[Vladimir Mayakovsky, detail of a poster design, 1921. – Translation of the title: “Comrades! Beware of falling into those jaws. Let us close ranks to escape such a miserable fate—Strengthen Soviet Rule!”]
Ann Charters‘ (July 9 1981) Russian Poetry class continues.
Ann Charters: Well, let’s talk about Mayakovsky as a political poet now for a while, because he was most famous for a poem called “Lenin”, which he wrote in 1924, as a eulogy for the dear departed leader, who had made the Revolution and the victory of the Bolsheviks an actuality. As you could hear from the Esenin poem, Mayakovsky was very good with elegies. He really got into it – like the classical tradition of “Adonais“. Mayakovsky really could write with great, great grandeur and eloquence about the past, in addition to his interest in the new revolution for the future. But the poem about Lenin is a much longer poem, and it was a poem that made Mayakovsky famous – if you had to say which one poem did it – took him from the ranks of the hurly-burly, Beat, kind of Futurists into the ranks where everyone was saying, “Wow, that’s Mayakovsky”. It was this poem on Lenin, which he read on every possible occasion, before the Party, or before members in camps, youth camps, factories, you name it, Mayakovsky was there reading this great poem. And, of course, this was very useful to the people who were steering the government.
AG: This is after Lenin’s death
Ann Charters: Yeah, of course. Lenin died in 1923, and the poem was written a few months later. And Mayakovsky worked very hard on the poem, he just didn’t toss it off, he believed in it. Everything he did he believed in in the long poem. And “Lenin” is a poem (I’ll tell you a little bit about it) that, unequivocably, declares Mayakovsky’s political loyalties to the Communist Party – 1924
Now, if you know anything about the Revolution, you know that it was a very confused time in 1917, that the Bolsheviks sort of snuck in there and got power. And Mayakovsky was a dedicated Communist from the very beginning, but he was not a dedicated Bolshevik until 1924, and that’s a very important distinction.
AG: What’s the difference?
Ann Charters: Well, the Communists – you could be a Trotsky Communist.
Ann Charters: Yeah, you could be a Marxist. You could just be a World Socialist. But a Bolshevik, swearing complete loyalty to the Central Committee’s declarations.
AG: Oh, so that’s the difference.
Ann Charters: Yes.. And this was..
Student: (Could you, perhaps) explain some more. What’s the difference?
AG: Communists, you can be a Socialist, or a Trotskyite or a Communalist..
Ann Charters: Yeah. Right.
AG: ..(a) Cooperativist…
Ann Charters: Communist with a small “c”
Student: Oh, okay.
AG: The Bolshevik then is the…
Ann Charters: Absolutely
AG: … Soviet…
Ann Charters: Is what’s going on now
AG: ..Central Commitee of the Communist Party.
Ann Charters: Yes, that’s the government.
Student (Can you tell me what) “Bolshevik” means?
Ann Charters: It means “the great”
Ann Charters: And this is.. oh, you’ve got a…
AG: Bolshoi Theatre
Ann Charters: That’s “the Big Theatre”, and the Maly Theatre..
AG: Bolshoi Ballet
Ann Charters: The Bolshoi Ballet is the Big Ballet. And the Maly Theatre is the Little Ballet – or Theatre. And the Maly Ballet is the Little Ballet.
Student: (What do you mean), politically, when you say “Bolshevik”?
AG: The Big Party, I guess.
Ann Charters: It means “the Big Party”.
AG: Yeah. Exactly.
Student: When you say “Bolshoi Ballet”, does that mean…
AG: “The Big Ballet”.
Ann Charters: No, no, it has no…
AG: No, it means “big”
Ann Charters: It just means big
AG: “Bolshoi” means “big”
Ann Charters: It’s an adjective
Student: Okay. Got it.
Ann Charters: I have a daughter. My oldest one’s fourteen, and her name is Maly (until I went to the Soviet Union, I didn’t know that word meant “small”, just like “Bolshevik” means “big”, you know – or “Bolshoi”)
AG: So “Bolshevik” would be then like “Beat-nik”, would be “Big-it”, “Biggest”
Ann Charters: Yeah
AG: Remember a “Big-ite”?
