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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, November 21st, 2004


Death of a Poet

by Irma Kudrova

Coded confessions

A review by Catriona Kelly

On October 22, 1937, Marina Tsvetaeva was summoned to the headquarters of the Surete Nationale in Paris and questioned about her husband, Sergei Efron, who had disappeared from Paris ten days earlier. Efron was suspected of complicity in the assassination of the Soviet agent, Ignaty Reiss, in Switzerland, the previous month. Tsvetaeva replied (according to the police record) that her husband had gone off to Spain "to fight for the Spanish republicans". As friends recalled, she also quoted Racine, and added a queenly rejoinder of her own: "C'est le plus loyal, le plus noble et le plus humain des hommes. --Mais sa bonne foi a pu etre abusee. --La mienne en lui -- jamais".

Unfortunately, the plot that Tsvetaeva was actually caught up in resembled less Phedre or Britannicus than The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen. Efron was not one of the group directly responsible for Reiss's murder, but he had been working for Soviet intelligence for a number of years; he had disappeared not to Spain, but to Moscow, by command of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Tsvetaeva's daughter Ariadna -- a firm believer in the Soviet utopia -- had also been working actively as an informer before her return to the homeland in April 1937. After Tsvetaeva's own return in June 1939, the Efron family lived under what was to all intents and purposes house arrest, at an NKVD dacha near Moscow. The atmosphere was choking even before the arrest of Ariadna on August 27, 1939, and of Sergei on December 10.

When The Death of a Poet: The last days of Marina Tsvetaeva by Irma Kudrova was first published in Russian nearly a decade ago, its demonstration of Sergei and Ariadna Efron's involvement with the NKVD was sensational. Kudrova was the first researcher to see the two Efrons' interrogation records, and brought to these the insight of an ex-arrestee. She is thoughtful about the unarticulated meanings of these texts -- the likely distortions, inventions and gaps -- and judicious in deciding what factual material can be sifted out.

As well as a discussion of the affaire Efron, The Death of a Poet offers an account of Tsvetaeva's own grim last years. Kudrova explicitly rejects the argument of Mariya Belkina, in Skreshchenie sudeb (Fates Intersected, 1988), that Tsvetaeva was in some kind of psychotic condition by the end of her life. The Tsvetaeva portrayed here is panicked, desperate, but rational. She was, Kudrova suggests, brought down not just by political pressure, but by the changes that had overcome Russia in her eighteen-year absence; by intellectual and social isolation; by the squalor and chaos of life in Yelabuga, Kazan Province; and by her vexed relationship with her son, whose desire to lead his own life she interpreted as treacherous.

One could add that Tsvetaeva's last years saw her, for the first time, confronted by personal pain that lay beyond the pale of her idealistic, late-Romantic view of the world. Her greatest poetry -- Poem of the End, After Russia -- had been inspired by a sense of affront and injustice. But it is one thing to be abject, another to be insignificant, as Tsvetaeva now was, in terms of the self-styled luminaries of Soviet literature. From mythic confessionalism she retreated into dispatches as cryptic as the Morse code tapped out between prison cells: "My loneliness. Dishwater and tears. The underside of everything is terror". Writing was no longer a solace or a craft, but a record of disintegration.

Kudrova herself can be almost equally cryptic: the absence of external commentary in The Death of a Poet, combined with the to-and-fro chronological order, makes some prior knowledge of Tsvetaeva's biography essential. But on the other hand, obliquity makes a welcome change, given the moralizing that many chroniclers of the poet's life have considered essential. Kudrova, by contrast, only occasionally lurches into the cliches of martyrology: "Indisputably, and without evidence, on paper, we will name the NKVD a direct accomplice in Marina Tsvetaeva's suicide".

Kudrova hypothesizes that the NKVD was pressuring Tsvetaeva, too, to act as an informer, and that this precipitated her suicide on August 31, 1941. Kudrova was unable to track down Tsvetaeva's personal file, so this conjecture is based on more distant sources (an interview with someone the NKVD had commandeered for war work, and the diary of Tsvetaeva's son George Efron, which describes his mother going to various strange meetings when the two were living during their evacuation in Yelabuga).

The discussion of the NKVD's role in Tsvetaeva's last months is weak not only in terms of immediate documentation, but in terms of reference to the broader political and ideological background. For instance, referring to testimony by a local party official about an order commanding the suppression of Tsvetaeva's memory in Yelabuga on the grounds of her "White Guard" connections, Kudrova concludes: "The description of Tsvetaeva had clearly been composed in the highest offices of state security". Had Kudrova worked in local archives, she might have come to different conclusions: officials on the periphery were far more preoccupied with the Civil War than their counterparts at the centre. By the late 1930s, a truly dangerous person would have been described by the central authorities as "an agent of foreign powers" (as indeed happened with Sergei Efron), and not by reference to a conflict concluded twenty years earlier. Suspect in the eyes of the secret police Tsvetaeva certainly was, but this does not necessarily mean that she was regarded as a major challenge by its Moscow chiefs.

Still, Kudrova's book is on its own terms a gripping and psychologically plausible version of Tsvetaeva's terrible last years. Above all, its appeal lies in the voices of those who met Tsvetaeva, however fleetingly, and recorded their own impressions of her: shabby and prematurely aged, but immediately remarkable. Desperate, self-pitying, and with flashes of unpredictable rage, she was also courageous and independent indeed, too much so for her own good. In its sense of these contradictions, Irma Kudrova's book complements Belkina's Skreshchenie sudeb, and above all Ariadna Efron's biography of her mother, Marina Tsvetaeva: vospominaniya docheri. Perhaps now some imaginative publisher will commission translations of these books too, allowing readers without Russian access to even more impressive lives of this tragic, difficult, and uniquely gifted poet.

Catriona Kelly is Professor of Russian at New College, Oxford. Her books include A History of Russian Women's Writing 1820-1992, 1994, and Petrushka: The Russian Carnival Puffet Theatre, 1990.

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