December 5 in Russian history. Yet another duel. Cherubina de Gabriak.


(22 November Old Style)

Duel of two famous Russian poets, Nikolay Gumilyov and Maximilian Voloshin, took place in St.Petersburg, on Chernaya Rechka, where Alexander Pushkin was killed by Georges d'Anth├Ęs on the duel in 1837. The cause of the duel had a mysterious name: Cherubina de Gabriak.

Elizaveta (Lila) Dmitriyeva was a shy young girl from a poor aristocratic family. Tuberculosis left her lame for her life. Her brother and sister used to tell her: "If you are lame, your toys should be lame, too", and tore away legs from her dolls. In 1909, she lived in Koktebel, in Crimea, where the healthy climate was good for her. She wrote poems and met Maximilian Voloshin. Once he brought a gift for her, a wooden imp, named Gabriakh. He also had one leg, one arm and an amiable doggy muzzle. His name was found in a compendium on daemonology, it belonged to an imp who protected people from evil spirits.

Voloshin tried to publish Lila's verses, but they did not impress editors. Then they invented the new name for Lila: Cherubina de Gabriak. Gabriak was, of course, the name of that wooden imp, and the first name Cherubina was taken from the short story A Secret Of Telegraph Hill by Bret Harte. Then the story described in the Wikipedia article about Cherubina followed:

In August 1909, the famous Russian artistic periodical Apollon received a letter with verses on a perfumed paper with black mourning edges, signed only by a single Russian letter Ch. The verses were filled with half-revelations about its author—supposedly a beautiful maiden with dark secrets. The same day a woman with a beautiful voice phoned the journal's publisher Sergei Makovsky and arranged for publication of the verses. Over the next few months, publications of the newfound poetic star were the major hit of the magazine, and many believed that they had found a major new talent in Russian poetry. The identity of the author was slowly revealed: her name was Baroness Cherubina de Gabriak, a Russian-speaking girl of French and Polish ancestry who lived in a very strict Roman Catholic aristocratic family, who severely limited the girl's contacts with the outside world because of an unspoken secret in her past. Almost all of Apollon’s male writers fell in love with her, most of all the great poet Nikolai Gumilyov. He wrote a series of passionate love letters to her and received quite passionate answers.

Makovsky lost his head about Cherubina. He was proud of his talents in graphology and from the letters written by Voloshin and Lila Dmitriyeva he concluded that the author was a daughter of a father from the South France and a Russian mother, that she was raised in a monastery in Toledo. "If I had the annual income of fourty thousand rubles, I would dare to fall in love with her," wrote Makovsky. Lila was a teacher in a gymnasium and earned 11 rubles per month. She must have been an unusual teacher: when an inspector visited her class in the gymnasium and asked the girls who was their favorite tsar, their answer was unanimous and unexpected: Grigory Otrepyev! She graduated from the Imperial Women's Pedagogical Institute and specialized in medieval history and French medieval literature. At the same time she studied Spanish literature and Old French language in the St.Petersburg University and Sorbonne.

Now that she was a mysterious Frech lady, her poems were accepted in all magazines and became known to everyone in St.Petersburg. Lila and Voloshin went on getting fun from the story. They invented a whole family of Cherubina, including her Portuguese cousin, don Harpia de Mantilla. Makovsky must have been really blinded if he payed no attention to the name. The others suspected a mystification, but the suspect was the innocent Makovsky.

The fame of the newfound genius was short-lived. In November it was discovered that Baroness Cherubina de Gabriak did not exist at all, and the verses were written by a disabled schoolteacher, Elisaveta Ivanovna Dmitrieva, with the participation of a major Apollon contributor and editor, the poet Maximilian Voloshin.

Apparently Sergei Makovsky had rejected several of Dmitrieva's verses; and Voloshin, who knew his publisher quite well, invented the legend about Cherubina. There is still controversy about the correct attribution of Gabriak's corpus. Most contemporaries, including all of Apollon’s critics, were certain that all the verses and most of the letters were written by Voloshin himself; after all, they claimed, Cherubina was a first-rank poet and Dmitrieva was not. Both Elisaveta Dmitrieva and Maximilian Voloshin claimed that the verses were all Dmitrieva's, and that Voloshin only selected them and suggested themes and expressions. Modern researchers tend to support attribution of the verses to Dmitrieva, as they are quite similar to her later works.

Nikolai Gumilyov was outraged by the thought that his passionate romantic correspondence might in fact have been with a mocking Maximilian Voloshin. Even so, Dmitrieva claimed that she had written the letters to Gumilyov herself, had indeed been in love, but had known the romance would end the moment Gumilyov saw her.

