Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922

Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922


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A moving collection of autobiographical essays from a Russian poet and refugee of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Marina Tsvetaeva ranks with Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Boris Pasternak as one of Russia’s greatest twentieth-century poets. Her suicide at the age of forty-eight was the tragic culmination of a life buffeted by political upheaval. The essays collected in this volume are based on diaries she kept during the turbulent years of the Revolution and Civil War. In them she records conversations of women in the markets, soldiers and peasants on the train traveling from the Crimea to Moscow in October 1917, fighting in the streets of Moscow, a frantic scramble with co-workers to dig frozen potatoes out of a cellar, and poetry readings organized by a newly minted Soviet bohemia. Alone in Moscow with two small children, no income, and a missing husband, Tsvetaeva struggled to feed her daughters (one of whom died of malnutrition in an orphanage), find employment in the Soviet bureaucracy, and keep writing poetry. Her keen and ruthless eye observes with compassion and humor—bringing the social, economic, and cultural chaos of the period to life. These autobiographical writings not only give a vivid eyewitness account of Russian history but provide vital insights into the workings of Tsvetaeva’s unique poetics.

Includes black and white photographs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781681371627
Publisher: New York Review Books
Publication date: 12/05/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 611,558
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Marina Tsvetaeva (1892–1941), whose father was a classicist and whose mother was a pianist, was born in Moscow and published her first book of poems at seventeen.Tsvetaeva left Russia in 1922 with her two children and her husband, Sergei Efron, who fought against the Red Army in the 1918–1921 Civil War but was later to become a Soviet spy. Often living from hand to mouth, the family remained abroad until 1939. Two years later, after the execution of her husband and the arrest of her daughter, Tsvetaeva committed suicide. Along with numerous lyrics, her works include several extraordinary long poems, among them The Poem of the End, The Poem of the Mountain, and The Ratcatcher.

Jamey Gambrell is a writer on Russian art and culture. Her translations include Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, The Blizzard, and, for NYRB Classics, Ice Trilogy. She has also translated a volume of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s writings, Experiments for the Future, and Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel, The Slynx. In 2016, she was awarded the Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Read an Excerpt

Earthly Signs
Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922

Copyright © 2002 Jamey Gambrell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-06922-8

Chapter One
October on the Train Notes from Those Days

Two and a half days-not a bite, not a swallow. (Throat tight.) Soldiers bring newspapers-printed on rose-colored paper. The Kremlin and all the monuments have been blown up. The 56th Regiment. The buildings where the Cadets and officers refused to surrender have been blown up. 16,000 killed. By the next station it's up to 25,000. I don't speak. I smoke. One after another, travelers get on trains heading back.

Dream (November 2, 1917, nighttime).

We are escaping. A man with a rifle comes up from the cellar. I take aim with my empty hand. He lowers the rifle. A sunny day. We are climbing on some debris. S. is talking about Vladivostok. We are riding in a carriage through the ruins. A man with sulfuric acid.


If you are still alive, if I am to see you again-listen: yesterday, approaching Kharkov, I read Yuzhny Krai. 9,000 killed. I cannot tell you about this night because it's not over yet. Gray morning now. I'm in the corridor. Try to understand! I'm riding, and I'm writing to you and right now I don't know ... but here follow words that I cannot write down.

We are approaching Oryol. I'm scared to write to you the way I want to-I'm afraid I'll burst into tears. This is all a terrible dream. I try to sleep. I don't know how to write to you. When I'm writing, you are there-since I'm writing you!-and then, oh! the 56th Regiment, the Kremlin. (Do you remember the huge keys you used to lock the gate for the night?) But most important, most important, most important-you, you yourself, with your self-destructive instinct. Could you actually stay at home? If everyone stayed home, you would go out alone all the same. Because you are irreproachable. Because you can't stand for others to be killed. Because you are a lion, giving away a lion's share: to give life-to everyone else, rabbits and foxes. Because you are selfless and balk at self-preservation, because "me" is not important for you, because I knew all of this from the first moment!

