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Tsvetaeva, Marina Ivanovna (1892-1941)  

Widely considered one of the four greatest twentieth-century Russian poets, and an innovative prose writer and dramatist, Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow on October 8, 1892. Her father was an art professor and her mother a gifted pianist of Polish descent, whose father had forbidden her a concert career. Although Tsvetaeva's mother wanted her daughter to become a pianist, Marina herself was drawn to words and began writing poetry at the age of six.

Her first volume of poems, Evening Album, was published in 1910 and consisted of verse written between the ages of fifteen and seventeen.

Aside from her youthful love affair with the poet Sophia Parnok, Tsvetaeva's self-acknowledged bisexuality, her lesbianism, and the lesbian theme that runs throughout her poetry, prose, letters, and journals have all been ignored or, at best, mentioned in passing by most of her Western biographers. Most Russian Tsvetaeva scholars try to deny the poet's lesbianism and its significance in her work.

Tsvetaeva revealed an attraction to her own sex from childhood both in her reading and in her relationships with other children. She tells the story of her childhood love for another girl in her prose work, "The House at Old Pimen."

Despite her lesbian inclinations, or perhaps in an effort to neutralize the anxiety they clearly caused her, Tsvetaeva married young and immediately had a daughter.

Then, at the beginning of World War I, she met Sophia Parnok and fell in love at first sight. This passionate affair was fraught with ambivalence for Tsvetaeva, but it inspired the most artistically mature work of her early period, the lyrical cycle "Girlfriend" (1914-1915), a masterpiece of lesbian love poetry that was published only in the 1970s and has not yet been translated into English in its entirety.

Although both Parnok and Tsvetaeva predicted that their love was doomed almost from the start, Tsvetaeva was traumatized by their break-up in early 1916. She called the loss of Parnok the "first catastrophe" of her life and nurtured vengeful feelings toward Parnok for the rest of her life. In the aftermath of the affair, Tsvetaeva returned to her husband and immediately became pregnant. Her second daughter was born in early 1917.

Tsvetaeva spent the 1917 Revolution and ensuing Civil War in Moscow, alone with her two young daughters; her husband was an officer in the White army. She was forced to put her infant daughter in an orphanage where the little girl died of starvation.

Tsvetaeva's work from 1918 to 1920 with the Third Stage, an avant-garde Moscow theater group, led to her intimacy with Sonya Holliday, an actress. Their apparently platonic, but intensely erotic love affair was described by Tsvetaeva much later in the prose work "The Tale of Sonechka" (which has yet to be translated into English) and in a cycle of lyrics, "Poems to Sonechka."

"The Tale of Sonechka" must be read in part as an encoded rewriting of Tsvetaeva's affair with her first Sonya (Sophia Parnok).

Just after the publication of her most famous collection of poems, Mileposts I (1922), Tsvetaeva left the Soviet Union and was finally reunited with her husband in Prague. In early 1925, their son was born and later that year the family moved to Paris where Tsvetaeva lived for the next fourteen years.

At first, she was welcomed into Russian émigré literary life in Paris, but during the 1930s, when most of her prose works were written, she was increasingly isolated and criticized. Eventually, she was treated as an outcast because of her husband's pro-Soviet political activities, which included espionage for the Soviet secret police.

In the early 1930s, Tsvetaeva met Natalie Clifford Barney, the famous expatriate American lesbian writer, the "Amazon of Letters," and gave a poetry reading at Barney's rue Jacob salon. But neither she nor her work was given an enthusiastic reception.

Feeling rejected, Tsvetaeva wrote (in French) her "Lettre à l'Amazone" (1932, rev. 1934), a highly encoded, autobiographical and polemical work with two addressees: Barney and Tsvetaeva's former lover--and other lesbian rejector--Sophia Parnok. In "Lettre's" story of a lesbian love affair between a young girl and an older woman, Tsvetaeva rewrote her and Parnok's affair for the third time.

Simultaneously, she composed an ambiguous, intensely personal and moving epitaph to her lost "girlfriend" (Parnok), the only lover who made it possible for her to have an orgasm and to like her sexual self.

"Lettre à l'Amazone" also gives expression to Tsvetaeva's struggle with her own lesbianism. Her internalized leads her to defend lesbian relationships against the censure of society, God, and the state, while striking out at them as an offense to nature and Mother. The first English translation of "Lettre" is now being prepared for publication.

At the end of the 1930s, Tsvetaeva returned to Soviet Russia where tragedy awaited her. First, her daughter was arrested in August 1939 and sent to a concentration camp; then her husband was arrested and executed as an enemy of the people.

Shunned by her poet colleagues in Moscow, she was sent to live outside the city in Golitsyno. Despite her desperate situation during the year after her return, she became involved in a relationship with Tatyana Kvanina, the wife of a minor writer. Part of their intimate correspondence has appeared in a Russian journal.

After the German offensive began in earnest, Tsvetaeva and her teenage son were evacuated to Yelabuga in the Tatar Autonomous Republic. There, the beleaguered poet could find no work or assistance. On August 31, 1941, finding herself alone in the house for a few hours, she hanged herself from a beam in the ceiling. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Yelabuga cemetery.

Diana L. Burgin


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Burgin, Diana Lewis. "Mother Nature versus the Amazons: Marina Tsvetaeva and Female Same-Sex Love." Journal of the History of Sexuality 6.1 (1995): 62-88.

Feinstein, Elaine. A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetaeva. New York: Dutton, 1987.

Feiler, Lily. Marina Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.

Gove, Antonina. "The Feminine Stereotype and Beyond: Role Conflict and Resolution in the Poetics of Marina Tsvetaeva." Slavic Review 36.2 (1977).

Karlinsky, Simon. Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Kroth, Anya M. "Androgyny as an Exemplary Feature of Marina Tsvetaeva's Dichotomous Poetic Vision." Slavic Review 38.4 (1979):563-582.

Poliakova, Sophia. [Ne]zakatnye ony dni: Tsvetaeva i Parnok. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1983.

Sandler, Stephanie. "Embodied Words: Gender in Cvetaeva's Reading of Pushkin." Slavic and East European Journal 34.2 (1990).

Schweitzer, Viktoria. Tsvetaeva. Trans. Robert Chandler and H. T. Willetts; poetry trans. Peter Norman. Angela Livingstone, ed. London: Harper and Collins, 1992.

Taubman, Jane A. A Life through Poetry: Marina Tsvetaeva's Lyric Diary. Columbus: Slavica, 1989.


    Citation Information
    Author: Burgin, Diana L.  
    Entry Title: Tsvetaeva, Marina Ivanovna  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 17, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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