Where little Fyodor played

Stephen Greenblatt

The small dacha in Peredelkino outside Moscow where Boris Pasternak lived for several years and where in 1960 he died is now a museum. It was there that the Writer’s Union representative took us – a group of jet-lagged American journal editors – on the first afternoon of our recent visit. The books and the furniture and the grand piano and the drawings by his father Leonid, all of which had been carted off after Pasternak’s death, when the dacha was unceremoniously assigned to another writer, have been brought back, and the poet who had been expelled by the Writer’s Union in the wake of the publication of Doctor Zhivago, is now given culture’s highest tribute – museumification. This means a woman at a desk, tearing tickets printed on cheap paper; another woman with a feather duster and an expression of unutterable boredom; and a voluble young man with mad eyes who conducts a tour. He shows us the drawing-room, the dining-room, the small bedroom where Pasternak died. A framed reproduction of his father’s portrait of Tolstoy hangs on the wall; on the bed lies a wilted bouquet of flowers, a reminder of the thousands of mourners who showed up to pay their last respects, lining up for three days on the lanes that ran through the birch woods, even though there had been only the smallest death notice in the newspapers and though public expressions of grief were not, to put it mildly, encouraged.

Upstairs, we are shown the desk where Pasternak wrote – always the climax of a visit to a writer’s museum and always the point for me at which the futility of such places is most overwhelming. If you go to Monet’s Giverney, the nature of his brushes and paints, the equipment he devised to move his canvases to the scenes he wished to paint, the quality of the light, and the forms and colours of the surrounding landscape, are all deeply, intimately relevant to the understanding of the paintings. Indeed the landscape in this case was self-consiously shaped by the artist’s aesthetic, made to look like a Monet painting so that Monet could paint it. But it is only in the rarest of instances that a writer’s house discloses anything so immediately pertinent to the achievements that have brought one there in homage or curiosity.

The great poet’s desk appears to be a desk like many other desks. But standing before it the young guide rouses himself to a pitch of panegyrical eloquence and says that he will now recite some verses by Pasternak. He does not wish to have these verses translated: we should just listen. Looking at us with his half-mad eyes and gesturing at the birch trees swaying in the wind, he chants the poem and then is silent for a moment. If we grasp the untranslatability of the lines, he resumes in a histrionic whisper, we will understand why Pasternak never emigrated from Russia.

What are we being told? That Pasternak’s poetry is essentially different from the poetry of Shakespeare or Goethe or Rilke which Pasternak himself translated? That Pasternak was not a Jewish cosmopolitan but a true Russian, the possessor of a Slavic soul that would sicken and die away from its homeland? Or that many Russians are asking themselves, at this immensely difficult and confusing moment, why they should not emigrate or at least dream of emigration? Pasternak was told that he could go to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize but only on condition that he never again return to the USSR. Perhaps his example – he refused to leave the motherland, remaining instead at Peredelkino, working at that desk, looking at those birch trees – sustains the people who now visit the dacha. Perhaps that is what the museum is actually meant to commemorate.

I talked about emigration on a walk later that afternoon with the young interpreter, Misha, who had been assigned to our group. He knew a great many Jews who had left Russia for Israel, he said, but they misrepresented their motives. It was not for fear of anti-semitism and certainly not for religious reasons. They knew nothing of Judaism: they couldn’t speak Hebrew or Yiddish, did not wear the little hats, did not eat special foods. They left for ‘economical advancement’. I said that any identity – and perhaps Jewish identity in particular – was difficult to connect securely to a set of practices; it was often more elusive and at the same time more tenacious. All these people had of Jewish identity, Misha said, was that it was written on their passports. ‘Don’t misunderstand,’ he continued, ‘I don’t resent anyone leaving for economical reasons: I just don’t think it should be represented as a matter of identity.’

We had been walking through a cemetery – each of the graves carefully demarcated by a wrought-iron enclosure, as if to insist in death on the private property abolished for the living, the gravestones all with photographs enamelled to their surfaces, so that in effect one passes through an exhibition of the faces of the dead possessors of the tiny landed estates – and we arrived at a small Russian Orthodox church. Inside there were three weddings being performed together: to the chanting of the priests and congregants, the brides and grooms walked in procession with crowns held above their heads. Before the iconostasis they were led by the officiating priest to the principal icon, which they solemnly kissed; each was then presented with another framed image which they once again kissed. I noticed that Misha crossed himself.

