Monthly Archives: September 2017

The Russian Futurist Movement


Robot musicians! Moon cities! Immortality in pill form! Overwhelmed at the breakneck pace of inventions and technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution, artists and scientists alike were thinking big at the turn of the 20th Century. Nothing seemed out of reach. Many of the things we take for granted every day – automobiles, bicycles, refrigerators, street lights, air conditioning, plastic, vacuum cleaners, light bulbs, radio broadcasting, movie cameras, laundry machines, etc. – were invented in rapid fire succession, practically overnight. Every year – almost every day – there was a new invention that could revolutionize modern life. Influenced by the Italian futurist movement, a network of daring young artists in early 20th-century Russia advocated pushing art to its most extreme limits. The futurists were fascinated by the rapid development of urban life and they worried that many aspects of Russian culture lagged behind, including the Russian language itself. In his most well-known poem, the futurist Velimir Khlebnikov seeks new uses for old words:

Invocation of Laughter
By Velimir Khlebnikov

O, laugh, laughers!
O, laugh out, laughers!
You who laugh with laughs, you who laugh it up laughishly
O, laugh out laugheringly
O, belaughable laughterhood – the laughter of laughering laughers!
O, unlaugh it outlaughingly, belaughering laughists!
Laughily, laughily,
Uplaugh, enlaugh, laughlings, laughlings
Laughlets, laughlets.
O, laugh, laughers!
O, laugh out, laughers!

“Unlaugh” is not a word. But why not? In this poem, Khlebnikov adds existing suffixes and prefixes to the root “laugh,” many of which hadn’t been used in language before. Literary scholar Nandaka Maduranga writes that the poem “explores numerous possibilities that are embedded in language, but that had hitherto been ignored.”


A really cool resource at the Getty Research Institute that allows you to experience “sound poetry” from the Russian futurist period


In fact, Khlebnikov frequently uses intuitive word-building rules to create new words that he does not need to define:

Rus’, you are but a kiss in the frost
By Velimir Khlebnikov

Rus’, you are but a kiss in the frost!
The midnight roads are blueing.
Lips joined in a blue lightning bolt,
Clasped, he and she are blueing.
Sometimes at night lightning would spark
From the caress of two mouths.
And a blueing, languished lightning bolt
Would swiftly outline two coats.
And the night would shine intelligent and dark.

We can say something is “turning blue,” but we can’t say something is “blueing.” Why not? What is a word, anyways? Who has the authority to tell us what are “real” words? (Modern day linguists still have no answer to those questions!) I am determined to use the word “blueing” on the first page of my next book.


Pavel Filonov, a futurist painter, sought to deconstruct and re-purpose Medieval painting techniques


The Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov, who died in 1903, predicted that scientific advancements promised radical life extension and, very soon perhaps, even an affordable path to biological immortality. Khlebnikov himself seemed to question if the end of life was a fixed certainty:

When Horses Die
By Velimir Khlebnikov

When horses die, they breathe
When grasses die, they wither,
When suns die, they go out,
When people die, they sing songs.

Futurism was by no means limited to poetry. The art movement, which flourished between 1912 and 1921, encapsulated much more, including painting, drawing, architecture, typography, cinema, and even fashion design.


Futurist artist Natalia Goncharova sought a radical break with the past in her fashion designs


All the old Golden Age writers of Russian yesteryear were despised by the futurists. Tolstoy, Dosteovsky and Pushkin, according to the futurists’ manifesto, should be “heaved overboard on the steamship of modernity.” Ultimately they lost this bet against history. Dosteovsky is still read by millions today and taught in universities all over the world. The futurists, on the other hand, have been all but forgotten. I remember having a conversation with a scholar of Russian literature at a conference a few years ago. He had no idea who the futurists were. Perhaps the most famous futurist poet (famous at the time, that is) was Vladimir Mayakovsky, who was a rather intense fellow. He advocated poetry as a channel to glorify the individual, writing poems with titles like “To His Beloved Self, The Poet Dedicates These Lines,” which includes lines like “Where am I to find a beloved equal to myself? / Such a woman has no place in the tiny heavens!” A bit full of yourself there, Mayakovsky? He continues praising himself in his poem “A Cloud in Trousers:”

No gray hair in my soul,
no doddering tenderness.
I rock the world with the thunder of my glorious voice,
strolling, looking good –

If you prefer,
I’ll be pure raging meat,
or if you prefer,
as the sky changes tone,
I’ll be absolutely tender,
not a man, but a cloud in trousers!

You can probably tell where this is going. The communist authorities, once they took power, were apprehensive at Mayakovksy’s glorification of the self rather than the larger social class. Other futurists sought to pare poetry down to its bare minimal elements. There was a minimalist sub-movement within futurism that produced extremely short poems. Some of Vasilisk Gnedov’s poems aren’t even a full word. Really. One of his poems (untitled) is simply “Cruelt.” Another, “The Poem of the End,” is literally just a blank page (a sort of prelude to modern art, perhaps?). One of my favorite Russian minimalist poems is “Burial (A Sonnet)” by Vladislav Khodasevich.


Burial (A Sonnet)
By Vladislav Khodasevich

Forehead –
Shade –
To hell!


The futurists were very much involved in the politics and social issues of the day. They ridiculed the traditional way of life in Imperial Russia and advocated radical change. Mayakovsky in particular savagely hated Tsar Nicholas II and heaped praise upon Vladimir Lenin, who he idolized as a hero. Unfortunately for Mayakovsky and the rest of the futurists, that feeling wasn’t always mutual. It wasn’t long before the futurist movement as a whole had run afoul of the authorities in Communist Russia. The futurists had high aspirations after the revolution. They dreamed of dominating the artistic spheres of influence under the new regime, and did their best to help the cultural apparatus of the new government. But it was not to be so. Futurism began sputtering out in the 1920s. Mayakovsky’s death in 1930 was ruled a suicide, though the circumstances remain mysterious. Then Joseph Stalin came to power and they were all put up against a wall and shot. The End. (Okay, well, a few of them were actually executed and sent to gulags and what have you, but others simply renounced their work and bent to Stalin’s will. In any case, Russian Futurism was over.)

In books published during the futurist period, the typography on the page was often presented in strange and unexpected ways