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The struggles of a Soviet poetess

Discover the story of poet Marina Tsvetaeva, her life of tragedy, and emotional fervour in a time of political hardship and persecutions

By Maria Kruglyak

Don’t laugh at the young generation!

You’ll never fathom,

How to live on mere aspiration,

On thirst for freedom, thirst for good…

You’ll never fathom how the fire

of courage burns the fighter’s chest,

Nor see the blessing in his death

(True to his word until the last breath)!

So do not ask them to come home

And don’t disturb their aspirations —

For every fighter’s — a hero!

Be proud of the young generation!

– Untitled (1906)

These words were written by an eccentric fourteen-year-old called Marina Tsvetaeva – daughter of the art history professor Ivan Tsvetaev and the concert pianist Maria Mein. The poetess wrote relentlessly from the age of six to her final breath aged 48 in 1941. Growing up in an emotionally cold but cultured home, the Muscovite lived through the Revolution and the Civil War: experiencing famine, poverty, immigration, and Stalinist repression. Her life was that of tragedy, emotion, complications, and love affairs. She was Soviet poet, a mother of three, and the wife of an anti-revolutionary officer, but her greatest struggle was to curb a never-ending loneliness and returning suicidal thoughts. To quote Roman Gul’s, the Russian émigré writer’s memoir I Took Russia, Apology Emigration, Tsvetaeva seemed to be something of “a child of God in a world of mortals. And this world’s sharp corners cut her over and over.”

Publishing her first collection of poems The Evening Album at age 18, Tsvetaeva never ceased to believe in her own literary prowess, despite all her misfortunes. At a particularly difficult time in the 1930s, she wrote in her journal: “Regardless, when I die — everything will be published! Every word … So why are you all being difficult? Do you rather than simple fame… have to have… sensational death? Instead of me at a table, necessarily — me on the table?…” She did go on to receive extraordinary fame, but what is more special are the poems themselves. Lyrical, untamed, heartfelt, ironical, and filled with overdramatic punctuation – Tsvetaeva’s poems read in a unique rhythm, as if recklessly rushing ahead, breathing with freedom.

J. Christ and God, I crave a miracle! 

Today, right now, in light of day!

Oh, let me die, while life’s still

opening up in front of me.

You're wise. You will not sternly say:

'Be patient. Your time is yet to come.'

Yourself you gave me – all too plenty!

I crave at once – to all roads take!

I want it all: a gypsy's spirit,

To take the streets with fighters’ cries;

For every soul myself to suffer,

And go to war an Amazon.

To see the future in the stars,

Lead children forth beyond the shadows…

To be the legend – yesterday,

To be the madness – every day!

I love the cross, the silk, the armour,

My soul is filled with moments passed…

After a childhood from a skazka

God, have me die – at seventeen! – Prayer (1909) 

God seemed to have other plans for Tsvetaeva. A year after this poem was written, she met her future husband, Sergei Efron. In 1912 the two were married, and their first daughter, Ariadna (or Alya) was born. A short time of bliss followed, but soon came the First World War, and food became increasingly scarce. Nonetheless, five years later, the couple had another daughter, Irina, who was born weak, as if tainted by the times — the Russian Revolution was around the corner. Efron was amongst those opposing the Communist regime, and soon joined the White Army’s unsuccessful efforts against the Party in the Civil War. Tsvetaeva was left alone to care for her daughters in a famished Moscow, increasingly isolated and with literature as her sole escape from the horrors of everyday life.

By spring 1919, Tsvetaeva and her two girls shared one room in a house with no heating and electricity working sporadically at best. Almost all of her friends had disappeared – either busy with their own troubles or having left for the South. As Tsvetaeva’s situation went from bad to worse, she wrote in her diary: “Who to give the soup from the canteen: to Alya or to Irina? the conclusion’s this: either Alya’s got soup, and Irina doesn’t, or Irina’s got soup, and Alya has none… More crucially, this canteen soup is — pointless — just water with some pieces of potato and spots of god-knows-what-kind of fat.”

The lack of food finally made Tsvetaeva give the girls to an orphanage recommended by friends – but this was a fatal mistake as there was even less food than Tsvetaeva had managed to hustle in Moscow. As word came of the situation, Tsvetaeva hurried back, rescuing the oldest who had fallen seriously ill. The younger, Irina, temporarily left behind, died at only three-years-old. This period was the hardest on Tsvetaeva: her already unstable nature was worsened by hunger, complete isolation, grief over Irina, and worry for her husband — it had been two years since she had heard from Efron, who was fighting a losing battle against the Red Communist Army.

However, in 1922, word from Tsvetaeva’s husband dragged her out of the storm. Efron was alive but as a former White officer living in exile, he would never to be able to return to Russia. Tsvetaeva immediately began plans for immigration, funding the journey by self-publishing several collections and plays. The same year her and Alya left for Berlin and then Prague to reunite with their husband and father. Family life, however, did not go as harmoniously as planned and they faced financial troubles. The family stayed afloat first thanks to a financial stipend paid out by the Czech government to Russian exiled writers and then thanks to the charity of friends and admirers.

Many biographies on Tsvetaeva are preoccupied with her unfaithfulness and only lightly mention that of her husband. However, it has to be noted that many of these affairs — including the most important ones with the poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Boris Pasternak — were romances of the pen, through letters. Nonetheless, Tvestaeva and Efron’s marriage underwent a crisis when the two re-united in Europe, but the rift was never final and according to Tsvetaeva’s journals, she was never unfaithful in any substantial way as she never ceased to care for and love Efron – regardless of her actions. Amongst this tumult, the couple’s son, Georgy (Mur), was born and the family moved to Paris.

During this time, the émigré community adored Tsvetaeva and Parisian halls were overfilled for her readings. Her poems, articles, and prose were published in Russian-language journals all over Europe. However, just as the family’s financial situation declined, Tsvetaeva started to face problems with her writing. At first, the 1928 poetry collection After Russia, was heavily criticised. Later, a problem of political nature appeared, as Tsvetaeva published an open letter in defence of the Soviet and pro-governmental poet Mayakovsky. Although she avoided politics, Tsvetaeva could never refrain from speaking her mind, even when it backfired. Her defence of Mayakovsky, for example, led to years of banishment from the two largest émigré journals, Recent News and Contemporary Notes, but did not hinder her from repeating the defence at a later date. 

Illustration Maria Kryglyak

With increasingly limited funds, Tsvetaeva lived now almost entirely on the charity of friends. The greatest test of all, however, was yet to come. In the 1930s her family began adamantly trying to convince her to return to the USSR. Tsvetaeva knew better and wrote: “Everything is pushing me to Russia, to where — I cannot go. Here [in the West] I’m not needed. There, [in the USSR] I am impossible.” At the same time her husband Efron, in an effort to gain the right to return and beginning to believe in the promises of Communism, began helping the NKVD (what later became the KGB) and spying for the Soviets.

Tsvetaeva’s daughter Alya was the first in the family to return to the USSR, in the spring of 1937. September of the same year, Efron was implicated for a murder in Paris and disappeared back to the USSR. For Tsvetaeva, his leaving meant she, too, would return, but she kept putting it off. However, in July 1939 as the political climate worsened in both the USSR and in Europe, she returned to her home country. Two months later, her daughter was arrested, and not long thereafter so was her husband, who was executed by 1941. The Second World War was now in full swing and Tsvetaeva once again found herself alone in an impoverished Moscow with a child to feed – this time her son. As the Germans drew closer, they were sent to Yelabuga, in the Tatar Republic, where the only job going was for a kitchen maid. With her husband dead and having left behind her young son and daughter, who would be in jail for another fourteen years, Tsvetaeva finally lost her battle with mental health, killing herself on 31 August 1941.

It would take two more decades after Tsvetaeva’s death for her poems to be published in her homeland. A brilliant woman and a fantastic poet, Tsvetaeva’s life reads as a tragedy, but the way she touched people’s lives — those she inspired, loved, and cared for — has left an unmissable trace in history, just as her poems continue to bring solace to this day.

All translations made by Maria Kruglyak

Cover image via Wikimedia Commons Photography Maximilian Voloskin

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