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Marina Ivanova Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) - also Marina Cvetaeva, Marina Tsvetayeva


One of the most original of the Russian 20th-century poets, whose literary rehabilitation began in the 1960s. Marina Tsvetaeva's disciplined poetry grew from her own contradictory personality and highly controlled use of language. Among her innumerable themes were female sexuality and the tension between women's private emotions and their public roles. Due to her political views, she lived in exile in the 1920s and 1930s. After returning to the Soviet Union and being ostracized by the literary community she committed suicide in 1941.

What shall I do, singer and first-born, in a
world where the deepest black is grey,
and inspiration is kept in a thermos?
with all this immensity
in a measured world?

(in 'The Poet', translated by Elaine Feinstein)

Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow. Ivan Tsvetayev, her father, was a professor of art history and the founder of the Museum of Fine Arts. Tsvetaeva's mother Mariya, née Meyn, was a talented concert pianist. The family travelled a great deal and Tsvetaeva attended schools in Switzerland, Germany, and at the Sorbonne, Paris.

Tsvetaeva started to write verse in her early childhood. As a poet she debuted at the age of 18 with the collection Evening Album, a tribute to her childhood. The book was privately published and was dedicated to the narcissist diarist Bashkiartseff (1858-1884). Evening Album was favorable reviewed by Nikolai Gumilyov (1886-1921), a poet and literary critic, who was accused after the Revolution of antiregime conspiracy and shot without trial.

In 1912 Tsvetaeva married Sergei Efron, they had two daughters and one son. Magic Lantern showed her technical mastery and was followed in 1913 by a selection of poems from her first collections. Tsvetaeva's affair with the poet and opera librettist Sofiia Párnok (1885-1933) inspired her cycle of poems called 'Girlfriend'. Párnok' career stopped in the late 1920s when she was no longer allowed to publish.

Another affair Tsvetaeva had with Konstantin Borisovich Rodzevich (1895-1988), an ex-Red Army officer and a friend of her husband. Rodzevich had been captured by the White Army and he had fled to Prague, where he graduated as a lawyer. He was an active member of pro-communist organizations, joined during World War II the French resistance and spent two years in captivity in Germany. 'Poem of the Mountain' and 'Poem of the End' were inspired by this relationship, but Rodzevbich was not impressed by Tsvetaeva's work. He left her and married soon after the affair Mariya Bulgakova, who later called him "a charming swine and immoral as well." In 1960 he sent his Tsvetaeva archive to Moscow, and argued that Tsvetaeva created a 'myth' out of their affair.

After 1917 Revolution Tsvetaeva was trapped in Moscow for five years. During the famine one of her own daughters died of starvation. The poems composed between 1917 and 1921 appeared in 1957 under the title The Demesne of the Swans. Boris Pasternak was instantly won over the lyrical power of her poetry. Before her departure from Russia, they met five times. Tsvetaeva once described her friend as looking like an Arab horse. They exchanged manuscripts and dedicated many poems to each other. In 1923 she wrote to a friend: "Pasternak is something sacred to me, all my hope; at one moment, the sky beyond the edge of the earth; at another, what has not yeat been; and then, what is to be." (Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art by Guy de Mallac, 1981, pp. 96-99)

Tsvetaeva's poetry reveal her growing interest in folk song and the techniques of the major symbolist and poets, such as Aleksander Blok and Anna Akhmatova. Fascinated by Akhmatova's lines, conveying the confusion of love, "I drew my left-hand glove / onto my right hand – " Tsvetaeva stated: "The whole woman, the whole poet is in these two lines; the whole Akhmatova, unique, unrepeatable, inimitable. Before Akhmatova none of us portrayed a gesture like this. And no one did after her." (Poets with History and Poets without History, 1934) Tsvetaeva wrote six plays in verse and narrative poems, including 'The Tsar Maiden' (pub. 1922). The central opposing characters are the fair-haired King-Maiden and the evil stepmother of the young tsarevich, who try to win his heart. Betrayed by the stepmother the King-Maiden tears her heart out of her chest. The evil stepmother turn into a snake and the tale concludes with the uprising of the populace.

Another response to the Civil War was The Desmene of the Swans, which glorified those who fought against the communists. The diary-like cycle of poems begins on the day of Tsar 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 Sergei Efron was fighting as an officer.

