Russian Futurism: A History

Table of contents :
Preface......Page 8
Contents......Page 46
1. Impressionism......Page 48
2. Hylaea......Page 76
3. Ego-Futurism and the Mezzanine of Poetry......Page 108
4. Cubo-Futurism......Page 164
5. The Years of Flowering......Page 211
6. The Centrifuge......Page 275
7. Decline......Page 323
Conclusion......Page 427
Notes......Page 434
Bibliography......Page 468
Index......Page 498

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Preface This is the first history of Russian futurism in any language, though I know of at least five persons— scholars, critics, futurist poets—who have under­ taken similar projects at different times.1 Two or three such histories may exist in state archives or in private desk drawers in Russia, but the possibil­ ity of their publication is still very remote, and will remain so for several years. Despite the fact that the poets and artists of the Russian avant-garde were more enthusiastic in welcoming the Communist Revolution and more willing to serve it and the young Soviet state than any other group, their aesthetics and most of their poetic practices have nearly always been officially rejected in 1 In March, 1918, Aleksej Kručenyx gave a lecture entitled Tstorija russkogo futurizma” at the nightclub “Fantastičeskij kabačok” in Tiflis. He also wrote “Zizn’ i smert’ Lefa” in free verse (see his Govorjaščee kino [Moscow, 1928], pp. 51-62), which is actually the entire history of the “Hylaea” group in a nutshell. There is evidence that Kamenskij was writing a history of futurism, which remained among his unpublished MSS. The scholars V. Trenin, N. Xardžiev, and T. Gric planned a similar project, plus three monographs on individual futurists (see Krasnaja Střela, p. 3). vii


Russia. Futurism was the pioneer of this avant-garde, and it still oc­ cupies a place of honor in the Soviet “rogues’ gallery.” This colorful, complex, and influential movement was systematically denigrated and belittled, considered “a harmful influence” or “a bourgeois error,” and, since approximately 1930, thought unworthy of any serious considera­ tion. Such a situation led, of course, to predictable results, the worst being a distressing ignorance of what Russian futurism was, even among those wanting an accurate picture.2 Specialists in Russian lit­ erature have, as a rule, a one-sided idea of what really happened, who belonged to the movement, what they wanted, and what they achieved. The very word “futurism” is often used incorrectly, as are other terms connected with it, such as zaum. In short, this book had to be written. Paradoxically, this first history of Russian futurism is written in English, although so much of its poetry is not only untranslated, but untranslatable as well, and is still considered incomprehensible by many Russians, klence, the dearth of poetry quotations in this book. Nevertheless, I wrote it not only for those who study Russian litera­ ture and those who know something about it, but also with an eye toward those who want to enlarge their picture of the European avantgarde, but lack fundamentals in the Russian area. It was a hard thing to do, because futurism is only a part of a larger and equally neglected literary and cultural context of contemporary Russia, and I could not write “a famous leader of Russian symbolists, who . . .” each time that I mention the name of, for instance, Valery Bryusov. So I hope 2 An example from the preface to the recent edition of V. Kamenskij’s prose (Leto na Kamenke [Perm’, 1961], p. 12) will suffice. The author, S. Ginc, writes that the first Sadok sudej “began to overthrow literary traditions and began to announce futurist slogans,” thus proving that he has never seen Sadok sudej. He further credits Kamenskij widi organizing the cubo-futurist group, which published Sadok sudej, not knowing that both issues of Sadok sudej had appeared before the term “cubo-futurism” was in existence. Ginc also calls the first edition of Kamenskij’s novel Stepan (not Stenka, as it really is) Razin. The general knowledge of the history of modern literature fares no better in the Soviet Union nowadays. On the pages of Voprosy Literatury, I have come across statements that Zinaida Gippius was an Acmeist and that the imagists were a prerevolutionary group. viii


that anyone who has difficulties with the Who’s Who of modem Rus­ sia will read a few pages from the standard English-language works on Russian literature by Mirsky or Slonim, or will resort to the wellknown dictionary by Harkins. This book is both ambitious and limited in its aims. I had the unique opportunity to acquaint myself with more than 90 percent of every­ thing (in the originals, or in microfilm or xerox copies) that the Rus­ sian futurists published, and with very much of what was written about them. (The titles of unobtainable works are followed by an asterisk in the text.) I wanted to include every significant fact and made it a point to discuss, even if briefly, every book or important ar­ ticle by a futurist, or by a contemporary, on the subject of futurism. Even imitations by cranks are not neglected, because they belong to this history no less than do masterpieces. I wanted to describe Russian futurism as exhaustively as possible, so that later both my colleagues and I could begin to speak about what this movement really means. Herein lies the limitation: I have tried to avoid analyses, definitions, and general judgments. This account is more or less a chronological accumulation of facts, mostly dealing with books, so my approach re­ sembles taking books from a shelf, one after another, and trying to tell what they are about. I feel (and here I might be wrong) that such a stringing together of facts is preferable to foeusing on and discussing, one at a time, important aspects of Russian futurism. People and groups are presented in the process of their invisible growth and/or development, so that the reader who has finally waded through feels that he is enveloped by, and has lived through, the whole movement, rather than that he has picked up a few anecdotes and catchy defini­ tions after a perfunctory leafing through a book.3 Another reason for such an excess of description is the fact that most of the books de­ scribed will remain unavailable or difficult to obtain for a long time. Because this approach could easily result in a chronological an­ notated bibliography, I have not refrained from critical judgments on individual achievements and have not hesitated to present occasional portraits of futurist poets. In short, I have tried to balance bibliography 3 An example of the opposite method is the book on futurism by Ja. E. Šapirštejn-Lers (Obščestve.nnyj smysl russkogo literaturnogo futurizma [Mos­ cow, 1922], which approaches the movement in an a priori way with fantastic and sometimes ridiculous results.


