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Van Gogh’s Ear III – Mayakovsky Lives!

By Darran Anderson.


When popular uprisings occur, the first targets are the statues. You think of the giant Saddam being wrenched out of his boots and danced upon by prematurely jubilant Iraqis. Similarly during the Czech Spring and the Hungarian Revolution, the great bronze and stone patriarchs of the Party were decapitated, blown up or came tumbling down across the cities. It was a symbolic “fuck you” to the powers that be. When the protestors were adequately destroyed, the statues went back up. Finally when the Soviet Union buckled and came apart in ’89, they came down for good and were either broken up for scrap metal or hauled off to special graveyards where they see out eternity in a strange simultaneously eerie and kitsch afterlife. A mere few were allowed to survive. In Moscow, the dynamic Metropolis-style Gagarin was understandably absolved (being an indisputable hero to all mankind). Another, less futuristic in his dapper waistcoat and proud barrel chest, was spared. His name was Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Mayakovsky was the son of a Georgian forestry ranger who claimed he had Cossack blue blood in his veins (in Russia, Vladimir is a name, borne by boyars and princes, that bears the half-life of nobility in it, Mayakovsky fittingly means “lighthouse”). By young Vladimir’s time, any aristocratic pretensions had evaporated. Following his father’s death from septicaemia (he idly cut his finger one day, not felling trees but on a paper clip), his near-destitute family moved to Moscow where his sister studied and introduced him to the radical ferment boiling in the capitol. This was in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution (in Trotsky’s famous words “the dress rehearsal” for the real thing in 1917), the time of the original Bloody Sunday and the mysterious Father Gapon, the Black Hundreds and the dread Okhrana. Moscow was one of the focal points of political repression, insurgency and counter-insurgency. A place where troops shot dead dozens of peaceful protestors singing hymns in front of the Palace and where they spent weeks scraping the body parts of the latest Grand Duke to be dynamited off the rooftops.

For all their danger and drudgery (the Mayakovskys eked out a living handcrafting wooden ornaments and painting Easter eggs), these could be heady times and at the advanced age of fourteen, Vladimir joined the Bolshevik party, the most secretive and selective of the radical groups. Formed akin to some Jesuit sect, the Bolsheviks contained a host of remarkable activists and thinkers, working under all manner of fake names and rapidly shifting identities to keep one step ahead of the secret police. There was Bogdanov the philosopher and scientist who believed in everlasting youth through blood transfusion, the amiable intellectual Nikolai Bukharin, the art critic and future “commissar of enlightenment” Lunacharsky, the formidable duo Kamenev and Zinoviev, the doomed young Sverdlov, the spy-to-be Malinovsky, the peasant’s son Rykov and Iron Felix a Polish nobleman of the Dzerzhinsky clan. These are just a handful of examples from the dozens of Old Bolsheviks as they were to be called, some of the finest minds of theirs or any generation. And amongst them was also a drunken cobbler’s son, bank robber and failed priest Iosef Besarionis dze Jughashvili, who would go on to kill almost every one of them and millions of others. But we’ll come to that, all in good time. The Bolsheviks back then were led by the dynamo that was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov known better by his nom de guerre, Lenin.

All fired up with youthful fervour, Mayakovsky took to the picket lines, the clandestine meetings and the dockyard rallies with relish, distributing pamphlets and spreading the gospel of revolution. In true conspiratorial fashion, he gave himself the name Comrade Constantine. For his exertions and the company he was keeping, he was first kicked out of school and then arrested as the suspected, bumbling, lookout for a stick-up crew (the fundraisers of the early Bolshevik movement). In prison, his knack for backchat and stirring up the prisoners to form unions earned him solitary confinement in the notoriously brutal Butyrka prison. There he wrote his first poems which were seized by prison guards (leading to the distant possibility, they exist in some police file somewhere like Rimbaud’s bullet or Saucy Jack’s letters).


Upon release and perhaps chastened by the grim glare of the secret police, he shifted his energies into painting and came under the wing of the artistic genius David Burliuk. His mentor, strangely and unjustly overlooked now, was a mysterious but charismatic Zelig-esque character, popping up in the heart of some of modern art’s finest early moments. He was crucial to the Zveno collective and the notorious Jack of Diamonds exhibition. He collaborated with the Blue Rider in Germany, fostered the talents of Malevich and Tatlin and inspired an entire art movement in Japan. With such a guiding figure, Mayakovsky found is voice in the form of egotism so extravagant it became hilarious and endearing. He began to introduce himself, with the audacity of a circus barker, as “the legendary poet Mayakovsky” even though he was totally unknown and would continue talking about himself in the third person. To his own beloved self the author dedicates these lines went his introduction. Following Burluik’s lead that the quickest route to success was through shock and awe tactics (Burliuk often courted public disapproval by wearing earrings and women’s shoes), Mayakovsky donned a lemon cloak and painted his face. He began to recite poems on street corners, speaking in the real speech of the streets rather than the high-falutin’ classicist or “high” Russian of the Academies.

