No. 2


Tatiana Milovidova-Venclova  

Translated from the Russian by Alan Shaw  


Beyond the Island, Beyond the Garden

        November 1914

My dear friend Nadyenka,

Do you know that a new person has been born in me? A happy one! Be glad 
for me, my dear! Osya has moved to Petersburg. Escaping the front, he left 
Moscow to serve in a mechanized unit here, in the same city as me! I hadn't 
even dreamed of such a miracle! Not only that, you won't believe it, but he 
now lives across the street. He had informed me that he was looking for an 
apartment; I saw a notice in the house opposite, gave him the address, and he
liked it! Unbelievable! The Lord heard my prayers, yes, the Lord forgive me, 
he really did hear them, and answered them! Don't judge me, you know that I 
lose my wits, my head, my voice—everything that so delights you in me—
when I think of the future with my Osya.

As for the present, which, alas, does not exist, from the moment of his marriage
to Lily in 1912 I have tried not to think about it. I had enough time to be aware 
of losing him: after all, they knew each other six years before they were 
married, and all that time I was almost right at their side. He discussed with me
his attitude towards Madame Lily's dubious past...From 1912 on I've patiently 
waited for my future with Osya, and with him only, to come. And when I 
learned that they had gotten married, oh, it was so painful for me then! I 
couldn't be in the same city with them. On the other hand, what a tragedy for 
me it was, moving from Moscow here to the capital, to my father's. Not to see 
Osya! It was torture...

Now things are different. I don't believe my luck! When Osya informed me that
he lived opposite, I fainted...We put papa's bed by the window, so that, while
reading together, talking, which we do for hours, you know, I could see my 
Osya if only out of the corner of my eye. I always know when he has left the 
house or, on the contrary, returned (alone or with Lily). In some 
incomprehensible way I listen to their conversations and take part in them. 
This fills my life. But alas, I still see him rarely. The fact is, they have forgotten
about him in the service, and he tries to go out of the house as rarely as 
possible. It's wartime, there are round-ups...

Papa is happy for me. He knows (with him, as with you, I am extremely frank) 
how cruelly I have suffered.

Oh no, Nadenka, I don't suffer now, no. That is why now, almost for the first 
time, I speak so openly with you about my feelings towards Osya. You can 
only imagine how deep they are. I lived through his betrayal, which it was 
even hard to accuse him of. Did Osenka understand what he meant to me? 
After all, we were friends from earliest childhood, I'm a couple of years older 
than him. I was always his friend. Showing my feelings is something I just 
never learned. In my sobriety, suffering just rolls off me, and I wait! I wait for 
him to turn his back on Lily! I don't desire it, I simply know that that is how it 
will be. When it occurs, I will be waiting for him as my husband. Hoping for it,
just like hoping that papa will finally get on his feet, this is what gives me life
force! Thank the Lord!

         August, 1915

Nadyusha, my dear friend, I thank you for the letter, for being concerned 
about me, and for asking Lily's nice sister to drop by and see me. I am very 
happy to get to know Elsa. She came to see me when she was in town with 
Volodya Mayakovsky.

I heard a great deal about him long ago, not just from you, but from my 
acquaintance and namesake Sonka Shamardina, whom I met in the Stray Dog. 
It was because of your stories about Mayakovsky that I went there and 
listened to his performance; the impression was good, no more, but Sonka 
became my friend. I know that she was very close to Mayakovsky, that he 
called her his sister. I've long wanted to ask you where you got to know 
Mayakovsky yourself? The fact is, Sonka once told me that she and Volodya
came to the Dog and there was no light there, and water on the floor. They lit 
a fire and roasted eggplants. And afterwards some person arrived with this 
girl Nadya, a student at the theater school. For some reason I was convinced 
that this was you. After all, you had come here, to Petersburg, often before. 
Wasn't that when you were here? The poet would not allow Sonka to walk on
the flooded floor: he carried her in his arms, walking over planks...

Finally, I looked closely and saw the person to whom my Nadyusha was so 
unable to be indifferent. Yes, he did look like a poet. So big and beautiful. His
voice shook me. He recited verses to us, standing in papa's small bedroom. 
How he did recite! And what verse! God!...My papa fell in love with him too. 
I recognized now that Mayakovsky's verse had overturned our notion of 
poetry. Finally, a real poetic voice, without the sweet howling, without the 

Elik, as Mayakovsky called Elsa, was a marvelous, tender, smart girl, in love 
with Volodya. The direct opposite of her sister Lily. But I tell you, Elsa and 
Mayakovsky are not well-matched...Judging from what you and Sonka related,
he, like many big men, and a poet to boot!—is defenseless, he's weak. He 
doesn't know how to act with a woman. Tenderness alone isn't enough. He 
needs a strong woman to guide him. Papa and I, without discussing it 
beforehand, both came to the same conclusion. And a better expert on 
psychology than my remarkable father, you know, it would be hard to find...

