«Astrakhan is one of the clues to Khlebnikov»

The same year Velimir finished his poem “Khadjhi Tarkhan” about “city of ancestors” meaning Astrakhan. The Khlebnikovs had been living in Astrakhan for many years. They used to be merchants, councilors in the Municipal Duma, shipowners, scientists. They did much for the prosperity of Astrakhan and deserved titles of “a hereditary and honorable citizen”. The cousin of the poet’s father Kharlampiy Khlebnikov was a leader of provincial nobility.  

“Khadjhi Tarkhan” is a turning point of the whole Khlebnikov’s creative life, his turn for Asia and East. 

Где Волга прянула стрелою
На хохот моря молодого,
Гора Богдо своей чертою
Темнеет взору рыболова.
Чалмы зелёные толпой
Здесь бродят в праздник мусульман,
Чтоб предсказал клинок скупой
Коней отмщенья водопой
И месть гяуру (радость ран).

Astrakhan is sure originally Tatar town conquered by the Russian tsar and somewhere deep in its secret soul it bore a grudge and still had a glimmer of “revenge to the conqueror”. However years and centuries later the thought of revenge would fade away and peace and harmony would reign in Astrakhan diverse in nationalities.

Ах, мусульмане те же русские,
И русским может быть ислам.
Милы глаза, немного узкие,
Как чуть открытый ставень рам.

“Khadjhi Tarkhan”  is a hymn to Astrakhan, its unique nature:

Но вновь и вновь зелёный вал,
Старинной жаждой моря выпит,
Кольцом осоки закрывал
Рукав реки – морской Египет...

and to its unique history as well:

Мила, мила нам пугачёвщина,
Казак с серьгой и темным ухом.
Она знакома нам по слухам.
Тогда воинственно ножовщина
Боролась с немцем и треухом.

Remember that Khlebnikov tells about Astrakhan.

In his “Autobiographic note” Khlebnikov said: “I belong to the place where the Volga meets the Caspian sea (Sigay). For many years it often held the scales of Russian deeds in its arms and stir its pans”. If the scales had swung a little bit faster – the entire course of Russian history would have changed rapidly.   

From the poet’s point of view Astrakhan is unique since it unites “three worlds – Aryan, Indian and Caspian, a triangle of Christ, Buddha and Mohammed”. Only there he could learn so many belief systems, religious rites, ethnic customs and transpose them in his works.

Literary critic D.P. Svyatopolk-Mirsky wrote: “Astrakhan is one of the keys to understanding of Khlebnikov”.    

Response to Marinetti

The poet’s life was tightly associated with Petersburg as well. In January 1914 the leader of Italian futurism Philippo-Tommaso Marinetti came there at the special invitation. Khlebnikov and Livshits opposed him as they thought that Russian Futurism was not an offshoot of the Western one and that Russian Futurists had outstripped their French and Italian counterparts. David Burlyuk at the top of his voice claimed: “Russia is not an artistic province of France anymore”. Khlebnikov and Livshits issued a proclamation:      

«Now some of the natives and Italian village on the bank of the Neva for personal reasons cling to Marinetti’s feet and thus betray the first step Russian art has made on its way of freedom and honor and they also turn noble neck of Asia under the yoke of Europe.

People of will are standing aside. They remember the law of hospitality, however their bow is strung and brow looks angry. Stranger, aware the country you have come to!

Hospitable sheep are wearing lace of slaves.

                                                     V.Khlebnikov, B. Livshits».

 (To tell the truth Khlebnikov was the only author of this proclamation).

«King in the dungeon» (The War)

Khlebnikov ignored the lectures Marinetti delivered.

In 1914 Khlebnikov’s “Oeuvres” (volume 1) came from the printers. It was the first time his works had been presented in such a large scale. At the same time his “Collelection” illustrated by Pavel Philonov was published in Petersburg.  It was on the threshold of the world-wide tragedy: 19 July – The World War I started. As a second level man-at-arm (untrained and unmarried) Khlebnikov got two years exemption from military service. He went to his parents’ home and immersed into the numeric researches of current and future events on the battle field. The following fact can show how serious his studies were. Khlebnikov established that sea-battles take place every 317 years or integral multiples of 317 and drew about one hundred battles as an example. He did not truthfully “read the tea-leaves” and did not take off as a new Nostradamus. He was looking for scientific (numeric) proofs of his “law of time” and in case he made a mistake he never dissembled his fails (a letter addressed to Matyushin). His researches of numbers resulted in issuing the brochure entitled “Battles of 1915-1917. The new doctrine of war. 1915”.

