Our brains were numb, our fingertips blue. It was past 4pm and getting dark, which is unusual for Moscow in winter. 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 while navigating pathways slicked with ice and snow. But we weren’t about to give up — we’re both steadfast and determined. Map or no map, eyes tearing from the cold, we sloughed through the freezing weather. Until finally — finally!– we spotted it, a red-faced tombstone etched in Cyrillic, reading Vladimir Mayakovsky.
I don’t usually spend much time in cemeteries but this day was different — I was on assignment to find the famous writer, playwright, and poet Mayakovsky. Novodevichy Cemetery is the resting place of many literary, cultural, and political figures including Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet actress Marina Ladynina, and 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.
As a boy, Mayakovsky acted as a revolutionary. At 12, he led his classmates in a demonstration; by 15, he’d landed in jail from associations with an underground Bolshevik group, which is when 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, and instead dedicated his efforts towards the creation of a New World. He found his voice through theatre, poetry, propaganda, and radio jingles, and became celebrated as “the greatest poet of the Soviet era.” But a decade later, his works polarized. 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 getting arrested.
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, surrounded by plastic flowers and a wreath of blood-red roses. We admired Mayakovsky’s profile. I wondered how such a head-strong, intelligent 36-year-old could end 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