         December 1915

My dear Nadyusha, why do you thank me so much? Yes, papa and I have 
fallen in love with Elsa, and we have both been devoted to her from the 
moment we met her. Since Mayakovsky fell irrevocably in love with her sister 
Lily Kagan (I cannot and do not want to write Osya’s last name after hers, 
though she does bear Osya’s last name Brik!) my correspondence with Elsa 
has been very natural. The inner need for one another—isn’t this why people 
meet on earth, to find their other half? Not everyone succeeds in doing so...

Now Sonka Shamardina writes me that she and Volodya have split up, that 
she has broken off intimate contact with him...she already knows about Lily, 
and writes that on seeing Volodya with false teeth (his toothlessness, in her 
opinion, underlines his significance), she understood that Lily was working 
hard on the Poet’s appearance. How important it is—but ah, how hard—to 
find one’s other half! Not only in love (like mine for Osya), but also in 
friendship (like mine with you, with Sonka, and now with poor Elichka Kagan 
as well).

I confessed to Elichka that I myself had gone through a drama with Osya Brik
similar to hers with Volodya Mayakovsky, thinking that I would thereby 
alleviate her suffering. In my letters to her, over and over, like grain between 
millstones, I mull over my old thoughts about Osya, but now I do it by 
analyzing the situation between Elsa Kagan and Volodya Mayakovsky. As if 
I wanted everything back in place—Osya with me, you or Elik (as fate decides)
with Mayakovsky, and Lily...Lily will never be alone. Never...

          January 1916

Nadinka, my friend, how good it is that you are in this world! You and papa 
are all that’s left to me. The two of you, Osya, and the impossibility of an 
existence without books—that is what gives me the strength to live. It's by 
God's grace that I have met Elsa Kagan and Volodya Mayakovsky, who, just 
imagine, drops by from time to time: he visits Lily here often, on Zhukovsky 
street, after all. I sometimes watch from the window as she, small, elegant, in a
big black hat with a feather in it, and he, in a top hat, approach her house. 
Volodya lives somewhere else, on Nadezhdinskaya, it seems, but this, my dear 
Muscovite, means nothing to you.

I confess to you, my friend, that I couldn’t resist and...made my myself a 
Christmas present. I didn’t write you that I had seen Osya three times since he
moved to Petersburg (my tongue will never bring itself to say Petrograd). Our 
meetings were formal, brief, almost businesslike, and in the presence of Lily. 
And now for the fourth time since they moved here I have seen Osya, and 
talked with him for a long time! They had repeatedly sent invitations to visit 
them. The last meeting I put off for a long time, nearly six months, and finally 
made up my mind to do it. I spent an intoxicating evening with Osya. Thank 
God, Lily left us alone together. We recalled our childhood, our parents, the 
books we read together, New Year’s holidays. As before their marriage, we 
didn’t talk about Lily. This time we talked about Volodya Mayakovsky, about 
his poetry. Osya adores Mayakovsky, and speaks of him with such love that I
even felt a momentary twinge of jealousy. Yes, be happy for me: Osenka 
confessed to me that he can't change apartments, because if he registers at a 
new address, the army officials will find him and send him to the front. As long
as the war goes on, he will be near me!

Osenka, clever boy, is the first to publish Volodya Mayakovsky’s verse! He is
writing for the new journal Vzyal a review of Volodya’s long poem “Cloud.” 
How proud I am of my Osya! Do you know, Nadenka, that when he was still in
gymnasium he led a study group on political economy? He was in the eighth 
class then, and they even expelled him from school for a time for revolutionary
propaganda! So inspired was he by the 1905 revolution. By the way, did you 
know that he and Lily met, right before my eyes, in that study group? She was
only 14 then; Osya was 17.

They invited me to celebrate the New Year  with them, but I couldn’t leave 
papa alone...Elik spent it with them, can you imagine how it was for her? She 
dropped in on me, by herself now, without Volodya, and said that they had 
brought in the New Year gaily, the tree was hung under the ceiling “head over
heels,” decorated with playing cards, a yellow jacket (Mayakovsky’s famous 
jacket) and a paper cutout of a cloud in trousers. Osenka was in a turban and 
an Uzbek dressing gown, and Mayakovsky had some red material on his neck.
Elsa, given her bent, was of course Pierrot. She told how the poet Vasily 
Kamensky had pledged his hand and heart to her, how Vita Shklovsky was in
love with her, but she, like me, is true to her feelings...

          October 1916

My dear Elik, I know how hard things are for you, I know that your poor soul 
is torn apart with pain. Alas, no one, not even my wise papa and I, can help, 
no one but Volodya himself...Oh, if only a miracle suddenly happened, and he 
forgot Lily’s name...Thank you for sharing things with me, I value your 
friendship highly. Your sincerity...