He wrote brief letters from Astrakhan to his beloved woman Nadezhda Vasilyevna Nikolaeva – a dancer. Their interest in Oriental art caused them to become better friends. His relationship with N.Nikolaeva were serious enough and in 1916, the poet intended to marry her. He dedicated small lyric works to her:

Котёнку шепчешь: «Не кусай»
Когда умру, тебе дам крылья.
Кровавит ротик Хоккусай,
А взоры – матери Мурильо.

In February 1916 Khlebnikov set up “union of 317” also known as “Society of chairmen of the Globe”. The number 317 was of a special significance for him. According to Khlebnikov such historic events occur at integral multiples of 317. From the poet’s poin of view The Society had to consist of 317 members and include best people from all around the world.   

In April 1916 Khlebnikov was conscripted into the army. First he joined the 187 Avarsky regiment raising in Astrakhan, then 93 reserve regiment in Tsaritsyn. He sent a postcard to his friends:

Король в темнице,
Король томится.
В пеший полк 93-ий,
Я погиб, как гибнут дети.

It was very hard for Velimir to handle keeping away from his relatives, friends and creativity. “It is a hell again when a poet shape-shifts into an insane beast, - he wrote in his letter to N.I. Kulbin. I can only become a fined soldier with future in disciplinary company. As a soldier I am nothing. Beyond the war fence I am something <…>. Well what shall I do with the military oath, me, having sworn the oath to Poetry?”

His creative work of 1915-1916 is marked with a strong antiwar focus:  

Нет, о друзья!
Величаво идёмте к Войне-Великанше,
Что волосы чешет свои от трупья.
Воскликнемте смело, смело как раньше:
«Мамонт гнусный, жди копья!»
Уж сиротеют серебряные почки
В руке растерянной девицы.
Ей некого, ей незачем хлестать!
Пером войны оставленные точки
И кладбища большие, как столицы,
Людей судьбы другая стать.
Где в простыню из мёртвых юношей
Обулась общая земля,
В ракушке сердца жемчуг выношу,
Вас твёрдым свистом жалейки зля.
Ворота старые за цепью
И нищий, и кривая палка,
И государства плеч (отрепье)
Блестят, о умная гадалка.


It seems that anxious whisper of the Universe and unsolved mystery of Eternity strained his verses of that period:

Годы, люди и народы
Убегают навсегда,
Как текучая вода.
В гибком зеркале природы
Звёзды – невод, рыбы – мы,
Боги – призраки у тьмы.

«Freedom comes naked» (Revolution)

Khlebnikov delighted The February Revolution of 1917. Despite he had a gift to foresee future he couldn’t avoid general euphoria. The Kingdom of Freedom seemed to have come.

Свобода приходит нагая,
Бросая на сердце цветы.
И мы, с нею в ногу шагая,
Беседуем с небом на ты.
Мы, воины, смело ударим
Рукой по суровым щитам:
Да будет народ государем
Всегда, навсегда, здесь и там!
Пусть девы споют у оконца,
Меж песен о древнем походе,
О верноподанном Солнца,
Самосвободном народе.

In February 1917 Khlebnikov got a five-month furlough. Since that very moment and until the end of his short life (he died about 37) Velimir lived a life of pilgrim-poet and spiritual wanderer. As he himself said “he felt a real hunger of space” and after resigning from the army “he travelled twice there and back on the route Kharkov – Kiev – Petrograd <…> by overcrowded trains. Apparently remote and absent-minded he always found himself at the epicenter of the cardinal incidents and at all “hot points” of the time. He struggled to understand what was going on in the country. (Esenin also asked himself where that rock of events led them). Revolution became the primary theme of the final stage of his creativity (1917-1922). His position on that matter was ambiguous. He could see perfectly what state upheaval would bring and in 1918-1919 he composed entirely different works than he had done in February of 1917. (In fact his seven poems of Revolution caused his 70 years long stopping out of Russian literature).  

Having travelled across the country in August 1917 he went to his native Astrakhan. 

