January 10, 2015
Zinaida Nikolaevna Gippius
Zinaida Nikolaevna Gippius [Russia/USSR]
Born in Belev, in the region of Tula, in Russia, on November 20, 1869, Zinaida Gippius (also transliterated as Hippius) was the eldest of four daughters of the super-procurator of the St. Petersburg Senate, Nikolai Romanovich Gippius.
After her father’s death in 1881, which caused a deep depression for his daughter, Gippius’ mother moved the family to Moscow and eventually to Tbilisi (Tiflis). As a young girl, Gippius was educated at home, and was already a published poet by the time that she entered the Kiev Institute for Noble Girls, and later, the Fisher Private Classic School in Moscow.
In 1888 Gippius met the poet and writer Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky, founder of the modernist movement of Russian literature, whom she married a year later. Although their literary careers developed independently, they shared political, philosophical and religious viewpoints.
Upon their marriage, the couple traveled to Crimea, returning to St. Petersburg and moving into a flat that came to be known as Muruzi House, which Merezhkovsky’s mother had rented and furnished for them as a wedding gift.
Gippius saw her poetic role as one of “inspiration.” She herself admitted her persona to Valery Bryusov, “By the year 1880 I was writing verses, being so great a believer in “inspiration” as to make a point to never take a pen off paper. People around me saw these poems as a sign of me being ‘spoiled,’ but I never tried to conceal them and, of course, I wasn’t spoiled at all, what with my religious upbringing.
Her first published short stories appeared in 1890-91, followed by a series of longer fictions including Without the Talisman, The Winner, and Small Waves, works which critics described as “stylistically anonymous.” But her poetry was another matter, work that was seemingly more intimate which described as “personal prayers.” Many of these works explored the dark side of the soul, dealing with sexual ambiguity and narcissism, and were described by conservative readers as “blasphemous,” some going so far as to describe the poet as a “demoness” and a “decadent Madonna.” Wear male clothes and using pseudonyms, Gippius carefully cultivated her image as a red-haired, green-eyed androgynous monster/beauty, shocking her guests in her outspoken declarations of sexual liberation.
Her first book of poetry, The Collected Poems, 1889-1903, appeared, to great critical acclaim in 1904. Valery Bryusov praised the collection for its “insurmountable frankness with which she depict[s] the emotional progress of her enslaved soul.”
The Muruzi House quickly gained status as one of Russia’s cultural centers. But although guests delighted in Gippius’ beauty and cultural leadership, few of them, apparently, four her warm or affectionate.
In the last decade of the century, Gippius and her husband both espoused radical philosophical and religious concepts. Gippius, herself involved with Sergei Diaghhilev’s clique and its Mir iskusstva magazine, popular with the gay community, where she published her essays under the pseudonym Anton Krainy (other pseudonyms included Roman Arensky and Lev Pushchin). Oddly, given her demonic persona, Gippius ideas were centered on a salvation of Russian culture to be attained through its Christianization, an attempt to bring the Church and intelligentsia together. Accordingly, her ideas began to be centered in the concept of a “New Church,” argued by her and Merezhkovsy in their Religious and Philosophical Meetings which took place from 1901-1903, which temporarily attempted to pull Russian culture away from the major social upheavals it was soon to embrace. When Sergei Bulgakov refused to publish her essay on Alexander Blok, however, the group when into demise, with Gippius withdrawing from the spotlight, retreating to what described as her “domestic Church,” a three-part sexual relationship with Merezhkovsky and their close friend Dimtry Filosofov.
With the “Bloody Sunday” of January 9, 1905, Gippius, formerly disinterested in political activism, suddenly became consumed with concerns for social change, becoming one of the harshest of Tsarist critics. The following year, the couple voluntarily exiled themselves to France to proselytize to Westerners about the new Russian future. During this period, she published several new works, including the collection of stories Scarlet Sword and the play, Poppies Blossom, with Merezhkovsky and Filosfov named as co-writers. The French, however, were indifferent to their ideas, and they returned home to St. Petersburg at a time in which Gippius health had also deteriorated, forcing the group to spend a great deal of their time visiting European health resorts and clinics. During a French visit in 1911, Gippius bought an inexpensive apartment in Paris, which would later serve them as their home.
Although the political changes in Russia had made their causes more welcome, their attempts to revive the Religious-Philosophical Society, but few of the new political leaders attending their meetings, and the group gradually became another literary clique. In 1910 Grippius published her second collection of poetry The Collection of Poems, No. 2, 1903-1909. During this period she also published further collections of stories and one of her best known books of prose, The Demon Dolls (1911). The Merezhkovskys condemned Russian participation in World War I.
Although they greeted the 1917 Revolution, they denounced the October coup, seeing it as the end of Russia and the coming of the Kingdom of the Antichrist. Although she was still able to publish some of her anti-Bolshevik verses in the “old” newspapers, it became increasingly clear that the new Russian order had no room for her and Merezhkovsky’s antiquated and somewhat romanticized views. Her Last Poems (1914-1918) was published in 1918, presenting a dark view of revolutionary Russia. By 1919, no longer able to imagine a Bolshevik defeat, the Merezhkovskys and Filosofov began to make plans for their escape.
Receiving permission from Soviet Commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky to leave the city to lecture on Ancient Egypt to Red Army soldiers, the three, along with Gippius’ secretary Vladimir Zlobin, left for Poland by train through Gomel, Minsk and Vilno.
After several months in Warsaw, where Gippius worked as a newspaper editor for Svoboda, Gippius and her husband left for France, leaving Filosofov, who wanted to remain in Poland, behind. Back in France, Gippius attempted again to lecture and write on issues surrounding Russia and freedom, but like so many others before and after her, her subject gradually began to shift to her discomfort and inability to survive as a writer in exile. In the 1920s, her poetry was re-issued in Russia, and new collection of her tales, Words from Heaven, was published in 1921. Another collection of poems, Poems appeared in 1922. A co-authored book by Gippius, Merezhkovsky, Filosofov, and Zlobin, The Kingdom of Antichrist, appeared in Munich.
In 1928 Merezhkovsky took part in the First Congress of Russian writers in exile held in Belgrade, but by this time Gippius had already begun a long period of depression from which she would never truly recover. Merezhkovsky’s death in 1941, along with Filosofov’s death the year before, Gippius saw herself alone in the world, struggling to regain any strength that remained through writing. She died on September 9, 1945, her last words said to be: “Cheaply do I coast…And wise to God.” She was buried in the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Cemetery beside her husband. Among the few who attended her funeral was the writer Ivan Bunin.
SELECTED POETRY BOOKs
Sobranīe stikhov, 1889-1903 (Moscow: Knigozd-vo “Skorpīon, 1904); Sobranīe stikov: kniga vtoraia, 1903-1909 (Moscow: Knigozd-vo “Musaget,” 1910); Stikhotveoreniia I poémy (Munich: W. Fink, 1972); Stikhotvoreniia: Zhivye litsa (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literature, 1991)
ENGLISH LANGUAGE TRANSATIONS
Selected Works of Zinaida Hippius (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972)
For “Three Poems by Zinaida Gippius” go here: