Homage to Marina Tsvetaeva
I came to Kazan for the Russian poetry festival, and from there our poetry group went to Yelabuga, a city in Tatarstan on the banks of the mighty Kama River. The festival was dedicated to the memory of great avant-garde, experimental poet Velimir Khlebnikov, who was raised and lived in Kazan. He was a unique poet who invented his own new Russian poetic language, and for that he was admired by two great rivals in Russian poetry: Vladimir Mayakovsky and Osip Mandelstam. He died away from his home in 1922 under strange circumstances and is still admired as an innovator in Russian poetry and language.
The festival was attended by several excellent poets from Moscow and a few poets from the big city of Kazan, capital of Tatarstan. I flew in from New York. In Kazan we were hosted by a beautiful, charming, Russian-Tatar poet, Liliya, a descendant of Tatar princes. She named her daughter Suyumbike, honoring famous Princess Suyumbike who, according to legend, refused to marry Ivan the Terrible, who conquered Kazan. The legend says that agreed to marry him if he could build a tower higher than any tower in Kazan Kremlin. As the story goes, after the tower was completed, the princess got up to the tower, apparently to look out upon the city. When she reached the top, however, the princess jumped to her death. Ivan the Terrible may have taken the city, but he could never have Suyumbike’s heart.
The real story, according to what we learned in Kazan, was that the princess married Ivan the Terrible, or rather became a concubine, and gave him a son.
Vladimir Lenin lived in Kazan and attended Kazan University, an old and well-established school. Genius mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky, who created his own system of hyperbolic geometry, otherwise known as Lobachevskian geometry, lived there and was the dean of the Kazan University. The novelist Vasily Aksyonov, who became famous after the Khrushchev Thaw, abandoned the ideological control of socialist realism, lived in Kazan and went to medical school there. In his memory, the Kazan intelligentsia created the Aksyonov Center, a popular place for poetry readings, with a spacious conference room, café, restaurant, library, and museum.
After the poetry reading at the Center, we all boarded a minibus and left for Yelabuga, a three- to four-hour tiring drive from Kazan to the banks of Kama River. On the way, we went past a fish market, where multitudes of dilapidated little kiosks, erected in the mud right by the highway, offered an unbelievable variety of fish—smoked, dried, delicious, and extremely cheap. On the minibus, vodka and beer were in large supply.
When we arrived in Yelabuga, we celebrated the first Seder on Friday, April 22, in a small hotel room. This was the strangest Passover of my life. A few of my friends were there, male and female poets, but none of them were Jewish. I’d brought with me from New York a few kippahs and box of Manischewitz matzo. I improvised a short prayer of dedication, and explained in a few words the meaning Seder: the exodus from Egypt and end of slavery. We had an unusual and wonderful Seder consisting only of matzo and smoked, juicy fish in abundance. We ended the evening, of course, by reading poems and talking about literary trends.
The next morning, I went for a walk with my friend, Moscow poet Yuly Gugolev. A fresh, cold wind coming from the river helped us forget our hangovers. To our surprise, there were no new ugly cement or glass buildings, and no remnants of the Stalinist style of architecture. The entire city was old, with wide, straight streets, lined with two- to three-story buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. There was a neat, precise, and inspiring Russian Orthodox church with a cluster of onion towers erected right on the cliff overlooking the Kama river. That year, the great river flooded, and we saw little islands of remaining forests and occasional buildings scattered across the plains, all the way to the horizon, where threatening chimneys, actively emitting black and blue smoke, marked a chemical and industrial zone not far from Yelabuga. Cancer disease was on the rise, we had learned. Further on the horizon, we could see the dinosaur skeletons of the oil refineries of Nizhnevartovsk.
