A comment by Alexei in response to my previous post led me to investigate a woman I’d never heard of, Elizaveta Kuzmina-Karavaeva, and her life was so extraordinary and touched so many aspects of the early twentieth century that I thought I’d share it here. She was born Elizaveta (Liza) Yurevna Pilenko on Dec. 8, 1891 in Riga, where her father, Yuri Dmitrievich Pilenko, was a lawyer. When his father Dmitri, an army general from a Cossack family, died in 1895, the family moved south to Anapa, a Black Sea port Dmitri had helped establish, and Yuri became a successful agronomist and vintner. In 1905 he was named director of the Nikitsky Botanical Garden and the family moved to Yalta, but the next year he died suddenly and unexpectedly (still in his fifties) and his widow Sofiya (born 1862, died 1962!) took Liza to Saint Petersburg to live.
Liza hated Petersburg. After the South it was cold and dank; in her reminiscences she says “На улицах рыжий туман. Падает рыжий снег. Никогда, никогда нет солнца.” [There was red-brown fog in the streets. Red-brown snow fell. There was never, never any sun.] The death of her beloved father destroyed her belief in God and made it impossible for her to concentrate on her studies; she wandered the streets and thought bitter thoughts. Then, the next year, her cousin took her to a poetry reading where she saw and heard Alexander Blok and (like so many others) fell under his spell; she felt that here at last was someone who could understand her grief and disillusionment. She found out his address and visited him at home, where the 27-year-old poet took the 15-year-old girl seriously and talked with her for hours; after she left he wrote two poems, Когда вы стоите на моем пути and Она пришла с мороза (both, most unusually, in free verse), the first of which he sent her along with a letter that enraged her for what she felt was its condescension. She gave up on him as a mentor/friend, but began writing seriously herself and frequenting Petersburg’s literary and artistic circles; after a brief romance with Nikolai Gumilev (who addressed to her the poem Это было не раз, это будет не раз) she met and quickly married (in early 1910) Dmitri Vladimirovich Kuzmin-Karavaev, son of a liberal politician who had an estate in the northeast of Tver province adjoining Slepnyovo, the family dacha of Gumilev, where he brought his new bride Anna Akhmatova in 1911—there’s a photo of Liza standing next to Anna at Slepnyovo in 1912, the year her first volume of poetry, Скифские черепки [Scythian potsherds], was published.
The marriage didn’t last long; she left Dmitri and moved with her mother and her lover back to Anapa, where in December 1913 her daughter Gayana was born. Her lover was killed in WWI; she was elected mayor of Anapa in February 1918, then was arrested and threatened with death [I had the politics wrong here—see Tatyana’s comment below for details]. A member of the government of the Kuban region, Daniil Skobtsov, took an interest in her case, and after she was freed they were married and left Russia via Georgia, Constantinople, and Belgrade, ending up (like so many Russian exiles) in Paris.
They had two children, but that marriage also broke up, and in 1932 she took monastic vows and became the Orthodox nun Mother Maria. (Oddly, her former husband Kuzmin-Karavaev converted to Catholicism and eventually became a cardinal.) In that capacity she worked to help poor emigrants, and when WWII came she joined the Resistance and helped Jews escape by providing them false papers and other assistance. Betrayed by a fellow emigré, she was arrested and sent to Ravensbruck, where she died in 1945 (perhaps volunteering to take the place of another inmate, though there’s no proof).
There’s a Russian site dedicated to her, with writings by and about her, and more here and here; in English there’s a paragraph here, underneath a gorgeous watercolor she did in Paris. She’s one of those people I wish I’d been lucky enough to know.
[Note: I added the name by which she’s known in the first sentence to avoid confusion; I’ve already found one site that links to this and calls her “the poet Liza Pilenko.” Sorry, my sloppy. (That nominalized adjective is for Mark Liberman.) Also, here‘s another good Russian link about her, with lots of good pictures.]