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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Chantal Sundaram

“The stone skin of the monument”:
Mayakovsky, Dissent and Popular Culture
in the Soviet Union

During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes have visited relentless persecution on them and received their teaching with the most savage hostility, the most furious hatred, the most ruthless campaign of lies and slanders. After their death, attempts are made to turn them into harmless icons, canonise them, and surround their names with a certain halo... while at the same time emasculating and vulgarising the real essence of their revolutionary theories and blunting their revolutionary edge.

      V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution

There’s a monument due me by rank already.
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!

      V.V. Mayakovsky, “Iubileinoe”/”Jubilee”, 1924


In a 1994 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Viktor Erofeyev begins an article on the poet who was canonized by Stalin in 1935 as “the best, most talented poet of our Soviet epoch” with an unambiguous historical verdict: “Vladimir Mayakovsky is now perhaps the deadest Russian poet of the twentieth century.”[1] In his 1956 essay “Liudi i polozhenia” Boris Pasternak was the first Soviet writer to refer to the forced introduction of the Mayakovsky legend after 1935, “like potatoes under Catherine the Great,” as the poet’s “second death.” Today Mayakovsky has suffered a third death along with the collapse of the regime for which his legend served a purpose. Once again, his third death is one in which Mayakovsky himself had no hand.

The cult and mythology built around Mayakovsky after his suicide in 1930 emerged from the Stalin regime’s need for a cultural icon with roots in the revolutionary period, one which could be used as a model for the subjugation of writers and artists to the direct service of the state. For this very reason, however, it was always fraught with tensions and contradictions. Mayakovsky and the image he consciously sought to create for himself were firmly rooted in the avant-garde experience of the twenties, while Stalinist culture was built on the ashes of that experience. Resurrecting Mayakovsky in the image of Socialist Realism required fundamental distortions to re-invent his poetic project and biography to correspond to the needs of a new Soviet imperial patriotism, expressed in literary terms in the doctrines of Socialist Realism.

The Mayakovsky legend that was crafted for the purposes of Soviet cultural and political policy after 1935 had much in common with the Stalinized cult of Lenin. After the rise of Stalin, both Mayakovsky and Lenin became important to the Soviet regime not primarily as intellectual models, but as state symbols or icons: they provided a legitimacy deriving from a formal link with the past to a largely new state apparatus created in the period of “Cultural Revolution” and political realignment of 1928 to 1931, and consolidated during the centralization and purges of the thirties. In caricatured form, they became a feature not merely of intellectual life but of ordinary life and popular culture.

A 1998 feature in Time magazine on “Leaders and Revolutionaries” of the twentieth century quotes the dissident poet Joseph Brodsky on the popular symbolism of the Lenin cult after Stalin, when the image of Lenin was no longer identified with the utopianism of early Soviet culture but with its opposite: “Joseph Brodsky...began to hate Lenin at about the time he was in the first ‘grade, ‘not so much because of his political philosophy or practice...but because of the omnipresent images which plagued almost every textbook, every class wall, postage stamps, money, and what not, depicting the man at various ages and stages of his life...coming to ignore those pictures was my first lesson in switching off, my first attempt at estrangement.”[2] Iurii Karabchievsky, author of one of the first major attempts at estrangement from the official Mayakovsky legend by a Soviet author, echoes this attitude to the disparity between the historical figures and the cult surrounding them: “We didn’t study Mayakovsky’s verses in the spirit of Mayakovsky [‘ne po-Maiakovskomu’]. We studied them according to the kindergarten teacher, the gradeschool teacher, the pioneer camp leader. We studied them according to an actor or radio announcer’s voice, the headline of a newspaper article, the slogan placard on the shop-floor of our factory and the poster in the passport department of the police station.”[3] Although forced study of the writings of both Mayakovsky and Lenin was a feature of the cult-building, it was highly selective and carefully interpreted. The legends were based on “surrounding their names with a certain halo” and making of those names and images a daily encounter in Soviet life.

The official Mayakovsky legend evolved according to the changing needs of the Soviet state from the thirties onwards, and since then his legacy has been at the centre of a debate on the position of the entire Russian avant-garde, or “left” artists and writers, as either victims or perpetrators of the crimes of the Stalin era. Mayakovsky has often been accused in Western criticism of sowing the seeds of his own demise because he “stepped on the throat of his own song” by refashioning himself as a political poet. Similar accusations have long been commonplace in Russian émigré ciriticism: in Bunin’s Memoirs (Vospominaniia, Paris, 1950) Mayakovsky’s extremism is said to have influenced future cadres of “Dzerzhinsky’s,” referring to the head of the Cheka/GPU, or secret police, in the twenties.

A resurgence of interest in Soviet “left” art emerged in the West in the late sixties and early seventies, particularly in West Germany, due to the growth of the European student movement. Halina Stephan points to the fact that a reevaluation of the German leftist aesthetics of Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin led to an interest in the early Soviet influence on these critics and writers, and that this revival of interest in the practical significance of the Soviet avant-garde for both cultural theory and political struggle should be credited to the New Left and those influenced by it, particularly the collective associated with the journal Asthetik und Kommunikation, published in Frankfurt.[4] In an article on the interest in Mayakovsky’s poetic persona and biography in contemporary German drama, Stephan notes that the reshaping of Mayakovsky’s image according to a Western contemporization of left avant-garde traditions in the sixties and seventies had some success in reconnecting Mayakovsky with the avant-garde experience of the twenties.[5] After the retreat of the European student movement and the New Left in the eighties, European and émigré critics and scholars reacted against the re-discovery of Soviet avant-gardism, seeking once again to identify it as a precursor to Socialist Realism.[6] Because Stalinism was successful in appropriating some concepts of left avant-garde movements in grossly distorted forms and for fundamentally divergent purposes, the Mayakovsky legend has served to bolster the claim of much pro-Soviet and anti-Soviet scholarship alike that Socialist Realism was prefigured in Mayakovsky’s work, and that his canonization was predestined.

