Zinaida Gippius (1869 – 1945) was a leading Symbolist poet and literary critic whose writing gained her an equal role in the artistic and intellectual spheres with men. It has been claimed that some of Dmitry Merezhkovsky's ideas, especially regarding new life practices, originally belonged to Gippius. Equality with her husband included "a room of one’s own" that Virginia Woolf would articulate in her famous essay only in 1929; describing their first 1889 apartment in Petersburg, Gippius underscored the fact that she had her own bedroom and study.
She was known to favor white, as we see in the photographs, — outside her circle Gippius had the reputation of а "decadent Madonna" and femme fatale ensnaring her victims like a spider, as we see in the caricature. The train in the caricature by Mitrich displayed like a fan referenced the well–known Renar photo with her lorgnette hanging on a chain, but the parodic image of Gippius instead of representing the subject's femininity, staged her as a masculinized figure — phallic lorgnette and cigarette in her lips, as well as the phallic shadow of her anorexic body. She was known to smoke scented cigarettes and use Tuberose-Lubin perfume whose odor, according to Andrey Bely, filled the air in the Muruzi apartment, mixing with the smell of cinnamon.
Unlike her husband, she was a night person, going to bed at three or four in the morning and getting up around two in the afternoon. Andrey Bely described Gippius reclining on the sofa in the drawing room with red armchairs and red wall paper engaged in long intellectual discussion with a guest, typically male, late into the morning hours — who would sit at the fireplace. Like other contemporaries, Bely emphasized her beautiful very long red-blonde hair that she would sometimes undo to then put back up again. Others commented on her mermaid-like green eyes and ambiguous Mona Lisa smile. Bely's verbal portraits usually parodied his subject. Describing his first public encounter with Gippius, he compared her to
a human–sized wasp, if not the skeleton of a 'seductress' (pen of Aubrey Beardsley); a lump of distended red hair (let down, it would reach her toes) concealed a small, crooked face; powder and luster from a lorgnette into which a greenish eye had been inserted; she fingered her faceted beads, staring at me, retracting the flame of her lip. From her forehead, like a beaming eye, dangled a stone; the clasp of her little boot flashed; legs crossed, she tossed back the train of her close–fitting dress; the charm of her bony, hipless skeleton recalled a communicant deftly captivating Satan.
Like many others, Bely commented on Gippius's arrogance and sharp wit, often delivered as she gazed disdainfully at the object of derision through the lorgnette.
Alexander Pushkin's wife Natalia Goncharova in Karl Briullov's 1831 portrait wears a necklace with a forehead pendant fashionable among upper class women at the time. Pushkin in fact dubbed some of them Cleopatras of the North. Bely's reference to Beardsley's seductress suggested his illustrations of Oscar Wilde's gender–bending Salome (1891), the fin de siècle's archetypal femme fatale, although Gippius fashioned herself as Cleopatra, one of whose classical adornments was indeed a forehead diadem.
Gippius was a master of confounding gender identity. Besides her manifestly feminine style of dress, she sometimes practiced cross-dressing. Her self–representation as female dandy was made famous by Léon Bakst of The World of Art, many of whose members were gay, starting with their leader Sergey Diaghilev, and often stylized themselves as dandies. Most importantly, Gippius used a male persona in her poetry and wrote criticism under male pseudonyms, the best know was Anton the Extreme (Anton Krainy). In the much better known 1906 portrait, Bakst painted Gippius reclining in a chair in the costume of a dandy: hands in pockets, long legs artfully crossed, in a distinctly masculine pose. The face, framed by a head of thick red hair, is appropriately pale; a sensuous mouth and languid eyes challenge the viewer by averting disdainfully the spectator's curious gaze. Most importantly, the image suggests a turn–of–the–century dandy, an aristocratic transvestite who subverts the binary system of gender.
Gippius constructed platonic erotic triangles, with men as well as women, in which she played the pivotal role. One of the men who participated in such a complex triangle during the 1890s was Akim Volynsky, with whom the Merezhkovskys traveled to Italy, visiting sites associated with Leonardo da Vinci; both men wrote a book about him.
The fin de siècle in Russia was a period of intense spiritual pursuit that fused the erotic and religious spheres. According to Gippius, the life practice of the Merezhkovskys' Christianity of the Third Testament (Revelation) would convert the erotic energy of triangulated love into a higher spiritual form. This life practice was premised on a utopian theory of triangulated Eros that transcends gender in androgyny, propounding the substitution of divine erotic love for the consummation of sexual desire. The project, according to Gippius, required a third person for this purposeful triple union with herself and Merezhkovsky. For that role she elected the very handsome and highly cultivated Dmitry Filosofov, an aesthete concerned with questions of religion, who was Dhiaghilev's cousin as well as on and off lover. He helped found the journal World of Art in 1898, edited by Diaghilev, with which the Merezhkovskys collaborated. A luxurious, richly illustrated journal, it played a key role in the revival of interest in Petersburg's neo–classical architecture, new Russian art and literature.
The subject of a tug of war between the Merezhkovskys and the predominantly gay Diaghilev circle, Filosofov moved back and forth between them for several years, finally moving to House Muruzi in 1905. They lived together as a threesome in a new family structure, a fraught marriage à trois, one that excluded physical sex with the purpose of furthering their joint religious cause. Gippius was generally attracted to androgynous men: "I like the illusion of possibility — a hint of bisexuality; he seems to be both woman and man." They offered her the possibility of "a love not of this world" for which she yearned all her life. All this sounds delirious, but keep in mind that it was a period of radical experimental life practices in the small coterie of early Russian modernists.
The Church of the Third Testament had its own rituals, including celebration of the Holy Eucharist and divine Trinitarian marriage, performed in secret. Although Gippius searched for disciples, their "sect" attracted few adepts. Among those interested for a while was the notorious terrorist Boris Savinkov, most likely because the Merezhkovskys' apocalyptic church engaged with some of the political ideas related to the revolution in 1905 and 1917. Gippius was directly involved in the writing and publication of Savinkov's novel The Pale Horse (Kon' bledny, 1909). Based on the 1905 assassination of grand duke Sergey, the uncle of Nicholas II, it was published under the pseudonym B. Ropshin (Gippius had suggested both the apocalyptic title and pseudonym). Most likely, the novel served as a subtext of Bely's Petersburg, which in turn may be read as a parody of The Pale Horse; moreover, Savinkov served as a prototype of Petersburg's Alexander Dudkin.
Like many others, the Merezhkovskys emigrated after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and lived in Paris the rest of their lives.