Prominent Russians: Vladimir Mayakovsky
"I'm a poet. That's what makes me interesting. That is what I write about."
The Herald and the Singer of the Revolution – thus Vladimir Mayakovsky is known to the world.
Not just a poet praising the arrival of new life and mirroring its fortunes, he was also an actor, painter, propagan¬dist and satirist. A man of many talents, he created his own revolution in writing. The “raging bull” of Russian poetry, “the wizard of rhyming,” “an innovator in poetry,” “an individualist and a rebel against established taste and standards,” Mayakovsky became one of the founders of the Russian Futurist movement. They say there was “no more brilliant figure in the flowering of Russian avant-garde art that followed the October Revolution.” After his death the poet was eulogized by Stalin, who declared that Mayakovsky "was and remains the best and most talented poet of our Soviet era." These words officially canonized Mayakovsky, but many also saw them as the mark of Cain on one of the giants of modern poetry.
However there was another side to him – that of a vulnerable and passionate lover who desperately wanted to be loved and never actually was. With his birth and death surrounded by secrets, the life of the most famous “proletarian” poet turns out to be not quite what it seemed.
Mayakovsky & the mystery of birth
The official biography of Vladimir Mayakovsky states that little Volodya was born on 19 July 1893 in the village of Bagdadi in Georgia - then part of the Russian Empire. Hardly anyone back then could imagine that the son of a modest forestry ranger would become so famous that his place of his birth would even be renamed after him: Mayakovsky.
Volodya was one of the three children. He had two sisters – Olga and Lyudmila. His brother Konstantin died at the age of three. They were of Russian and Cossack descent on their father's side and Ukrainian on their mother's. At home the family spoke Russian. With his friends and at school Mayakovky used Georgian. In 1927 in an interview to the Prague newspaper Prager Presse he said: “I was born in the Caucasus, my father is a Cossack, my mother is Ukrainian. My mother tongue is Georgian. Thus three cultures are united in me.”
Mayakovsky suffered his unreciprocated love. Lily knew how much Mayakovsky suffered but she would tell her friends, “It’s no harm. It’s good for Volodya. He will suffer and then he’ll write good poems.”
Instead, until early morning,
Horrified you were taken away to be loved
I rushed all around
engraving my cries into verses
already a half-mad diamond-cutter…
I don’t need you!
Don’t want you!
I will soon croak.
(“The Backbone Flute,” Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1915)
Lily zealously guarded her position as Mayakovsky’s only muse. However several of Volodya’s relationships went out of her control. Once, when Mayakovsky was on the brink of getting married, Lily called him back - he couldn’t resist.
Mayakovsky & the Revolution
“Long live the joyous revolution, soon to come!”
Vladimir Mayakovsky was rejected as a volunteer at the beginning of WWI, but from 1915 to August 1917 he served as a draftsman at the Petrograd Military Automobile School. Being in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) meant he was right at the heart of the October Revolution as it was happening. For the ex-Bolshevik schoolboy, "To accept or not to accept? There was no such question for me… My Revolution." (From “I Myself”).
This was the time of such poems as "Left March! For the Red Marines: 1918" that he would recite at naval theaters, with sailors as an audience, and “An Order to the Art Army”:
Enough of half penny truths!
Old trash from your hearts erase!
Streets for paint-brushes we’ll use,
our palettes - squares with their wide open space.
Revolution’s days have yet to be sung by the thousand year book of time.
Into the streets, the crowds among,
masters of rhyme!”
(“An Order to the Art Army,” Vladimir Mayakovsky, March 1918)
In the spring of 1919 Mayakovsky returned to Moscow and threw himself into the task of building and defending the infant workers' state, "the work of a poet of the Revolution is not confined to the writing of books." The propaganda posters known as the “Windows of ROSTA” (the Russian Telegraph Agency), which Mayakovsky and his Futurist colla¬borators produced, covered the country and brought information to a semi-literate population. During the defense of Petrograd in 1919 Mayakovsky worked day and night writing short propaganda poems and illustrating them. His popularity grew rapidly. In 1919, he published his first collection of poems “Collected Works 1909-1919.” Mayakovsky also wrote a large number of film scripts and played in four movies.
By the early 1920s bureaucracy was becoming entrenched within Soviet society. Mayakovsky wrote a scathing satire on the bureaucracy called “Re Conferences.” Lenin made a speech saying how much he agreed with Mayakovsky, and that bureaucracy was eating away at the workers’ state. In 1924 Mayakovsky composed a poem on the death of the leader of the Russian revolution Vladimir Lenin, which became a must for all Soviet school pupils to be learnt by heart.
From 1922 to 1928, Mayakovsky was a prominent member of the Left Art Front (LEF) and went on to define his work as “Communist Futurism” (“Comfut”). Together with Osip Brik he edited the LEF journal.
Mayakovsky continued to write, produce plays and design advertising posters. However, there came a time when experimental art was no longer welcome by the regime and the Bolsheviks became intolerant to the avant-garde. Mayakovsky was the country’s most famous poet but his work irritated a lot of people. His satire, especially the play “The Bathhouse,” evoked stormy criticism from the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. By the late 1920s everything went downhill. The opening of his personal exhibition “20 Years of Work” in 1928 was ignored by his former colleagues from LEF as well as the Party leadership. On 9 April 1930 he read his poem “At the Top of My Voice” to students who shouted him down for being obscure.
