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by Bamber Gascoigne

Marina Ivanova Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) - also Marina Cvetaeva, Marina Tsvetayeva


One of the most original of the Russian 20th-century poets, whose literary rehabilitation began in the 1960s. Marina Tsvetaeva's poetry grew from her own contradictory personality and highly controlled use of language. Among her innumerable themes were female sexuality and the tension between women's private emotions and their public roles. Due to her political views, she lived in exile in the 1920s and 1930s. After returning to the Soviet Union and being ostracized by the literary community, she committed suicide in 1941.

What shall I do, singer and first-born, in a
world where the deepest black is grey,
and inspiration is kept in a thermos?
with all this immensity
in a measured world?

(from 'The Poet', Selected Poems [of] Marina Tsvetayeva, translated by Elaine Feinstein, with a foreword by Max Hayward, Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 41)

Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow. Ivan Tsvetayev, her father, was a professor of art history and the founder of the Museum of Fine Arts. He came from a family of Orthodox priests. Tsvetaeva's mother Mariya, née Meyn, was a talented concert pianist, who had Polish and German ancestry. She encouraged the young Marina's interest in German literature and culture. The family travelled a great deal and Tsvetaeva attended schools in Switzerland, Germany, and at the Sorbonne, Paris.Mariya encouraged her da

Tsvetaeva started to write verse in her early childhood. As a poet she debuted at the age of 18 with the collection Evening Album, a tribute to her childhood. The book was privately published and was dedicated to the artist and diarist Marie Bashkiartseff (1858-1884). The work was favorable reviewed by Nikolai Gumilyov (1886-1921), a poet and literary critic, who was accused after the Revolution of antiregime conspiracy and shot without trial.

In 1912 Tsvetaeva married Sergei Efron; they had two daughters and one son. Magic Lantern showed her technical mastery and was followed in 1913 by a selection of poems from her first collections. Tsvetaeva's affair with the poet and opera librettist Sofiia Párnok (1885-1933) inspired her cycle of poems called 'Girlfriend.' Párnok's career stopped in the late 1920s when she was no longer allowed to publish.

Another affair Tsvetaeva had with Konstantin Borisovich Rodzevich (1895-1988), an ex-Red Army officer and a friend of her husband. Rodzevich had been captured by the White Army and he had fled to Prague, where he graduated as a lawyer. He was an active member of pro-communist organizations, joined during World War II the French resistance and spent two years in captivity in Germany. 'Poem of the Mountain' and 'Poem of the End' were inspired by this relationship, but Rodzevich was not impressed by Tsvetaeva's work. He left her and married soon after the affair Mariya Bulgakova, who later called him "a charming swine and immoral as well." In 1960 he sent his Tsvetaeva archive to Moscow, and argued that Tsvetaeva created a "myth" out of their affair.

After 1917 Revolution Tsvetaeva was trapped in Moscow for five years. During the famine one of her own daughters died of starvation. The poems composed between 1917 and 1921 were collected under the title Lebedinyi Stan (The Demesne of the Swans). It is very evident on which side Tsvetaeva's sympathies lay after years of suffering: "Gallant White Legions! Black nails thrust deep in the / Ribs of the Antichrist!" (The Demesne of the Swans, edited & translated by Robin Kemball, Ardis, 1980, p. 97) The book appeared in Munich, Germany, in 1957. The publication was denounced in the Soviet press.

It was Ilya Ehrenburg, who introduced Boris Pasternak to Tsvetaeva's work. He was instantly won over the lyrical power of her poetry. Before her departure from Russia, Pasternak and Tsvetaeva met five times. She once described him as looking like an Arab horse; Tsvetaeva's appearance was slightly Gypsy-like. They exchanged manuscripts and dedicated many poems to each other. In 1923 she wrote to another friend: "Pasternak is something sacred to me, all my hope; at one moment, the sky beyond the edge of the earth; at another, what has not yeat been; and then, what is to be." (Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art by Guy de Mallac, A Condor Book, 1981, pp. 96-99)

Tsvetaeva's poetry reveal her growing interest in folk song and the techniques of the major symbolist and poets, such as Aleksander Blok and Anna Akhmatova. Razluka (1922, Separation) impressed Andrey Bely so that he wrote one of his collections in her style.

