Childhood, youth

A great Russian poet Velimir (Victor Vladimirovich) Khlebnikov was born on November 9 (new style), 1885 in Kalmykia, in the Winter quarters of the Maloderbetovskiy ulus where his father Vladimir Alexeevich Khlebnikov (1857-1934) was a trustee. The scientist-naturalist he was a Founder-member of Astrakhan Biosphere Reserve. He descended from the dynasty of merchants. 

Velimir’s mother – a noblewoman Ekaterina Nikolaevna Verbitskaya (1850-1936) – was a daughter of Saint-Petersburg state councilor. She studied in the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens but she didn’t graduate from it and went to Russian-Turkey War as a nurse.  

The early childhood of the poet (1885-1891) had been passed on the open steppes of Kalmykia. Later in his unfinished autobiography he wrote:

Меня окружали степь, цветы, ревучие верблюды,
Клуглообразные кибитки,
Моря овец, чьи лица однообразно худы,
Огнём крыла пестрящие простор удоды –
Пустыни неба гордые пожитки.
Так дни текли, за ними годы.
Ручные вороны клевали
Из рук моих мясную пищу.
Их вольнолюбивее едва ли
Отроки, обречённые топорищу.
Досуг со мною коротая,
С звенящим криком: «сирота я»,
Летел лебедь, склоняя шею.
Я жил, природа, вместе с нею.

In 1891 the family with five children (Ekaterina, Boris, Victor, Alexander and Vera) moved to the village Podluznoe, Volynsk region, then to Pomaevo, Mordovia to their father’s duty station. «There was freedom there,- the poet’s sister Vera Khlebnikova recollected, - a wonderful park, untrammeled flower gardens, some ruin…They made children’s imagination work and Vitya persisted in telling his astonished brothers that he had his own kingdom and every day a white swan flew and took him away».

It must have been the first tale the future singer of Swanland, The Low Volga [Lebedia in Russian] had told.

The first poem coming to us Victor composed when he was eleven years old in Pomaevo village of Mordovia where his father served as a bailiff. It was entitled

A bird in the cage
О чём поёшь ты, птичка в клетке?
О том ли, как попалась в сетку?
Как гнёздышко ты вила?
Как тебя с подружкой клетка разлучила?
Скучно бедняжке на жёрдочке сидеть
И из оконца на солнце глядеть.
В солнечные дни ты купаешься,
Песней чудной заливаешься,
Старое вспоминаешь,
Своё горе забываешь,
Семечки клюёшь,
Жадно водичку пьёшь.

There Victor was taught by private instructors – a Frenchwoman Adrienne Roget and Alexander Glinka. They trained him for entering the third form of The Simbirsk High School. However, he did not study there long. His father was transferred on service to Kazan and Victor entered The Third Kazan High School.  

When a sophomore he demonstrated exceptional mathematics abilities and a real flair for natural science (in particular for ornithology caused by his father’s influence). He was engaged in making beautiful sketches of birds (it should be pointed out that Khlebnikov was an irregular student of Kazan Art School), bird-watching and bird-stuffing.  

After his finishing High School those abilities helped him to enter the section of physics and mathematics at the Faculty of physics and mathematics in the Kazan University. All the while he studied on his own and learnt much from his family’s home library containing books written in six languages with works by Darwin, Spenser, and Comte translated into Russian.

However soon Victor Khlebnikov had to give up his studies. On November 5, in the Anniversary day of The Kazan University there was students rioting. The students decided to sing “May his memory live forever” song devoted to a socialist revolutionary Simonov, one of the Kazan University students who had been arrested and died in prison hospital after four-month confinement. The police demanded to stop singing and go away but the rebels did not obey. Mounted Cossacks armed with whips were assembled to put down the revolt. Victor Khlebnikov was among 35 detainees. “Someone had to be responsible for the acts”,- he said to his father afterwards.

     Victor spent four weeks at deportation jail and when he was released he had already been quite another person – complicated and unsociable. He experienced a sad change of heart. He resigned from the university but in the end of summer 1904 he applied for enrollment to the natural science section. Then he went to Moscow and visited Tretyakov Gallery, Rumyantsev and Historical museums. He liked paintings by Verechshagin and was fond of Russian architecture of Moscow.

