Much of Tsvetaeva's poetry has its roots in the depths of her displaced and disturbed childhood. Her father was Ivan Vladimirovich Tsvetaev, a professor of art history at the University of Moscow, who later founded the Alexander III Museum, which is now known as the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Tsvetaeva's mother, Maria Alexandrovna Meyn, was Ivan's second wife, a highly literate woman. She was also a volatile (and a frustrated) concert pianist, with some Polish ancestry on her mother's side. (This latter fact was to play on Marina's imagination, and to cause her to identify herself with the Polish aristocracy.)
Marina had two half-siblings, Valeria and Andrei, who were the children of Ivan's deceased first wife, Varvara Dmitrievna Ilovaiskaya (daughter of the historian Dmitry Ilovaisky). Her only full sister, Anastasia, was born in 1894. Quarrels among the children were frequent and occasionally violent.
There was considerable tension between Tsvetaeva's mother and Varvara's children, and Tsvetaeva's father maintained close contact with Varvara's family. Maria favoured Anastasia over Marina. Tsvetaeva's father was kind, but deeply wrapped up in his studies and distant from his family. He was also still deeply in love with his first wife; he would never get over her. Maria, for her part, had had a tragic love affair before her marriage, from which she never recovered. Maria Alexandrovna particularly disapproved of Marina's poetic inclination. She wished her daughter to become a pianist and thought her poetry was poor.
In 1902, Tsvetaeva's mother contracted tuberculosis. Because it was believed that a change in climate could help cure the disease, the family travelled abroad until shortly before her death in 1906. They lived for a while by the sea at Nervi, near Genoa. There, away from the rigid constraints of a bourgeois Muscovite life, Marina was able for the first time to run free, climb cliffs, and vent her imagination in childhood games.
There were many Russian émigré revolutionaries residing at that time in Nervi, and undoubtedly these people would have had some influence on the impressionable Marina. The children began to run wild. This state of affairs was allowed to continue until June 1904, when Marina was dispatched to school in Lausanne. Changes in the Tsvetaev residence led to several changes in school, and during the course of her travels she acquired the Italian, French, and German languages.
In 1908, Tsvetaeva studied literary history at the Sorbonne. During this time, a major revolutionary change was occurring within Russian poetry: the flowering of the Russian Symbolist movement, and this movement was to colour most of her later work. It was not the theory which was to attract her, but the poetry and the immense gravity which writers such as Andrey Bely and Aleksandr Blok were capable of generating. Her own first collection of poems, Evening Album, was self-published in 1910. It attracted the attention of the poet and critic Maximilian Voloshin, whom Tsvetaeva described after his death in 'A Living Word About a Living Man'. Voloshin came to see Tsvetaeva and soon became her friend and mentor.
She began spending time at Voloshin's home in the Black Sea resort of Koktebel (trans. "Blue Height"), which was a well-known haven for writers, poets and artists. She became enamoured of the work of Aleksandr Blok and Anna Akhmatova, although she never met Blok and did not meet Akhmatova until the 1940s. Describing the Koktebel community, the émigré Viktoria Schweitzer wrote: "Here inspiration was born."
At Koktebel, Tsvetaeva met Sergei (Seryozha) Yakovlevich Efron, a cadet in the Officers' Academy. She was 19, he 18: they fell in love instantly and were married in 1912, the same year as her father's project, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, was ceremonially opened, an event attended by Tsar Nicholas II. Tsvetaeva's love for Efron was intense, however, this did not preclude her from having affairs, including one with Osip Mandelstam, which she celebrated in a collection of poems called Mileposts.
At around the same time, she became involved in an affair with the poet Sofia Parnok, who was 7 years older than Tsvetaeva. The two women fell deeply in love, and the relationship profoundly affected both women's writings. She deals with the ambiguous and tempestuous nature of this relationship in a cycle of poems which at times she called The Girlfriend, and at other times The Mistake.
Tsvetaeva and her husband spent summers in the Crimea until the revolution, and had two daughters: Ariadna, or Alya (born 1912) and Irina (born 1917). Then, in 1914, Efron volunteered for the front; by 1917 he was an officer stationed in Moscow with the 56th Reserve. Tsetsaeva was to witness the Russian Revolution first hand. On trains, she came into contact with ordinary Russian people and was shocked by the mood of anger and violence. She wrote in her journal: "In the air of the compartment hung only three axe-like words: bourgeois, Junkers, leeches". After the 1917 Revolution, Efron joined the White Army, and Marina returned to Moscow hoping to be reunited with her husband. She was trapped in Moscow for five years, where there was a terrible famine.
