Extraordinary women – Sophia Yakovlevna Parnokh – Russia’s Sapho



Dedicated to N.P.P.

I’m drunk on your wild caresses,
You’ve driven me crazy for you…
Just tell me I’ve only been dreaming
So I can believe that it’s true.

No, you want to torment me forever –
Why shouldn’t you play and have fun;
And smiling, you answer, carefree,
“We won’t do again what we’ve done.”

29 August 1902



Sophia Parnok (София Яковлевна Парно́к, 30 July 1885 O.S./11 August 1885 (N. S.) – 26 August 1933) was a Russian poet, journalist and translator. From the age of six, she wrote poetry in a style quite distinct from the predominant poets of her times, revealing instead her own sense of Russianess, Jewish identity and lesbianism. Besides her literary work, she worked as a journalist under the pen name of Andrei Polianin. She has been referred to as “Russia’s Sappho”, as she wrote openly about her seven lesbian relationships.

“Just listen, how amidst inspired dreaming
the soul will suddenly lay bare its secret curves.
Let your thought illuminate them brightly
with creation’s breath in an audacious surge.
You will see, then, how the endless distance
so easily and wondrously removes its haze,
and there upon a lofty pedestal of marble
the depth of worlds feels Beauty’s silent gaze.


Sophia Parnok, named Sonya Parnokh at birth, was born in 1885 into an affluent Jewish professional home in Taganrog, Russia. A southern port town on the inland Azov Sea, Taganrog was outside the immediate influence of Russian politics at a time when religious minorities, including Jews, were pervasively persecuted; while most Jewish settlers were forced to live within the Pale of Settlement, Parnok and her siblings were raised to think of themselves first and foremost as Russians. Their father, the local apothecary, was indifferent to religion and highly assimilated into Russian culture, and the family was materially comfortable and lived among the intellectual elite. While she was still quite young, however, her mother Alexandra Parnokh , a doctor, died while giving birth to twins.

Parnok attended the Empress Marie Gymnasium for Girls for ten years, studying a wide range of topics, including several languages, music, and math. She was also educated by a governess who became her stepmother, and she “carried away from her childhood the strong feeling that she had had no childhood, that she had emerged into adulthood at too young an age,” wrote her biographer Diana Burgin . Already beginning to write poetry in her youth, Parnok was rebellious against her family’s settled existence, believing it restrained her creativity. When she was about 20, she left to study music in Geneva, Switzerland. Before completing a degree there, she moved back to Russia, this time to St. Petersburg, where she studied history, philosophy, and law.

sophia parnokh


Life  is a woman. Merely by her own seductions
Intoxicated, she will stand above her victim.
The more unhappy is the soul that lies before her,
the fuller she all is with unrestrained desire,
How often her mysterious gaze has hovered over
my soul with powerful inquisitiveness,
but merely had my soul to quiver in responding  –
and silently, with unconcern, she sought the distance.


Beginning to write seriously, Parnok was first published in a literary journal in 1906. Several of her literary reviews at this time were published under the male name Andrey Polyanin, as she believed that her work thus would be more seriously accepted within the male-dominated literary circles. In 1907, Parnok married Vladimir Volkenshtein, but the marriage was brief in large part due to her lesbianism, of which she had become aware very early in her youth. She accepted and celebrated this facet of her self, frequently invoking mythological goddesses and the poet Sapho in her work: in one poem, using the voice of Aphrodite, Parnok writes, “There’s talk, Sappho: / They want to know to whom you write your eternal love songs, / Nectar of the gods! To young men or to maids?”

It still hasn’t got any cares, it’s still young at heart,

it still hasn’t cut its first teeth, our Passion –

not vodka, not spirits, yet no longer water,

its mischievous, bubbly, melodious Asti.

You still don’t know how to pale when I come up to you,

your pupil still doesn’t become fully widened,

I know, though you think that the magic I do

exceeds what I did in Kashira or affectionate Kashin.

Oh where is that tiny, forsaken, and garden-filled town,

(perhaps on the map they don’t bother to site it?)

in some kind of sixteen-year-old excitement?

Where’s the cottage with jasmine and the welcoming night,

and curlicue arches of hop-plants above us,

and thirst which could no longer be satisfied,

and sky, and a sky more impassioned than Petrarch’s.

At the end of my last or next-to-last spring –

together the two of us dreamed crazy dreams,

I burn up my night in a savage, a beautiful fire.

Dec 26 1931

As the strictures of the Victorian era faded and then were swept away in the sea change brought by World War I, women’s contributions to and acceptance in Russian poetry increased. Using her own name, Parnok published her first book of poetry in 1916, simply titled Poems. During this time she maintained intimate relationships with several women, including Nadezhda Polyakova , and began writing freely about her experiences. Her love affairs directly influenced her work, leading to surges of creativity that linked artistry and eroticism. An intense two-year relationship with poet Marina Tsvetayeva , who was married and the mother of a child, coincided with a particularly creative period.


Give me your hand, and let’s go to your sinful paradise!…

Defy all State Pension Plans of heaven,

May returned for us in wintertime,

and flowers blossomed in the greening meadow,

where in full bloom an apple tree inclined

its fragrant fans above the two of us,

and where the earth smelled sweet like you,

and butterflies made love in flight…

We’re one year older now, but what’s the difference –

old wine has also aged another year,

the fruits of ripe knowledge are far more succulent.

Hello my love! my grey-haired Eve!

Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Parnok moved to Sudak, in the Crimea, where she continued writing poetry and also wrote a libretto for an opera. She returned to Moscow in 1922, the same year she published her second book of poetry, Roses of Pieria. This was followed in 1923 by The Vine and in 1926 by Music. In an effort to avoid Soviet censorship, with some others she established a small press called Uzel (meaning “knot” or “group”). The government soon learned of the operation and shut it down. Her final book of poetry, 1928’s In a Hushed Voice, was published after it had been edited by censors. Later considered by critics a major work, the book went essentially unnoticed at the time. In 1930, Parnok completed a libretto for an opera, Almast, which was successfully staged at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow; it was the last of her work made public in her lifetime. In 1931, she met her last love and companion, physicist Nina Vedneyeva , who greatly influenced her work during the following years. Parnok’s health grew steadily worse until she died of heart problems in August 1935, in the village of Kirinsky, near Moscow. Her death barely received mention in the Moscow papers.

diana l burgin sophia parnok the life and work of Russia's Sappho

Much of Parnok’s literary career corresponded to a time of increasingly severe repression in Russia, as the group became idealized and prized far above the individual; Joseph Stalin denounced lyric poetry in particular for being out of step with his political goals for the country. Despite the very limited printings of her work and her small audience, Parnok persisted in writing in a bold style, publishing five volumes of poetry, a significant quantity of literary critiques, and the libretti to several operas. (It is believed that much of her unpublished work has been lost.) She was the only openly lesbian voice in Russian poetry at a time when homosexuality was considered psychologically abnormal and a sign of moral degradation in Russian society. Beginning in the 1970s, interest in Parnok’s work grew significantly. A collection of Parnok’s poetry, Sophia Parnok: Collected Works, was published in the United States in 1979 by Sophia Polyakova of Leningrad University (it was not published in the USSR)

Perhaps because I wished to fall in love with being
with so much obstinate avidity,
I felt more vividly how bottomlessly
dispassion for it had come over me.
But what of now? Can I be captivated
by life in an enraptured rush I do not understand?
My soul luxuriates in boundless freedom
as if inhaling life for the first time.



Sources :

Diana Lewis Burgin





check books on her :

Sophia Parnok: The Life and Work of Russia’s Sappho

by Diana L. Burgin




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.