In the fateful year of 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution shook Russia and forever changed the world. Its impact left an indelible mark not only on the political history of the 20th century, but also on art, culture, film, and literature. Perhaps one of the greatest exponents of the new Russian Revolutionary zeitgeist was the poet, playwright, and artist Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose thunderous verse and visually arresting Cubo-Futurist agitprop shook the world as much as the history that surrounded him.
It was in 1925 that the poet brought his gospel of revolutionary futurism to the working class of the great urban centers of America, including Cleveland. He was not the first prominent Russian to visit the Forest City – Anna Pavlova, Sergei Diaghilev, Vaslav Nijinsky, Feodor Chaliapin, and Sergei Yesenin had already beat him to the punch. However, Mayakovsky’s visit would stand as one of the more significant, underscoring Cleveland’s position not only as a fast-growing and densely populated industrial metropolis, but also as a hotbed for left-wing labor activism.
Mayakovsky was born on July 19, 1893, to a Russian family in Baghdati, Georgia, near the city of Kutaisi, then part of the Imperial Russian Caucasus. The family later moved to Moscow where the rebellious Mayakovsky became increasingly drawn to the ideals of revolutionary socialism and Marxism. In March 1908, when he was not yet 15, he was arrested for the first time for possessing radical literature in a police raid on an underground printing house.
In 1911, Mayakovsky was admitted to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. It was there, under the influence of the futurist artist David Burliuk, that he embraced poetry as his full-time passion and indeed, his fate. Then, only few years later, in 1915, the poet met his great love and muse, Lilya Brik. However, for the restless revolutionary, she was one of many women with whom he was passionately involved.
In 1917, Mayakovsky became an eyewitness to the revolutionary events in Petrograd and “entered the revolution as one would enter his own home,” in the words of the writer Viktor Shklovsky. Plunging headlong into the new revolutionary fervor sweeping the arts, Mayakovsky soon became a favorite with the Russian public, a status solidified by his authorship of the epic poem 150,000,000. He collaborated with many Russian artists and writers in the period of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP), most prominently the great graphic artist and photographer Aleksandr Rodchenko and the celebrated avant-gardist El Lissitzky. The poet also rose to renown as a prominent member of LEF, the Left Art Front. Meanwhile, Lenin’s own taste in art was more conservative in comparison, and the Soviet leader himself even referred to Mayakovsky, in a tongue-in-cheek way, as a “hooligan communist.”
The thunderous Mayakovsky soon sought to preach his revolutionary futurism abroad, traveling to France, Cuba, Mexico (where he dined with muralist Diego Rivera), and eventually the United States. In the latter, Mayakovsky traveled to the great urban centers of the Northeast and the Great Lakes – New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. In all these cities, he sought to bring his revolutionary gospel to the tired, poor, and huddled working masses of America. He also planned a stop in Boston that was ultimately unrealized. On the side, he engaged in a passionate romantic affair with Russian émigré Elly Jones and had just enough time for a reunion with his mentor Burliuk, who was then living in the Bronx. In Manhattan, the Russian Mayakovsky even reportedly surprised one of his audiences by addressing them in Georgian, a language that he picked up in his youth.
Mayakovsky fell in love with New York and the city left the greatest impression on the poet. However, he was also spellbound by urban Americana in general, expressing at once admiration and disgust with what he observed in his later account, Moe otkrytie Ameriki (My Discovery of America). Cleveland, then America's fifth largest city and fast approaching a population of one million people, was to be the poet’s first stop after the Big Apple. There the poet spoke on September 29, 1925, at 8 PM at the Carpenters’ Union Hall at 2226 East 55th in the Cedar–Central neighborhood, in the shadow of the city’s downtown. The event was sponsored by the Russian and Jewish departments of the Workers Party of America (an earlier name for the Communist Party USA). Admission was 50 cents.
A Russian-language blurb in the New York-based paper Novyi Mir announced the Cleveland event as follows: “Hey Clevelander, listen up! The theatre is not going anywhere! The movies are not going anywhere! Your acquaintances are not going anywhere! But MAYAKOVSKY will be departing for the USSR. However, before he leaves, he will be visiting CLEVELAND.” The advertisement advised readers not to miss Mayakovsky’s appearance at the hall, noting that the poet would be delivering both a poetry recitation and a lecture. Similarly, the leftist Jewish newspaper Freigait noted that Mayakovsky would be reciting "his best works with his usual mastery."
