Citizen Poet, and Then Some: An Interview with Dmitry Bykov




IN RUSSIA, Dmitry Bykov is more than just a popular writer; he is a true celebrity. In whatever role he takes on — public intellectual, novelist, journalist, biographer, poet, radio talk-show host, professor of literature — he is always, unmistakably, the same witty, vibrant, and charming Bykov. Indeed, he approaches each of his many projects with sincere, infectious passion. His public lectures on literature, for example, are so popular in Russia that people line up to pay admission. His series of collaborations with actor Mikhail Efremov also draws wide audiences. In these programs — the first was called, appropriately, Citizen Poet — Efremov performs Bykov’s satirical verses, which offer shrewd commentary on Russia’s political and social situation. The verses are modeled on canonical texts by famous Russian poets, as well as a handful of English-language authors like Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe, and the potent combination of recognizable source texts and bold political satire has made Efremov’s performances a unique, and uniquely Russian, product of popular culture.

At the UCLA Young Research Library, I grabbed a pile of books with his name on their spines. His prose isn’t quite as well known as his public performances. He has written 15 works of fiction and nonfiction, as well as 18 collections of poems. The first one in my stack is Living Souls (2007), his most popular novel, and the only one that has been translated to English (2010). Its titular reference to Nikolai Gogol’s novel Dead Souls (1842) should be immediately recognizable to anyone who has studied Russian literature. Living Souls chronicles the past and present of the mysterious indigenous population of Russia; it is an ironic meditation on Russia’s national identity. Among other titles that attract my attention is Orthography: An Opera in Three Parts (2003), an experimental prose text dedicated to the reform of Russian orthography after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Perhaps Bykov’s most curious collection is How Putin Became the President of the United States: New Russian Fairy Tales, published in 2005. I cannot help but wonder if this title isn’t a prediction of the political realities of 2016.

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I first met Dmitry Bykov in Los Angeles about 10 years ago, when Alexander Zholkovsky — а professor of Slavic languages and literatures at USC — invited him to give a lecture. (Zholkovsky, like Bykov, is a remarkable man. To the younger generation of Slavists, he is a nearly mythical figure, a living link to the Cold War romance of Soviet dissidents and Russian intellectuals in exile.) In the 10 years since, Dmitry Bykov’s career has been a continuous stream of lectures, book publications, university appointments, media appearances, and intercontinental travel: one moment he’s a visiting scholar at Princeton, then he’s discussing the Russian emigration on a rooftop in Moscow, and just a couple of weeks later he’s back in Los Angeles, giving a poetry reading to a crowd of Russian immigrants.

It’s a hundred degrees in Encino, where more than a hundred people have gathered at a private home to hear Bykov read his poems in Russian. This format of private home readings is a direct continuation of the Soviet tradition of kvartirniki (unsanctioned performances in private residences). In stark contrast to American poetry readings — typically attended by a handful of poets, their significant others, and a few students — Bykov’s audience is diverse: doctors, engineers, musicians, retirees, small business owners, parents, grandparents, grandchildren. Each person paid a suggested donation of $20 to sit in a room with no air conditioning and listen to Bykov read. Ironically, there was an air conditioner repairman in the crowd, but he could not fix the broken system without his tools, so he and everyone else sat sweltering in the 100-degree heat. The crowd reminded me of a pious religious sect preparing to self-immolate with eerie calmness. Bykov did not complain about the heat and gave a stunning performance. In the typical manner of Russian poets, he read his texts by heart, theatrically. The Q-and-A session in the intermission featured a heady discussion on topics ranging from trends in cognitive development in the new generation of Russians to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. I had brought questions of my own, which Bykov answered before the show began.

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SASHA RAZOR: You are a novelist, a biographer, a poet, a journalist, a professor of literature, and a radio host. Which of these hats is your favorite?

DMITRY BYKOV: Traditionally, writing poetry is considered a prestigious occupation in Russia, because a poet is a prophet, a pillar of civic disobedience, the best kind of lover, whomever we’d like him to be. Therefore, I prefer to consider myself a poet. Besides, writing poetry makes me feel good. When I work on a prose text, it leaves me feeling emptied, but when I write poems, I feel plugged into a source of something more significant and elated than my own thoughts. Even graphomaniacal poets know how to access this source — they’re simply unable to get anything significant from it. I’m not sure why, but teaching is another prestigious vocation in Russia. Perhaps it’s because Russians have a lot of respect for things that are challenging, or downright torturous, and many Russians find this specific profession to be just that. In reality, however, teaching is an easy and uplifting job, and I don’t quite understand why anyone would choose to take on this underpaid labor if it weren’t enjoyable. I belong to that 10–15 percent of teachers who consider the academic environment to be their natural habitat, a stimulant, and an extreme sport. So I’m pleased and flattered to identify myself as a schoolteacher.

