To Zinaida With Love
By Mark Sconce
The other night, my reading somehow merged with my sleep. I found myself dreaming about Russian Culture, not exactly a sexy topic. Yet I very much remember being visited by two Zinaidas. (zin eye éedahs). I’m not sure if I was smitten by or seduced by both. The first was Zinaida Volkonskaya, the favorite, nay, the mistress, of Czar Alexander I who reigned from 1801 to 1825.
Daughter of a very old and prominent noble family, Princess Zinaida was born to aristocracy with all the trappings of a glamorous society. Fancy dress balls and a wardrobe to match, elegant horse-drawn carriages and then of course the manners and tone when on a first name basis with Europe’s power elite. Not only strikingly beautiful, she possessed a talent for singing, writing and poetry and even wrote lyrics for a Rossini opera.
Yet, during the Napoleonic Wars, she observed, at close range and unafraid, the various gruesome military campaigns. At war’s end, she returned to Russia, establishing a dazzling and influential literary and musical salon whose most illustrious visitor was my friend, Alexander Pushkin.
Most intriguing, however, was Zinaida’s conversion to Roman Catholicism and her growing concern with the plight of the poor. She spent the final decades of her life in Rome. She abandoned the life of luxury, privilege and salon glitter, choosing instead to become a lay missionary dedicated to easing the burdens of the sick and destitute. Princess Zinaida Volkonskaya died of pneumonia (apparently after giving her warm cloak to an old woman). Her death was mourned by friends such as Sir Walter Scott, Nikolai Gogol, Stendhal, Rossini, Mikhail Glinka and Alexander Pushkin who dubbed her “Tsarina of the Muses and of Beauty.” Indeed, she inspired Tolstoy’s character “Natasha” in War and Peace; the movie, you may remember, starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda.
Well, Time Passes: Concrescences of movies, books, dreams, history; “entangled fates and feelings.” Until, a hundred years later, we’re presented with Zinaida Gippius, nicknamed the “decadent Madonna.”
Gippius was a poet, playwright, novelist, editor and reputable literary critic. Gippius, the poet, holds a very special place in Russian literature. “Her poems are deeply intellectual, immaculate in form and genuinely exciting,” wrote the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary back in the Year of Our Lord 1910. In an act of admirable bravery she even wrote several bitter, angry anti-Bolshevik works. She used to be an ardent Revolutionist.
And she used to host a literary salon in her posh St Petersburg apartment. One of its habitués reported that Zinaida’s mere appearance caused a sensation: “a heavenly vision walked in slowly, an angel of astonishing thinness in snow-white garments and golden loose hair, along whose bare arms something akin to sleeves or wings fell to the very floor.” Indeed, that’s how she appeared in my dream even though I knew that her natural hair color was red and that she frequently dressed in men’s attire and carried a monocle much to the horror of her contemporaries.
Zinaida received a steady flow of visitors after midnight in her apartment, recumbent on a chaise lounge, smoking long, scented cigarettes and “unceremoniously peering at her guests through her famous lorgnette.” Her opinions and declarations were terse and beyond appeal. (Fortunately, that never happens here.) Residents of St Petersburg with literary conceits respected, hated and, most importantly, feared Zinaida Gippius. In 1914 she joined the Red Cross in an effort to help the veterans of the First World War. She later kept a detailed record of events that led to the Russian Revolution and the following Civil War. But let’s see what we can learn from a few of her poems. Here’s one with a familiar topic:
With greedy eyes I search the sea,
But here on shore I stand, in chains…
Off to the azure sky I’d flee,
Over the void my spirit strains.
Should I rebel or simply stay?
I lack the will to die…or live…
I feel God close…but cannot pray,
The love I crave I cannot give.
Oh how I long the sun to clasp!
I see shrouded heavens stir…
And sense the truth within my grasp…
If only I could know the words.
And if that weren’t gloomy enough… Gippius played with decadent motifs and themes of the sacred and the profane.
My world is just a tiny pit,
The ceiling low and dark within;
Four spiders in four corners sit
And ceaselessly their webs they spin.
They’re agile, greasy and unclean,
Forever weaving in the murk…
And dreadful, dreadful to be seen—
Their never-ending weaving work.
They’ve woven now in one huge ball
The four slim webs I saw before;
I watch their hairy bodies crawl
Across the dusty, rancid floor.
The web has now enmeshed my eyes
In grayish, soft and sticky thread,
And in their monstrous joy they rise,
The four fat spiders round my head.
I think it’s fair to deduce that Zinaida was not particularly adept at small talk and pleasant conversation. Nevertheless, I remain infatuated. With Lell’s permission, of course.
*All translations by James E. Falen