Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Elizaveta Polonskaja (1890 - 1969) - Russian

Penelope Monkhouse kindly provided me with biographical information about the poet Elizaveta Polonkskaja. My very grateful thanks to Penelope and to all those who continue to support and encourage me in this First World War commemorative project.

Elizaveta Grigorevna Movšenson was born in Warsaw in 'Congress Poland' on 26th June 1890, the daughter of an engineer, Grifory Lvovich Movšenson. Shortly after her birth, the family moved to Łódź.  That area was partitioned after the Vienna Congress in 1815 and was divided between Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary.  Elizaveta's mother tongue was Russian but she also learnt French, German, Italian and English.

In 1905, fearing the pogroms against people of the Jewish religion, Eizaveta's father sent the family to Berlin where her mother Charlotta had family, though they returned to Russia the following year and went to live in St. Petersburg. In 1908 Elizaveta moved to Paris and began studying medicine at the Sorbonne.  There, she met the poet and writer Ilya Ehrenburg and with him published two journals, Byvšie ljudi (Former People) and Tixoe semejstvo (A Quiet Family). 

Elizaveta completed her course in medicine in 1914 and also published her first poems in the Russian-language journal “Stikhi”.  At the outbreak of the First World War, Elizaveta initially worked at a hospital in Nancy in France and then helped to run a military hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Elizaveta returned to St. Petersburg in 1915 when she heard that Russian doctors working abroad were being urged to return to their homeland so that they could serve on the Eastern Front. Elizaveta's father had just died when she returned. 

From 1915-1917 she worked as a doctor on the Galician front; there she met the engineer Lev Polonski. The couple had a relationship and had a son Mikhail. Although they never married, Elizaveta took his name and so became known as Polonskaja.  After the birth of her son, Elizaveta left him with her family and returned to the front where she remained until 1917.

After Russia left the war, Elizaveta returned initially to Petrograd, but needed to support her family, so took a medical job on Vasilevsky Island. In 1918 she began literary courses at the Translators´ Studio at the publishing house of World Literature, where the poetry class was led by Nikolai Gumilev (first husband of another Russian Female Poet of the First World War - Anna Akhmatova). At this studio she met several writers who in 1921 formed the “Serapion Brothers” writers group, meeting regularly to discuss their work. The group of diverse members concentrated mainly on artistic independence and western literature and Elizaveta was the only woman member.

Elizaveta continued to work as a doctor, writing poetry and prose in her spare time. Her first collection Znamenya (Signs) was published in 1921; eight further poetry collections and four volumes of prose were published up to 1966. From 1931 she worked full-time as a writer and journalist, but in 1942 moved to the Urals and again took up medical work. On returning to Leningrad in 1944, she resumed her full-time literary work. 

Elizaveta died in January 1969 in Leningrad, leaving some work unpublished. Although parts of her memoirs had been published before her death, a collection was not published until 2008.

Writings and references

  1. E. Polonskaja, Stikhotvoreniya i poemy, St. Petersburg: Pushkin House, 2010

  1. E. Polonskaja, Selection from her (unfinished) memoirs: Goroda I vstrechi, accessed July 2015.

  1. L.D.  Davis: “Serapion Sister. Poetry of Elizaveta Polonskaja” Studies in Russian Literature and Theory. Northwestern Univ. Press, Evanston, IL, 2001.

  1. M.D. Shrayer (Ed.) : An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature (2 vols). Two Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry, 2nd Ed., publ. by Routledge 2015, pp. 323-326

  1. B. Frezinsky, Zataivshajacja Mysa , 2003 (in Russian; includes some poems by Polonskaja), accessed July 2015.

Penelope Monkhouse (*1952) is a German-British scientist living in Schwetzingen/Germany and is a granddaughter of the novelist, dramatist and literary critic Allan Monkhouse. Literature of the early 20thcentury is presently one of her chief non-scientific interests; she is presently engaged on a comparative study of German and English poetry of this period. She also writes poetry of her own and translates poetry to and from German and English. 

Additional information from

The photo shows Elizaveta with the Serapion Brothers.