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FEATURE-Moscow museum guards poet's memory
By Janet McBride

MOSCOW, Jan 29 (Reuters) - An ordinary facade fronts the home of a Russian poet who always maintained she was plain.

Inside, an unexpected jumble of stairs, passages and rooms lined with books in Russian, German and Italian hints at the mind of Marina Tsvetaeva, a poet feted on her debut but scorned at her death, adored in today's Russia but neglected outside.

"Without doubt Marina Tsvetaeva was one of the great poets of the 20th century," said Elaine Feinstein, one of only a few people to translate Tsvetaeva's verse into English.

Tsvetaeva produced 2,000 poems spanning a revolution, two World Wars and more than a decade of exile in Berlin, Paris and Prague. Her work won the admiration of European writers like Russia's Boris Pasternak and Germany's Rainer Maria Rilke.

Poet Osip Mandelstam was among her many lovers.

But her verses, many of them blunt expressions of love and desire, had no place in Josef Stalin's austere Soviet Union.

The complex rhymes and rhythms of her work and an idiosyncratic vocabulary scared off translators.

At the time of her suicide in 1941 in a desolate town in Tatarstan, hundreds of miles east of Moscow, Tsvetaeva was penniless, lonely and almost forgotten.

Of the great poets of Russia's Silver Age -- including Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova -- she has long been the most neglected.

"She died before her work was recognised. In Russia she was seen as an emigree and totally distrusted and in the West she was not known. People love her in the West today, but only if they can find her," Feinstein said.


Tsvetaeva's house from 1914-1922, now her museum, stands on the edge of Moscow's once bohemian Arbat district.

Before the revolution, her home was filled with artists, actors and writers paying homage to the young woman who shot to fame at 18 with the publication of her first book of verse.

"She was domestically inept and selfish. She always put her poetry first and her house was neglected," Feinstein said.

Tsvetaeva's life was turned upside down by the 1917 uprising, however. Her husband Sergei fought against the revolutionaries, Tsvetaeva was plunged into poverty and in 1920 her two-year-old daughter Irina starved to death.

Tsvetaeva began a long exile.


In the years after Tsvetaeva's anonymous death her followers set about restoring her reputation. After decades of suppression, her poetry was finally republished in her homeland in 1961 during a brief thaw under Nikita Khrushchev.

The Tsvetaeva house museum and library opened a decade ago and now draws dozens of visitors each day.

Tsvetaeva's verse has even found a place in Russian popular culture through the songs of Alla Pugacheva, a pop diva who performs some of Tsvetaeva's words to music. "At the mirror" tells of an affair with the poet Sofia Parnok, "How many of them (Requiem)" speaks of mortality.

"Today she has a new audience, young and old. She is one of our greatest poets," said a museum curator.

"She is the most passionate and musical of poets," said an elderly man visiting the house. "You can feel her meaning."

Now lovers of Tsvetaeva's work want to reach a bigger audience outside Russia, a task that is made more difficult by the complexity of her verse. Only a fraction of Tsvetaeva's poems are available in translation.

"The most difficult quality is that she invents her own words, which one can do in Russian. She invented very freely," said Feinstein, whose slim volume of Tsvetaeva verse is considered by some to be the best English translation.

"Also the stanza and the rhythm that flows down the page are difficult to capture if you want to keep the rhyme and the meaning."

For many of those who do find Tsvetaeva, Feinstein says, quoting the words of one of her poems: "She bites in like a tick. You must tear out her roots to be rid of her."

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