Thursday, 4 December 2014

At the Top of His Voice - Mayakovsky

There are Mayakovsky Streets in forty-five Russian cities and fourteen Ukrainian cities. There are three Mayakovsky Streets in St Petersburg, more than there are in the whole of Kazakhstan, which boasts only a couple, one in Almaty and one in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Triumph Square in Moscow was called Mayakovsky Square from 1935 to 1992; the metro station that serves it is still called Mayakovsky. Omsk seems particularly fond of the poet: as well as a street, it has a cinema and a nightclub (or rather a 'youth relaxation complex', which I hope is a nightclub) blessed with the great man's name.

All this toponymy goes to suggest something of what Pasternak called Vladimir Mayakovsky's 'second death' in 1935, five years after his suicide. In response to a plea from Mayakovsky's lover Lili Brik, Stalin famously declared that 'Mayakovsky was and remains the best, most gifted poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his works and memory is a crime.' After that, the commemoration machine cranked into action, Mayakovsky was elevated to the position of premier Soviet poet and his work started to be forcibly distributed, like 'potatoes in the time of Catherine the Great' (Pasternak again). If you look at Brik's original letter, you see that Stalin's decree is scrawled firmly and rapidly across it, and the speed of change was equally radical and decisive: the letter is dated 24 November 1935; Triumph Square was renamed Mayakovsky Square on 17 December.

After the apotheosis, the backlash: what Bengt Jangfeldt calls the 'third death' happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Mayakovsky was removed from the school curriculum and was no longer published or promoted, was no longer used as a symbol of whatever values the country wanted to promote. Second-hand bookshops were clogged with his work: I bought the thirteen-volume 1955 Complete Works in 2001 for 130 roubles, slightly over two pounds sterling. Mayakovsky has become an object of academic study rather than of popular acclaim. He is present, but largely ignored: his imposing granite bust is still on display at the corner of Nekrasov and Mayakovsky Streets in St Petersburg, but the last time I was there it was heavily Gorbacheved with bird shit.

Jangfeldt's biography therefore has two obvious and possibly contradictory tasks: to humanise the Soviet icon and also to suggest to us why we should still be interested in this relict of the 20th century. The first task is the harder. By any standards, Mayakovsky's life in broad outline is the stuff of socialist hagiography. Mayakovsky's father died from blood poisoning when his son was twelve. Mayakovsky, his mother and two sisters moved from Kutaisi in Georgia to Moscow and made their living as best they could, taking in lodgers and painting decorative boxes and Easter eggs. Mayakovsky joined the Bolsheviks when he was about fourteen. He was expelled from school and spent a couple of years engaged in political activity, radicalising the Moscow bakers. He claimed to have eaten an address book during a police raid to prevent sensitive information falling into their hands.

Later, at art college, he started writing poetry. He travelled round the country in an attempt to bring Futurist poetry to the masses, predicted the Revolution in his early masterpiece 'A Cloud in Trousers', welcomed it when it finally arrived, and handed himself over to the victorious Communist Party to serve it and the new regime as best he could. He wrote a 3,000-line poem on Lenin's death and legacy and continued to support and dedicate himself to the cause right until his death. His last major poem, 'At the Top of My Voice', contains lines such as:

When I appear
before the CCC
of a more enlightened future
I will
lift up
over the heap of poetic robbers
like a Bolshevik membership card
all hundred volumes
of
my party books.

Mayakovsky sometimes seemed to want nothing more than to be the spokesman of the Soviet Union: he wrote a very long and bad poem called '150,000,000', which has as its protagonist the whole 150-million-strong population of the Soviet Union, locked in a final battle against capitalism, as personified by Woodrow Wilson. Even Lenin found this too much and wrote an angry memorandum to Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Soviet cultural commissioner, calling the work 'rubbish, stupid, stupid, beyond belief, and pretentious'. Setting Lenin's misgivings to one side, with so much evidence in favour of Mayakovsky's ideological bent it is unsurprising that the Soviet regime should have found it easy to promote a case of the poet as nothing more than a larger-than-life voice of the regime.

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