She wrote six plays in verse and narrative poems, including The Tsar's Maiden (1920), and her epic about the Civil War, The Swans' Encampment, which glorified those who fought against the communists. The cycle of poems in the style of a diary or journal begins on the day of Tsar Nicholas II's abdication in March 1917, and ends late in 1920, when the anti-communist White Army was finally defeated. The 'swans' of the title refers to the volunteers in the White Army, in which her husband was fighting as an officer.
The Moscow famine was to exact a terrible toll on Tsvetaeva. Starvation and worry were to erode her looks. With no immediate family to turn to, she had no way to support herself or her daughters. In 1919, she placed Irina in a state orphanage, mistakenly believing that she would be better fed there. Tragically, she was mistaken, and Irina died of starvation in 1920. The child's death caused Tsvetaeva great grief and regret. In one letter, she said, 'God punished me.' During these years, Tsvetaeva maintained a close and intense friendship with the actress Sofia Evgenievna Holliday, for whom she wrote a number of plays. Many years later, she would write the novella "Povest' o Sonechke" about her relationship with Holliday, who ended up betraying her.
It was bound to end disastrously, and it did. Her break-up with Rozdevitch in 1923 was almost certainly the inspiration for her great 'The Poem of the End'. This relationship was also the inspiration for "The Poem of the Mountain". At about the same time, a more important relationship began: Tsvetaeva's correspondence with Boris Pasternak, who had stayed in the Soviet Union. The two were not to meet for nearly twenty years, but for a time they were in love, and they maintained an intimate friendship until Tsvetaeva's return to Russia.
In summer 1924, Efron and Tsvetaeva left Prague for the suburbs, living for a while in Jiloviste, before moving on to Vsenory, where Tsvetaeva completed "The Poem of the End", and was to conceive their son, Georgy, whom she was to later nickname 'Mur'. Tsvetaeva wanted to name him Boris (after Pasternak); Efron would have none of it and insisted on Georgy. He was to be a most difficult and demanding child. Nevertheless, Tsetaeva loved him in the only way she knew, obsessively. Ariadna was relegated immediately to the role of mother's helper and confidante, and was consequently robbed of much of her childhood. However, the child did not reciprocate. The older he grew, the more difficult and obstreperous he became.
Tsvetaeva did not feel at all at home in Paris's predominantly ex-bourgeois circle of Russian émigré writers. Although she had written passionately pro-White poems during the Revolution, her fellow émigrés thought that she was insufficiently anti-Soviet, and that her criticism of the Soviet régime was altogether too nebuluous. She was particularly criticised for writing an admiring letter to the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. In the wake of this letter, the émigré paper The Latest News, to which Tsvetaeva had been a frequent contributor, refused point blank to publish any more of her work. She found solace in her correspondence with other writers, including Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, the Czech poet Anna Teskova, and the critics D. S. Mirsky and Aleksandr Bakhrakh.
Meanwhile, Tsvetaeva's husband was rapidly developing Soviet sympathies and was homesick for Russia. He was, however, afraid because of his past as a White soldier. Eventually, either out of idealism or to garner acceptance from the Communists, he began spying for the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB. Alya shared his views, and increasingly turned against her mother. In 1937, she returned to the Soviet Union.
Later that year, Efron too had to return to Russia. The French police had implicated him in the murder of the former Soviet defector Ignaty Reyss in September 1937, on a country lane near Lausanne. After Efron's escape, the police interrogated Tsvetaeva, but she seemed confused by their questions and ended up reading them some French translations of her poetry. The police concluded that she was deranged and knew nothing of the murder. (Later it was learned that Efron possibly had also taken part in the assassination of Trotsky's son in 1936).
Tsvetaeva does not seem to have known that her husband was a spy, nor the extent to which he was compromised. However, she was held responsible for his actions and was ostracised in Paris because of the implication that he was involved with the NKVD. World War II had made Europe as unsafe and hostile as Russia. Tsvetaeva felt that she no longer had a choice.