In 1922 Tsvetaeva emigrated with her family to Berlin, where she rejoined her husband, and then continued to Prague. It was a highly productive period in her life - she published five collections of verse and a number of narrative poems, plays, and essays. Tsvetaeva blended elements from Orthodox prayers and folklore with modernist idiom, and often sought inspiration from the 18th century and the (Russian) romantic age, from which she adopted the idea of the poet as a rebel or an outcast: "We are poets, which has the sound of outcast," she once stated. Nietzsche was an important touchstone, too; Tsvetaeva had read Also sprach Zarathustra at the age of fifteen. Molodets (the swain), completed in Czechoslovakia in the late 1922, was her second fairy tale in verse and was widely reviewed by the émigré press. Tsvetaeva and Natal'ia Goncharova, who drew illustrations for it, tried in vain to publish the work in French. Le Gars, based on this Russian text, appeared in Paris in 1986.

In 1925 the family settled in Paris. Tsvetaeva's collection Craft (1923) was published in Berlin. In Prague, where Efron worked on his doctoral dissertation, she wrote 'The Poem of the End' (1924), dealing with the parting of two lovers, Tsvetaeva and Rodzevich. After reading it Pasternak said to her, that it "draws its readers to its world like tragedy" and praised her as an artist of extraordinary great talent. Personal themes were developed further in 'From the Seacoast,' 'Essay of the Room,' and 'The Staircase,' all written in 1926.

The Ratcatcher, a narrative poem from 1925, was a homage to Heinrich Heine's 'Die Wanderratten'. It also borrowed from the story from 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin' and drew parallels between the rule of rats and revolutionaries, who are using Soviet slogans and succumb to greed and vulgarity. The last canto was finished in Paris. At the end, the flutist leads the rats toward a pond. The children die, too. A copy of the poem made its way to the hands of Pasternak who confessed: "If I had not read 'The Ratcatcher,' I would more easily reconcile myself to my path of compromise (which has already became natural to me)." (Marina Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell by Lily Feiler, 1994, p. 161) However, this thinly veiled work about the Russian Civil War was serialized in Freedom of Russia in Prague, but it was not published in full in the Soviet Union until 1990.

Feeling restless and lonely, Tsvetaeva left Czechoslovakia for France with the children. "I cannot stand another winter in Vshenory . . . . Life here is too difficult, boring and black," she said in a letter. Moreover, the center of the Russian emigration had shifted from Berlin to Paris. By the 1930s, Tsvetaeva's poems were no longer printed in her native country. She published her essays in such émigré publications as Volia Rossii, Chisla, Poslednie Novosti, and Sovremennye Zapiski. Sometimes her essays were printed in a brutally cut form. In 1926 her attack on the Russian émigré literary establishement made her persona non grata.

During her years in Paris Tsvetaeva wrote two parts of the planned dramatic trilogy. The last collection published during her lifetime, After Russia (1928), received only a few reviews. Mark Slonim, an émigré commentator, praised it unreservedly, but Vladislav Khodasevich saw that it contained unformed poetic material. Vladimir Mayakovsky left a copy at the apartment of Elsa Triolet. Its print, 100 numbered copies, were sold by special subscription. "The volume concludes with greetings from the lyric heroine to the Russian rye. According to Tsvetaeva's numerous statements, Russia borders land that is the embodiment of God; it can be suggested, therefore, that the meditative tone of many poems from the collection comes from the transcending human experience of her past and from the broadening of her spiritual and cultural horizons." (Alexandra Smith in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. Neil Cornwell, 1998)

In Paris the family lived in poverty, the income came almost entirely from Tsvetaeva's writings. Their apartment was so filthy that it stank. When her husband started to work for the Soviet security service NKVD, the Russian community of Paris turned against Tsvetaeva. "All poets are Jews in a Christina world," she once bitterly declared. Her limited publishing ways for poetry were blocked and she turned to prose. Moy Pushkin, one of Tsvetaeva's best prose works, came out in 1937. To earn extra money, she also produced short stories, memoirs and critical articles, and wrote a series of personal and literary mamoirs about Valery Bryusov (1873-1924), Andrey Bely (1880-1934), Maksimilian Voloshin (1877-1932), and Mikhail Kuzmin (1972-1936)

In exile Tsvetaeva felt more and more isolated. A correspondence with the wife of Ivan Bunin, Vera, offered a little solace. Tsvetaeva said, that she valued their friendship because it was "above and beyond all sorts of Eurasianism and monarchism, beyond old or new poetry – all this nonsensical and superficial strife." Pasternak tried to persuade her to return to her native soil. He stressed to Maxim Gorky, the most celebrated of all proletarian writers, her huge talent, but Gorky refused to take an interest in her fate.

