I was born on October 28, 1885, in the camp of Mongolian Buddhist nomads—Khanate Headquarters in the steppe—the dried bottom of a vanished part of the Caspian (the sea of 40 names). During Peter the Great’s travels on the Volga, an ancestor of mine presented him with a goblet of coins gotten by brigandage. I have Armenian blood i my veins (the Alabors), also Cossack blood (the Verbitskys), whose special nature is evident in the fact that Przhewalski, Mikluktha-Maklai and other explorers were descendants of the children of the Sech.
I belong to the place where the Volga meets the Caspian Sea (Sigai). More than once during the course of centuries that area has held the balance of Russian history and shaken the scales.
I have made a contract of matrimony with Death, and I am therefore married. I have lived on the Volga, the Dnieper, the Neva, the Moscow, the Gorynia.
Crossing the isthmus that joins the reservoirs of the Volga and the Lena, I made a few handfuls of water flow into the Arctic Ocean instead of into the Caspian Sea.
I have swum across the Gulf of Sudak (3 versts) and the Volga at Enotaevka. I have ridden unbridled horses from other people’s stables.
I have demanded in public that the Russian language be cleaned of the litter of foreign words, and accomplished all one could expect in 10 pages.
I published “Incantation by Laughter”; in 365 ± 48 I gave people the means to see into the future, I discovered the law of generations; I wrote The Girl-God, where I peopled Russia’s past with bright shadows, and A Country Friendship; I hacked a window to the stars right through the everyday laws of people’s lives.
Once I made a public appeal to the Serbs and Montenegrins on the occasion of the theft of Bosnia and Herzegovina, an appeal vindicated in part a few years later in the Balkan War, and in defense of the Ugrorussians, whom the German relegate to the ranks of the vegetable kingdom.
The continent, waking from its slumber, extends its staff to the people who live beside the sea.
In 1913 I was named the great genius of modern times, which title I possess even now.
I have never been in the army.
Letter to Nikolai Kulbin
Between late April and May 17, 1916
Dear Nikolai Ivanovich
I am writing you from the hospital—”the itch detachment,” where for the time being I’ve been relieved from military duties, which I am so unsuited for that they seem like punishment, a refined torment, but I am still in a difficult and uncertain situation. I won’t even mention the fact that in this detachment I am surrounded by 100 men suffering from skin diseases, whom nobody looks after properly, so I could catch any one of them including even leprosy. That’s the way it goes. But that’s not all; again the hell of trying to turn a poet into a mindless animal who gets talked at in gutter language, and their idea of coaxing is to put a knee in your stomach and pull your belt so tight it takes your breath away, where they hit us—me and my fellow soldiers— in the chin to make us hold our heads up higher and look happier, where I am becoming the focus of rays of hate because I am different, not part of a crowd or a herd, where there is only one answer to all arguments: I am still alive, while whole generations have been exterminated in the war. But is one evil a justification for another evil and their chains? All I can do is get court-martialed and wind up in the stockade. Marching , orders, it’s murdering my sense of rhythm, and makes me crazy by the end of the evening detail, and I can never remember which is my right foot and which is my left. Besides which because I am so preoccupied I am completely incapable of obeying orders fast enough, or precisely enough.
As a soldier I am complete nothing. Outside the military establishment I am something. And even though there’s some question about it, that something is exactly what Russia lacks now. She had a lot of good soldiers at the beginning of the war (strong, hardy animals who obeyed without reasoning why, who parted with their reason when they shaved off their whiskers). And she has few, far too few others left. I’d make a lousy second lieutenant.
And what am I to do about my oath of allegiance, when I’ve already given my allegiance to Poetry? What if Poetry prompts me to make a joke of my oath? And what about my absentmindedness? There’s only one kind of military duty I’d be good for, and that’s if they assigned me to a noncombat outfit to do farmwork (fishing or gardening) or to a responsible and challenging job on the airship Muromets. But the latter is impossible. And while the first would be completely bearable, it would be stupid. A poet has his own complex rhythm, and that’s why military service is so oppressive; it makes him endure the yoke of a different and discontinuous rhythmic pattern, one that derives from the nature of the majority—i.e., a lot of farmers. Thus, defeated by war, I will be forced to smash my rhythm (the fate of Shevchenko and others) and fall silent as poet. The idea does not attract me in the least, and I will continue shouting to a stranger on the steamship to throw me a lifesaver.
