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Marina Tsvetaeva (1892 - 1941)

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  • Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow in 1892. Her father was a professor of art history at the University of Moscow, who later founded the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts; her mother was a pianist. In 1903 Tsvetaeva's mother contracted tuberculosis and the family travelled abroad for her health until shortly before her death in 1906. Marina and her sister attended schools in Italy, Switzerland and Germany, where they learned all three languages. In 1908, she studied literary history at the Sorbonne. During this time, a movement was emerging within Russian poetry which was to colour most of her later work: that of Russian Symbolism. Her own first collection of poems, Evening Album, was self-published in 1910. Soon after she began to mix with other artists and writers, discovering the work of Alexander Blok and Anna Akhmatova.

    In 1912 Tsvetaeva married Sergei Yakovlevich Efron, a cadet in the Officers' Academy. Her intense love for him did not prevent her from having affairs however, including ones with Osip Mandelstam, which she celebrated in a collection of poems called Mileposts, and the lesbian poet Sofia Parnok, whom she also addressed in a cycle of poems. Tsvetaeva and her husband lived in the Crimea until the Revolution and had two daughters: Alya (born in 1912) and Irina (born in 1917). When the Revolution began, Efron joined the Tsar's White Army, and Marina returned to Moscow in the hope of meeting him there. However, they were to be separated for five years as a result of the Bolsheviks' seizing Moscow and Efron fleeing for the Crimea. During this period Tsvetaeva wrote a series of pro-White poems published as The Demesne of the Swans or Swans' Encampment; these are her most overtly political poems.

    Tsvetaeva and her family suffered terribly in the Moscow famine: her father had died in 1913, and she had no way to support herself or her daughters. In 1919 she placed her younger daughter Irina in a state orphanage, believing that she would be better fed there. Tragically, she was mistaken, and Irina died of starvation in 1920. During these years, Tsvetaeva had a passionate friendship with the actress Sofia Gollidey, for whom she wrote several plays. In 1921, Tsvetaeva was reunited with her husband in Berlin. In 1922 the family moved to Prague, where Tsvetaeva had a passionate affair with Konstantin Rozdevitch, a former military officer. Around this time, Tsvetaeva began corresponding with Boris Pasternak, whom she would not meet for nearly twenty years, but with whom she maintained an intimate friendship until her return to Russia. It was in Prague that Tsvetaeva wrote her famous lyrical satire The Rat-Catcher, based on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

    In 1925 the family settled in Paris, where they would live for the next 14 years. In the same year their son Georgy was born. In exile, Tsvetaeva lived in poverty and was not part of Paris's circle of Russian émigré writers, who criticised her for not being sufficiently 'anti-Soviet'. But she found solace in her correspondence with other writers, including Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke (upon whose death she composed 'New Year Letter'), the critics D.S. Mirsky and Aleksandr Bakhrakh, and the Czech poet Anna Teskova. Meanwhile, Tsvetaeva's husband developing Soviet sympathies and was homesick for Russia. Unbeknowned to Tsvetaeva, he began spying for the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB. Their daughter Alya shared his views and increasingly turned against her mother, returning to the Soviet Union in 1937. Later that year, Efron was implicated in the murder of the former Soviet agent Ignaty Reyss by the French police; Tsvetaeva was also questioned. In 1939, ostracised in Paris and fearful of the advent of World War Two, Tsvetaeva and her son returned to the Soviet Union.

    They suffered greatly in Stalin's Russia: Tsvetaeva struggled to find work as a writer and her husband and daughter Alya were arrested for espionage, betrayed by Alya's fiancé who turned out to be an NKVD agent assigned to spy on the family. Efron was shot in 1941 and Alya served eight years in prison (both were exonerated after Stalin's death). In 1941, Tsvetaeva and her son were evacuated to Yelabuga, in the Tartar Autonomous Republic, where they had no money or means of supporting themselves. Tsvetaeva hanged herself on 31 August 1941.
    Praise for Marina Tsvetaeva (1892 - 1941) 'Marina Tsvetaeva was the first of the modern Russian poets whose greatness really came clear to me, thanks to these translations. Feinstein has performed the first, indispensable task of a great translator: she has captured a voice.'
    Alan Williamson, Threepenny Review
     'Represented on a graph, Tsvetaeva's work would exhibit a curve - or rather, a straight line - rising at almost a right angle because of her constant effort to raise the pitch a note higher, an idea higher (or, more precisely, an octave and a faith higher.) She always carried everything she has to say to its conceivable and expressible end. In both her poetry and her prose, nothing remains hanging or leaves a feeling of ambivalence. Tsvetaeva is the unique case in which the paramount spiritual experience of an epoch (for us, the sense of ambivalence, of contradictoriness in the nature of human existence) served not as the object of expression but as its means, by which it was transformed into the material of art.'
    Joseph Brodsky.
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