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This bust of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is very powerful. It presents the “great Soviet poet” as a most contentious and threatening force. Unveiled in 1993 near the entrance to the Mayakovsky Museum right across the street from the Lubyanka – where many of Mayakovsky’s friends were incarcerated or murdered – this image is one that shouts reproach. Surely it was planned by sculptor Yury Orekhov that Mayakovsky’s gaze would be averted away from the headquarters of the GPU/NKVD/KGB/FSB. Even in 1993, one of the most liberal periods in Russia, I don’t think it would have been tolerated for this gaze to be aimed at the walls of the building where Mayakovsky’s friend, the director Vsevolod Meyerhold, was murdered in 1940.
Of course, Mayakovsky himself did not live to know about Meyerhold’s murder. Experiencing unbearable pressure in both his personal and public lives, Mayakovsky took his own life by gunshot on April 14, 1930.
Well, I’ll be damned. That was 85 years ago today. I didn’t plan on that. It happened on its own.
Mayakovsky, as Boris Pasternak said with such insight, suffered two deaths. One occurred when he left this mortal coil; another, when, in 1935, Joseph Stalin, giving orders to NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov, raised the dead poet to the status of state hero. Mayakovsky could not possibly have been a Stalinist hero. It doesn’t matter that he wrote no small amount of poetry extolling the wonders of the new Soviet state. That was an honest desire on the part of the poet to believe that change, of which he had dreamed, was indeed bringing forth good. The problem was that the rift between the rhetoric and reality of the time was growing too big. The crimes and evil being done in the name of progress were killing people. Indirectly, but no less effectively, they killed Mayakovsky, too.
You see most of that in Orekhov’s bust. You see anger, you see rebellion, you see power and strength and talent and you see, somehow, in this red marble, a terrible vulnerability. I can’t find it specifically. I can’t say, “Look at this picture and look at the eyebrow or the earlobe and you’ll see it.” It’s not there to be picked out and set aside. But it’s there. In this bulk of rock, with its hawk-like gaze, you see loss and failure and deception and the treachery of history weighing it down. Maybe it’s the anger – maybe that’s too much anger for a human to bear. Mabye that’s where the fatal flaw lies. In anger.
Those of us in Russia again live in an age of animosity and anger. In ways that parallel only the times of Mayakovsky, we have seen the field of culture become a battle ground. That has touched on Mayakovsky’s legacy even in regards to the famous museum that once marked his life and work in this world.
It is interesting to see how changes at the Mayakovsky Museum dovetail with the advancement of history. The first Mayakovsky Museum, a predecessor to the one we now know, was established at a different address in 1937, during the height of the Purges. The current museum was created in 1967-68 in the building where Mayakovsky shot himself. History buffs recognize this as the tail end of The Thaw era. Major reconstructions were undertaken in 1987-89, the height of Perestroika. The museum was closed and its exhibits were partly vandalized in several scandalous moves by the authorities in 2013 – the beginning of the period in which we now live, filled with cultural attacks, raids on places of culture and the plundering of art, past and present, for money and power.
Just as Stalin was necessary to bring Mayakovsky back into the ranks of hero following his suicide (a real no-no for Soviet propaganda’s sake), Leonid Brezhnev was pulled into conflicts that affected the fate of the museum in the 1960s. My point is that Mayakovsky and his legacy continue to act as a kind of litmus test determining which way political and cultural winds are blowing.
As you can see in the photo immediately below, the museum is now abandoned and “under reconstruction.” There is no way of knowing what form the museum will take in the future, just as there is no way of knowing where all the cultural conflict in Russia today is leading us. One can expect that, wherever it leads, it will be reflected in some way in the Mayakovsky Museum. In the final photo below you see the plaque identifying the museum on the inside of the archway that leads to the museum entrance. Beyond it and across the street stands the FSB headquarters at Lubyanka. There is a symbiotic relationship here that feels eternal, whether we like that or not.