Between poetry and science

In that time Khlebnikov tried his hand in literature and sent his play “Elena Gordyachkina” to A.M. Gorky. Though famous maître didn’t like it and sent the manuscript back nothing could restrain creative energy of the young writer.    

In the essay “Let them read it on a grave stone…” he indicated his “breakouts to the future worlds” Quote:

1) «He struggled against outward appearance and tore away its draught from himself. (“Enya Voeykov” of the same period shows the evolution of poet-philosopher).

2) With a big inspiration he dreamt to be a prophet and a great interpreter of the prince-cloth and of nothing but it” (Here his “thoughtland” (myslezyom) goes in advance of the V.I. Vernadsky’s idea of noosphere).

3) «He bound time and space together». Khlebnikov was one of the first who expressed the idea of “the fourth dimension”, the notion of space-time. What amazing insight for a nineteen years old fellow! Is not it the very place Velimir the Futurist appeared from?

Meanwhile at the university, he kept on working hard at ornithology and zoology professors A.A. Ostroumov and M.D. Ruzsky often praised him for application. In May 1905 accompanied by his brother Alexander he went to the Urals for the more than four-months long ornithological expedition appropriated by The Kazan University Scientist Society. One may guess that their father on purpose sent his sons far from the capital to keep them away from violent political events e.g. First Russian Revolution, Russia-Japan war. It may be quite true if remember that in one of the Urals villages the brothers were mistaken for Japanese spies. Fortunately the incident finished well.  

The results of the expedition were brilliant – the brothers supplemented the Zoological Museum of The Kazan University with the unique collection of 111 bird species and published the article “Ornithological observations at the Pavdinsky plant”.

However Khlebnikov burnt out on ornithology. Shaken by the destruction of Russian Pacific squadron in Tsushima he swore to “find justification of deaths”, discover “the law of time” which could allow foretelling the future course of history. Velimir was searching for “the law of time” almost till the end of his days. As the result Khlebnikov foretold some turning points of the 20-th century several years before they befell: “the collapse of the state in 1917”, “internal (civil) war”, the African nations’ struggle for independence, World War II and many other historical events.    

As for poetry, in 1905 Victor for the first time tried his prentice hand at epic genre and created a poem “The tsar’s bride” after the Russian Epos. Originally the title of the poem was “Princess Dolgorukaya – the tsar’s bride”. The subject was based on the story of a tragic destiny of the fourth Ivan the Terrible’s wife. The tradition was that in the morning after the wedding the tsar suspecting his spouse to have been in love with another man before marriage ordered to put her into the buggy drawn by a team of wild horses and got it into the lake. Passing away she recollected her tranquil life in the parents’ house and her father who had been killed by Ivan IV a night before the wedding:

Ей вспоминалась речь бояр
И говор старых мамок,
Над речкой красный яр
И отчий древний замок.
И вспомнился убийца отний,
Себя карающий гордец,
Тот, что у ней святыню отнял,
Союз пылающих сердец.
Думы воскресали,
Бия, как волны в мель откоса.
Утопленницы чесали
Её златые косы,
Княжна стояла как живая.

The poem “The tsar’s bride” demonstrates the first Khlebnikov’s experience in epic genre. Everything Pushkin had undertaken and thought of was proceeded and deepened by Khlebnikov, “the only epic poet of the 20-th century” (Y.Tynyanov). None of the poets expanded “pinnacles of Russian literature” as much as Khlebnikov did. He wrote “The tsar’s bride”, “Razin” (from Russian epic literature), “Goblet of the Pecheneg”, “Malusha’s granddaughter” (from Ancient Russian), “Maria Vechora” (from Romanian), “Ka” (from Egyptian), “Kaveh the blacksmiths” (from Iranian), “Resistant heart” (from Montenegrin), “Eye” (from Orochonian), “To you” (from Caucasian). Such colossal epic scale of Khlebnikov’s creative activity is really amazing and unequalled either in Russian or Foreign poetry.    