For a brief period in 1928 Tsvetaeva had a poetic disciple, Nikolai Gronsky; he was killed in a subway accident in 1934, at the age of twenty-five. Tsvetaeva dedicated a five-poem cycle, 'The Epitaph' to his memory. Friendless and almost destitute she returned to the Soviet Union in 1938, where her son and husband already lived. Next year her husband was executed and her daughter was sent to a labor camp. Tsvetaeva, who had expected to be treated as a star, was officially ostracized and unable to publish.

After the USSR was invaded by German Army in 1941, Tsvetaeva was evacuated to the small provincial town of Elabuga with her son. Her daughter Ariadna and sister had been sent to the Gulag, Efron had been arrested – he was later executed. In despair on August 31, 1941, while her son and and neighbour were absent on a day of forced labour, Tsvetaeva hanged herself from a hook on the wall of her hut. She had written in 1922 in 'The Tsar-Maiden': "I am nowhere. / I've vanished in no land. / Nobody catches up with me. / Nothing will bring me back." According to Boris Pasternak, her suicide might have been prevented if the literary bureaucrats had not behaved with such appalling heartlessness to her. On the other hand, there were friends in Chistopol anxious to help her. Nobody attended her funeral; her son was disgusted at the discovery of her suicide. The exact location of her grave is not known.

In her poems Tsvetaeva used characters from the Bible, heroines of the classical mythology, and Russian folklore and history. Her style could be aphoristic and poetic, she used paradoxes, provoking the reader to accompany her in the search of uncertain truths. "The same water – a different wave. / What matters is that it is a wave. / What matters in that the wave will return. / What matters is that it will always return different. / What matters most of all: however different the returning wave, / it will always return as a wave of the sea. / What is a wave? Composition and muscle. The same goes for / lyric poetry." ('Poets with History and Poets without History') Tsvetaeva's collection Razluka (1922, separation) impressed Andrey Bely so that he wrote one of his collections in her style. Pasternak never ceased to mourn Tsvetaeva's death. He held himself as well as such fellow writers as Nikolay Aseev, Konstantin Fedin, and Alexander Fadeev culpable for not trying to help her individually.

Pasternak once said: "The greatest recognition and reevaluation of all awaits Tsvetaeva, the outstanding poet of the twentieth century." Tsvetaeva's great body of work, that broke new ground for women poets, has increasingly attracted attention in the English-speaking world. Among her translators from the 1980s are David McDuff, Michael M. Naydan, Robin Kemball, Mary Maddock, and Nina Kossman. The poet Mary Jane White has translated Tsvetaeva's 'Poem of the End,' 'New Years,' an elegy for Rilke, Tsvetaeva’s correspondent in 1926, and the autobiographical 'Poem of the Hill,' which was dedicated to Konstantin Rodzevich. Her writings were also examined by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex.

For further reading: Marina Cvetaeva: Her Life and Art by Simon Karlinsky (1966); Nightingale Fever by Ronald Hingley (1982); Vospominaniia by Anastasia Tsvetaeva (1983); Marina Tsvetaeva by Simon Karlinsky (1985); A Captive Lion by Elaine Feinstein (1987); A Life Through Poetry by Jane A. Taubman (1989); Marina Tsvetaeva by Michael Makin (1993); Marina Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell by Lily Feiler (1994); The Song of the Mocking Bird by Alexandra Smith (1995); Tsvetaeva's Orphic Journeys to the Worlds of the Word by Olga Peters Hasty (1996); Marina Tsvetaeva, éternelle insurgée by Henri Troyat (2001); The Ethics of the Poet: Marina Tsvetaeva's Art in the Light of Conscience by Ute Stock (2006).  Suom. Marina Tsvetajevalta on myös julkaistu suomeksi Valitut runot, suom. Liisa Viitanen, Sergei Tšerašov ja Hannu Helin (1997) sekä Piru ja muita kertomuksia, suom. Elina Kahla (2006).   