with criticism and biography. This procedure does not contradict the method of taking book after book from a shelf, and it may add sub­ jective unity to a narrative that tends toward amorphousness and repe­ tition, a narrative that cuts poets into pieces and spreads them through­ out the book. On the whole, this history does not go beyond the Revolution of 1917, for the reason (a valid one, I hope) that futurism does have a beginning, and an end of sorts, in such a framework. Besides, after the Revolution the Russian avant-garde becomes more dispersed (though not less rich), with a few veterans continuing to consider themselves futurists, and the rest ostensibly fighting futurism though at the same time shamelessly borrowing from it. I am only too painfully aware of other kinds of incompleteness. I did not use archival, unpublished materials, nor did I use all con­ temporary newspapers and magazines. Still, a point in my favor is that perhaps 85 percent of the material presented in this volume is unknown to the majority of students of Russian literature. It could be their first acquaintance with, to name only a few items, Centri­ fuge, the Mezzanine of Poetry, the history of ego-futurism, “41 °,” or the poetry of Livshits, Bobrov, and the prerevolutionary Shershenevich. Even as a description, this study is only the first step; a discussion of postrevolutionary developments should be the second step. Simul­ taneously the role of Russian futurism in the larger context of Rus­ sian—and European—modernism should be clarified. It goes without saying that a comprehensive anthology of Russian futurist poetry, prose, and literary theory should be compiled. I intend to accomplish at least a part of this task. Only after all these studies have been writ­ ten can one start meditating about the nature and meaning of Rus­ sian futurism. A few more points should be made. Beginning with chapter 5, and particularly in chapter 7, the reader says good-bye to the major futurist poets one by one, as they fade out of the movement or as the movement itself reaches a full stop. This is done in the form of individual survey­ like interpolated essays which conclude with “epilogues” describing the poets’ postrevolutionary work. There is a conscious imbalance in assigning such epilogues. Poets whose development after 1917 has been sufficiently studied (Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov, Aseyev) get comx


paratively brief epilogues; those who received less attention get a more detailed discussion. Khlebnikov probably suffers most of all (despite the fact that I consider him the greatest futurist poet of Russia and perhaps one of only two or three of the greatest avant-garde poets of the world), but I have described in detail his major narrative poems in my The Longer Poems of Velimir Khlebnikov (in English), which also contains his biography and a short survey of the rest of his work. I have attempted to translate nearly all neologistic titles into newly coined, though not necessarily palatable, English. Clumsy or obscure English in quotations often reflects the original, and to make futurist writings sound uniformly readable in English would be a distortion. All titles arc cited in the original Russian the first time (with a trans­ lation or explanation following in parentheses); thereafter, they are usually cited in translation. Long titles are often shortened when re­ peated (c.g., A Slap instead of A Slap in the Face of Public Tasted).

The spelling of Russian names and titles in this volume is based on a schizophrenic principle: in the text, they are presented in an estab­ lished form (e.g., Mayakovsky), or in such a way that they can be pronounced with reasonable accuracy. In the notes and the bibliog­ raphy, on the other hand, I have employed the accepted scholarly transliteration. The index uses both methods. My reasons for this duality are twofold: 1. The book will probably be read by those who are interested in the subject, and not exclusively by Slavists. It would annoy nonSlavists to have to study a table of conversion of Cyrillic letters, and then to accept names like “Majakovskij.” An American friend once complained to me that he has known the wonderful writer, Chekhov, all his life, only to learn finally, to his dismay, that the writer is “Sexov” (Cexov, of course). What especially irritates some readers is to see j when they expect y, which, in an English book, tempts them to pronounce the letter as in “John,” tables or no tables. I must confess that the prospect of seeing, in the text of this book, names like “Xlebnikov” (instead of “Khlebnikov”) dismays me, no matter how aware I am of the traps and pitfalls of not using the scholarly transliteration. 2. Notes (which contain quotations in Russian) and bibliography require the utmost precision. Nonspecialists seldom read either. V. M. xi

Nikolai Kulbin. Self-portrait. 1914.1

Photograph of David Burliuk • CízM9Í5

Vasily Kamensky. Drawing by V. Mayakovsky. 1917. _ .

Velimir Khlebnikov. Portrait by , . 1 . V. Mayakovsky. 1915.





Photograph of Elena Guro. 1912Q).

Photograph of Eléria Guro. 1912(?)^

Four pages írom Sadok stidei (1-910), with drawing pf Nikolai-Burliuk , ' by Vladimir Burliuk. ,

BenedicťLivshits. Painting by Vladimir Burliuk. 1912*.

,i. Members-of Hylaéa. From left to right: Kruchenykh, David Burliùk, Mayakovsky, Nikolai Burliuk, Livshits._1913.

. “ ' s Alexei Kruchenykh. .Drawing by N- Kulbinr 1913.

A pag® from Kruchenykh’s. Pomade (1913). ' ť. -



I .


Photograph of Igor-Severyanin. 1912.

Photograph of the ego-futurist Areopagus. Standing (from left to right): Kryuchkov, Öpedov' Shirokov/ Seated:, Ignatyev. Early 1913.'

Constantine Olimpov. 'Drawing by Ilya Repih on cover ol Shattered ' ? / '• \ Skulls' (1913).' ' . •


\I *








Cover oi Zasakhare fer/ (1913). Drawihg by Lèv Zak."

'Vasilisk Gňedov and a page írtnn Sky Diggers (191$).

Ivan Ignatyev and .a -page from Strike! „(1913).


Cover of Crematorium oj Common Sense (1943).


x Two pages from The Croaked Moon (1913), with drawing bv David Burliul