Angry young poet in 1929
I bought Vladimir Mayakovsky‘s Poems in the summer of 1978, in a small Chinese bookstore in Kathmandu that specialized in propaganda. I haven’t looked at it much in the years since; the dust-jacket disappeared sometime in the subsequent decades, and I wouldn’t have recognized the slim, maize-colored hardcover as the one I bought way back then, except for my Islington address scribbled on the inside front cover. It is the second edition (1976) of the book, published by the state-run Progress Publishers in Moscow – therefore, the official Soviet version of the premier poet of the Russian Revolution.
The introduction is big on hyperbole and cant – “the fight for a better future for all mankind,” “a big step forward in world art in general,” with poems that accomplish “new feats in the name of communism.” But one succinct word is missing: suicide. Mayakovsky killed himself in 1930.
It wasn’t a truth that could be missed at Bengt Jangfeldt‘s Piggott Hall lecture on “The Battle for Mayakovsky” last Thursday, which opened with a photograph of handsome young poet dead at 36, shot through the heart – or almost shot through the heart, as the eminent Swedish biographer, who is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on Mayakovsky, put it, “he missed a little because he was left-handed.” The face is in unearthly repose, the lips parted slightly – it resembles Jacques-Louis David‘s hagiographic portrait of the dead Marat, another revolutionary who met a violent end. The poet’s death was “very un-Marxist, I would say,” according to Jangfeldt, and that was an immediate problem for the Soviets.
Mayakovsky was unusual in the annals of Soviet totalitarianism: he was victimized because he was published, and a battle for his legacy has been mounted and his biography doctored, censored, and subjected to “awful, spiteful scrutiny,” Jangfeldt said. The news of his suicide was manipulated by the state, and presented as a response to romantic disappointment – the possibility that the revolutionary poet had become disillusioned instead with the revolution, and had “no longer believed in what he wrote and hated himself,” was officially unacceptable. In a macabre sign of the times, his brain was sent to the brain institute; the Soviets were intent on discovering the “materialistic basis of genius.” Mayakovsky fared embarrassingly well: his brain was 360 grams heavier than Lenin’s (we wrote about the curious and complicated history of Lenin’s brain here). Later accounts gloss over his dramatic finale altogether: some say simply that he died in 1930, or, as the case with the Progress book in my hand, don’t say anything at all.
By 1935, his legacy was in jeopardy. His lover Lili Brik wrote a letter to Joseph Stalin complaining of the neglect. She was summoned to the Kremlin. Stalin took action: “Mayakovsky is still the best and the most gifted poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his cultural heritage is a crime. Brik’s complaints are, in my opinion, justified,” he wrote. Was it the power of a woman? Jengfeldt thinks not. “Why did Lili Brik write this letter now and not before? … Why did Stalin act with the speed of lightening?” In retrospect, it looks like something of a put-up job, a letter concocted at higher levels, possibly by Stalin himself, to trigger a series of events.
One probable motive: The Alexander Pushkin centenary was fast approaching in 1937, and preparations were well underway. Pushkin was the great poet of Russia, yes – but what could the Soviet Union offer that was comparable? Stalin’s action reversed a reputation in decline, and suddenly Mayakovsky was inescapable. “Towns, streets, boats, squares were named after him. He was forcibly introduced like the potato under Catherine the Great. His canonization occurred at a time the party was manically naming heroes.” Mayakovsky and Maxim Gorky became the gods of literature, in poetry and prose, respectively. Soviet honor was saved amid a wash of unsuccessful socialist realism – at least for awhile.
Lili Brik soldiered on through the decades, carrying the torch as her lover’s poetic reputation oscillated. His life had been as messy as his death, and the Russians liked their poets to have ideal family lives – “a poet of the revolution is not supposed to have a complicated private life,” said Jangfeldt. Moreover, Lili was Jewish, and the Communist authorities did what they could to erase her memory, championing other candidates as the “true love” – he had been unfaithful to his married lover, and there were plenty of other candidates to choose from. Brik’s character and motivations were endlessly maligned. In 1970, Jangfeldt became fascinated by the story, and translated and published some of Mayakovsky’s letters to Brik into Swedish. He took photocopies to Brik’s Moscow apartment in 1972, as a sort of carte d’entrée. He never forgot her words of greeting to him.
“Tell me, is Stockholm still a beautiful city?” she asked. She hadn’t been to Sweden since 1906, and lived in the usual Soviet time warp. It was one of those moments, Jangfeldt said, “when you feel the wings of history beating you in the face.”
Happier days in 1915
Jangfeldt later published translations of 416 letters between the couple, Love Is the Heart of Everything: Correspondence between Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lili Brik, 1915-1930. “When this was published, they could never say she hadn’t existed. … This process of forced oblivion had to be stopped. I defended her place in history, nothing else.” The authorities, he said, “must respect that Mayakovsky lived with her for 15 years and he dedicated his poems to her.”
Brik died at 87 in 1978, also by her own hand. “She will always have a difficult life – even after her death,” Jangfeldt said. She missed the fall of communism, and another death for Mayakovsky.
“When communism fell, he fell, too,” said Jangfeldt, like one of the statues pulled down by crowds at the times of revolution. “People had been force-fed his poems for years” and a backlash was inevitable.
Too often, he had been seen as “a high-pitched and vulgar mouthpiece for the regime” – yet many of his poems are very good, and no more than five or six poems have created the reputation of a great poet. “It’s difficult for people today to believe that people may have been honest in believing in the revolution. I don’t think Mayakovsky was cynical,”Jangfeldt said.
The first volume of Mayakovsky collected works was published in Russia this year, out of a project score of volumes in years to come. Meanwhile, enjoy the videos below. The first has archival footage, and I think that’s Mayakovsky’s voice reading briefly about one minute in. The second shows Mayakovsky in 1918’s The Lady and the Hooligan, the only film featuring Mayakovsky that has survived in its entirety.