Naturally, outrage was what he courted and outrage is what he got. His first poetry collection modestly entitled “I” (“thrusting the dagger of desperate words / into the swollen pulp of the sky”) was slaughtered or ignored by the critics. His first play Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy was greeted with derisory laughter, boos and rotten vegetables. Several reviewers questioned his sanity. They paid little attention to the highlights that mark him out even now as a singular imaginative talent, like Lorca having an eye for the magical in the mundane. Whereas Lorca’s vision was primarily rooted in the iconography of Andalusia and rural Spain, his was urban Russia whether it be an image like a figure playing nocturnes on a drainpipe flute or a passage as blazing as, “That is my soul / tufts of a shredded cloud / in the burnt-out sky / over the rusty cross of the bell tower!”

Little did they realise, this was a brave Quixotic venture and his arrogance was tin-thin armour. Later, as events were to demonstrate devastatingly, they would see how brittle the poet was. The clues are already there in those intriguing early works, look past the bluster and the exclamation marks (and Mayakovsky is the poet laureate of the exclamation mark) it’s clear; the subtitle A Tragedy, the themes of infanticide and suggestion in The Backbone Flute that a bullet-hole would spell his end, the fact that he is worshipped by nymphs in his play but wishes only to lay his neck on railway track. There was a sadness in him that all the pride in the world could not disguise as his later lost-love Lilya Brik would acknowledge, “There were countless numbers of people who were devoted to him and loved him. But it was all only a drop in the ocean for him. He had an insatiable thief in his soul. He felt it was necessary that he should be read by the people who didn’t read him, he should be heard by the audiences who stayed away and that he should be loved by the woman who didn’t love him. There was nothing to be done.”

As the only son of a widow, Mayakovsky was spared the horrors of the Great War despite displaying an early death wish by attempting to enlist. In the second year of the conflict, he met the stunning actress, writer and director Lilya, the older sister of his then girlfriend Elsa, who was to be the abiding love and heartache of his life (and also through Rodchenko one of the icons of the century – see below). Her husband, the editor Osip Brik, had invited the poet to a soiree in which he dazzled them with a reading of his latest work. Whilst the two quickly fell into a passionate affair (Osip willingly playing the cuckold and apparently smitten with the poet, “How could you refuse such a man?”), Byrk never fully returned his infatuation, at least not to his satisfaction (“I don’t like clamorous people”). While he would have many more relationships (a daughter with émigré Elli Jones as well as trysts with the aristocratic beauty Tatiana Yakovleva and the actress Veronika Polonskaya), Mayakovsky wrote of love not as some wonderful thing but as a precipice and Lilya was at the crux of this, becoming the central muse of his writing, the focal point for his love, anger and longing and the subject of the very last line he would write.


Around the same time, Mayakovsky began to meet and be encouraged by some of the leading literary figures of the time, namely the novelist Maxim Gorky and future Nobel Prize-Winner Boris Pasternak (of Dr Zhivago fame). Pasternak saw in the headstrong young poet traces of genius but also something darker, “A handsome young man with a gloomy expression sat in front of me, overflowing with lethal and incessant cleverness. His voice was like that of a singer of Psalms and his fists like that of a wrestler. A kind of combination of a mythical hero and a Spanish toreador…It was poetry that was well sculpted by an artist, arrogant, demonic, and at the same time poetry whose fate had been sealed, infinitely lost, almost crying out for help.”

Through his mentor Burliuk, Mayakovsky met the curious Zuamist poets Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh who were given to making up their own languages -the voice of gods, stars, birds and dreaming up visions of the future with peculiar accuracy (a prototype internet, escalators, skyscrapers). With them, he drafted the Russian Futurist manifesto which would introduce them all to the wider public. Taking their inspiration from the brilliantly fiery year zero proclamations of Marinetti and his Italian cohorts (“Heap up the fire to the shelves of the library! Divert the canals to flood the cellars of the museums! Undermine the foundation of venerable towns!”), the Russian riposte was equally scathing in its ire towards the past and the cultural establishment and its contrary advocacy of speed, dynamism and action. It was called “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste” and it was the spark that lit the artistic powderkeg. Like it’s Italian counterpart, it deserves reading in its entirety for an appreciation of how fucking exciting the time must have been; Tsars would fall, empires crumble, electricity would blaze across the world, man would fly, defy death by capturing sounds and images, voices and performances forever, project messages and voices across oceans, around the globe and into space in seconds. Anything, anything would seem possible.

“To the readers of the forthcoming age.

We alone are the zeistgeist. Through us, fate sweeps into the art of the world.

The past is too fixed. The Academy and Pushkin are less intelligible than hieroglyphics.

Cast Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity.

He who does not scrub his first love from his mind will never recognize his next.

