Mayakovsky anniversary reveals struggle over poet’s legacy

Map of Western CIS/FSU and European Environs

(Moscow News – – Joy Neumeyer – July 22, 2013) On July 19, Moscow marked the 120th anniversary of Vladimir Mayakovsky, the rebellious Futurist poet who rose from a childhood in Georgia to become the voice of the October Revolution. The commemorations came on the eve of the controversial renovation of Moscow’s Mayakovsky Museum, which some fear will remove its Futurist-inspired displays and put a 21st-century gloss on the Soviet icon.

As a member of a groundbreaking circle of poets that sprung up just before the Revolution, Mayakovsky believed in destroying Russia’s literary firmament and creating an entirely new type of art – a credo summarized in the Futurists’ 1912 manifesto, “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.”

In the new Soviet Union, Mayakovsky co-founded the avant-garde LEF newspaper and composed countless agitation poems and slogans. Mayakovsky was both a hard-driving radical and a romantic bohemian, equally in love with the revolution and his muse Lilya Brik.

The anniversary festivities began at 11 a.m., with a ceremonial laying of flowers at Mayakovsky’s grave in Novodevichy Cemetery, and then continued at Triumphalnaya Ploshchad, the meeting place of nonconformist poets in the 1950s and ’60s. Recently reopened after spending several years closed off with fences, the square had a black-and-yellow reconstruction of the Russian letter “Ya,” in honor of Mayakovsky’s first poetry collection of the same name. A small crowd of journalists, stalwart Mayakovsky fans and excited teenagers assembled under gathering rain clouds.

The 77-year-old poet Yevgeny Rein, a mentor to Joseph Brodsky, began the ceremony with an unexpected remark.

“I agree with Comrade Stalin!” he bellowed in a deep, rattling bass not unlike Mayakovsky’s own. The crowd perked up. “Mayakovsky was and will remain the greatest, most talented poet of our era, and indifference to his memory is a crime!

“Now I will read two of my poems about Mayakovsky,” he concluded softly.

Speaking off to the side of the square after his reading, he said he invoked Stalin because the most significant words about the poet belonged to him. After literary figurehead Maxim Gorky, who took a vehement dislike to Mayakovsky, banned the poet’s works, Lilya Brik complained to Stalin, whose proclamation ensured that the poet was enshrined in Soviet culture. “As Pasternak said, this was both Mayakovsky’s blessing and his curse,” Rein said. “You can’t force [poetry on people].”

The coda to Rein’s reading was provided by a pair of dancers wearing avian-like costumes designed by Kazimir Malevich for the Futurist opera “Victory over the Sun.” The dancers leapt around to techno music before a series of high school students took the stage to proclaim some of Mayakovsky’s most famous lyrics – the reader of the romantic “Letter to Tatyana Yakoleva” as calm as if he were giving a science presentation, while another student writhed with poetic agony during his rendition of “A Cloud in Trousers.”

The festivities continued through the evening, with events including walking tours to significant spots around town connected to the poet, such as the yellow Taganskaya house where he resided with Brik and her husband, and Georgian polyphonic singing back at the Mayakovsky Museum. Mayakovsky grew up speaking Georgian at school in his birthplace of Baghdati, where his father was stationed as a forest ranger.

After the poet shot himself in his Lubyanka apartment in 1930 – a death some believe was caused by mounting pressure, while others say the state killed him – Mayakovsky’s memory was co-opted by the state into a monumental propaganda piece, with a massive statue erected on the Moscow square renamed in his honor. Generations of schoolchildren were compelled to memorize the poet’s verses extolling Lenin and the joy of having a Soviet passport.

However, in the post-Soviet era, the poet has come under a reappraisal, with a new effort to read his verses without ideological baggage. He remains highly read; according to a survey conducted last week by the Levada Center, Mayakovsky is the second most popular Russian poet (behind his friend Sergei Yesenin).

The fight over Mayakovsky’s memory is at the center of the current controversy over the museum dedicated to the poet. Its singular design dates from the 1980s, featuring jagged Constructivist-like red shapes, photo collages and a litany of objects dangling from the ceiling.

Last fall, an announcement appeared on the city culture department’s website that the museum would close for “renovation and reconstruction” and reopen with a new format, leading to public outrage. City culture head Sergei Kapkov later backtracked, saying that the displays would retain their current form. An anonymous blogger who runs the site still alleges that the museum’s director intends to “demolish the exhibition” and calls on supporters to halt the city’s “barbaric plans” by writing to Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

This past winter, the museum’s longtime head was replaced by Nadezhda Morozova, who previously worked at the Pushkin Museum. Her arrival has been interpreted by some as a sign that the spirit of the museum is undergoing a fundamental shift, and was protested by some staff.

The type of language Morozova uses to describe the poet – “we want to reboot this famous figure, like rebooting a computer” – presumably does little to assuage the doubts of her critics. “We want him to be seen not just as a propagandist, like in the Soviet era, but as a poet with tender, piercing lyrics, a figure of a new time – not of Soviet, but almost cosmic proportions,” she said.

But she rebuffs the notion that the museum will be significantly altered, saying that it is undergoing “structural renovations” to improve its plumbing, ventilation and communication systems and that the “the display itself won’t be touched.”

