Kirill Medvedev, It's No Good: Poems / Essays / Actions, translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen, with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill, and Bela Shayevich, n+1 / Ugly Duckling Presse, Eastern European Poets Series #30, 2012.
I should begin by confessing a history of prejudice, which reaches back more than two decades, to a different historical era. Some readers will have heard this story by now, and will likely be bored by it; but it is my story, and each time I tell it I see something new about myself. I became interested in Russia during the Cold War, and was disappointed by the onset of perestroika because, from a certain suburban American perspective, that made the place less bad-ass. I stole Lenin's Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism from my California high school's library in 1988, shortly before dropping out.
Two years later, I surfaced in Leningrad --and here's the prejudice part-- and found myself haughtily, condescendingly, imperialistically judgmental of what Russia at that time was able to put forth as a youth counterculture. Everything seemed imitative, derivative, shabby. Kids with long hair tied actual shoelaces around their heads, like some cartoon version of hippies they must have seen somewhere. I saw 'Sex Pistals', misspelled (and, I see now, beautifully botanicized), written in ballpoint pen on fake leather jackets.
I was disappointed. I was a youth --if not wholly exceptional in this regard-- intent on revaluing all values, etc., and yet I was far more influenced by the standards of MTV glossiness than I myself could see. I was, I think now, part of a sort of advance reconnoitering mission for what in a few more years would be official IMF policy towards Russia: the demand that they move 'up', to our level, on our terms, the refusal to accept that a part of the world could decline to strive toward glossiness, and the belief that this gloss could only be attained through the ordeal of 'shock therapy'. That there was anything there to build on, indigenous, pre-Soviet and running like an underground stream from 1917 to 1989, never occurred to me or to Jeffrey Sachs.
A few years later, in 1994, I was in Moscow, and I started to notice things that were occluded earlier, in the other capital, perhaps by the general misery of the potato lines, or by the shortness of the days, or by my naiveté (or all three). I was taken along to some art performance, which, I was told, was going to be very avant garde, very andergraund. We went to some apartment off of the Arbat and watched a skinny guy wearing tights roll around on the living-room floor with pieces of plywood, to the sound of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' squeaking out of a cassette player that could not quite be called a boombox.
This time it did the trick for me. Still shabby, still shoestring, still open to ridicule from a smart-ass American, it seemed nonetheless to spring up from the depths, precisely to not come from nowhere. It sprang from a variety of early-20th-century avant-gardism that was noteworthy for drawing its inspiration in turn from the dark forest of ancient Slavic paganism. I understood, without being able to put this into words, that to judge that guy in tights would have been to judge it all together, the performance art of the early 1990s, the dissonant composition of the 1910s, and the somber pagan rites of the mythical past. I was in no position to do that.
I haven't been back since 1996 (other than a brief misadventure in 1999 in Kaliningrad, which, perhaps in part because of the massive arsenal of nuclear submarines it had inherited, remained at the time an unreconstructed outpost of the otherwise non-existent USSR), but I gather from the distance that the fragments of an indigenous tradition of expression, that does not adapt itself to outside expectations, have come together, as if those pieces of plywood gradually propped themselves up into a serviceable structure. The 1990s, everyone now agrees, were a period of more or less pure destruction in Russia, exacerbated by Western triumphalism, certainly, but alsomade possible in the first place by the crippling legacy of official Soviet culture. What has taken shape since then has, again, done so largely through palingenesis, a reawakening of submerged forms of life.
It should not be so surprising that some of the forms that would come to thrive would be the ones that not only do not need the world outside for their legitimation, but that indeed reject that world, and that do little other than to bask in their own Russianness. I have in mind the various artistic and political (let us say, for simplicity's sake, 'cultural') movements that we can identify with the right: skinheads at the lower end, creative historical syncretisms like Eduard Limonov's National Bolshevik Party at the higher end. But for obvious reasons anything identifiably on the left would prove much more fragile in this new ecosystem, and would take much longer to come into its own.