Who would waste his passion on Balmont’s fragrant sleaze? Is this to be the embodiment of the virile soul of our young days?

Who, spinelessly, would fear tearing from the mighty Bryusov’s dinner suit the paper armour-plate? Or does a new age of glory burst from it?

Scrub those hands which have been soiled by the trash written by the countless Leonid Andreyevs.

All those Maxim Gorkys, Krupins, Bloks, Sologubs, Remizovs, Averchenkos, Chornys, Kuzmins, Bunins, etc. need only a sleepy country-manor by the river. Such is the reward, merchants deserve.

From the summits of skyscrapers, we gaze down at their insignificance!

We demand that the poets’ rights be held sacred:

• To vastly expand the scope of the poet’s vocabulary with a whole language of new words
• To a hold a searing loathing for the language enshrined before their time.
• To remove with horror from their proud brow the funeral laurels of cheap fame that you have weaved from bathhouse switches.
• To stand firm on the rock of the word “we” amidst the sea of boos and outrage.

And if, momentarily, your “common sense” and “good taste” still reside in our lines, these same lines are already loaded, for the first time in history, with a coming lightning storm, when the beauty of language will be finally set free.”

Writers are often given to writing manifestos in the corners of bars and garrets, heady with wine and death or glory, most are knocking for inclusion within the elite but some are genuinely kicking against the pricks, genuinely pushing things forward. It’s the dynamic force in art. Mayakovsky and co’s grievance with common sense and public taste were that these were things which contained nothing common or public. Instead, they were cultural dictats (a phrase which will become much more prevalent), imposed by and informed by old pipe-smoking shrivs and grave-botherering snobs in luxury drawing rooms and lecture halls. In revenge, Mayakovsky and his fellow upstarts would defile their temples and their relics. Set themselves up as barbarians at the gates. It is every radical artist’s role from the poetes maudits to the punks, to attack all but the outlaws of their parent’s generation. What faster track to greatness than to slay some giants?


Like most rallying cries, the manifesto had few direct effects. What it did do was give some structure to what was already coalescing, a name to an unbaptised form. It was a clear line in the sand between what was and had always been (tsars, serfs) and what could be. And Mayakovsky and co would signalling to the youth of his generation, you are either with us or with them. By coincidence, design, act of god or the devil, it heralded one of the richest periods ever seen in art. In place of the gold-draped ikons of Our Lady of Kursk or The Inexhaustible Chalice, the neo-mystic Kazimir Malevich would produce his black ikons of the void. In place of the medicine bottle fantasia of St Basil’s and the stern ramparts of the Kremlin, Vladimir Tatlin would build his Tower of spiralling steel with its revolving chambers, loudspeakers, cloud-projections and orbiting biomorphic flying machines. In place of snivelling court portraits of opulent lords and ladies, Marc Chagall would paint his peasants dream-world of floating lovers, fiddle-playing goats and dancing rabbis.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, there was the small matter of the Russian Revolution and the imminent collapse of the Holy Russian Empire. It was the very absolutism of Tsar Nicholas that did him in. Whereas the western states had degrees of democracy and representation that acted as pressure valves for public anger during the Great War, the Tsar had consistently blocked and circumvented any attempt to do so in Russia (perhaps privately vengeful over his father’s assassination or just simply gone soft and rotten with vanity). Thus when the West decided to toss an entire generation of young men into the threshing machine of the Great War, the repercussions, though cataclysmic, were largely not enough to topple the establishments. In other words, the bastards survived. In Russia, things went differently. The Tsar, having taken personal command of his frontline armies, bore the brunt of the blame when they were driven into massacre after massacre. Eventually, it all came apart, desertions reached epidemic proportions, soldiers shot the officers ordering them to certain slaughter, workers councils were set up and every order debated over and voted on. Enlightened Russian troops shouted over No Man’s Land to their Austro-German adversaries not to fire on their “proletarian brothers”. With disgrace at the front and the court debaucheries back home (his Tsarina was rumoured to having orgies with the healer/court advisor/antichrist Grigori Rasputin), the Tsar’s halo slipped in the eyes of a semi-feudal people who’d near-worshipped he and his forebears as earth-bound saints. Sensing a seismic change, a cabal of dukes sacrificially murdered Rasputin, overcoming his supposed diabolical powers by poisoning, shooting, stabbing, beating, castrating and finally dumping him through the ice into the frozen Neva River. It was too late for such figurative concessions (added to the fact Rasputin swore he’d place a curse on the Romanov dynasty should he be killed). The monarchy imploded, a bourgeois government took over a country that had no bourgeoisie to speak of and by the time Lenin the exile arrived by train, his ally the formidable Leon Trotsky (head of the Petrograd Soviet workers council) had set up the conditions for their assumption of power several months later.


