Sankt Petersburg - Petrograd

Osip Mandelstam

Winter 1915/16

Poetic Petrograd in 1915

Mikhael Kuzmin

Alexander Blok

Nikolai Gumilyov, Lev their son, and Anna Akhmatova

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Osip Mandelstam

Marina Tsvetaeva

Boris Pasternak

Only three – Kuzmin, Akhmatova, and Pasternak – died of natural causes.
Blok starved to death. Gumilov and Mandelstam were executed by the NKVD,
and Tsvetaeva and Mayakovsky committed suicide....

In December 1915 Marina was invited by the literary journal
Severny Zapiski (Northern Notes) to read her poetry in Petrograd – the name of Sankt Petersburg had been changed during the War to hide its Germanic origins. - Literary Petrograd regarded Tsvetaeva as a representative of unsophisticated, provincial Moscow: A promising, slightly hysterical young woman, who didn't fit into any of the established literary circles of the capital. She was made to run the gauntlet. Her appearances and presentations continued to be awkward, especially considering the skilfully prepared productions of Akhmatova, whom she was compared to at every step. - Moreover, she shunned glasses and couldn't see her audiences clearly.

Marina was taken from party to party. Kuzmin, the versatile minstrel, grand-uncle, and co-founder of the Sankt Petersburg literary scene, took her under his wings. He fit equally poorly into fashionable labels and liked her poetry. Haughty Blok did not attend her readings, and
Gumilyov and Akhmatova were absent at the time. This prevented a first confrontation with Akhmatova, her life-long rival. Notwithstanding, Marina adored the divine Blok and revered Akhmatova.

After her return to Moscow Marina wrote a cycle of poems to Blok and a seemingly embarrassingly extravagant collection of eleven poems to Akhmatova. She ever received a response from either. As an example, two stanzas from her first poem to Akhmatova should suffice

О, Муза плача, прекраснейшая из муз!
О ты, шальное исчадие ночи белой!
Ты черную насылаешь метель на Русь,
И вопли твои вонзаются в нас, как стрелы.

И мы шарахаемся и глухое: ох! -
Стотысячное - тебе присягает: Анна
Ахматова! Это имя - огромный вздох,
И в глубь он падает, которая безымянна.

...И т.д.
19 июня 1916

Oh, Muse of weeping, fairest of the Muses!
O you, chance progeny of a white night!
You send a black blizzard upon Russia,
And our screams pierce us like arrows.

And we jump and emit a dull: Oh! -
Hundredthousands – swear an oath to you: Anna
Akhmatova! This name - an immense sigh,
And it falls into the depth, which has no name.

June 19, 1916

The form of the poem hints at Marina's hidden objective: It is an imitation of Akhmatova's style of writing. In the remaining poems Marina becomes more explicit, making gentle fun of Akhmatova's diction and subjects. Akhmatova was lauded for her “classical” structure and subjects - what Mandelstam once called Akhmatova's “hieratic solemnity”, which appeared stilted and arrogant to Marina. Yet Marina truly and without jealousy admired Akhmatova.

The differences between the two women lay deeper. Akhmatova concealed her inner fire behind a reserved constrained harmony, while Marina, the poet of extremes, was baring her turbulent soul, forever crying out in despair. Characteristcs that Akmatova viewed with distate.

rina made few friends on that visit. Besides Kusmin she met Mandelstam and Pasternak, who had the sense to keep his distance from her, but became her closest and most helpful friend in her anguished later years.

Mandelstam and Marina had first met in Koktebel in 1914, but Marina had only eyes for Sofia, and reticent Osip did only politely mingle with the guests of Voloshin's house. Now she caught fire: a young boy-poet with beautiful dark eyes covered by the longest lashes! - Forever the type she would fall for.

О. Э. Мандельштаму

Откуда такая нежность?
Не первые — эти кудри
Разглаживаю, и губы
Знавала темней твоих.

Всходили и гасли звезды,
Откуда такая нежность?—
Всходили и гасли очи
У самых моих очей.