AG: Big-ite – that’s someone who’s a Big-nik (from the Big Party), rather than a Small-nik!
Ann Charters: Yeah. Interesting to see poetry in a political context. In this country we are not usually exposed to this reality of the world, which is, in Russia, the main, the big, reality, the Bolshoi reality. In this country, in America, we tend to separate politics and poetry, but in Russia they are completely intertwined.
Student: I have another question. Was that true before Mayakovsky? Because I remember that poem that one of you read last session, and he went to Mayakovsky Street, you know, he went to his old street and now it was called Mayakovsky Street.
AG: Oh, “A Cloud in Trousers”, yeah..
Student: Yeah, right, right. Does that mean that it’s always been like that – that Russians always had really memorialized its poets in that way?
Ann Charters: Yeah
Student: Or was he being funny?
Ann Charters: No, no, no. He wasn’t being..
AG: Some tradition.
Ann Charters: There is a great tradition..
AG: Under the Tsarists, too.
Ann Charters: Yeah. ..of honoring the poets publically, with statues and with street names.
AG: Or fighting them. I think (Alexander) Pushkin had a lot of trouble with the Tsar over his poetry. One of the early poems I read was Pushkin making poisonous remarks about the Tsar [“The Upas Tree”]
Ann Charters: Yeah
AG: Like the poet’s writing some really mean thing about the leader (which is what (Osip) Mandelstam did to (Joseph) Stalin, or what Pushkin did to the Tsar) that gets him in trouble.. is a tradition..
Ann Charters: Now..
AG: But, I think, in the Bolshevik situation, since there was an official union, anybody in the official union who was published officially, therefore anything he says is within the bounds of officialdom…So, if you get up and say you don’t like the country, you can’t say, “I don’t like the government where I live”, or “America.. go fuck yourself with your atom bomb!” (“Russia, why don’t you stick Stalin up your ass!), then you’d be saying that officially, and you can’t say that officially because that would be a a government statement. It’s like our (USA’s) television. If it gets on our television, then it means that it’s part of (our) popular conception of reality, it means it’s real. If you say something on television it means it’s within the bounds of reality, not just a flake lunatic-fringe paranoia.
So same thing there, and so (Yevgeny) Yevtushenko‘s view – because he sticks with the government, he says – in other words, he’s still an official poet, he hasn’t fled and he’s not underground…(that) is, “Although I compromise, I’m sitting on this fence and my role is to move the government one millioneth of an inch left every time I open my mouth...to open things up. Because I say the most extreme left things that anybody will say as a poet. But still it’s official. So if I say it and it’s published in Pravda, like the New York Times, then that means that’s official reality. So I can dare a little bit. And then the bureaucrats will fight me and we’ll have to compromise, but it’ll still be left of what they want. So, therefore, my function is… that’s why I’m sticking here, (in the middle of the mass murder), basically.”
Ann Charters: This is very important. We’re coming at it like a postscript with what Allen just said. We were on our way to talk about “Lenin”, but this is a very very important point – that if you are, as Mayakovsky did in “Lenin”, speaking as an official poet, whatever you say in Russia is the word of the government, and therefore you are really always being carefully, carefully monitored, and carefully, carefully watched. Mayakovsky’s view (and that poem that you just read, the Esenin) is that the word is the Central Committee – not people, you know, powers. Not Stalin or Lenin, but the word. And this is anarchy, really, in terms of poetry. This is poetry – the word as the highest freedom.
Ann Charters: Authority, authority. Whereas what Mayakovsky didn’t understand (and, perhaps this is also a clue to his depression at the very end with the difficulty having his plays performed, and he slowly began to learn it), is that, in the Soviet Union, that wasn’t true – that the Party was the supreme authority, not the word.
AG: Yeah, so this is an heretical statement.
Ann Charters: Totally. And the Futurists, including [Mayakovsky’s married girlfriend], (Lili)) Brik and Mayakovsky, had no practical smarts about how to deal after the Revolution, truly, thinking that the word would still be free. And it just isn’t. It just isn’t.
(Audio for the above may be heard here, starting at approximately sixteen-and-a-half minutes in and continuing to approximately twenty-four-and-a-half minutes in