Selected works:

  • Vechernii al'bom, 1910
  • Volshebnyi fonar', 1912
  • Iz dvukh knig, 1913
  • Versty, vypusk I, 1922
  • Razluka, 1922
  • Stikhi k Bloku, 1922
  • Tsar '-Devitsa, 1922
  • Konets Kazanovy: pjesy, 1922 (play)
  • Remeslo, 1923
  • Psikheia, 1923
  • Molodets, 1924
  • Krysolov, 1925
  • Tezei-Ariadna, 1927 (play)
    - Ariadne (in Soul and Passion: Marina Tsvetaeva's Classical Plays, translated by Zara Martirosova Torlone and Maria Stadter Fox, 2012)
  • Fedra, 1928 (play)
    - Phaedra (in Soul and Passion: Marina Tsvetaeva's Classical Plays, translated by Zara Martirosova Torlone and Maria Stadter Fox, 2012)
  • Posle Rossii, 1928
    - After Russia (translated by Michael M. Naydan, 1992)
  • Proza, 1953
  • Lebedinyi stan, 1957
    - The Demesne of the Swan (translated by Robin Kemball, 1980)
  • Izbrannoe, 1961 (edited by V. Orlov, rev. ed. Izbrannye proizvedeniia, 1965)
  • Izbrannye proizvedeniia, 1965 (edited by A. Efron and A. Saakiants)
  • Prosto - serdtse, 1967
  • Moi Pushkin, 1969
  • Stikhotvoreniia, 1969 (introduction by J. Norbury)
  • Proza, 1969
  • Pis'ma k Anne Teskovoi, 1969 
  • Pis'ma k raznym litsam, 1969
  • Selected Poems, 1971 (translated by E. Feinstein)
  • Neizdannye pis'ma, 1972
  • Neizdanno: stikhi, teatr, proza, 1976
  • Mat' i muzyka = My Mother and Music, 1977
    - Äiti ja musiikki; Sonetska (suom.  Paula Nieminen, 1993)
  • Izbrannaia proza v dvukh tomakh: 1917-1937, 1979 (2 vols., edited by Iosifa Lossky)
  • Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, 1979 (edited by V.A. Rozhdestvenskogo, A.A. Saakiants)
  • Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, 1980 (edited by A.A. Saakyants)
  • A Captive Spirit: Selected Prose, 1980 (tr. Marin King)
  • Sochineniia, 1980 (2 vols.)
  • Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, 1980-1990 (5 vols.)
  • Three Russian Woman Poets: Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvevaeva, Bella Akhmadulina, 1983 (edited and translated by Mary Maddock)
  • Rainer Maria Rilke, Marina Zwetajewa, Boris Pasternak: Briefwechsel, 1983
    - Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsevtaeva, Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters, Summer 1926 (translated by Margaret Wettlin and Walter Arndt)
  • Stikhotvoreniia, 1986
  • Selected Poems, 1987 (translated by David McDuff)
  • Teatr, 1988 (edited by Pavla Antokol'skogo, A. Efron and A. Saakiants)
  • In the Inmost Hour of the Soul, 1989 (translated by Nina Kossman)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1990 (3 vols.)
  • Pisma k Ariadne Berg: 1934-1939, 1990 (edited by Nikity Struve)
  • V polemike s vekom, 1991
  • Sivilla 1991
  • Ob iskusstve, 1991
  • Avtobiograficheskaia proza, 1991
  • Poemy, 1992
  • Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry, 2010 (translated by Angela Livingstone)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1994-95 (7 vols.)
  • Pis'ma k docheri, 1995 (edited by E.B. Korkinoi)
  • Pis'ma k Anatoliiu Shteigeru, 1995 (edited by S.N. Klepininoi)
  • Svodnye tetradi, 1997 (edited by E.B. Korkinoi and I.D. Shevelenko)
  • Sem'ia: Istoriia v pis'makh, 1999 (edited by E.B. Korkinoi)
  • Gde moi dom?, 2000 (edited by E.B. Korkinoi and M.G. Krutikovoi)
  • Zapisnye knizhki: V dvukh tomakh, 2000-2001  (2 vols., edited by E.B. Korkinoi and M.G. Krutikovoi) 
  • Pis'ma k Konstantinu Rodzevichu, 2001  (edited by E.B. Korkinoi)
  • Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922, 2002  (edited, translated, & with an introduction by Jamey Gambrell)
  • Zapisnye knizhki i dnevnikovaia proza, 2002 (edited by Igor Zakharov)
  • Pis'ma k Natale Gaidukevich, 2003 (edited by L'va Mnukhina)
  • V zavtra rech' derzhu, 2004 (edited by A.A, Saakiants and L.A. Mnukhin)
  • Paths of the Beggar Woman: The Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, 2008 (translated by Belinda Cooke)
  • Spasibo za dolguiu pamiat' liubvi, 2009 (edited by G.B. Vanechkovoi) 

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