Mayakovsky & the end
“The love boat has crashed against the everyday”
Mayakovsky was one of the few writers allowed to travel abroad freely. He traveled in Europe, Mexico, Cuba and the United States, recording his impressions in "My Discovery of America." From his journeys he brought suitcases filled with books, periodicals, reproductions of art works and posters, and distributed the materials among his friends, who thus had an immediate contact to the daily affairs of the Western art world. And of course, from each journey he brought presents for his Lily who would unpack them, as happy as a child.
In the summer of 1925 he traveled to New York, where he met the immigrant Elli Jones – originally Elizaveta Petrovna Zibert. She emigrated from Russia after the Revolution and married an Englishman, with whom she separated. Mayakovsky and Jones fell in love but kept the affair a secret – it wasn’t proper of a Soviet poet to get involved with an émigré. Mayakovsky didn’t know that a daughter would be born to them in 1926, after he had left. He saw her only once – in Nice, France – in the autumn of 1928, when she was three years old.
Having learnt the true motive of his trip to Nice (Mayakovsky had claimed it was for health reasons) Lily became seriously concerned. She found a solution to the problem. In Paris her sister introduced Mayakovsky to the beautiful 22-year-old Tatiana Yakovleva, a model for the Chanel fashion house. Mayakovsky totally lost his head. His “Letter to Comrade Kostrov on the Essence of Love” and “Letter to Tatiana Yakovleva” were devoted to her. “You betrayed me for the first time,” announced Lily. The finale of this story is widely known: Mayakovsky was urging Tatiana to marry him and even considered moving to Paris. However he was denied a visa while Lily “accidentally” read out loud a letter from Paris alleging that Tatiana was getting married. Later it turned out the wedding wasn’t even on the agenda at that very moment.
“In January 1929 Mayakovsky said he was in love and would put a bullet to his brain if he didn’t see that woman any time soon,” remembered one of Mayakovsky’s former lovers and friends Natalia Bryukhanenko. He didn’t see “that woman” again. On 14 April 1930 he pulled the trigger. Many say there was no connection between the two events…
Mayakovsky & the mystery of death
Mayakovsky's death note reads, “To All of You. That I die – don’t blame anyone for it, and please do not gossip. The deceased terribly dislike this sort of thing. Mother, sisters, comrades, forgive me—this is not a good method (I do not recommend it to others), but there is no other way out for me. Lily - love me. Comrade Government, my family consists of Lily Brik, mama, my sisters, and Veronika Vitoldovna Polonskaya. If you can provide a decent life for them, thank you. The verses I have begun, give to the Briks. They’ll understand them.
And so they say-
"the incident dissolved"
the love boat smashed up
on the dreary routine.
I'm through with life
and [we] should absolve
from mutual hurts, afflictions and spleen.
Vladimir Mayakovsky 12.IV.30.
Comrades of the Proletarian Literary Organization, don’t think me a coward.
Really, it couldn’t be helped. Greetings! Tell Yermilov it’s too bad he removed the slogan; we should have had it out.
In the desk drawer I have 2000 rubles. Use them to pay my taxes. The rest can be gotten from the State Publishing House."
He allegedly shot himself with a revolver.
Having learnt about his death Lily Brik said, “It’s good that he shot himself with a big gun. It would have not been nice: such a poet – and shooting himself with a small Browning.”
A widely accepted version of his death says he pulled the trigger after having things out with the actress Veronika Polonskaya, with whom he had a brief but very stormy romance. Polonskaya was in love with the poet, but unwilling to leave her husband… She was the last one who saw Mayakovsky alive.
At the time of his death, he was dressed in a light blue shirt, a bowtie and well cut, good quality trousers. The Bolsheviks, who were eager to study the biological roots of geniality, removed his brain – the autopsy report recorded Mayakovsky's brain weighed 1700 grams (360 grams more than that of Lenin).
Mayakovsky's body lay in state for three days and was viewed by 150,000 mourners.
However for years too many questions surrounded the poet’s death to accept it was a suicide: why was a suicide note written two days before his death? Why were his close friends, Lily and Osip Brik, sent abroad hastily shortly before? Why didn't the bullet removed from his body match the model of his pistol? And why did his neighbors hear two shots? Many biographers of the poet suggest he was not the kind of a man to commit suicide because of a split with one more in a whole line of women.
Mayakovsky’s daughter, Patricia Thompson, who now uses her Russian name: Yelena Vladimirovna Mayakovskaya, is a professor of philosophy and women's studies at Lehman College in New York City. She believes that the circumstances of her father's death are still shrouded in mystery. "As a scholar and a veteran academic I don't dare to determine facts regarding his death without real proof. I only know that he did not commit suicide, and I will add that if he did so, he didn't do it because of a woman. After all, that has been the popular version for so many years."
Some still believe the mystery has yet to be solved.
Written by Darya Pushkova, RT correspondent