Nevertheless, at various times in Soviet history, people have used the language at hand, despite its distortions, to find a language of dissent. It has also been useful to use the regime’s own language against it, and just as both regimes and dissidents in the West today both lay claim to the language of “democracy,” which has both an official and a potentially subversive meaning, both rulers and opposition in Soviet history have appealed to the very same symbols at particular times.

Mayakovsky Square

In the Soviet Union of the early sixties, the image of Mayakovsky was adopted by a new generation of poets and student dissidents who came of age in the era of The Thaw and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s “cult of personality.” The careful orchestration of Mayakovsky’s official image which continued to predominate could not completely iron out all the potentially subversive aspects of the Mayakovsky legend during a period of political ferment. The very square renamed in Mayakovsky’s honour by Stalin, as a first public recognition of his new canonized status, ironically became a focal point for dissent among discontented youth in the late fifties and early sixties. And even more ironically, it was at the very unveiling of Khrushchev’s monument to the poet in that square - the bronze statue erected in 1958 to reaffirm the poet’s official status - that the series of events began. Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet dissident and eventual émigré who was an activist in an opposition movement of Moscow students and youth at this time, told the story of Mayakovsky Square in his memoirs titled To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter:

In the summer of 1958 a statue of Mayakovsky was unveiled. At the official opening ceremony, a number of official Soviet poets read their poems and when the ceremony was over, volunteers from the crowd started reading theirs as well, and it was agreed that the poets would meet here regularly. At first, the authorities saw no particular danger in this, and one Moscow paper even published an article about the gatherings. Young people, mainly students, assembled almost every evening to read the poems of forgotten or repressed writers, and also their own work, and sometimes there were discussions of art and literature. A kind of open-air club came into being. But the authorities could not tolerate the danger of these spontaneous performances for long, and eventually stopped the gatherings.[7]

An oppositionist student movement had already begun to develop immediately out of the shock of 1956, one which “could no longer express itself within the bounds of ‘permitted criticism’.”[8] The first political groups had been suppressed, so opposition had to take a cultural form. After the experiment of 1958, the gatherings at Mayakovsky’s statue were revived in September of 1960, again as poetry readings but with a more openly political character. They were revived by Bukovsky and just two of his university friends, but they gathered momentum quickly and were soon taking place regularly.

The readings at Mayakovsky Square were the incubator not only for a new generation of poets but for a generation of dissidents as well. Vladimir Osipov, one of the organizers of the Mayakovsky Square gatherings and a later dissident, told the writer Mikhail Kheifets while they were both in the same prison camp: “it seems it is impossible to find a famous dissident from among the young, who thundered at the end of the sixties and the first half of the seventies, who would hot have appeared at that time [in the early sixties] on Mayakovsky Square, who did not spend his youth there.”[9] The participants in the 1960-61 readings included the “veterans” of two years before, as well as a new layer of young people; they included those interested in pure art, and those inspired by dissident politics of various stripes. For some, like Bukovsky and his colleagues, “the right of art to be independent was merely one point of opposition to the regime, and we were here precisely because art happened to be at the centre of political passions.”[10]

In part, the symbolism of the location had to do with appropriating an official literary symbol, but it is significant that it was Mayakovsky and not another symbol - such as Pushkin Square, also in downtown Moscow - that was chosen at this time. The Square and statue became known to some as “Mayak” (lighthouse)[11] and an image of Mayakovsky as a discontented, anti-authoritarian rebel was partially revived. To some extent this was simply due to the rediscovery of the poet’s iconoclasm, but it was also linked with the notion of “purer” Soviet ideals. Those who recited Mayakovsky chose poems which diverged from the official cult of optimism, and read them in a new light. Mayakovsky scholar Semion Chertok,[12] who was at a reading himself in the early spring of 1961, gives this description of a series of young men reading poems by Mayakovsky, one after the other:

The subject matter of the poems was more or less identical - what was being demonstrated was not the ability to read Mayakovsky, but a commonality of feeling, for this reason each succeeding [recital] seemed to continue the thought of the previous one. A few of the poems were contained not only in the Collected Works but also in school readers, however the setting in which they were recited and the mood that was invested in them gave them a special intonation - refusal, protest, demand for change. The very titles of the poems, loudly and distinctly pronounced, sounded almost defiant: “About Trash,” [...] “Bootlicker,” [...] “Pompadour,” “Gossip,” “Bribe Taker,” “Coward,” “Bureaucrat Factory,” “General Manual for Beginning Toadies.” Through the dead letter of canonized poetry there suddenly broke through its living spirit and sense.[13]

The Mayakovsky Square readings indicate another side of the parallel between the official legends of Mayakovsky and Lenin during The Thaw. Not only were both more useful to the state than ever,[14] but some of the appeal of Mayakovsky’s opposition to the corruption of ideals was linked with the phenomenon of so-called “Neo-Leninism” in the youth movement of the time. This emerged out of the first responses to Khrushchev’s secret speech and the Hungarian revolution. For example, at Moscow University in November 1956, students at a compulsory session on Marxism-Leninism challenged the lecturer about the suppression of the Hungarian revolt using quotations from Lenin, and challenged the reprisals of the Komsomol.[15] Mayakovsky’s suitability to the regime’s more limited goals of partial de-Stalinization was also in tune with the anti-authoritarianism of the youth movement at this stage, which was often expressed with reference to Lenin. Chertok attested that in this first stage of the social movement of the sixties, its “spontaneous or conscious participants demanded the restoration of ‘Leninist norms’... and a return to ‘revolutionary ideals.’ A suitable place for the public expression of such demands seemed to them the pedestal of the Mayakovsky monument.”[16] From his conversations with Vladimir Osipov, the writer Mikhail Kheifets recounted: ‘The Mayakovsky monument in Moscow had been expected for a long time. In its own way the youth respected Mayakovsky: a ‘sincerely Marxist,’ ‘sincerely Leninist’ poet was in tune with an epoch of initial awakening of social consciousness.”[17]

