Elizaveta Mnatsakanova (1922-2019)

January 4, 2021

On September 10, 2019, the Russian poet Elizaveta Mnatsakanova passed away in Vienna, after a very long life, longer than is usually given to Russia’s poets. Born in 1922 in Baku, she studied in Moscow, including at the Moscow Conservatory, and she made her living as a musicologist while writing poems that she hid away. She emigrated to Vienna in 1975 and began giving private music lessons, eventually teaching Russian literature at the University of Vienna. She became known as a poet when her great requiem, “Осень в лазарете невинных сестер,” was published in 1977. Its intense musical rhythms and stunning verbal orchestration was like nothing else in Russian poetry at the time.

Elizaveta Mnatsakanova

Mnatsakanova flourished as a poet and translator (to and from German) in Vienna. She largely self-published her work, creating books entirely of her own design. Her books featured her artwork and calligraphy as well as the striking visual layouts for which she became known. 


In 2004, the Harvard Slavic Department hosted a symposium in her honor. Mnatsakanova attended and memorably closed the event with a reading from her work, and she also loaned drafts and artwork for an exhibit that was mounted in Lamont Library. That same year, she won the Andrei Belyi Prize in Russia, and 2004 also saw the publication of one of her books, Arcadia, in Moscow (in 1994, a collection of her work had appeared in Perm). She would go on to win other prizes, create more books and much more artwork, including a major edition of her work, Novaia Arkadia, that came out in Moscow in 2018.

Elizaveta Mnatsakanova Artwork 1

Mnatsakanova’s visit to Harvard made a very strong impression on her, and she arranged shortly afterwards to begin transferring her vast archive to Houghton Library. Several substantial deposits were made in her lifetime, and after her death, her son, Alexander Witte, who had accompanied his mother on her trip to Cambridge in 2004, sent the remaining portions to the University. Among the many pleasures that await us when the University reopens fully will be the exploration of these treasures. For now, here are a few images of her work, and her last long work, the poem Elmoli, is available online, along with a 2015 interview: https://syg.ma/@samokhotkin/fraghmienty-poemy-ielizaviety-mnatsakanovoi-intierviu-s-avtorom.  The Slavic Department joins her son and her friends and readers across the US, Europe, and Russia in mourning the passing of an extraordinary poet, teacher, translator, and visual artist.