Most well-known for the part he played in the Russian Futurist movement, Velimir Khlebnikov was born in 1885 in Malye Derbety, Republic of Kalmykia. His father was head of the local authority in the lower Volga and his mother was from noble stock and the young Khlebnikov received a good education, developing an interest in mathematics at an early age.
When he left school, Khlebnikov went to Kazan and took a degree in mathematics at the university there but his studies were interrupted when he was arrested on a student demonstration and spent a month in jail. He did not return to mathematics but the following year took on a degree in biology instead. By 1908, however, his passion lay in more literary pursuits and he left Kazan for St Petersburg taking an active part in the literary and bohemian life of the city.
Khlebnikov mixed with prominent symbolist writers such as Ivanov and Kuzmin but was looking for something more and he began to associate with those new young poets who were intent on finding a different pathway for art. It was here, with the help of the likes of Vasilij Kamenskij and Elena Guro, the Futurist movement began to develop more strongly.
The first works of the movement were published in 1910 in the shape of the collection A Trap for Judges which was followed a couple of years later by the controversially named manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste. Whilst the group aimed to renew the art of poetry, they were also out to shock and their reputation grew accordingly.
Khlebnikov’s first long poem to be published was Snake Train in 1910. He was often viewed as the poet’s poet and his work The Incantation of the Laugh was particularly well received by his peers. As with many movements in the early part of the twentieth century, the advent of World War I and the social revolution that came in its wake in Russia caused a hiatus and by the end of the conflict the Futurist movement ceased to exist.
Khlebnikov was not a prolific writer, producing only a handful of poems and plays during his time. He was a supporter of the revolution though but that didn’t stop him producing works that had an artistic dig at the new Russian state, as the 1922 poem Property is a Great Thing testifies to. He was a forward thinking writer, exploring the brave new world to come with ideas about mass communication and how people would get around in the future.
Although he only once traveled abroad, Khlebnikov wandered extensively across his beloved Russia, fulfilling as he put his ‘hunger for space’. He never became a wealthy poet in the new order, often living on the charity of others, something that in the end told on his overall health.
In 1922, at the age of 36, he arrived in Moscow, hoping to find someone to publish his new works. He made friends with artist Peter Muturich and they moved to Novgorod where he died from paralysis shortly after. He is the only Russian poet to have a minor planet named after him.