On April 14, 1961, the Mayakovsky Square group organized a reading specifically to commemorate the anniversary of Mayakovsky’s suicide. For the students, Mayakovsky’s suicide was a primary part of his appeal as a “nonconformist” revolutionary. Their commemoration of it turned out to be the largest and most eventful gathering in the Square. It happened to coincide with a holiday to celebrate Yurii Gagarin’s space flight, and the square was filled with bystanders, many of whom joined the crowd around Mayakovsky’s statue out of curiosity. Eduard Kuznetsov, who later became a well-known dissident, was a regular participant in the gatherings of 1960-61, and recalled the April 14 reading in 1981:

We worked out... a slogan that was to become more or less obviously the core of our conduct on Mayakovsky Square that evening: ‘To Gagarin - hurrah! To Mayakovsky - three times over!’ It was precisely for this that I was seized [by secret police] [...] I was seized when in one of the circles of curious people I was speaking at length on the subject that the system is characterized not so much by cosmic successes, as by the suicide and murder of poets.[18]

Kuznetsov was sentenced in 1962 to seven years in the labour camps for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” Bukovsky recalls the near-riot which took place the evening of April 14, 1961:

The atmosphere was tense in the extreme and plainclothesmen were ready to pounce at any moment. At last, when Shchukin started reading, they let out a howl and made a dash through the crowd in the direction of the statue...A gigantic fist-fight broke out. Many people had no idea who was fighting whom and joined in just for the fun of it... The police were generally unpopular anyhow and on this occasion I feared that the crowd would overturn the police car and kick it to pieces. But somehow or other the police succeeded in bundling Shchukin and Osipov into a car and extricated it from the crowd. Shchukin got fifteen days “for reading anti-Soviet verses” and Osipov ten days “for disturbing the peace and using obscene language”...This episode alone indicates what an extraordinary time it was.[19]

The spirit of Mayakovsky Square was captured on film during the era itself, in I am Twenty (Mne dvadtsat’ let), released in 1964. Although the film is not about the Square gatherings themselves but about the everyday, largely uneventful life of Soviet youth and this time, it shows the wider impact of the shift in the popular image of Mayakovsky and Lenin on some who were not directly involved in opposition activites: the film’s original title, “Lenin’s Detachment” (“Zastava ll’icha”) is significant. Release of the original version was refused and the director Marlen Khutsiev had to greatly revise and retitle it. The action of the film was set in 1961, and it focussed on how the social outlook of youth was related to older revolutionary ideals. The hero is a youth who swears by “the ideals of the revolution” but who is dissatisfied by Soviet reality. Chertok attests: “The time of...social upheaval, the sense of the necessity for change, is conveyed by the filmmakers with the help of Mayakovsky’s poetry. The episode in which the heroes of the film wander through Moscow at night and recite Mayakovsky, expressing their feelings and thoughts with his words and rhythms, may be counted among the classic scenes of world cinema.”[20]

Among the young poets who read their own work to huge crowds in Mayakovsky Square were Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky. In order to capture the spirit of the era, the 1980 film Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, set in the late fifties, features a cameo appearance by Voznesensky declaiming his 1964 poem Antiworlds in Mayakovsky Square. These poets, along with Robert Rozhdestvensky, gained renown as poets who were able to publish in the Soviet Union, but who also represented the new spirit of youthful protest and who took Mayakovsky as a model. It is certainly true that they had a limited store of worthwhile influences at their ready disposal, but this alone does not explain the attraction. The official Mayakovsky was a bridge with what the young poets were familiar with when they began writing, while Mayakovsky the “rebel,” who combined individualism with populism and aggressiveness with vulnerability, fitted their own self-image as tribunes of the people and voices of their generation.

Like the “neo-Bolsheviks” of the student movement and Mayakovsky Square, Yevtushenko sought a “purer” variant of Soviet ideology, by which the poet’s civic role could be something other than serving as a lackey of the Soviet state. In the long poem Bratsk Hydroelectric Station (Bratskaia GES) of 1964, Yevtushenko speculates on Mayakovsky’s fate under Stalin: “...I can imagine it all - /but Mayakovsky /in -37 /I can’t imagine./ What would have become of him/ if that revolver/ hadn’t gone off? I...] Being dead, he has become/ ‘The best/ and most talented’ - / alive/ he would have been declared an enemy of the people.” But Yevtushenko’s image of Mayakovsky is based on the heroic and optimistic, and avoids the ironic, cynical and nihilistic side of the poet. Unlike many others who commemorated Mayakovsky’s death in the Square in the early sixties, and for whom the suicide was an important symbol which served to critique Soviet society, Yevtushenko turns the revolver outward and echoes the words of Soviet officials: “With all his life/ Mayakovsky calls us/ to battles/ and not to suicide.”[21]

Yevtushenko, Voznesensky and Rozhdestvensky gave voice to the mood of protest but stayed within certain limits. They walked a thin line between dissidence and acceptability, and were alternately disciplined and tolerated. This linked them with the ambivalence of the Mayakovsky legend itself. At times the regime made use of them - as it made use of Mayakovsky - in giving a public face to de-Stalinization. The “neo-Leninists” in the youth movement found themselves in a similar predicament. Boris Kagarlitsky, who was a Soviet oppositionist in the eighties, noted that it was to be expected that versions of “neo-Bolshevism” or “neo-Leninism” would predominate in the student movement of the late fifties, and would continue to exert an influence into the sixties, but also noted that this embodied inherent limitations:

The Twentieth Congress had revealed Stalin’s distortion of Lenin’s line, and it was precisely Lenin’s line that was counterposed to Stalinism. Lenin’s ideas were well known and his writings accessible. Clearly, it was to him that the anti-Stalinist rebels turned in the first place. Paradoxically, both the rulers and the opposition were appealing to the same ideas and values...however, the neo-Bolsheviks... on the whole maintained the positions of the official ideology, although representing a “purer” variant of it.[22]