Yelabuga preserved its provincial nineteenth-century Russian atmosphere. Local residents told us that during the Russian Revolution and Civil War, from 1917 to 1920, Yelabuga, a well-to-do merchant town, supported the White Army. In less than three years, the town changed hands three times, suffering two waves of Red Terror and one wave of White Army Terror. Many inhabitants perished, mostly during the Red Communist Terror. In consequence, the Soviet regime decided not to invest in the reconstruction of the city of Yelabuga. Thus, the town escaped the plague of the Communist reconstruction and the building of the ugly, brave, new urban world.
The Makhaevs, Yelabuga’s wealthy merchants, built a university that is now one of the oldest in Russia, enrolling 4,500 students. Our group held a poetry reading in an old building from the early twentieth century. Unlike a typical poetry reading in front of several fellow poets and poetry lovers, usually twenty or a maximum of thirty, a large number by New York and Moscow standards, our reading was held in a large auditorium filled with students from various departments, nineteen- to twenty-year-old Russians and Tatars. Later on, we learned that Makhaev, the wealthy merchant who founded the university, was also the first Ford dealer in Russia, who signed a business deal with Henry Ford himself. The first imported Ford cars arrived in Yelabuga by the river Kama.
* * *
Yelabuga received several waves of evacuees during World War II, when people were removed from different parts of European Russia from 1941 to 1942, in order to escape the onslaught of the Nazi Wehrmacht. A number of well-known writers and artists found refuge in the nearby town of Chistopol, five to six hours down the river. Chistopol thus became the headquarters of the Soviet Writers’ Union during the War, where many famous writers, such as Boris Pasternak, Nikolai Aseev, Yelena Bulgakova (the wife of the famous Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov), and poet Leonid Leonov, lived.
The great Russian tragic poet Marina Tsvetaeva and her teenage son were sent to Yelabuga, since there was no more room for yet another family in Chistopol. A few years before, Marina had returned to Russia with her son after many years as an immigrant in the Czech Republic and France. At the time of her arrival, her husband Efron and her daughter Ariadna had been imprisoned by the NKVD, Stalin’s Soviet secret police. In Yelabuga, Tsvetaeva met her untimely death in 1941.
Marina Tsvetaeva was an exile all her life. She coined a famous phrase: All poets are Yids, which means that all poets are Jews, exiles, foreign. A real poet cannot be comfortably placed in any context. The poet creates in exile by definition, being a stranger in his or her own land, or an alien in the newly acquired one.
* * *
As a small ship from Chistopol arrived in Yelabuga in the summer of 1941, local residents gathered by the pier, waiting to choose evacuee families that could settle in their modest quarters. Tsvetaeva appeared strange looking, very poor, in worn-out but foreign-made clothes, leftovers from France that she was still wearing.
Strangely enough, Marina’s daughter Ariadna was pro-Soviet, with strong Communist beliefs acquired during her youth spent in France. She returned to the Soviet Union in 1937 and was arrested in 1939. She was tortured, beaten, and forced by her jailors to provide false accusations against her own father, Marina’s husband, Sergei Efron, who had served in the White Army and emigrated with Marina to the Czech Republic and then to France.
In France, Efron had collaborated with the NKVD, and later was accused of being an accomplice to the infamous assassination of a former NKVD agent who had betrayed Stalin. It is still not clear if Efron himself knew that his work would result in this assassination. But after this incident, Sergei Efron could only run away from Paris and ask for asylum in Russia. Naturally the NKVD disposed of him—he was executed in prison in 1941. Ariadna survived fifteen years of prison and labor camps and ended up in exile in the far north, in Siberia, working as a visual artist in the local Department of Culture in the town of Turukhansk.
Marina Tsvetaeva was accompanied by her sixteen-year-old son Mur when she arrived in Yelabuga, but she hoped to join other writers in Chistopol. She stayed in Yelabuga only eleven days. She tried to find a job, but nothing worked out. She did hard labor on a farm, for very little money and a loaf of bread. Then she received some good news: the writers’ union in Chistopol was going to open a small dining facility for its members. Marina applied for a job as a dishwasher.