Thanks to the continual monotonous cursing and swearing, my feeling for language is dying within me. What place has the Eternal Feminine in a barrage of heavy-artillery curse words? I feel as if the gardens and castles of my soul have been rooted out, leveled and destroyed. Furthermore I am obliged to claim the path of special rights and privileges, which calls forth hostility from my fellow soldiers because they don’t recognize as legitimate any excuses except a missing leg or a stomachache. I have been snatched away from the very front lines of the fight for the future.
Now I hlaven’t the slightest idea what lies ahead of me. And since I am of use to everyone in the realm of peaceful labor but am nothing in the service, they even call me a “physically underdeveloped individual.” For a long time now they’ve been referring to me as “it” instead of him.
I am a dervish, a Yogi, a Martian, anything you want, but I am not a private in a reserve infantry regiment.
My address: Pvt. V. K.
Military Hospital 93rd Res. Inf. Reg.
I’ll be in this hospital for two weeks. The head doctor, Shapiro, is fairly good-natured, but strict.
Sincerely yours, who has saved me once already (a reminder).
On February 29th in Moscow a society of “317 members” was founded. Do you want to be a member? There are no rules, just common cause.
Letter to Gregory Petnikov
You know that our goal, a goal we have attained already, solving with the sound of strings what is usually solved by cannon fire, is to grant power over humanity to the world of the stars, by eliminating unnecessary intermediaries between them and us.
Into streets torn by the lion’s jaws of revolt we go like a martyr unwavering in her faith and the meekness of her upraised eyes (eyes that direct lightning flashes on the sea of terrestrial stars).
The worldwide thundering of revolt—can it terrify us, if we ourselves are a revolt more terrifying still? You remember that a government of poets has been founded and encompasses Planet Earth. You remember that the sounding string of tribes has united Tokyo, Moscow, and Singapore.
We imitate the waves of the sea, white-capped by the storm, now uniting and rising up, now subsiding into multitudinous distances. You remember that we have succeeded in discovering the harmony of our destinies, which enables us to hold humanity in the palm of our thoughts and raise it to the next stage of existence.
Still it moves, this wanderer of the centuries.
How the harmonies we found have tied the letter U into the thundering of the A string, into the foot soldier’s march and beats of the heart, the thunder of the waves, the harmonies of births—these are all similar points of the ray of destiny.
Remember how a foundation was built, solid enough to let us speak of rays of people, or people light, on a line with the black, cold, and burning ray, and the resinous ray of furious lightning. This was done in order to transfer lawmaking power to the scientist’s desk and to exchange the arrogant Roman law, based on word definitions, for the approaching law of the Futurians, which consists of equal signs, multiplication and division signs, signs of the square roots of I and N, imaginary quantities brought to bear on the substance of humanity. How we dream of constructing viewing glasses and magnifying lenses for people rays in the elemental agitation of their wars, and of replacing with scientific waves the ordinary barbarous ray of human nature and its blindfolded progressions. All inventions for lesser rays, all the laws of Balmer, Fresnel, Fraunhofer, and Planck, all the art of reflecting, directing, distancing, bringing closer— we swear, we young people, to employ them upon the rays of the human race. Thus will victory be accomplished over space, while victory over time will be attained by means of a movement and transmission of consciousness during a second rebirth. We are determined to die knowing the instant of our second birth, vowing to complete the poem of ourselves.
This is the action of fate’s sewing machine—the point of birth is a needle, and in obedience to a law it sews a knot onto the canvas of the human race.
Aryabhatta and Kepler! We see again the year of the ancient gods, great sacred events repeating themselves after 365 years. That is so far the supreme string in the Futurian’s scale, and are we not rapt in admiration, seeing that at the end of this growing advance of the laws of origin we find an oscillation of vocalic U and the waves of the A string, the main axis of the sounding world. This is the first section of our pact with heaven for the human race, signed in the blood of the great war.
As far as the second barrier on our path is concerned—multi-language—remember that an overview of the fundamentals of languages has already been accomplished, and a discovery made: that the alphabet is the sound machine of languages, and each of its sounds hides a fully exact and spatial word image. This knowledge is essential in order to transport man to the next stage—a single common language—and that we will do next year.
COLLECTED WORKS OF VELIMIR KHLEBNIKOV
LETTERS AND THEORETICAL WRITINGS
TRANSLATED BY PAUL SCHMIDT
EDITED BY CHARLOTTE DOUGLAS
HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1987