Gumilyov was rude. He told stories in public about his affair with Lila and cruelly ridiculed her. His ungentlemanly conduct made Voloshin to throw down the glove.

On November 19, 1909, at the studio of artist Ivan Bilibin, Gumilyov slapped Voloshin across the face, which by the customs of the time made a duel inevitable. The duel took place on November 22 on the banks of the Chernaya River, which had been the site of the fatal duel between Alexander Pushkin and Georges d'Anth├Ęs. Voloshin's second was Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi; Gumilyov's second was Johannes von Gunter.

Wikepedia is wrong. It was Voloshin who slapped Gumilyov and asked: "Do you understand?" "Yes", replied Gumilyov. Only half a year earlier, Voloshin almost called out some other man and Gumilyov had to be his second, but that duel did not happen. This time it was serious.

The peace-loving Voloshin did not want to kill Gumilyov, and wanted even less to be killed himself, so he planned a psychological diversion to defuse the situation. While walking to the place of the duel he lost one of his pair of galoshes in the mud, and claimed that he could not shoot until the missing boot was found. Both seconds started to look for it, and within half an hour Gumilyov joined the search. When eventually the boot was found, the duel had become psychologically impossible, and both participants agreed on a truce. Gumilyov was still angry with Voloshin and broke off all contact until a few months before his death in 1921, when he visited Voloshin and restored their friendship.

And here Wikepedia is also not quite right. The duel did happen. Gumilyov shot first, but missed. Voloshin's pistol misfired. He proposed to end the duel, but Gumilyov insisted that Voloshin has to shoot. After the second misfire, Gumilyov demanded that Voloshin attempt for the third time, but it was against the rules and only then the duel was stopped. Later, Voloshin confessed that he simply didn't know how to shoot...

Gumilyov was executed by Cheka in 1921. Voloshin lived till 1932, when he died peacefully.

Yelizaveta Dmitrieva wrote later to Voloshin: "Cherubina has never been a game for me. Cherubina was my birth, but, alas, it was a stillbirth." She became interested in theosophy. After the revolution she was exiled to Yekaterinodar (modern Krasnodar). In 1922 she was allowed to return to St.Petersburg, but in 1926 she was exiled again, this time to Tashkent. In 1927 she wrote her last literary mystification, a cycle of poems "House under the Peach Tree", under the pseudonym Li Xiang Tzu.


19 years after the duel, on the same day, 5 December, Lila Dmitrieva died in Tashkent of cancer.

In 2008, a playwright from New York Paul Cohen wrote a play Cherubina. It was staged in Sanford Meisner Theater. The Village Voice wasn't really impressed with the play, but NYTheater.com wrote:

Cherubina is one of the most entertaining and well-crafted new plays I've seen this season. I highly recommend it!

And, finally, a large quotation from the Dictionary of Russian Women Writers by Marina Ledkovskaia-Astman et al.:

'DE GABRIAK, Cherubina' (Elizaveta Ivanovna Dmitrieva; 'E. Li,' 'D. [also E. and V.| Arkasova1; m. Vasil'eva; b. Mar. 31, 1887. SPb; d. Dec. 5, 1928, Tashkent). Poet, prose writer, dramatist, and translator.

Although the author of a large body of lyric poetry, Dmitrieva is remembered primarily for the two dozen poems that she published as 'Cherubina de Gabriak' in the years 1909-10. In some ways she emerges as a rather tragic illustration of how much Silver Age interest in women's creativity sometimes depended on personal image.

Though belonging to the noble estate, her parents were low-paid professionals: her father a schoolteacher and her mother a midwife. Between the ages of seven and sixteen, Dmitrieva was bedridden with tuberculosis, which left her crippled. Despite illness, she managed to graduate from a gymnasium in 1904 and went on to study at the university level, specializing in Romance languages and history. She then taught for a year at a gymnasium before studying abroad in France and Germany.

