I shall go by,
dragging my burden of love.
In what delirious
was I sired by Goliaths —
I, so large,
— “To his beloved self, the author dedicates these lines”
— Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1916
And so was the life of one of Russia’s most gifted and prominent members of the avant garde. The man who has been credited with redefining the artist’s role in society. The mad man of Russian letters who took his own life in a climax of prolonged despair. Such was the life of Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930).
There is very little objective information about the poet’s early years, only information from the mouth of Mayakovsky himself. And with his propensity for exaggeration, it’s difficult to discern what is true and what it folly. This much we know for sure: Mayakovsky was born in 1893 in Bagdadi, a Georgian village now known as Mayakovsky, the son of an impoverished Russian nobleman turned forest ranger.
He described his youth as lonely, restless and troubled. The natural beauty of the Caucasus did little to stimulate his restless soul. However, technology did. When he first saw a rivet factory illuminated at night, he wrote in his autobiography that he “lost interest in nature. Not up to date enough.”
His academic life was uneventful at best — but it did stoke the fire of Futurism deep within the poet. In his own exaggerative words, through his schooling, he gained “a hatred for everything ancient, everything churchy, and everything Slavonic.”
In 1905, his life as a revolutionary began when he began stealing his father’s sawed-off shotguns and giving them to local Social Democrats. At age fifteen, Mayakovsky moved to Moscow and immediately became involved with the Bolsheviks. It was a natural fit for the young man. Mayakovsky immersed himself in the movement, carrying out underground propaganda throughout Moscow.
In 1908, he was arrested for subversive activities. During his 11-month prison term, Mayakovsky read voraciously and swore to drop politics in favor of the arts. He dispensed of the current authors like Dostoevsky and Pushkin for the likes of Shakespeare and Byron. And it was during this time that he first began writing.
His first attempts disgusted him; so much so, he gave it up and took up abstract painting. Ironically, it was at this point when his legacy as a poet began in a rather anticlimactic manner.
While spending the evening in the company of a fellow student, Mayakovsky recited some simple verse he had written — and even tried to convince his friend that he did not write the line. His friend was not fooled, but was completely impressed. So much so, from that point on, he introduced Mayakovsky to people as “my friend, the genius, the famous poet, Mayakovsky.”
His friend was David Burluik, who had established a group he referred to as Futurists, individuals dedicated to composing new forms in art and literature. Their chief priority was to inject a new spirit and enthusiasm into Russian culture. Mayakovsky fit perfectly into the movement.
It was now 1911 and Mayakovsky was thrust upon the stage of Futurism in Moscow. The Futurists consisted of a large group of writers, painters, musicians and theatre directors. The timing could not have been any more perfect. The nation was ready to overthrow the shackles of the past.
The Futurists, though, were not so much revolting against the government, as was Lenin, who was still in exile. The Futurists were against general conservatism of Russia. In their minds, poets and writers of late had become too stuffy. They wanted to shatter artistic convention and create new forms appropriate with the development of the machine age.
To say that the Futurists made an impact within society is an understatement. They enjoyed nothing more than to break-up “respectable” social gatherings with catcalls, tea-throwing and general vandalism — all the while dressed in bizarre costumes with their faces painted. Mayakovsky took to wearing costumes very naturally. It was not unusual to find the great poet dressed in a yellow tunic with a top hat, gold-topped cane and a large wooden spoon worn as a boutonniere. He could be seen (and heard) on the streets of Moscow, bellowing his verse through a megaphone. Mayakovsky had found his stage.
