Partner Olga Tsuberbiller
Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Theatre Square, 3, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 190000
Mariinskaya Gymnasium, Ulitsa Chekhova, 104, Taganrog, Rostovskaya oblast', Russia, 347935
Oblast' di Rostov, Russia, 347935
Maison-musée d’Adélaïde Gertsyk, 39 ulitsa Gagarina, Sudak 98000, Crimea, Russia
Vvedenskoe Cemetery, Nalichnaya Ulitsa, 1, Moskva, Russia, 111020
Sophia Parnok (30 July 1885 O.S./11 August 1885 (N. S.) – 26 August 1933) was a Russian poet, journalist and translator. From the age of six, she wrote poetry in a style quite distinct from the predominant poets of her times, revealing instead her own sense of Russianness, Jewish identity and lesbianism. Besides her literary work, she worked as a journalist under the pen name of Andrei Polianin. She has been referred to as "Russia's Sappho", as she wrote openly about her seven lesbian relationships.
Sonya Yakovlevna Parnokh was born into a well-to-do family of professional Jews in a provincial city outside the Pale of Settlement. Her mother died after giving birth to her twin siblings and she was raised by her father and her step-mother, leaving her feeling her childhood lacked emotional support. From a young age, she wrote poetry and acknowledged her uniqueness—her lesbianism, her Graves’ disease, and her religion—which set her apart from her peers.
Completing her studies at the Mariinskaya Gymnasium in 1894, Parnokh attempted to study music in Geneva, but lacked any real drive and quickly returned to Moscow. To distance herself from her father’s control and her financial dependence on him, she published her first book of poems in 1906 under the pseudonym Sophia Parnok and married Vladimir Volkenstein in 1907. Within two years, the marriage failed and she began working as a journalist.
From 1913, Parnok exclusively had relationships with women and used those love relationships to fuel her creativity. In a succession of relationships with Marina Tsvetaeva, Lyudmila Erarskaya, Olga Tsuberbiller, Maria Maksakova and Nina Vedeneyeva, her muses propelled her to publish five collections of poetry and write several librettos for opera, before her disease claimed her life in 1933.
Barred from publication of her poetry after 1928, Parnok's works were mostly forgotten until after the Soviet period. Increased scholarship since that time, resulted in the publication of her collected works for the first time in 1979. While scholars have focused on her early influential relationship with Tsvetaeva, her best works are now recognized as those written from 1928.
In the beginning of 1923, Parnok embarked on a friendship with Olga Nikolaevna Tsuberbiller, a mathematician at Moscow State University. The exact nature of her relationship with Tsuberbiller is unknown as, while she occupied a significant place in the poet's life, Parnok did not describe Tsuberbiller in the same sexual context as her lovers. Instead, Tsuberbiller was a protector. Parnock would later describe her as almost a guardian angel in her collection of poems Half-Whispered. She joined the group known as the "Lyrical Circle", which included members like Lev Gornung, Leonid Grossman, Vladislav Khodasevich, and Vladimir Lidin. The members critiqued each other's work, which she hoped would help her find clarity and harmony in her works. Short of money, Parnok briefly took an office position, but soon quit and depended upon freelance translations and literary critiques to pay her bills, though critiques were beginning to be censored as well.
By 1925, Parnok and Tsuberbiller had become the closest of friends, and when Erarskaya was hospitalized for a mental break, Tsuberbiller was the one to whom she turned to regain her peace of mind. Parnok was distressed, feeling that her life had ended, and was unable to work because of her depression and worry over her lover. Erarskaya's paranoia and violent outbursts, led to unsettling trauma for Parnok, causing several fainting spells. In 1926, Parnok moved in with Tsuberbiller on Neopalimovsky Lane at Smolensky Boulevard. After a year in the sanatorium Erarskaya was finally pronounced well and released. Increasingly Parnok felt isolated from her readers and alienated from her peers, in part because by 1926, GLAVLIT's authority had been extended to cover both public and private publishing. Parnok feared that her cycle Music would not be accepted for publication. The censorship of her works, but also the unspoken censorship of herself, made her feel invisible, inspiring her poems such as Prologue (1928). She joined another group of poets, known as "The Knot" which was founded to publish the works of the members to secure that one of the group's first releases was the publishing of Music. The censors allowed "The Knot" to exists because their publication runs were limited to 700 copies or less.
Music was generally well received and earned praise from both Eugenia Gertsyk and Voloshin, pleasing Parnok. She made plans to spend the summer with Erarskaya and Tsuberbiller in Bratovshchina and was revived by the natural surroundings, writing eight poems. Though still inspired and writing poetry when they returned, Parnok increasingly suffered from ill health and depression. These feelings were acerbated by the continuing failure of Spendiaryan to complete the scores for Almast. The poems she wrote in early 1927 showed her growing loneliness and resignation to the inevitability of her own death. By spring, sales of "The Knot"′s publications had been quite good and Parnok felt revived enough to spend the summer with Erarskaya and Tsuberbiller in the small town of Khalepye in the Kiev Oblast of Ukraine. Once again the time in nature revived her spirit but she continued to suffer from bad health. Returning to Moscow, she was constantly ill, though she managed to finish her collection Half-Whispered by the end of the year.
By early 1928, Parnok was bedridden, though still translating. She was depressed, "The Knot" had been forced to close after publishing Half-Whispered, she was suffering from writer's block with her poetry, and Spendiaryan had died without finishing the score to Almast. As censorship clamped down, Parnok’s poetic voice became "unlawful", leading to prohibition on publication of her works in 1928. She made her living solely by translating poems by Charles Baudelaire, novels by Romain Rolland, Marcel Proust, Henri Barbusse and others. In May, 1928, Maximilian Steinberg took it upon himself to complete Almast and Parnok agreed to try to get it approved for the Bolshoi Theatre to produce it. In 1929, Tsuberbiller's brother died, and she and Parnok became responsible for the care of his five-year-old twins.
