KIRILL MEDVEDEV'S FIRST two books of poetry, published in the early years of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, were acclaimed in literary circles. They were also highly controversial and unusual, possessed as they were by the spirit of Charles Bukowski, whose work Medvedev had translated into Russian. Insofar as there is a contemporary poetic mainstream in Russia, it is safe to say that Medvedev’s work quickly became part of it, and yet he remained a divisive force. Some questioned whether his poems — free verse, nonrhyming, narrative, and written in a casual, meandering style — were even poems. (I myself am not sure that they are, and I have a much less strict idea of what a poem is than most Russians.) Some accused him of being a one-trick pony, of having a shtick. Others were suspicious that his work was representative of an inclination among Russian poets to write prosaic free verse mainly in order to be published in the West and to be studied by Western academics. Still others thought of him as one of, if not the most important voice of the younger generation of poets — a responsibility that he bore uncomfortably.
Then, in mid-2003, Medvedev abruptly ceased publishing anywhere except on his own website and immersed himself in leftist political activism. “I am interested exclusively in the position of the artist undertaking a ‘battle for his art’ — which in our own time will mean a battle for his position,” he wrote on his website, announcing his break from the literary world. “This is a particular, necessary, self-limitation,” he went on:
I am convinced that my own texts are nothing more nor less than the contemporary poetic mainstream, and that if the mainstream, represented in my person, adopts such a half-underground and, as far as possible, independent position, then, maybe there will be more honest, uncompromising art in my country without ties to the disgustingly revanchist (or, on the other hand, pseudo-liberal) ideological encroachments of the current cultural, financial, and political authorities.
This wasn’t, as some assumed, an act of performance art, nor was it an empty rhetorical gesture: in 2004, he renounced copyright to his works altogether, and he seems to have been genuinely surprised when a leading Moscow publisher released his third book, Texts Published Without the Permission of the Author in 2005. (He embraced the occasion only insofar as it created an opportunity to open a discourse on his blog about the nature of copyright in general.)
What exactly drove Medvedev to these extreme positions? The answer may be found in It’s No Good: poems / essays / actions, Medvedev’s first book in English translation. Edited by Keith Gessen, it includes poems, essays, manifestos, calls to action, obituaries, and other writings from the time of Medvedev’s emergence as the reluctant voice of his poetic generation through his reinvention as an activist force. The book constitutes a biography of sorts, charting the evolution of the 37-year-old who Gessen, in his introduction, calls “Russia’s first genuinely post-Soviet writer.”
The first 80 pages or so of the current volume are comprised of selections from Medvedev’s first two books of poetry, Vsyo Plokho ("It’s No Good" or, in more literal translation, "Everything is Bad") and Vtorz...read more