Fascinated by Akhmatova's lines, conveying the confusion of love, "I drew my left-hand glove / onto my right hand – " Tsvetaeva stated: "The whole woman, the whole poet is in these two lines; the whole Akhmatova, unique, unrepeatable, inimitable. Before Akhmatova none of us portrayed a gesture like this. And no one did after her." (Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry by Marina Tsveraeva, translated by Angela Livingstone, 1992, p. 143) Tsvetaeva wrote six plays in verse and narrative poems, including 'The Tsar Maiden' (pub. 1922). The central opposing characters are the fair-haired King-Maiden and the evil stepmother of the young tsarevich, who try to win his heart. Betrayed by the stepmother the King-Maiden tears her heart out of her chest. The evil stepmother turn into a snake and the tale concludes with the uprising of the populace.

Another response to the Civil War was The Desmene of the Swans. The diary-like cycle of poems begins on the day of Tsar Nicholas II's abdication in March 1917, and ends late in 1920, when the anti-communist White Army was finally defeated. The "swans" of the title refer to the volunteers in the White Army, in which her husband Sergei Efron was fighting as an officer.

In 1922 Tsvetaeva emigrated with her family to Berlin, where she rejoined her husband, and then continued to Prague. It was a highly productive period in her life - she published five collections of verse and a number of narrative poems, plays, and essays. Tsvetaeva blended elements from Orthodox prayers and folklore with modernist idiom, and often sought inspiration from the 18th century and the (Russian) romantic age, from which she adopted the the image of the poet as an outsider, ghostly and invisible: "We are poets, which has the sound of outcast. / Nevertheless, we step out from shores," she wrote in 'The Poet' (1923). (Selected Poems [of] Marina Tsvetayeva, p. 40) Nietzsche was an important touchstone, too; Tsvetaeva had read Also sprach Zarathustra at the age of fifteen. Molodets (The Swain), completed in Czechoslovakia in the late 1922, was her second fairy tale in verse. It was widely reviewed by the émigré press. Tsvetaeva and Natal'ia Goncharova, who made illustrations, tried in vain to publish the work in French. Le Gars, based on this Russian text, appeared in Paris in 1986.

Craft (1923), in which the central themes were post-revolutionary Russia and the poet's love for her absent husband, was published in Berlin. In Prague, where Efron worked on his doctoral dissertation, she wrote 'The Poem of the End' (1924), dealing with the parting of two lovers, Tsvetaeva and Rodzevich. She sent to Pasternak a copy of Craft, asking his comment on the poem 'Side Streets' (Pereulochki), written in the voice of a Russian sorceress who seduces young men and transforms them into beasts. Pasterak wrote to her: "No one seems to grasp the plot (the connection) [. . . ] For me this work is as clear as day, everything has been said. Others hear only the noises and I find this insulting." (Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry by Simon Karlinsky, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 100-101) Personal themes were developed further in 'From the Seacoast,' 'Essay of the Room,' and 'The Staircase,' all written in 1926.

The Ratcatcher, a narrative poem from 1925, was a homage to Heinrich Heine's 'Die Wanderratten,' but also borrowed from the story from 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin.' Tsvetaeva drew parallels between the rule of rats and revolutionaries, who are using Soviet slogans and succumb to greed and vulgarity. The last canto was finished in Paris. At the end, the flutist leads the rats toward a pond. The children die, too. A copy of the poem made its way to the hands of Pasternak who confessed: "If I had not read 'The Ratcatcher,' I would more easily reconcile myself to my path of compromise (which has already became natural to me)." (Marina Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell by Lily Feiler, 1994, p. 161) However, this thinly veiled work about the Russian Civil War was serialized in Freedom of Russia in Prague, but it was not published in full in the Soviet Union until 1990.

Georgii (called Mur), Tsvetaeva son, was born in February 1925. The labour was long and painful. Feeling restless and lonely, Tsvetaeva left Czechoslovakia for France with her children, Mur and Alya. "I cannot stand another winter in Vshenory. . . . Life here is too difficult, boring and black," she said in a letter. (Marina Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell by Lily Feiler, 1994, p. 159) Moreover, the center of the Russian emigration had shifted from Berlin to Paris.

By the 1930s, Tsvetaeva's poems were no longer printed in her native country. She published essays in such émigré publications as Volia Rossii, Chisla, Poslednie Novosti, and Sovremennye Zapiski. Sometimes her writings were printed in a brutally cut form. In 1926 her attack on the Russian émigré literary establishement made her persona non grata. In addition, Tsvetaeva wrote in Paris two parts of her planned dramatic trilogy on the Theseus myth.