I am afraid for you. Your nerves are so shot! I am happy that Nadyusha has 
spent a lot of time with you since she found out that you had decided to 
poison yourself last summer. What luck that you are still alive! Elik, my dear, 
my dear friend, how bad I feel for you! And how unpleasant that your sister is
spiritually so indelicate!

However, this is the very thing that shouldn't be surprising. All through her 
childhood she was bossy, ordered you around, took all the best things for 
herself. I can’t forget those lines from your letter to me about this, and the fact
that Lily and the Khvas sisters locked you in the bathroom? And you, my girl, 
feared nothing in the world more than a door locked from the outside. And Lily
knew this! By the way, this cruel game has been repeated again in a real life 
situation. Only the Khvases, at whose house you and Volodya Mayakovsky 
met, have stepped aside now. And your own sister Lily has once more locked 
you with your spiritual torments behind a door, by taking away Volodya.

But could THIS really have been unexpected for you? Is it news that she 
doesn’t take your feelings into account? And whose feelings did she ever 
take into account, if her interests were at stake? Only her own. And don’t 
expect Lily to change. I know her quite well. She may adore Osya, you, your 
mama, but there will never be anyone in the world more important to her than 

Why is Volodya with her instead of you? That is the main thing that must be
understood, so that, at a minimum, you don’t go crazy, and don’t ever think 
again about leaving this life. My wise father and I (in accordance with your 
written request that I discuss everything with him!) have thought about this 
for a long time. My friend, forgive me, but in answer to your complaints, which
literally rend my heart, I can’t not write frankly everything that came into our 

Listen, Elik, whatever you share will always be better for it. That’s the first 
thing. The second thing is that your beloved Vladimir Mayakovksy is still 
not a match for you. You are both too kind, too defenseless. If you were only 
different! Well, I can see that you are smiling through tears. About time!

You flatter me, saying that I understand people. Some such gift in me there 
might possibly be, but it’s more a matter of suffering like yours being, for me, 
already in the past. I am already over it. Besides, I’m quite a bit older than you.
It was for this very reason that I took you under my wing, in spite of our 
friendship. Yes, yes, in spite of, because in a situation in which I am forced to
intervene, there is a risk that you will understand me wrong and get angry. If 
you begin to get angry, remember that I am answering you according to your 
firm request and that I have learned of your spiritual troubles from you 
yourself and from letters in which you describe to me in detail the sad history 
of your love for Volodya.

Nevertheless I am still resolved. Seeing what has happened through my eyes, 
I hope you will come to your senses a bit. So...you will agree that being in love
is a sickness, it’s not a normal, but a pathological state. Being in love... Let’s 
recall how many years you and Volodya were friends before he met Lily in ’15. 
About two years, wasn’t it? He looked for you at the dacha, you didn't look for
him. It was you, not he, who often didn’t come when you were to meet, and he
had waited for hours. You (and not the other way around) told him not to call 
any more when your father was ill. It was Mayakovsky who spent every day at 
your house in Moscow in ’14. He came to your house and left his enormous 
business cards. Mama would ask him to take “that sign” back, handing him the
card. It was he who was in love with you. He was in love with you, you were 
wonderful friends. Isn’t that so?

But you? You yourself more than once confessed to Nadyusha, and wrote me
about it, that you never paid any special attention to him until you heard his 
poem “Listen.” Only then, drunk with poetry, did you suddenly understand 
who was beside you. A poet! That was who you fell in love with! Volodya 
Mayakovsky the person—what was he to you? Yes, yes, yes...You yourself 
did not distinguish these two phenomena: the person and the poet.

When he came to visit you in Petersburg (you were then visiting at Lily’s, 
having come to see her after your father’s death, weren’t you?), you, fatally, 
asked him to read verses—Lily, enchanted, took Volodya away from you. But
when Lily takes, she takes everything (you and I know this well!). Then you 
lost Volodya the person as well.

And you know, you still didn’t understand if you were yet in love with him as 
a person or only starting to be. I suppose you were starting to be. He was 
serving in Petersburg in a mechanized unit, wasn’t he? During the war you 
lived in Moscow. You didn’t see yourself clearly then. You had not yet gotten
used to the double Volodya. The poet in the guise of a person. Answer this 
question yourself: could you lose something that you had not yet found? 
Was he not always the Poet with you?

And now, my dear, you write him fine, delicate (undoubtedly!) letters, 
attempting to bring him back to you. Listen, my friend: it is too late. He is like 
a train that has already left. And not because you are bad or unnecessary. No.
You are wonderful, Elik, and you were his Muse. He writes tender letters, and
comforts you. He, Volodya Mayakovsky the person, probably confesses his
guilt to you for trading his youthful relationship with you for his passion for 

But now, especially at his age, he needs a woman. (Remember Stendhal.) 
Volodya is a big  person in every sense of the word, because he is a poet. His 
passions are big too. That is why he needs not the tender love of an 
adolescent girl, inexperienced and timid, but a strong—cruel if you like—
intelligent passion, the very kind that Lily is capable of.

