Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky was a Russian and Soviet poet, playwright, artist and stage and film actor. He is among the foremost representatives of early-20th century Russian Futurism.
He was born the last of three children in Baghdati, Kutaisi Governorate, former Russian Empire, in country Georgia (Georgia) where his father worked as a forest ranger. His father was of Ukrainian Cossack descent and his mother was of Kuban Cossacks descent. Although Mayakovsky spoke Georgian at school and with friends, his family spoke primarily Russian at home. At the age of 14 Mayakovsky took part in socialist demonstrations at the town of Kutaisi, where he attended the local grammar school. After the sudden and premature death of his father in 1906, the family — Mayakovsky, his mother, and his two sisters — moved to Moscow, where he attended School No. 5.
In Moscow, Mayakovsky developed a passion for Marxist literature and took part in numerous activities of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party; he was to later become an RSDLP (Bolshevik) member. In 1908, he was dismissed from the grammar school because his mother was no longer able to afford the tuition fees.
Around this time, Mayakovsky was imprisoned on three occasions for subversive political activities but, being underage, he avoided deportation. During a period of solitary confinement in Butyrka prison in 1909, he began to write poetry, but his poems were confiscated. On his release from prison, he continued working within the socialist movement, and in 1911 he joined the Moscow Art School where he became acquainted with members of the Russian Futurist movement. He became a leading spokesman for the group Gileas (Гилея), and a close friend of David Burliuk, whom he saw as his mentor.
The 1912 Futurist publication A Slap in the Face of Public Taste (Пощёчина общественному вкусу) contained Mayakovsky's first published poems: Night (Ночь) and Morning (Утро). Because of their political activities, Burlyuk and Mayakovsky were expelled from the Moscow Art School in 1914.
His work continued in the Futurist vein until 1914. His artistic development then shifted increasingly in the direction of narrative and it was this work, published during the period immediately preceding the Russian Revolution, which was to establish his reputation as a poet in Russia and abroad.
A Cloud in Trousers (1915) was Mayakovsky's first major poem of appreciable length and it depicted the heated subjects of love, revolution, religion and art, written from the vantage point of a spurned lover. The language of the work was the language of the streets, and Mayakovsky went to considerable lengths to debunk idealistic and romanticised notions of poetry and poets.
dreaming on a softened brain,
like an over-fed lackey on a greasy settee,
with my heart's bloody tatters I'll mock again;
impudent and caustic, I'll jeer to superfluity.
Of Grandfatherly gentleness I'm devoid,
there's not a single grey hair in my soul!
Thundering the world with the might of my voice,
I go by – handsome,
мечтающую на размягченном мозгу,
как выжиревший лакей на засаленной кушетке,
буду дразнить об окровавленный сердца лоскут:
досыта изъиздеваюсь, нахальный и едкий.
У меня в душе ни одного седого волоса,
и старческой нежности нет в ней!
Мир огромив мощью голоса,
иду – красивый,
In the summer of 1915, Mayakovsky fell in love with a married woman, Lilya Brik, and it is to her that the poem "The Backbone Flute" (1916) was dedicated; she was the wife of his publisher, Osip Brik. The love affair, as well as his impressions of World War I and socialism, strongly influenced his works of these years. The poem "War and the World" (1916) addressed the horrors of World War I and "Man" (1917) is a poem dealing with the anguish of love.
Mayakovsky was rejected as a volunteer at the beginning of World War I, and during 1915-1917 worked at the Petrograd Military Automobile School as a draftsman. At the onset of the Russian Revolution, Mayakovsky was in Smolny, Petrograd. There he witnessed the October Revolution. He started reciting poems such as "Left March! For the Red Marines: 1918" (Левый марш (Матросам), 1918) at naval theatres, with sailors as an audience.
His satirical play Mystery-Bouffe was staged in 1918, and again, more successfully, in 1921. In 1918, Mayakovsky wrote and starred in three silent films made at Neptun studio in St. Petersburg. The only surviving film of Mayakovsky's is The Young Lady and the Hooligan, based on the long tale La maestrina degli operai (The Workers' Young Schoolmistress) published in 1895 by Edmondo De Amicis, author of the unforgettable Heart, and directed by Evgeni Slavinsky. The other two films, It Cannot Be Bought for Money and Shackled by Film were directed by Nikandr Turkin and are presumed lost.
