Our brains were numb; our fingertips, blue. It was past 4pm and getting dark — not unusual for winter in Moscow. Under the bleak sky and nearing the end of our tethers, mum and I were fast losing our sense of direction. We must have shuffled by Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, and Nikolai Tchaikovsky a dozen times each while navigating pathways slicked with ice and snow. We weren’t about to give up though — we’re steadfast and pretty determined. Map or no map, eyes tearing from the cold, we sloughed through the freeze. Until finally — FINALLY! — we spotted it. The Cyrillic writing etched across the top of a red-faced tombstone that read: Vladimir Mayakovsky.
I don’t usually spend so much time in cemeteries but this day was different — I was on assignment to find the famous writer, playwright, and poet — Mayakovsky. The Novodevichy Cemetery is the resting place of many literary, cultural, and political figures including Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet actress Marina Ladynina, and the first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yelstin. Located adjacent to the 16th-century Novodevichy Convent, the grave site is one of the city’s top tourist attractions.
The large red-and-black tombstone that forever honours Mayakovsky is deceptive, not only for its camouflaging abilities but because it stands for the Futurist artist who was ultimately shunned by a cause he was so vested in.
As a boy, Mayakovsky acted revolutionary: at 12, he led his classmates in a demonstration; by 15, he’d landed in jail from his association with an underground Bolshevik group, which is where he started to read widely, and write.
At the time of the Russian Revolution, Mayakovsky showed a lack of interest in the classics by Pushkin and Tolstoy, instead dedicating his efforts towards the creation of a New World. He found a voice through theatre, poetry, propaganda, and radio jingles, and went on to be celebrated as “the greatest poet of the Soviet era.” Yet, a decade later, his works seemed to polarize. Reviewers criticised his play, The Bath House, for its (humorous) critique of Soviet bureaucrats, while his artistic retrospective was avoided altogether by the intelligentsia. He feared arrest.
On April 9, “Just five days before his death, Mayakovsky was condemned at a Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) meeting at which his critics demanded proof that he would still be read in 20 years.”* A year later, in 1931, writer Maxim Gorky would head the Writer’s Union, abolish the RAPP, and, with Stalin, formulate the doctrine of Socialist Realism, which embraced an old-world literary aesthetic. To add further fuel, it’s been speculated that Mayakovsky’s lover, Lily Brik, was an agent of Stalin’s secret police — the NKVD.
Mum and I stood shivering in our boots at the foot of Mayakovsky’s grave, blanketed in snow and surrounded by plastic flowers and a wreath of blood-red roses. We admired Mayakovsky’s profile for a time. I wondered how such a head-strong, intelligent 36-year-old could terminate his life with a bullet? Didn’t he have more to say? Then again, perhaps he foresaw his fate.
Below is the reported suicide note, taken from an unfinished work, probably written in 1929:
As they say,
a bungled story.
And we are quits
So why should we
idly reproach each other
with pain and insults?
To those who remain — I wish happiness.
Here are pictures of the site in spring: http://novodevichye.com/mayakovsky/5/
*Natasha’s Dance, by Orlando Figes