Osya showed me a photo. One of those where you are in your striped dress, 
utterly the soft-haired girl; Roma Jakobson is also standing there next to Lily. 
Do you remember this photo? It sticks in my mind. Because my attention was 
drawn to her face! The face of a woman, not a girl. And Lily was then only 14 
or 15, wasn’t she? She’s 5 years older than you?

Don’t be angry: in all sincerity, I love Lily, it’s impossible not to love her. But 
I confess that I have always been, and still am, very wary in my dealings with 
her. I could never be open with her, never confide in her completely. 
Something (her wary look, her imperiousness?) frightens me in her, and only 
the awareness that she is the wife of a person I love, that she is your sister, 
keeps me from thinking not very desirable thoughts.

However, if Lily thought the same as I did when she took Mayakovsky away 
from you, then she can be blamed for one thing only. She did not spare your 
feelings in winning Volodya. The woman in her overcame the sister.

Well, nature is often stronger in us than our minds. And in Lily nature and 
reason are almost equally strong. I judge, of course, not from life experience, 
which has taught me a lot, though not all. Luckily or not, papa always spoke 
to me so much about people and their behavior that I learned to think about 
such things and understand them somewhat. Besides that my favorite 
literature is a treasury of human experience.

You understand, my dear friend Elik, Lily is a rare fortunate (for her!) example 
of the woman conqueror. Her seeming defeat in her marriage with Osya Brik, 
even that turned into a victory for her. Osya turned away from her, gave her 
up to Mayakovsky, but they live together as before. And there are times when
I (oh, how painful to me to acknowledge it), alas! I understand that I can 
predict: this is for a long time, if not forever. Such women cannot be refused. 
Willful, bold, passionate, stylish, intelligent, knowing what she wants: a 
seductive man in skirts with fiery, unkind eyes.

The reason for this is not only Lily’s specialness, her womanly strength, but
also the weakness of Osya as a man. A man, as you well know, dear Elik, is a
weak and fairly lazy creature; what he looks for in any woman is a mother.

A mother is care, food on the table, warmth, knowing how to make a dwelling
comfortable, helping. If a mother is good enough and gives her son much else,
boys will often reject this. They feel overfed with care and affection. And only
as adults do they realize. Too late! Becoming men, they look for what went 
away in childhood or what they dreamed of that mother could not give. Many
look for both in one woman. There is where Lily comes in: her cold calculation
and her ability to organize daily life stand her in good stead. You know how 
Mayakovsky has changed externally? Lily made him get false teeth, dress 
elegantly, get his hair cut. She has Osya’s mother in her; no wonder Lily loves
her so much. But she also has what Osya missed in his mother. Savoir-faire. 
She even has what Volodya’s mother obviously didn’t, after losing her 
husband and having to watch over every penny.

I told you that you were Volodya’s Muse. But that Lily would become so, was

P.S. You haven’t noticed, my dear Elik, that Mayakovsky’s style has 
influenced our epistolary style as well.  From our letters and speech I see the 
disappearance of words like ah, magical, indescribable, charming. Instead of 
reject, deign, appropriate, we have begun to say forget, take, decide, and so 
on. Lily comes out of this too. Maybe it’s the war that’s changed us so?

          January 1917

Dear Nadyusha, here a new year has begun. Everything with us is as it was: I 
continue to talk a lot about life and friends with papa. He sends his greetings. 
I read a lot, sitting at the window, waiting for my Osya. My life is full enough. 
You remember I wrote you about Osya’s review of “Cloud” in the journal 
Vzyal? Filosofov called Osenka the one experienced journalist in the entire 
journal. And this is only his first review! I’m sure that I’m happier about it 
than Lily...

You know of course that Elichka came here. Things had been looking up 
somewhat in her relationship with Volodya: in his letters he had been pressing
her to come to Petersburg. But I am afraid that these invitations came not so
much from his desire to see  Elik as from the complications of relationships in 
a situation where there are three. But she is warmed also by simple desire: 
Elichka has a good little heart. Poor girl! She came at Christmas. She was at 
our house. She saw Mayakovsky. And left...with nothing, that is, 
downhearted, all in tears. And even though Mayakovksy promised to come 
see Elichka in Moscow, he’ll hardly keep his word. Lily has won...

         December 1917

My dear Nadyushik, how happy I am that you wrote! Finally you have a fixed
address, and we can once more correspond calmly, but it would be even better 
if you came to see me. How many years it’s been since we saw each other! 
How I long to embrace you, thank you for your friendship, talk things out 
with you! My world of living contacts is quite restricted, you know. But be 
happy for me: Osenka has started coming to see us. You can understand how
my heart fluttered at the sound of his voice. He relates in detail how his life 
with Lily has changed since meeting Mayakovsky. How they are now 
involved with literature. You see, Mayakovsky brings poets to their house: 
Pasternak, Khlebnikov, Burlyuk, Kamensky. Shklovsky comes there. Osenka 
says that Mayakovsky is an ardent card-player.