Bukovsky agrees:

Among the people circulating in Mayakovsky Square...were a lot of neo-Marxists and neo-communists of various kinds... [they] had appeared in the 1950s as a natural reaction to Stalin’s tyranny: taking the classics of Marxism-Leninism as their starting point and making their appeal to them, people endeavoured to force the authorities to observe their own wonderful principles. But the authorities had long since ceased to take note of the prophets displayed on the Party facade and were guided by considerations of their own self-interest.[23]

Because the Mayakovsky legend had itself become one of the “classics of Marxism-Leninism,” exposing its contradictions did not automatically mean a complete break with official ideology. Mayakovsky could be associated with what was perceived as “Lenin’s line” before the distortions of Stalinism, but this was still limited by the parameters of the official Stalinized version of “Leninism.” Nevertheless, the Square and the combination of anger and idealism it represented was still a crucial influence on an entire generation of dissenters.

By the autumn of 1961, news of the readings in Mayakovsky Square had begun to filter out to the foreign press, and an open campaign began to crush them. The KGB brought snowplows to the Square and circled them around the Mayakovsky statue to prevent the readings from taking place. After a final gathering on the opening day of the Twenty-second Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in October of the same year, the readings were officially banned. In 1962-63, there was another overt de-Stalinization campaign, allowing the publication of a number of previously unpublishable Soviet writings, including the controversial V. Mayakovsky in the Recollections of His Contemporaries, which was partly influenced by the demand for new materials among both scholars and university students. In 1964 there were signs that this last phase of liberalization was coming to an end, particularly with the arrest of the dissident poet Joseph Brodsky, cited above.

In 1965 the gatherings in Mayakovsky Square were briefly revived again by a new youth group called SMOG, which stood for the Russian words “boldness, thought, image and depth,” or “the youngest society of geniuses.” This group expressed a trend of 1964-65 toward greater organization among literary dissidents, as compared to the more unstructured and spontaneous readings of the early sixties. The SMOGists combined a primary concern for literary freedom with an interest in the native revolutionary tradition from the Decembrists to Lenin, and in other leaders who had opposed Stalin, such as Trotsky and Bukharin. The introduction to an anthology of Samizdat literature, written in 1974, recounts:

Like their hero, Mayakovsky, the SMOGists wanted to break from conventionalism and had revolutionary impulses: “Today we have to fight against everything from the Chekists to the bourgeoisie, from ineptitude to ignorance,” said one of their manifestos. The idea of forming SMOG groups apparently caught on among young rebels in many parts of the Soviet Union. While the movement was centered in Moscow and Leningrad, there were also reports in 1965 of SMOG groups that put out uncensored newsletters in the Urals, Odessa, and “southern Russia.”[24]

On April 14, 1965, SMOGists organized what they described as a “literary-political” meeting to commemorate the anniversary of Mayakovsky’s death and to use the symbolism of the occasion to make a series of demands. Among their demands were official recognition of SMOG by the Writers’ Union, the right to discuss ideas freely and to set up their own press, the release of Bukovsky, who had been imprisoned in a psychiatric institution for organizing a protest of the 1965 arrest of the dissident writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Iulii Daniel, and freedom for Brodsky. About a thousand youth attended.[25] Mayakovsky also featured in the famous trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel in February, 1966, as the only officially acceptable Soviet satirist to whom the writers could refer in pointing out inconsistencies in the regime’s own arguments. In his final plea, Sinyavsky summed up the ambiguous status of Mayakovsky in the sixties, as an icon appealed to by both leaders and opposition: “If I write in an article about my love of Mayakovsky, then they quote at me Mayakovsky’s words: ‘Soviet citizens have a pride all their own,’ but you, they say, sent your manuscripts abroad. But why, inconsistent and un-Marxist as I am, may I not express my admiration for Mayakovsky?”[26]

Official Jubilees and unofficial hooligans

Unfortunately, the “generation of the Mayakovsky monument” had little lasting impact on the official Mayakovsky legend. In fact, what altered was the attitude of those who had spent their youth in Mayakovsky Square as they entered the Brezhnev era. Lenin did not survive as any kind of symbol of dissent for very long at all: by the mid-sixties, as Bukovsky noted, “the popularity of Lenin and the rest had fallen so low that this kind of criticism began to sound more like a compliment than an indictment.”[27] The subversive appeal of Mayakovsky had slightly more staying power: even as late as 1971 a film by E. Klimov, Sport, Sport, Sport! depicted youth who identified with Mayakovsky’s non-conformism in the spirit of youth ten years earlier. But Mayakovsky’s retreat as a symbol of dissent was felt after 1968, when the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia resulted in widespread and decisive disillusionment with all the lingering hopes raised by de-Stalinization. Boris Kagarlitsky writes:

On the morning of 21 August 1968 the entire ideology of Soviet liberalism collapsed in a few minutes, and all the hopes aroused by the Twentieth Congress fell to the ground. Whereas previously liberal intellectuals had comforted themselves with the thought that, on the whole, our society had a sound foundation, that it had not lost its socialist character, that - as Yevtushenko wrote in his Autobiography - the revolution was sick but not dead, the events of 1968 scattered those illusions. It was not a matter of “the excesses of Stalinism” but of the system itself. For many, recognition of this fact meant spiritual and ideological collapse...1968 put an end to their hopes, and along with them their ideology, in the form it then bore. It had proved helpless to withstand the tank armies of the neo-Stalinist state upholding its monopoly of “Communism.” It was almost like Mayakovsky’s verses: “Communism from books is easy belief./ (To serve it up in books is fashionable)/ But this - brings ‘rigmarole’ to life,/ and shows Communism in flesh and blood.”[28]

As the economy began to stagnate, and material inequalities grew - and grew more evident - pride gave way to cynicism, but official slogans grew more pompous and falsely optimistic to compensate. One Soviet sociologist argued that “the cultural level of the masses became on average somewhat higher during the 1970s than the cultural level of the ruling elite.”[29] As the gap between social reality and official slogans increased, various countercultures developed, both popular and intellectual.