If the post-Soviet imperative was to find forms of expression that are not echoes of the old party-line internationalism (largely pro forma, but still), nor the mere carrying-out of instructions delivered from the 'international community' (whether MTV or the IMF), then it is not surprising that a politics generally dismissive of nations and their Sonderwege could not find its place. It would take a while for a properly new Russian left to appear on the radar, one that is attuned to distinctly Russian circumstances and legacies, but that never loses sight --and this I take to be a minimal condition of counting as left-- of the fact that these circumstances and legacies exist alongside many others in the world, with no greater cosmic urgency. Russia is important to think about, yes, especially if you're Russian, but Russians are no more important to care about than anyone else. Here is how Medvedev himself describes his life and work:
... I identify myself with Russia-- I think that's natural and realistic. And because in the future, in this or that collision between it and other systems and other states, I will continue to identify with Russia, I would like her to represent values that are dear to me: democracy, rather than despotism; truth, rather than violence; freedom, rather than servility and ass-licking; solidarity rather than individualism; talent rather than fakery (134-35).
It is against the background of reflections like these, I think, that Keith Gessen has identified Kirill Medvedev as perhaps the first truly post-Soviet Russian writer: he is neither repeating the stale party formulas about the humanity of all peoples, nor is he living out the trauma of rejecting those formulas by turning to crude nationalism. He is instead a Russian humanist, writing about Russia and for Russians, but lucidly aware of the global system in which national literatures have their place, and of the universal concerns that ripple through these literatures.
I admit that the first inkling of an awareness I had of the existence of a new post-Soviet internationalism in Russia was very recent, when I noticed some months ago a photograph of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, of Pussy Riot fame, wearing a t-shirt that referenced the Spanish civil war. Many on the paranoid left in the West, the sort of people who believe that one should not support Pussy Riot's cause because to do so is to meddle in private Russian affairs, the ones who think RT is a serious news outlet, would not be affected in the same way as I was by Nadya's ¡No pasarán! But to me it signalled something entirely different than anything in the previous quarter century of cross-fertility between Russian popular culture (fashion, music, politics, etc.) and the rest of the world. There was nothing here akin to the mediocre Boris Grebenshikov's ascension into Western consciousness thanks to the gracious gesture of Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics fame). Even at the level of scrappy punk, an earlier generation, my own generation, needed its Joanna Stingray to penetrate into the darkness of Russia and extend her seal of approval to a handful of groups who, it was understood, would have remained nothing without her.
Stingray and Stewart were in their own way, too, doing the work of Jeffrey Sachs, in a way that people who share Pussy Riot memes on Facebook are not; and in a way that, I take it, Gessen, in promoting the work of Kirill Medvedev, is not. In these latter cases, there is no salvation going on, but only solidarity and common cause on the part of the global, hopeful, non-paranoid left.
Quite apart from all these considerations, Medvedev is worth translating and promoting outside of Russia for this reason alone, that he is a good poet. Medvedev himself does not believe, for reasons we'll see, that a poet can simply be described as 'good', without consideration of the circumstances of the society in which he sets himself up as 'a good poet'. For him Joseph Brodsky, more than anyone, embodies the tragic flaw of the Russian poet who thought or insisted that he could be just a poet, a private citizen who writes poetry. Medvedev seems to think that such a path might have been open to him if he had been born in a 'small country'; having myself lived in Québec for the past decade, it seems to me however that in small countries (with respect to population and geopolitical weight anyway, if not land mass) as well as large ones, the question of national destiny has a way of imposing itself on the littérateurs. It seems to me also, pace Medvedev, that under some not-too-hard-to-imagine circumstances, the refusal to be anything but a private citizen who writes poetry can be an eminently courageous act.
By his own account, Medvedev started out with no greater ambition than to be a good poet, only to find himself embarassed and stifled at the very moment this ambition began to come true. Thus he reminisces:
Once, after performing in a poetry competition in Rome, I remember walking around that city, absolutely happy, a kind of successful poet on tour, half-Bukowski, half-Yevtushenko, a real VIP (and at the same time a child), sipping at a gigantic bottle of beer, which seemed to terrify the woman I was walking with, a young Swiss poet, and I remember thinking --or, no, at the time I couldn't think it, but I felt it-- that nothing better than this would ever happen to me, not, anyway, in this sense, and so I should probably not do it again (122).