After the Revolution, most of the Soviet Union’s thousands of churches were closed and allowed to fall into neglect, or turned into warehouses and small factories, or pulled down. A small number were turned into museums, either for the display of non-religious are objects – as is the case with the exquisite Late-Medieval church near the Writers’ Union in which I saw a dreary exhibition of mediocre sports posters – or for the display of the very church furnishings that had once served ritual functions. We are accustomed to such display, since our fine arts museums and ethnography collections are filled with ritual paraphernalia, emblems of divinity, objects of veneration that have now been framed, encased, mounted, labelled, and set out for scientific study and aesthetic contemplation. There is probably always some small element of demystification in any such display, no matter how respectful, for if museums function as honorifics, as in the case of Pasternak, they also function as emblems of containment and control. Museums are often the signs of a buried fear, of anxiety enfolded by pleasure. This is possibly true even in the case of Pasternak’s dacha, where the Writers’ Union tries now to absorb what it had once tried to expel, but it is certainly true of religion, which is, after all, a rather more dangerous force than poetry, even in Russia. To make icons into museum objects was to turn them into works of art, to neutralise them through the cultivation of disinterested appreciation, to demonstrate that they had lost their charisma, to value them only and specifically as human achievements. And to turn the churches into museums for the display of these achievements – to preserve a small number of the buildings as works of art enclosing works of art – was to double and redouble the ideological triumph, since the once-sacred precincts would now be removed from any possibility of misuse and dedicated not to ritual but to reason.

The couples who were solemnly kissing the icon in the small church at Peredelkino – a church that may only recently have opened again, along with hundreds of others – were not interested in aesthetic quality; they were enacting a ritual practice mocked in 1922 by Mayakovsky in one of his so-called ‘Agitpoems’, written for Soviet newspapers:

And while Filthyface
      sticks out his dirty lips,
from his lips
         to the ikon
                a bacillus plied –

malignant –
 which, after a very brief kip,
began to multiply ...

Peasants, if you can’t draw
   the conclusion yourself
here it is:
  at ikons don’t gawk and gasp,
don’t lick with your lips
         holy images filth,
don’t be a Christ-kisser ...

The dream was to sweep away religion, along with other vicious superstitions such as inter-ethnic hatred; to cleanse people’s minds not only with the raucous power of coarse ridicule but with the rational, antiseptic aid of modern science, the science that could track the movement of bacilli from lip to icon to lip. But, along with all the other wreckage of the revolutionary project, religion is resurgent in the Soviet Union, and the congregants I saw in Peredelkino and Zagorsk and Moscow showed no self-consciousness or concern for hygiene in their devotional practices. I asked the Soviet literary editors with whom we were meeting what projects they were most excited about. A modern translation of the New Testament, one replied; several suppressed classics of late 19th-century theosophy, said another. What they need at this point, I thought, was not theosophy but the Federalist Papers – which Gregory Freidin of Stanford is just now translating into Russian.

As we left the church and resumed our walk, Misha started in again about the Jews and their pursuit of ‘economical advancement’. They knew no more of Judaism, he said, than he did of Christianity. I asked him why he had crossed himself a few minutes ago. After a moment he replied that in some strange sense he thought of himself as a Christian and that, besides, as a Russian, it was right to keep up an observance of Russian customs. I said that perhaps he had just explained something about the Jews, who, in spite of their ignorance or indifference to religion, still somehow thought of themselves as Jews. ‘Nonsense,’ he replied.

Late that afternoon we began our meetings, the first an informal gathering with a group of writers who were staying at the dachas in Peredelkino. Many were quite old – Misha whispered that they probably hadn’t written anything in decades – and a few of the questions suggested that some had had very few opportunities to talk with foreigners. What is a royalty? they asked. What is a market? How in American universities are books chosen to be taught and written about? How much are writers and editors paid? Has American literature been ruined by popular culture? Can a poet make a living in the United States? What is the status of national identities in journals and in teaching? Do our national groups insist on their literature being taught in the original language or in English? What do we think of Solzhenitsyn? Why does it take so long to get into print? The last question was asked by a man who claimed to be 108 years old and offered to give me a picture of himself with Lenin.