He wrote to Matyushin from there: “I visited Kiev, Kharkov, Taganrog, swam in the Azov sea…” In autumn the felt the war approaching and went up to Petrograd. There he witnessed The October revolt. Some time later in Moscow he observed street-by-street battles: “…we stood a week long siege. We spent nights sitting at the table, our heads in the hands in Kazansky railway station, at day time we often got in the way of gunfire in Trubnaya and Myasnitskaya streets

<…>  once late at night I had to walk along Sadovaya street over the whole Moscow and was several times stopped and searched”. It should be added that he was almost shot by stray bullet when he was sitting at the table in the Tatar restaurant. 

«It is the fight of Cossacks versus bad people called bolshaki» (Astrakhan, 1918-1919)

When he came back to Astrakhan the street-by-street war for political power was at its hottest (January 1918): “It is the fight of Cossacks versus bad people called “bolshaki” (as Khlebnikov named Bolsheviks)”.

The Bolsheviks fortified their position in the territory of Kremlin and when the White stepped into commanding positon over the fortress the fate of the nearby districts was decided. The Red set them in fire in order to keep the enemy pinned down and gain time.

On that memorable night, flaming Astrakhan bore an apocalyptic picture. The target hit of the Cossacks’ cannon shell had broken the clock on the Prechistenskaya bell tower and now it had a lacerated hole: the time stood still.   

When the shots ceased and the town immersed into “dead silence like in Muslim villages” Velimir Khlebnikov had a vision:

«I was sitting in the darkness after incandescent wire had finished its mortal dance and I watched it dying quietly. I invented a new means of illuminating: I took “The Temptation of Saint Antony” by Flaubert and read it all, burning one page in order to use the light of fire to read the next one…and afterwards all those faiths, religions, global doctrines turned to black papery ashes.   

All those things became a black highly instructive ash of the third black rose when lunatic dreams stepped into the town, when a ploughman and an equestrian of the steppes fought over the dead inhabitant and Pugachev’s laughter out from the spring mouth of the Volga river. The names of Jesus Christ, Mahomet and Buddha were trembling in fire like a fleece of sheep that had been sacrificed for 1918 » (“Nobody will deny that…” 1918).

Truly the prophetic vision. Slightly more than a decade later the names of Christ, Mahomet and Buddha would combust and vanish in the hearts of a new generation of Astrakhan citizens – citizens of the city of “mixed blood”.   

His last visit to Astrakhan, “ancestors’ city”, turned out to be extended: Khlebnikov had to stay there until the spring of 1919. For the first time ever he got a job: he worked as a stuff member of army newspaper “The Krasny Voin” [Red Warrior]. “The Krasny Voin” of that time rang with “deserters”, “Revolutionary Courts”, “red banners”, “righteous cause”, army reports and…verses.  

Khlebnikov had to join “the red stream” and merge with it. However, he didn’t merge. He published two of his poems “Life” and “Freedom for everyone” in “The Krasny voin” and also he published some of his articles. Because of one of them (“At The Congress”) the editor-in-chief (temporary S. Budantsev) almost was put on trial. Some of the Khlebnikov’s articles are the examples of highly artistic poetry written in prose, “Opening Art Gallery” for instance:

«Daring bright rebel Malyavin, “a Razin of scarlet canvas” <…> This artist set the red color as free on his canvases as none of the painters had done before <…>.

A huge beautiful work “Beyond the Volga” was painted by Nesterov. Another his work “Vision of youth Bartholomew” <…> is a pearl of the collection <…> The great Vrubel is shown by his sketch for “The Swan Queen”. Vrubel, a Mitskevich of art, supplemented scarlet madness of Malyavin, quiet abandonment and escapism of Nesterov and desperate sternness of Surikov with the stream of pagan tale and colorful pride».

Another thing to consider is the poet to focus his attention on Asia and its acute problems in the homeland. In September 1918 Khlebnikov accompanied by the poet Rurik Ivnev and some researchers on the ship “Pochin” sailed to the Volga river with the purpose of choosing the site for future nature reserve. During the trip he dictated to Ivnev his declarations “Indo-Russian union” and “Asian union” in which he developed the idea he had already expressed before “To turn Asia to the united spiritual island”.    

«This union was by fortune established in Astrakhan where three worlds – Arian, Indian and Caspian are united, a sort of triangle of Christ, Buddha and Mahomet.

<…> We follow a path of our own not like personalities of death but like the young Vishnu wearing a worker’s shirt. Song and word are our magic weapons <…>.