In 1939, she and her son returned to the Soviet Union. She could not have foreseen the horrors which were in store for her. In Stalin's Russia, anyone who had lived abroad was suspect, as was anyone who had been among the intelligentsia before the Revolution. Tsvetaeva's sister had been arrested before Tsvetaeva's return; although Anastasia survived the Stalin years, the sisters never saw each other again. Tsvetaeva found that all doors had closed to her. She got bits of work translating poetry, but otherwise the established Soviet writers refused to help her, and chose to ignore her plight; Aseyev, who she had hoped would assist, shyed away, fearful for his life and position.
Efron and Alya were arrested for espionage. Alya's fiancé, it turned out, was actually an NKVD agent who had been assigned to spy on the family. Efron was shot in 1941; Alya served over eight years in prison. Both were exonerated after Stalin's death. In 1941, Tsvetaeva and her son were evacuated to Yelabuga, while most families of the Union of Soviet writers were evacuated to Chistopol. Tsvetaeva had no means of support in Yelabuga, and on 24 August 1941 she left for Chistopol desperately seeking for a job. On 26 August, Marina Tsvetaeva and poet Valentin Parnakh applied to the Soviet of Literature Fund asking for a job at the LitFund's canteen. Valentin Parnakh was accepted as a doorman, while Tsvetaeva's application for a permission to live in Chistopol was turned down and she had to return to Yelabuga on 28 August. On 31 August 1941, while living in Yelabuga, Tsvetaeva hanged herself. She was buried in Yelabuga cemetery on 2 September 1941, but the exact location of her grave remains unknown. There have always been rumours that Tsvetaeva's death was not suicide. On the day of her death she was home alone (her host family was out) and, according to Yelabuga residents, NKVD agents came to her house and forced her to commit suicide. These rumours remain unconfirmed.
In the town of Yelabuga, the Tsvetaeva house museum can be visited, as well as a monument to her. In the museum, Tsvetaeva's farewell note, written just before her death, can be seen.
From a poem she wrote in 1913, in which she displays her propensity for prophecy:
Conversely, her poetry was much admired by poets such as Valery Bryusov, Maximilian Voloshin, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Anna Akhmatova. Later, that recognition was sustained by the poet Joseph Brodsky, pre-eminent among Tsvetaeva's champions. Tsvetaeva is primarily a poet-lyricist, since her lyrical voice remains clearly audible in her narrative poetry.
Her lyric poems fill ten collections; the uncollected lyrics would add at least another volume. Her first two collections indicate their subject matter in their titles: Evening Album (Vechernii al'bom, 1910) and The Magic Lantern (Volshebnyi fonar', 1912). The poems are vignettes of a tranquil childhood and youth in a professorial, middle-class home in Moscow, and display considerable grasp of the formal elements of style.
The full range of Tsvetaeva's talent developed quickly, and was undoubtedly influenced by the contacts which she had made at Koktebel, and was made evident in two new collections: Mileposts (Versty, 1921) and Mileposts: Book One (Versty, Vypusk I, 1922).
Three elements of Tsvetaeva's mature style emerge in the Mileposts collections. First, Tsvetaeva dates her poems and publishes them chronologically. The poems in Mileposts: Book One, for example, were written in 1916 and resolve themselves as a versified journal. Secondly, there are cycles of poems which fall into a regular chronological sequence among the single poems, evidence that certain themes demanded further expression and development. One cycle announces the theme of Mileposts: Book One as a whole: the "Poems of Moscow." Two other cycles are dedicated to poets, the "Poems to Akhmatova" and the "Poems to Blok", which again reappear in a separate volume, Poems to Blok (Stikhi k Bloku, 1922). Thirdly, the Mileposts collections demonstrate the dramatic quality of Tsvetaeva's work, and her ability to assume the guise of multiple dramatis personae within them.
The collection Separation (Razluka, 1922) was to contain Tsvetaeva's first long verse narrative, "On a Red Steed" (Na krasnom kone). The poem is a prologue to three more verse-narratives written between 1920 and 1922. All four narrative poems draw on folkloric plots. Tsvetaeva acknowledges her sources in the titles of the very long works, The Maiden-Tsar: A Fairy-tale Poem (Tsar'-devitsa: Poema-skazka, 1922) and "The Swain", subtitled "A Fairytale" ("Molodets: skazka", 1924). The fourth folklore-style poem is "Byways" ("Pereulochki", published in 1923 in the collection Remeslo), and it is the first poem which may be deemed incomprehensible in that it is fundamentally a soundscape of language.