April of 1970 marked both the centennial of Lenin’s birth and the fortieth anniversary of Maykovsky’s death, and these two state icons were dragged out simultaneously to “reinvigorate” the population with political ritual and to distract it from the disappointments of everyday life. But the Lenin jubilee, which lasted the entire year, exposed the growing lack of reverence for the symbols of the regime even beyond dissident circles.[30] Mayakovsky continued to be closely associated with the Lenin cult and was used to promote it, and his image contributed to the over-saturation of the jubilee. Brezhnev’s jubilee speech ended with the familiar slogan from Mayakovsky’s long poem V.I. Lenin, “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!”[31] and this poem was used as the basis for a jubilee symphony-cantata called “Lenin Is With Us.”[32]

Ironically, Andrei Voznesensky was selected for the organizing committee struck for the special commemoration in that same year of the fortieth anniversary of Mayakovsky’s death. A 1970 anecdote about this is illustrative of the times:

He [Voznesensky] described, a bit tongue-in-cheek, how he tried to convince the committee that they should not commemorate Mayakovsky in the traditional way. Mayakovsky had wanted not a monument but an explosion. So Andrei had proposed precisely that - an explosion. “I suggested that the army give them a rocket, just a little one,” he said, “which could be set off from the Lenin Hills. The committee voted for a ‘solemn evening’ of speeches in the Bolshoi Theatre.” Andrei laughed drily at his own joke.[33]

The Mayakovsky of The Thaw, as a legend of rebellion, was replaced for the youth of the seventies by Vladimir Vysotsky. Vysotsky was not a poet in the traditional sense, but a popular actor turned “guitar poet.” Guitar poetry had become a popular form of Soviet alternative culture by the mid-sixties, and throughout the seventies it was dominated by Vysotsky, who sang songs which mocked most aspects of Soviet life, including revolutionary traditions, Soviet heroes, and Russian literature, and attacked privilege, inequality and official hypocrisy. But he also sang about everyday life, about drinking and sex, in the language of the street. Like Mayakovsky during his lifetime, he was attacked in the press for disfiguring the Russian language, and for singing “in the name of and on behalf of alcoholics, soldiers in disciplinary units and criminals.”[34] Richard Stites describes the popularity evoked not only by his work but by his persona: “The Vysotsky cult was enlived by gossip about his lifestyle, romances, marriage to the French actress Marina Vlady, fast cars, and drinking bouts. It was reminiscent of the celebrity legends in the last years of Tsarist Russia, and it revealed as much about Russian character as the officially invented cults of the Soviet period.” [35]

Vysotsky actually came closer to recreating the spirit of the uncanonized Mayakovsky than Yevtushenko and Voznesensky had, although he did not identify with Mayakovsky’s name as overtly as they. Since the collapse of Mayakovsky’s official state image with the break-up of the Soviet Union, a few minor studies linking Mayakovsky and Vysotsky have appeared. A summary of papers read in Kolomna at a commemoration of Mayakovsky’s centennial in 1993 included a presentation on “One Allegory in the Lyric Poetry of V.V. Mayakovsky and V.S. Vysotsky.”[36] Also in 1993 an article titled “Vladimir Mayakovsky and Vladimir Vysotsky” was published in the literary journal Znamia.[37] This article, by Vladimir Novikov, discerns a running dialogue with Mayakovsky in the course of Vysotsky’s career. Novikov identified three elements that Vysotsky took from Mayakovsky and from Futurism as a whole: intonational energy, or the individual “discharge” (vydelennost’) of each word, which Roman Jakobson regarded as a particularity of Mayakovsky’s verse; the ability to find imagery in the word itself; and the extended comparison, or “realized” metaphor.[38]

Vysotsky was also one of the five actors who played Mayakovsky in the theatrical production Listen!, at the Tanganka Theatre in Moscow between 1967 and 1969. It was an authorized but popularly successful show based on Mayakovsky’s works and recollections about him, titled after his prerevolutionary poem of the same title (“Poslushaite!”). The five different actors each represented a different aspect of the poet: the lyricist, the satirist, the tribune, the angry Mayakovsky - played by Vysotsky -  and a silent Mayakovsky, whose role it was to stare profoundly at the audience without saying a word throughout the performance. It also featured children reciting the same verses over and over in a “competition”: “Very many and diverse scoundrels wander throughout our land and around it,” from the 1929 poem “Conversation with Lenin.” One of the Mayakovsky’s then came on stage reciting the same verses and stated “We of course will subdue them all, but subduing all of them is awfully hard.”[39] The fact that Vysotsky played the “angry Mayakovsky” was appropriate to his role as a symbol of rebellion in 1970s popular culture, corresponding to the irreverent “hooliganism” that was an integral part of the biographical legend created by Mayakovsky himself. But Vysotsky also identified with the vulnerability of Mayakovsky’s poetic persona: this is cited by Novikov, who emphasizes Vysotsky’s own grasp of the Mayakovsky behind the official legend as evidenced in his comments on the production of Listen! from an unpublished volume titled Vysotsky on the Theatre, compiled by A. Krylov and I. Rogovoi from recordings of Vysotsky’s public appearances:

That show, at the time we were rehearsing it, made a colossal impression on me. The teaching of Mayakovsky in our schools is very one-sided: our Mayakovsky... is always saying “look, envy me” [from the poem “Soviet Passport”] - children know only this, only this is read to them. But Mayakovsky is not only this - he was also sad and tragic... [in the show] he is portrayed entirely as a man without [protective] skin.[40]

