Poet, Playwright. A leader of the Russian Futurist movement and one of the foremost poets of the early Soviet era. Mayakovsky's verse was highly original in its declamatory style, its often brutal imagery, and use of street language, rhythms, and puns. No poet more forcefully celebrated the cataclysm of the Russian Revolution and Civil War years. He later grew disillusioned with the Soviet regime and committed suicide at 36. Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky was born in Bagdati, Russian Georgia, the son of a forest ranger. After his father's death in 1906 the family moved to Moscow and he got involved with the Bolsheviks. In 1908 he was arrested for distributing propaganda and served 11 months in the Butyrka Prison, much of it in solitary confinement because of his belligerent attitude. During that time he began writing poetry. While studying art at the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (1911) he became friends with avant-garde painter David Burlyuk, who convinced him he was really a poet and introduced him to the Futurists. One of his first public acts was to sign the group's 1912 manifesto, "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste"; that same year two of his poems, "Night" and "Morning", saw print. The Futurists were notorious for their exhibitionist antics and the already egocentric Mayakovsky fit right in. Before long he was disrupting public gatherings with catcalls and occasionally with his fists, and stalking the streets of Moscow dressed in a yellow blazer (with a carrot in the lapel) and top hat while bellowing his verses through a megaphone. Beneath the shock tactics was a serious aim to create a new Russian art freed from earlier traditions, which Mayakovsky demonstrated in his first poetry collection "I" (1913) and the verse drama "Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy" (1913). As the only son of a widow he was spared combat duty during World War I, serving instead as a draftsman at the Military Automobile School in Petrograd (1915 to 1917). There he produced his masterpieces "The Cloud in Trousers" (1915) and "The Backbone Flute" (1916), two of the most savage love poems ever written, as well as "Man" (1916) and "To His Beloved Self the Author Dedicates These Lines" (1916). Maxim Gorky hailed him as a genius, remarking, "There's really nothing to Futurism - only Mayakovsky. A poet. A great poet". Mayakovsky welcomed the 1917 Revolution and ensuing Civil War, and from then on most of his energies were dedicated to glorifying the new order, which at first he believed would realize the Futurist principle of doing away with "decrepit old literature". In "Order to the Army of Art" (1918) he proclaimed, "Comrades, to the barricades! Streets are our brushes/Squares our palettes!", and in another poem he mused, "The White Guard is given over to the firing squad. Why not Pushkin?" For the first anniversary of the revolution he penned "Mystery-Bouffe" (1918), a circus-like extravaganza intended as "new theatre for the masses", and he churned out reams of topical doggerel for newspapers, propaganda posters, and promotional jingles for state-run enterprises. Some of his political verse, including "150,000,000" (1920), "About Conferences" (1922), "Paris" (1923), and the epic "Vladimir Ilyich Lenin" (1924), remains of interest for its imagination and fervor. Adding to his fame was his reputation as an electrifying public performer. Tall, sullen-eyed and strapping, he looked like a prizefighter rather than a poet, and in recital tours throughout the USSR he kept large audiences spellbound with his pugnacious gestures and thunderous baritone voice. One of the few Soviet artists allowed to travel freely, he made several trips to Paris and Berlin and in 1925 he visited the United States, Mexico, and Cuba, recording his (largely negative) impressions in the book "My Discovery of America" (1926). For all the tub-thumping he did on their behalf, there was always something equivocal between Mayakovsky and the Bolsheviks. He refused to join the Communist Party, which made Lenin (who didn't like his poetry) suspicious of him. After the Civil War he clearly tried to play a double game, shilling for the state while remaining personally nonconformist and advocating creative freedom. He cofounded the vital "Left Front of the Arts" movement and was an editor of its literary magazine "LEF", which published some of the finest Soviet poetry and prose of the decade (including Isaac Babel's "Red Cavalry" stories). And his inner muse kept demanding to be heard. "Unfortunately, I again have a craving to write lyric verse" he confessed in a 1924 letter, and it burst out in such remarkable poems as "I Love" (1922), "About This" (1923), and "Letter from Paris to Comrade Kostrov on the Nature of Love" (1928), much to the consternation of party critics. Josef Stalin's rise to power in the late 1920s changed all that, as Mayakovsky's immense popularity and influence was seen as a possible threat. "LEF" magazine was shut down in 1927 and the poet began drawing fire from the militant Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP). Mayakovsky was finally compelled to acknowledge the oppressive nature of the political machine he was serving, and he fought back with the plays "The Bedbug" (1929) and "The Bath House" (1930), which bitterly satirized the new regime and the inhuman "utopian" future he imagined it would lead to. Both were excoriated by the press and soon banned. Thoughts of suicide, evident from his earliest poetry, took on a greater intensity. Further complicating matters was Mayakovsky's turbulent romantic life. Women pursued him everywhere and he had affairs on three continents (one of which, in the US, produced a daughter); but his two great loves were ultimately unattainable. Lily Brik, art patron, muse, and wife of publisher and critic Osip Brik, inspired some of Mayakovsky's greatest lyrics (including "The Backbone Flute"); their liason ended in 1923 when it became clear Brik had no intention of leaving her husband, or refraining from seeing other men. Still carrying a torch over this hopeless relationship, he fell in love again with 18 year-old Tatyana Jakovleva, a Russian emigre he met in Paris in 1928. What followed was an agonizing long-distance romance as Jakovleva refused his pleas to move to Moscow and the authorities made it increasingly difficult for him to leave the country. In the Fall of 1929 Mayakovsky was denied further permission to travel abroad, and that December he learned Jakovleva had married a Frenchman. This contributed to the depression of his final months. In his last important poem, the unfinished "At the Top of My Voice" (1930), he looked back on his career with the conclusion he had "stepped on the throat of my own song" by wasting his gifts on propaganda. On April 14, 1930, Mayakovsky shot himself in his Moscow apartment, allegedly while playing Russian roulette. The note he left behind read in part, "Love's boat has smashed against the daily grind. /Now life and I are quits". He added, "Lily - love me". Over 150,000 people filed past his coffin as he lay in state at Moscow's Writer's Club. His ashes were interred in the main hall of the Donskoi Monastery Crematory. The suicide of "The Bard of the Revolution" caused considerable embarassment in the Kremlin. When the RAPP was abolished in 1932 the Politburo used that group as a scapegoat, accusing its members of hounding Mayakovsky to death, but otherwise his name was scarcely mentioned as literary bureaucrats were unsure what line to take on him. Stalin himself decided the matter. In 1935, Lily Brik wrote a letter to the dictator complaining that Mayakovsky's memory was being neglected. Had he lived he almost certainly would have fallen victim to the political purges that were getting underway; safely dead, he became an ideal candidate for cultural hero. Stalin declared, "Mayakovsky was the best, the most talented poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his legacy is a crime". The threat in that last statement was real and Stalin's words were translated into swift action. Within days Moscow's Triumphant Square was renamed Mayakovsky Square; his remains were later reburied in an honor grave at Novodevichy Cemetery. His work was reprinted in huge (expurgated) editions, statues of him sprang up throughout the USSR, and the poem "Vladimir Ilyich Lenin" became required reading for all Soviet schoolchildren. Boris Pasternak lamented, "He began to be introduced forcibly, like potatoes under Catherine the Great. That was his second death. He had no hand in it". But the power of Mayakovsky's best poetry survived the canonization and eventually the Soviet Union itself. Today he is regarded as a classic of 20th Century Russian Literature.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards