Khlebnikov, Viktor Vladimirovich 1885-1922

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KHLEBNIKOV, Viktor Vladimirovich 1885-1922

PERSONAL: Born November 9 (some sources say October 28), 1885, in Tundutovo, Russia; died of typhoid fever and malnutrition June 28 (one source says June 18), 1922, in Novgorod, Russia; son of an ornithologist father and historian mother. Education: Studied mathematics at University of Kazan, 1903-08; studied Sanskrit, biology, and Slavic languages at University of St. Petersburg, 1909-11.

CAREER: Author of essays, dramatic works, short stories, novellas, and poetry. Foot and railway-car man; Caucasus propaganda bureau, Baku, Russia, employee 1920; lecturer in Revolutionary army headquarters, Persia, 1921; night watchman in Rosta office, Piatigorsk, Russia, 1921. Military service: Served in Tsarist army, 1916-17.


Uchitel' I uchenik (title means "Teacher and Pupil"), 1912.

Iqra v adu (title means "A Game in Hell"), 1912.

Riav! Perchatki 1908-1914 (title means "Roar! The Gauntlets"), 1913.

Izbornik stikhov 1907-1914 (tile means "Selected Verse"), 1914.

Tvoreniia (1906-1908) (title means "Creations"), 1914.

Bitvy 1915-1917: Novoe uchenie o voine (title means "Battles: The New Teaching about War"), 1915.

Vremia mera mira (title means "Time the Measure of the World"), 1916.

Truba marsian (title means "The Martian Pipe"), 1916.

Oshibka smerti (title means "Death's Mistake"), 1916.

Ladomir (title means "Goodworld"), 1920.

Noch' v okope (title means "A Night in the Trench"), 1921.

Vestkik (title means "Herald"), 2 volumes, 1922.

Zanqezi, 1922.

Stikhi (poems), 1923.

Otryvok iz dosok sud'by (title means "Fragment from the Boards of Destiny"), 3 volumes, 1922-1923.

Nastoiashchee (title means "Genuine"), 1926.

Vsem: Nochnoi bal (title means "For Everyone: The Night Ball"), 1927.

Sobranie proizvedenii (collected works), edited by Yurii Tynianov and Nikolai Stepanov, 5 volumes, 1928-1933.

Zverinets (title means "Menagerie"), 1930.

Stikhotvoreniia i poemy (title means "Poetry and Narrative Verse"), edited by Stepanov, 1960.

Sobranie sochinenii (collected works), 4 volumes, 1968-1972.

Snake Train: Poetry and Prose, edited by Gary Kern, translation by Kern, Richard Sheldon, Edward J. Brown, Neil Cornwell, and Lily Feiler, 1976.

The King of Time, edited by Charlotte Douglas, translation by Paul Schmidt, 1985.

Voisko pesen (title means "Military Song"), 1985.

Stikhotvoreniia. Poemy. Dramy. Proza (collected works), 1986.

Izbrannoe (selection), edited by V. Smirnov, 1986.

Letters and Theoretical Writinqs, edited by Charlotte Douglas, 1987.

Stikhotvoreniia (title means "Poetry"), 1988.

Utes iz budushchego (title means "The Rock of the Future"), 1988.

Prose, Plays, and Supersaqas, edited by Ronald Vroon, 1989.

Proza, 1990.

Stikhi, poemy (collected poems), 1991.

Also author of Deti vydry.

SIDELIGHTS: The Futurists, avant-garde writers of pre-revolutionary Russia, crowned Velimir Khlebnikov the "King of Russian Poetry." The Futurists used experimental writing to revive what they saw as a stagnant language. As they put it, they "slapped the face of public taste." A Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism reviewer described their efforts as "subordinating content to form through technical innovations in order to direct attention to language itself … [hoping] thereby to revivify language rendered clichéd by everyday usage and permit the expression of a fresh vision of the world." Khlebnikov wrote essays, dramatic works, short stories, novellas, and poetry that experimented with the Russian language. He invented the transrational language, zaum. Though he earned his renown through the Futurists, his work transcended their agenda. Khlebnikov was just as concerned with content as form. He wrote out of revolutionary and pan-Slavist sentiments, and explored Russian and Slavic folk art, and the cultures of India, Persia, and Central Asia.

