Sophia Parnok, Russia's Sappho

“From ultimate loneliness
With a farewell plea, –  not a prophecy
I call to you, young people and friends:
There is only one precept for a poet
In the east and in the west,
Up north and down south –
Do not

to your times,
But be
  the brow of
your times, –
Be a human being.”

– Sophia Parnok (translation by Diana Burgin)

For our last article in this year’s women’s history month celebration, we focus on a woman known throughout Russia as one of their first openly lesbian poets. Sophia Parnok was a Jewish poet born in Russia in 1885 and has grown a small reputation for being one of the first out lesbian poets in her home country. Though her work is not widespread, it is impactful. And while the government tried to curb that impact with censorship, today we will work to continue to spread that effect by sharing her story.
Sophia Parnok is referred to by many as “Russia’s Sappho.” A title she would have adored as she was very public about her admiration of the fellow queer poetess; and the comparison isn’t unfounded. Like Sappho, much of what we know about Parnok comes from her work, but unlike Sappho, we have reliable details outside of Parnok’s work that tells us about her life.
We know Parnok was born in Taganrog and began writing at the age of six, the same year her mother died. We know after her mother’s death things became tense in Parnok’s household, with her father remarrying soon after. And though Parnok only begins to explicitly discuss her sexuality in her work when she was sixteen, there is evidence that her family knew that she was a lesbian sooner and that fact only heightened the conflict in her home.
She later wrote “In the eyes of my father I am a wild slip of a girl and nothing more. My way of thinking and my tastes offend his patriarchal values, and he condescends me.” (the Russian word for tastes is often used to describe desire that isn’t heterosexual and is used in this quote for that meaning). It was because of this conflict between daughter and father that another similarity appears between Sophia and Sappho, a marriage that is not as it seems.
Where with Sappho, the marriage people believe her to have is based on the Suda, an encyclopedia written hundreds of years after her death; Sophia’s marriage existed but was transparently one of convenience. And her husband was well aware of this, as he was a friend of hers who was a poet as well, she was clear with him from the beginning that they were marrying to get her out of her father’s sphere, and to St. Petersburg.
Parnok had tried to get away from her father multiple times and had to return each time after financial burdens became too heavy, so to her, this marriage was a way to combine income and finally be free. Her husband seemed fine with this arrangement, and he worked to help her escape her family and arrive in St. Petersburg where she could fully immerse herself in the art scene there. Though queerness was not accepted by most of the society, actual queer people were just as common then as they are today and Parnok, finally able to find others like her in St. Petersburg, began building friendships and romantic relationships. Just like Sappho’s marriage, unfortunately, it had to end, though where Sappho’s marriage was ended by basic fact checking, Sophia went with the more traditional route of divorce.
She had found her marriage to stifling and wanted to try again to live on her own in Moscow where she managed to make a modest living. It was just at the beginning of World War One that Parnok had her most famous romantic relationship with a poetess named Marina Tsvetaeva. The two had a passionate relationship that would go on to influence each of their work heavily. Shortly before the eventual breakup Parnok’s first book of poetry was released which contained what is described as “the first, revolutionarily nondecadent, lesbian desiring subject ever to be heard in a book of Russian poetry,” by Diana Burgin, a woman who studied Parnok’s work extensively.
After that point, Sophia relocated again with a new lover to Crimea where she wrote not only poetry but also music to an opera. It was in Crimea that her health took a turn for the worse. She had suffered from Graves disease since birth but it was after her time in Crimea that the chronic illness would take an even larger toll on the woman.
Even when she left Crimea, these two aspects of her continued to contrast as her health deteriorated and her work flourished. She found herself inspired by the tenth great muse Sappho, writing two more books of poetry and publishing them on her return to Moscow. It was then that Parnok would meet the woman she would spend the rest of her life with, Olga Tsuberbiller who was a mathematician at Moscow University.
Her career growth was cut short in 1928 when Soviet censorship made Parnok unable to publish any more of her work. Though she continued to write, the only works that were released were her translations. Her personal work was kept in a “secret drawer”, only to be published again in 1930. Regardless of outside approval, Parnok continued to live and write as an open lesbian for the rest of her life, even finding another lover in her later years and writing what some regard to be as her greatest work.
It was in 1933 that this all ended when Parnok died of a heart attack in a city outside of Moscow. It was not unexpected, and she was lucky enough that on her deathbed she was surrounded by three of the women she had been in relationships with. Some of whom had traveled far to be able to say goodbye to her. After she had died her body was led to Moscow by a procession of people who had come from different parts of Russia, including her friends, lovers, and fans of her work.
Sophia suffered much in her life, censorship, chronic illness, poverty, heartbreak, and even a period of homelessness, but it can never be said she was not loved. Romantic and platonic, Parnok lived a life surrounded by people who she loved and loved her, and in the end, her death mirrored that beautifully.
While in her childhood she had to live with the disapproval of her father, the rest of her life was filled with the support of a chosen family. Even now, long after all of her friends and family have also died, there are still so many who love her and her work. Some of whom show this love through creating art inspired by her poems. The group Kitka is one more clear example of this, but there are others whether directly or indirectly who have taken comfort and been motivated by her work. And it is there, in her death we see the most strong connection between Sophia and Sappho.
Sophia Parnok spent much of her life admiring the Greek poetess who had come before her, even writing a book of poems to her, and this came full circle. While the two had different lives much of their legacy remains the same. Their names are used to inspire creation, and through their work, they were able to stand on the same ground. Though these two people have never met, they have been and forever will be connected by their art, and where Sophia had an entire book, Sappho only had a small verse:

“You may forget but
let me tell you
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us,”

And while we can see this as it was- a prophecy that Sophia fulfilled. We can also choose to see it as something said to Sophia, a promise that just as Sophia remembered Sappho, someone will remember her.

Eric J. (June 11, 2014) Kitka sings hidden poems of Sophia Parnok, "Russia's Sappho" Retrieved March 30, 2017

CBC (February 7, 2014) Gay and lesbian Russian writers you should know: Sophia Parnok Retrieved March 30, 2017

Diana B. (March 30, 2017) Sophia Parnok and the Writing of a Lesbian Poet's
Life Retrieved March 30, 2017

Diana B. (1995) Parnok, Sophia (1885-1933) Retrieved March 30, 2017

Laura M. (March 4, 2016) Sappho, the Poetess Retrieved April 3, 2017

Queercult (December 6, 2010) Sophia Parnok Retrieved March 30, 2017