Donald Rayfield

Everyday Horrors

Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva

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‘GRIM IS THE lot of the Russian poet: / an inscrutable fate / leads Pushkin to the pistol’s barrel, / Dostoevsky to the scaffold’, wrote the poet and magus Max Voloshin in 1922 after he witnessed the slaughter of the Whites by the Reds in the Crimea. His prophecies were never truer than in the case of Marina Tsvetaeva, whose last four years (rather than days) are agonisingly and methodically reconstructed by Irma Kudrova. Unlike other major writers such as Nikolai Gurniliov, Nikolai Kliuev, Osip Mandelstam or Isaak Babel, Tsvetaeva was not marked out by the regime for death. Stalin applied the same technique to her as he had to Anna Akhmatova: those closest ;o her were arrested, but she herself was almost certainly meant to live and, suitably chastened, to write. Other Russian poets had committed suicide before the state could destroy them morally as well as physically; Esenin and Mayakovsky, however, had hinted all their short lives that they would kill themselves. Tsvetaeva – in her intense emotional reactions, and even her prose style – does resemble Virginia Woolf (whose suicide occurred at the same time, and under the same cloud of total war), but she was a poet and woman of such irrepressible energy and vitality that only the most terrible concatenation of circumstances could have driven her to suicide.

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