Russia's First Lesbian Poet
Rebecca Boyd (she/her)
In 1916, as the Russian Empire teetered on the brink of revolution, a relatively obscure poet and critic published a love poem to Russia. So far, so predictable: Russian nationalism was nothing new by the turn of the 20th century. The contents of the poem itself is, in many ways, conventionally patriotic, personifying the motherland as a beautiful, desirable woman... Yet one small detail throws a spanner in the works of such a straightforward reading: its author was herself a woman, who made no secret of her love for women. Her name was Sophia Parnok.
Born on a sweltering summer’s day in 1885 in the Black Sea port city of Taganrog, the young Sophia seemed set for life. Her parents were affluent Jews who had managed to fully integrate into Russian society despite widespread virulent anti-Semitic sentiment; her mother was one of the first Russian women to qualify and practice as a doctor. Tragedy struck in 1891, days before Sophia’s 5th birthday, when her mother died shortly after giving birth to her twin siblings. This loss, compounded by her father’s second marriage to the children’s less-than-motherly governess, marked Sophia for life. Years later, she would describe reading a letter left behind by her mother as an attempt to imaginatively reconstruct her personality and, more importantly, the mother-daughter bond they never had.
“And all that I hold dear in my heart Would seem, to you, mere nonsense.
Yet I’m fond of the fallacious fancy That you would have loved me” Poems, 1916
Despite her unhappy family life, Sophia’s youth was not all doom and gloom – her juvenilia testify to a teenage girl who loves life and already consciously flirts, dances and falls in love with other girls. Boys, on the other hand, seem of little romantic or sexual interest to the young poet. Nevertheless, in 1907, desperate to escape her father’s tutelage, she agreed to marry Vladimir Volkenstein, an established poet, critic and playwright, and more importantly, a friend and mentor who did not object to her affairs with women. Under Volkenstein’s guidance, and through his St Petersburg connections, she began to publish some of her own poems – rewriting her Hebraic surname, Parnakh, as the more French-sounding Parnok. The union, however, would prove short-lived: it turned out that Parnok’s lesbianism and literary ambitions did not sit as well with her husband as both parties had thought they would. By spring 1909, they had divorced.
Then, in 1914, two meetings came together to form the turning-point of Parnok’s poetic career. The first one occurred in real life: in October 1914, Parnok was introduced by a mutual friend to the up-and-coming poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Parnok was 29; Tsvetaeva, who was married, had just turned 22. The two women fell in love and embarked on a brief but tempestuous love affair, which would prove as fertile as it was ill-fated. Indeed, although Tsvetaeva eventually returned to her husband after finding Parnok in bed with another woman, the two poets would remain forever changed by one another, both emotionally and artistically. Around this time, too, Parnok made another fateful encounter, this time in print: in 1914, the first Russian translation of Sappho’s fragments came out. At long last, Parnok, who had never learnt Latin or Greek, could read poetry about desire between women in her native tongue – something that mainstream Russian-language literature had never acknowledged existed. Like other early sapphic writers such as Renée Vivien or H.D., Parnok found in Sappho an invaluable model not only for lesbian writing, but also, crucially, for lesbian existence.
“But how am I to know which ear of corn Stems from the seed you sowed?” Poems, 1916
Like other early sapphic writers such as Renée Vivien or H.D., Parnok found in Sappho an invaluable model not only for lesbian writing, but also, crucially, for lesbian existence. The sheer transformative joy of this discovery is touchingly described in 'Sapphic Stanzas' where Parnok’s poetic speaker finds herself ‘on fire’ and compelled to dance the moment she hears a line of Sappho’s verse. Meeting Tsvetaeva and discovering Sappho would provide Parnok with both the inspiration and the language to write about her own experience of lesbian desire. Two years later, in 1916, her first published collection finally saw the light of day – and with it, the first woman-authored poems in the Russian language to openly celebrate love between women.
“I’ve clearly not forgotten, in this life,
Unforgettable bliss of unforgettable songs,
Sung in times of yore by friends of mine
In the school of Sappho.”
