Illustration by Moa Thelander.

Features velimir khlebnikov and the volga famine

"Hunger" shows us Khlebnikov at his most compassionate; it may well be the only adequate literary response to the Volga famine of 1921.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Issue 1, 2013, 34-36 pp
Published on on May 17, 2013

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Alongside Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov is the most important of the Russian futurists. In much of his work, he experiments with language, inventing neologisms and finding significance in the shapes and sounds of individual letters. He treats a wide range of themes: the experience of war, revolution, and famine; the changing seasons; Slavic mythology; a utopian future in which all human knowledge can be disseminated by radio and in which people live in mobile glass cubicles that can attach themselves to skyscraper-like frameworks. He was passionately interested in mathematics and he believed that a mathematical understanding of the laws of history could allow humanity to predict the future — and so gain the power to shape it. In his long poem War in a Mousetrap Khlebnikov expresses the hope that we will eventually be able to “trap” war it as if it is no more than a mouse. And in his unfinished treatise The Boards of Fate he writes, “Once I was sitting deep in thought, pen in hand. My pen was hanging idly in the air. Suddenly war flew in and, like a merry fly, landed in the inkwell. Dying, it began to crawl across the book and these are the tracks left by its feet as it crawled in a coagulated lump, all covered in ink. Such is the fate of war. War will drown in the writer’s inkwell.”1

Velimir Khlebnikov was born in Astrakhan, on the Volga delta, where his father was the official administrator of the Kalmyks, a nomadic Buddhist people who speak a Turkic language. A keen ornithologist, he passed on to his son both an interest in birds — and the language of birds — and an interest in non-European cultures. In 1905, Khlebnikov and one of his elder brothers spent five months on an ornithological expedition in the northern Urals.

Velimir’s mother was   close to some of the most important members of the People’s Will, a populist terrorist organization. Velimir himself studied a variety of subjects — biology, mathematics, natural sciences, Sanskrit and Slavic languages and literature — at both Kazan and Petersburg universities but never completed a degree. After a brief apprenticeship with some of the leading Symbolist poets, he became a central figure in the Russian avant-garde. He contributed to A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, the notorious futurist manifesto which called for Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy “to be thrown overboard from the steamship of modernity”; and he collaborated with David Burliuk, Kazimir Malevich, Pavel Filonov, Natalya Goncharova, Vladimir Mayakovsky and others on a variety of projects including the opera Victory over the Sun (1913). Nevertheless, Khlebnikov seems a somewhat unlikely futurist. While his comrades enjoyed shocking the public, painting their faces and dressing like clowns, he himself was a poor and low-key public performer. A lover of myth and folklore, he wrote poems about mermaids, forest spirits and shamans, often in archaic language. And he wrote movingly about the place of animals in our lives: “Man has taken the surface of the terrestrial globe away from the wise community of beasts and plants and become lonely; he has no one with whom to play tag and blindman’s buff; in an empty room with the darkness of non-existence all around, there is no play and no comrades. Whom is he to have fun with? All around is an empty ‘nothing’. Driven out of their carcasses, the souls of the beasts have thrown themselves into him and inhabited his steppes with their law. They have built beastly cities inside his heart.”2

Khlebnikov welcomed   both the February and October revolutions. Back in Astrakhan he worked for the local military-political newspaper, Red Soldier, and also helped his father to organize a nature reserve in the Volga delta. He spent the last four years of his life wandering. He left Moscow for Kharkov in early 1919, but the city was captured by the Whites, and Khlebnikov only narrowly, by feigning madness, managed to avoid being conscripted into the White Army. In 1920 he took part in the “First Congress of Eastern Peoples” in Baku, on the Caspian Sea. In a letter to his sister Vera, he wrote that in evening classes for the workers, “I announced to the Marxists that I represented Marx squared, and to those who preferred Mohammed I announced that I was the continuation of the teachings of Mohammed, who was henceforth silenced since the Number had now replaced the Word.”3

From Baku Khlebnikov travelled in April 1921 to Persia, as a “lector” in the “Persian Red Army” which had been sent to northern Persia to support a short-lived “Persian Soviet Republic”. There, delighted to be in the East, he wore Persian robes and became known as “the Russian Dervish”. He returned to Russia in August, where he witnessed the terrible Volga famine. At some point he was attacked and robbed, and he lost most of his manuscripts. He died in June 1922, after years of malnutrition and several bouts of both typhus and malaria.

