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Mitigating Mayakovsky: Exploring the poet’s legacy in post-Soviet Georgia

Vladimir Mayakovksy may be known as a leading poet during the events of 1917, with his name surfacing frequently as tributes pour in commemorating the revolution’s centenary. However, scholars who direct a museum dedicated to the writer in his birthplace in Georgia, are arguing that his talent transcends the political and that the time has come to “read the unread poet”.

August 16, 2017 - Elizabeth Short - Articles and CommentaryHot TopicsStories and ideas

Wladimir Majakowski Grabstein Moskau

Whether he intended it or not, critical misconceptions regarding Mayakovsky’s work are not uncommon. To this day, discussions about him continue to degenerate to old pro- and anti-Communist positions that dominated critical approaches to his work during the Cold War.

Perhaps the most conventional way to understand the intentions of a writer, is to not only explore the background that shaped them, but also observe the legacy and understand the effects that such people have had on those places after they have died. It is in the town where Mayakovsky was born, that local scholars have embarked on this pursuit.

Mayakovsky was born in Baghdati in Georgia’s Imereti region in 1893. The town is one of the oldest settlements in the area, and is still home to a close-knit community of 3,000, many of whom are farmers and winemakers.

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The town was renamed Mayakovsky in 1940, and retained the title until 1991 after the break up of the USSR. Soviet monuments celebrating the writer did not suffer the same fate of Lenin statues around the region, and numerous tributes dedicated to Mayakovksy remain dotted around the town to this day.

The decision to keep the monuments may perhaps reflect the town’s feelings towards the writer. Vice director of the Mayakovsky museum and Baghdati resident Konstantin Kiknadze maintains that although opinion is divided, many of the locals want the town to be renamed once again. “He was one of us, he was born and grew up here”, Kiknadze said, adding that Mayakovsky was so proud of his birthplace that Baghdati actually became his nickname, and therefore, in a way, it would be fitting if the town was to be renamed.

Standing next to the humble single-level wooden house in which Mayakovsky grew up in until the age of 12, which sits perched among the tropical-looking greenery that enshrouds the Imeretian hills, Kiknazde gestures, “He always said he was born in Baghdati, not Russia or Georgia, next to all this beauty, and for him these first impressions he had in his early years were undeniably very important.” To Kiknadze, Baghdati and Mayakovsky are one and the same.

“People may have been against the renaming because they associate him with being a poet of the revolution, but this is irrelevant”, said the museum’s Director Eka Kutchukhidze. According to him, iconic “bourgeois” poet and long-serving critic of the state Anna Akhmatova had already deemed him a genius five years before the revolution. “Many of Mayakovsky’s most famous works, such as ‘A cloud in trousers’ and ‘Backbone flute’ had already been completed long before the revolutionary period”.

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Kiknadze has translated many of Mayakovsky’s poems into Georgian, including many rare pieces, which he believes are illustrative of Mayakovksy’s relevance and universality. “Many thought that interest in Mayakovksy would die after the demise of the Soviet Union. But this did not happen.” According to Kiknadze, the past 20 years have granted the breathing space for him to be “read in a new way”, with the focus shifting from politics to subjects such as love.

“I have translated rare poems such as ‘To All And Everything’, ‘And Yet, Lilichka’, and ‘Letter to Tatiana Yakovleva’, who was his fiancé whom he met in Paris.  In different countries, in Russia and in Russian-speaking countries, they are only just beginning to translate these things. It is only now that he is being discovered not just as a poet of the revolution, but as a remarkable 20th century lyricist.”

Whether this different way of reading Mayakovsky is something that should be explored more in the museum itself is something that is currently coming into question.

The house, where Mayakovsky was brought up by his mother Alexandra and forester father Vladimir, was converted into a museum in 1940, ten years after the poet’s death. The house consists of five spacious rooms and still contains much of the original furniture, books and early woodwork crafted by Mayakovsky.

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However the other part of the museum, which features an exhibition dedicated to his work not just as a poet, but playwright, artist and printmaker, was built in 1983 and has not been changed since. It chronicles Mayakovsky’s life from a specific perspective – that is, through a Soviet lens. “The exhibition here is in a way a reminder of the past itself”, Kiknadze explains, pointing out that the museum has over time, become an artefact. “Of course, there are many things in this exhibition that we do not see – the non-revolutionary Mayakovsky, but it is a very delicate situation.” Wary of tampering with the curation which has its own historical value, he says, “one should not lose something we will later regret.”

It is not just his non-revolutionary love poems that are absent from the exhibition, but also the works made towards the end of Mayakovksy’s life. Plays such as The Banya and The Bedbug were open critiques of Soviet bureaucrats, which Mayakovksy heavily came under fire for. His reputation diminished, and by the time the 1930 Great Soviet Encyclopaedia was published, he was branded an “anarchist, an individualist, a petty bourgeois”. That same year, he committed suicide.

By this time, the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) had taken control over the literary world in the USSR. Organisations such as the LEF (The Left Front of the Arts), to which Mayakovsky and artists including Boris Pasternak, Sergei Eisenstein and others belonged, were dissolved.  

Those who were not part of the RAPP found themselves in a dire situation – their work was not getting printed.

Having carried out extensive research on the topic, Kiknadze says, “There is lots of secret service information in the file on Mayakovsky’s death. It was forwarded to Stalin and the Central Committee, saying that the writers were living in horrible conditions”.

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It was not until a former partner, Lilya Brik, wrote to Stalin in 1935, that the poet was finally canonised into Soviet literature, with the leader deeming him “the best and the most talented poet of our Soviet epoch.”

A look at the guestbook in the museum sees messages written in Arabic, Mandarin, German, French, Russian, and English, by visitors from all over the world. Perhaps what the museum requires is not a complete revamp, but some welcome additions, that enable it to be a place that sheds light on the “other” Mayakovsky – the different aspects of his character and the phases in his life, in an adaptive approach, perhaps best described by the man himself:

If you like

I’ll be furious flesh elemental,

or – changing to tones that the sunset arouses- if you like-

I’ll be extraordinary gentle,

not a man but – a cloud in trousers.

The author would like to thank Boris Schneider for assistance with translation.

Elizabeth Short is a freelance British journalist focusing predominately on art, culture and politics in Eastern Europe. She blogs at instagram.com/tudaonline.

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