Mayakovsky more so than any of the other Futurists shook Russian society. He was over six-foot tall and extremely handsome, with sullen eyes and thick lips. His hairstyle varied between thick and scruffy black hair to a clean-shaven skull. But it just isn’t fair to describe Mayakovsky in physical terms when there are so many telling stories about the man, and the results that followed. This is one, described by Ivan Bunin, concerning a formal art exhibition attended by “writers, ministers, deputies and one high foreign diplomat”:
“I sat with Gorky and the Finnish painter Axel Gallen, and Mayakovsky began his performance by suddenly coming up to us, pushing a chair between ours and helping himself from our plates and drinking out of our glasses. Gallen stared at him spellbound, just as he would probably have stared if a horse had been led into the banquet hall — at that moment Milyukov, our Foreign Minister at the time, rose for an official toast and Mayakovsky dashed towards him, to the center of the table, jumped on a chair and shouted something so obscene that Milyukov was completely flabbergasted. After a moment, regaining his control, he tried to start his speech again — but Mayakovsky yelled louder than ever, and Milyukov shrugged his shoulders and sat down.
“Then the French ambassador rose to his feet. He was obviously convinced that the Russian hooligan would give in to him. What a hope! His voice was drowned by a deafening bellow from Mayakovsky. But this was not all. A wild and senseless pandemonium broke out. Mayakovsky supporters also began to yell, pounding their feet on the floor and their fists on the tables. They screamed with laughter, whined, squeaked, snorted. But suddenly all this was quashed by a truly tragic wail of one of the Finns — Rather drunk, pale as death, he had obviously been shaken to the core by this excess of misbehavior, and started to shout at the top of his voice — the only Russian words he knew, “Mnogo! Mnogo! Mnogo” (“Many!” or “Much!)”
Mayakovsky was definitely a threatening character in the eyes of all those who cared for traditional Russian verse. His style — the use of puns, the thumping rhythms and the unusual use of language — horrified the Russian intelligentsia. In their eyes, this self-absorbed character, with all of his melodrama, tragedy and revolutionary ideas, was a traitor.
In the introduction to the book, “The Bedbug And Selected Poetry”, critic and journalist Patricia Blake describes Mayakovsky’s style:
“From these lyrics rises a single cry of pain, at time barely tolerable to the human ear. His poetic techniques served above all to sharpen the impact of his feelings on the senses of the reader — or rather, of the listener, for his verses were written to be read aloud. However complex the structure of language and meter, the effect is always immediate; Mayakovsky had an extraordinary ear for the language of the street, and the art to transform it into a perfectly original yet familiar idiom. This is why he reached a much larger audience than most modernist poets.
“With such elements as street slang, popular songs and chastushki (satirical jingles of the industrial age) Mayakovsky created a personal style involving grammatical deformations, bizarre inversions, neologisms and puns. He was most ingenious in coining new verbal forms with, as he called it, ‘the small change of suffixes and flections.’
“His stunning imagery breaks through in translation. Bold, extreme, and frequently brutal, his images constitute his most effective means of communication. He was a master of metaphor and hyperbole.”
Poetry was Mayakovsky’s confessional. The main topic of his lyrical poetry was misfortunes in love. His famous work, “The Cloud in Trousers”, a long, intense piece, is centered around two unloving “Marias”. Many of his troubles were self-created. He was a handsome, famous poet whom women adored. However, Mayakovsky always seemed to follow the difficult road in life and love. He courted women who were unavailable to him.
The first woman that greatly affected his life was Lily Brik, whom he met in 1915. Brik was married to Osip Brik, critic and editor, but Mayakovsky still pursued and the group lived as a menage a trois for a period of time.
Lili moved Mayakovsky so much that he wrote the epic poem “The Backbone Flute” for her, although she probably was not too terribly flattered by the piece. The poem has been described as “the most savage indictment of a woman and womanhood to be formulated in our time.” Oddly enough, Lili was not easily offended and gave her blessing for Mayakovsky to recite the poem in public.
It is in this poem that he first laments the idea of ending it all with a bullet. Suicide was becoming a recurring thread in his work. In “Man”, he wrote:
“The heart yearns for a bullet
while the throat raves of a razor …
the soul shivers;
she’s caught in the ice,
and there’s no escape for her!”
