Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow in early October 1892, according to the New Style, or Gregorian, calendar and on September 26 according to the Julian, or Old Style, calendar, which Russia used until January 1918. Her father, Ivan Vladimirovich Tsvetaev, grew up poor and was the son of a village priest, but later became a professor of art history and classical philology at Moscow University. Tsvetaev, who dedicated himself to scholarship, then became the curator of fine arts and antiquities at Rumyantsev Museum before founding the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, which opened in 1912, about a year before his death. Tsvetaeva’s mother, Mariya Aleksandrovna, was the daughter of a Polish noblewoman and her father was a wealthy man of Russian-German descent. Mariya was twenty-one when she married Ivan, who was forty-five and widowed, with two small children—Tsvetaeva’s half-siblings, Valeriya and Andrey. Mariya was passionate about poetry and music and, wanting Tsvetaeva to become a musician, began to subject her daughter to rigorous piano training when Tsvetaeva was four. Tsvetaeva’s younger sister, Anastasia (“Asya”), was born in 1894. Mariya steeped both girls in culture, which included reading to them in various languages and taking them to the theater. At age fourteen, Tsvetaeva began a correspondence with the prose writer and philosopher Vasily Vasilyevich Rozanov, who had been a family friend. Around the same time, in 1906, Tsvetaeva’s mother died of tuberculosis. 

Tsvetaeva had been educated in classical gymnasia and boarding schools in Europe starting in 1901. The family had moved west at the turn of the century so that Mariya could recuperate in sanatoriums. At age sixteen, Tsvetaeva began studying at the Sorbonne. In 1910, she released her first poetry collection, Evening Album. The début attracted the attention of Russian Symbolist poets Valery Bryusov and Maximilian Voloshin, as well as the Acmeist poet Nikolai Gumilëv. In 1912, the same year in which she married her husband, Sergei Efron, and gave birth to their first daughter, Ariadna (“Alya”), Tsvetaeva published her second collection of poems, The Magic LanternMoscow in the Plague Year: Poems was written during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the famine that followed, when Tsvetaeva was forced to place her daughters in the Kuntsevo state orphanage, as it was rumored to have been supplied through American aid. Tsvetaeva’s youngest daughter, Irina, died there of hunger in February 1920. 

Tsvetaeva left the Soviet Union in May 1922 and spent time in Berlin and Prague before settling in Paris in 1925. While there, she published several poetry collections, including After Russia (1928), a collection of poems spanning her years in exile between 1922 to 1927, and Poems for Blok (1922), dedicated to the Russian Symbolist poet and dramatist, Aleksandr Blok, who had died a year earlier. She also published literary criticism and essays during this period. 

By the 1930s, Tsvetaeva’s poetry became characterized by homesickness for Russia and cultural alienation. At the end of the decade, Tsvetaeva’s husband, Sergei, who had been an officer in the counter-revolutionary White Army, returned to the Soviet Union with their last surviving daughter, Alya. While there, both father and daughter were arrested by members of the Stalinist regime, as the former had been accused of being an enemy of the state, despite his Soviet sympathies. Tsvetaeva had also learned that her sister, Asya, had been forced into a Stalinist camp. The collection Poems to Czechoslovakia, written between 1938 and 1939, was a reaction to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia. Tsvetaeva returned to Moscow in 1939. She and her son, Mur, lived in a room, shared with Efron’s sister, while Tsvetaeva worked on translations of English and German folk ballads, as well as on translating the works of Charles Baudelaire, Federico García Lorca, and Vazha Pshavela, who has been regarded as Georgia’s greatest modern poet. Tsvetaeva left Moscow on August 8, 1941, to escape from bombing raids over the city. She fled to a secluded town where she knew no one. Additionally, old acquaintances had shunned her due to the accusations levied against Sergei. Tsvetaeva committed suicide by hanging and died on August 31, 1941. She was forty-eight. Sergei was shot and killed in a prisoner’s camp on October 16, 1941. Mur eventually went back to Moscow to study but was drafted into the army in 1943. He was killed in combat in July 1944. Alya survived the labor camps for seventeen years before returning to Moscow in 1955. She spent her remaining years dedicating herself to the recovery of her mother’s work. Alya died in 1975.

Now regarded as one of Russia’s greatest twentieth-century poets, during her lifetime, Tsvetaeva was also considered the equal of her lauded contemporary Anna Akhmatvoa. Additionally, Tsvetaeva was admired by Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, and Rainer Maria Rilke, her lover and long-term correspondents, respectively. Joseph Brodsky has written, “No more passionate voice ever sounded in Russian poetry of the twentieth century.” Susan Sontag, too, was an admirer: “Is there prose more intimate, more piercing, more heroic, more astonishing than Tsvetaeva’s? […] Voicing gut and brow, she is incomparable. Her recklessness commands, her nakedness flames.”

Some of Tsvetaeva’s major works were published after her death, including Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (Alice James Books, 2012), translated and narrated by Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine, and Bride of Ice: New Selected Poems (Carcanet Press Ltd., 2009), translated by poet Elaine Feinstein. Additionally, Tsvetaeva’s diaries from the revolutionary period to the famine were collected in Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917–1922 (Yale University Press), edited by the translator Jamey Gambrell and published in 2002. The home in which Tsvetaeva spent her youth from 1914 to 1922 has been converted into a museum in Moscow.