Tatyana Kvanina (born 1908) was the wife of a minor poet. Shunned by her poet colleagues in Moscow, Marina Tsvetaeva 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 1940, in a relationship with Tatyana Kvanina. Part of their intimate correspondence has recently appeared in a Russian journal. Tatyana Kvanina published a memoir about Tsvetaeva, That’s How It Was.
In her memoir That’s How It Was, Tatyana Kvanina discusses the extent to which Tsvetaeva cleaved herself to her and her husband upon the poet’s return to Russia. The need for the friendship of this couple which Tsvetaeva expressed at the time bewildered them both. If she stopped by, she stopped by for an extent of time that seemed strange even to usually guest-loving Russians, and she frequently sent long, sometimes dramatic letters to both Kvanina and her husband. Kvanina’s discussion of the relationship she had with Tsvetaeva reveals some of the same issues we have seen in her relationship with Sophia Parnok and her “pass” at Berberova: she had very little idea what she was doing not just when it came to romantic relationships, but also when it came to friendship. She dominated conversations, and as can be seen from the following quote, seems to have treated Kvanina primarily as a sounding board, someone to whom she could recount her thoughts and memories for hours on end: When I was alone, Marina Tsvetaeva, as a rule, talked more. I listened. I saw that Marina Tsvetaeva needed to talk herself out (I understood that it was out of this need that her letters to us emerged, especially those which she delivered straight into my hands).
Although she spent an entire year with Kvanina as her closest friend, visiting or writing her letters on what seems to have been close to a daily basis, Tsvetaeva was apparently unable to remember the most basic facts about her friend, forgetting, for instance, her profession, but recalling seemingly inconsequential details: Marina Ivanovna was not really interested in the family, business, etc. sides of our life. She quite often could not recall that I was a teacher of Russian language and literature, and not German language and literature, etc., etc.…And indeed, not remembering, it would seem, what was the most important in my life with Nikolai Yakovlevich, Marina Ivanovna remembered that I had once stroked a tree, that I was bad at navigating metro passageways, that I was afraid of riding in elevators (“Tanya! I still love you tenderly for being afraid of the elevator, that was given to me yesterday, like a present, like a gift in the hand”—from a letter on November 17, 1940). M. Tsvetaeva was attracted to people by various traits understandable to her alone.
To a modern-day reader it is quite evident—particularly in light of the letters Kvanina includes from her in the memoir—that Tsvetaeva was attracted to her. Kvanina seems primarily puzzled by these letters. Desperate sounding notes from Tsvetaeva that discuss how much she wishes she and Kvanina were neighbors or exhorting her friend to call her inspire only confusion. Kvanina repeats over and over in the memoir that she does not understand what it is about her that makes her so interesting to Tsvetaeva, which is perhaps even further exacerbated by the fact that, externally, Tsvetaeva did not seem to actually be interested in any aspect of Kvanina’s life. Tsvetaeva’s gifting of the manuscript of Повесть о Сонечке to Kvanina and her husband and her telling Kvanina that she "greatly resembled Sonechka, only a grown-up Sonechka" were not treated as the romantic gestures they were surely meant to be, and instead only confused Kvanina more. Either that or the young woman was incapable of accepting any connotations of same-sex romance. The Soviet mental space she occupied did not contain such concepts or even the language to describe them, and if Kvanina had at any point understood the nature of Tsvetaeva’s feelings for her, she would likely have been far too frightened to acknowledge them, especially given the fact that the Great Purges had ended only a year before.
Despite her persistent efforts, Tsvetaeva, at least at some point, seems to have understood that any kind of romance with Kvanina was an impossible dream. In a long letter from November 17, 1940, Tsvetaeva talks at length about another young woman poet who she had recently run into and had lunch with. None of this would be strange except for her insistence that she “felt nothing” for this woman despite them objectively having a lot in common, and that all her feelings are for Kvanina instead: Tanya, yesterday’s guest and I have the same roots, and we are the same age, and she also writes poetry, and—Tanya, I felt nothing for her, and for you—from the first moment—I felt everything.
Yet Tsvetaeva is perhaps not as naïve about the situation as Kvanina’s memoir sometimes makes her appear. She seems to have been well aware that Kvanina was incapable of recognizing anything romantic in her words, and probably never would. Statements like "I need you like bread… No, I think—like air" from later on in this same letter, which seem to so clearly indicate Tsvetaeva’s infatuation, likely were treated by Kvanina as words of friendship. Perhaps Kvanina assumed such sentiments were a function of Tsvetaeva being a poet. The letter continues with the following statement: But our conversation about this is still ahead. And maybe it will never happen— will not succeed, will not work out. If you and I had some kind of long hour at liberty, in a big dense garden (I once had such gardens!)—this conversation would take place involuntarily, inevitably, by the force of things, by the force of all the trees in the garden, but the way things are now, within four walls, on some kind of apartment floors… Here there is neither a time, nor a place for such a thing.
We can assume that the conversation Tsvetaeva is speaking about would be one in which she more directly stated her love and physical attraction to Kvanina. (Though who knows what else she could have said; Tsvetaeva tells Kvanina she loves her in multiple letters). And although she describes the ideal circumstances under which this conversation would occur, in a beautiful garden full of trees, she seems to recognize that this place and the moment for this conversation do not exist in the Soviet world. The gardens she recalls from her childhood home in preRevolutionary Russia are contrasted with the ubiquitous communal apartments which remain a symbol of Soviet living conditions even today. In a world where there was often barely enough space to live in, the conversation Tsvetaeva wanted to have simply could not fit.
Soviet society simply pretended that same-sex attraction did not exist, and as a result, for most people it, in fact, did not. Although action was taken when queer people checked themselves into mental institutions, Soviet society seems to have designed itself in such a way that this kind of “abnormality” was only fathomable to those who were experiencing it. In America in the 1940s the closet was enforced because revealing same sex attractions meant losing the respect of those around you, or being forcibly admitted to a mental hospital. In the Soviet Union it appears that the closet did not really exist at all, because the country was in such deep denial about such attractions existing. After all, they were anathema to the Soviet project, so how could they even arise among good Soviet citizens? As can be seen in Laurie Essig’s book, the only people who really seemed to be aware of such things were the people experiencing these kind of attractions and medical professionals—the only information available about treatment and diagnosis were in manuals circulated within specific institutions. This sort of society is definitely in contrast to that in which Tsvetaeva conducted her affair with Parnok, or even with Sofia Holliday in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 revolutions. Even if same-sex attraction in the early part of the twentieth century was most often fetishized and misunderstood, at least there was an awareness of these issues in high society circles. In the world of Tatyana Kvanina, none of these signals appear to have registered at all. The conversation which Tsvetaeva imagines is impossible not just in Moscow, but also in the Soviet space of Kvanina’s mind. Even if the two of them were to leave the Soviet Union, same-sex attraction would likely still be alien, completely unfathomable.
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