On August 31, 1941, Marina was alone in the house in Yelabuga. Her son Mur and the couple who owned the little house were sent to clear the land for the new military air field. Marina wrote three short letters: a suicide note to her son Mur, a short will, and a letter to her writer and poet friend, Nikolai Aseev, asking him to adopt her son.
Marina Tsvetaeva didn’t really hang herself. She suffocated by dropping to the floor with a rope noose around her neck and attached to a hook on the window frame or the wall. The owners of the house found her and called an NKVD official. When the officer arrived, he asked a neighbor to help him untie the noose.
The house itself was a rather meager dwelling with a small hallway entrance and one room separated by a partition. Behind the partition was the space occupied by Marina and her son, furnished with a narrow table and a tiny bed. The house owner recalled that they were arguing all the time, in a language she couldn’t understand, probably French, which Mur spoke fluently because he had been raised and educated in France. In less than two years after his mother’s death, Mur, having reached the draft age at eighteen, had to join the army. First he was assigned to a construction brigade, then he was sent to the front and perished in his first battle in 1944.
* * *
A minibus took us to a very old cemetery up on a hill, on the outskirts of Yelabuga. From the cemetery, we had a broad view of the surrounding flooded plains, hills, and factories far away on the horizon. The place was desolate, cold, and windy. At a distance, we saw a man working in a field. In 1941, Marina’s grave was dug by a couple of people, and perhaps one or two acquaintances were present at the burial.
Nobody knows the exact site where she was buried, although inside the cemetery there is now a grave with a sturdy, dark brown headstone bearing a small cross and dates of her birth and death. In the Russian Orthodox tradition, suicide victims cannot be buried in a cemetery. However, she died during Soviet times, when Russian Orthodox customs were often disregarded. Thus, despite her suicide, Marina was buried somewhere inside the cemetery’s fence.
Our guide told us that right above her supposed grave, the split branches of a tree had grown into two separate arbors. When Marina Tsvetaeva’s sister Anastasia, another well-known writer, came to visit the grave in 1960 or 1961, she was amazed to notice that the tree looked very similar to a tree growing at the family dacha, near Moscow. In their childhood, she and her sister used to climb its branches. An old black-and-white photograph showed the two little sisters, Marina and Anastasia, sitting on the tree’s separate branches, during their happy childhood years.
I couldn’t hold back my tears when I visited the house and the cemetery. I had read and heard a lot about the poet’s tragic story, but the aura of the place and the density of events gave the two places a dark, tragic energy. As we were leaving Yelabuga, we passed the long empty street which, in 1960 or 1961, Anastasia Tsvetaeva walked toward the cemetery. It was during the time of Khrushchev’s Thaw, when it was not dangerous anymore to visit Marina Tsvetaeva’s final resting place. At the end of the street, the cemetery overlooked empty, flooded plains.
* * *
For Marina Tsvetaeva
Flood of Kama River, Volga, Toima, thousands of lakes
beyond horizon all the way
to Nizhnevartovsk, suffocating smoke
of chemical monster, dinosaur skeletons of oil refineries,
the cradle of relentless growth of cancerous tissue,
swamp of alcohol.
Once the barrier to the onslaught of advancing chords of Tamerlane,
gray encampments, fortresses, ravines
full of bones, and yet
crisp, orderly merchants’ town: straight prospects, gated storefronts,
onion heads of churches by the cliff
over the waters. Day and night the evil spirits still hover
over the flood waters. Pagan idols entombed in scorched earth.
The shadows of perished still palpable in the twilight:
Marina, Marina, Osip, Marina.
Yelabuga, Kama, Volga,
Asian watershed. Eastern winds
break cemetery trees between cross-less
Long, desolate street,
blind windows, lone hound barks.
Street, where Marina’s sister Anastasia
walked alone up this street in the early sixties
to the graveyard to look
for Marina’s unmarked grave.