In 1973, controversy erupted over a film by mainstream filmaker S. I. Iutkevich to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Mayakovsky’s birth. At issue was the use of fragments from Mayakovsky’s 1918 films which depicted the poet as a love-lorn artist and hooligan: Fettered by Film and The Lady and the Hooligan (Zakovannaia fil’moi, 1918; Baryshnia i khuligan, 1918). The film was stopped in part by a denunciation from V. Makarov, the director of the new Mayakovsky museum which was to open the following year across from the headquarters of the KGB, described by V.V. Katanian in these words: “on Dzerzhinsky Square was opened a marble museum-palace, with marble halls, marble lethargy and marble corridors along which one could reach a marble Mayakovsky.”[41] Katanian also describes the dilemma in 1973:

...for the day of nationwide anniversary festivities for the apostle of the revolution, the political legend of the Leninist party in poetry, S.I. Iutkevich was preparing an ‘anniversary’ film in which Mayakovsky appeared in the role of a hooligan, and in the role of a “pining” artist who dreams about the wonderful cinema-world “Love-land” [‘Liublandiia’]. The image of the great poet, his monumentality, his passion for the business of serving the revolution, the party, the people - all this was being replaced by Mayakovsky the hooligan, by “Love-land”.[42]

Instead, the 1973 jubilee was entirely characterized by one of the posters produced to commemorate it, which depicted a photograph of the monument in Mayakovsky Square standing on a platform made from Mayakovsky’s books in several different languages, with the lines: “And I, like the spring of humanity,/ born in labours and in struggle,/ sing my homeland,/ my republic!” Judging by the popularity of Vysotsky at this time, the jubilee would have had more success with Mayakovsky in the role of hooligan.


By the time of glasnost the depiction of Mayakovsky as any kind of symbol of dissent was the terrain largely of establishment literary scholars, not popular culture. The extent to which Mayakovsky had become the face of state cultural policy, with renewed vigour in the early eighties, meant that objective assessments of the Mayakovsky behind the legend were nearly impossible. Conservatives claimed him as a sacred national hero, liberal reform supporters - including poets of the “Mayakovsky Square” generation - were critical of the official Mayakovsky while defending the poet against the claims of the conservative nationalists. But for those seeking to extend glasnost beyond official parameters, the dominant impulse was to pull the Mayakovsky monument off its pedestal entirely.

There was one distorted reflection of the poet as a dissident symbol in popular culture at this time: between 1989 and 1991, controversy over Mayakovsky became increasingly dominated by detective-style, pseudo-criminological speculation that he had been murdered by the state. In 1989 Soviet television even aired a special program titled “Before and After Midnight,” in which “leading forensic experts” suggested the possibility of Mayakovsky’s murder. This was part of a trend to counter the official legend with “anti-legends” of a sensationalist nature: “He shot himself? - He was murdered! He hung himself? - They hung him! Five lovers? - Here’s a sixth! And the first was a GPU agent! This is what stirs people up - and for some reason today in particular.”[43] On the one hand, this reflected the fascination for sensationalism, conspiracy theories and the popularity of detective novels in Soviet popular culture at this time.[44] But it also reflected the survival of a fascination with Mayakovsky’s contradictory relationship with the Soviet authorities into the era of perestroika, despite the fact that his legacy was being attacked for political conformism at the very same time.

During the 1991 putsch against Gorbachev, Soviet rulers and opposition alike again appealed to the same poetic symbols, but Mayakovsky had been supplanted: Pushkin’s verse and alleged beliefs were cited in support of the putschists’ call for defence of the old regime, while those who resisted the putsch also recited from Pushkin in the speeches made on a tank outside the White House.[45] Mayakovsky had been chosen over Pushkin as a symbol of dissent at a time when the terms of reference were still defined by the language of Bolshevism, without its substance. During glasnost, the Mayakovsky legend served once again as a reflection of changes in state ideology, but now as an expression of its fractiousness and of the decisive breaking-down of ideological hegemony.

In 1990 the critic Mikhail Epstein wrote an article titled “After the Future: On the New Consciousness in Literature” in which he claimed that a general cultural shift away from intellectual polarization began to occur before the break-up of the Soviet Union, resulting in what he described as: “...the impossibility of working in an ‘anti-’ genre: anti-totalitarian, anti-utopian, anti-communist, anti-militarist, etc. All of these realities are so locked in history that the relationship is better expressed by ‘post’ than it is by ‘anti’...”[46] While this may not be an accurate depiction of Russian society as a whole, it does describe a shift in attitude to Mayakovsky after 1991, in contrast to the passionate engagement just before the fall of the Soviet Union even on the part of those who were “anti-Mayakovsky.”

One of the most spectacular events of 1991 in Moscow was the pulling down of Dzerzhinsky’s statue in front of KGB headquarters and across from the Mayakovsky museum. This became a spontaneous public celebration: Tatiana Tolstaia wrote in October of that year that everyone was touched by “the pathos of iconoclasm and vandalism.”[47] After 1991 Mayakovsky Square went back to its old name, Triumph Square, as did the Metro station located there. But Mayakovsky’s bronze monument in the Square went untouched, unlike so many others associated with the Soviet regime. Mayakovsky’s monumental place in Soviet literature had been eroded during perestroika, but now the poet is not even a significant subject of historical reassessment. Although the Mayakovsky museum was recreated in 1989, at a time when a new interest in the poet, though mostly negative, was at its peak, it now unfortunately attracts little attention except from foreign tourists. The end of censorship of Mayakovsky the Futurist rebel was followed by the end of heated controversy over his legacy. Although his monuments may not have been physically obliterated or placed in the “monument graveyard” behind the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, they have met the less dramatic but equally damning fate of “post-Mayakovsky” indifference. Kovsky wrote as early as 1990 that “school teachers, and to an even greater degree university instructors, sense keenly that the temperature is falling in the perception of Mayakovsky, that a conscious, fundamental distancing from him is taking place more and more often.”[48] But the retreat from Mayakovsky was a quiet one: up until the break-up of the Soviet Union, school children continued to memorize “Soviet Passport.”

