Anna (Asya) Turgeneva was an artist and anthroposophist, the first wife of Andrei Bely, and a great-niece of novelist Ivan Turgenev. She lived in Moscow with her aunt, Maria Olenina d’Alheim, a singer and the founder of the House of Song, with which Andrei Bely was actively involved. Bely and Turgeneva became close in 1909, when Asya, an engraver, offered to make his portrait.
In 1910, Turgeneva and Bely went on a long honeymoon (although they were not married). “She would carve on a sparkling copper board a fine image that brought to mind the engravings of Rembrandt; and in her life, too, all decisions were clear and precise, as if engraved. After I met her, my outer life was chiselled to perfection; my literary style took on its definitive shape [...], she rearranged it with her bold stroke,’ Bely recalled.1
In 1912, Bely and Turgeneva met Rudolf Steiner, in 1913 they became his esoteric students, and in 1914 settled in Dornach. They married at Bern town hall. Without a marriage certificate it was difficult to rent a flat in a Swiss village as a couple. Their relationship was already strained by 1915, and Turgeneva left Bely in 1922, when they met in Berlin.
In Dornach, where she remained until the end of her life, Turgeneva fully developed her creative potential. The leader of a wood carving team at first, she later moved on to the glass studio and worked on the stained glass windows for the First and the Second Goetheanum. She attended eurythmy classes, took part in a production of Faust and toured Europe with a group of eurythmists from Dornach. Turgeneva was held in high esteem in anthroposophical circles. She worked in book design and illustrated writings by Goethe and Steiner, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, and other books published by anthroposophists. She wrote memoirs on Andrei Bely, Rudolf Steiner, and the construction of the First Goetheanum. Toward the end of her life she became very ill: sawdust and glass dust had badly affected her lungs.
In the history of Russian culture Asya Turgeneva has been immortalized as the object of Andrei Bely’s most passionate and tragic love (their separation was very painful for the writer). To Asya he dedicated both his light-hearted Travel Notes (about their journey through Italy and Africa) and the heart- wrenching poems from After Separation. She also served as a prototype for several female characters in Bely’s novels: Katya in The Silver Dove, Nelly in Notes of an Eccentric, and Lizasha in the Moscow trilogy. Marina Tsvetaeva painted an enchanting portrait of Asya in A Captive Spirit: “Good posture, head naturally raised and framed in Lamartine-style curls, an eternal cigarette between fine fingers [...]. I have never seen hands more beautiful. Her curls, neck, and arms—everything belonged in an English engraving, and she was an engraver herself [...], but the main thing is that Asya Turgeneva was Turgenev’s Asya2 [...]. It was impossible not to fall in love.”3
1. Andrei Bely, “Zapiski chudaka” in Sobranie sochinenii (Moscow: Respublika, 1997), 293.
2. Translator’s note: “Asya” is a famous short story by Turgeneva’s great-uncle, the novelist Ivan Turgenev.
2. Marina Tsvetaeva, “Plennyi dukh” in Smert’ Andreya Belogo (1880–1934) (Moscow: NLO, 2013), 563.