The Last Will and Testament of Sergei Esenin: Cultural History of a Mystification, Part I

This is Part I of a three-part series. Part II will follow on Thursday, 10/1 and Part III on Friday, 10/2. A version of this piece appeared originally on Gorky Media.

Ilya Vinitsky is a Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. His fields of expertise are Russian Romanticism and Realism, the history of emotions, and nineteenth- century intellectual and spiritual history.

Translated by Emily Wang, Assistant Professor in the Department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures at the University of Notre Dame.


Why, in our country, does everyone lie, every single one of us? […] I’m convinced that in other countries, for the most part, only scoundrels lie; they lie for practical gain, i.e., directly with the criminal intentions. 

Fyodor Dostoevsky, “On Lying”

The American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake. 

Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality

Part I. Heart, Blood, and Brain

Facts and Fantasies

Fyodor Dostoevsky once deduced from his own experience the general human “law of disbelief:” present me with a hundred proofs of something, and I still won’t believe it if I don’t want to. And indeed, no matter how many arguments serious and honest scholars might offer to refute the theories of a (Bolshevik-Chekist-Jewish-Masonic) conspiracy against Esenin, stubborn conspiracy theorists will maintain their positions. In turn, serious and honest researchers all too often treat with disdain any “popular” fantasies and rumors unsupported by documentary evidence of some type. But even the most shameless mystifications and legends can, in their own way, be informative and culturally significant.

In this article, I’d like to turn away from heated debates over Esenin’s alleged “killers,” or unprofessional falsifiers of literary history, toward an apparently calmer place. I will focus on one of the most extravagant (if not the most extravagant and absurd) versions of the poet’s death, and the posthumous fate of his deathbed poem. I should first note that what interests me here are not so much the real facts of Sergei Esenin’s life and death, but rather an unknown creator’s mythological vision — a bizarre legend about the Russian poet and his American beloved. In what follows, I will try to reconstruct this legend, bring to light the identity of its author, and discuss its origins and cultural implications.

Out of the Inkwell

In his insightful article “The Legend of Esenin,” published in the journal Grani [Facets] in 1955, the Russian writer and American Slavist Vladimir Markov argued that the poet’s deathbed verses, “Farewell, my friend, farewell,” poeticized his tasteless and almost “operatic,” if truly terrible, death: “opened veins, blood in an Etruscan vase, last verses written in blood, his last will and testament: ‘My heart — to [actress Zinaida] Reich; my blood — to [American dancer Isadora] Duncan; my brain — to [his last wife, Lev Tolstoy’s granddaughter] Sophia Tolstoy.” This is, at the very least, a strange will, which Markov seems to have taken quite seriously, undoubtedly consulting the information cited in the 1947 memoirs of American impresario Sol Hurok — the man who organized the scandalous US tour Duncan and Esenin undertook in 1922.

                           Sergei Esenin and Isadora Duncan (Russkii Golos, New York, December 25, 1925)

As British Esenin scholar Gordon McVay has shown, Hurok’s account, in turn, draws upon a certain mysterious English-language publication, which begins by noting the place and date of its composition: “Moscow, November 14th.” McVay had access only to a clipping of this article, which was sent to him from the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library. The scholar did not know the original source of this publication, which he reproduced almost entirely in his book on Esenin and Duncan.

We can find echoes of this story (without reference to a source) in various American newspapers and magazines from the 1950s to the 1980s. In Russia it became known only at the beginning of the twenty-first century (most likely thanks to McVay’s book). E. V. Chernosvitov, a proponent of the theory that there was a conspiracy against Esenin, wrote indignantly about the poet’s incredible will in 2006. This will, he insisted, was invented by Americans to defame a Russian national poet. Meanwhile, in a 2011 article, Alla Marchenko identifies the “Etruscan vase” from the legend about the inkwell in Hotel Angleterre room where Esenin ended his life on the night of October 28, 1925: “Isadora, when they told her about this [event], recognized her last gift from the description: a tiny Etruscan vase.” 

At the heart of this legend is a mysterious inkwell of Esenin’s, which is somehow connected to Isadora Duncan. As it happens, the legend surrounding the poet’s death conflates two real inkwells: one from the room in the Angleterre Hotel (proponents of the conspiracy theory see it as proof that there was ink in the room, meaning that the poet should not have had to write with blood; it therefore follows that he was killed by his enemies), and one that Esenin bought for Duncan in 1922. This last inkwell stood for years on his writing desk, and later went to Duncan’s secretary (and translator) Ilya Schneyder, who bequeathed it to noted Esenin scholar I. L. Prokushev before finally ending up at the Esenin museum in Moscow.

                                            Esenin’s Inkwell, Esenin State Museum in Moscow

At the fringes of the myth of Esenin’s suicide we also find a certain “antique” vase — a vase that, like the inkwell, can be seen in the photograph of the famous room in the Hotel Angleterre.

Perhaps the fantastic version that Hurok includes in his memoirs inscribes itself into the symbolic interior of Esenin’s final resting place. In a fanciful way, Hurok links the motifs of the inkwell and the vase to the legend of the poet’s death. 

I have managed to discover the exact origin of this version of the story. By pulling this thread, I have unraveled a peculiar American cultural myth (to use Roland Barthes’ term) about the poet and the ballerina, which until now has remained unknown to scholars and admirers of Esenin and Duncan.

The Etruscan Urn

There is no doubt that Hurok acquired the information about the Etruscan inkwell-vase and Esenin’s last will and testament from an article that ran in the Sunday supplement to the newspapers published by American media magnate William Randolph Hearst on November 27, 1927. The piece had the following sensational headline: “Spectacular Suicide of Isadora Duncan’s Crazy Russian Husband/ Prevented From Burning Himself at the Stake in the Great Public Square at Moscow, the Young Poet Opens an Artery in His Arm and Sends His Ebbing Life Blood to Isadora, His Absent Wife in Paris.” This is undoubtedly the article McVay refers to in his book.