The next day our official meetings began at the headquarters of the Writers’ Union, housed in a handsome former palace on which Tolstoy is said to have based his depiction of the Rostov mansion in War and Peace. The meetings rather implausibly brought together a group of American journal editors entirely ignorant of the Russian language, and ill-informed about the nature of literary journals in the Soviet Union, with a group of Russian journal editors most of whom were equally ignorant of English and of the nature of literary journals in the United States. Some of us had already met last year at a conference in California, so that our conversation was not starting from scratch, but the few things we had managed to learn about each other only worked to intensify our sense of distance. ‘The worst effect of perestroika,’ Dmitry Urnov, editor of Problems of Literature, had told us, ‘is the Modern and Post-Modern rubbish we now have to publish.’ To realise how mediocre this new work is, he continued, try a thought-experiment. Take a truly great writer from the past – O. Henry was the example he proposed – and imagine him transported by a time machine to the present: he would be able to write a novel by Faulkner or Pynchon in a week. But imagine Faulkner or Pynchon transported to the past: they could work all their lives and not produce an O. Henry story! Is this really what most worries you? we asked. ‘Well, actually,’ he replied, ‘my biggest concern is the number of Jews who are now pushing forward to have their stories and articles published.’ Really? we said dryly. This is not something that American literary editors are usually worried about. ‘Don’t misunderstand me,’ Urnov continued, ‘I am myself one-eighth Jewish. I am only concerned that there will be a backlash. The people who are really suffering in the Soviet Union today, the people who are treated the worst, are the Russians. And they resent it.’

Some of these themes surfaced again last month, but there were new preoccupations as well. ‘What are we supposed to do?’ a harried editor lamented. ‘We bring our copy to the printer, and he simply doesn’t do the job. We used to worry about distribution; now we worry if there will be anything to distribute.’ The editor of Novy Mir concurs: ‘We are raising our prices, so that we anticipate a circulation drop from 2.6 million to one. It is a necessity – there is not enough paper.’ The size of Novy Mir’s circulation suggests the comical magnitude of the mismatch between the Soviet and American literary journals represented at the meeting: even the smaller-scale journals like Problems of Literature or Literary Workshop seemed to have circulations or forty or fifty thousand. Journals like Representations, Critical Inquiry and New Literary History have not, I need scarcely say, approached the remotest suburbs of such success.

The point about this difference in scale is not simply that it reflects a mismatch: small-circulation American academic journals conjoined with Soviet giants. Even with cannier planning, it would have been difficult to make the perfect match, for there is no equivalent in the United States to the Russian sense of the place of literature in the life of the country. ‘The USSR has lost its spiritual goal, its ideal,’ said Alexander Mikhailov, an official of the Writers’ Union and editor of Literary Workshop:

Our revolution overthrew not only the Tsar but throne and God together. In place of God, the people were offered the world revolution and the victory of Communism. But neither world revolution nor Communism has come. It is obvious to everyone that Communism was an illusion, but we have in the meanwhile destroyed everything that people could live for. This is the present condition of our society, and it has a direct effect on our literature: many writers have put aside their manuscripts and have gone into television journalism and speech-making. But those of us who continue to write literature and edit literary journals have as our responsibility the task of shaping the values of the people of the Soviet Union, giving our readers a vision to live for, to convey by what we publish a set of higher purposes and a reason to hope.

Such claims, it is safe to say, would not be made by the editors of most American literary and cultural journals, even at moments of expansive speechifying. If they were made, they would be considered risible. To be sure, some of us might feel a twinge of nostalgia for a distant time in which it was possible to hope, or profess to hope, that art would be the blazing star of redemption. In such a time even mere editors – gate-keepers in the mansion of artistic creativity – could be regarded as crucial figures in the life of the nation. But such nostalgia has itself come under severe criticism, and aspirations such as those eloquently articulated by the Soviet editors would seem to be the expression of a fundamentally religious calling. If we were to look for the equivalent in the United States of the purposes articulated by the Soviet editors, it would be in the slick publications of the religious Right, glossy inspirational magazines which, along with radio and television broadcasts, offer direct insight into the meaning of existence. We might also, to be sure, find some equivalent in the more marginal publications of the Far Left – the cheaply-printed, strident newspapers of the Revolutionary Workers’ Party and the like.