Like his fellow Bolsheviks, Mayakovsky was jubilant. Their day had come. The long-promised dictatorship of the proletariat that Marx had prophesised had finally arrived. To find yourself at the centre of such world-changing events at the peak of youth must have been an intoxicating experience and Mayakovsky channelled his energy with gusto. He had spent the preceding years writing feverishly and politicising publically at worker rallies and in intelligentsia circles. It was during this time, he wrote what is often cited as his masterwork, A Cloud in Trousers spontaneously on the backs of cigarette packets ad match boxes. You can cite epics like The Drunken Boat or The Bridge or Leaves of Grass, there’s nothing quite like it, it is a labyrinth in the way a fingerprint is, at once a microcosm and a macrocosm of Mayakovsky’s world. It contains his trademark tongue-cheek vanity and retorts to the critics (“Glorify me! / The great ones are no match for me! / Upon everything that’s been done / I stamp the word “naught.”) alongside more surreal boasts (“You play your love on a violin…But can you turn yourselves inside out, like me / And become just two lips entirely?”). He claims that Jesus himself hangs on his every word. Politically, there’s a defence of the poor (“Men, crumpled like bed-sheets in hospitals / And women, battered like overused proverbs), calls to arms (“Take your hands out of your pockets, wanderers / Pick up a bomb, a knife or a stone”) and flourishes of braggadocio (“We are the creators with the burning hymns / To the hum of the mills and laboratories”). He takes his soul and batter it flat to make a red banner. The stroke of twelve midnight falls like a head from the guillotine. There are hallucinatory illusions; candelabras laugh and mock, windows melt, “Gods grind cities into empty fields”. Exhibiting his wide-reading in the face of critics who regarded him as an uncouth pleb, there are allusions to Babel, Goethe, Zarathustra, Napoleon. And there is always a sense of heartbreak, beautifully, uniquely rendered, the poet standing in the rain pining, “In the heart’s chapel, the choir was set ablaze!”

Whilst showcasing the work, he plucked up the courage to visit the dacha of Maxim Gorky (the preeminent literary kingmaker of the day and a fellow Bolshevik) who recognised him as a major talent but saw a side in the young man that disturbed him. During his visit, Mayakovsky flitted between dramatics and breaking down, he was much more sensitive than his brusque carefully-cultivated poetic skinhead image suggested. Like Pasternak before him, Gorky sensed in him someone destined for fleeting greatness but ultimately a troubled even doomed life.

Such concerns were set aside in the revolutionary tumult of the Soviet seizure of power. In the space of a few months, Mayakovsky had gone from handing out pamphlets on freezing dockyards and boulevards to finding himself accidentally found himself at the centre of the greatest political upheaval since the French Revolution. Having fatefully moved to Petrograd (now St Petersburg) to work on blueprints at the automobile engineering college, Mayakovsky plunged himself into the revolution. He marched to the docks and roared poems and incitements to the sailors, he worked tirelessly at the Smolny Institute, the cockpit of the takeover. “October is my revolution” he once said and given that socialist sailors marched on the Winter Palace chanting his slogan, “Scoff your pineapples and quail / Your time is up, bourgeoisie!” it’s a reasonable assessment.

It’s easy looking back to see it all as some kind of Boys Own adventure but back then the chances of Bolshevik success seemed infinitesimally slim. The new regime was surrounded by enemies without and within. They were still officially at war with Germany, Austro-Hungary and Turkey. Every capitalist nation had a stake in snuffing out the fledgling state given that it set a bad example to their own increasingly militant working classes. A motley crew of Monarchists, anti-Semites, Cossacks and tsarist generals had re-gathered into a White Army, seizing swathes of the former empire and were engaging in multiple running battles with Trotsky’s new Red Army. Added to this was the bizarre presence of the marauding Czech Legion, who’s troops were marooned in Russia and, aiming to return home via America, took on anyone and everyone in battle as well as Makhno’s peasant/anarchist army and a whole array of Nationalist partisans. Knowing that failure meant every last one of them would hang (Mayakovsky included), the Bolsheviks ruthlessly burnt all the bridges to the past, executing the captive Tsar and his entire family, making it clear this was no mere act of revolutionary theatre. Rather, it was the stuff of life and death.

Whilst others bloodied their hands, it was to the cause of agitation and propaganda that Mayakovsky applied himself. For three years, he worked on posters for the telegraphic company (ROSTA) that became so well-recognised and prevalent they became widely known as Rosta’s windows. Using his skills as a caricaturist, these took the form of giant satirical cartoons lampooning the Whites, businessmen and industrialists which looked as if they had burst out of newspapers and onto the streets. It was just another facet of the poet’s eclectic approach. Like Auden, his message took multiple forms; comics, declamations, slogans, shanties, badges, epics even advertising jingles. And aside from his celebrations of his muse Lilya, his self-rhapsodies and his beguiling reflections on the world, he would use these methods to serenade the “workers’ republic” and help to create an art to guide and reflect this brave new world. He would be its poet laureate. One individual however had other ideas.