Osenka looks not so well. He talks about interesting events and people. At the
same time he is dull, downcast, taciturn; his eyes are hard to see behind his 
glasses. He started wearing a pince-nez in his last year of gymnasium. I look 
at my aging love and see only the young Osya, with his strikingly beautiful 
head of hair, his little mustaches on his pouty upper lip, his infinitely deep 
dark eyes. He is my Osya, axial, my axis.* The pivot of my spiritual life. Oh, if
only he heard my agonizing conversations with myself! Since he left I can do 
nothing. I rejoice and suffer at once. But I wait as before, staying true to my 
one and only Osya. If I only knew what was in his heart...

*There is a play of words here on the name Osya, osevoi (axial) and os’(axis). Sometimes Mayakovksy comes by for a few minutes and unfailingly reads us verses, to my and papa's delight. He brought Lev 
Grinkrug to see us, who, as I recall, used to be in love with Lily. Lev is wonderfully kind and good. 
He is a Muscovite. Sonka Shamardina writes me once in while. She had a son; she sings cradle songs 
to him and reads Mayakovsky's verse. She misses Volodya, or not even him so much: it seems that she
herself left him, as much as anything for the constant anxiety (as she writes) of dealing with him, but 
what can you do? 

Has Elichka decided not to come here any more? She wrote me a letter full of 
rapture for the February revolution. Naturally I can't really share it: especially 
in view of that idiotic October coup. She also wrote that Vasily Kamensky has
been courting her, and that she had decided not to confide her secrets to 
Volodya, who visited her in Moscow, since he would tell everything to Lily. 
And a good thing, too, don't you think? Poor girl! But she—doesn't it seem to 
you?—is gradually growing calmer, cooler. She has things to distract her: she 
reads and works. As for me, I get more and more used to my own voice, 
reading books; I always put myself in the heroine's place. 

          July 1918

Nadyusha, you and I have lost Elik, she has gone off to France in this difficult
time. We are hungry here, while in the city tons of fruit are rotting. You can't 
eat it. Cholera. Elik stopped in to say goodbye to us. Her husband, the 
Frenchman Triolet, was waiting for her under the window, at Osya's house. He
came to see us once with Elik, in uniform. After Mayakovsky, Kamensky, after
Shklovsky, who was in love with her—a Frenchman?!

How the war and revolution have simplified everything! Everyone lives as 
though the end were tomorrow. I alone live for the future.

Mayakovsky went off to Moscow for a few months. I suppose you saw him? 
If so, tell me your impressions. God, why didn't he fall in love with Elik? Or 
you?...I was happy to hear that Mayakovsky had returned to Peter in the 
spring (we've found this substitute for "Petersburg"). His absence from the 
city was very hard on me. I kept imagining Osenka billing and cooing with 
Lily, forgiving her everything. But now Elik has told me that Lily has ceased to
hide her relationship with Mayakovsky. They live together in a dacha in 
Lashovo, right by Peter...

Nadyusha, I am finishing this letter only in October. I didn’t send it last 
summer; papa got worse, and I simply forgot to send it.

Nadenka, I must tell you what will distress you: Mayakovsky has moved here, 
to Zhukovsky St., and has taken lodgings (as they say now, my dear) on the 
same staircase where Lily’s apartment is. In his room Lily, amid cold and 
hunger, practices at the barre, to become more graceful. Really!

And still I wait for Osya. As ever, I wait...

         March 1919

Nadya, I don’t know how I can lift my hand at all to take hold of the pen. I am 
not among the living, Nadya. I am no more. Osya has gone. He has gone with 
her, with the Poet. To you, to Moscow. Will I be able to wait for him now, as I 
have waited 7 years, waited my whole life? . .

         December 1919

Thank you, dear Nadyushka, for you support: strange as it seems, I haven’t 
died. Certainly I couldn’t abandon my father, leave him alone in cold, hunger, 
ruin. We are selling our things, we’re still alive. I am acting as cook in the 
house. If  only we had food...They say that they are assigning more tenants 
to apartments. Our apartment is small, the rooms all adjoin each other, and it’s
impossible to re-plan it, fortunately. We will hope that we can keep it and that
we don’t acquire neighbors.

In the fall I was in such a state on learning of Osya’s departure with his family,
that I didn’t write you about Lily’s visit to me. This visit is worth describing. 
Not so much the details, though there were interesting moments in the 
conversation, as my impression of the grown-up Lily. Here, in Petersburg, 
even when I was at their place, I couldn’t see her clearly. This time she came, 
we talked alone together; my father left us. She talked about her life in the 
dacha in Levashovo last summer. Of how Volodya wrote the screenplay for 
“Shackled by Film,” in which they both played roles. She described how 
Osenka shares everything he reads with Mayakovsky, for Volodya no longer
has time to read. And I know myself what a wonderful storyteller Osya is. 
Mayakovsky values his tales so highly, that during conversations he goes up 
to Osenka and kisses him, saying repeatedly “Let me kiss your bald spot.” 
She talked about how Volodya is a man of enormous tenderness, how he 
hates coarseness and cynicism in people, and has never raised his voice to his
family, and this and that...