When the Russian Civil War broke out in 1917, Mayakovsky quickly worked to assemble his “army” of writers and artists. While the intellectuals and aristocrats fled Russia, Mayakovsky’s fame grew considerably — so much so he was accused of being out of touch with the newfound suffering of the Russian people. Whereas many Russians were driven to physical breakdown, Mayakovsky remained unmoved. In “The Cloud in Trousers”, he prophesized the revolution, missing the date only by a year:
“I perceive whom no one sees,
crossing the mountains of time.
Where men’s eyes stop short,
there, at the head of hungry hordes,
the year 1916 cometh
in the thorny crown of revolution.”
After the Civil War, Mayakovsky “fell off the bandwagon.” The new government, he felt, was too confining and his attitude oscillated between devout follower and outspoken critic. He produced large amounts of propaganda posters, jingles and epic verse. But he also considered himself the rebel, the man whose mission was to save Soviet literature and not bow down.
For the next nine years or so, Mayakovsky was allowed to do as he pleased, performing readings throughout the giant country to large crowds. Some of his work during this period include:
“150,000,000”, a poem about American intervention in the Civil War in which the Russian peasant Ivan, with 150,000,000 heads, fights hand-to-hand with Woodrow Wilson; “Paris”, in which he invites the Eiffel Tower to lead a revolution; and “About Conferences”, where office workers’ torsos disappear into one conference, while their lower halves confer elsewhere.
Mayakovsky’s work was published by the Left Front of Literature (LEF) in the group’s magazine. However, the magazine quickly shut down, which shook Mayakovsky. It was at this time he decided to travel abroad to America and France. The journey only agitated him more. In America he found the country to be a technologically advanced nation (which he admired) but also in the grip of greed and filth. He was more pleasantly surprised with his visit to France, which had once seemed to him to be the most decadent country in the world.
When he returned home he was overjoyed to be back, but the mood did not last long. Stalin was running things. The “proletarian hacks”, as he called them, were gaining power, which meant a return to conservatism. Mayakovsky attempted to revive the spirit of the LEF, but the Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) was the dominant literary group. They labeled the LEF and its members as anarchists with “Trotskyists left deviations.”
The RAPP, much like Futurists 10 years earlier, supported the “new” government. Except instead of Lenin, it was Stalin they were following.
This is the point, in 1928, when Mayakovsky truly reached the low point in his life. He became aware of the conflicts between the ideals and the reality of communism. He saw how ultimately it caused a greater separation among people. And in traditional Mayakovsky manner, he confronted it in his art.
“The Bedbug” was a play Mayakovsky wrote in 1928, describing the world of Communist Russia as only Mayakovsky could see it. The first half of the play deals with Communist swindlers and elitists. The villain is Prisypkin, a “bedbug-infested, guitar-strumming, vodka-soaked vulgarian who is the proud possessor of a Party card and a proletarian pedigree.” The second half takes place in the future — 1978 — where excess is a remnant of the past. At this point Prisypkin becomes the hero — he has been resurrected as a “zoological curiosity”. When he asks for books on flowers and daydreams, nobody knows what he’s talking about. Instead he is offered books on horticulture and medical hypnosis. Prisypkin ends up being kept in a cage as if an animal in a zoo, although there are no zoos in this future. The final scene of the play involves Prisypkin addressing the audience:
“Citizens! Brothers! My own people! Darlings! How did you get here? So many of you! Why am I alone in the cage? Darlings, friends, come and join me! Why am I suffering? Citizens!”
It should be of no surprise that the play did not enjoy a successful run. In 1928, with Russia caught in the fervor of Communism, Russian audiences were not ready to recognize the warning he presented. However, because of his fame, there were no public criticisms of his work, but behind closed doors, the bureaucrats were stewing.
It’s interesting to note that in 1955, a new production was a huge hit in the Soviet Union. To this day, “The Bedbug” remains in production throughout the former Union.
In 1928, Mayakovsky was commissioned to write a series of stories from Paris. However, instead of providing his typical style of prose, he only submitted an “ecstatic” love poem. He had met the second woman who was to affect his life immensely.
