The Hunger Years
1918 - 1920
Seryozha was gone to join the last
fighters of the White Army at the Don river (1918). Shortly before he
left, Marina had given birth to a second daughter, Irina. From the
very beginning Irina was not a strong child, she remained sickly for
most of her short life.
Within a year their world collapsed. The service personnel, which they had relied on for times immemorial, deserted them. Marina and Alya were alone in the house on Borisoglebsky Lane. Their inherited money disappeared overnight. There had been street fighting between the revolutionaries and the National Guard. In the winter of 1918-19 a severe food shortage broke out. Marina had to handle everything by herself from chopping wood and cooking to scavenging for food for her two children. Impractical as she was, she chafed under the burden of this “daily life”. To forget this earthly routine Marina escaped on flights to the otherworldly lands of her poetic imagination.
Alya became Marina's intimate companion, and Marina bestowed all her motherly hopes and instincts on her. There was no school. Marina taught her herself. Alya was a precocious child, at least as gifted as her mother, but without Marina's hyper-sensitivity and her need for otherworldly escapes. She was solidly grounded in herself. Her mother repeated all the mistakes she had been subjected to by her mother, only it was literature not the piano. Alya was able to read at four and could write at five. She became her mother's alter ego, with whom Marina shared all her most intimate experiences and fantasies. Alya never had a normal childhood. As a daily writing exercise Marina encouraged her to keep a diary, parts of which Alya included in her memoirs [in Russian]:
My mother is very strange. My mother is not at all like other mothers. She has light chestnut hair, curling around at the sides. She has green eyes, a hooked nose, and red lips. She has a good figure, and hands that I like. Her favorite day is Annunciation Day. She is often sad and writes poetry. She is all the time hurrying somewhere. Her hands are all covered with rings. She likes to read at night. Her eyes are nearly always mocking. She doesn't like people bothering her with stupid questions, it makes her angry. Sometimes she walks around as if she were in a daze. Then suddenly she seems to wake up, starts talking, and then goes off again somewhere else.
twelve Alya would rebell and try to break free of her mother's
oppressive influence (Prague, 1924). For a while relations between
mother and daughter almost turned into mutual hatred. Marina was
terrified by Alya's rebellion.
On one of her long train rides to visit her sister in Feodosiya Marina had met the young apprentice playwright and poet Pavel Antokolsky. He introduced her to Evgeny Bagrationovich Vakhtangov's theater studio. Marina fell completely for the theater, and the congenial crowd of actors, poets and writers she discovered there.
In the beginning of the 20th century Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold had revolutionized the Russian stage. Stanislavsky had introduced his psychological “Method” of acting and Meyerhold a completely new style of staging large ensembles Their students carried Stanislavsky's Method all over the world. Classical Hollywood is unthinkable without reference to him. Likewise, the infamous parades of Hitler's Germany, the Soviet Union, and China could not have been staged without Meyerhold's example. - Vakhtangov combined Stanislavsky's Method with Meyerhold's dramatic abstractions and encouraged young directors to produce intimate, futuristic plays in his workshop studio. Unfortunately he died too early. His theater is still active. It was on stage that the most exciting innovations took place in Russia.
Marina took to the theater with all her enthusiasm. Between 1918 and 1920 she wrote seven verse dramas - for her newest infatuation, the actor Yuri Zavadsky.... “Oh, he was not a great actor,” she writes, but he was a real adonis of a man.
Avoiding her advances, Zavadsky, who seems to have been mildly gay, was not particularly enamored with her. The “affair” was over in less than a year. She expresses her disappointment with him in a last, unusually angry poem in November 1920
Любовь! И в
и в гробе
Love! Even convulsing, even in my grave
was followed by a line-up of other “romantic” passions,
actors and actresses, poets, writers. They were spurious
infatuations, but they appeared reflected in her poems, which embued
Marina with the odor of a “ravenous, bi-sexual adulteress”.
Occasionally she is still being censured for her amorous affairs by
the philistines among her detractors. She was lonely and 27, at the
peak of her female powers.- Besides, writing poetry is a complex and
mysterious process. It requires a high-power engine – and few
emotions are as potent as a volatile libido. Whether the poet has an
actual physical, erotic experience is almost irrelevant. But her
working among the inspired crowd of young actors and playwrights at
Vakhtangov's studio - moreover working on entirely unreal plays -
kept her worries about Seryozha, about finding food for her children,
her concern for sickly Irina, and above all her own loneliness at
In a letter in July 1918 to Liliya Efron, Seyozha's older sister, Marina begged her to take the children, especially Irina, she could no longer afford bread and milk for them. “We must make Irina eat potatoes, I cannot find cereal for her.” Nothing came of this arrangement, Liliya was morally at odds with her.
