Lighthouse of the revolution

The Mayakovsky memorial museum opened in Moscow during the perestroika, in 1989, at the foot of the old KGB headquarters, in the former home of the poet. At the entrance the not very inviting, bald, Mussolini-like head of Mayakovsky with big mouth (and what a big mouth he had!) welcomes the visitor.

Stepping farther we find a second-hand bookshop, decorated with installations inspired by Mayakovsky’s texts in the spirit of the century-old avant-garde. The welded statues are interesting, but I enjoy even more the poet’s startling sentences, which are fresh and modern even today. The title of the exhibition is: “Triumph and tragedy”.

In the first showcase they display the memories of his childhood. Mayakovsky was born in sunny Georgia from Russian parents. He virtually had two mother tongues, Russian and Georgian, and he did not speak any other language. His almost untranslatable confessions compare his native Georgian land to the Garden of Eden.

True, later he decried the classics of the 19th century, although he grew up with them and loved them: he could recite Pushkin’s Onegin by heart. (As a provocative futurist, he would say about Tolstoy: “Lev Nikolaevich is a sensational gossip!”)

He got interested in politics in the Kutaisi Gymnasium. The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 and the first Russian revolution following it played a great role in the teenager’s turn to politics. His father died in sepsis at the age of 48, and the family moved to Moscow. (The circumstances of his father’s death left a life-long mark on him: he feared any kind of infection, for longer journeys he took his own basin with himself, and was only willing to wash himself in it. In the silent film shown in the museum, The Miss and the hooligan, in which Mayakovsky plays the male lead role, there is a scene when the hooligan orders a drink in the pub, and when he receives it, he checks whether the glass is clean. This moment was not in the script, nevertheless Mayakovsky could not abstain from this routine-like precaution.

His Moscow life started in 1907. The 14-year old adolescent began his illegal activity. In 1908 he joined the Bolshevik party. He was arrested three times, the last of which was serious, as he was condemned to solitary confinement in the prison. There he started to be interested in arts, poetry and drawing. His stature contributed to his growing self-confidence: he was above 190 cm. The daughter of the great architect Sekhtyel, Mayakovsky’s first love called him “my giraffe”. In Moscow he got acquainted with Tatlin, Malevich, Khlebnikov and the other future fellow artists. His acquaintance with David Burlyuk, the father of Russian Futurism brought a serious change into his life. Burlyuk, who called him a genius, further strenghtened his self-confidence (which was not weak anyway).

Among the “old” peredvizhnik artists it was Repin who first payed attention to him, and wanted to paint his portrait: it was primarily his dense, wiry hair that he wanted to immortalize. However, at the scheduled time Mayakovsky appeared with completely bold head, on which Repin was really hurt… The rising avant-garde movement walked about the huge empire: in 1914 in Odessa he got acquainted with Mariya Denisova, his first real love, but in 1915 we already see him at the side of Lilya Brik, who will follow him throughout all his life.

After the victory of the revolution he received a room in the Lubyanka, in the building of the present museum. Previously it was an apartment building, which was then nationalized, and converted into kommunalki. Here the poet lived and worked as a committed adherent of the revolution. In 1924 he changed it for a four-room flat on the Arbat, where he lived together with Brik, but his studio was mostly the small room on the fourth floor. It was there that he wrote his suicide note in 1930.

In the period of the NEP he went to an American tour, organized by his old friend Burlyuk, who went into exile after 1917 and became an entrepreneur in the United States.

In the last years of his life was set on stage by Meyerhold his satire “Bug”, a serious criticism of the new system: the poet feared that the ever-increasing, all-embracing apparatus, the reviving chinovnik world would devour the revolution. The “Klop” was still successful, although caused much head-shaking in official circles, but the following “Steam Bath” was already a clear failure.

He was very afraid of the dentist, so his teeth were defective and bad. There is no photo in which we would see him smiling.

In the museum a large basin filled with red blood indicates that the Stalinist machine was launched, as well as a press-like structure where the large screws are more and more tightened…

On the circumstances of his death: the main culprit – in the exhibition’s concept – was clearly the power. Mayakovsky himself wrote: “I am no longer an artist, I have become a bureaucrat” – “я перестал быть художником, я стал чиновником”. A falling volume of Lenin next to the head of the dead poet symbolizes the main reason, the unbearable political power. The collapse of the revolutionary ideals stands behind the suicide, not less than his complicated relationship with Brik. In the fateful days Lilya leaves him and is abroad. She later believed that if she had been next to the poet, all this would have not happened.

“To everyone
For my death, do not accuse anyone, and do not gossip. The deceased terribly hated this.
Mother, sisters, friends, forgive me. This is no fair procedure. I do not recommend it to anyone. However, I have no other way out.
Lilya, love me.
Comrade Government, my family is Lilya Brik, my mother, my sisters and Veronika Viktorovna Polonskaya. If you provide a decent life to them – I thank to you…”
(in addressing the government, the you-form was corrected to thou-form)

Mayakovsky was on first name terms with power, which the quickly developing despotism, much more terrible than the Czar’s former system, tolerated increasingly less and less. His poetry is perhaps the most enduring monument of a failed experiment.

Mayakovsky wanted to throw out the classics from the steamboat of our age. We should not throw him out from the computer of our age.

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