A recent demonstration against Putin in Moscow, that drew 10,000 people, was organized and led by writers and poets -- literature still matters that much.

"Listen, comrades of posterity, to the agitator, the rabble-rouser." - Vladimir Mayakovsky, "At the Top of My Voice," 1930

More than a decade after the Russian Revolution and ensuing civil war, avant-garde poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky continued, as he had during the Bolshevik uprising, to consider the role of poetry in culture and history.

"He was at the center of the upheaval," says associate professor of Russian Ludmila Shleyfer Lavine, who in her scholarship has focused on early 20th-century Russian poetry and especially Mayakovsky's life and works. "He struggled with the issue of how to be engaged in a culture where literature really mattered yet artistic expression was often censored," she says. "He believed poetry could not stand aside from history."

During the revolution, says Lavine, Homeric verse with Slavic and folkloric influence was on the rise. "An epic period needed an epic form," she says. "Mayakovsky used it to explore the dichotomy between usefulness and uselessness and to convey political messages."

Following the revolution many artists including Mayakovsky turned to agitprop, or "agitation and propaganda," in support of the Red Cause, Mayakovsky included. He wrote jingles for civil war posters and, in an effort to strengthen the post civil war economy, created ads for state-run companies.

"He's recognized as sort of Russia's first copywriter," says Lavine. "He didn't think of himself as a hack for doing commercial art on the side. He believed in art as something useful, worthwhile and socially important."

Lavine introduces Mayakovsky's ideas in some of the Russian studies courses she teaches, along with the ideas of other authors including Nabokov, who she says represents the "polar opposite" to Mayakovsky and didn't believe the integrity of art could survive political pressure. "Russian literature is something any college-educated adult should be familiar with," says Lavine. "Russia is still a huge presence, geographically and culturally. In fact, a recent demonstration against Putin in Moscow, that drew 10,000 people, was organized and led by writers and poets — literature still matters that much."

Posted October 2012

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