Еще не такие гимны
Я слушала ночью темной,
Венчаемая — о нежность!—
На самой груди певца.

Откуда такая нежность,
И что с нею делать, отрок
Лукавый, певец захожий,
С ресницами — нет длинней?

18 февраля 1916

To O. E. Mandelstam

From where such tenderness?
Not the first - those curls
I stroke, and his lips
I thought them darker .

The stars rose and faded,
From where this tenderness? -
Our eyes rose and faded
Under my very eyes.

No more hymns
I listened to the dark night,
Betrothed – Oh, tenderness! -
At the breast of a minstrel.

From where such tenderness,
And what to do with it, adolescent,
Sly, wandering vagabond,
With eyelashes – that couldn't be longer?

February 18, 1916

This much recited lyrical poem is suggestive of another amorous adventure, one in which Marina was the driving force. Ecstatic as Tvetaeva's poems are, one is inclined to discount her poetic words in particular in a society who considered a simple kiss an “erotic” sin. But Nadezhda Ginsburg, Mandelstam's later wife, confirmes in her memoirs that it was indeed “wild and vivid Marina”, who taught Osip how to love a woman.

Mandelstam visited Tsvetaeva in Moscow in February-March 1916. Seryozha was out of town. Marina showed him her city, the repository of the real Russia: the golden domes of the cathedrals in the Kremlin, the Moskva river, the bells ringing out the long history of the land. This was not the mirage in the swamps of the Neva, Peter's European illusion. Mandelstam would never forget and continued to associate Moscow with Tsvetaeva and Russia.

In exchange Madelstam let her take part in his profound understanding of history and philosophy, subjects Marina had never contemplated before him.

And then, one night, she was overcome by an acute premonition.

О. Э. Мандельштаму

Приключилась с ним странная хворь,
И сладчайшая на него нашла оторопь.
Все стоит и смотрит ввысь,
И не видит ни звезд, ни зорь
Зорким оком своим — отрок.

А задремлет — к нему орлы
Шумнокрылые слетаются с клекотом,
И ведут о нем дивный спор.
И один — властелин скалы —
Клювом кудри ему треплет.

Но дремучие очи сомкнув,
Но уста полураскрыв — спит себе.
И не слышит ночных гостей,
И не видит, как зоркий клюв
Златоокая вострит птица.

20 марта 1916

To Osip Mandelstam

A strange anxiety befell him,
And sweet fear overcame him.
He would stand and gaze heavenwards,
And would neither see the stars, nor the morning glow,
The youth with the farsighted eye.

Asleep – he saw eagles
Flocking screaming around him,
This lead him to a wonderful explanation.
And one - the Lord of the Rocks -
Tousled his curls with his beak.

But with tightly closed eyes,
His lips parted – he was asleep.
And did not hear the night visitors
Nor see how it was sharpening its beak
The gold-spotted bird.

March 20, 1916

Marina did not realize the terrifying accuracy of her vision. Stubborn and indifferent to the ravenous “spotted bird,” Mandelstam repeatedly denounced Stalin, who had him imprisoned twice and finally executed in 1938.

Tsvetaeva was 23 and Mandelstam 25 when they parted in the summer of 1916. Mandelstam returned to Koktebel “for a retreat” and Marina was faced by a crucial change in her life.

In January 1917 Seryozha was drafted into the army. Because of his illness he was stationed in Nizhny Novgorod, not on the front. Marina was pregnant with their second child.

History turning somersaults rapidly became a blur: On March 3, 1917 Emperor Nicholas II abdicated, leaving the country to a Socialist government. In October 1917 the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. The long expected Revolution had finally taken its course In 1918 the War with Germany was ended by Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk. In July 1918 the Tsar and his entire family was executed by the Bosheviks. Years of brutal infighting between Bolsheviks, Menscheviks and remnants of the White Guard would follow. Seryozha had escaped to the Crimean and joined the White Army (1917). On Marina's instigation? In any case, she was immensely proud of him. - They would only see each other again four years later.