It may not matter very much if this religious calling is realised in the context of a transcendental theology, such as Christianity, or a secular theology, such as Marxism: what matters is a sense of mission, an apocalyptic struggle against the forces of darkness, a chiliastic hope. Hence when several of the Soviet editors, whose journals until recently were presumably publishing stories and articles consistent with Marxist orthodoxy, told us of their interest in publishing Russian Orthodox devotional texts, the radical shift seems less striking than the continuity. To Americans what appears to be missing are the sceptical, secular values of civil society – the society which much of the time makes the editors of American literary journals feel at once marginal and independent.

Many Soviet editors opposed the abolition of censorship, we were told by the editor of a Soviet journal called the Literary Review, for with censorship you have no responsibility; you don’t have to justify your choices; you needn’t worry if a writer’s intentions are orthodox or heterodox. Urnov disagreed: ‘You can bracket intentions,’ he said, ‘and determine on objective grounds if a text is orthodox or heterodox.’ I had earlier asked Urnov if he had read Darkness at Noon. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘twenty years earlier than anyone else in Russia. My job at the Gorky Institute used to be to read and write reports on anti-Soviet books.’ Now I asked him about the ‘objective grounds’ on which he would make his determinations. ‘You Americans are relavitists,’ he said, as we sat around the long table in the Writer’s Union, under a picture of Lenin. ‘The Russian conception of culture is linked with an idea of progress, an evaluative category.’ ‘We still live in a culture in which literature plays a decisive role,’ added another Russian editor.

We Americans, for our part, agreed that we lived in a very different cultural world: in ours literature is widely regarded as politically irrelevant. This is so despite the fact that the people of the United States consume a vast number of carefully constructed fictions everyday in magazines and newspapers. One consequence of this perceived irrelevance is self-doubt; another is relative freedom from interference. But the vice-chairman of the Writers’ Union, Lengvard Khitrov, rose to disagree. Khitrov was handsome, smoothly genial, and fluent in English. (His name, I was told, means ‘sly’.) He had spent a lot of time in the United States, he said with a laugh, until the Heritage Foundation circulated the ridiculous charge that he was a spy and forced him to leave the country. During his years in New York he had talked with the literary élite and concluded that we did after all have much in common. In particular, he said, we shared the following five things: 1. Humanism. 2. Patriotism (‘I was very impressed,’ he said, ‘by the powerful feelings you have for your flag, as was made very clear during the last Presidential election campaign’). 3. Realism. 4. A commitment to the popular character of culture and criticism. 5. A strong sense of universalism. He sat down. We were silent for a minute. Then Tom Mitchell, the editor of Critical Inquiry, pointed out that Mr Khitrov had identified the five positions that had been most strenuously attacked in the literary discourse of the United States for the past twenty years. We broke for lunch.

Lunch in the Writers’ Union is in a grand dining-room, a Gothic-Revival hall built by the wealthy merchant who owned the house in the late 19th century. Outside most of the official food shops are virtually empty – no meat, no vodka, no potatoes or bread. But inside the Writers’ Union, there are no shortages: we ate caviar and smoked salmon, chicken Kiev and roast beef, and proposed long, sentimental toasts to one another. There are stern-faced door-keepers not only at all of the entrances to the Writers’ Union, but also at the entrance to the dining-hall. The outside doors may be guarded in response to an incident about a year ago, when members of the right-wing Pamyat entered the building and beat up several Jewish writers. The translator Misha suggested a different reason for the guards at the dining-hall door: ‘They don’t want anyone to see how well people are eating here,’ he whispered, looking with astonishment at the food-laden tables. ‘This is a feast in a plague.’

I was seated across from two of the senior editors. Both were expressing contempt for Yeltsin, whom they regarded as a boorish ignoramus, utterly unsuited to meet the current economic crisis. They told some jokes about Yeltsin, too ineptly translated for me to understand, and then passed on to jokes about Armenians and Azerbaijanis, jokes so broad that I understood them too well. I turned to the person sitting next to me, a young woman named Alya who was an assistant at the Writers’ Union, and asked her about the Women’s Movement in Russia. Before she spoke, one of the editors answered: ‘Women start off well, better than men, in fact, but they never have anything profound to say: they never achieve any real depth.’ After a while, the editors had to leave. Alya, who had been demurely silent, said quietly that Yeltsin was the last best hope of the country and that you could tell a lot about what a person thought of many things by finding out his attitude toward Yeltsin.