The 1993 centennial of Mayakovsky’s birth was marked in the popular Soviet publication Ogonek with deep irony:

Mayakovsky’s jubilee was marked unusually widely. The newpaper Den’ published a huge portait of V.V., with four lines summoning proletarians to beat the damn bourgeois, the paper Moskovskii komsomolets published the most detailed dossier on all of Mayakovsky’s favourite women. Etcetera. Stolitsa is again publishing the musings of the critics Pozdniaev and Chuprinin on whether he is “our” poet or not and how to relate to him in general, and the paper “AIDS-Info” (this is already my imagination) - something about the intimate life of the poet. In short, there are idols that never grow old. No verses about the Soviet passport... are in a position to cancel out the personal power and nightmarish attraction of one of the founders of twentieth-century art - of avant-garde art, nonconformist and psychedelic.[49]

In the final analysis, the rediscovery of the Mayakovsky behind the official legend has continued throughout the nineties to be limited by the difficulties of post-Soviet Russia. The widely-known phrase about “byt”, or the daily grind, from Mayakovsky’s suicide letter (“The boat of love has crashed against the daily grind”), was used in a 1993 advertisement to sell foreign consumer goods: “Your love boat will not crash against the daily grind [byt] if it is equipped with technology for everyday use [bytovaia tekhnika] made by Siene.”[50] Although this 1993 jingle echoes the opening scene of the play The Bedbug, in which Mayakovsky pokes fun at the commercial jingles he himself wrote to promote state-produced products over the private market during the New Economic Policy of the mid-twenties, the pun on “byt” does not spoof the trivial nature of consumerism so much as it trivializes both the Mayakovsky legend itself and the deathliness of “the daily grind.” Mayakovsky’s phrase has lost its sense of pathos and has become an ironic reference to the fall of the official Mayakovsky legend in a society that has moved from state manipulation of culture to the commodification of culture. We can recall Mayakovsky’s bitter lines from “The Stabilization of the Daily Grind” (“Stabilizatsiia byta,”) written in 1927, where the word “byt” takes on the additional connotation of philistinism: “After battles and hungry agonies/ A solid emptiness grew in the belly./ Grease pours in the alkaline of byt/ and congeals, quietly and widely. [...] Select a genius for any suite, - / Everything from Kazin to Briusov./ In the stores - notes for the wide masses./ Sing, workers and peasants/ the latest romance to pluck at the heart-strings:/ ‘My heart longs for the party!’ “  

The most interesting and artistically worthwhile publication on Mayakovsky in 1993 was the short article by Vladimir Novikov comparing the poet with Vladimir Vysotsky, mentioned above. Novikov accurately predicted that the front-line Russian press would respond to Mayakovsky’s centenary in parodic style while Pravda and Sovetskaia Rossiia would pull out the old, standard quotations about “the communist far-future” and “the spring of humanity.” But Novikov gave short shrift to those who would blame the artistic utopianism of the Russian avant-garde for Stalin’s Terror: he would like to award all new accusers of the avant-garde with a medal in the name of Trofim Lysenko - the infamous agro-biologist canonized by Stalin for his deterministic theories - since their alchemistic claims are equivalent to the transformation of rye into wheat.[51] Finally, Novikov suggested that the title of Mayakovsky’s first major work, his 1913 theatrical piece Vladimir Mayakovsky - A Tragedy, could encompass the entire aggregate of his literary texts from his first poem to his suicide letter. But in this “tragedy” he included not only Mayakovsky’s own work, but what might be considered its accompanying historical text, both during his lifetime and after: “Willingly or not, all who were in one way or another connected with Mayakovsky became the characters and co-authors of this tragedy: Lenin, Pasternak, Karabchievsky, Vysotsky and many others.”[52] Novikov asserted that whereas Mayakovsky’s centennial fell at the moment of his “decanonization,” the thirteenth anniversary of Vysotsky’s death in that same month “would become yet another testimony to the unceasing dialogue between the poet and his readers/listeners.” Vysotsky would take on new contemporary relevance in post-Soviet Russia when, after the political news of the day, the radio would play his lyrics: “No, kids, everything’s wrong! It’s all wrong, kids...”[53]

The most significant parallel that Novikov drew between Mayakovsky and Vysotsky is in the poetic motif of “the monument” in their work, which provides insight into the divergence of their respective fates:

...everyone remembers the ending of “Jubilee” [Mayakovsky’s 1924 Pushkin poem, cited at the beginning of the present article], everyone also remembers Vysotsky’s plot about the daring “exit” of the author-hero from the stone skin of the monument. But what suicidal doom sounds in [Mayakovsky’s] wish that came from the depths: “I’d blow the damn thing up with dynamite!” After this [his] assurance of the “adoration of life” is rhetorical enough. But in Vysotsky the final, laconic: “I’m alive!” is genuinely convincing. And what is more, this is not because [Vysotsky] took a “different path” - a more correct one - but because that was the fate that fell to him, a life-affirming one, without ironic quotation marks.[54]


1.   Victor Erofeyev, “Dying for the Party,” Times Literary Supplement, January 7, 1994

2.   In “Vladimir llyich Lenin,” by David Remnick (author of Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire) in Time, April 13, 1998, p.59

3.   Cited from lurii Karabchievsky’s own introduction to his Voskresenie Maiakovskogo, written in 1983, first published in Munich in 1985; on pp.5-6 of the 1990 Moscow edition

4.   Halina Stephan, “Epilogue: LEF in Critical Perspective” in “LEF” and the Left Front of Art, Munich, 1981, pp.196-7

5.   Stephan, “The Myth of the Revolutionary Poet: Majakovskij in Three Modern Plays,” Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 30, No.2, 1986, p.252. Also see Halina Stephan, ‘The Rediscovery of the Left Front of the Arts in the 1960s and the 1970s,” Canadian-American Slavic Studies 13, No.3, 1979, pp.322-49 

6.   For example, in 1987, for a catalogue of the exhibition “ ‘The Ax has blossomed...’ European Conflicts of the Thirties in Memory of the Early Avant-garde” in Dusseldorf, art historian Boris Groys wrote an article titled “Totalitarian Art of the Thirties: Anti-avantgardist in Form and Avantgardist in Content” (Boris Groys, “Die totalitäre Kunst der 30er Jahre: Antiavantgardistisch in der Form und avantgardistisch im Inhalt,” in exhibit catalogue for “ ‘Die Axt hat geblüht…’ Europäische Konflikte der 30er Jahre in Erinnerung an die frühe Avant-garde,” Dusseldorf, 1987). Then in his controversial book Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (Munich, 1988), Groys argued that Stalinist culture of the thirties was the actual realization of avant-garde utopianism, particularly of its conception of “life-building” through art. See also The Culture of the Stalin Period, Hans Gunther, ed., especially “Presuppositions of Socialist Realism” by Aleksandar Flaker and “The Birth of  Socialist Realism from the Spirit of the Russian Avant-Garde” by Boris Groys.                  