“These are the claims of very strange people who can’t listen to what they’re told,” she said. “I pity them. They’re trolls.”

The museum will continue to be open to visitors until September 16. It is expected to reopen in fall 2015.

Some say the poet shouldn’t be divorced from his Soviet context. “They want to remake Mayakovsky in order to suit those currently in power,” said Mikhail Shmatkov, a pensioner who came to Triumphalnaya Square waving a small Communist flag.

Shmatkov said he has been coming to mark Mayakovsky’s birthday on the square “since before [this reporter was] born.” He and a friend noted that this is the first year the birthday celebrations have ever featured a microphone, which was introduced by the museum’s new leadership. After the official ceremony subsided, Shmatkov walked up to the statue to perform his own readings, sans mike.  n

Mayakovsky in Manhattan

In 1925, the voice of the Bolshevik revolution made a journey to the heart of capitalism – and embarked on a love affair whose result would remain a secret until the end of the century.

In late July of that year, Mayakovsky arrived in New York for an American tour. His visit was welcomed with a sneering article in The New York Times that said “the proletarian poet prefers to dress like a dandy and order his clothes from the finest tailors of Paris,” according to Mayakovsky biographer Bengt Jangfeldt. He embarked on a reading and lecture tour in cities including Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago, but he spent most of his stay in the heart of the Russian émigré community: New York.

Mayakovsky didn’t care for New Yorkers, whom he described to one interviewer as “intellectually very provincial,” nor was he taken with their skyscrapers, which he considered too ornamented (“it’s like slapping red bows on an escalator,” he wrote). However, some of the verses he composed during his stay there reveal the energy with which the metropolis infused the young poet: “Ya v vostorge/Ot Nyu-Yorka goroda” (I’m in a tizzy/Over New York City). He spent much of his time strolling down Broadway and Fifth Avenue, as well as frequenting billiard halls and Harlem cabarets.

Mayakovsky spoke no English; a hypochondriac, he carried an apology for not shaking anyone’s hand, which he kept written down on a crumpled note in his coat pocket. The silver-tongued author of “A Cloud in Trousers” felt continually stymied by his lack of fluency. In a series of essays he wrote about the trip, “My Discovery of America,” he described attending parties hosted by New York’s literati, who had been told that Mayakovsky was a genius. He would then arrive at the party, able only to utter “could you give me some tea, please” in a thick accent. “Ah, what a Russian, he never utters a word more than necessary!” they thought, in Mayakovsky’s imagination. “A thinker. Tolstoy. The North.”

It was perhaps in part his frustration over the language barrier that led to his relationship with Elly Jones. Born Yelizaveta in the Urals in 1904, she emigrated to the United States after the revolution by marrying an English aid worker, to whom she was still married when she met Mayakovsky. Fluent in both English and Russian, she became Mayakovsky’s guide to the city, as well as his lover. The poet summarized their relationship in a drawing that showed a cartoonish Jones setting a lightning-bolt gaze on a stricken Mayakovsky.

The two went to great lengths to hide their relationship, always addressing each other using name and patronymic. From the beginning, Mayakovsky made clear that he was bound to another woman (Lilya Brik, who was waiting back in Moscow). Mayakovsky was also afraid of the consequences if his liaison were to become public. During his trip, his friend Isaiah Khurgin, an early associate of Leon Trotsky’s, died in a suspicious boating accident in New York’s Long Lake. The death was widely believed to have been a hit ordered by Stalin. It was clear that the long arms of the Soviet intelligence services reached as far as New York’s outer boroughs.

After four months, Mayakovsky returned to Moscow. Jones wrote to him soon after informing him she was pregnant. The poet tried to arrange another official visit to the U.S., which was denied; unable to explain the true reason for his visit, he was unable to see his infant daughter for another two years.

Jones feared for her child’s life. After Mayakovsky’s death in 1930, she kept her daughter’s true parentage a secret, and she and George Jones raised the child as their own.

It was not until the early 1990s that Patricia Thompson revealed her lineage. A professor of feminism at the City University of New York, she shares her father’s strong jaw and deep-set eyes. She shares the belief that her father was murdered by the state.

In Russia, she is known as Yelena Vladimirovna Mayakovskaya, and is now officially recognized as his daughter. On her father’s birthday, she appeared in a televised interview from New York on Russian television channel Vesti.

“I remember his long legs,” she said in Russian, recalling her one meeting with her father in France as a toddler. “I’m sitting on his knees and playing with what I later realized were his diaries.”

She is currently assembling her family’s archives, which Mayakovsky Museum director Nadezhda Morozova said will be given to the museum.


“And Could You?” Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1913

I suddenly smeared the weekdaymap
splashing paint from a glass;
On a plate of aspic
I revealed
the ocean’s slanted cheek.
On the scales of a tin fish
I read the summons of new lips.
And you
could you perform
a nocturne on a drainpipe flute?
“A bloody morsel of heart”: essential Mayakovsky poems
“From Street to Street,” 1913
“Listen!” 1914
“A Cloud in Trousers,” 1915
“An Extraordinary Adventure,” 1920
“Vladimir Ilyich Lenin,” 1924
“The Poem of the Soviet Passport,” 1929
“At the Top of My Voice,” 1930