- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

In her remarkable and tormented life, Marina Tsvetaeva knew fame and she knew terror. By the age of 18, the Russian poet was already well established in the Moscow literary scene, counting Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam among her friends. (Mandelstam was reputed to be in love with her.) Along with Anna Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva was one of those who became important “poet-witnesses” to the ravages of the Stalinist dictatorship.

In coolly observant poems, Tsvetaeva recorded her impressions of the confusing and grim circumstances in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution: “This man was White now he’s become Red./ Blood has reddened him./ This one was Red now he’s become White. Death has whitened him.”

Blunt, lyrical, revered for her rich insights and ultimately beloved, Tsvetaeva was able, authoritatively, to characterize the dark forces that destroyed lives precisely because she herself was a victim of them. In 1941, isolated from family and evacuated to a small town outside of Moscow after Nazi Germany began bombing raids on the Russian capital, Tsvetaeva committed suicide. She was 49 years old.

In “Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva,” Russian scholar Irma Kudrova attempts to bring into focus the poet’s last years (1939-1941). Relying on “new material” and a “reevaluation of known sources,” she has presented information that deepens our understanding of those dark days. In her research she realized that the yellowing case files from the KGB archive would yield important information. But as she writes in her introduction, “Open these files and blood shows through the words typed there.”

There is no doubt that with this slim volume, Irma Kudrova has done much to explain the damage despotic regimes can do to the individual spirit. Though the biographer would have done well to give us more information about Tsvetaeva’s early life and even more of her poetry, she has garnered enough information to make a very strong case that the NKVD (the secret service) ultimately must be held responsible for Tsvetaeva’s death. The strongest part of this book is the biographer’s demonstration of the inconsistencies found in the “confessions” of individuals called to bear witness against friends, colleagues and family members, a matter borne out by her fastidious examination of the newly opened files.

In an introduction to the book by Ellendea Proffer, readers learn about important facts that precede the primary action of this book. After the 1917 Revolution Tsvetaeva was stranded in Moscow with her two daughters. Her husband, Sergei Efron, who had been fighting the Bolsheviks with the White Army, emigrated when the army dispersed. Circumstances were harsh and the strong-willed Tsvetaeva attempted to get by as best she could. Because of the scarcity of food brought on by famine, she was forced to put one of her daughters up for adoption. The little girl died of starvation shortly thereafter.

In 1922, Tsvetaeva left Russia to rejoin her husband and she spent the next 17 years in Europe. Ellendea Proffer writes: “Isolation is a danger for any emigre writer, as one senses the loss of audience, and for Tsvetaeva, who was evolving as a poet, this isolation was especially painful. By 1927, she was writing Pasternak that ‘I don’t have one human being who would, even for an hour, prefer poetry to everything else.’” After Tsvetaeva’s daughter Ariadna (Alya) and husband returned to the Soviet Union, life in Paris with her little boy Mur grew more and more frustrating. She returned to the Soviet Union in 1939.

Irma Kudrova begins her book with Tsvetaeva and her 14-year-old son boarding the boat that would take them back to Russia. From what we now know, it was the beginning of the end for the poet. The question that resonates throughout this book is: Why did she return? The country was at the height of the Stalinist purges in which anyone could be held in suspicion but those like Tsvetaeva, who had spent time abroad, were particularly vulnerable.

It is tempting to indict Tsvetaeva for her shortsightedness. What a life she might have led had she not returned to her battered country. More instructive, however, is the observation offered by the biographer who shows that the emigres in particular could not have been aware of the fate that awaited them. Enjoying the freedom of the West for so many years made it impossible for them to know just how bad things had gotten in their native land. And the biographer does not mince words when it comes to portraying Stalin and his followers. “The dark forces of the world had incarnated into ‘non-humans,’” too evil for most humans to recognize.

After Tsvetaeva and her son returned to Russia and were reunited with Efron they settled in a safe house in Bolshevo, a suburb of Moscow provided by the NKVD, a place some came to call “the house of pre-trial imprisonment.”

There, with Nikolai Klepnin, E.V. Larin and P.I. Pisarov — men reputed to have been involved in killing Ignace Reiss, an NKVD operative “who decided to defect when he understood that the secret police themselves were being purged” — Tsvetaeva attempted to establish some sort of normal life. However, in a few short months, Alya was arrested and, about a month later, Efron was also taken away.

The biographer is meticulous in describing the NKVD interrogations that took place over the next month. She shows how the secret service persuaded Alya to testify against her father on a charge that he was a foreign agent, and she gives thoughtful explanations of how the girl came to be first deluded, then woefully remorseful.

Efron himself underwent 18 interrogations over nine months before being sentenced to death.

The twists and turns of the Efron case are morbidly fascinating though at times more than a little confusing. Whether this is the result of the murky records or an imprecise translation is hard to tell. What is more likely — and more chilling — is that layers of obfuscation must have been caused by the manipulations of the NKVD doubling back over itself.

However hard life became as Stalin’s evil antics increased, things got worse for Tsvetaeva when war began to loom after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. At that point, there was no exit out of a disintegrating Russia.

Because of the false charges against Alya and Sergei, Tsvetaeva was officially ostracized. After the USSR was invaded by the German army in 1941, the poet was evacuated to the small provincial town of Yelabuga. It was there, having sunk into the dark abyss of despair, that Tsvetaeva hanged herself.

This is harrowing reading. Even knowing the dreadful outcome the reader can’t help but be transported as the biographer weaves her way through the profoundly sad story. Visits to key locations are particularly powerful and revealing. The biographer found heroism. And she found something less noble. Modern-day residents of Yelabuga hate that their town is known as the place where Tsvetaeva ended her life.

THE DEATH OF A POET: THE LAST DAYS OF MARINA TSVETAEVA

By Irma Kudrova

Introduction by Ellendea Proffer

Translated from the Russian by Mary Ann Szporluk

Overlook, $29.95, 232 pages, illus.

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