I love poetry. Often at night just before falling asleep I inwardly recite my favourite poems and the last poem I can’t stop thinking about led me to writing this post about a great Russian poet MARINA TSVETAEVA.
She was a remarkable woman with a strange and tragic life.
Her life started fairly well. Perhaps it makes what happened to her later in life all the more dreadful…
Marina Tsvetaeva was born in 1892 in Moscow. Her father was a professor of Fine Art at the University of Moscow (he later founded the Alexander III Museum (known from 1937 as the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts). So, she and her siblings grew up in a cultured atmosphere and could enjoy literature, music and art from the early age.
Marina spent a lot of her life abroad. When she was 14, her mother got ill and the family went to Switzerland. There, away from the rigid constraints of a bourgeois Muscovite life, Tsvetaeva was able for the first time to run free, climb cliffs, and vent her imagination in childhood games. There Marina was sent to school and, because her family traveled a lot, she learned the Italian, French, and German languages. She gave up the strict musical studies that her mother had imposed and turned to poetry.
Aged 16, Marina studied literary history at the Sorbonne. During this time, a major revolutionary change was occurring within Russian poetry: the bloom of the Symbolist Movement, and this movement was to colour most of her later work. Her first book of poetry was published when she was 18 and was very well received and appraised by the leading Russian poets.
In the house of one of them (Maximilian Voloshin) Marina met her future husband, also a poet, Sergei Efron.
They fell in love and got married. She was 19, he was 18.
Tsvetaeva and her husband spent summers in the Crimea until the revolution, and had two daughters: Ariadna and Irina. I do so believe that they were happy together at that time, because all this was about to change…
When the WW I started, in 1914, Efron volunteered for the front. In 1917 the Russian revolution erupted. Marina was a close witness of it and rejected it straight away. On trains, she came into contact with ordinary Russian people and was shocked by the mood of anger and violence. After the 1917 Revolution, Efron joined the White Army (in opposition to the Revolution) 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.
God, I can’t even imagine, what she had to endure!
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, she placed both her daughters in a state orphanage, mistakenly believing that they would be better fed there. Ariadna became ill, and Marina took her away, but Irina died there of starvation… Her child’s death caused Tsvetaeva great grief and regret. In one letter, she wrote, “God punished me”..
In 1922, Marina and her survived daughter left the Soviet Union and were reunited with Efron in Berlin. For years and years in emigration Marina and her family lived in poverty trying hard to earn their living… But she was a poet! I think poets are especially vulnerable and sensitive, so it had to be additionally hard for Marina not only in the material sense but emotionally too… During this time her son Georgy was born.
They were still together (just) with her husband but getting further and further apart, though they would say that they loved each other till the rest of his days.
In 1925, the family settled in Paris, where they would live for the next 14 years. Marina did not feel at all at home in Paris’s 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 hazy. She was increasingly unhappy. Poor Marina! She couldn’t find peace and/or happiness and she resented her exiled state deeply.
Meanwhile, Sergei Efron was developing Soviet sympathies and was homesick for the Soviet Union. Eventually, he began working for the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB). Perhaps, he was trying to score some points in order to persuade the Soviet Government to forget his “White Army” years and convince them of his new loyalty? Who knows… Their daughter 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 USSR. Tsvetaeva did not seem to have known that her husband was a spy, nor the extent to which he was compromised.
WWII made Europe as unsafe and hostile as USSR. Marina wanted to be with her family and in 1939, she and her son returned to Moscow. It was to be the biggest mistake in her life.
In Stalin’s USSR, anyone who had lived abroad was a suspect, as was anyone who had been among the intelligentsia before the Revolution. Marina’s sister had been arrested before Marina’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 situation, fearful for their life and position.
Efron and their daughter were arrested for espionage. You know what? The daughter’s fiance was actually the KGB agent who had been assigned to spy on the family. How cynical was that?! Efron was shot in 1941; the daughter served over eight years in prison.
Now we are coming to the most tragic times…
In 1941, Marina and her son were evacuated to a small provincial town about 1000 km away from Moscow. She had no work and no means to feed her son and herself. She actually applied to the Soviet of Literature Fund asking for a job at the canteen!
On 31 August 1941 Marina hanged herself. She was 48 years old…
She left a note for her son: “Forgive me, but to go on would be worse. I am gravely ill, this is not me anymore. I love you passionately. Do understand that I could not live anymore. Tell Papa and Alya, if you ever see them, that I loved them to the last moment and explain to them that I found myself in a trap.”
There have always been rumours that Tsvetaeva’s death was not suicide. On the day of her death she was home alone and it is alleged that NKVD agents came to her house and forced her to commit suicide. But it was never proved. And what does it matter? Life and suffering of one of the greatest Russian poets came to an end.
Marina was buried in the local cemetery, but the exact location of her grave remains unknown. No trace is left of her on this earth.
Now the poem I started my story with. Marina’s poetry is so diverse and she wrote both rhymed and blank verse poems and this particular one is of the latter kind. It was written in 1916
I would like to live with you
In a small town,
Where there is eternal twilight
And everlasting toll of bells.
And in a small wooden hotel –
Of the old clock – like tiny drops of time.
And sometimes in the evening from some mansard –
A sound of flute
And the flutist’s silhouette in the window.
And perhaps you wouldn’t even love me…
In the middle of the room – a huge tiled stove,
On each tile – a picture:
A rose – a heart – a ship.
And in the only window –
Snow, snow, snow.
You would be lying – how I love you:
Lazy, aloof, carefree.
From time to time a sharp crack of a match.
You cigarette burns and goes out,
And for a very long time
A short grey column of ash trembles on its end.
You are too lazy to even shake it off –
And the whole cigarette flies into the fire.
PS: Sorry for unprofessional translation