Borisoglebskiy Pereulok, 6с1, Moskva, Russia, 121069
61 Ulitsa Kazanskaya + 20 Ulitsa Malaya Pokrovskaya, Yelabuga, Respublika Tatarstan, Russia, 423600
Ulitsa Yefremova, 17А, Tarusa, Kaluzhskaya oblast', Russia, 249100
Marina Tsvetaeva (October 8, 1892 - August 31, 1941) was a Russian poet, prose writer, dramatist. Widely considered one of the four greatest twentieth-century Russian poets and an innovative prose writer and dramatist, Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow. Her father was an art professor and her mother a gifted pianist of Polish descent, whose father had forbidden her a concert career. Although Tsvetaeva's mother wanted her daughter to become a pianist, Marina herself was drawn to words and began writing poetry at the age of six. Her first volume of poems, Evening Album, was published in 1910 and was composed entirely of verse she had written between the ages of 15 and 17. Aside from Tsvetaeva's youthful love affair with the poet Sophia Parnok, her self-acknowledged bisexuality, her lesbianism – and the lesbian theme that runs throughout her poetry, prose, letters and journals – have all been ignored, or at best mentioned only in passing by most of her Western biographers. The majority of Russian Tsvetaeva scholars have tried, and continue to try, to deny the poet's lesbianism and its significance in her work.
Tsvetaeva revealed an attraction to her own sex from childhood, both in her reading and in her relationships with other children. She tells the story of her childhood love for another girl in her prose work ‘The House at Old Pimen’. Despite her lesbian inclinations, or perhaps in an effort to neutralise the anxiety they clearly caused her, Tsvetaeva married young and immediately had a daughter. Then, at the beginning of World War I, she met Sophia Parnok and fell in love at first sight. This passionate affair was fraught with ambivalence for Tsvetaeva, but it inspired the most artistically mature work of her early period, the lyrical cycle ‘Girlfriend’ (1914– 1915), a masterpiece of lesbian love poetry that was published only in the 1970s and has not yet been translated into English in its entirety. Although both Parnok and Tsvetaeva predicted that their love was doomed almost from the start, Tsvetaeva was traumatised by their break-up (in early 1916). She called the loss of Parnok the ‘first catastrophe’ of her young life, and nurtured vengeful feelings against Parnok until the end of her (Tsvetaeva's) life. In the aftermath of the affair, Tsvetaeva returned to her husband, and immediately became pregnant. Her second daughter was born in early 1917.
Tsvetaeva spent the 1917 Revolution and the ensuing civil war in Moscow, alone with her two young daughters – her husband was an officer in the White army. She was forced to put her infant daughter in an orphanage where the little girl died of starvation. In 1918– 1920 Tsvetaeva's work with an avantgarde Moscow theatre group, the Third Studio, led to her intimacy with Sonya Holliday, an actress. Their apparently platonic, but intensely erotic love affair was described by Tsvetaeva much later in the prose work ‘The Tale of Sonechka’ (which has not yet been translated into English) and in a cycle of lyrics, ‘Poems to Sonechka’. ‘The Tale of Sonechka’ must be read in part as an encoded rewriting of Tsvetaeva's affair with her first Sonya (Parnok).
Just after the publication of her most famous collection, Mileposts I, Tsvetaeva left the Soviet Union (in May 1922) and was finally reunited with her husband in Prague. In early 1925 their son was born, and later that year the family moved to Paris, where Tsvetaeva lived for the next 14 years. At first she was welcomed into Russian émigré literary life in Paris, but during the 1930s, when most of her prose works were written, she was increasingly isolated and criticised. Eventually, she was treated as an outcast, due in large part to her husband's pro-Soviet political activities, which included espionage for the Soviet secret police.
In the early 1930s Tsvetaeva met Natalie Clifford Barney, the famous expatriate American lesbian writer (the ‘Amazon of Letters’), and gave a poetry reading at Barney's Rue Jacob salon, but neither she, nor her work, were given an enthusiastic reception. Feeling rejected, Tsvetaeva wrote (in French) her ‘Lettre à l'Amazone’ (1932, revised in 1934), a highly encoded, autobiographical and polemical work with two addressees: Barney, and Tsvetaeva's former lover and earlier rejector, Parnok. In ‘Lettre's’ story of a lesbian love affair between a young girl and an older woman, Tsvetaeva rewrote her and Parnok's affair for the third time. Simultaneously, she composed an ambiguous, intensely personal and moving epitaph to her lost ‘girlfriend’ (Parnok), the only lover she had had who had made it possible for her to have an orgasm, and to like her sexual self. ‘Lettre à l'Amazone’ also gives expression to Tsvetaeva's struggle with her own lesbianism. Her internalised homophobia led her to defend lesbian relationships against the censure of society, God and the State, while striking out at them as an offence to nature and Mother. Tsvetaeva's ‘Lettre à l'Amazone’ remains the only original theoretical work on lesbianism by a Russian writer.
At the end of the 1930s Tsvetaeva returned to Soviet Russia, where tragedy awaited her. First, her daughter was arrested (in August 1939) and sent to a concentration camp; then her husband was arrested and shot as an enemy of the people. Shunned by her poet colleagues in Moscow, she was sent to live outside the city (in Golitsyno). Despite her desperate situation in Moscow during the year after her return, she became involved in a relationship with Tatyana Kvanina, the wife of a minor writer. Part of their intimate correspondence has recently appeared in a Russian journal.
After the German offensive began in earnest, Tsvetaeva and her teenage son were evacuated to Yelabuga in the Tatar Autonomous Republic. There, the beleaguered, hounded poet could find no work or assistance. On 31 August 1941, finding herself alone in the house for a few hours, she hanged herself from a beam in the ceiling. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Yelabuga cemetery.
Her son Georgy volunteered for the Eastern Front of World War II and died in battle in 1944. Her daughter Ariadna spent 16 years in Soviet prison camps and exile and was released in 1955. Ariadna wrote a memoir of her family; an English-language edition was published in 2009. She died in 1975.
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.
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