This may have been the beginning of the end, but luckily there was still time for Medvedev to extract another poem from this Italian sojourn, the delightful 'Europe' of 2002. The opening lines describe his long journey there, on a bus from Moscow:
I’m riding the bus
with a group of athletes
from some provincial town
they’re going to a competition in Milan;
our bus has stopped at the border,
and waits to go through customs.
what country are we entering? one of them asks me;
Poland, I say
so that’s what, the EU? he asks.
no, I say. Poland’s not in the EU yet
what other countries are we going
through? Germany, I say, Austria,
Portugal, I lie; he nods again;
I could have said Greece, Syria, Ireland—he’d have
oh, mighty athlete:
our bus will travel through Iceland,
we’ll see sheep, deer,
we’ll see camels;
we’ll see the early ice—
hills of not quite solid,
not yet formed
(they call it “uncrystallized”)
but very real, early ice;
we’ll see the Alps—they’ll be
to both sides of us—
there’ll be some nice places to cool off;
we’ll see the ruins of Thebes, and the remains
of mad Alexandria—
It is of course a truism that poetry cannot be translated. Gessen and company have done a fine job at this impossible task, but it is worth pausing at at least one point where the charm of the original is necessarily lost. Consider the narrator's spiralling fibs to the athlete, drifting further from reality with each line, adding absurd detail to test the limits of the athlete's ignorance. He tells him that there is a certain variety of 'early ice' in Iceland, that is called 'uncrystallized'. The Russian word, which did not exist before Medvedev used it, is nedovykristallizovavshiïsya, which is something more like 'not-yet-having-been-fully-crystallized', some sort of perfect passive participialized adjective with so many prefixes that I could not possibly give you the full parsing of its semantic components. The bluff that there are Icelandic iceologists who regularly deploy this technical ice term captures the full extent, even more than the claim that Portugal lies on the route from Moscow to Rome, of the difference between the poet's and the athlete's understanding of the world.
If you do an image search on 'Kirill Medvedev', one of the first that comes up shows the Patriarch and the Prime Minister of Russia, Kirill and Medvedev, embracing. This is certainly not the poet's doing; he did not name himself. But it stands to me anyway as a reminder of the inescapable nexus in which he is writing, where church and state have traditionally so defined the terms of political discourse, that the range of positions a dissenter can take up will inevitably look very different from those in Western contexts.
One striking difference is that, in spite of Medvedev's firm identity as a person of the left, he is rather more sympathetic in his understanding of social currents that from the outside look like nothing more than pure fascism. Thus for example he sees the outlines of progressive elements even in Limonov's NBP. Indeed he identifies Limonov as "the author of the most brilliant individual project of the last few decades." Throughout the 1990s and until quite recently, Medvedev writes,
it was almost impossible to find a position from which a critique of Limonov would sound convincing. To take moral issue with him for excessive 'sincerity' made you a hypocrite. To incriminate him as a 'fascist' meant pretending that Yeltsin was a 'democrat'. Those who tried to belittle him or confront him with overt hostility were doomed to find themselves immediately in a new system of coordinates created by the self-same Limonov (240).
Medvedev hopes for an era in which there will be no place in Russia for a figure such as Limonov, and sees that era dawning:
I think the era of Limonov's cultural hegemony (in which, undoubtedly, together with National Bolshevism and brown-red quasi-fascism, there were also progressive elements) is coming to an end. Today his political activity plays the reactionary role of subordinating all oppositional (and leftist) politics to Limonov's life project-- his cult of personality, strategies of media-scandal, and so on. Leftist groups in Russia today work in the shadow of Limonov's NBP and its spectacular media events. With a cocktail made up of Nietzscheanism, nationalism, and 'leftism', mixed in with autobiographical authenticity, Limonov has managed to subsume an important segment of the youth protest movement under his own banner (240).
Medvedev seems to suppose that in the chaos of the 1990s, the most promising strains of political thought in Russia would begin to take shape in the confusion at the fringes, rather than in the pat platitudes of the center, where the biggest mistake was to suppose that political strife could be kept inefinitely at bay if private citizens would just resolve to lead non-political lives. The worst force in society, then, is not the skinheads, but the liberals and the liberal paradigm, "where anything dangerous or incomprehensible or even interesting either could not exist at all or could exist only formally, not as itself but rather as an example of the liberalism and tolerance of the liberals" (126).
Now some on the left in the US are similarly ready to identify untapped progressive potential in, say, the Tea Party. But in the Russian context there is this great historical difference, that the right is not libertarian and individualist, but deeply statist. Seemingly paradoxically, in the post-Soviet era a prominent strain of the Russian right has evolved into what Medvedev calls a 'Stalinist-nationalist' ideology, where Stalin is revered for his iron-fisted rule and his stern iconic face, but all the rest, all the internationalism and the workers' solidarity (i.e., all the stuff Stalin never really cared about anyway) is left by the wayside. The trappings of the history that thrust Stalin forward are cast off, and Stalin is permitted, finally, to be a fascistoid hero.
Obviously the what-to-do-with-Stalin question has no analog in popular right-wing movements elsewhere, and so in trying to make sense of Stalinist-nationalism Medvedev is engaging with a distinctly Russian problem. In his sense that the cults of personality and the thuggery and the hatred need to be rejected, while nonetheless there is something in the popular anti-liberalism behind these that needs to be understood and perhaps cultivated, Medvedev is well positioned as a critic and interpreter of developments across the entire political spectrum in the current Russian landscape.
Again, what Medvedev finds most dangerous, more dangerous than skinheads, is the illusion of the non-political. He sees it as a particular achievement of the Putin regime to have convinced many Russians, as well as the famous international community, that much of what goes on in Russia results not from policy, but from human decisions that are carried out either far above politics in the cosmic realm of good and bad, or well below politics, in the sub rosa realm of the purely personal. As for the trans-political, Medvedev sharply deflates the government's attempt to mimic a sort of Bush-like response to Chechen political violence:
Take Putin's recent declaration that 'terrorism doesn't have a nationality'. A nice, liberal statement for the world press; for those in the know it communicates exactly which 'nationality' terrorism 'doesn't' have (130).
As for the sub-political, Medvedev is critical of what he calls (perhaps in reference to parallel, mostly unsuccessful attempts at a post-hipster ethos in the West) 'the new sincerity', which, he believes, reconciles market interests
with the resurrected figure of the author, bringing forth today's endless stream of ventriloquism (lyrical, essayistic, 'political', whatever), in which any effort at analysis, any possibility of differentiating positions and actions simply drowns (237).
The authorities are afraid of the new sincerity,
but they feed off and take advantage of it. Let young neo-Nazis scare the peasants with their sincere hatred, simultaneously keeping them in line. Let young poets and actors scream and curse from the stage of the Polytechnic: 'Do whatever you want', the new commisars tell them. 'You are free, independent artists. Just don't worry your pretty little heads about politics; after all, you're smart, you know yourselves that it's a dirty business. Your art will obviously outlive us all. Just leave the politics to us' (238).
The regime will no longer come and haul you off, in other words, if you get naked on the stage of your community theater, baring your ass as if it were going to change the world. Your ass is not political anymore, but then again neither is war, neither is anti-Chechen xenophobia. The regime will 'tolerate' what you do as a private citizen, and you will tolerate what it does, in its grown-up world, in the name of supposedly trans-political, undebatable liberal goods like the defeat of nationless evil.
Medvedev shows a curious preoccupation with homosexuality: he is not closeted, and not homophobic, yet is plainly buzzing around that hot light for the dangerous glow it continues to cast in Russia in a way that it no longer does in the West. Medvedev makes homophilia a key element of his own self-creation, but this element provides nothing like the air of mainstream liberal respectability that it does in America, say, where coming out in favor of marriage equality, and even of the need for a gay soldiery, is now de rigueur for any member of polite society. This polite society is the American equivalent of that stratum in Russia that Medvedev hates, and when he celebrates homosexuality it is not 'equality' or anything like that he has in mind, but something charged, disruptive, sodomitical. Many of his heroes --Wilde, Jarman, Pasolini-- worked in an era when artists could still direct this charge into their creativity, and Medvedev appears variously nostalgic for this lost artistic force in the West, and pleased that it still has some kilometrage left in it in Russia.
Mutatis mutandis, it is the same with Judaism, and other ways of being not-quite-Russian in Russian society. Consider Medvedev's appraisal of his supporter and erstwhile editor Dmitry Kuzmin. "He is," Medvedev writes, "in no particular order, a homosexual; a Jew; a libertine; he doesn't drink or smoke, has an exceptional work ethic, and a personal poetics" (180). Are we sure there is no particular order here? One has the impression that in Russia today, an important part of marking out your position on the left consists in enumerating your ties with the sort of people Russia's xenophobes and nationalists and skinheads would like to purge. This makes sense, even if it can easily appear superfluous from outside.