After 1906 Khlebnikov paid more attention to literature than to university studies. However he successfully spoke at the session of Natural Scientists Society with his report on discovering a new kind of the cuckoo (his father made an inscription on the manuscript: “My blessing”.) But what he thought of now was poetry. He sent his verses to the famous poet-symbolist Vyacheslav Ivanov and those verses were very much different from the examples of the contemporary poetry. Let us quote two of them:                   

Облакини плыли и рыдали
Над высокими далями далей.
Облакини сени кидали
Над печальными далями далей.
Облакини сени роняли
Над печальными далями далей.
Облакини плыли и рыдали
Над высокими далями далей.
Там, где жили свиристели,
Где качались тихо ели,
Пролетели, улетели
Стая лёгких времирей.
В беспорядке диком теней,
Где, как морок старых дней,
Закружились, зазвенели
Стая лёгких времирей,
Стая лёгких времирей!
Ты поюнна и вабна′,1
Душу ты пьянишь, как струны,
В сердце входишь, как волна!
Ну же, звонкие поюны,
Славу лёгких времирей!

In spring-summer 1908 in Sudak, Crimea Khlebnikov got personally acquainted with Vyacheslav Ivanov.   Now he completely made up his mind to become a poet and entered Saint-Petersburg University. In Petersburg he met some other poets, namely V.Ivanov, M.Kuzmin, N.Gumilev, S.Gorodetskiy and began attending literary evenings. “They call me Lyubek and Velimir”, -he wrote in his letter to his family.

During famous “Wednesdays” which took place in “Tower” at Vyacheslav Ivanov’s in Tavricheskaya he declaimed his verses, as the famous maître of symbolist poetry Mikhail Kuzmin characterized them “ingeniously mad”. 

Barbara Green tried to describe a young poet reciting his verses among capital symbolists: “the most amazing was how that quiet young man recited his verses – he blushed and hardly moved his pale lips but anyway he was determined. Nobody in the tower had ever heard anything like that. That was neither symbolism nor classicism and even not “a beautiful clearness”, there was no any imitation in those poems – they were twisting, vivid and very strange. Someone tossed their heads with blank expressions, the owner of the house beguilingly advised to work at metaphor and flesh the intonation – however Velimir persisted in keeping at it: he could be shy and timid, but he understood his poetry better than Ivanov or even Bryusov did. Poetry, this wonderful game of the language, entirely captivated him and he needed nobody else’s point of view”.  

«Down with the Habsburgs!» (Khlebnikov the Slavophil)

In that period he showed interest in “Slavonic problem”. The Bosnian crisis (Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina) inspired Khlebnikov to write “Appeal of studying Slavs to the nation”. 

He expressed this subject in the poem “The battle” in which Slavdom itself seems to speak from the great poet’s mouth:

Радой Славун, Родун славян,
Не кажи, не кажи своих ран!
Расскажи, расскажи про ослаби твои,
Расскажи, расскажи, как заслави твои полонила волна неми,
с запада яростно бьющей...
Расскажи, расскажи, как широкое плёсо быловой реки
наплывом-наливом влияний иных:
Иной роди, иной крови, иной думи, иных речей, иных бытей,
– Инобыти.
Я и сам бы сказал, я и сам рассказал,
Протянул бы на запад клянущую руку,
да всю горечь свою, да все яды свои собираю,
чтоб кликнуть на запад и юг свою весть,
свою веру, свой яр и свой клич,
Свой гневный, победный, воинственный клич
«Напор слави единой и цельной на немь!»
Посолонь2, слава! За солнцем, друзья, –
на запад за солнечным ходом,
под прапором солнца идёмте, друзья, –
на запад за солнечным ходом.
– Победная славь да идёт,
Да шествует.
Пусть в веках и реках раздаётся тот пев:
«Славь идёт! Славь идёт! Славь восстала...»
Пусть в веках и реках раздаётся запев:
«Славь идёт! Славь идёт! Славь восстала!»
The Khlebnikov brothers’ article The Khlebnikov brothers’ article
The Khlebnikov brothers’ article