On September 26, The Daily Worker further noted that not only was Mayakovsky to give a “proletarian culture lecture,” but that he would also update the audience on the latest avant-garde trends in Soviet literature. The blurb also emphasized that “all Russian speaking workers” were invited to attend the event. Naturally, there were many individuals fitting this description in Cleveland, which at the time boasted a foreign-born population of 30%. Moreover, the political upheavals of the First Red Scare would have still been fresh in the minds of many Clevelanders, including the violent May Day Riots of 1919.
Unfortunately for today’s historians, Mayakovsky’s visit was not covered in the major Cleveland newspapers, and no account of his Forest City recitation has been preserved. The Carpenters’ Union Hall where Mayakovsky spoke was a large building that originally housed the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Cleveland. By 1924, the ownership had changed, and the structure was purchased by the Local 1750 United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and became the Jewish Carpenters’ Union Hall. Its patrons were not exclusively Jewish and radical activists from other ethnic groups also advertised events held at the venue. In September 1925, for example, the Cleveland-based Czech socialist paper Americké dělnické listy advertised the visit of British Labour politician Rennie Smith at the hall. The venue also hosted sporting events, including the early basketball tournaments of the Cleveland Rosenblums, the city’s first major basketball team.
In subsequent years, 2226 East 55th changed hands multiple times, and by the early 1930s, it assumed the identity of a nightclub and dance hall known as the “Cotton Club,” hosting popular jazz orchestras, such as those of Don Redman and Fletcher Henderson. By the late 1940s, the building was rebranded again as “Paradise Auditorium.” In 1949 and again in 1952, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson performed there, and in October 1965, future Cleveland Mayor Carl B. Stokes, who was inspired by Robeson to go into politics, delivered some of his earliest campaign speeches at the auditorium, only a few decades before its demolition.
Although no accounts survive of Mayakovsky’s poetry recitation at 2226 East 55th, he did return to the USSR with a flyer in memory of the event, titled "Unbelieveable in Cleveland" (Nebyvaloe v Klivlende), which is now held at the State Literature Museum of Russia in Moscow. He also left us with his impressions of the 1920s skyscraper boom that swept up urban America, including Cleveland. “All America, and New York in particular, is under construction, under interminable construction,” he wrote in his Discovery of America. “Ten-storey buildings are pulled apart to build twenty-storey ones; twenty-storey ones for thirty-storey ones – for forty and so on.”
As an example of this high-rise fever, Mayakovsky noted that just as he began to “react with a sort of poetic inspiration to some twenty-storey Cleveland hotel,” locals began complaining that the building’s placement was “crowding us,” like commuters on a streetcar. “And so, they’re just relocating it, ten blocks away, to the lake,” Mayakovsky wrote, incredulously. “I don’t know precisely who will be relocating this building, or how, but if a thing like that slips from their hands, it will trample a lot of corns.”
Mayakovsky’s passage invites some curiosity. At the time of his visit, a prominent twenty-story Cleveland hotel was indeed under construction and close to completion – the Cleveland Allerton, at the corner of Chester and East 13th. That hotel was officially opened the following year, in November 1926. However, the futurist’s claim about the proposed relocation of the high-rise structure to the Lake Erie shore was undoubtedly an exaggeration and most certainly the result of a misunderstanding.
In a passage that Mayakovsky later cut from the final edition of his work, he also condemned the conditions of poor African American families living in abject poverty alongside the streetcar line on Cleveland’s Near East Side. He identified them as workers from the “Rockefeller oil refineries” living in shanty towns in what he described as an “immense ditch” and “without any hope, under the current American conditions, to climb into something better.” Writing of the inequality facing these men and women, the working poor of America, he remarked, “the small standardized suburban house is the Winter Palace compared to their dwellings.”
Mayakovsky’s American trip represented the apogee of his success as a poet and public persona. By contrast, the latter 1920s proved difficult for the rebellious futurist as he became increasingly disillusioned with the direction of the USSR under Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin. Mayakovsky’s work began to face increasing criticism and his final plays – The Bedbug and The Bathhouse – were flops. Meanwhile, his personal life was marred by an unhappy romance with a Moscow actress.
This series of unfortunate events eventually culminated in Mayakovsky’s apparent suicide on April 14, 1930 – the circumstances of which continue to elicit much debate and discussion in contemporary post-Soviet Russia. Yet, despite his death, Mayakovsky’s towering influence on literature and the graphic arts continues to live on. His work remains widely read across Russia and the former Soviet Union, and beyond.