“Those who are woken, pray for me” – E. Kuzmina-Karavaeva (M. Skobtsova)

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 19/?

There is only one poem by Elizaveta Kuzmina-Karavaeva (Maria Skobtsova) on the Russian Wikisource, and I translated it mainly as an excuse to talk about this woman’s extraordinary life. Poet. Acmeist. Memoirist. Mayor. Theologian. Nun. French Resistance fighter. Righteous Gentile. Martyr. Saint.  

She was born Elizaveta Pilenko in 1891 in Riga, and grew up near the Black Sea in Anapa and Yalta. Her father’s death in 1906 made her lose her own faith, and forced the family to move to St. Petersburg. There she met Alexander Blok, starting a long correspondence, and married the former Bolshevik Dmitri Kuzmin-Karavaev, through whom she met many of the poets in the Poets’ Guild, the centre of Acmeist activity. With their support, she began to publish poetry, and her collections were well-received.

In 1913 she left her husband and joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party after the February Revolution. She apparently wished to assassinate Leon Trotsky for closing the SR Party Congress, but friends persuaded her to instead move back to the Black Sea to work for the SR there. She was very active as a community organizer in Anapa, and in 1918 was elected mayor of the city when it fell under White Army control.

She led underground resistance against the Bolsheviks, while trying to protect the population from the terror of the new regime. She was arrested and put on trial, but managed to escape capital punishment due to a skilled defence and help by the judge, D. Skobtsov, whom she ended up falling in love with and marrying. In 1920, after the White movement in southern Russia was destroyed, she and her family escaped to Georgia, then Constantinople, Serbia, and finally Paris in 1924, where she published memoirs and novellas in the Russian-language press.  

In Paris, more and more moved by religious impulse after the deaths of her daughters, she completed a course of study at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute by correspondence, and in 1932 became a lay nun, taking the name Maria. Now under the name Mother Maria Skobtsova, she extensively published theological writings, memoirs and poetry, as well as frequently lecturing.

When Nazi forces occupied France, the informal convent where she lived became a Resistance headquarters. She and her fellow priests and nuns issued baptismal certificates to Jews. When Jews in Paris were rounded up in the Velodrome d’Hiver to be sent to Auschwitz, Mother Maria succeeded in smuggling four Jewish children out of there in trash bins. In 1943, she and her son were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps. She was killed in the gas chamber at Ravensbruck concentration camp on March 31, 1945, Holy Saturday, only a week before the camp was liberated. 

In 1985, Yad Vashem recognized her as Righteous Among the Nations for her work saving Jews from the Holocaust, and in 2004, with some controversy (related to her two marriages and children, her political activism, the fact that she smoked, and her somewhat heterodox preaching and what some saw as a tendency to holy fool-ishness), the Russian Orthodox Church canonized her as a martyred saint.

The poem below was written before the October Revolution, but both presages her later theological involvement and the struggles she was to endure. 


Those who are woken, pray for me,
All those who hold a splinter of my soul.
The hour has come, brief steps lie to the goal —
All I have seen in dreams has come to be.

Brothers and friends are lost in weary sleep.
The spirit is in mortal suffering spent.
The hour has come; the roads we’ve trod all end,
And God alone my soul will keep.

Elizaveta Kuzmina-Karavaeva (Maria Skobtsova), 1916; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.