The last collection published during Tsvetaeva's lifetime, After Russia (1928), received only a few reviews. Mark Slonim, an émigré commentator, praised it unreservedly, but Vladislav Khodasevich saw that it contained unformed poetic material. Vladimir Mayakovsky left a copy at the apartment of Elsa Triolet. Its print, 100 numbered copies, were sold by special subscription. "The volume concludes with greetings from the lyric heroine to the Russian rye. According to Tsvetaeva's numerous statements, Russia borders land that is the embodiment of God; it can be suggested, therefore, that the meditative tone of many poems from the collection comes from the transcending human experience of her past and from the broadening of her spiritual and cultural horizons." (Alexandra Smith, in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, edited Neil Cornwell, 1998, p. 840)

In Paris the family lived in poverty, the income came almost entirely from Tsvetaeva's writings. Their apartment was so filthy that it stank. When her husband started to work for the Soviet security service NKVD, the Russian community of Paris turned against Tsvetaeva. "In this most Christian of worlds / all poets are Jews," she bitterly declared. ('Poem of the End', Selected Poems [of] Marina Tsvetayeva, p. 91) Her limited publishing ways for poetry were blocked and she turned to prose. Moy Pushkin, one of Tsvetaeva's best works, came out in 1937.

To earn extra money Tsvetaeva published short stories, critical articles, and a series of personal and literary memoirs about Valery Bryusov (1873-1924), Andrey Bely (1880-1934), Maksimilian Voloshin (1877-1932), and Mikhail Kuzmin (1972-1936).

In exile Tsvetaeva felt more and more isolated. A correspondence with the wife of Ivan Bunin, Vera, offered a little solace. Tsvetaeva valued their friendship because it was "above and beyond all sorts of Eurasianism and monarchism, beyond old or new poetry – all this nonsensical and superficial strife." Pasternak tried to persuade her to return to her native soil. He stressed to Maxim Gorky, the most celebrated of all proletarian writers, her huge talent, but Gorky refused to take an interest in her fate.

For a brief period in 1928 Tsvetaeva had a poetic disciple, Nikolai Gronsky; he was killed in a subway accident in 1934, at the age of twenty-five. Tsvetaeva dedicated a five-poem cycle, 'The Epitaph' to his memory. Friendless and almost destitute she returned to the Soviet Union in 1938, where her son and husband already lived.

Tsvetaeva, who had expected to be treated as a star, was officially ostracized and unable to publish. "Every manuscript is defenceless. I am all manuscript," he said in a letter to Arseny Tarkovsky, with whom she formed a close friendship. ('Introduction' in Arseny Tarkovsky: Life.Life: Selected Poems, translated by Virginia Rounding, 2000, pp. 19-20) Her last poem was a response to Tarkovsky's piece beginning with the lines "The table is laid for six, / With crystal and roses, / But my guests include / Sorrow and grief."Tsvetaeva accused him of leaving her out: "I keep changing the first line / And keep changing one word: / "I set the table for six . . . " / You forgot one – the seventh." (Marina Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell by Lily Feiler, 1994, p. 255) 

After the USSR was invaded by German Army in 1941, Tsvetaeva was evacuated to the small provincial town of Elabuga with her son. There was  not work for her. To get some money she planned to sell some silver spoons she had brought along. Efron and Alya had been arrested – it is said that Efron was interrogated by Lavrentii Beria, the leader of the secret police, before being executed. In despair on August 31, 1941, while her son and and neighbour were absent on a day of forced labour, Tsvetaeva hanged herself from a hook on the wall of her hut.

According to Pasternak, Tsvetaeva suicide might have been prevented if the literary bureaucrats had not behaved with such appalling heartlessness to her. A council of evacuated writers had refused to approve a residence permit for her in Elabuga and in Chistopol the poet Nikolai Aseyev and the playwright Konstantin Treniov tried to prevent her for settling there. On the other hand, there were friends on whose help she counted, including the Yiddish poet Lev Kvitko, a Communist Party member. (Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry by Simon Karlinsky, 1985, p. 242) Nobody attended her funeral. The exact location of her grave is not known. Georgii Efron died in combat in 1944. Alya survived forced labour; she became an artist and writer. Pasternak never stopped mourning Tsvetaeva's death: "I loved her very much, and now I'm sorry that I did not look for occasions to tell her so, as often as it was necessary for her [to hear]." (Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art, p. 171)  Pasternak held himself as well as such fellow writers as Nikolay Aseev, Konstantin Fedin, and Alexander Fadeev culpable for not trying to help her individually.