Should God grant this miracle-leave you among the living, I shall follow you like a dog.

The news is vague, I don't know what to believe. I read about the Kremlin, Tverskaya Street, the Arbat, the Metropol Hotel, Voznesensky Square, the mountains of corpses. In yesterday's (the 1st) issue of the SR newspaper Kurskaya Zhizn I read that disarmament had begun. Other papers (today's) write of fighting. I'm not allowing myself the will to write now-but I've imagined a thousand times how I'll walk into the house. Will it be possible to enter the city?

Soon we'll be at Oryol. It's about two in the afternoon now. We'll be in Moscow at 2 in the morning. And if I walk into the house-and there's no one there, not a soul? Where shall I look for you? Perhaps the house is no longer there? I keep feeling-this is a terrible dream. I keep expecting that any second now something will happen and there won't have been any newspapers, nothing. That I'm dreaming, that I'll wake up.

Throat tight, as if fingers are squeezing it. I keep loosening my collar, pulling on it. Seriozhenka. I've written down your name and I can't write any more.

* * *

Three days-not a word with anyone. Only with soldiers, to buy newspapers. (Terrifying rose-colored sheets, sinister. Theatrical death posters. No-Moscow colored them! They say there's no paper. There was, but they used it all up. (To some that's all there is to it-to others-it's a sign.)

Finally-someone speaks: "What's wrong Miss? You ain't even taken a bite of bread the whole trip. I been on the train with you since Lozovaya. I keep watching and thinking-when's our young Miss there going to eat? Then I think, there, she's getting some bread now-no-writing in that book again. What are you now, studying for an exam or something?"

I, vaguely: "Yes."

The speaker is a workman, black eyes, like coal, a black beard, something of an affectionate Pugachev. A bit eerie, and pleasant. We talk. He complains about his sons: "They're infected with this new life, they've caught this mange. You, Miss, you're a young person, you're likely to see things different, but to my way of thinking-all these red rabbles, these obscene freedoms-it's nothing but a temptation of the Antichrist. He's a Prince, and his power is great, he's just been biding his time, waiting till the right hour's come-gathering his strength. You come to the countryside now-life there's gray, the women are gray-haired. 'A devil,' people say, 'a clown.' Look-he's playing with cabbage stalks, tossing them in the air. But what kind of clown is he when he's a born prince, the light created. You can't fight him with cabbage stalks, you'll be needing the angelic hosts ..."

A fat officer squeezes into the compartment with us: a round face, mustache, about fifty years old, a bit vulgar, foppish.

"I have a son in the 56th Regiment! I'm terribly worried. All of a sudden I think-what the devil if ..." (For some reason I calm down immediately.) "And he's no fool either; why should he want to go into the thick of it?" (My calm passes instantaneously.) "He's an engineer, and bridges, well, it doesn't much matter who you build them for-a tsar, or a republic-as long as they hold up!"

I can't hold back: "My husband's in the 56th."

"Hu-usband!? You're married? Well, I'll be. I'd never have thought! And here I thought, Miss, you were finishing high school. In the 56th regiment is he? You must be worried sick."

"I don't know how I'll make it."

"You'll make it! And you'll see each other. Mercy me, with such a wife-how could he go into the shooting! Your husband wouldn't do himself in. He's very young then too?"


"There now, you see! And you're still worried! Well, I can tell you, if I were 23 and had such a wife I wouldn't ... But then again, here I am 53 and don't have anywhere near such a wife and I still ..." (That's the whole point! I think to myself. But just the same, for some reason, clearly recognizing the ridiculousness of it all, I calm down.)

The workman and I arrange to ride from the station together. And although it's not at all on the way for either of us-he's going to Taganka and I'm going to Povarskaya-I continue to plan it out: a deferral of the next half hour. (In half an hour we'll be in Moscow.) The workman is a bulwark, and for some reason I fantasize that he knows everything; even more, that he is himself of the princely host (not without reason Pugachev!) and that precisely because he is the enemy he will save me (S.). Has already saved me. And that he sat down in this compartment deliberately-to protect and reassure-and that Lozovaya is beside the point, he could simply have appeared in the window-amid the steppes, in stride with the train. And that in the station in Moscow he'll turn to ashes.