The meetings went on like this for several days. We talked about Deconstruction, about Paul de Man, about ideological subversion and containment, about principles of selection and rejection, about the fortunes of systematic Marxist literary criticism, and so forth. There were some moments of illumination, but often the American editors seemed to be groping in a fog, in part because of our own ignorance, in part because the Russian editors were themselves groping. ‘Every person here is highly politicised,’ remarked a Russian woman who was among the invited observers at the conference: ‘none comes with an assumption of literary or intellectual autonomy. The consequence is that we cannot get an objective image of our own literary life.’ ‘Sometimes,’ she added, ‘I feel that we are floating in space; we have lost touch with ourselves, our roots.’

I have little doubt that the practical function of our meeting, from the perspective of the Soviet literary editors, was to confer an air of legitimacy and importance on themselves and on an enterprise that has come under increasing attack. How long will the cultural life of the country be organised by the Writers’ Union? How long will the state continue to support journals like Problems of Literature? How long will this group of insiders remain inside? But perhaps legitimation was not the only function, perhaps at least some of the editors were genuinely casting about for other ways to think of literature and criticism, new representations of their cultural past, the means to restore a damaged artistic legacy. Whatever else it signifies, the Pasternak museum suggests one attempt at revisionary healing.

Two other writers’ museums to which we were taken may suggest the poles within which current critical thought in the Soviet Union are located. The first was the Dostoevsky Museum-Flat on the outskirts of Moscow, on Bozhedomka Street. This is located in the wing of a graceful Neoclassical building from the early 19th century, the building that became the Marinskaya Hospital for the Poor, where the novelist’s father served as a senior doctor. Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in this house in 1823 and lived here for 16 years. In 1928 Anatoly Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar for Public Education, dedicated the flat as a historic site, in which family mementoes were displayed, and in the early Eighties the museum was lavishly restored and the exhibits redesigned.

The result is a deeply conservative, aesthetically pious reconstruction of the apartment as Dostoevsky might have known it, each object lovingly displayed and set off by flickering electric candles and other designer touches. ‘It was in this room that Dostoevsky’s mother, dying of tuberculosis, blessed her children for the last time’; ‘here the future novelist saw his father sitting in the drawing-room at the table on which lay prescriptions and case-histories’; ‘this is where little Fyodor and his brother played, listening to their nanny’s fairy-tales and began their studies.’ The climax of the museum is a long, sombre corridor, entirely empty except for a glass case at the far end, in which there is an imitation candle, a blank sheet of paper at the bottom of which someone has forged Dostoevsky’s signature, and the ‘penholder and nib used by the artist when working on his novel The Brothers Karamazov’.

Since the artist left for St Petersburg when he was still an adolescent, the precious penholder and nib do not really belong to the time when the Dostoevskys lived in the flat: they are displayed for veneration like relics. And like relics, they are meant to hold in their modest materiality traces of an enormous spiritual power: St Fyodor, pray for us! But this is precisely what such literary remains – the pen, the wooden toy that he might have played with, and ‘the bronze candelabrum that belonged to the Dostoevsky family’ – conspicuously fail to do. They are the dead letters of literary creativity, and the best that can be said for them is that they call attention to the fantastic gap between their own banality and the tormented energy of the letters, which remain so uncannily alive. But, of course, the museum has been designed to conceal that gap, to sentimentalise the author’s life by celebrating its supposed continuity, to domesticate the wildness of his art.