I sat and listened to her and thought unintentionally about her appearance. 
You see, I wanted to understand what it is in her that holds him. A small body
with a big head, inclined downward. The unsmiling, slightly bulging eyes of a
sinful angel. A heavy chin, but round, thus softening the unkind expression 
of the eyes. Large upper teeth show when she smiles, uncovered by her upper
lip. A slightly canine grin: the wrinkles around her mouth age her, though her 
smile is charming. Her haircut is classic, but bangs don’t make her face softer, 
as curls would do. At certain times her face looks masculine. My overall 
impression: her face is a coarse one, when all is said and done. I thus saw her 
not with Osenka’s, but with alien eyes. In plain women, Papa told me, a man 
always values one thing, the thing that is most visible and attractive. For 
instance, the figure, the hair. Lily has beautiful thick hair. Is Lily plain? Yes! Is
she beautiful? Yes, she's that too!

Always well dressed. Nice legs. Maybe these external details are enough for 
Osya. Besides, one has to admit that she is a broad person. And a splendid 
organizer. Osenka cares about richness of the inner life, his main desire is to 
bury himself in books, to read. It obviously suits him very much that she 
knows how to provide a life for them, and draw people to their house. She 
knows how to take power into her hands. She does it not deliberately and 
crudely but intelligently and calmly.

You know, Nadyusha, I even asked her, risking that Osya would never forgive 
me for it, why she and Osya didn’t separate when Mayakovsky came into her 
life? You know what she told me, looking straight into my eyes?

“To someone who loves Osya as much as you do, Sonechka, I will say this 
frankly. Yes, intimately we grew cold to one another. I’ll say more. He grew 
cold to me. But I couldn’t and still can’t think of life without Osya. Whomever 
I am attracted to, my whole life belongs only to him...When I told him that 
Volodya and I had fallen in love, he answered  ‘I understand you, only let me 
and you never be separated.’”

Leaving, at the door she added:

“Sonechka, Osya will never learn that we talked about him.”

The victor disappeared, having comforted the beaten. Yes, Nadyusha, I admit
that I am beaten, but not everything depends on Lily. She has broken Osya, 
but not me...
          July 1920

My Nadezhda, in these difficult times it is only in summer that you can even 
breathe freely and, maybe, take up the pen. How agonizing the last two icy 
winters were, how much time there was for meditation. I know about Osenka, 
Lily, and Mayakovsky not just from you. I know that they are together as 
before, that Mayakovsky is making the “ROSTA windows.” I haven’t been 
able to see them, but even in Peter already they say that the windows have 
begun to appear. Is Osenka taking part in this? Do you spend time with them? 
Write me about everything, I beg you! And send me everything that 
Mayakovsky writes. All this is dedicated to Lily, and this one thing that 
isolates them from Osya warms me with hope...

I think a lot on the subject of why they nevertheless live with Osenka. Yes, 
I can agree with you (and Lily) that Osya is in love with Volodya, and Volodya
with him, and they need each other no less, probably, than they need Lily. But
there are obviously other reasons...You know, they are both already so 
financially dependent on the Poet, that Lily, who torments Volodya so 
and—does she love him? I’m not even sure—would hardly leave him. While 
Osenka for Lily is such a piece of her life, her love, that she wouldn’t be 
capable of throwing him into penury. From the very start she couldn’t. Don’t 
forget how expensive apartments were. For a man with prerevolutionary habits 
it was hard to manage daily life without a servant. He could hardly allow 
himself a servant then, being alone. She was either really sorry for Osenka or 
she didn’t care. She is cynical. And then the divorce would have to be a 
Jewish one (in 1912 a rabbi had married them). You know what that is? The 
man must say three times in the presence of witnesses: “I don’t want you.” 
Can you imagine saying such a thing to Lily? Oh!

Being near Osya also suits her, perhaps, because it tickles the Poet’s nerves. 
Leva Grinkrug told me about Lily’s theory: the poet must suffer to write well. 
You write me how jealous and erratic Mayakovsky is when he is afraid of her 
leaving. Yes, this is evident from his poetry. Does Lily love Mayakovsky? 
I assume she doesn’t, but you know when you are told every second how 
much you are loved, how you are a part of someone, and are furnished an 
interesting spiritual life, made a fuss over, and through all this have enough to eat...

Even before the revolution of '17 Lily was the type of the new woman, 
Chernyshevsky's heroine. By the way, it wouldn't surprise me to hear that this 
is Mayakovsky's favorite book. Lily is now both a worldly woman and a 
commissar of literature, judging from your letters. You have to agree that she 
successfully combines the attractive aspects of both. Attractive to the 
revolutionary poet Volodya, and to the intellect of Osya, the merchant's son 
who has avoided his father's fate by taking up literature.