After moving back to Moscow, Mayakovsky worked for the Russian State Telegraph Agency (ROSTA) creating — both graphic and text — satirical Agitprop posters. In 1919, he published his first collection of poems Collected Works 1909-1919 (Все сочиненное Владимиром Маяковским). In the cultural climate of the early Soviet Union, his popularity grew rapidly. From 1922 to 1928, Mayakovsky was a prominent member of the Left Art Front and went on to define his work as 'Communist futurism' (комфут). He edited, along with Sergei Tretyakov and Osip Brik, the journal LEF.
As one of the few Soviet writers who were allowed to travel freely, his voyages to Latvia, Britain, Germany, the United States, Mexico and Cuba influenced works like My Discovery of America (Мое открытие Америки, 1925). He also travelled extensively throughout the Soviet Union.
On a lecture tour in the United States, Mayakovsky met Elli Jones, who later gave birth to his daughter, an event which Mayakovsky only came to know in 1929, when the couple met clandestinely in the south of France, as the relationship was kept secret. In the late 1920s, Mayakovsky fell in love with Tatiana Yakovleva and to her he dedicated the poem "A Letter to Tatiana Yakovleva" (Письмо Татьяне Яковлевой, 1928).
Mayakovsky's influence is not limited to Soviet poetry. While for years he was considered the Soviet poet par excellence, he also changed the perceptions of poetry in wider 20th century culture. His political activism as a propagandistic agitator was rarely understood and often looked upon unfavourably by contemporaries, even close friends like Boris Pasternak. Near the end of the 1920s, Mayakovsky became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking under Joseph Stalin: his satirical plays The Bedbug (Клоп, 1929) and The Bathhouse (Баня, 1930), which deal with the Soviet philistinism and bureaucracy, illustrate this development.
On the evening of April 14, 1930, Mayakovsky shot himself. This is disputed by his daughter, Yelena Vladimirovna Mayakovskaya, a professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at Lehman College in New York City. The unfinished poem in his suicide note read, in part:
And so they say-
"the incident dissolved"
the love boat smashed up
on the dreary routine.
I'm through with life
and [we] should absolve
from mutual hurts, afflictions and spleen.
Mayakovsky was interred at the Moscow Novodevichy Cemetery.
In 1930, his birthplace of Baghdati in Georgia was renamed Mayakovsky in his honour. After his death, Mayakovsky was attacked in the Soviet press as a "formalist" and a "fellow traveller" (попутчик) (as opposed to officially recognised "proletarian poets", such as Demyan Bedny). When, in 1935, Lilya Brik wrote to Stalin to complain about the attacks, Stalin wrote a comment on Brik's letter:
"Comrade Yezhov, please take charge of Brik's letter. Mayakovsky is still the best and the most talented poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his cultural heritage is a crime. Brik's complaints are, in my opinion, justified..."
These words became a cliché and officially canonized Mayakovsky but, as Boris Pasternak noted, they "dealt him the second death" in some circles.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko once said, "As a poet, I wanted to mix something from Mayakovsky and Yesenin." Mayakovsky was the most influential futurist in Lithuania and his poetry helped to form the Four Winds movement there. He was also an influence on the writer Valentin Kataev. Andrey Voznesensky called Mayakovsky a teacher and favorite poet and dedicated a poem to him entitled Маяковский в Париже (Mayakovsky in Paris). In 1967 the Taganka Theater staged the poetical performance Послушайте!, based on Mayakovsky's works. The role of the poet was played by Vladimir Vysotsky, who also was inspired by Mayakovsky's poetry.
In 1938 the Mayakovskaya Metro Station (above) was opened to the public. In 1974 the Russian State Museum of Mayakovsky was opened in the center of Moscow in the building where Mayakovsky resided from 1919 to 1930.
Frank O'Hara wrote a poem named after him, "Mayakovsky", in which the speaker is standing in a bathtub, a probable reference to his play The Bathhouse.
In 1986 English singer and songwriter Billy Bragg recorded the album Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, named after a namesake Mayakovsky's poem.
In 2007 Craig Volk's stage bio-drama Mayakovsky Takes the Stage (based on his screenplay At the Top of My Voice) won the PEN-USA Literary Award for Best Stage Drama.