Nothing in the Dostoevsky Museum-Flat or in anything else we had seen in Moscow prepared us then for the mode of commemoration embodied in the brand-new Mayakovsky Museum at 3 Lubiansky Drive, just across from KGB headquarters on Dzerzhinsky Square. The office building in which the museum is located is also owned, if that is the right word, by the KGB – it had already belonged in the Twenties to the Cheka – and for all I know there is a secret passage from its nether regions to the notorious Lubianka Prison, in the dungeons across the square. Perhaps it was this sinister association which led E. Amaspur, and the team of artists and architects who were funded by the Moscow City Council, to build the new museum to have visitors enter by passing through a strange, sloping metal scaffold and descending a long flight of stone stairs under a huge wire construction in the shape of a pistol. At the bottom of the stairs is a false door – its angle pushed off-line, as if someone had tried to break through and continue the descent – and you have to swerve abruptly to reach the museum cloakroom. There the strangeness intensifies: a row of distorted and half-smashed chairs, a wall of broken mirrors, a confused jumble of metal in the shape of crumpled papers, lost gloves, a revolver in an overturned hat. At this level of the museum you can enter a small theatre – reached through a zany simulacrum of a backstage – in which Mayakovsky’s experimental films are screened on an old, stained canvas cloth, or you can begin to ascend a series of spiralling ramps.

The ramps are the site of the exhibition proper, except that there is nothing proper about the exhibition. To be sure, this is a writer’s museum, filled with documents tracing the history of the poet’s life, from his birth in 1893 in a Georgian village, to his early revolutionary enthusiasms, his first attempts at poetry and painting, his arrests, his passionate love affairs, his fascination with terror and violence, the fierce manifestos and aggressive innovations of Futurism. But everything is fractured, defaced, distorted. The ‘relics’ of Mayakovsky’s remarkable life are displayed under glass, but the glass is cracked, or scribbled over with red paint, or half-hidden under overturned tables and enormous chairs. A huge brick cabinet is half-sunk in the floor, statues are smashed, tears turn to balls rolling across the ground, icons are defaced, pictures are pushed from their frames by thrusting metal rods. Down with your art, your love, your religion, your society, Mayakovsky shouted at the top of his voice, and the museum’s mad, twisted dioramas relentlessly articulate the revolutionary project. They also cunningly suggest its internal contradictions – the artist at war with art, the incurable romantic desperately trying to eradicate love.

As you circle the ramps, you constantly glimpse through an enormous industrial grate a staircase – an ordinary, depressing, four-story Moscow apartment house staircase – and it is to the foot of these stairs that the spiral leads. This is the staircase that Mayakovsky climbed, the museum curator told us, or almost, since at the time that the KGB remodelled its offices, the original was destroyed and a duplicate had to be moved from a virtually identical building. You trudge up the 76 stairs, to a brown door with Mayakovsky’s name on it, Number 12. On the left you see across a rope barrier a tiny room with a grey sofa, wooden desk and chair, antiquated telephone, bookcase, trunk, small table and an old rug. The paint is peeling, and over the desk, at eye level, there is a small photograph of Lenin. This is the room where Mayakovsky lived and where, on 14 April 1930, he shot himself in the heart.

The staircase and the flat are a kind of ironic quotation, a simulacrum whose resolute conventionality (accentuated by the parodic rope-barrier) implies that the surrounding exhibition is in effect an anti-museum. Encysted in this anti-museum where everything is rhetorically heightened, distorted and defaced is a depressing fragment of the everyday: the wild colours and exaggerated gestures of revolutionary ambition give way for a long moment to the constraints of the quotidian. Mayakovsky sang again and again of an escape from these constraints; in his play The Bathhouse, written shortly before his suicide, a phosphorescent woman appears in a time machine to carry the best people into the future: ‘At the first signal we blast off, and smash through the old decrepit time.’ The extravagant installations along the ramps provide intimations of this blast-off, but, plodding up the staircase, the visitor feels once again the glacial weight of the ordinary. All the weariness of a stale, drab existence – so excruciatingly evident everywhere in Moscow today – seems to be registered in the small indentations, the literal depressions, made by the thousands of feet that have scraped along the stairs.

Yet the ‘real’ flat, tiny and dismal in the familiar Soviet manner, is not the climax of the visit: the exhibition continues, flowing outward into a new series of installations that spiral downward past Mayakovsky’s remarkable experiments in revolutionary theatre, his travels through the United States and Mexico and Europe, his virtual obsession with Lenin, whom he saw as a figure of salvific power. ‘I clean myself by Lenin,’ he wrote, ‘to cruise still further in revolution’s sea.’ On Lenin’s death in 1924, Mayakovsky wrote an epic poem on his hero:

Here

      every peasant
        has Lenin’s name
more loving than saints’,
          in his heart
                 written deep.