You have taught both in Russia and in the United States. Do you see any changes in the new generation of students? What are some differences between your students in Russia and in the United States?

I’ve said on numerous occasions that participation is crucial for the career of an American student, while Russian students believe it’s best to keep their mouths shut. My American students are much more active, and even persistent. When you assign homework to American students, you can be sure that it will be done. Even if you ask them to make a report on a complex topic that they don’t know anything about, you can be sure that these students, out of pure vanity, will stay up for two days on Adderall and energy drinks and, in the end, produce a comprehensible report. This has been tested and proved in my classroom, and I admire this drive to shine and impress everyone. I do see the same quality in my Russian students, but rarely. For them, the cool thing to do is to sit back and despise everyone who genuinely cares. That’s how it goes. But then, I have had Russian high schoolers who were like Hermione Granger — kids capable of looking up an incredible number of sources over the course of one week, just so they can impress their classmates with their presentation.

When it comes to identifying the new features in this generation of students, I see a very important trend in their development: a minority is developing quickly and uncontrollably, while the majority is degrading, slowly and comfortably. Ironically, this is what [famous Russian science fiction authors] the Strugatsky brothers had warned us about. I see this division in every one of my classrooms, be it in Russia or the United States, and I don’t quite know how to react to it, whether to be excited or horrified.

You are visiting from Russia. How has the atmosphere changed in the past several years, since the annexation of Crimea? To which period in Russian history can you compare this era?

The present reminds me of the year 1855, and all that it entails. [Alexander II, who emancipated the serfs and reformed much of Russian civic life, took the throne in 1855.] People also compare our era to 1939, and though there are some undeniable parallels, I do not support this view. The analogy with 1939 presupposes that the exit from the existing crisis will be a large-scale external war, which will either bring the current political regime to its knees or, at the very least, will liberate the population. Well, I don’t like this scenario, but I did write about it in one of my novels, even though I wasn’t conscious of the parallel with the present as I was writing. You see, at the level of intuition, I allow myself to think of this war. I’m afraid that, without this war, no one in Russia will be able to appreciate the basic simple things we now have.

How do you feel in today’s Russia? Has anything changed in your professional or day-to-day life?

Why is it important how I feel? I always feel good when I’m writing. My goal is to spend the maximum amount of time working and not distracting myself with so-called “life.” 

In various interviews, you discuss the idea of the cyclical development of Russian history. From your point of view, what is the possible significance of the year 2017 for Russia?

In other words, you are looking for an occasion to fling dirt at Lenin and the Soviet project. Well, the Soviet project — which, of course, was undeniably cruel — was also aimed at enlightenment, still an unfinished business in Russia. It also fought against obscurantism. This impetus has been completely reversed, and now the government is fighting against atheism instead. Lastly, the Soviet project aimed to solve the question of nationalities, and its solution was more complex than the mass deportation of Chechens. I don’t expect more upheavals in 2017. We might get one of two scenarios in the future: a “Thaw” and reforms similar to those of Alexander II — or a great war, albeit hybrid in nature.

From 2011 to 2014, you wrote poems for two popular projects, Citizen Poet and My Good Sir. Why did these projects come to a halt? Did you ever encounter any censorship in your work?

These projects did not shut down, but I stopped participating in them because of disagreements with Andrei Vassiliev, the producer. Mikhail Efremov and I are now working on a different project, titled Poems About Us, and we have already toured the United States twice with this new show. The only censorship that I’ve encountered in Russia has come exclusively from middle management.

In the United States, we have a certain stereotype of the Russian literary tradition: the great authors are Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. What about contemporary Russian literature? Do you see continuity with the literary tradition?