The collection Psyche (Psikheya, 1923) contains one of Tsvetaeva's best-known cycles "Insomnia" (Bessonnitsa) and the poem The Swans' Encampment (Lebedinyi stan, Stikhi 1917-1921, published in 1957) which celebrates the White Army.
Subsequently, as an émigré, Tsvetaeva's last two collections of lyrics were published by émigré presses, Craft (Remeslo, 1923) in Berlin and After Russia (Posle Rossii, 1928) in Paris. There then followed the twenty-three lyrical "Berlin" poems, the pantheistic "Trees" ("Derev'ya"), "Wires" ("Provoda") and "Pairs" ("Dvoe"), and the tragic "Poets" ("Poetry"). "After Russia" contains the poem "In Praise of the Rich", in which Tsvetaeva's oppositional tone is merged with her proclivity for ruthless satire.
In 1924, Tsvetaeva wrote "Poem of the End", which details a walk around Prague and across its bridges; the walk is about the final walk she will take with her lover Konstantin Rodzevich. In it everything is foretold: in the first few lines (translated by Elaine Feinstein) the future is already written:
Again, further poems foretell future developments. Principal among these is the voice of the classically-oriented Tsvetaeva heard in cycles "The Sibyl," "Phaedra," and "Ariadne." Tsvetaeva's beloved, ill-starred heroines recur in two verse plays, Theseus-Ariadne (Tezei-Ariadna, 1927) and Phaedra (Fedra, 1928). These plays form the first two parts of an incomplete trilogy Aphrodite's Rage.
The satirist in Tsvetaeva plays second fiddle only to the poet-lyricist. Several satirical poems, moreover, are among Tsvetaeva's best-known works: "The Train of Life" ("Poezd zhizni") and "The Floorcleaners' Song" ("Poloterskaya"), both included in After Russia, and The Rat-catcher (Krysolov, 1925-1926), a long, folkloric narrative. The target of Tsvetaeva's satire is everything petty and petty bourgeois. Unleashed against such dull creature comforts is the vengeful, unearthly energy of workers both manual and creative. In her notebook, Tsvetaeva writes of "The Floorcleaners' Song": "Overall movement: the floorcleaners ferret out a house's hidden things, they scrub a fire into the door... What do they flush out? Coziness, warmth, tidiness, order... Smells: incense, piety. Bygones. Yesterday... The growing force of their threat is far stronger than the climax."
The poem which Tsvetaeva describes as liricheskaia satira, The Rat-Catcher, is loosely based on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The Rat-Catcher, which is also known as The Pied Piper, is considered by some to be the finest of Tsvetaeva's work. It was also partially an act of hommage to Heinrich Heine's poem Die Wanderatten.
The Rat-Catcher appeared initially, in serial format, in the émigré journal Volia Rossii in 1925-1926 whilst still being written. It was not to appear in the Soviet Union until after the death of Stalin in 1956. Its hero is the Pied Piper of Hamelin who saves a town from hordes of rats and then leads the town's children away too, in retribution for the citizens' ingratitude. As in the other folkloric narratives, The Ratcatcher's story line emerges indirectly through numerous speaking voices which shift from invective, to extended lyrical flights, to bathos.
Tsvetaeva's last ten years of exile, from 1928 when "After Russia" appeared until her return in 1939 to the Soviet Union, were principally a "prose decade", though this would almost certainly be by dint of economic necessity rather than one of choice.
In 2002, Yale University Press published Jamey Gambrell's translation of post-revolutionary prose, entitled Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922, with notes on poetic and linguistic aspects of Tsvetaeva's prose, and endnotes for the text itself.
The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich set six of Tsvetaeva's poems to music. Later the Russian-Tatar composer Sofia Gubaidulina wrote a Hommage à Marina Tsvetayeva featuring her poems. Her poem, "Mne Nravitsya" ("it pleases me"), was performed by Alla Pugacheva in the film Irony of Fate.