Poet of the Air

Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, her World and her Poetry

by Simon Karlinsky
Cambridge University Press, 289 pp., $15.95 (paper)

A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetayeva

by Elaine Feinstein
Dutton, 289 pp., $19.95

Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva

translated by Elaine Feinstein
Dutton, 108 pp., $12.95

In Literature and Revolution, published in 1924 and widely translated, Trotsky expressed a special contempt for Russian women poets. The new socialist society had no use for them. All they require, in their lives or in their so-called poems, is a man and God, whom they regard as a convenient friend of the family, capable of performing from time to time the duties of a doctor specializing in feminine complaints. As to God, “How this individual, no longer young, and burdened by the personal, often bothersome errands of Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva and others, manages in his spare time to direct the destinies of the universe is simply incomprehensible.”

On literary matters Trotsky had a certain ponderous wit, but his view of God was as conventional as his view of women. All new tyrannies end by keeping women in their old place, and Bolshevism was no exception. As Professor Karlinsky points out in his admirable and wide-ranging study, by far the most scholarly yet to appear on Tsvetaeva, it was also a technique of Bolshevik cultural propaganda deliberately to distort and misunderstand the writers who were its targets. Neither Akhmatova nor Tsvetaeva have much to say about God, but that was irrelevant. What mattered was that Lenin’s wife Krupskaya, with her husband’s full approval, had launched an attack against her rival Madame Kollontai, who was preaching heady theories about free love and free art. Feminism was decreed irrelevant to the aims of the new Communist society.

Tsvetaeva was not exactly a feminist either. As a poet she had a sort of crazy independence, which made her prepared to celebrate the White Guards and the Red Army with equal fervor, and desire as an audience “a few genuine unprejudiced persons who know that TRUTH IS A TURNCOAT.” As a woman she combined, in extreme forms, maternal impulses and passions—for her children, for her husband—with the wish to lead a wholly independent life, like Peter Pan or the Pied Piper, about whom she wrote a remarkable poem. Such a division is normal enough in either men or women, and she was not one to make any distinction between the sexes. As Karlinsky indicates, she made a bit of a myth out of her “kitchen martyrdom,” running a house singlehanded for her husband and children. In practical terms the martyrdom was real enough though: she never expected her husband or son, on whom she doted, to do a hand’s turn to help her—that would not be “man’s work”—and in the household they were wholly privileged beings. Yet she wrote to her friend Tesková that “marriage and love are destructive to one’s personality…. I’ve lived my life in captivity. And, strange as it may seem, a freely chosen captivity.” “No one,” she wryly observes, “forced me to take everything so seriously,” but that was in her blood—“its German component.” “If I get to live another time, I’ll know what to do.”

She was in fact of mixed German, Polish, and Russian ancestry—her paternal grandfather had…

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