We ran up to the dawn of sapience and collected signatures of Buddha, Confucius and Tolstoy.

<…> We sacrifice our hearts for proclaimed triangle of races.  

Remembering it we make our names immortal and thrust them into the mane of running centuries.

Peoples! Follow us!» («Indo-Russian Union»). 

«The poet», «Three sisters» (Kharkov, 1919-1920)

Later he went from Astrakhan to Kharkov. Though living conditions were very harsh he felt a overwhelming passion for creative work and wrote beautiful poems:

В этот день голубых медведей,
Пробежавших по тихим ресницам,
Я провижу за синей водой
В чаще глаз приказанье проснуться.
На серебряной ложке протянутых глаз
Мне протянуто море и на нём буревестник;
И к шумящему морю, вижу, птичья Русь
Меж ресниц пролетит неизвестных.
Но моряной любес опрокинут
Чей-то парус в воде кругло-синей,
Но зато в безнадёжное канут
Первый гром и путь дальше весенний.

The White armies took Kharkov again. In order to avoid conscription into the Denikin regiment Khlebnikov voluntarily went to the Mental Decease Hospital “Saburova dacha” (“Saburov’s country-house”) where he spent four months long, he had typhus twice and wrote his then best poem “Poet”, in which his genius attained its full strengths and he achieved a poetic freedom he had never met before.

И, их ожерельем задумчиво мучая
Свой давно уж измученный ум,
Стоял у стены вечный узник созвучия,
В раздоре с весельем и жертвенник дум
И бровь его, на сон похожая,
На дикой ласточки полёт.
И будто судорогой безбожия
Его закутан гордый рот.
Таким он стоял, сумасшедший и гордый
Певец (голубой темноты строгий кут,
Морскою волною обвил его шею измятый лоскут).
И только алмаз Кизил-э
Зажёг красноватой воды
Звездой очарованной, к булавке прикованной,
Плаща голубые труды,
Девичьей душой застрахованной.
О, девушка, рада ли,
Что волосы падали
Рекой сумасшедших оленей...»

As soon as the Red armies conquered the city Khlebnikov left the hospital and for some time lived in the outskirts of Kharkov in the country house “Krasnaya polyana” [Red glade] belonged to Sinyakov sisters. There he was welcomed warmly and got sympathy. The sisters (there were five of them) were fond of art (among them were a painter, an opera singer and a pianist). Khlebnikov devoted his poem “Three sisters” to them (Likewise the play by A.P. Chekhov under the same name). Khlebnikov’s “Three sisters” is one of the best compositions in the world poetry.  

Как воды полночных озёр
За тёмными ветками ивы,
Блестели глаза у сестёр,
А все они были красивы.
Одна, зачарована богом
Старинных людских образов,
Стояла под звёздным чертогом
И слушала полночи зов.
А та замолчала навеки,
Душой простодушнее дурочки.
Боролися чёрные веки
С глазами усталой снегурочки.
Другая окутана сказкой
Умерших недавно событий.
К ней тянутся часто за лаской
Другого дыхания нити,
Она величаво, как мать,
Проходит по зарослям вишни
И любит глаза подымать,
Где звёзды раскинул всевышний <...>
Лоск ласк и хитрости привычной сети
Чертили тучное лицо у третьей <...>
И, точно хохот обезъяны,
Взлетели косы выше плеч.
И ветров синие цыганы
Ведут взволнованную речь <...>
Она пчелиным божествам
На службу тысячи шмелей
Идёт, хоть трудно меж ветвей
Служить молитву божествам.
Old Astrakhan. Photo Old Astrakhan. Photo
Old Astrakhan. Photo
Private Khlebnikov Private Khlebnikov
Private Khlebnikov
Old Saint Petersburg. Photo Old Saint Petersburg. Photo
Old Saint Petersburg. Photo
V. Khlebnikov The Oeuvres: [Selected works]. Published after 1922 V. Khlebnikov The Oeuvres: [Selected works]. Published after 1922
V. Khlebnikov The Oeuvres: [Selected works]. Published after 1922
V. Khlebnikov. Selected poems with the epilogue by the speecher. 1907-1914: reprinted edition V. Khlebnikov. Selected poems with the epilogue by the speecher. 1907-1914: reprinted edition
V. Khlebnikov. Selected poems with the epilogue by the speecher. 1907-1914: reprinted edition