Introduction Where to start with Vladimir Mayakovsky? He is a difficult figure to bring into focus. Sometimes he seems monolithic and unapproachable, unimpeachable, a monument to everything that the Soviet Union wanted to believe about itself; at other times he’s merely a heap of broken images, a tall man with a loud voice, shouting about… what, exactly? Or he’s a willing victim of the Soviet system, the man who said that he ‘put his foot on the throat of his own song’ and who suffered so much from this self-abnegation that it drove him to suicide. Or he’s a martyr whose afterlife ruined him, turning him from ‘merely’ a popular poet into the man who, as Stalin put it, ‘was, and remains, the best, most gifted poet of our Soviet epoch’. This official commendation transformed Mayakovsky into a burdensome idol: Pasternak saw Stalin’s support as Mayakovsky’s ‘second death’, after which he was forced on the public ‘like potatoes in the time of Catherine the Great’. Add to this the widespread rejection of all things Soviet after the Union collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s. Where to start with Mayakovsky? Do we even need to start with Mayakovsky? There is now a miasma of confusion, of contradictory signals, surrounding both the man and his work.
There is no single answer to the question of how to think about Mayakovsky: biography, like translation, is above all else a matter of interpretation. All I want to suggest are two entry points. The first is Bengt Jangfeldt’s Mayakovsky: A Biography.1 This is a scholarly, thorough, and extremely well presented introduction, not only to Mayakovsky, but also to the intellectual currents of his time, to the circles in which he moved and, no less importantly, to the ménage à trois of Mayakovsky, Lilya Brik, and Lilya’s husband Osip, which provided the motor for a great deal of Mayakovsky’s best work. Jangfeldt admirably sets out to describe Mayakovsky as a man, rather than as a demon or figurehead. This is one way in.
The second way to approach Mayakovsky might be to look at him in action. One of the ways in which he used his vast energy was in his work for the nascent Soviet film industry. Mayakovsky wrote scripts and acted in films throughout the 1910s and 20s, though very little of his work survives. I include in this volume
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