1906. They lived for a while by the sea at Nervi, near Genoa. There, away from the rigid constraints of a bourgeois Muscovite life, Marina was able for the first time to run free, climb cliffs, and vent her imagination in childhood games.

It should be noted that there were many Russian émigré revolutionaries residing at that time in Nervi, and undoubtedly these people would have had some influence on the impressionable Marina. This state of affairs was allowed to continue until June 1904, when Marina was dispatched to school in Lausanne. Changes in the Tsvetaev residence led to several changes in school, and during the course of her travels Marina acquired the Italian, French, and German languages.

In 1908, Tsvetaeva studied literary history at the Sorbonne. During this time, a major revolutionary change was occurring within Russian poetry: the flowering of the Russian Symbolist movement, and this movement was to color most of her later work. It was not the theory which was to attract her, but the poetry and the immense gravity which writers such as Andrey Bely and Alexander Blok were capable of generating. Her own first collection of poems, Evening Album, was self-published in 1910. It attracted the attention of the poet and critic Maximilian Voloshin, whom Tsvetaeva described after his death in 'A Living Word About a Living Man'. Voloshin came to see Tsvetaeva and soon became her friend and mentor.

Marina started spending time at Voloshin's home in the Black Sea resort of Koktebel She became enamored of the work of Alexander Blok and Anna Akhmatova, although she never met Blok and did not meet Akhmatova until the 1940s.

At Koktebel, Tsvetaeva met Sergei Efron, a cadet in the Officers' Academy. She was 19, he 18: they fell in love instantly and were married in 1912, the same year as her father's project, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, was ceremonially opened, an event attended by Czar Nicholas II. Tsvetaeva's love for Efron was intense, however, this did not preclude her from having affairs, including one with Osip Mandelstam, which she celebrated in a collection of poems called Mileposts.

At around the same time, she became involved in a lesbian affair with the poet Sofia Parnok, who was 7 years older than Tsvetaeva. The two women fell deeply in love, and the relationship profoundly affected both women's writings. She deals with the ambiguous and tempestuous nature of this relationship in a cycle of poems which at times she called The Girlfriend, and at other times The Mistake.

Tsvetaeva and her husband spent summers in the Crimea until the revolution, and had two daughters: Ariadna, or Alya (born 1912) and Irina (born 1917). Then, in 1914, Efron volunteered for the front; by 1917 he was an officer stationed in Moscow with the 56th Reserve. Tsetsaeva was to witness the Russian Revolution first hand. On trains, she came into contact with ordinary Russian people and was shocked by the mood of anger and violence. She wrote in her journal: "In the air of the compartment hung only three axe-like words: bourgeois, Junkers, leeches". After the 1917 Revolution, Efron joined the White Army, and Marina returned to Moscow hoping to be reunited with her husband. She was trapped in Moscow for five years, where there was a terrible famine.

She wrote six plays in verse and narrative poems, including The Tsar's Maiden (1920), and her epic about the Civil War, The Swans' Encampment, which glorified those who fought against the communists. The cycle of poems in the style of a diary or journal begins on the day of Czar Nicholas II's abdication in March 1917, and ends late in 1920, when the anti-communist White Army was finally defeated. The 'swans' of the title refers to the volunteers in the White Army, in which her husband was fighting as an officer.

The Moscow famine was to exact a terrible 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, Marina placed Irina in a state orphanage, mistakenly believing that she would be better fed there. Tragically, she was mistaken, and Irina died of starvation in 1920. The child's death caused Tsvetaeva great grief and regret. In one letter, she said, 'God punished me.' During these years, Tsvetaeva maintained close 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, who ended up betraying her.

In May 1922, Tsvetaeva and Alya left the Soviet Union and were reunited with Efron in Berlin. There she published the collections Separation, Poems to Blok, and the poem The Tsar Maiden. In August 1922, the family moved to Prague. Unable to afford living accommodation in Prague itself, with Efron studying politics and sociology at the Charles University in Prague and living in hostels, Tsvetsaeva and Ariadna found rooms in a village outside the city. In Prague, Tsvetaeva had a passionate affair with Konstantin Rozdevitch, a former military officer. This affair became widely known throughout emigré circles, and even to Efron himself. Efron was devastated by the affair.

It was bound to end up disastrously, and it did. Her break-up with Rozdevitch in 1923 was almost certainly the inspiration for her great 'The Poem of the End'. This relationship was also the inspiration for "The Poem of the Mountain". At about the same time, a more important relationship began: Tsvetaeva's correspondence with Boris Pasternak, who had stayed in the Soviet Union. The two were not to meet for nearly twenty years, but for a time they were in love, and they maintained an intimate friendship until Tsvetaeva's return to Russia.

In summer 1924, Efron and Tsvetaeva left Prague for the suburbs, living for a while in Jiloviste, before moving on to Vsenory, 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 would have none of it and insisted on Georgy. He was to be a most difficult and demanding child. Nevertheless, Tsetaeva loved him in the only way she knew, obsessively. Alya was relegated immediately to the role of mother's helper and confidante, and was consequently robbed of much of her childhood. However, the child did not reciprocate. The older he grew, the more difficult and obstreperous he became.

In 1925, the family settled in Paris, where they would live for the next 14 years. At about this time Efron contracted tuberculosis, adding to the family's difficulties. Tsvetaeva received a meagre 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 criticized 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, and the critics D. S. Mirsky and Aleksandr Bakhrakh.

Meanwhile, Tsvetaeva's husband was rapidly developing Soviet sympathies and was homesick for Russia. He was, however, afraid because of his past as a White soldier. Eventually, either out of idealism or to garner acceptance from the Communists, he began spying 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 Russia. 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. 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.

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 ostracized in Paris because of the implication that he was involved with the NKVD. World War II had made Europe as unsafe and hostile as Russia. Tsvetaeva felt that she no longer had a choice.

In 1939, she and her son returned to the Soviet Union. Marina could not have foreseen the horrors which were in store for her. In Stalin's Russia, anyone who had lived abroad was a 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. Aseyev, who she had hoped would assist, shied away, fearful for his life and position.

Efron and Alya were arrested for espionage. Alya's fiancé, it turned out, 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 August 24, 1941 she left for Chistopol desperately looking for a job. On August 26, 1941, 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 August 28. On 31 August, 1941 while living in Yelabuga, Tsvetaeva hanged herself. She was buried in Yelabuga cemetery on September 2, 1941, but the exact location of her grave remains unknown. There have always been rumors that Tsvetaeva's death wasn't suicide. On the day of her death she was home alone (her host family was out) and, according to Yelabuga residents, NKVD agents came to her house and forced her to commit suicide. These rumors remain unconfirmed.

In the town of Yelabuga, the Tsvetaeva house museum can be visited, as well as a monument to her. In the museum, Tsvetaeva's farewell note, written just before her death, can be seen.

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