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Sophia Yakovlevna Parnok, 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.

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.

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"How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world."
~William Shakespeare


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