Born Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov—he also wrote under the names Xlebnikov and Chlebnikov—he was raised in Tundutovo, Russia. Both Russians and central Asians inhabit this Astrakhan region, near the Caspian Sea. Critics suggest this sparked Khlebnikov's interest in Asian cultures. Khlebnikov's parents were intellectuals who emphasized literature and natural sciences in their son's education. They encouraged Khlebnikov's early poetry while he was at the Kazan Third Gymnasium. While studying mathematics at the University of Kazan, he continued writing poetry and also engaged in revolutionary activities. He abandoned his studies at the University of St. Petersburg to concentrate on writing. In St. Petersburg he became associated with the modernist poets through his publication in the journal Vesna. These modernists eventually became the futurists.

Khlebnikov solidified his literary reputation with his poem "Zaklyatie smekhom" (Incantation by Laughter). This poem, which plays with the word "laugh," attracted critical attention to its author and the futurist movement. Khlebnikov contributed heavily to the futurists through his poetry, prose, and pamphlets on his literary theory and contributions to Futurist publications. Friends published most of his work. Khlebnikov was more interested in philological research, and in discovering historical patterns through mathematical calculations. He truly believed in scientific innovation improving humanity, and formed the Society of Presidents of the Globe, an utopian organization involving leading scientists and artists. The futurists were exhibitionists who organized public appearances; Khlebnikov avoided them. He was also a wanderer, crossing Russia many times with a pillowcase stuffed with his manuscripts.

In 1916 Khlebnikov was drafted into the Tzarist army. He abhorred military life, and wrote to a friend, "I am a dervish, a yogi, a Martian, anything but a private of a reserve regiment." The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 freed Khlebnikov from his military duty. He looked upon the Revolution favorably, first because it interrupted his service, and second, because he was optimistic about its utopian vision. He worked in a Caucasus propaganda bureau in Baku, and lectured in the revolutionary army headquarters in Persia. He became disillusioned, however, and returned to his life as a wandering poet. Later in his life, he published less. Impoverished, he suffered from malnutrition and was frequently ill.

Joseph Brodsky wrote in the New Republic that Khlebnikov "set out to reach two goals—first, to collect, and thereby to purify and to create, the Russian language, a process that he felt was as yet, unfinished by history; and second, to discover the rhythm of world history." Khlebnikov figured that similar cataclysmic events occurred every 317 years. He succeeded more in meeting his literary goals. Brodsky wrote that while eighty percent of Khlebnikov's poetry is incomprehensible, the other twenty percent contains poems that "are diamonds of an unparalleled splendor." Khlebnikov is best known for his short poetry, in which he experimented with language, but he also wrote more than thirty longer poems. More conservative in form, they paralleled eighteenth-century Russian epic poetry. Still experimental, they are "a chaotic mixture of idealistic mysticism and anarchistic Utopianism," according to B. Yakolev. His works, which explore Slavic folklore and mythology, nature, and primitive life, contrast with his rationalist poems, which envision a utopian world structured through science and technology. Khlebnikov was also obsessed with destiny and fate. Ray Cooke wrote that "By practical prophecy he wished to make man the master of his destiny, to make him capable of directing his passage through the centuries like a ship along the Volga … however, running parallel to it is a vivid awareness of the conflict and disaster constantly threatening mankind."

Khlebnikov's styles and thematic subjects varied. He combined drama, fiction, and essays into a form he called the "supertale," pieces often cobbled from other works. He described these as "constructed from independent pieces, each with its own god, its own faith, and its own code." Critics found that these supertales lacked cohesion, though Deti vydry and Zanqezi are considered his most successful. Deti vydry obsesses with history through essays and math. Zanqezi is a meditation on philosophy, history mathematics and linguistics through philosopher Zangezi's ideas.

After Khlebnikov's death, his pillowcase contents were published into six volumes of poetry, plays, short stories, treatises, and literary manifestos. Rarely was a critic lukewarm to Khlebnikov's work; most proclaimed him as either one of the twentieth century's most brilliant poets, or as a madman. For years only a few readers knew his work. Critical attention, however, has been growing. Some of his works published in English included Snake Train and The Kinq of Time: Selected Writinqs of the Russian Futurian.



Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, third edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Lönngvist, Barbara, Xlebnikov and Carnical: An Analysis of the Poem Poet, Almqvist & Wiksell International (Stockholm, Sweden), 1979.

Markov, Vladimir, The Longer Poems of Velimir Khlebnikov, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1962.

Reference Guide to World Literature, second edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995.


New Republic, January 20, 1986.

New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1985.*