* * *

Ten minutes until Moscow. It's already beginning to grow light. -Or is it just the sky? My eyes used to the darkness? I'm afraid of the road, of the hour in the cab, of the approaching house (of death-for if he's been killed, I'll die). I'm afraid to hear.

Moscow. Blackness. You can enter the city with a pass. I have one, not the right one at all, but it doesn't matter. (It's for the return trip to Theodosia: I'm the wife of an ensign.) I call a cabby: the workman has of course vanished. I ride. The cabby talks, I drift, the pavement bumps along. People with lanterns approach three times. "Pass!" I proffer my pass. They give it back without looking. The first bell. It's about 5:30. It's gotten lighter. (Or does it only seem so?) Empty streets-emptied of habitants. I don't recognize the route, I don't know it (we're taking a detour)-the feeling is that time is to the left, the way a thought sometimes is in the brain. We're headed somewhere through someplace, and for some reason there's a smell of hay. (Maybe, I think, this is Haymarket Square and that's why there's-hay?) There's a slight rumbling from the outposts: someone will not surrender.

Not a thought-about the children. If S. is no longer, then neither am I, and neither are they. Alya won't live without me, she won't want to, won't be able to. As I won't without S.

The Church of Boris and Gleb. Ours, the one in Povarskaya. We turn into a side street, ours-Boris and Gleb Lane. The white house of the church secondary school-I always called it a "Volière": a connecting gallery and children's voices. And on the left, the old-fashioned green house standing at attention (a town governor once lived there and policemen stood in front.) Yet another house. And ours.

The steps opposite two trees. I get out. I take my things out. Detaching themselves from the gates, two men in semi-military uniform approach. "We're the house security guard. What can we do for you?"

"I'm so and so and I live here."

"We don't have orders to let anyone in at night."

"Then please call the maid from apt. 3." (Thought: now, now, now they'll say it. They live here and they know everything.)

"We're not your servants."

"I'll pay."

They go. I wait. I'm not alive. I am the legs on which I stand, the hands with which I hold the suitcases (I didn't set them down, it turns out). And I can't hear my heart. If not for the cabby's call, I wouldn't have realized I'd been waiting a long time-a monstrously long time.

"Well then Miss, what'll it be, will you let me go or not? I still have to go to Pokrovskaya St."

"I'll pay you extra."

The quiet terror that he'll up and leave: my last bit of life is with him, the last bit of my life until ... However, setting down my things, I open my purse: three, ten, twelve, seventeen rubles ... I need fifty. Where will I get them if ... Footsteps. The sound of one door and then another. The entry door opens now. A woman in a scarf, a stranger.

Not giving her a chance to speak, I ask:

"Are you the new maid?"


"Has the master been killed?"

"He's alive."



"But how? Where has he been all this time?"

"In Alexandrovsky with the Cadets. What a terrible fright we've had. Praise God, the Lord had mercy. Only they've got awfully thin. Right now they're on N-sky St. with friends. The little ones are there and the Master's sisters ... All healthy, well and safe, just waiting for you."

"Would you have 33 rubles to pay the cabby?"

"Goodness gracious, of course-we'll just bring in your things." We bring in my things, let the cabby go, and Dunya offers to accompany me. I grab one of two loaves of Crimean bread to take with me. We go. Ravaged Povarskaya St. Cobblestones. Potholes. The sky grows a bit lighter. Bells.

We turn into a side street. A seven-story house. I ring. Two people in fur coats and hats. In the striking of a match-the gleam of a pince-nez. The match right in my face.

"What is it?"

"I've just arrived from the Crimea and I want to see my family."

"But this is unheard of-bursting into a house at 6 in the morning!"

"I want to see my family."

"You'll get there all in good time. Come back around 9 o'clock and then we'll see."

At this point the maid steps in.

