She thought up new ideas, took an active part in lively exchanges of opinion and played a fundamental role in the religious renaissance of her country. For Hippius, the purpose of art was to promote the moral and spiritual development of human beings. Her activities in the Religious and Philosophical Society in St. Petersburg and later in emigration in Paris enhanced her fame in Russian literary circles. Zinaida Hippius was the only female writer to gain recognition equal to that of her male contemporaries in Russian literature prior to the twentieth century.
Zinaida Nikolaevna Hippius was born in Belev, in the region of Tula. She was the eldest of four daughters of Nikolay Romanovich Hippius, who was super-procurator of the St. Petersburg Senate and later became chief judge in Nezhin, in the district of Chernigov. The family surname, spelled ‘‘Gippius” in Cyrillic, was of German origin. Throughout her life the writer expressed a clear preference for the Latin-alphabet spelling “Hippius”. Her mother, whose maiden name was Stepanova, was from Siberia. After her father's death in 1881, Hippius's mother moved the family to Moscow and then eventually to Tiflis (Tbilisi). Hippius was educated primarily at home. Largely self-educated, she was already a published poet when she entered the Kiev Institute for Noble Girls. Later she also studied at the Fisher Private Classic School in Moscow 1882.
In 1888 she met Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky, whom she married in Tiflis in 1889. Merezhkovsky was a writer and literary critic, a founder of the modernist movement in Russian literature, who combined fervent idealism with literary innovation. Their literary careers proceeded independently, although their political, philosophical and religious views were in unison. Merezhkovsky is credited with first articulating the basic tenets of Russian Symbolism with his essay “On the Causes of the Decline and on the New Trends in Contemporary Russian Literature” (1892). The couple then moved to St. Petersburg. Their St. Petersburg literary salon became a focal point for the Symbolists, notably Aleksandr Blok and Andrey Bely. Hippius first attracted attention with her unconventional behavior, cultivating an androgynous image, and later as an outspoken and perceptive critic. Among her first literary acquaintances in St. Petersburg were the poets Apollon Maikov and Konstantin Balmont and the prose writers Leo Tolstoy, Akim Volynsky-Fletser, and Maksim Gorky. At the frequent literary soirées that Hippius attended in St. Petersburg, she met such leading figures as Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who was the super-procurator of the Holy Synod, as well as the writers Anton Chekhov, Nikolay Leskov, and the philosopher Vladimir Solovyev.
Beginning in the 1890s, Hippius and Merezhkovsky traveled extensively.
Between 1894 and 1900 the couple undertook trips to Greece, Germany, Italy, and Sicily. Towards the end of the 19th century, they also belonged to the group “The World of Art”, led by Sergey Diagilev, who edited the journal of the same name, established in 1899. Hippius and Merezhkovsky began to publish regularly in “The World of Art” shortly after its inception.
In 1919 Hippius and Merezhkovsky left Soviet Russia via Poland. Together with Boris Savinkov they tried to organize military opposition to Bolshevism in Poland, but their attempts failed. In 1920 the Merezhkovskys left Warsaw and settled in Paris, where Hippius continued her literary activities, contributing to various periodicals. In 1925 Hippius published her reminiscences “Living Faces”. In 1926 the Merezhkovskys organized a literary and philosophical society, “The Green Lamp”, where the discussions centred on literary, religious, and political matters. Hippius's volume of poetry “Radiance” appeared in 1938.
Hippius, who had begun to write poetry as a child, first published her verses in “The Northern Messenger” in the November issue of 1888. Hippius's verse of the 1890s reveals her as an individualistic, aesthetically focused poet, one who dismisses the vulgarity of existence, evokes nostalgia for “that which is not of this world”, as she said in many of her works and letters, and seeks to achieve a deep faith in God. Her early poems may be viewed as discussions of abstract ideas held through rhyme and melody. The poems are reverential and call to mind religious meditations.
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