Looking up Vyacheslav Ivanov—who a century ago ran an influential St. Petersburg literary salon in his turreted house, called the Tower—in Solomon Volkov’s gossipy and irresistible St. Petersburg: A Cultural History, I found this:

The Tower was imbued with an intensely intellectual atmosphere. As a woman poet who participated in the meetings recalled,

We quoted the Greeks by heart, took delight in the French Symbolists, considered Scandinavian literature our own, knew philosophy and theology, poetry and history of the whole world. In that sense we were citizens of the universe, bearers of the great cultural museum of humanity. It was Rome at the time of the fall. We did not live, but rather contemplated the most refined that there was in life. We were not afraid of any words. We were cynical and unchaste in spirit, wan and inert in life. In a certain sense we were, of course, the revolution before the revolution—so profoundly, ruthlessly, and fatally did we destroy the old tradition and build bold bridges into the future. But our depth and daring were intertwined with a lingering sense of decay, the spirit of dying, ghostliness, ephemerality. We were the last act of a tragedy.”

Great quote, right? But… “a woman poet”? What the hell, are they interchangeable? The footnote is no help: “Aleksandr Blok v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov (Alexander Blok in the Reminiscences of Contemporaries), vol. 2 (Moscow, 1980), pp. 62-63.” So if anyone has that book or happens to know whose words are being quoted, please be so kind as to inform me. Until then, I sit in darkness.

Update. It turns out she’s Elizaveta Kuzmina-Karavaeva, and I wound up doing a post about her. Thanks, Alexei!


  1. It was Elizaveta Yu. Kuz’mina-Karavaeva (Елизавета Юрьевна Кузьмина-Караваева, урожд. Пиленко), Skobtsova in her second marriage. She is much better known as Mother Maria, the Orthodox nun who ran a homeless shelter in Paris before WWII and was executed in the Ravensbrueck camp in 1945. Constantinople canonized her (along with her son Yuri, Fr. Dmitri Klepinin, and Ilya Fondaminsky) in 2004.
    Here’s her Blok memoir, the source of that quote. It’s pretty odd that Volkov wouldn’t mention M.M., who was, among other things, a friend of so many outstanding Russians that this friendship alone would have made her famous.

  2. This seems to be Volkov’s standard method for quoting someone’s sovremenniky; their names apparently aren’t important to him. In Shostakovich i Stalin, whenever he quotes from a book titled X v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov, he always refers to “a contemporary”, “a close friend”, or “a follower”.

  3. Alexei: Thank you! I was hoping you’d know. And she sounds like a fascinating woman; I’ll have to look her up.
    Tanel: That’s incredibly annoying — but I guess you can’t expect gossips to be scholarly.

  4. LH, if you have Nina Berberova’s classic (Kursiv moj), I think she mentions E.K-K there, with notes, footnotes and associations
    Volkov is another author I had the same reaction to as to Emma Gershtein (was just discussed her yesterday with a reader in Israel, interested in Mandelshtams’) – started the book with excited anticipation and finished out of sense of duty, “to hear all he has to say”.

  5. LH: I didn’t know that, just looked it up. I enjoy reading Solomon Volkov despite this. There are writers who manage to be sloppy despite having all their references right — sloppy and unentertaining, too. Volkov is at least entertaining — at least, because he’s more than that, though he barely avoids the развесистая клюква zone. I haven’t read the book but came to love the title: it’s ambitious in the style of “A General Theory of Everything.”

  6. Siganus Sutor says

    Just a question about today’s Russia : is it true that all “un-Cyrillic” alphabets are banned from books, press or teaching since a vote in the Duma some three years ago? (Except for writing Georgian and Armenian maybe.)

  7. До йоу меан ыи спелл Енглисх лике тхис, Сиганус? The much-discussed law passed in 2002 says that state languages of the Federation and its members are to be graphically based on the Cyrillic alphabet. To use a different “graphic base” requires a separate federal law.
    That (amazingly wrongheaded, if you ask me) law was meant to prevent Tatarstan from switching to a Latin-based script from a Cyrillic-based one. (For centuries, the Tatars used the Arabic script; in 1927-1937, the official alphabet was Latin.) Though much less important that the 1927 shift from Arabic to Latin, the proposed change was perceived as pan-Turkic, promoting Turkish interests, etc.

  8. Interestingly, that law also neglected that the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Far East has Yiddish as its second official language, so, apparently, they would have to switch to Cyrillic, too.

  9. Alexei: Dammit, I’ve spent half the day reading about that woman; now I’ll have to post about her.
    Tatyana: Berberova’s memoir was the first thing I thought of — they moved in the same circles and must have known each other — but at least in my edition there seems to be no mention of EKK (under any of her many names!).

  10. LH, look what you’ve done: now I will have to go thru the book boxes, in this heat, search for the book and actually look up the quote! You’re so cruel.
    I’ll let you know how it’ll end…

  11. OK. I was lucky – the book was in the 3rd box. BUT – you’re right, EK-K is not listed.
    So, it’s one of 2 things – either I have premature Altzheimer, or I remember it from other Berberova’s book, The Iron Woman, about Baroness Mura Budberg. With much less probability she might be also mentioned in her book about Russian Masons.
    If anybody has last 2 books in their posession, we’ll have to ask’em for help; I don’t.

  12. Siganus Sutor says

    Alexei : « The much-discussed law passed in 2002 says that state languages of the Federation and its members are to be graphically based on the Cyrillic alphabet. »
    Does it apply to all aspects of public life? And what is the penalty if someone goes against it?
    I remember having seen a newspaper available on the internet, The Moscow Times, which was in English, an English written without much Cyrillic letters. Does it contravene the law then?

  13. English is not a state language anywhere in the Russian Federation. If the government of Tatarstan started to publish a newspaper in Tatar using the Latin alphabet without the federal Duma’s approval, it would run afoul of the law.

  14. Georgy Kolotov says

    Hi guys,

    I was very happy to run across this post while looking for this same quote.
    Unfortunately, the link given by Alexei, while leading to the website dedicated to M. Maria, doesn’t hold the book or the quote, and in her bibliography there are quite a few books about Blok.

    Can anyone let me know which book is the quote from?

    Thanks a lot,

  15. Georgy Kolotov says
  16. Thanks very much for the link! Here’s the original of the quote (with the last sentence in its entirety), for ease of reference and in case the linked site goes the way of so many others:

    Цитировали наизусть греков, увлекались французскими символистами, считали скандинавскую литературу своею, знали философию и богословие, поэзию и историю всего мира. В этом смысле МЫ были гражданами вселенной, хранителями культурного великого музея человечества. Это был Рим времён упадка!

    МЫ не жили, МЫ созерцали всё самое утончённое, что было в жизни, МЫ не боялись никаких слов, МЫ были в области духа циничны и нецеломудренны, а в жизни вялы и бездейственны. В известном смысле мы были, конечно, революция до революции — так глубоко, беспощадно и гибельно перекапывалась почва старой традиции, такие смелые мосты перебрасывались в будущее. И вместе с тем эта глубина и смелость сочетались с неизбывным тлением, с духом умирания, призрачности, эфемерности. Мы были последним актом трагедии — разрыва народа и интеллигенции.

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