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Vladimir Mayakovsky: the poet of the revolution

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Vladimir Mayakovsky’s life encapsulated the expansion of hope sparked by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the tragedy of its overthrow, says Roger Huddle
Issue 1924
Vladimir Mayakovsky
Vladimir Mayakovsky

There were two revolutions in Russia in 1917 – the first in February, the second in October. The February Revolution swept away the thousand-year rule of the Tsar.

Artists and intellectuals who relied on the old aristocracy for their privileged status were also swept away. But many artists welcomed the revolution.

The poet Mayakovsky remained on the streets throughout the February days – going to where he heard gunfire, staying with the people on the move:

This is the first day of the workers’ deluge.
We come to the aid of the muddled-up world.
Let crowds rock the skies with their stamp and yelling!”

As 1917 dragged on the war did not end. A provisional government beat the patriotic drum and called a halt to any more change. The workers looked more and more to Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.

After months of intense struggle the workers and their organisation took power. By October the Bolsheviks had the majority of the delegates in the soviets (workers’ councils). Through the soviets the Bolsheviks had the support of the masses in the army, the countryside and the major cities of Russia.

Society was burst asunder for a second time in a workers’ revolution:

“Beat the squares with the tramp of rebels!
Sweeping over the heads of the proud.
We’ll wash the world with a second deluge,
now’s the time whose coming they dread.”

Mayakovsky was born in 1893 in the village of Bagdadi in Georgia. At the age of 12 he was expelled from school for taking part in a demonstration.

Mayakovsky went to Moscow in 1906 after the death of his father. In 1907, at the age of 14, he joined the Bolsheviks.

He was sent to prison in 1909 for distributing leaflets. On his third arrest he was sent down for 11 months. He left prison determined to become a poet and artist, and left the Bolshevik Party.

In 1911 he began to study art in Moscow, and very quickly became involved with the Futurists. It was during this period that he found his voice and produced his greatest lyrical poetry, including the personal manifesto to struggle and to love, A Cloud in Trousers.

The Futurists were influenced by the European artistic movements like modernism and Cubism, with its fractured way of looking at the world.

The Futurists saw art as a weapon in a bitter struggle with the old. It took its imagery and inspiration from the city, the technologies of a growing capitalism that were changing the world.

Mayakovsky was committed to transforming not only the subject of poetry but its form and language as well.

In November 1914 Mayakovsky was expelled from art school for his Futurist readings and anti-war stance. He then went all out as a propagandist, becoming the leading poet of the avant-garde.

During the revolution Mayakovsky strode forth with “An Order to the Art Army”, written in March 1918:

“Drag pianos out into the streets!
Drums with boat hooks
from windows hang!
Hammer pianos,
bang on the bellowing drum.
Let there be crashes,
let there be thunder –

Enough of half penny truths!
Old trash from your hearts erase!
Streets for paint-brushes we’ll use,
our palettes – squares with their wide open space.
Revolution’s days have yet to be sung by the thousand year book of time.
Into the streets, the crowds among,
masters of rhyme!”

The years 1918-21 saw the development of the most liberating and experimental forms of organisation governing daily life, affecting marriage and divorce, the family and childcare, sexuality and sexual preference.

Through collective control there were real attempts to socialise living. The introduction of communal laundries and restaurants was part of lifting the daily drudgery for women in the individual home.

And above all there was a real thirst for knowledge and culture, a desire to express their revolution and to take over the past now everything was theirs. Within a very short time there were over 7,000 workers’ theatre clubs. Poetry and literature flowed through countless publications.

This debate and experimentation was possible because the mass of the population moved into political life.

The revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky wrote, “The popular masses were still quivering in every fibre, and were thinking aloud for the first time in a thousand years. All the best youthful forces of art were touched to the quick.”

During the defence of Petrograd in 1919 Mayakovsky worked days and nights in the Russian Telegraph Agency writing short propaganda poems and illustrating them. They were immediately flyposted across the city.

But by the early 1920s a bureaucracy was becoming entrenched within Soviet society. Mayakovsky wrote a scathing satire on the bureaucracy called “Re Conferences”. Lenin made a speech saying how much he agreed with Mayakovsky, and that bureaucracy was eating away at the workers’ state.

With the declaration from Stalin that socialism was possible in one country, the counter-revolution began. The bureaucracy became a new ruling class, workers’ democracy was eroded and the left was suppressed.

The crushing of experimental art to replace it with art of the committee, dictated by decree, was a symptom of the revolution’s defeat, which was complete by 1928.

Mayakovsky continued to write, act in films, produce plays and design advertising posters. But by the late 1920s he was broken. In 1928 he put on his own exhibition, 20 Years Work, to show how much he had given to the revolution. It was ignored. On 9 April 1930 he read his poem “At the Top of My Voice” to students who shouted him down for being obscure.

On 14 April 1930 he put a bullet into his brain.

Tens of thousands followed his coffin at the funeral in Moscow at a time when Stalin was denouncing him.

To read Mayakovsky’s poetry go to

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