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Prince Volkonski as Tsvetaeva's Messiah in "The Disciple" poems

Posted 04-14-2010 at 08:22 AM by Helen Agaf
Yesterday, when I was working (again) on Tsvetaeva’s cycle of poems called “The disciple”, a sudden idea crossed my mind, that the addressee of the cycle was a complete mystery to me. It was quite interesting, because of personal spirit of the poems.

According to the cycle, Marina is someone’s devoted disciple, an eager follower, even an apostle. She deeply admires her spiritual leader and worships this unknown person as a god. There are motives of self-denial and self-sacrifice, and a strong wish to protect her master against the mob, unable and unwilling to perceive their ideas (a nice clear parallel with the religion, and I like it). Her manner is passionate and energetic, her style is abrupt – and all this depicts an atmosphere, very close to fanaticism.

So, this mysterious person, proclaimed as the second Jesus by Tsvetaeva, couldn’t leave my mind. And when I came across the lines in her biography “February-March, 1921. Tsvetaeva got acquainted with Prince Sergey Volkonski and wrote a cycle of poems under the heading “The Disciple” addressed to him.”, it didn’t tell me anything I had been starving for. Actually, I wanted to see something more than just a name – his personality, his temper, everything that would help me to answer my own question, why Marina was so much impressed to use such a manner, to turn into a spiritual fanatic. I had (again) to make a tedious research, but, frankly speaking, it was worth doing.
Here are the satisfying results (in a narrative manner).

Famous Decembrist’s descendant, Prince Sergey Volkonski was a brilliant theater expert who influenced cultural life of his motherland (Russia) greatly. He was almost the first and only in his noble and orthodox environment (and in the patriarchal conservative and orthodox country as well) to state the importance of freedom of conscience, i.e. he was against the very idea of a predominant (state) religion.
His visits to Chicago in 1893 and Boston in 1896 brought the two countries together in terms of culture, art and language. After his lectures in Harvard, Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures was established. Great Russian historian, Mr. V. Solovyev wrote afterwards, that “Prince Volkonski has achieved in the USA a very interesting goal: he has managed to show a human-like face of our country which was slightly familiar, yet interesting to the Americans.”


Prince Volkonski about a theater:
“It’s a sacred place where the soul is constantly working, as it is nothing but soul that real and joyful work usually demands”.


In December 1920 he (in his 60-es already) got acquainted with Marina Tsvetaeva, their friendship was the strongest spiritual support in her life. Later, the prince issued his wonderful letters to the poetess (about strength of mind and soul, and thirst for creative work) as a book called “The Everyday Life and Existence. From the Past, Present and Future”. This book was quite a phenomenon within those years of Bolshevik terror, widespread famine, misery and death treated as something very common. During 1919-1921 he was living in a flat with bare walls, with awful “coffee” (actually, it was just water colored with chicory or beetroot) and no light, writing memoirs (his own and about the Decembrists), and a new book about stage speech and movement.

Prince Volkonski about those years:
“I’ve never been so happy before! Now I can entirely devote myself to my work, the rest matters nothing to me!”


Later he was forced to leave for Paris (and then to the USA where he was destined to die in Hot Springs) and when Tsvetaeva did the same, he helped Marina with arranging her chamber poetic evenings.

Marina Tsvetaeva about him:
“He was a most weird, wonderful and brilliant person who never recognized the power of times and always tried to bind all broken threads in one…”


Now, when my research is over, I can’t help smiling thinking about how weird our life is. I’ll try to put it like this: there are lots of threads among different people, events and places which overlap (chaotically or thanks to the Providence, one may argue). I don’t know what people should (or shouldn’t) do, when they notice such an “overlapping act”, but still it happens for something, I’m sure.

Threads overlapping implicitly for Tsvetaeva and Volkonski (except their friendship, it’s pretty much explicit) are the following:

- Volkonski’s grand grandfather was Benkendorf, a chief of the Corps of Gendarmes, who was tough with poet Alexander Pushkin and suppressed the Decembrists’ riot in 1825. Pushkin was Tsvetaeva’s favorite poet. She considered him to be a genius, translated his poems into French and wrote “My Pushkin” essay in Russian.

- Volkonski’s grand-aunt was princess Zinaida Volkonskaya, addressee of Pushkin’s poems. She supported noble wives of the Decembrists who were eager to follow their husbands to Siberia. Her house was opened for artists, musicians and poets, her dearest dream was a museum of Russian sculpture. This dream was inherited by Ivan Tsvetaev, Marina’s father, a son of poor village orthodox clergyman. As a talented and brilliant person, he established the Museum of Fine Arts which nowadays is known as Pushkin’s Museum (Moscow).

These ones I’ve managed to notice… Amusing facts.
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