Dmitrieva's literary career began in 1908 with the publication of her translations from Spanish religious poetry in the Messenger of Theosophy (Vestnik teosofii). (She had joined the Russian Anthroposophical Society in 1908.) In 1909 her poetry was rejected by S. Makovskii, editor of the new journal Apollo (Apollon). The fiction of 'Cherubina' began in the summer of that year when Dmitrieva paid a visit to Maksimilian Voloshin's villa at Koktebel' on the Black Sea. There the two made plans to submit her poems to Apollo under the pseudonym 'Cherubina de Gabriak.' In October 1909, Apollo printed a cycle of twelve de Gabriak poems. Dmitrieva became a succes de scandale, yet no one suspected her true identity. Her eventual unmasking the following month led to a major row: most angry of all was the young poet Nikolai Gumilev, who was to marry Anna Akhmatova the next year, but who was Voloshin's rival for Dmitrieva's affections at the time. After Gumilev publicly insulted Dmitrieva in the crudest sexual terms, he and Voloshin fought a duel. Fortunately no serious mishap ensued. Yet in September of the next year Apollo published a cycle of fifteen poems by 'de Gabriak'; these were immediately followed by a poem printed under her real name. The affair of 'Cherubina' made Dmitrieva, for a short while, more notorious than any other woman poet of her day. In 1911 Dmitrieva, along with her new husband, Vsevolod Vasil'ev, an engineer, left St. Petersburg for Turkestan. She maintained contact with SPb. and M. mystic circles and now devoted herself to anthroposophy. In a letter of 1910, Dmitrieva announced to Voloshin: "I shall not publish anything more; my ego—as an artist—has died." It was not until 1915 that a new creative streak which she described in her "Autobiography" as "a new Cherubina," was to overtake her. By 1918, Dmitrieva had settled in Krasnodar, where in 1920 she began to work with the playwright Samuil Marshak. Together they created a center for homeless children and a children's theater for which they wrote plays. In 1922 they returned to Petrograd, where Marshak headed up the Theater for Young Spectators, assisted by Dmitrieva. She also published prose for children.

In 1927 Dmitrieva was arrested and exiled to Tashkent, probably because of her link with anthroposophy. Before she died in 1928, Dmitrieva composed a cycle of philosophical poems entitled "House under the Pear Tree" (Domik pod grushevym derevom), which remained unpublished until 1988.

The 'Cherubina' incident was to be used by Liubov' Gurevich (in Estetika i kul'tura) as an illustration of the decadent trend's self-advertising excesses. There was some justice in this. The runaway success of 'Cherubina's' verse was partly due to its pandering to snobbery (see, for example, "Our Coat of Arms"); the Hispanophilia which swept over Europe in the years before World War I also played a role. In stylistic terms, the poetry was not particularly original. The setting is typically Symbolist in its lack of definition; references to cultural objects are given in terms of the most banal generalities. The lexicon runs the conventional Decadent gamut of solitude, stars, darkness, doomed beaty and corruption, reusing such Gippius-like rhyme combinations as "shroud/blood" (pokrov/krov'). 'Cherubina' also used fashionable "imported" poetic forms such as the rondeau and the French chain verse ("The Golden Bough").

What does give 'Cherubina's' poetry a more than ephemeral significance is the complex feminine psychology which it delineates. These verses achieve a clever fusion of the Decadent female persona, as it had earlier been developed by Mariia Bashkirtseva in her diary, Mirra Lokhvitskaia in poetry, and Lidiia Zinov'eva-Annibal in prose, with a Catholic religiosity drawing partly on French Symbolism and partly- on Dmitrieva's reading of the Counter-Reformational mystics St. Teresa and St. Ignatius Loyola. Reflecting its Symbolist background,

this work at the same time transformed it. A variety of doubles appears in the poems; identity is more fluid than in the dualistic representations of femininity preferred by Symbolism, possibly a result of Dmitrieva's anthroposophical ideals. The lexicon might be Gippius', but the chief actor was now a woman, not Gippius' male speaker; Gabriak's use of Catholic mysticism was a feminized equivalent of Viacheslav Ivanov's borrowings from Italian medieval tradition. Gabriak established a precedent for the use of a female persona in mystical poetry, a fact that was to become very important with mystical poetry's growing significance, during the 1920s and 1930s, as a genre practiced by women in external and internal emigration from Soviet official culture (e.g., Kuz'mina-Karavaeva and Akhmatova).

The 'Cherubina' affair appears also to have aided Dmitrieva's own development as a poet. In her early poems, what coherent voice she has is imitative. In those written after 1915, a stronger individuality develops, and most striking of all are the poems which Dmitrieva wrote in her Tashkent exile. At times, as in "The Willows" (Ivy), the simple lexicon and flexibility of metrics anticipate Akhmatova's practice in the 1930s and 1940s. Her poetry, like that of Sofiia Pamok, Vera Merkur'eva, Adelaida Gertsyk, or Akhmatova herself, is indicative of the very high literary quality achieved by Russian women in internal emigration.

Update @2008-12-06: I've added the story of the name Cherubina and fixed the Wikipedia article.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff! But when you say "Wikipedia is wrong," what are you basing it on? If you've got solid sources, why not change the article and reference your sources?

Dimitri said...

I was determined to do so when I had read the article, but I was too busy with writing the article. Anyway, there's already an entry in my diary: "to fix Wikipedia" :).

Dimitri said...

Fixed :)