As the winter of 1918-1919 approached, and the food shortage became a famine, Marina and the children retreated into her small room to share a primitive wood stove. Armed with an axe she would descend into the basement and “deconstruct” (her words) all kinds of wooden partitions for firewood. In the mornings the temperature in their room was often 5 deg C (39 F). - Prince Sergey Volkonsky, the former director of the Imperial Theater, one of her temporary flames, described her place: “... an unheated house, sometimes without light, a bare apartment... Alya sleeping behind a screen surrounded by her drawings... no fuel for the wretched stove... The stairs dark and cold, the bannister had been partially removed (firewood for the stove), and there were three treacherous steps at the bottom...” [VS p.132] Bundled in blankets little Irina slept on an easy-chair. The habitat of a confused poet? Alya called it a shipwreck – and Marina a slum. In order to buy food for them and milk for Irina, Marina slowly sold their possessions on the Moscow flea markets – including many of her beloved books. She admits to stealing bread for her children from the tables of her friends, when she was invited for coffee and pastry.
It was to get worse in the second winter of 1920-1921. After Efron's relatives declined to take the children, in November of 1919, Marina saw herself forced to send her children to an orphange in Kuntsevo near Moscow– she calls it a shelter. It was supported by American food donations.
A month later the shelter notified her that Alya had become seriously ill. She rushed there, bundled up Alya and carried her home. Irina appeared emaciated but not ill. She left her behind. At home Alya ran a roller-coaster of temperatures around 40 deg C (82 F). By January she seemed to get better only to come down with a third fever attack three weeks later. The doctor finally decided that she had malaria.
And then on February 3, 1920 Irina died, apparently of neglect and starvation. In a letter to Vera Zvagyntseva and her husband Alexander Erofeev, her closest friends at the time, Marina writes:
7 February 1920, Friday
I have to tell you of a great sorrow: Irina died at the shelter – on the 3rd of February, four days ago. And it is all my fault. I was so busy caring for Alya - and so afraid to go to the shelter that I put hope into fate...
And now this happened, and nothing can reverse it. I learned this by accident. I went to the League of Salvation, to find out about a sanatorium for Alya- and suddenly Kuntsevsky came up - I recognized him. He called, "Are you Mrs. Efron?” and when I confirmed, he said, “Your child has died without illness from weakness.” - And I did not go to the funeral. Alya had a temperatute of 40.7 on that day - and to tell you the truth, - I just couldn't.... I still think that this must be a bad dream, and that I must wake up.... Many people will now conclude that it is all my fault, my adventurism, my making light of my difficulties, my monstous health, my endurance.... We all have a husband, a father, a brother - I have only Alya, and Alya was sick, and all I did was to attend to her.
- Explain to me, other women forget their children over balls - lovers - celebrations. My celebration of life has been my poetry, but I did not forget Irina because of my poetry. – In the last two months I did not write anything! And most horrible! - I did not forget her, did not forget her all this time. Despaired I told myself, "When Alya recovers, I am going to take care of Irina."- And now it is too late.
Alya had these frequent attacks. Three days in succession her temperature was 40.5 – 40.7, and then it fell, and three weeks later came another attack, the third. The doctor now thinks it is malaria. Lord, if you have money to pay a sanatorium for Alya, I'll live for you, I'll sleep in your hallway or the kitchen and wash your floors.... Or better, let me go with her, if you can afford it. I'm afraid that in the sanatorium, she too might die. I'm afraid of everything. I'm in a panic, please, help me!
Malaria can be treated with good results. It is not contageous. You have to keep her warm, I'm going to try. Before this happened, I had begun to prepare a collection of my poetry (1913 – 1916). – I was madly engaged in this work - in addition, I need the money. And now - all is gone....
Friends, do not be horrified by my request. I am in constant terror....
I kiss you both. - If possible, do not tell common friends. I am like a wolf in his den hiding my grief, it's hard on people.
And then - could you, Vera, give Alya a bit of fun, she loves you and Sasha, you are gentle and funny with her. I so often remain silent. - I just ask you to visit me at home for an hour!
In another letter to Vera she cries out:
“The most dreadful thing is, when I start amagining that with Irina gone Seryozha doesn't need me, that it would have been better – more befitting! - for me to die. I am ashamed to be alive. How am I going to tell him?”
She was in a state of
terrible confusion. For a while Marina in her pain and guilt-ridden
panic accused Lily and even Vera for their inaction on behalf of
Irina. - The news spread, and eventually friends produced a ration
card for her. The event had distressed other writers. Help came too
late for Irina, but Alya recovered.
The political situation in Russia became ever more desparate. In May 1921 Alexander Blok died at 42, exhausted and disillusioned. He had made no secret of his distaste for the Bolshevik regime, and Anatoly Lunacharsky had personally refused to let the ailing Blok leave the country. The Cheka began cleaning up among the dissidents. – This was still during Lenin's lifetime, many western European communist sympathizers, among them some famous people applauded! - In August 1921 the Cheka executed 64 members of the “Tagantsev Conspiracy” among them Nikolai Gumilyov. Shrewd Akhmatova escaped by a hair.
This period is not reflected explicitly in Tsvetaeva's poetry. Marina's mind, effected by these events, turned more and more to Seryozha's fate. She had heard nothing from him since the summer of 1919, when Max Voloshin had heard of him being in the Crimean. The last of the White Army had been killed or dispersed. Was he still alife? Life without him was unthinkable to her.
She had asked several people to search for him. One of them was Ilya Erenburg, the politically ambivalent novelist and journalist. Erenburg had managed to spend the turbulent years before the Revolution in Paris. He returned to Russia in 1917 and became increasingly more pro-Bolshevik. In 1921 he managed to be sent abroad again as European correspondent for the newspaper Izvestiya. Fully unexpected this unlikely gentleman had located Seryozha in Constantinople! On July 1, 1921 Marina received a letter from Seryozha: [I have been unable to locate the originals of these letters in the internet and had to copy them from [VS p.207]
dear friend, Marinochka, I got a letter from Ilya
[Erenburg] today telling me that you are alive and well. When I had read it
I wandered around the city all day, crazy with joy. What can I tell you?
Where shall I begin? There is so much I need to say, but I've got out of the
habit of talking, let alone writing. I am living to be with you again. There
will be no life for me without you - stay alive! I shall make no demands on
you - all I want is for you to be alive ...
Through all the years we have been apart - every day, every hour -
you have been with me, inside me. But you must know that yourself. . .
Her reply had to go through Erenburg. She never mentioned Constantinople.
My Seryozhenka! If
people don't die of happiness, they can be paralysed by
it. I have just received your letter, and I feel stunned. The last news I had
from you was your letter to Max. Then - a void. I don't know where to begin
- so I'll begin where I shall end - with my love for you...
A few weeks later she was trying to learn to breathe again:
Four months later Sergey had moved to Prague to be nearer to her. Viktoria Schweitzer [VS p.208] reproduces a letter Seryozha had written to Olga and Vsevolod Bogengardt, friends of his from the White Army days:
Prague, 11 November,
...A day after I arrived in Prague I got a letter from Marina. She writes that her plans to leave Russia have failed twice. But she is not giving up hope, and is sure that she wil manage to leave by next spring. She is having a very difficult time of it.
Correspondence between Prague and Russia is very easy. The mails are working normally,- a letter to Moscow gets there in two weeks. Erenburg has written that letters between the capitals can be sent without the least danger.You can even send parcels from here....
It would take her six
months of perseverance to secure the required visa and an exorbitant
amount of money. She had to sell her last furniture, a precious rug.
And all this time she was painfully aware that she is leaving her
Moscow, her roots, her youth, the very soul of her poetry.
Hunger had left its traces, wrinkles, her pasty skin color, sunken joyless eyes. Would Seryozha even recognize her? Accept her in the state she was in? She looks at herself:
за годы разлуки!
have not gown prettier in the years of separation!
left by train for Riga on May 11, 1922. The only person who saw them
off was A. Chabrov-Podgaetsky – a musician and minor actor.
Alya rembered his name, because he once gave a rose to her mother.
They had to change trains in Riga. Alya recalls that her mother was
uncommunicative during the entire long journey. - Alya didn't know,
an unknown man at the station had whispered to Marina, ”You are
being followed by a man from the Cheka...” They did not sleep
until they left Riga.
They reached Berlin a week later on May 17, 1922. No one met them. Seryozha was in Prague....[VS p.217]