Khlebnikov has much in common with Guillaume Apollinaire. Both poets lived short lives — Apollinaire from 1880 to 1918, Khlebnikov from 1885 to 1922. Both had a gift for drawing, and both were provincials, feted as geniuses when they moved to their country’s capital. Both were close to the greatest visual artists of their time: Apollinaire to Picasso, and Khlebnikov to both Pavel Filonov and Vladimir Tatlin. Both poets remain best known for their more outrageous experiments, but both also wrote many relatively classical poems that embody deep and unexpected perceptions; their early technical experimentation is linked to an openness to experience, to a willingness to follow thoughts and feelings of all kinds wherever they may lead. Like Apollinaire’s, Khlebnikov’s best work is informed by a bold simplicity and deep compassion. Other examples of avant-garde rhetoric — for example, the manifestos of Marinetti — now seem dated. Khlebnikov’s “Appeal to the Governors of the Terrestrial Globe”, however, retains its power — largely because it is so clearly inspired not only by hatred for the ordinary and everyday, but also by a justified horror at the monstrosity of modern industrial warfare. Khlebnikov was admired even by poets with little sympathy for futurism. The classically inclined Mikhail Kuzmin referred to him as “a genius and a man of great vision”. The no-nonsense Nikolay Gumilyov wrote admiringly about his first publications and Osip Mandelstam later wrote, “Every line of his is the beginning of a new long poem. […] What Khlebnikov wrote was not even verses, not even long poems, but a vast all-Russian prayer book or icon case.”

The First World War   put an end to the idea of inevitable human progress in every area of life, but the idea of progress in art has proved surprisingly resilient. Literary and art historians tend to focus on artists’ most innovative work even when it is not their best. Just as Malevich’s Black Square has always attracted more attention than his figurative paintings of the 1930s, so Khlebnikov’s most experimental poems have taken up a disproportionate amount of critics’ attention. The following brief selection represents an attempt to redress this imbalance.

Hunger shows us Khlebnikov at his most compassionate; it may well be the only adequate literary response to the Volga famine of 1921. Another of the many versions of this poem contains the lines: “And their faces are more transparent than windows / so that hunger, like a bearded, self-satisfied landlord, / can look out through a child’s face. / The children are melting.” The only other responses by writers to this famine were non-literary: Maksim Gorky published an appeal to the outside world which led to the creation of the International Committee for Russian Relief, which eventually managed to feed about ten million people. And the twenty-two-year-old Andrei Platonov, who would go on to become the greatest Russian writer of the twentieth century, temporarily abandoned literature for work in land reclamation. “Being someone technically qualified,” he wrote, “I was unable to continue to engage in contemplative work such as literature.”

We are also including a few of Khlebnikov’s finest lyrical poems and a prescient poem about Moscow. The inspiration for this was probably an article by Gorky in the Communist International (December 1920) which includes the sentence, “For Lenin, Russia is only the material for an experiment that has been begun on a world-wide, planetary scale.” My translation of the poem was first published in an appendix to my co-translation of Andrei Platonov’s novel, Happy Moscow. ≈

The Volga Famine

            Hunger (A complete translation of Khlebnikov’s shortened version)

Why are elk and hares leaping through the forest,

making themselves scarce?

People have eaten the bark of poplars,

the green shoots of firs . . .

Women and children wander the forest,

gathering birch leaves

for soup, for broth, for borsch,

the tips of fir trees and silver moss —

food of the forest.

Children, forest scouts,

wander through thickets.

They roast white worms in a bonfire,

wild cabbage and fat caterpillars,

or big spiders — they’re sweeter than nuts.

They catch moles, grey lizards,

shoot arrows at hissing reptiles

and bake goose-foot pastries.

Hunger drives them after butterflies — 

they’ve collected a whole sack of them.

Today Mama

will be making butterfly borsch.

Enraptured, as if in a dream,

not believing the truth,

the children watch

with big eyes made holy by hunger

as a hare leaps tenderly through the trees.

It might be a vision from the world of light —

but the vision is agile and soon gone —

nothing left but the black tip of an ear.

An arrow sped after it,

but too late — the ample dinner had fled.

The children stand as if under a spell…

‘Look — a butterfly!  Quick!  After it! 

Over there now! Pale blue!’

The woods are dark, a wolf from far away

comes to the spot

where a year before

he had eaten a lamb.

He circled round and round like a top, sniffed everywhere,

but nothing remained —

the ants had worked hard — save one dry hoof.

Embittered, the wolf tightened his lumpy ribs

and made off beyond the trees.

There with his heavy paw he’ll crush

crimson-browed grouse and grey capercaillie

that have gone to sleep beneath the snow —

and he too will get sprinkled with snow.

A vixen, a fiery ball of fluff,

clambered onto a tree stump,

and contemplated her future: 

should she become a dog?

Should she become a servant to humans?

Many traps had been laid —

she could take her pick.

No, it wouldn’t be safe;

they’d eat a red fox

quick as they eat dogs!