The first comrade Lenin was not a barrel of laughs. He’d got into the world of subversive activities after the Tsar had had his older beloved brother Alex hung for his part in a botched assassination attempt. Here was an ascetic whose idea of leisure was to study law and devour the mind-numbing books of Chernyshevsky, a man who for whom sleeping on a bed of nails was a pleasure. Whilst forging some kind of viable society out of the post-war chaos, Lenin had little truck with the more flamboyant expressions of change. He railed against those who had painted the trees outside his office window multi-coloured. He lambasted those trying to set up free-love as a revolutionary activity. He agreed with Trotsky who dismissed Tatlin’s Tower (“debating chambers need not rotate”) and had his studio forcibly closed. Here was someone who dreamt in strategies and tactics. Some indication of the man’s mindset is evident in his telling statement regarding music, “”I can’t listen to music very often. It affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly although ideally we’re against any sort of force against people. Hmm – it’s a devilishly difficult task.” Soon he lowered his sights onto Mayakovsky. “Why are we wasting paper in this time of shortage on his poetry?” the leader stated to an aide whilst meekly paying tribute to him publically (“I am not an admirer of his poetical talent… but as for the politics, I vouch for their absolute correctness”). When the poet crafted anonymously the epic “150,000,000” in which (in a prophecy of the Cold War), a Soviet giant pummels a gigantic Woodrow Wilson (the US President at the time), Lenin castigated its creator as an imbecile and marked such people as “fit for thrashing.” This one-sided conflict was inevitable given that one was an erratic free spirit and the other possessed the most doctrinaire of minds. In reality, their socialisms were very different things. For the poet, his was an intoxication of change and possibility, a sudden karmic violence even after centuries of drudgery, the creation of a new level of humanity, wild with achievement and resolve, more Nietzsche than Marx. He drank and dreamt of impossible things while the bureaucrats slowly built their files.

With Trotsky haranguing, dividing and scattering the White forces by rail, sending them on hopeless pursuits across the wastes, it became clear that somehow, unlike the Communes of old, the new state had survived. With his disgust of all things high-brow, Mayakovsky set off to create a new Proletarian art in which the artist had an essential role in educating, inspiring and inciting, in which the artist saw himself not as aloof but as one of the enlightened masses, “our new souls, glowing like the arcs of streetlights.” He produced poems in which Jesus returned as a Communist (“Pro Eto”) to give the meek the earth as he had promised. Others that were in the form of discussion with imaginary armies of the arts or the inspector of taxes. Art itself would be liberated from its tomb in the museum and spill out into the streets to enrich and interact with real life, accessible to everyone rather than just flattering the pig-rich patrons of yore. As a Futurist, he wrote love songs for the mechanical age, recognising the ghosts in the machine, the roar of the racing car and aeroplane as a miraculous stirring gospel sound. He wrote self-professed marches and monuments in verse. In his mind, action was everything and to hell with contemplation, “palaces and lilac blooms.” The egotism remained. “Heaven itself will tremble as it hears us march” he promised. Another poem needs only its title to amuse; “The Extraordinary Adventure which happened to Vladimir Mayakovsky in the Country, during Summer.”

The flowering of his talent coincided with the fact that the position of greatest living Russian poet had just become available. The two great poets of Russia’s Silver Age had recently died in untimely fashion; the Acemist poet (Nikolai Gumilyov) was stitched up, primarily for his disdain for the Reds and cavalry past, and shot as a counter-revolutionary whilst the brilliant (Alexander Blok (who had initially welcomed the Revolution – comparing the Reds to the Apostles albeit ambiguously in his stunning Vatican-baiting “The 12”) had died in a state of starvation and dejection in a winter-ravaged Moscow. If these losses could never be supplanted, Mayakovsky nevertheless came close and far excelled the former’s appeal beyond the literary salons. He toured constantly to obscure village halls and collectives and factories, reading “like a sailor shouting through a megaphone to another ship in a heavy sea” in John Berger’s words. He created the ever-changing play Mystery-Bouffe with its cast of eskimos, demons, train drivers and priests with the theatrical innovator Vsevolod Meyehold and Malevich. He wrote The Flying Proletarian a utopian early sci fi work (a sort of the Soviet Jetsons) complete with lasers, robots and sky battles. He produced a series of popular films (Jack London adaptations mainly, little of which have survived) and worked with the great composer Shostakovich. He ventured abroad, a kind of cultural ambassador, mingling with the Cubists and Diego Rivera, attending Proust’s funeral, spending a day in a Texan jail, writing poems about the Brooklyn bridge, denouncing the French Riviera, urging the Eiffel Tower to leave decadent Paris and come with him to Moscow where it belonged and falling in love, always hopelessly falling in love. With various groups vying to guide the soul of the new culture (the Serapion Brothers, Proletkult, the Constructivists, Supremacists, Rayonists etc), he formed the Left Front for the Arts (LEF), an innovative journal for progressive thought which he co-edited with the gifted designer/photographer Rodchenko. Finally as Lenin, ailed from an assassin’s bullet in his neck and countless successive strokes, died before his time, Mayakovsky’s rousing tribute V.I. Lenin (“Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!”) made him a household name.