"What's wrong with you gentlemen, they have little children, heaven knows how long it's been since they've seen each other. I've known them a long time, I'll vouch for her-she's a trustworthy soul, has her own house on Polyanka."

"Just the same, we can't let you in."

At this point, unable to restrain myself: "And who are you?"

"We're the house security guard."

"I'm so and so, the wife of my husband and the mother of my children. Let me in, I'll go in anyway."

And, half admitted, half pushing my way through-I fly up six flights-to the seventh.

* * *

(And so it has remained with me, my first vision of the bourgeoisie in the Revolution: ears hiding in fur hats, souls hiding in fur coats, heads hiding in necks, eyes hiding in glass. A blinding-in the light of a striking match-vision of mercenary hides.)

* * *

From below, the voice of the maid: God bless! I knock. They open. "Seriozha's sleeping? Where's his room?" And, a second later, from the threshold "Seriozha! It's me! I just arrived. The people downstairs are vile. But the Cadets won all the same! Are you here or not?" It's dark in the room. Having reassured myself:

"I traveled three days. I brought you some bread. I'm sorry it's stale. The sailors are vile! I met Pugachev. Seriozhenka, you're alive and ..."

* * *

The evening of the same day we leave for the Crimea: S., his friend G-tsev, and I.

* * *


Arrival in Koktebel in a mad snow storm. The gray-haired sea. The enormous, almost physically burning joy of Max V. at the sight of Seriozha alive. Enormous loaves of white bread.

* * *

The apparition of Max V. on the steps of the tower, with a volume by Taine on his knees, frying onions. And while the onions are frying, reading aloud to S. and me, the destinies of Russia tomorrow and beyond.

"And now, Seriozha, there will be such and such ... Remember."

And softly, carefully, almost rejoicing, he shows us picture after picture. Like a kind magician revealing his secrets to children, he relates the course of the entire Russian Revolution five years in advance: the terror, the Civil War, the executions, the military outposts, the Vendée, the atrocities, the loss of godliness, the unloosed spirits of the elements, blood, blood, blood ...

* * *

With G-tsev to get bread.

A cafe in the Otuzy. Bolshevik appeals on the walls. Long-bearded Tatars at the tables. How slowly they drink, how sparingly they speak, how imposingly they move. Time has stopped for them. The 17th century- the 20th century. Even the cups are the same, dark blue, with cabalistic signs, no handles. Bolshevism? Marxism?

Scream your lungs out, posters! What do we have to do with your machines, your Lenins, Trotskys, your new-born proletariats, your decaying bourgeoisie ... We have Ramadan, Mullahs, grapes, a dim memory of a great queen ... This is the boiling sediment at the bottom of these gilded cups. We-are outside, we-are above, we-are a long time ago. It's for you-to be, we-have passed. We-are once and forever. We-are not.

* * *

Moonlit twilight. A mosque. The herds of goats return. A girl in a raspberry skirt down to the floor. Tobacco pouches. An old woman, gnawed like a bone.

The sculpturesqueness of ancient races.

* * *

In the train compartment (the return trip to Moscow, Nov. 25.)

"Breshko-Breshkovskaya's a bastard too! She said 'you have to fight!'"

* * *

"To destroy more of the poor classes and live blissfully again themselves!"

* * *

"Poor Mother Moscow, clothing the entire front! We can't complain about Moscow! The papers cause all the trouble. The Bolsheviks are right when they say they don't want to spill blood, they're keeping an eye on things."

* * *

In the compartment air-so thick you could cut it with a knife-three words resound: bourgeois, Junkers, bloodsuckers.

* * *

"So their business will be better!"

* * *

"Our revolution's young, but in France theirs is old, stale."

* * *

"A peasant, a prince, what's the difference-their hides are all the same!" (I, thinking to myself: but some are only out to save their own hide-that's the whole point).

* * *

"The officer, comrades, is the number one bastard. In my opinion, he's of the very lowest education."


Excerpted from Earthly Signs by MARINA TSVETAEVA Copyright © 2002 by Jamey Gambrell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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