I can imagine that for Osya her betraying him before his eyes is a narcotic that 
is probably necessary for him. He is emotionally dead. Oh, Nadyenka, my 
imagination is growing morbid, isn't it? Or am I largely right?

I remember perfectly how the family looked when I dined with them before 
they left Peter for Moscow. Osenka sat with a fixed expression. Volodya 
looked rapturously at Lily, awaiting her favor. It seems to me that he does not
know how to take l'initiative sexuelle  in his own hands. It is the mighty Lily 
who assigns everyone their roles. Osya: we are not intimate, but we love each
other. Volodya: tomorrow—I'll think about it; today—you can go to the end 
of your leash, pup, but any further—no, no. Oh, one just can't be made to 
suffer as cruelly as I do, so I will write about my suffering! The suffering and 
the verse alike are works of genius. (So often it's just his feelings he writes 
about). Osya—your business is literature, philosophy. And that's fine with 
Lily—she rules. Both of them gave every appearance of being under her 

Is it just coincidence that Osya is completely indifferent to intimate relations 
with Lily, and with Volodya, too, there might be problems? We won't discuss 
this in too much detail. It's simply that it doesn't occur to many that men, too, 
can have problems in the area of intimate relations. It does occur to me, 
because for 18 years now I have been observing not one, but two of my 
neighbors. One is a polite, intelligent man, an engineer and a skier; the other is 
a university teacher who worships his old mother. Neither of them has had 
intimate relations with a woman at least in the years that I have known them. 
I am absolute convinced of this. Besides, now, after this damned revolution, 
only the well-fed think about being with a woman.

Yes, Nadyusha, I can see that you are angry with me; it seems to you that I 
have allowed myself to judge all three, and have even mentioned Osenka in 
somewhat different tones, which you are quite pleased about, right? You  
want so much for me to forget him as quickly as possible.

But do I judge them? It's just that their life, which by God's will is connected 
to mine, is a part of my life, because Osenka is mine. I am only trying to 
understand if I should wait for him or if there's no use in my living in this 
world, especially now that my poor papa has passed away...

          June 1923

Dear Nadyusha, how happy I am that the difficult rural period of your life is at 
an end, and that you have come back to Moscow! You went off to the people, 
to teach in the middle of nowhere, where there is neither electricity nor mail. 
And you did right, my dear! And opportunely! Osenka was expelled from the 
party during the 1921 purge as the son of a merchant. How I felt for you, how 
I waited for you to return to your previous interesting life, to the theatre, to 
your old friends, to me, finally...

My dear friend, you ask me to give you the literary news from Peter. And now 
I will expect you to give me the news from Moscow...Alas, I am not much 
involved with Petersburg cultural life, these years have been difficult, and my 
previous friends have gone over to the new government, with which, you 
understand, I have no special contacts. In the meantime I am still holding on 
materially, thanks to my late grandmother, my father's mother, God rest her 
soul! But soon I will be looking for work in a school, here in Peter. My origins, 
unlike yours, are quite simple, and I won't have to bury myself so far away in 
the countryside. Don't be surprised, I have my mother's last name, and it 
raises no suspicions.

Anyway, I don't yet know what sort of documents they will require when 
hiring someone. At worst, I will go to your backwoods, when there is 
absolutely nothing left to sell.

I write this frankly because I am passing this letter on by hand, otherwise it's 
not a good idea to discuss things openly in letters, I think.

In April I suddenly received  from Osenka the first issue of the journal "LEF"
and a letter. The journal includes Mayakovsky's poem "About This" and 
Osenka's story "No Fellow Traveler." The letter was long. I still don't 
understand why Osenka suddenly shared with me the fact that Volodya got 
involved in 1921 with Zinaida Ginzburg, but Lily, being in Riga, found out 
about it and instructed him not to see her. And it was even more surprising 
that he thought it necessary to inform me that Lily was having an affair with 
Krasnoshchekov, an important party functionary. And the affair was quite a 
serious one, too, having begun in summer of last year. They were dacha 
neighbors near Moscow. I write you this so that, when you are with your 
beloved Mayakovsky, you will be up on things.

Osenka suddenly wrote so much about Volodya, in particular about his notion
of love! I quote especially for you: "Mayakovsky understands love this way: 
if you love me, it means you are with me always, everywhere and under all 
circumstances. There can be no situation in which you are against me, 
however wrong or unfair or cruel I am. Your vote is always for me." That, dear
Nadyusha, is what Volodya dreams of, loving his faithless Lily. "In 
Mayakovsky's view, love is not a sexual act, but a state of the organism, like 
weight, like gravity." How right Osenka is, and how evident this is from 
Mayakovsky's verse! His poetry is his love, and vice versa. That is why Lily 
is so poeticized that he loves her.

