Even more shocking was the death of the regime’s own lyricist, Mayakovsky. His poetry is a vigorous, inventive call to arms, a fervent appeal to rise up against the old world and hurry on the advent of the new. But the leaders of the revolution were cultural conservatives. Lenin dismissed Mayakovsky’s work as “nonsense, stupidity, double stupidity and pretentiousness”.
By the late 1920s, Mayakovsky was out of love with the revolution, writing plays attacking the philistinism of Soviet society. In April 1930, he shot himself in his Moscow apartment. His suicide note is a poem lamenting the unrequited love that had overwhelmed him:
It’s past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
To balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts…
More writers, poets and artists died in the gulag. They were charged with ludicrous offences such as spying for foreign powers, but in reality their “crimes” were artistic. The work of the great theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold was experimental and avant-garde. He was opposed to the restrictive dogma of Socialist Realism and made a speech saying so. Tortured by the NKVD, Meyerhold wrote wrenching pleas for clemency from his cell in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison.
They are torturing me. They make me lie face down and beat my spine and feet. Then they beat my feet from above… I howl and weep from the pain. I twist and squeal like a dog. Oh most certainly, death is easier than this. I begin to incriminate myself in the hope I will go quickly to the scaffold.
Meyerhold went to his execution in February 1940, reportedly shouting “Long live Stalin”, believing, like many others, that the Father of the Nation could not possibly be aware of the crimes being committed in his name. But Stalin, and Lenin before him, were certainly aware. Art, poetry, music and love meant nothing to the Bolshevik zealots. As the critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote in the 1930s, “Art must move organically, like the heart in the human breast; but they want to regulate it like a train.”
“I’m no good at art,” Lenin famously said. “Art for me is a just an appendage, and when its use as propaganda – which we need at the moment – is over, we’ll cut it out as useless: snip, snip!”