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.