Lenin

'Never have I wanted to be understood so much as in this poem,' said Mayakovsky of his 3,000 line epic Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Written immediately after the death of Lenin's in 1924, it proudly and passionately sets the story of the Bolshevik leader's life against the history of capitalism and the trajectory of Soviet communism. By turns declamatory, lyrical, journalistic and colloquial, the poem is an extraordinary record of the utopian excitement of the early years of the Revolution - as well a warning that Lenin should not become an icon. It was Mayakovsky's most significant work; no other book of his was ever printed in such large numbers. When he read the poem to a packed Bolshoi Theatre in 1930 the event was broadcast live across the Soviet Union.

Out of print in English for over thirty years, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin remains relatively unknown in the west, where Mayakovsky is predominantly regarded as a tortured love poet. Based on Dorian Rottenberg's 1967 translation, Rosy Carrick's new bi-lingual edition of the poem firmly re-establishes Mayakovsky's reputation as one the most important political poets of the twentieth century.

Cover image: from the edition of Владимир Ильич Ленин published by Leningrad State Publishing House in 1925.

Extract

English

The time has come.
I begin
the story of Lenin.
Not because
the grief
is on the wane,
but because
the shock
of the first moment
has become a clear-cut,
weighed and fathomed pain.
Time,
speed on,
spread Lenin’s slogans in your whirl!
Not for us
to drown in tears,
whatever happens.
There’s no one
more alive
than Lenin in the world,
our strength,
our wisdom,
surest of our weapon.
People are boats,
albeit on land.
While life
is being
roughed
all species of trash
from the rocks and sand
stick
to the sides
of our craft.
But then,
having broken
through the storm’s mad froth,
one sits
in the sun for a time
and cleans off
the tousled seaweed growth
and oozy
jellyfish slime.
I
go to Lenin
to clean off mine
to sail on
with the revolution.
I fear
these eulogies line upon line
like a boy
fears falsehood and delusion.
They’ll rig up an aura round any head:
the very idea –
I abhor it,
that such a halo
poetry-bred
should hide
Lenin’s real, huge,
human forehead.
I’m anxious lest rituals,
mausoleums
and processions,
the honeyed incense
of homage and publicity
should
obscure
Lenin’s essential
simplicity.
I shudder
as I would for the apple of my eye
lest Lenin
be falsified
by tinsel beauty.
Write! –
votes my heart,
commissioned by the mandate of duty.
* * *
All Moscow’s
frozen through,
yet the earth quakes with emotion.
Frostbite
drives its victims to the fires.
Who is he?
Where from?
Why this commotion?
Why
such honours
when a single man expires?
Dragging word by word
from memory’s coffers
won't suit
either me
or you who read.
Yet what a meagre
choice
the dictionary offers!
Where to get
the very words we need?
We’ve
seven days to spend,
twelve hours
for diverse uses.
Life must begin –
and end.
Death
won’t accept excuses.
But if
it’s no more
a matter of hours,
if the calendar measure
falls short,
‘Epoch’
is a usual comment of ours,
‘Era’ or something of the sort.
We
sleep
at night,
busy
around by day,
each grinds his water
in his own pet mortar
and so
fritters life away.
But if,
single-handed,
somebody can
turn the tide
to everyone’s profit
we utter something like
‘Superman’,
‘Genius’
or ‘Prophet’.
We
don’t ask much of life,
won’t budge an inch
unless required.
To please
the wife
is the utmost
to which we aspire.
But if,
monolithic in body and soul,
someone
unlike us
emerges,
we discover
a god-like aureole
or appendages
equally gorgeous.
Tags and tassels
laid out on shelves,
neither silly
nor smart –
no weightier than smoke.
Go
scrape meaning
out of such shells –
empty as eggs
without white or yolk.
How, then, apply
such yardsticks to Lenin
when anyone could see
with his very own eyes:
that ‘era’
cleared doorways
without even bending,
wore jackets
no bigger
than average size.
Should Lenin, too,
be hailed by the nation
as ‘Leader
by Divine Designation’?
Had he
been kingly
or godly indeed
I’d
never spare myself,
on protest bent;
I’d
raise a clamour
in hall and street
against the crowds, speeches,
processions and laments.
I’d
find
the words
for a thundering condemnation,
and while
I’d be trampled on,
I
and my cries,
I’d bomb
the Kremlin
with demands for resignation,
hurling
blasphemy
into the skies.
But calm
by the coffin
Dzerzhinsky appears.
Today
he could easily
dismiss the guard.
In millions of eyes
shines nothing
but tears,
not running
down cheeks,
but frozen hard.
Your divinity’s decease
won’t rouse
a mote of feeling.
No!
Today
real pain
chills every heart.
We’re burying
the earthliest
of beings
that ever came
to play
an earthly part.
Earthly, yes:
but not the earth-bound kind
who’ll never peer
beyond the precincts
of their sty.
He took in
all the planet
at a time,
saw things
out of reach
for the common eye.
Though like you
and I
in every detail,
his forehead rose
a taller,
steeper tower;
the thought-dug wrinkles
round the eyes
went deeper,
the lips looked firmer,
more ironical
than ours.
Not the satrap’s firmness
that’ll grind us,
tightening
the reins,
beneath a triumph-chariot’s wheel.
With friends
he’d be
the very soul
of kindness,
with enemies
he’d be
as hard
as any steel.
He, too,
had illnesses
and weaknesses to fight
and hobbies
just the same as we have, reader.
For me
it’s billiards, say,
to whet the sight;
for him it’s chess –
more useful
for a leader.
And turning
face about from chess
to living foes,
yesterday’s dumb pawns
he led
to a war of classes
until a human, working-class dictatorship
arose
to checkmate Capital
and crush its prison-castle.
We
and he
had the same ideals to cherish.
Then why is it,
no kin of his,
I’d welcome death,
crazy with delight,
I would
gladly perish
so that
he might draw
a single breath?
And not I alone.
Who says
I'm better than the rest?
Not a single soul of us,
I reckon,
in all the mines
and mills
from East
to West
would hesitate to do the same at the slightest beckon.
Instinctively,
I shrink from tram-rails
to quiet corners,
giddy
as a drunk
who sees the lees.
Who
would mind
my puny
death
among these mourners
lamenting
the enormousness of his decease?
With banners
and without,
they come,
as if all Russia
had again
turned nomad for a while.
The Hall of Columns
trembles
with their motion.
What can be the reason?
Wherefore?
Why?
Snow-tears
from the flags’ red eyelids
run.
The telegraph’s
gone hoarse
with humming mournful rumours.
Who is he?
Where from?
What has he done,
this man,
the most humane of all us humans?
* * *