And yet at this very point of victory, it was all beginning to unravel. His turbulent relationship with Brik and a host of others began to push him beyond mere melancholy into mental illness or at least incapacity. Though trumpeting the successes of the Revolution in which he had invested so much, a series of events (the betrayals of the Kronstadt sailors and Makhno’s peasants, the Kulaks and the famine, the thriving black marketers of Lenin’s NEP) were stirring in him the realisation that the so-called worker’s republic was nothing of the sort, merely a ruthless cabal ruling in only the token name of the people. Increasingly disgusted, he railed at the bureaucrats and civil servants of the new order as “toadies” and “committee addicts.” Too erratic and individualist to be a straight up propagandist, he was fast becoming more of a danger to the new regime than an asset. When Lenin’s last testament was suppressed, the revolution was doomed. The new god had failed and would soon, once the Iago Stalin had played his adversaries and allies against each other, reveal itself as a devil. Always a sucker for the hard man image and the iconography of the worker, Mayakovsky initially welcomed the dictator. Languishing abroad, he wrote the nostalgic “Back Home” in which he moved from lovelorn pondering to wishing that “a commissar/ with a decree/ would lean over the thought of the age…I want / the factory committee / to lock / my lips / when the work is done.” For “the pen to be on a par / with the bayonet” and “Stalin / to deliver his Politbureau / reports / about verse in the making / as he would about / the smelting of steel.” It was a sort of Soviet patriotism that like all patriotism was a false refuge.

No-one knows if the stark realisation came to him at once or gradually. The acceptance that everything he’d worked for, a dream he thought accomplished, had become a nightmare from which there’s no awakening. In the past, court jesters were beacons of truth in the madness of the court and he turned to buffoonery, circus tricks, pantomime and, above all, satire. He released the play The Bedbug in 1928 which expertly took the piss out of the social climbers and opportunists of the Party who’d profited in the intervening years. Two years later, he followed it with The Bathhouse in which time machines are used to speed up interminable Party conferences and a visitor from the future is appalled at contemporary Russia. Both went down like lead balloons. Sensing which way the official winds were blowing, audiences refused to laugh or applaud, a death sentence in theatrical terms. Both were soon banned. The future, it became clear, belonged not to wayward passionate innovators like Mayakovsky but arselickers and informers like Demyan Bedny (the anti-Mayakovsky who employed the latter’s methods for doggerel, in service of the scaffold rather than emancipation). What was required now was the Socialist Realism school of (un)thought; children sitting on Uncle Joe’s knee and smiling imaginary peasants blissfully cutting down fields of imaginary wheat. This was to be enforced at gunpoint.

In official channels, Mayakovsky’s future was evidently the wrong one. He was denounced in the press for the crimes of “formalism” and even hints of “Trotskyism,” by and large meaningless but ominous charges. He responded by lashing out at the “rogues,” “snobs” and “self-seeking, pen-holding scoundrels” in opposition and rejecting the bog-standard agitprop he was instructed to draft. He denied being a Party member, claimed he was carrying on his own struggle and declared he and the Party had parted ways a long time ago. He began to work on a circus play Moscow is Burning celebrating the 1905 Revolution with clowns, trapeze, ponies but set it aside when a concerted critical onslaught was directed at him. He was condemned by the unions who accused him of being simultaneously an intellectual and a member of the underclass. He was castigated for his opposition to great patriots like Pushkin (the nationalism of “socialism in one country” having firmly taken grip). He was shunned by friends and associates and deliberately isolated, the first step to ruin. Government departments briefed against him and he was placed under surveillance by the secret police. Students began to frequent his readings which they’d boo and heckle and he’d respond furious but almost incoherent, having been briefly hospitalised with nervous exhaustion. With his LEF now defunct, he reluctantly gave in and joined the official union the RAPP, which was essentially entering the belly of the very beast which had vilified him. There everything he said would be dissected and censored. In a case of be careful what you wish for, the committee would literally lock up his lips.


When he realised the implications and with his personal life floundering, that dark side which Pasternak, Gorky and Brik had all recognised gained the upper-hand. He publically fretted over a scathing review Pravda had dished out on The Bathhouse and raged at “the hounds baying” at his throat. “Never mind. It’s too late anyhow,” he concluded. Less than a week later, he took a pistol and shot himself through the heart, dying in the arms of his girlfriend Veronika Polonskaya who had found him bleeding to death. He was 36.