In her poems Tsvetaeva used characters from the Bible, heroines of the classical mythology, and Russian folklore and history. Her style could be aphoristic and poetic, paradoxes provoke the reader to cope with uncertainties. "Lyricism, for all that it is doomed to itself, is itself inexhaustible. . . . The more you draw out, the more there remains. This is why it never disappears. This is why we fling ourselves with such avidity on every new lyric poet: maybe he'll succeed in drawing out all that essence which is the soul, thereby slaking our own?" ('Poets with History and Poets without History' by  Marina Tsvetaeva, trans. Angela Livingstone, 1992, from Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000, edited by Jon Cook, Blackwell Publishing, 2004, p. 220) 

Tsvetaeva's great body of work, that broke new ground for women poets, has increasingly attracted attention in the English-speaking world. Among her translators from the 1980s are David McDuff, Michael M. Naydan, Robin Kemball, Mary Maddock, and Nina Kossman. The poet Mary Jane White has translated Tsvetaeva's 'Poem of the End,' 'New Years,' an elegy for Rilke, Tsvetaeva’s correspondent in 1926, and the autobiographical 'Poem of the Hill,' which was dedicated to Konstantin Rodzevich. 

For further reading: Marina Cvetaeva: Her Life and Art by Simon Karlinsky (1966); Nightingale Fever by Ronald Hingley (1982); Vospominaniia by Anastasia Tsvetaeva (1983); Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry by Simon Karlinsky (1985); A Captive Lion by Elaine Feinstein (1987); A Life Through Poetry by Jane A. Taubman (1989); Marina Tsvetaeva by Michael Makin (1993); Marina Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell by Lily Feiler (1994); The Song of the Mocking Bird by Alexandra Smith (1995); Tsvetaeva's Orphic Journeys to the Worlds of the Word by Olga Peters Hasty (1996); Marina Tsvetaeva, éternelle insurgée by Henri Troyat (2001); The Ethics of the Poet: Marina Tsvetaeva's Art in the Light of Conscience by Ute Stock (2006); The Diaries of Georgy Efron, August 1942-August 1943: The Tashkent Period by Georgiĭ Ėfron, translated by Olga Zaslavsky (2010); A Companion to Marina Cvetaeva: Approaches to a Major Russian Poet, edited by Sibelan Forrester (2017); Poets on Poets: The Epistolary and Poetic Communication of Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, and Rilke by Olga Zaslavsky (2017); How Women Must Write: Inventing the Russian Woman Poet by Olga Peters Hasty (2020); The Voice Over: Poems and Essays by Maria Stepanova; edited by Irina Shevelenko (2021); Literary Biographies in the Lives of Remarkable People Series in Russia: Biography for the Masses, edited by Carol Ueland and Ludmilla A. Trigos (2022).  Suom. Marina Tsvetajevalta on myös julkaistu suomeksi Valitut runot, suom. Liisa Viitanen, Sergei Tšerašov ja Hannu Helin (1997) sekä Piru ja muita kertomuksia, suom. Elina Kahla (2006).   

Selected works:

  • Vechernii al'bom, 1910
  • Volshebnyi fonar', 1912
  • Iz dvukh knig, 1913
  • Versty, vypusk I, 1922
  • Razluka, 1922
  • Stikhi k Bloku, 1922
  • Tsar '-Devitsa, 1922
  • Konets Kazanovy: pjesy, 1922 (play)
  • Remeslo, 1923
  • Psikheia, 1923
  • Molodets, 1924
  • Krysolov, 1925
  • Tezei-Ariadna, 1927 (play)
    - Ariadne (in Soul and Passion: Marina Tsvetaeva's Classical Plays, translated by Zara Martirosova Torlone and Maria Stadter Fox, 2012)
  • Fedra, 1928 (play)
    - Phaedra (in Soul and Passion: Marina Tsvetaeva's Classical Plays, translated by Zara Martirosova Torlone and Maria Stadter Fox, 2012)
  • Posle Rossii, 1928
    - After Russia (translated by Michael M. Naydan, 1992)
  • Proza, 1953
  • Lebedinyi stan, 1957
    - The Demesne of the Swans (translated by Robin Kemball, 1980)
  • Izbrannoe, 1961 (edited by V. Orlov, rev. ed. Izbrannye proizvedeniia, 1965)
  • Izbrannye proizvedeniia, 1965 (edited by A. Efron and A. Saakiants)
  • Prosto - serdtse, 1967
  • Moi Pushkin, 1969
  • Stikhotvoreniia, 1969 (introduction by J. Norbury)
  • Proza, 1969
  • Pis'ma k Anne Teskovoi, 1969 
  • Pis'ma k raznym litsam, 1969
  • Selected Poems, 1971 (translated by Elaine Feinstein)
  • Neizdannye pis'ma, 1972
  • Neizdanno: stikhi, teatr, proza, 1976
  • Mat' i muzyka = My Mother and Music, 1977
    - Äiti ja musiikki; Sonetska (suom.  Paula Nieminen, 1993)
  • Izbrannaia proza v dvukh tomakh: 1917-1937, 1979 (2 vols., edited by Iosifa Lossky)
  • Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, 1979 (edited by V.A. Rozhdestvenskogo, A.A. Saakiants)
  • Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, 1980 (edited by A.A. Saakyants)
  • A Captive Spirit: Selected Prose, 1980 (translated by Marin King)
  • Sochineniia, 1980 (2 vols.)
  • Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, 1980-1990 (5 vols.)
  • Three Russian Woman Poets: Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvevaeva, Bella Akhmadulina, 1983 (edited and translated by Mary Maddock)
  • Rainer Maria Rilke, Marina Zwetajewa, Boris Pasternak: Briefwechsel, 1983
    - Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsevtaeva, Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters, Summer 1926 (translated by Margaret Wettlin and Walter Arndt)
  • Stikhotvoreniia, 1986
  • Selected Poems, 1987 (translated by David McDuff)
  • Teatr, 1988 (edited by Pavla Antokol'skogo, A. Efron and A. Saakiants)
  • In the Inmost Hour of the Soul, 1989 (translated by Nina Kossman)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1990 (3 vols.)
  • Pisma k Ariadne Berg: 1934-1939, 1990 (edited by Nikity Struve)
  • V polemike s vekom, 1991
  • Sivilla 1991
  • Ob iskusstve, 1991
  • Avtobiograficheskaia proza, 1991
  • Poemy, 1992
  • Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry, 2010 (translated by Angela Livingstone)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1994-95 (7 vols.)
  • Pis'ma k docheri, 1995 (edited by E.B. Korkinoi)
  • Pis'ma k Anatoliiu Shteigeru, 1995 (edited by S.N. Klepininoi)
  • Svodnye tetradi, 1997 (edited by E.B. Korkinoi and I.D. Shevelenko)
  • Sem'ia: Istoriia v pis'makh, 1999 (edited by E.B. Korkinoi)
  • Gde moi dom?, 2000 (edited by E.B. Korkinoi and M.G. Krutikovoi)
  • Zapisnye knizhki: V dvukh tomakh, 2000-2001  (2 vols., edited by E.B. Korkinoi and M.G. Krutikovoi) 
  • Pis'ma k Konstantinu Rodzevichu, 2001  (edited by E.B. Korkinoi)
  • Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922, 2002  (edited, translated, & with an introduction by Jamey Gambrell)
  • Zapisnye knizhki i dnevnikovaia proza, 2002 (edited by Igor Zakharov)
  • Pis'ma k Natale Gaidukevich, 2003 (edited by L'va Mnukhina)
  • V zavtra rech' derzhu, 2004 (edited by A.A, Saakiants and L.A. Mnukhin)
  • Paths of the Beggar Woman: The Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, 2008 (translated by Belinda Cooke)
  • Spasibo za dolguiu pamiat' liubvi, 2009 (edited by G.B. Vanechkovoi)
  • Bride of Ice: New Selected Poems, 2009 (rev. ed. of Selected Poems, 1999; translated by Elaine Feinstein from literal versions by Daisy Cockburn et al.)
  • Krasnaia tetradʹ, 2013 (edited by E.I. Lubiannikovoi and A.I. Popovoi)
  • Milestones, 2015 (translated from the Russian by Christopher Whyte)
  • IA ne liubovnaia geroinia, 2017
  • Earthly Signs: Moscow diaries, 1917-1922, 2017 (edited, translated and with an introduction by Jamey Gambrell)
  • Tvorcheskie tetradi: v 2 knigakh, 2018- (podgotovka teksta E.I. Lubiannikovoĭ and others)
  • V luchakh rabocheĭ lampy: sobranie poėticheskikh perevodov, 2019 (E.B. Korkina, sostavlenie) 
  • Mne nravitsia, chto Vy bolʹny ne mnoĭ, 2020
  • Other Shepherds: Poems with Translations from Marina Tsvetaeva, 2020 (translated by Nina Kossman)
  • Poem of the End: Six Narrative Poems, 2021 (translated by Nina Kossman)
  • Three, 2024 (translated by Andrew Davis; 'Backstreets', 'Poem of the Mountain' and 'Poem of the End')

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