Vladimir Mayakovsky on Triumphal Square, Moscow

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The square where Moscow’s most prominent monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky stands had its name returned to Triumphal Square in 1992, although everyone still calls it Mayakovka. It was officially Mayakovsky Square from 1935 to 1992. That first date, 1935, is no random number. Mayakovsky threw a monkey wrench in the ideologues’ spokes when he committed suicide in 1930. How could the great bard of the Revolution be so self-centered as to kill himself? It took Stalin and his people awhile to figure out what to do about, but they chose in 1935 to “canonize” the dead poet and to sweep his sad end under the rug. His reputation was “rehabilitated” in what Boris Pasternak called his “second death” – from 1935 on, Mayakovsky ceased to be a real poet and a real person with a real biography, that is, with lots of warts and paradoxes. He officially became The Model Poet, the Great Civic Poet, the Great Poet of the Revolution. The statue which we see here was constructed by sculptor Alexander Kibalnikov and erected in 1958. This was another loaded year on the square. Right here on this square a feisty new, freedom-loving theater was opened in 1956 and it was called the Sovremennik, or, the Contemporary. A child of the Thaw, it was a huge success with audiences, taking the opportunity to speak out in ways that most Russian theaters had forgotten could be done. There is still a nagging suspicion that the decision to erect a monument to Mayakovsky was taken by the authorities in order to demolish the building occupied by the Sovremennik and to push the theater out of the city center. The Sovremennik was given fancy digs in a beautiful new building on Chistye Prudy a couple of kilometers away. For awhile, at least, it survived the temptation to become a bourgeois theater in its classy new digs, continuing to be a cutting-edge playhouse, while in its absence on the square a new tradition of free speech arose almost instantly. Poets and wannabe poets, as well as all those who cling to both, began gathering at Mayakovsky’s feet to proclaim the newest and boldest poetry being written. The connection that this small chunk of land has to a striving for freedom has continued into our day. Beginning in 2009 small groups of tenacious protesters would gather here every time a month had a 31st day in order to mark the 31st article of the Russian constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly. The irony, of course, was that the authorities always threw thousands of storm troopers and paddy wagons at the few hundred protesters, scooping them up almost before they could gather and hauling them away. For a few years, in order to discourage these protests, the authorities even closed off the space around the Mayakovsky monument with chain-link fences and deep pits. Officially they were “reconstructing” the space, although for years I never saw a worker there. In fact, they were attempting to deter the protests. In 2013 the square was, indeed, rebuilt, closed to traffic, and outfitted with small plots of grass and plenty of benches for tired passersby to rest on.

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Mayakovka is one of the most culture-packed locations in all of Moscow. The Satire Theater, founded in 1924, is located here. Right around the corner in the Aquarium Garden stands the Mossoviet Theater. Vsevolod Meyerhold, who directed three of Mayakovsky’s plays, was supposed to have his new theater built here, and construction was begun on it. But when Meyerhold was arrested in 1939 and shot in 1940, the building was turned into a concert hall, which it remains to this day. On the north side of the square across from the Satire Theater and the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall once stood the first film studio and film theater in Moscow, run by Alexander Khanzhonkov. Until recently films continued to be shown there in a cinema called the Khanzhonkov House, but that was eventually closed and turned into a concert hall for pop and rock music. The famous spire-topped Pekin Hotel and restaurant are located behind Mayakovsky’s back and can be seen in several of the photos here. The Pekin is not quite as famous a meeting place for cultural figures as the Metropol Hotel near Red Square, but its walls could still tell many a story. For awhile in the mid-to-late 2000s the back rooms of the Pekin hosted a small club called Last Money (Poslednye den’gi) where my wife’s great band Oxy Rocks rocked the house many a time.

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