He had previously written “over the abyss I’ve stretched my soul like a tightrope / and, juggling, with words I totter above.” And he finally slipped. The suicide note he left (kindly apologetic and self-deprecating with none of the usual blame and recriminations in such messages) was his last great work. He begs his friends, family and comrades not to worry, gossip or speculate (“the dead hate this sort of thing”), discourages suicide and pleads for their forgiveness (“do not think of me as weak-spirited”). The note includes poetics, he refers to plucking off his fingers like daisy petals, wonders about his place in the Milky Way and denies waning to wake his loved ones by telegram with his dark night-thoughts. Most famously he states that the “love-boat of life / has shipwrecked on the daily grind / You and I are quits / No need to lament over / mutual hurts / troubles / and griefs.” It ends, “There is no other way out for me. Lily, love me.”

Despite his recent persecutions, he was loved by the people of Russia. 30,000 came to view his funeral procession (designed by Tatlin), 150,000 filed past his body at his wake. The officials of the regime still hounded him in the grave. In his Pravda obituary, the slimeball Bedny raged, “Monstrous…this ghastly letter…I cannot explain it except for some kind of sudden mental collapse…a morbid crisis of personal experience, an acute psychosis.” Despite his pleading, the RAPP condemned his final act.

To varying degrees, his friends and family harboured suspicions about his death and the State’s involvement. His daughter Patricia Thompson is convinced he was assassinated and the suicide fabricated, Burliuk believed he was given an ultimatum he couldn’t refuse, while Pasternak believed he’d simply been forced to inflate his talent until he burst. Whatever the truth, Stalin’s regime had no intentions of leaving him alone. Sensing his popularity amongst the masses and reassured that he was safely mute and defused in the ground, he was officially rehabilated. Stalin heralded him as the “greatest poet of the age” as if it were some trademark, renamed the Triumphal Square in Moscow Mayakovsky Square, gave him a station on the Moscow Metro and had the town of his birth Bagdadi renamed in his honour. The dictator placed his books as compulsort reading on the syllabus, buried his body next to Gogol’s and commanded that “indifference to his work was a crime.” In Pasternak’s words, he was “introduced forcibly like potatoes under Catherine the Great. This was his second death. He had no hand in it.”


Elevated to an unwanted role as a saint in the Communist Church, Mayakovsky’s ghost had to witness his legacy be stolen by those who had driven him to his grave. It’s as if the iconoclast had prophesised that he would be used as an icon and so burned himself. “There’s a monument due me by rank already,” he had once wrote, “I’d blow the damn thing up with dynamite / So strongly I hate every kind of dead thing / So much I adore every kind of life!” And along with this sacrilege came great waves of State terror against the dead poet’s friends and comrades to the extent that virtually anyone who had lived a similar life (being an old Bolshevik, an outspoken bohemian or having just spent time abroad) being a target. Mayakovsky died before the show trials, the Great Terror and the Purges, the Holodomor. Being a satirist in Stalin’s Russia would become a virtual death sentence. In short, Mayakovsky died before it was necessary to kill him.

The phrase Lost Generation is now associated with Hemingway, F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, those sons and daughters of well-to-do America who buggered off to Europe or drank themselves to death, went mad or blew their brains out instead of heading advertising agencies or dining in the Hamptons. In fact, there are any number of Lost Generations (we may be in the midst of one right now). Mayakovsky’s generation has one of the greatest or rather most tragic claims for the unwanted title. Consider the class of 1917, the finest young minds of Mother Russia. At the first Union of Soviet Writers, there was universal elation amongst the delegates. “When next we meet, we shall be inhabiting a worker’s heaven,” Ilya Ehrenburg proclaimed. Yet with each meeting, their numbers were gradually decimated, the bright young things vanished and only the dour, the safe, the cowering and the Machiavellian were allowed to remain like the dead souls of Gogol artificially making up the numbers, ghosts that walk.

Only the worst of their kind, the informers and those who lauded Stalin as “the engineer of souls” or wrote epics on oil-rig building or wheat production or flattered and changed history to suit official dogma were permitted. Such was the prevailing climate of paranoia in Stalinist Russia that the very sign of artistic brilliance was often enough to ensure personal obliteration. A kind of negative meritocracy. When noticed a familiar pattern would ensue; Pravda would give a bad review, the first step towards hell, before the State would unleash its whole shadow industry of psychopaths, torturers with medical degrees and State Security operatives.

The roll call is grim.

The poets Livshits, Budantsev and Kornilov, all close intimates of Mayakovsky (some signatories to his manifestos), were tortured and shot. The poet Olga Berggolts, Kornilov’s pregnant widow, was repeatedly kicked in the stomach until she miscarriaged. Pilnyak (The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon) and Tarasov-Rodionov (Chocolate) were simply made to vanish. Likewise the semi-mystic sound-poet Kharms was taken away in the dead of night in his dressing gown and never seen again whilst the obscure but dazzling Vvedensky, stricken by dysentery, was thrown from a labour-camp train in the wilderness. Mandelstam signed his death warrant with a single poem.