The argument that homosexuality is not natural, or at the very least, not indigenous, is a time-honoured favourite of homophobes across the world. According to them, no matter where they are, queerness always comes from somewhere else, in a cultural game of pass-the-parcel. Russia is, notoriously, no exception. Its ‘gay propaganda’ laws specifically prohibit the promotion of ‘untraditional’ ways of life; in 2017, in response to victim testimonies of anti-gay purges, the Chechen government claimed that ‘such people’ simply did not exist in Chechnya. At the start of the 20th century, though, the picture was a very different one. Russian society was relatively tolerant by contemporary Western standards: its existing anti-sodomy law was only very rarely applied; numerous high-profile individuals, men and women alike, lived their homosexuality or bisexuality openly. In 1906, the first Western novel with a gay happy ending was published in Russian, and in 1918, homosexuality was fully decriminalised across all of Russia and Ukraine, 50 years ahead of the UK and most US states. At the same time, however, homophobic attitudes remained prevalent across Russian society. By the time Parnok emerged onto the literary scene, same-sex attraction had become thoroughly entangled with broader concepts of foreignness and nativeness – a debate which had been raging since the 1820s, and whose roots went as far back as the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725), with his forced Westernisation of the country. Many intellectuals, faced with the lack of a visible Russian homosexual tradition and the relative abundance of such precedents in Europe, considered same-sex desire a predominantly foreign phenomenon, whether for better or for worse: Lidia Zinovieva-Annibal pejoratively associated lesbians with the worst tropes of French Decadence, whereas Mikhail Kuzmin enthusiastically linked his experience as a gay man to the glorious legacy of Ancient Athens, Alexandria, and Rome. In stark contrast, others, such as the ‘peasant poets’ Nikolai Klyuev and Sergei Yesenin, asserted that same-sex desire was wholly homegrown, only ever expressing it in the language of the people and situating it in the Russian countryside.
At first glance, Parnok seems to fall in the former, foreign-leaning category. One of Tsvetaeva’s poems describes Parnok conversing in French, and as mentioned above, the surname she chose for herself had a French ring to it to a Russian ear. Despite altering her surname, she never denied her Jewish heritage, and mused in one poem on the family legend that her ancestors had come to the Black Sea from Spain several centuries before: here, the poet’s body has a life – and a memory – of its own, and responds violently to reminders of a homeland which the mind has forgotten.
“Only, my heart starts to pound in trepidation
The moment there’s talk of Madrid.”
This poem about her Iberian Jewish ancestry is strikingly similar to ‘Sapphic Stanzas’: in both texts, the body remembers a long-lost home situated elsewhere, outside of Russia. As well as a 15th-century Spaniard and a disciple of Sappho, Parnok is depicted elsewhere as the reincarnation of a Shakespearean heroine: in one of the ‘Podruga’ poems, Tsvetaeva refers to her as a ‘tragic lady’ (transcribing the conspicuously foreign English term rather than translating it into a Russian equivalent). Yet these isolated examples and outsider descriptions of Parnok need to be situated within the wider context of the poet’s œuvre, and what it says about how she views herself and her sexuality. The declaration of love to Russia mentioned above, for instance, localises her lesbian desire firmly down to earth on the Russian soil, in its ‘soggy ruts’ and its Orthodox faith; rather than rejecting Russianness as incompatible with her queerness, she embraces both simultaneously and portrays Russia itself as a worthy object of lesbian desire. And, upon closer inspection, ‘I don’t know my ancestors...’ is not merely a poem about feeling foreign – even as she evokes her exotic ancestry, the speaker acknowledges her own Russianness, referring to her eyes as ‘Northern’ and her descendance as ‘pale of face.’ Throughout her poetic career, Parnok would continue to draw on a diverse network of cultural references, ranging from Dante to Pushkin, from Italian architecture to Russian agriculture. Meeting Tsvetaeva and Sappho in 1914 was only one step in her poetic journey; soon she would move on from both to find a voice that was truly her own.
“I love you in all your expanse
And in every soggy rut. [...]
Over this much-loving wanderess
I foresee a crown of gold.”