Now I will quote you a few more pieces from Osenka's letter about your 
beloved Mayakovsky: "Have there been women who have loved him like 
that? Yes. Did he love them? He took them into consideration." He also added
that, in Lily's words, it was important to Mayakovsky that those who had not 
yet come should come, and that she who, as it seemed to him, did not yet love,
should love. That's Mayakovsky's secret! Lily, though, hates conditions and 
thinks she can love whomever she wants, when and where she wants, but 
without bonds!...The more she fails to love, the more fiercely he demands this 
love. See how he groans in his verse! And I like it so much when a man speaks
aloud about his feelings. Perhaps because Osya is so reserved, and has never
expressed his feelings?

But doesn't it seem to you, my dear, that something has happened to my 
impenetrable and reserved Osenka? He suddenly shared so many things with
me...Will I now become his "shoulder," if not to cry on, then at least for 
confessions, or...Has he decided to leave me? What do you suppose? 
I thought a very long time, and in the end in my reply I discussed love and 
didn't comment on the facts of Mayakovksy's and Lily's mutual betrayal...The 
main thing for me is how Osenka relates to this. This he said not a word 
about...But then why was he telling me this?

He writes that Volodya, he and Lily will go to Germany this year. I am very 
afraid that Osenka will stay there for good. And how will they let them all 
leave together?

          October 1923

Dear Nadenka, thank you for your letters, I found them on returning from the 
dacha. I am happy that you saw your beloved Mayakovsky. Did you like 
their crowded dacha? How does Osenka look? It's been so long since I've seen
him! Thank you for your invitation as well. But coming to Moscow and being 
in the same city with him and seeing each other for ten minutes would be hard for me, and besides now it’s absurd to even dream of this. You write yourself that they are leaving for Germany. They hope to meet Elsochka Triolet there. 
That's who I would like to see, but that's not to be dreamed of now either...

You know, Nadyusha, I re-read your letters to me and some of mine to you 
(sometimes I make a copy for myself before sending them to you). I looked at 
myself with detachment and understood that I live a made-up, unreal, solitary, 
frozen life. And I considered. I'm getting old, you know. It's lucky that Osenka 
doesn't see me. I've gained weight, become immobile, I sit and from habit look 
out the window and wait for Osya. No, it's really time that I thought of work, 
and not the translating I recently began doing for the publishers, but working
with live people. The only live people for me in recent years were Osenka, 
Lily and Mayakovksy, to be honest. But that's nonsense! You, for me, are a 
part of my soul...

P.S. It’s strange that Krasnoshchekov, in your opinion, looks just like Osya, 
only with hair. Could it be that Lily loves Osya so much that she has found 
his double? That she doesn't love Mayakovsky I have for some time not 
doubted. Well, now that Krasnoshchekov has been arrested, she will turn her
attention to Osenka again. Now I’m in for it!...

          February 1924

Dear Nadyusha, you agreed so quickly with my thought that my whole life is
concentrated only on this threesome, that I am even a little offended. And 
how could you suspect me of writing you only to get news about Osya and 
his family? Do you suppose that my mythical dreams of uniting my life with 
Osenka—I come more and more often now to the thought that this will take 
place in heaven—that these dreams are dearer to me than our wonderful 
relationship, my dear person? How could this come into your head? Osenka’s 
life for me is so elusive, he’s traveling now, I’m afraid he’s utterly forgotten 
my name, may God be with him, my beloved...

Tell me everything about yourself. And write and often as you can!... Not a 
word about them, I beg you! I will drown in my love, and that’s fine! I don’t 
need gulps of air: news about him, them...

Nadya, you won’t like it, but I can’t be silent. Do you remember Nadyusha 
Fridland? She came to see me recently, and told me how a couple of years ago
she had gone to Moscow, since a fairly large sum of money had been left for 
her there; otherwise she couldn’t have survived. Her father, it seems, had sent 
it from Germany. On the way home she had met your dear Mayakovsky on the 
train. They talked nicely, and she told him why she had gone to Moscow. She
invited him to visit her. Just imagine, he came. They played cards for money. 
He beat her! And how! She gave him all the money she had brought from 
Moscow! Enough to live on for two years! Poor Nadenka stood in the 
doorway while your idol was leaving, and wept. The rascal “took pity” and 
gave her 10 rubles. I don’t want to hear about this person!

Good luck to him, to Mayakovsky, but I...I read over what I have written, and 
understood: you’re right! I can’t live without Osya! He, Osya, is special, 
axial,* my guiding star! There is no name dearer, no person more splendid. 
That Osya married Lily and has not left her for me can’t be compared, for me, 
even to the bloody years of famine! And still, I can’t live without him. 
Forgive me, forgive me, Nadya...


On finding out that Osip Brik had begun an affair with Evgeniya Gavrilovna
Zhemchuzhnaya (née Sokolova), Sonechka took her own life.

New Haven
         4-14 October 2002

*Another play on the name Osya: osobennyi (special) and osevoi (axial).



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