One of the worst fates was destined for Meyerhold the heroic theatrical powerhouse who’d worked hand in hand with Mayakovsky on his plays. Despite his advanced years, he was arrested for the crime of being “too avant-garde,” tortured for months before being shot by firing squad. His wife, the beautiful actress Zinaida Raikh, was found butchered in their apartment, repeatedly stabbed with her eyes cut out. When the acclaimed symbolist poet (“Georgia’s Baudelaire”) Paolo Iashvili was forced to denounce his friends in The Blue Horns collective (again allies of Mayakovsky), he instead walked directly into a Tblisi meeting of the Writers Union and blew his brains out. With echoes of Mayakovsky’s fate, the Union went on to pass a motion that it was treasonous act. A karmic postscript is that the writer Fadeyev (The Rout) who was head of the Writer’s Union and had denounced, hounded and censored fellow writers ended his life by putting a bullet through his own chest just like their earlier victim Mayakovsky. Even these acts of great personal betrayal and Pyrrhic justice were drops in an ocean, amongst the millions that passed through the Gulag, the death-camps and the Lubyanka (facts often papered over now with Putin flirting with Uncle Joe’s legacy).


With every dictatorship, there are systems of patronage and denunciation but also the curious arbitrariness of power, by which the dictator decides fates on a whim. Stalin (a poet in his youth after all) fancied himself as something of an artist and took a personal interest playing cat and mouse with the leading figures, absolving some for great infractions and crucifying others for negligible ones. This is the very essence of power, the irrational bestowing of blessings and curses, the erratic compass of a tyrant’s favour. Pasternak, presumably high on the regime’s list of undesirables given his dissident beliefs and contacts, had his life spared literally by Stalin’s hand. “Do not touch this cloud dweller” he wrote when his name popped up on a death list. “Leave this Holy Fool alone” on another. The satirical writer Zoshchenko was regarded similarly though when, prohibited from earning a living by writing, he struggled through a life of near-destitution. Through the intercession of Maxim Gorky, Zamyatin the author of the masterpiece We a dystopian frontal attack on the Soviet system (and a huge influence on Orwell’s 1984) was allowed to slip out of Russia to a life as an émigré as was Mayakosky’s mentor Burliuk. Anna Akhmatova was fated to stay, officially denounced as “half-whore half-nun” by Stalin’s cultural bulldog Zhdanov, her books were banned, her son sent off to Siberia and yet she survived to crystallise the heartache of the times in a masterful body of work (especially Requiem) and to help raise the new generation of Russian writers (Brodsky and co). Through blind luck, tenacity and the kindness of a few, the likewise towering figure of Shalamov somehow survived the punishment blocks, concentration camps and mines to bring the world the harrowing witness-bearing masterpiece Kolyma Tales.

And yet if Mayakovsky’s canonisation into the Soviet pantheon was his second death, there was to be a resurrection of sorts. In 1913, the poet built a time capsule in the form of a poem entitled At the Top of My Voice (a recurring title). An excerpt from it is directed specifically to us, far ahead in the future,

“My most respected comrades of posterity!
Rummaging among these days’ petrified crap
exploring the twilight of our times,
will inquire about me too…
My verse will reach you
not as an arrow in a cupid-lyred chase,
not as worn penny reaches a numismatist,
not as the light of dead stars reaches you.

My verse by labour will break the mountain chain of years,
and will present itself…”

It’s a touching moment, not just because it is a voice essentially from the grave but because he is right, he has reached us no matter how obscure he is in the cultural consciousness of today, he still reaches us in some defiance of death and the damnation of Stalin’s patronage. Mayakovsky lives, in posterity’s sense. There are several examples of this. One is his poetic influence which took hold not in Europe but in the US. America may have been built upon the myth of meritocracy rather than the Russian myth of equality but there was a certain dynamism shared by both and Mayakovsky posthumously found an audience there. Both Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara had metaphorical and literal crushes for the Georgian bit of rough (“My heart’s a flutter! I am standing in the bath tub / crying. Mother, mother/ who am I? If he / will just come back once / and kiss me on the face / his coarse hair brush/my temple, it’s throbbing! then I can put on my clothes / I guess, and walk the streets” sang O’Hara in ’54).

It was on his native soil though that the soul of Mayakovsky would be truly stolen back. When the Mayakovsky statue was installed in Moscow in the late Fifties, the young dissident writers, who’d long been censored and abused by the official forces and who’d distributed their banned writings as samizdat congregated at the spot to read. The wayward rebel became once again the focal point for, and an honorary member of, the underground. He exists there still though virtually all the others have been broken up or dumped into the dustbin of history. It is Mayakovsky, not Lenin or Stalin, not the Tsar or even the Soviet Union, who lived, lives and will live again.

Darran Anderson killed Laura Palmer.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 19th, 2009.