The Artist in History, the Artist on History: the Pasternak-Tsvetaeva Dialogue in the 1920s

Irina D. Shevelenko, Smolny College, St. Petersburg

The relationship between Pasternak and Cvetaeva has been the subject of numerous biographical investigations, and many texts connected with this relationship have been identified and analyzed by scholars. However, certain intellectual paths explored by both poets in the mid- to late 1920s have yet to be examined in the context of their relationship.

Early Modernist historical thought in Russia emerged as a revision of the positivist heritage and culminated in a series of attempts at a new eschatology and salvation mythologies, in which art and the artist could be assigned a prominent role. In the 1920s, when the ideology of Modernism encountered (and contributed to) the ideology of emerging Soviet society, issues of the artist's perception of history and of the artist's response to historical reality acquired a new relevance for many intellectuals of the time.

In my paper, I will present a reading of a dialogue about history in which Pasternak and Cvetaeva engaged in their letters to each other and in their writings of the 1920s. In my discussion, I will draw upon both published texts and a largely unpublished corpus of letters (Pasternak to Cvetaeva) and notebook drafts of letters (Cvetaeva to Pasternak) which I am currently preparing for publication. I will focus on the two poets' reflections on both the artist's self-perception in history and the representation of history in creative work. I will argue that their two strikingly different stands on these issues are equally rooted in early Modernist historical thinking. I will demonstrate how Pasternak's and Cvetaeva's views translate into creative practice and inform their approach to historical subjects in some of their lyric poems and narrative poèmas (e.g., 1905 and Lieutenant Schmidt by Pasternak, Perekop and Poem about the Tsar's Family by Cvetaeva). I will also argue that the mutual challenge of their dialogue about history helps shape the mature artistic philosophy of both—and gradually erodes the sense of creative unity that used to characterize their relationship.