At the Top of His Voice

MayakovskyMayakovsky: A Biography
By Bengt Jangfeldt (Translated by Harry D Watson)
(University of Chicago Press 610pp £24.50)

There are Mayakovsky Streets in forty-five Russian cities and fourteen Ukrainian cities. There are three Mayakovsky Streets in St Petersburg, more than there are in the whole of Kazakhstan, which boasts only a couple, one in Almaty and one in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Triumph Square in Moscow was called Mayakovsky Square from 1935 to 1992; the metro station that serves it is still called Mayakovsky. Omsk seems particularly fond of the poet: as well as a street, it has a cinema and a nightclub (or rather a ‘youth relaxation complex’, which I hope is a nightclub) blessed with the great man’s name.

All this toponymy goes to suggest something of what Pasternak called Vladimir Mayakovsky‘s ‘second death’ in 1935, five years after his suicide. In response to a plea from Mayakovsky’s lover Lili Brik, Stalin famously declared that ‘Mayakovsky was and remains the best, most gifted poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his works and memory is a crime.’ After that, the commemoration machine cranked into action, Mayakovsky was elevated to the position of premier Soviet poet and his work started to be forcibly distributed, like ‘potatoes in the time of Catherine the Great’ (Pasternak again). If you look at Brik’s original letter, you see that Stalin’s decree is scrawled firmly and rapidly across it, and the speed of change was equally radical and decisive: the letter is dated 24 November 1935; Triumph Square was renamed Mayakovsky Square on 17 December.

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