You will have noticed that all the talk here is of men. This is not my own doing, but a simple reflection of the universe Medvedev appears to move in. All of the figures in the glossary of names that Gessen has appended are men: Alexander Brener, Joseph Brodsky, Dmitry Bykov, Dmitry Kuzmin, Eduard Limonov, Dmitry Prigov. When I read Medvedev and I feel solidarity with his socialism and I recognize my own experiences in his poems, I feel like a man. Whether this bodes poorly for the future of Russia's new left, or not, I'll leave to other readers to predict.
In the wake of his Roman epiphany, Medvedev has come to prefer to limit his 'publishing' activity to his website (and, more recently, to his Facebook page). He rejects the system of legitimation that continues to be controlled, in Russia as in the West, by the publishing houses. As he explains his new approach:
I have a website, and I'm very happy that this is where my relations with the literary world end. I think this is a very smple and natural state of affairs. I see in this a kind of purity of genre, like a sonnet or a haiku or a strictly organized architectural space. I understand that this is how thousands of poets exist. Many of them are talentless, but some are not, some are gifted, and there are probably those among them who are more gifted than I, but no one knows anything about them. In any case, I'm happy to be like them.
This takes courage. I, for example, often think about doing the same, but I am held back by the fear that the scattered readers who come my way will see what I've written and think: oh, another blogger. So I try to stay in the loop, I kiss asses, I patiently wait as editors and publishers dance through their old rituals, alter what I have written beyond recognition, and eventually squeeze some finished project out into a medium, paper, which no one even needs, all the while thinking: I could have just posted this on my damned blog and been done with it! I twist what I want to say until it is shot through with the sort of liberal obviousness that is sure to please a wide audience, in order to gain the approval of the editors who keep the gates of the mainstream media, all the while thinking: I could have said what I wanted to say, and been read by 500 people rather than 500,000!
The publishing industry is moribund, but for the moment publishing houses continue to play the vital role of signalling to the public who is worth reading, who counts as an author. Eventually, this signalling will go on without any paper objects involved, but the signal will be the same, and the people who for the moment continue to think of themselves as publishers hope to continue to be the ones doing the signalling, and hope also to keep a steady retinue of aspiring authors, jockeying and supplicating, and writing only the things everyone already agrees it's good to say.
Medvedev, as I've said, has renounced all this, and it is tempting to say, when one surveys his digital oeuvre: oh, another blogger. But the time has come (indeed, came long ago) to stop presuming that the medium, with its lack of gatekeepers, itself places limits on the beauty or truth or depth of what can be said here. Most people on the Internet are circumventing the quality controls of the publishing industry, certainly, but some are also circumventing the market incentives that keep the publishing industry in existence. Some find that what they need to say can't be made to fit with those incentives, and the Internet and the blog offer the single most promising way of stepping out of that empty, glossy, largely contentless system in order to say what must be said. Medvedev understands this, and from his perspective, in moving to the blog, is only doing what he must do.
Perhaps my favorite poem in the collection describes an encounter with a working-class salesgirl at an outdoor market somewhere in Moscow:
we talked about this and that,
that's all, and it couldn't have been otherwise.
but if I'd been someone else,
and someone from the side had seen how this thick warm charge
passed through us;
then we'd both have been swept from our places by this wave
and ripped from out roots,
from our universes,
and at that point, as we spun and circled in sterile passages
suspended in a solution of tranquilizers,
already living in a coolling world,
I'd have said to her:
"young girl who sells vegetables from a little stand near the metro,
you should know
you've aged about eight years in the year I've been noticing
and you were made up like a middle-aged whore,
and what's more you were leaning slightly forward,
so that, with the way your shirt fell, I could see your large breasts,
and I swear to you, those were not the breasts of a twenty-year-old girl,
or however old you were last year;
but I had a thought:
they say that Italian prostitutes used to use semen
as an anti-aging cream,
they would rub it on their chests and faces,
and maybe, I think, if I were to rub
onto your round, puffy, debauched, pretty-girl-next-door face,
all the semen I've rubbed over it in my fantasies,
then maybe you wouldn't be in such a bad spot right now."
but it didn't happen, it couldn't have happened,
because we all live in our illusions, like sheep,
and none of us can really help one another with anything.
That is, I dare say, some rather personal poetry, not political, except perhaps in the most uninteresting ways. It is pornographic and caring, composed by a good person whose phantasms are firing, like those of any person good or bad, who happens also to be a Russian and a socialist, and who can't just write the sort of poetry he has written here and be happy about it.