And the fox began to wash herself with her downy paws,

spinning her fiery tail into the air

like a sail.

A squirrel grumbled:

“Where are my nuts and acorns?

The people have eaten them!”

Quietly, transparently, evening came.

With a quiet murmur, a pine kissed a poplar.

Tomorrow they may

be chopped down

and broken up for breakfast.

7 October, 1921

             Hunger (The third section of Khlebnikov’s long version of this poem)


without its lashes

of downpours and rain,

has been burning our earth, our fields

and whole nations of stalks of grain.

Rippling like dry straw,

fields smoked and ears of grain yellowed,

faded and withered into a dry death.

Scattered, the grain fed mice.

Is the sky ill?  Is the sky a sick person?

It has no moist eyelashes,

no mighty downpours, none

of the weather that makes for fine harvests.

Burning the grass, the fields and our gardens,

the eye of the heat remained cruelly yellow,

always golden, with no brows of clouds.

People sat down submissively to wait

for a miracle — but there are no such things — or death.

This was a pale-blue doom.

This was drought.  Among beloved years —

a stepson.

Everything — grain and rain —

had betrayed the farmer’s labour.

Had not the ploughman’s hands,

sweating as always, scattered

good grains that very spring?

Had not the farmer’s eyes

looked in hope at the sky

all summer long,

in expectation of rain?

The naked eye of the heat,

this eye of golden fire,

was burning with golden rays

the cornfields of the Volga.

Through the ravine in the forest,

raising clouds of dust,

the crowd hurried to the green hills and the three pines.

All in a rush and agitated,

holding sticks in their hands,

long beards like wedges,

they hurried along.

All of them, children and adults, were running.

This was hunger.

It was to find the holy clay,

that can be eaten like bread,

that you don’t die from,

that people were in such a rush.

Clay — you alone remained

when everything let us down!

Clay!  Earth!

Hunger was herding humanity.

Men, women and children,

filling the ravine,

were hurrying to find the holy clay

that is as good as bread.

Clay — the mute saviour

beneath the roots of hundred-year-old pines.

And that was when the mind of scientists,

aspiring towards other worlds,

wanted to construct a dream of life

out of lands subordinated to thought.

                                                                October, 1921

            Love Flight

Will you turn

your twisted plait

to a bow-string for me?


me to the burnished bow

of your brow —

and I,

with finer feathers,

will outfly

the swiftest storm!

                                                                25 January, 1921

            The air is split

The air is split into black branches,

like old glass.

Pray to Our Lady of Autumn!

The windows of autumn’s chapel,

smashed by a hurtling bullet,

are wrinkling.

A tree was burning,

a bright spill in the golden air.

It bends; it bows down.

Autumn’s flint and steel angrily

struck the sparks of golden days.

A forest at prayer.  All at once

golden smells fell to the ground.

Trees stretch out — rakes

gathering armfuls of the sun’s hay.

Autumn’s tree resonantly evokes

a sketch of Russia’s railroads.

The golden autumn wind

has scattered me everywhere.

                                                7 November, 1921

            Moscow, who are you?

Moscow, who are you?

Enchantress or enchanted?

Forger of freedom

or fettered lady?

What thought furrows your brow

as you plot your world-wide plot?

Are you a shining window

into another age?

O Moscow, are you femme fatale

or fetter-fated,

fated or fêted?

Does scholarship decree

your crucifixion

beneath the razorblades of clever scholars

frozen over an old book

as pupils stand around their desk?

O daughter of other centuries,


explosion of your fetters. 

                                15 December, 1921

            I, a butterfly

I, a butterfly that has flown

into the room of human life,

must leave the handwriting of my dust

like a prisoner’s signature

over the stern windows,

across fate’s strict panes.

The wallpaper of human life

is grey and sad.

And there is the windows’

transparent ‘No’.

I have worn away my deep-blue morning glow,

my patterns of dots,

my wing’s light-blue storm, first freshness.

The powder’s gone, the wings have faded

and turned transparent and hard.

Jaded, I beat

against the window of mankind.

From the other side knock eternal numbers,

summoning me to the motherland,

calling a number to return to all numbers.

                                                                                1921  ≈

Note: also read the interview with Robert Chandler.>>


  1. Raymond Cooke, Velimir Khlebnikov: A Critical Study (1987), p. 160; Velimir Khlebnikov, Sobranie sochinenii (IMLI RAN, 2006), tom 6, kniga 2, s. 44
  2. Quoted in Yevgeny Kovtun, Avant-garde Art in Russia, New York, 1996,  p. 132; original in Khlebnikov, Poemy, dramy, proza, Moscow, 1986, pp. 324—25.
  3. Velimir Khlebnikov, Collected Works , Vol. I, Cambridge, MA 1987, p. 28.
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