Following the style of Hearst’s popular Sunday supplements, the anonymous author of this fantastic narrative adorns it with copious photographs and kitschy illustrations. Beginning with the words “Moscow, November 14th,” the author reports that Esenin had long considered committing a theatrical suicide. During his stay in America, the article claimed, he had even longed to jump from the Woolworth Building, but feared killing a passerby or crushing a baby carriage. 

Esenin’s second mysterious suicide plan allegedly involved building an enormous funeral pyre on the Red Square, tying himself to a stake, and burning himself alive “as a martyr of our false civilization.” This plan was supposedly interrupted by the police, who arrested the young poet. The judge of the People’s Tribunal, the article averred, told him that citizens of the Soviet Union had no right to destroy their bodies of their own free will, since such bodies are public property.

When she learned of the arrest and psychological condition of her former husband, the author of this article tells us, Duncan sent one of her most gifted students from Paris, “pretty Californian girl” Miss Dorothy Billings, “to console and comfort” her husband while in prison, “and learn Russian in the meanwhile.” The miraculous appearance of this woman in his cell restored Esenin to life. He immediately forgot “all his cravings for death and began to make love to his fair visitor.” Esenin confessed that he considered her his dream girl, and that all his poetry was actually inspired by a presentiment of her arrival into his life. But when sweet Dorothy found out that, aside from Duncan, he had several other wives whom he had not divorced, and that he had no intention of marrying her for reasons of principle (since the marriages had been only experiments for him), she abandoned the contemptible polygamist with a promise to (maybe) come back later. Esenin, who was soon released and settled in the Hotel Angleterre, did not end up waiting for the lovely American’s next visit.

                  A Soviet police officer saves a young Russian poet from self-immolation in Red Square. [American Weekly, Nov 27, 1926]

Sorrowfully, he opened his vein with a knife and with his blood wrote these verses, which were sent to his beloved:

Let me die, I am drunk of life 

You promised me roses now if I will live 

But one kiss if you please 

Give only breath from the lips of your soul

And death’s cup I will drain to the lees. 

All words are raging at once in my blood: 

Paradise, hell, Nirvana and your intoxicating kisses.

Frightened by Esenin’s passion (so the story went), Miss Billings fled Leningrad for Moscow, where she related what had happened to Vasily Kamensky – “another Russian poet, but of a more reserved type than Essenin [sic].” Kamensky declared that, based on this account, it seemed that Esenin had gone completely insane. These words, seized by journalists, were printed by a Moscow newspaper in an article about Esenin’s romance with a charming American woman. After reading the article, the poet said that he lost all hope for love and poetry. He cut open a vein in his left arm, and his blood flowed into a little vase that Isadora had given him before their wedding. Regarding this urn, she had said: “Let our ashes be buried in this historic vase, as on its bottom are the ashes of the heart of Cleopatra!”  

But here Esenin recalled that he had promised his first wife, Zinaida Meyerhold, the daughter (in reality, the future wife! – I.V.) of the famous theater director, whom the poet had married two years before Isadora, that he would leave to her in his will the ashes of his heart. Indeed, these ashes were to be placed in a valuable emerald amulet in which Catherine the Great had kept the ashes of her lover, American Admiral John Paul Jones. “I have promised my heart to Zinaida, I will leave my blood to Isadora, and Sofia, my latest wife, must have my brains,” soliloquized the desperate man in the prison cell before writing his last will. These considerations, according to the author of the article, were the origin point of Esenin’s will. The vase with his cremated body was to go to Isadora, the amulet with his cremated heart — to Zinaida, and “the cremated brain in the big ruby ring, presented to Essenin by an Oriental princess, one of his many admirers,” — to Sophia.

Having written his will, the article claimed, Esenin opened his miniature penknife, slashed an artery of his left arm, and held it over the vase on which he had inscribed, “Inheritance to my wife, Isadora.” Indeed, it was with the blood that was flowing into this vase that Esenin wrote his final poem, “Invocation to Death,” a sort of “ironical ballad on the illusions of life.” This poem “covered two long sheets of paper, the first part of which was full of fire and brilliant in style, while toward the end the lines grew shaky and the thought blurred.” Its last lines were:

It whirls before my eyes, bells sound in my ears and a sweet fatigue is overcoming my muscles. Twilight… rainbows… radiant… phantoms… Good night!

The article’s author noted that Esenin’s last will and testament was not carried out by the Bolsheviks, who had their own ideas about the poet’s body: they had built a special mausoleum for it in Leningrad. However, the poet’s lawful widows could hardly have agreed to the government’s decision. It would not be long until they exhumed his body to recover his brain and heart and carry out the poet’s wishes (the third element — blood — was by this point already stored in an “antiseptic emulsion”). As Duncan had told the author’s article: “Serge loved my soul, and he loved Zinaida’s feminine fascination and Sofia’s great beauty. We had no conflicts and quarrels.” 

The poet’s last wife, Sophia, emphasized how important each of his five wives had been to the poet, who used to spend a month with each of them in turn: “To the poet it was a great romantic event to visit his wife, whom he had not seen for the five months. She was like a new love, and so his life was a constant honeymoon.” In all, the article’s author adds unexpectedly, Esenin had six wives.“Couldn’t this entire article be someone’s sick joke or a parody?” asked Gordon MacVay in his book on Esenin and Duncan. I propose that in order to answer this question, we must first ask another one: namely, who created this extravaganza, believed by both a famous American impresario and an excellent Slavic literary scholar?

To be continued — click here for Part II and here for Part III!