Lilya Brik

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Lilya Brik shown editing film in 1928.

Lilya Yuryevna Brik (alternatively spelled Lili or Lily, Russian: Лиля Юрьевна Брик; November 11 [O.S. October 30] 1891 – August 4, 1978) is known best as a muse of Vladimir Mayakovsky. She was an older sister of Elsa Triolet and wife of Osip Brik. Pablo Neruda called her "muse of Russian avant-garde". Her name was frequently abbreviated by her contemporaries as "Л.Ю." or "Л.Ю.Б." which are the first letters of the Russian word «любовь» lyubov, "love."

Early life[edit]

She was born Lilya Kagan (Лиля Каган) into a wealthy Jewish family of a lawyer and a music teacher in Moscow. Both she and her sister Elsa received excellent education and were able to speak fluent German and French and play piano. Lilya graduated from Moscow Institute of Architecture.

The sisters were famous for their beauty. Their portraits were done by Alexander Rodchenko, Alexander Tyshler, David Shterenberg, David Burlyuk, Fernand Léger and later by Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. When she was twenty years old, Lilya married poet-futurist and poetry critic Osip Brik whom she had met when she was 14 and he was 17; they were married March 26, 1912. (Her sister Elsa married Louis Aragon, a notable French writer).

The daughter of a prosperous Jewish jurist, the handsome, erotically obsessed, highly cultivated Lili grew up with an overwhelming ambition prevalent among women of the Russian intelligentsia: to be perpetuated in human memory by being the muse of a famous poet. ... The two made a pact to love each other "in the Chernyshevsky manner" — a reference to one of nineteenth-century Russia's most famous radical thinkers, who was an early advocate of "open marriages." Living at the heart of an artistic bohemia and receiving the intelligentsia in the salon of his delectable wife, Osip Brik, true to his promise, calmly accepted his wife's infidelities from the start. In fact, upon hearing his wife confess that she had gone to bed with the famous young poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Brik exclaimed "How could you refuse anything to that man?" ... In 1918, when Mayakovsky and the Briks became inseparable, he simply moved in with them. Throughout the rest of his life, he made his home at a succession of flats that the Briks occupied.[1]

Mayakovsky's sexual relationship with Lili lasted from 1917 to 1923, and afterwards he continued to have a close friendship with the couple: "For the rest of his life, 'Osia' Brik [Lilya's husband] remained the poet's most trusted adviser, his most fervent proselytizer, and also a co-founder with him of the most dynamic avant-garde journal of the early Soviet era, Left Front of Art,"[2]

With Mayakovsky[edit]

Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lilya Brik
A 1918 photo that appeared retouched in official Soviet publications in the 1960s

In 1915 Elsa befriended aspiring futurist poet and graphic artist Vladimir Mayakovsky and invited him home, but he fell in love with Lilya. Despite the calamities of World War I, Russian Civil War and throughout the 1920s, their love affair caught and stayed in public attention, possibly because she did not divorce her husband.

After June 1915, Mayakovsky's lyrical poetry was almost exclusively devoted to Lilya (with notable exception of late 1920s to Tatyana Yakovleva). He frequently explicitly dedicated his poems or referred in them to Lilya by name, for example in his "Облако в штанах" ("A Cloud in Trousers", 1915), "Флейта-позвоночник" ("The Backbone Flute", 1916), "Про это" ("About This", 1922), "Лилечка! Вместо письма" ("Lilechka! Instead of a Letter").

In 1918, Mayakovsky wrote the scenario for the movie "Закованная фильмой" (Chained by the Film), in which he and Lilya starred. The movie Neptune — produced by a private movie company — has been lost, with the exception of a few trial shots. Gianni Totti used them in his 1980s movie.[clarification needed]

In 1926, after visiting Jewish kolkhozes in Crimea, she produced a documentary, "Еврей и земля" (The Jew and the Land), about Jewish communal farming in the USSR,[3] with the script co-written by Mayakovsky and Victor Shklovsky. In 1928-1929, Lilya turned to directing a half-fiction-half-documentary motion picture "Стеклянный глаз" (The Glass Eye), a parody on "bourgeois cinematography".

Some authors consider that his passion for Lilya was one of the motives that drove Mayakovsky to suicide in 1930 at his Moscow apartment immediately after his breakup with Veronika Polonskaya. Lilya, who at the time was in Berlin, denied this and wrote that earlier she saved him from committing suicide twice.

After Mayakovsky's death[edit]

V.M. Primakov

Later in 1930, after divorcing Osip earlier that year, she married Soviet General Vitali Primakov. Primakov was arrested in 1936 and executed in 1937 in relation to the Case of Trotskyist Anti-Soviet Military Organization, a part of the Moscow Trials. The charges were dropped and he was rehabilitated posthumously in 1957.

In her 1935 letter to Joseph Stalin, Lilya Brik complained that Mayakovsky's poetic heritage was getting neglected. Stalin made a famous remark to Nikolai Yezhov:

"Comrade Yezhov, please take charge of Brik's letter. Mayakovsky is still the best and the most talented poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his cultural heritage is a crime. Brik's complaints are, in my opinion, justified..."[4]

In 1938, she married writer Vasily Abgarovich Katanyan and they spent forty years together.

Lilya Brik committed suicide at the age of 87 when she was terminally ill. She left sculptures and writings. Recently published letters between the sisters in the course of more than five decades (except six years of World War II) reveal insights into life and cultural exchange across the Iron Curtain.


There were attempts to present her as greedy and manipulative femme fatale, but those who knew her, noted her altruism and intelligence. She helped many aspiring talents and was acquainted with many leading figures of Russian and international culture, such as Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, Boris Pasternak, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Kazimir Malevich, Sergei Paradjanov, Maya Plisetskaya, Rodion Shchedrin, Andrei Voznesensky, Yves St. Laurent and Pablo Picasso.

Lilya Brik's idiomatically posed portrait graced the cover of LEF magazine (Leftist Front of Arts) in the 1920s, a magazine concerning Dada and Constructivist art. The portrait, designed by Alexander Rodchenko, has been reworked into other designs, including as cover art for Franz Ferdinand and Robyn.

Mayakovsky's poem 'Про Это' (About This)[edit]

The main subject of this epic poem was love in itself.

After a brief separation, at a Christmas-time before 1922, Mayakovsky wrote a kind of proto-surrealist poem in which he allegorized the feeling of missing Lilya. Some parts reflect themes akin to what Angelo Maria Ripellino once called the "revolt of the objects". In a telephone conversation, for example, the poet sees the spoken word as a dinosaur that crawls through the line, whereas the entire house shakes as the phone bell rings.


  • "Щен" (The Pup)
  • "С Маяковским" (With Mayakovsky)
  • "Пристрастные рассказы" (Passionate Stories)
  • Letters between Lilya and Elsa, 1920s-1970


  1. ^ Francine Du Plessix Gray, Them, pp. 51-52.
  2. ^ Francine Du Plessix Gray, Them, p. 51.
  3. ^ See Komzet, OZET
  4. ^ Memoirs ("Воспоминания", in Russian) by Vasily V. Katanyan (L.Yu.B.'s stepson), 1998 p.112

External links[edit]