And in one of the museum’s most peculiar sections a portrait of Lenin, with a disturbingly broad smile, looks out on the disordered mass of Mayakovsky’s tributes.

Mayakovsky threw himself with characteristic recklessness and fervour into the Bolshevik cause: ‘I plunge into Communism from the heights of poetry above,’ he wrote, ‘because for me, without it, there is no love.’ And as you descend the spiral you encounter a jumble of printing presses, propaganda posters, leaflets, broadsides, literary magazines, documentary traces of bureaucratic struggles, notes from admirers and detractors, photographs of colleagues and enemies, diaries from restless lecture tours through the Soviet Union. By this time the confusion of fractured images has begun to be wearying – exactly the effect the museum designers appear to have calculated, as the spiral reaches Stalin and suicide.

The motives for Mayakovsky’s suicide have been famously debated: a lover tormented by disappointment, a romantic poet tormented by the failure to achieve his utopian goals, a revolutionary artist harried by the officials of RAPP (Association of Proletarian Writers) and presciently aware of the impending bureaucratic betrayal of the cause. In a remarkable essay ‘On a generation that squandered its poets’, written shortly after the announcement of the poet’s death, one of his friends, the great linguist Roman Jakobson, wrote that suicide was an act Mayakovsky had long contemplated and repeatedly articulated in his most intense poems, an act at once intimately personal and bound up with the tragedy of an entire generation. Mayakovsky was the embodiment of a tremendous creative urge – his poetry was ‘qualitatively different from everything in Russian verse before him’ – but his marvellous rebellious energy was broken by the ‘stablising force of an immutable present, covered over, as this present is, by a stagnating slime, which stifles life in its tight, hard mold’. Jakobson observes that Western European languages have no precise word for this ‘slime’, hut that Russians, who know it well and know, too, the deep desire to rise up against it, call it byt. Mayakovsky was obsessed with byt– with soul-killing trivia, bureaucratic stupidity, the endless deferral of desire, all the meanness and daily injustice and tedium which threaten to crush love, hope, poetry. He struggled violently against it, but he sensed very early that the struggle was doomed to failure, and he had long anticipated the words of his suicide note: ‘Love boat/Smashed on byt.’

‘As for the future,’ Jakobson writes at the close of his essay,

it doesn’t belong to us either. In a few decades we shall be cruelly labelled as products of the 19th century. All we had were compelling songs of the future, and suddenly these songs are no longer part of the dynamic of history, but have been transformed into historico-literary facts. When singers have been killed and their song has been dragged into a museum and pinned to the wall of the past, the generation they represent is even more desolate, orphaned, and lost – impoverished in the most real sense of the word.

Sixty years later, in a city of endless food lines and lost illusions, Jakobson’s bleak words resonate with more power than Mayakovsky’s songs of the future. Those songs are on display in a museum whose final exhibits sourly chronicle the poet’s posthumous canonisation by Stalin: the prettified posters, the endless medals and portrait busts, the inspirational slogans. But, to its great credit, the Mayakovsky museum does not lie about the poet’s own collaboration, his reckless will to chain up his own recklessness. This is the man who wrote, in ‘Homewards’:

I want,
  at the shift’s end,
      the Factory Committee
to shut my lips
  with a padlock and key.
I want the pen
  to equal the gun,
to be listed
  with iron
    in industry.
And the PolitBurrau’s agenda:
           Item 1
to be Stalin’s Report on
  ‘The Output of Poetry’.

Such is the legacy with which the designers of this museum are trying to grapple. Is the Mayakovsky museum a bitter farewell to the Leninist avant-garde or a desperate attempt to salvage something from it? In this ambitious, deeply ambiguous attempt to come to terms with Bolshevism’s aesthetic heritage, it was impossible to tell. But I was struck by the fact that, while the Pasternak museum was crowded, the Mayakovsky museum was entirely empty on the afternoon of our visit, save for the American literary editors and their Writers’ Union hosts. A few days later, on a Sunday, I went back by myself, and again I was the only visitor. Outside there were huge lines at McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, and the churches were full of worshippers chanting and kissing the icons. Vox populi, vox dei.