One of the biggest demonstrations against Putin in Moscow several years ago drew 10,000 people. It was organized and led by writers and poets.

Ludmila Shleyfer Lavine

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

"He was at the center of the upheaval," says Professor Ludmila Shleyfer Lavine, Russian, 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."

Following the revolution many artists, including Mayakovsky, turned to agitprop, or "agitation and propaganda," in support of the Red cause. 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 didn't think of himself as a hack for doing commercial art on the side," says Lavine. "He believed in art as something useful, worthwhile and socially important."

Lavine introduces Mayakovsky's ideas in some of her Russian studies courses, along with the ideas of other authors, including Vladimir Nabokov, who she says represents the "polar opposite" to Mayakovsky and didn't believe the integrity of art could survive political pressure. Lavine disagrees. "One of the biggest demonstrations against Putin in Moscow several years ago drew 10,000 people," she says. "It was organized and led by writers and poets." She also points to the civic project "Open Library," which has been bringing together big names in literature, art and film to conduct a public dialogue since 2012. 

Lavine recently completed a project on Mayakovsky's work against anti-Semitism, which documents early efforts to create a Jewish homeland in Crimea. It is interesting to imagine today, with Crimea figuring so prominently in the news, that decades before the founding of the modern State of Israel, the peninsula might well have realized one of Mayakovsky's visions in the form of a film he produced, Jews on the Land.  Mayakovsky projected utopian societies in his work. He pivoted from Jews on the Land to "The Flying Proletarian," a futuristic narrative poem, to which Lavine will turn next.

Posted Sept. 8, 2014