7.   Vladimir Bukovsky, To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter, London, 1978, p.116

8.   Boris Kagarlitsky, The Thinking Reed: Intellectuals and the Soviet State from 1917 to the Present, London and New York, 1988, p.144                                    

9.   Mikhail Kheifets, “Russkii patriot Vladimir Osipov,” Kontinent, 1981, No. 27, pp.159-212 (p.176)

10.  Bukovsky, p. 118

11.  Kagarlitsky, 1988, p. 147

12.  Semion Chertok conducted research on Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1957 and later published the memoirs of Mayakovsky’s last lover, Polonskaia, who is mentioned in his suicide note: Posledniaia liubov’ Maiakovskogo, Ann Arbor, 1983.

13.  Chertok, 1983, p.50                                                    

14.  As Stalin’s role in the development of Socialist Realism was being written out of official history during the Thaw, the role of Gorky and Mayakovsky in that history was expanded.

15. George Saunders, “Currents in the Soviet Opposition Movement,” introduction to Samizdat: Voices of the Soviet Opposition, George Saunders, ed., New York, 1974, pp. 15-48 (p.26)

16. Chertok, p.49

17.  M. Kheifets, p. 175

18.  Eduard Kuznetsov, note to “Russkii patriot Vladimir Osipov” by Mikhail Kheifets in Kontinent, 1981, No.27, pp.211-12. Kuznetsov later led the famous 1970 failed Leningrad plane hijacking attempt by Soviet Jews who had failed to emigrate legally, and was the author of the well-known Prison Diaries, first published in Russian in Paris, 1973.

19.  Bukovsky, p.121

20.  Chertok, p.49

21. Yevtushenko, “Maiakovskii,” Bratskaia GES, in Yevgenii Yevtushenko: Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, Vol. 1, Moscow, 1987, pp.517-19

22.  Kagarlitsky, 1988, p. 146

23.  Bukovsky, p.118

24.  Saunders, p.35

25.  Ibid.

26.  On Trial: The Soviet State versus “Abram Tertz” and “Nikolai Arzhak,” Max Hayward, ed. and trans., 1966, p.147 

27.  Bukovsky, p.119

28. Kagarlitsky, 1988, pp.200-201; Mayakovsky’s verses from the poem “To Comrade Nette,” 1926

29.  Kagarlitsky, The Dialectic of Change, London, 1990, p.292

30.  See Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia, Cambridge, Mass., 1983, pp.262-3

31.  Pravda, April 22, 1970

32.  In Robert A.D. Ford, A Moscow Literary Memoir, Toronto, 1995, p.196

33.  Ibid, p.232. The anecdote is recounted by Robert A.D. Ford, a Canadian diplomat assigned to Moscow who gave a dinner for Voznesensky there in 1970.

34.  In Sovietskaia Rossiia, June 9, 1968; also see Richard Stites, Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society Since 1900, New York, 1992, p. 158

35.  Stites, 1992, p.158

36. A.V. Kulagin, “Ob odnoi allegorii v lirike V.V. Maiakovskogo i V.S. Vysotskogo,” K 100-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia V.V. Maiakovskogo literaturnye chteniia 14-15 maia 1993, Kolomna, Tezisy dokladov, Kolomna, 1993, p. 19

37. Vladimir Novikov, “Vladimir Maiakovskii i Vladimir Vysotskii,” Znamia, 1993 No. 7, pp.200-4

38. Ibid, p.204

39. From Vysotskii o teatre, A. Krylov, l. Rogovoi, ed., cited in Novikov, 1993, pp.201-2

40. Ibid, p.202

41. V.V. Katanian, Prikosnovenie k idolam, “Moi 20 vek” series, Moscow, 1997, p.135

42. Ibid, pp.115-16

43. Natalia Ivanova in her 1990 Afterword to Karabchievsky’s controversial Mayakovsky’s Resurrection: “Brosim Maiakovskogo s parakhoda sovremennosti?” in Voskresenie Mayakovskogo, Moscow, 1990, pp.219-23 ( p.222)

44. On the impact of pulp fiction on late Soviet culture see Richard Stites, 1992, Chapter 7: “Perestroika and the People’s Taste.”

45. See Katerina Clark, Petersburg, Crucible of Cultural Revolution, Cambridge, 1995, p.361

46.  Mikhail Epstein, “After the Future: On the New Consciousness in Literature,” 1990 in Late Soviet Culture:  From Perestroika to Novostroika, 1993, p.259

47.  In Moskovskie novosti, October 13, 1991

48. Vadim Kovsky, “ ‘Zheltaia kofta’ Iuriia Karabchievskogo (zametki na poliakh odnoi knigi),” Voprosy literatury, 1990 No.3, pp.26-53 (p.31)

49.  Ogonek, July 17-31, No. 30-31, 1993, p.2

50. “Vasha liubovnaia lodka ne razob’etsia o byt, esli na ee bortu bytovaia tekhnika Siene,” in Kommersant, 18, 1993, cited in Svetlana Boym, Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life, Cambridge, Mass., 1994, p.282

51.  Novikov, p.203

52.  Ibid, p.204

53.  Ibid, p.200

54.  Ibid, p.204

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