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.]


  1. I think i got it.
    It was in one of the thomes of Chukovsky autobiography where I remember reading about her.
    Where he talks about Bely-Blok-Solov’ov tangle.
    Also (I’m sneezing; this book dust is a nasty thing) , leafing thru his daughter’s 2-volume- “Notes to Anna Akhmatova”, I came across this paragraph (sorry for the leangthy quote and for untranslated Russian):
    [t.1, p. 184]
    2) К ней пришёл Кузьмин-Караваев, старик, сосед по Слепнёву.
    -мы провели целый вечер втроём: он, я, Лёвушка, пили вино, перебирали с ним всех слепнёвских. Когда он ушёл, меня вдруг, часа через два, осенило: да ведь он из-за меня стрелялся!

    (Here L.Chukovsky enters footnote #125; following is the partial quote from this footnote)
    …о котором из братьев К-К идёт речь – точно и уверенно сказать не могу.[позже: брат Михаил]. С этой семьёй Акхматова связана была двояко: соседством по Слепнёву и общением в Цехе Поэтов. Жена Дмитрия Владимировича, Елизавета Юрьевна К.-К…. была одно время, как и А.А., членом Цеха, а муж её (тогда молодой юрист) исполнял обязанности “стряпчего”. О ней…существует обширная литература – см., например, книгу, куда входят её собственные произведения и воспоминания о ней: Е.Ю. Кузьмина-Караваева. Избранное.М.1991)
    Also, I’ve looked thru collection of Punin’s letters (Akhmatova’s 3rd husband) and a book by Lidia Ginzburg (which, generally, is a good counterpoint/addition to everything L.Chukkovsky says), but E.K-K isn’t mentioned in either.
    I’m sure I’ve read about her in many more sources, just don’t have it at hand at the moment. Probably in one of the Boris Nosik gossipy concoctions…or in one of 100 others.
    But early Altzheimer is a still a definite possibility.

  2. This week’s NYRB has a three page thing (okay, “book review”) on Akhmatova. (I usually think that synchronicity, pace Jung, is just the ape brain trying to find patterns in coincidences.) I confess that I got lost trying to keep the Бродячая собака couplings straight. (As at other times with Bloomsbury.) This isn’t going to help matters any.

  3. Thanks a lot for the research and for putting the bits and pieces together into a big picture, LH.

  4. Fascinating. I wish I’d known her too. I wish we lived in times when people still wrote poems for other people, and meant them.

  5. LH, I just went to the last link in your update. I am sorry, but there is a mistake in your post where you describe EK-K as arrested and threatened by death by Bolsheviks.
    It was exactly the opposite way: she was a member of Socialist Revolutionaty Party and was elected the mayor when bolsheviks were in power. Then White Guard swept bolsheviks from town, and she was arrested for giving orders of expropriation of vineries and sanatoriums, etc. And her death sentence was changed to 2(yes, two) weeks of prison thanks to petition signed by important figures in cultural sphere of the time:
    Октябрьская революция застала Кузьмину-Караваеву в Анапе. В феврале 1918 года она, в то время видный член партии эсеров, была избрана товарищем городского головы. А затем стала и городским головой Анапы. Когда к власти пришли Советы и городская дума была распущена, Елизавета Юрьевна вошла в Совет в качестве комиссара по делам культуры и здравоохранения. Но ее комиссарство длилось недолго: вскоре Анапа была захвачена белогвардейцами и над Кузьминой-Караваевой состоялся суд. За сотрудничество с большевиками и участие в национализации местных санаториев и винных погребов ей грозила смертная казнь. И лишь благодаря заступничеству группы русских писателей (М.Волошина, А.Толстого, В.Инбер и др.), которые в своем открытом письме величали Елизавету Юрьевну «русской духовной ценностью» высокого «веса и подлинности», ее приговорили лишь к двум неделям тюрьмы.

  6. Now I think I understand why Nina Berberova has nothing about EK-K in her book. Ties with A.N. Tolstoy…sending her daughter to Russia in 1935 (she died there in 1936…how?)…NB would have nothing to do with people like that.

  7. Chris Nicolaou says

    Does anyone know what happened to her son Yuri?

  8. Yuri Daniilovich Skobtsov, son of Elizaveta (Liza) Yurevna Pilenko and Daniil Skobtsov grew up in Paris and became an Orthodox priest (subdeacon).

    Joined French Resistance, arrested by Gestapo and died in Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in February 1944, aged 23.

  9. Wow. Thanks for finding that depressing news. The 20th century was a hard time, but I guess they all are.

  10. Perhaps it should be noted here that Mother Maria is now known as Saint Mary of Paris, because

    She was glorified by the Church of Constantinople on January 16, 2004, along with her companions, Priest Dmitri Klepinin, her son George (Yuri) Skobtsov, and Elie Fondaminsky. They are commemorated on July 20.

    The choice of the date for feast day is remarkably fitting.

  11. Why? I’m not seeing anything obvious at the Wikipedia pages for the date (though she and her companions should be added to the Религиозные section of the Russian one).

  12. On July 20, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg tried to kill Adolf Hitler.

    Not sure if it’s official holiday in Germany or not, but it’s usually the day when German government honors heroes of the German Resistance to Hitler regime.

  13. Ah, that makes sense.

  14. @SFReader: no, it’s not an official holiday, it’s just a day for official remembrance ceremonies.

  15. This post came up as „random link“ today and I tried to check out the poems you linked. Seems like link rot has infested your post – none of the links leads to the texts of the poems any more.

  16. Such is life on the internet, but if you google the Russian titles you should get the poems.

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