In August 1929, Parnok had word from the Bolshoi that they would produce the opera, only if she wrote a Communist-themed prologue and epilogue to the production. In an effort to see the production completed, she agreed, but that created a rift with Steinberg, who claimed she was bowing to political pressure. She felt trapped between the theater managers and Steinberg. In the spring of 1930, Almast finally went into production, but the conductor made changes, deleting the management's requested prologue and epilogue. He also placed it on the schedule so that it would only have a two-day run. Spendiaryan's widow interceded by having Steinberg called to Moscow to rein in the wayward conductor and move the project to completion. When the opera finally debuted at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow on 24 June 1930, it was a resounding success. The premier was so popular with the public, if not the critics, that it led off the Bolshoi's following fall season. When Maria Maksakova left the title role, Parnok severed her interest in the project, though it toured successfully in Odessa (1930), Tbilissi (1932), Yerevan (1933) and in Paris (1951), among others.
By the end of the year, both Parnok and Tsuberbiller were exhausted and spent several weeks at Uzkoye to regain their health. When they returned to Moscow, they moved to a new apartment, which gave them more room, as well as space to entertain many colleagues from Tsuberbiller's work. Parnok began pursuing Maksakova, attending all her performances, and was re-inspired in her work. She began work on a libretto for an opera Gyul'nara by Yuliya Veysberg, which was dedicated to Maksakova. Though Parnok's infatuation was not reciprocated, it fueled a creative period and by the end of 1931, she had completed the libretto, which was first performed in 1935.
Parnok's last great love was the Georgian physicist, Nina Vedeneyeva. The two may have met as early as 1927, through Tsuberbiller, a colleague of Vedeneyeva. Vedeneyeva's son, Yevgeny, was living in exile at that time and Tsuberbiller, who had written a textbook used for decades in the high schools of Russia, helped her obtain books for him to maintain his studies. In January, 1932, the relationship turned to romance, despite the facts that Parnok was still living with Tsuberbiller and Yevgeny disapproved of the relationship. As had happened before, her lover became her muse, inspiring her to write two cycles of poems, Ursa Major and Useless Goods. The frantic pace of her writing foretold the exhaustion she would suffer, which hastened her death, but Parnok was aware of the consequences. The references between these last two cycles and Parnok's adolescent poetry, make it clear that she had always known what she wanted to say, but until she reached her maturity, she did not know how to express her words. Their emotional bond, which accelerated after a trip to Vedeneyeva's summer cottage in Kashin in April, was destined to remain hidden from most of Vedeneyeva's family and friends. To keep up appearance of a mere friendship, they spent their summers apart.
Cutting herself off from all activities other than her work, her love and her immediate family, Parnok's poetry became paramount and with help from Tsuberbiller and Vedeneyeva she stopped translation work. By winter 1932, her body had become swollen with edema, signalling that her Graves' disease had affected her heart. For the next six months, Parnok was mostly bedridden and Vedeneyeva visited daily. In an attempt to improve Parnok's health, Tsuberbiller suggested that they summer in Karinskoyeand despite the arduous trip, they arrived safely. Vedeneyeva vacationed separately in the Crimea. While they were apart the lovers were plagued with poor mail service, which acerbated Parnok's stress. On 31 July 1933, she penned her last complete poem, as a farewell to Vedeneyeva.
On 20 August 1933, Vedeneyeva returned to Moscow and that same day, she took the train to join Parnok and Tsuberbiller in Karinskoye. The arrival was not due to Parnok's illness, but a scheduled arrival per her pre-planned itinerary. On 25 August, Tsuberbiller realized that Parnok was dying and notified Erarskaya. Parnok succumbed to a heart attack at 11:30 a.m. on the morning of 26 August 1933 with Tsuberbiller and Vedeneyeva at her bedside. Though she tried to make the trip from Moscow before Parnok died, Erarskaya did not arrive until around 5 p.m. A portrait of Tsvetaeva was on her bedside table when she died. The village druggist assisted Tsuberbiller in obtaining the necessary paperwork to take the body back to Moscow, after the funeral service in Karinskoye. Her funeral procession on 28 August with her friends and fans extended 75 kilometers outside of Moscow. They did not reach the city until the following day. She was buried in Vvedenskoye Cemetery in Olga Tsuberbiller's family plot.
After Parnok's death, her works were not available, nor was there any development of Russian scholarship about her until after the Soviet period. In 1979, the Soviet scholar, Sofia Polyakova, edited the first Collected Works of Parnok, which was published in the United States. In 1983, Polyakova published Незакатные оны дни: Цветаева и Парнок (Those Unfading Days: Tsvetaeva and Parnok, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis Press), which unravelled the relationship between Tsvetaeva and Parnok, identifying Tsvetaeva's "woman friend" in her Girlfriend (Russian: Подруга) cycle for the first time. Even after the surge of interest in banned Russian poets through Glasnost policies brought about by Perestroika, Parnok remained obscure to most Russians and the Russian diaspora. Her colleagues and contemporary poets were all rehabilitated before she was. Parnok believed the obstacle was her lesbianism, though there is no way to document why censorship of her works remained.
A memorial plaque dedicated to the Parnokh family was placed on the wall of her birth house in Taganrog in 2012. Poems by Parnok were set to music, recorded on a CD and performed by Elena Frolova in 2002, as part of the "AZIYA +" project.