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Olga Tsuberbiller & Sophia Parnok

Sophia Yakovlevna Parnok (August 11, 1885 – August 26, 1933), Russia's only openly lesbian poet, was born in Taganrog, Russia, on August 11, 1885, the first child of a physician who died when Sophia was six years old. Parnok's father, a pharmacist, remarried shortly after his first wife's death. Friction with her stepmother and, later, with her father, who strongly disapproved of her lesbianism, cast a shadow over Parnok's youth, but tempered her in moral courage and independence.

From the age of six she took refuge in writing, and during her last two years at the gymnasium (1901-1903) wrote extensively, especially about her lesbian sexuality and first love affairs. Her creativity would remain closely linked with her lesbian experience throughout her poetic life as she struggled to make her unique voice heard in her antilesbian literary culture.

In 1905, Parnok left home with an actress lover and spent a year in Europe. For a time, she studied at the Geneva Conservatory, but a lack of funds forced her to return to her hated father's house. To become independent of him, she married a close friend and fellow poet and settled in St. Petersburg. She began publishing her poems in journals, but marriage soon stifled her creativity and also hampered her personal life.

In January 1909, she braved social censure and financial ruin and decided to leave her husband in order to make what she termed "a new start." After her divorce, Parnok settled in Moscow, became marginally self-supporting, and made a modest career as a journalist, translator, opera librettist, and poet.


Sophia Parnok was Russia's only openly lesbian poet. Parnok and her lover, Lyudmila Erarskaya, an actress, left Moscow in late summer 1917 and spent the Civil War years in the Crimean town of Sudak. There Parnok was inspired by her love for Erarskaya to write one of her masterpieces, the dramatic poem and libretto for Alexander Spendiarov's opera Almast. The physical deprivations of the Sudak years took their toll on Parnok's precarious health (she was a lifelong sufferer from Grave's disease).


Shortly after the appearance of The Vine, Sophia Parnok met Olga Tsuberbiller, a mathematician at Moscow University, with whom Parnok lived in a permanent relationship from 1925 until her death in 1933. The Soviet censorship soon decided that Parnok's poetic voice was "unlawful". Nor did her work find favor with her similarly repressed fellow poets, who were embarrassed by her personal politics of the poet's soul and her straightforward, nonmetaphoric expression of lesbian love and experience.


During the last five years of her life, Parnok was frequently bedridden and wrote poetry exclusively for "the secret drawer." In late 1931, Sophia Parnok met Nina Vedeneyeva, a physicist. The two middle-aged women fell impossibly in love, and their affair inspired Parnok's greatest lesbian work, the cycles "Ursa Major" and "Useless Goods." Parnok's health collapsed under the "passionate burden" of her love affair, and she died after a heart attack in a village outside Moscow on August 26, 1933.

At the beginning of World War I, she met the young poet Marina Tsvetaeva, with whom she became involved in a passionate love affair that left important traces in the poetry of both women. Parnok's belated first book of verse, Poems, appeared shortly before she and Tsvetaeva broke up in 1916. The lyrics in Poems presented the first, revolutionarily nondecadent, lesbian desiring subject ever to be heard in a book of Russian poetry.

Parnok and her new lover, Lyudmila Erarskaya, an actress, left Moscow in late summer 1917 and spent the Civil War years in the Crimean town of Sudak. There Parnok was inspired by her love for Erarskaya to write one of her masterpieces, the dramatic poem and libretto for Alexander Spendiarov's opera Almast.

The physical deprivations of the Sudak years took their toll on Parnok's precarious health (she was a lifelong sufferer from Grave's disease), but the time she spent in the Crimea was a period of spiritual ferment and creative rebirth.

Under the aegis of her poetic "sister" Sappho and her "Sugdalian sibyl" Eugenia Gertsyk (an intimate, platonic friend), the seeds of Parnok's mature lesbian lyricism were sown and yielded a first harvest in the collections Roses of Pieria (1922) and The Vine (1923), which she published on her return to Moscow.

Shortly after the appearance of The Vine, she met Olga Tsuberbiller, a mathematician at Moscow University, with whom Parnok lived in a permanent relationship from 1925 until her death in 1933.

The Soviet censorship soon decided that Parnok's poetic voice was "unlawful," and she was unable to publish after 1928. Nor did her work find favor with her similarly repressed fellow poets, who were embarrassed by her personal politics of the poet's soul and her straightforward, nonmetaphoric expression of lesbian love and experience. Parnok's last two collections, Music (1926) and Half-voiced (1928), attracted no notice from the official literary establishment.

During the last five years of her life, Parnok eked out a living doing translations. She was frequently bedridden and wrote poetry exclusively for "the secret drawer." Her isolation from readers and her status as an "invisible woman" in Russian poetry became constant themes in her late and best verse.

In late 1931, she met Nina Vedeneyeva, a physicist. The two middle-aged women fell impossibly in love, and their affair inspired Parnok's greatest lesbian work, the cycles "Ursa Major" and "Useless Goods." Parnok's health collapsed under the "passionate burden" of her love affair, and she died after a heart attack in a village outside Moscow on August 26, 1933.

Citation Information
Author: Burgin, Diana L.
Entry Title: Parnok, Sophia
General Editor: Claude J. Summers
Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
Publication Date: 2002
Date Last Updated July 24, 2006
Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/parnok_s.html
Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL 60607
Today's Date August 26, 2013
Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates

Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1500563323
ISBN-13: 978-1500563325
Amazon: Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time

Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher


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