Parnok did not fit in with her contemporaries and the literary movements they represented for a number of reasons. As we have just seen, she refused to pick a side when it came to foreignness and Russianness, preferring instead, in her writing, to embrace the paradox of embodying both simultaneously. This rejection of extremes is in fact a recurring feature of her poetry. Women and men, homosexuality and heterosexuality, mind and body, and other traditional binaries co-exist in enriching symbiotic relationships with one another in her poetic universe. The interdependence of mind and body, in particular, crops up strikingly often. Parnok, who was diagnosed with Grave’s disease as a teenager, knew all too well how deeply her intellectual life depended on her metabolism’s cooperation; over her career, she would frequently write about her experience of tachycardia (as seen in ‘Sapphic Stanzas’ and ‘I don’t know my ancestors...’), loss of appetite, chronic fatigue, and insomnia.
“My voice turns into a shout,
But, clearly, cannot be heard [...]
So I’ve become invisible, have I?
Where then will I go now?”
Half-Voiced, 1928 (written 1927)
As well as refusing to hide her lesbianism and her illness, Parnok openly discussed her Orthodox faith and her strong interest in religion. This Christian bent of her writing, along with her general aversion to making strong political stands, would eventually sign her death sentence as a poet under the Soviet regime. From the late 1920s onwards, she found it increasingly difficult to publish her work. Like many Soviet intellectuals, she gradually gave up on doing so, offering a poignant description of the difficulty of making her poetic voice heard in ‘I had a dream: I’m wandering in the dark...,’ in a collection tellingly titled Half-voiced. Nonetheless, emigration and abandoning poetry remained out of the question; stubborn until the very end, Parnok refused to leave the country she called home, and continued to write collections of verse, in private, without any hope of seeing them published. In August 1933, shortly after her 47th birthday, she died of a heart attack, surrounded by lovers and friends, past and present.
To this day, despite the considerable efforts of a couple of dedicated scholars in Russia and the US, Parnok’s name and work remain relatively obscure, even among specialists of early 20th-century Russian poetry. The difficulty of placing her in any convenient literary or political category is no doubt to blame for this state of affairs – but it is also what makes her poetry worth talking about today. Besides challenging the hegemonic notion of a literary canon made up of clear-cut movements and masters, it offers invaluable ways of thinking about identity in a broader context. At a time when political leaders around the world are weaponising queer identity in all its forms and circumscribing it to serve their own agendas, voices like that of Parnok’s remind us that there are always other ways of being other – ways of living and loving beyond binaries, of being open to the messiness of identity and to all the beauty and the pain this world has to offer, and, most importantly of all, of obstinately carving out space to be one’s true self without ever feeling threatened by others doing the same.
All translations are my own.
Fig.1 Sophia Parnok c. 1895-1903
Fig. 2 Taganrog Port
Fig. 3 Marina Tsvetaeva (1917)
Fig. 4 Sophia Parnok 1910s
Fig. 5 Sophia Parnok late 1920s
Burgin, Diana Lewis. “After the Ball is Over: Sophia Parnok’s Creative Relationship with Marina Tsvetaeva.” The Russian Review, vol. 47, no. 4, 1988, pp. 425-444.
Burgin, Diana Lewis. “Laid Out in Lavender: Perceptions of Lesbian Love in Russian Literature and Criticism of the Silver Age, 1893-1917.” Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture, edited by Jane T. Costlow, Stephanie Sandler et Judith Vowles, Stanford University Press, 1993, pp. 177-203.
Burgin, Diana Lewis. Sophia Parnok: The Life and Work of Russia’s Sappho. New York University Press, 1994. – highly, highly recommend!
Engelstein, Laura. “Lesbian Vignettes: A Russian Triptych from the 1890s.” Signs, vol. 15, no. 4, 1990, pp. 813-831.
Forrester, Sibelan. “Reading for a Self: Self-Definition and Female Ancestry in Three Russian Poems.” The Russian Review, vol. 55, no. 1, 1996, pp. 21-36.
Parnok, Sophia. Sobranie stikhotvoreni. Edited by Sofia Poliakova. Ardis, 1979.
Tsvetaeva, Marina. “Iz tsikla Podruga.” Stikhotvorenia i poemi. Azbuka, 2015, pp. 56-62.