About the Work

by claire roosien

The first of two poems Mayakovsky wrote under the title “Baku,” the poem presented here was published in the Russophone Baku Worker  newspaper in 1923. It commemorates the third anniversary of the reopening of the oil industry in the Caucasian city of Baku after it was shut down during the Revolution and ensuing war. Born and raised in modern-day Georgia, Mayakovsky was no stranger to the Caucasus and had passed through Baku as a child. He represents the city as an almost uninhabited wasteland that paradoxically becomes a site of metaphorical pilgrimage, exoticized through the image of the “dervish of Tibet.” For Mayakovsky, Baku is entirely a source of raw oil, the “black/ thick/ blood” that fuels the metropolitan buses and factories he describes in “Two Moscows.” Baku workers had been leading revolutionaries, working to establish a multiethnic democratic socialist republic. Mayakovsky’s poem elides this history; its sole reference to the inhabitants of Baku is a racialized synecdoche: “hump-nosed people.” If the poem objectifies the people of Baku, it anthropomorphizes the oil industry. In a highly erotic image, the oil pumps “sigh” and “kiss” the earth as they “suck” oil and petroleum from the ground. Baku becomes the beating heart of the Soviet Union, pumping its black blood to the “heart of the capitals,” which, for Mayakovsky, becomes Baku’s raison d’être. 

Published in Izvestiia  newspaper in 1926, “Two Moscows” counterposes  a modern Soviet Moscow with a decrepit and backward Moscow of the past. The Russian futurist and revolutionary poet constructs this opposition through a succession of paired images: the moving bus and the “waxen” chapels; the advances of modern industry (Mosselprom, Glavbum, Fordsons) and the brutalities of medieval warfare; the Izvestiia skyscraper and the Strastnoi monastery. He conveys his sense of a radical break with the past through a series of nigh blasphemous images: carpenters spitting down on the monastery, the Moscow metro “coming out from under” the chambers of church hierarchs, the description of the “good-for-nothing black Kremlin”—the latter, a turn of phrase that was redacted in subsequent Soviet publications. Despite its messages of progress and equality, Mayakovsky’s revolutionary vision retains an imperial vantage point, identifying the Votyak—a representative of a non-Russian ethnic group from the Middle Volga region—with the backwardness of old Moscow.


vladimir mayakovsky was born in 1893 in the Kutaisi region of Georgia, which was then part of the Russian Empire. He moved with his family to Moscow in 1906 and quickly became politically active, joining the Social Democratic Labor Party as a young teenager and spending several stints in prison for his political activities. He became associated with the futurists in the 1910s; the manifesto he co-authored in 1912, “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” set the tone for his later work, which was both iconoclastic and formally daring. After the Revolution of 1917, he quickly emerged as a leading figure in establishing a revolutionary idiom in the literary arts and graphic design. In his signature “stair-step” lines, he wrote many poems on revolutionary themes, but also love lyric, children’s verse, and even marketing slogans. He also penned a travelogue, The Discovery of America  (1922), and two satirical plays, The Bedbug  (1928) and The Bathhouse  (1929), before dying by suicide in 1930. 

claire roosien is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University, specializing in the culture and politics of modern Central Asia and the Soviet Union. She is currently completing work on her first book, Socialism Mediated: The Making of Soviet Culture in Uzbekistan. She has also published several translations of poetry and prose from Uzbek. This is her first published translation from Russian. 


In the Classroom