Tatiana Yakovleva was a Russian emigre living with her uncle in Paris. Tatianna was a beautiful woman who frequented the pages of fashion magazines as a model. Mayakovsky met her when she was eighteen and was blown away with her intelligence and affinity for poetry. They met each other on equal terms, despite their differences in age and lifestyle. Many say they never saw Mayakovsky so gentle around any other person.
When Mayakovsky returned to Russia, he wrote her constantly, talking of marriage and how the country needs her. By the summer of 1929 he was planning another trip to Paris, but the government he fought so hard for just ten years earlier, refused him a visa. He hit rock bottom when he learned Tatianna had married a Frenchman.
Again, Mayakovsky replied with art. His next play, “The Bathhouse” was “a direct assault on the bureaucracy that was closing in on him.” The main character is the director of a “coordination service” who is wallowing in his own ego while avoiding work at all costs. One night, he attends a play where his own lifestyle is portrayed. Afterwards, he protests against the play, saying the masses should not be allowed to see it, for they would not understand — and there’s no reason to explain it to them.
This time around, the bureaucrats did not turn a deaf ear to Mayakovsky’s play. In fact, some critics had a “sinister ring”. After the play flopped, Mayakovsky painted a poster in the theatre:
“You can’t immediately steam out the swarm of bureaucrats.
There wouldn’t be enough bathhouses or soap.
Besides, the bureaucrats are aided by the pen of critics?
Like Ermilov (official of the RAPP).”
Mayakovsky became very paranoid that his detractors were plotting against him. In
all actuality, they were more restrained with Mayakovsky than the other Futurists, now labeled as the “intelligentsia”.
It was at this point he wrote his last epic poem, the unfinished “At the Top of My Voice”:
will break the mountain chain of years,
and will present itself
as an aqueduct,
by slaves of Rome
enters into our days”
Mayakovsky was growing more and more depressed. In early April of 1930, he was hospitalized for nervous exhaustion. On April 10, an acquaintance characterized a meeting with Mayakovsky as “gloomy”.
Four days later, Mayakovsky was dead.
The dramatic story tells us that he had accepted suicide two days before he committed it. He began playing Russian roulette once a day — and won twice. On the third day, April 14, he wrote a note, put on a clean shirt (following Russian superstitions), placed a single cartridge in his revolver, and played Russian roulette once again. This time he lost.
In his final note he wrote:
“And as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now life and I are quits. Why bother then
to balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.”
Another part of the note reads:
“Do not blame anyone for my death and please do not gossip. The deceased terribly disliked this sort of thing. Mamma, sisters, and comrades, forgive me — this is not a way out (I do not recommend it to others), but I have none other. Lily — love me … Comrades of the VAPP (a division of the RAPP) — do not think me weak-spirited. Seriously — there was nothing else I could do.”
After his death, a wave of sadness washed across the country. Over 150,000 people viewed his body in state, beneath a wreath made of hammers, flywheels and screw with the inscription:
“An iron wreath to an iron poet.”
Stalin, perhaps attempting to use the poet?s suicide for his own gain, blamed Mayakovsky’s death on a group that fallen out of his favor: the RAPP. This led to one of his infamous purges in which RAPP members were liquidated.
In fact, one of Stalin’s statements pretty much says it all. The first part, a compliment:
“Mayakovsky was and remains the best and most talented poet of our Soviet epoch.”
The second part sounds of a warning:
“Indifference to his memory and to his work is a crime.”
Within a few days, Moscow’s Triumphal Square was renamed Mayakovsky Square. Statues of poet began appearing throughout the country in parks. Bureaucrats worked quickly to align themselves with the poet they damned just a year before. His ashes were placed among the graves of Gogol and Stalin’s wife. Now, they rest under a gigantic red-and-black marble monument in Moscow’s Novo-Devechy Cemetery.
The man who was a giant poet in life became even more enormous in death. He became part of the Communist establishment. Which, in the words of Boris Pasternak, was his second death.
Interesting side note: When Mayakovsky died, scientists studied his brain and discovered it weighed 1,700 grams versus the average 1,400.