Well, of course, how could there not be continuity? But I would say that some contemporary authors continue the Soviet literary tradition, rather than that of the 19th century. For example, Guzel Yakhina [a recent literary sensation] put a new spin on the tradition established by Chingiz Aitmatov [the famous Soviet writer from Kyrgyzstan], Roman Senchin continues the tradition of “village prose” writer Valentin Rasputin, and Zakhar Prilepin picks up the torch of Alexander Prokhanov. Let’s not ignore the Soviet period. Russia only has 300 years of secular culture, and we simply cannot cross out one-third of it.

Which Russian writers would you recommend to translate to English?

Alexander Zhitinsky, who died not long ago. His prose is very important. 

You’ve recently published a biography of Vladimir Mayakovsky. How did you start working on this project, and how long did it take you to finish? From your point of view, what did you contribute to Mayakovsky studies?

This book was suggested to me by Molodaya Gvardiya, the publishing house in charge of the famous biography series titled Lives of Outstanding People. It took me five years to write, although I took several breaks. I completed the majority of the work at Princeton, where I had the perfect library at my disposal, just two steps away from where I was staying. It’s up to my readers to assess my contribution to Mayakovsky studies. I believe I’m the first person to discover a connection to the poetry of [the decadent] Mikhail Kuzmin in Mayakovsky’s poem Backbone Flute (1915). I’ve also researched the parallels in the lives of Mayakovsky and [émigré poet] Vladislav Khodasevich, and I gave a new interpretation to the role of Osip Brik in Mayakovsky’s love triangle with him and his wife Lilya Brik. I am also the first person to produce an insightful reading of Sergey Esenin’s poem “The Black Man” [which is sometimes translated as “The Dark Man”] and to interpret the relationship between Esenin and Mayakovsky as that of doubles — a dual reincarnation of Russian civic poet Nikolay Nekrasov (1821–1878). However, I feel the book’s main achievement is its tone, which was very difficult to find, and its structure. Some people call its structure too chaotic, while others think that it is too calculated. You say, when I write, my motivation isn’t to be liked — I’m simply working through my personal problems.

Earlier this month you canceled your lecture in Kazakhstan because of the scandal connected to one of your books. Can you comment on it? [Bykov’s book Kvartal. Prohozhdenie (2013) contains language — spoken by one of its characters — that has been described as racially insensitive by members of the Kazakh community.]

I don’t feel like talking about this nonsense. It just looked like my lecture might ignite some negative emotions, and I didn’t want to disharmonize this world even further. It’s not that I was afraid of the scandal. I live in Putin’s Russia and am not afraid to say the things I’m saying, so why would I be afraid of some bloggers from Almaty? But the focus was no longer on the subject of the lecture, and I didn’t feel like creating an occasion for my audience in Kazakhstan to settle accounts publicly, with media coverage. Kvartal is my favorite of all my books, perhaps my very best. I’m glad that now it might be read by people who would not have heard of it otherwise, but the level of the readership — judging by a certain segment of bloggers from Kazakhstan — has changed significantly, and this makes me sad.

What do you think of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, awarded to the Belarusian Russian-language author Svetlana Alexievich? Why is it that many Russian writers demonstrated hostility toward Svetlana Alexievich?

Well, what is a writer’s hostility if not casual envy? As Nonna Slepakova [a recently deceased poet and songwriter] used to say: “Do not expect a compliment from your competitor.” So we are competing here, and the price is not just an award; it’s immortality. Also, not everyone understands and accepts Svetlana Alexievich’s innovative genre, and some people in Russia consider documentary prose to be a second-tier literary phenomenon. Nonfiction is recognized all over the world, and only Russians still hold on to the idea that a singular act of artistic imagination is better than a multiplicity of basic truths. If we are to talk about contemporary Russian prose writers, I think that Lyudmila Petrushevskaya is just as deserving of the Nobel Prize, and this, by the way, does not deflate the merit of Svetlana Alexievich or affect my own self-esteem as a writer. I am always happy when any person writing in Russian receives an award: this helps to popularize the entirety of literature written in Russian.

Do you have favorite American writers, and what do you find interesting in American literature?

I like Mark Z. Danielewski; I’m interested in William H. Gass — not just The Tunnel, but also Middle C. I like David Markson, who died six years ago. But for me, nobody can outshine Truman Capote. He is an absolute champion. I also liked The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen a lot, but his other works, including Purity, seem too cerebral and insufficiently witty. I also like David Mamet. I’m also a fan of S., a novel written by Doug Dorst and conceived by J. J. Abrams. It was translated into Russian as Ship of Theseus. In a word, I like a whole lot. There is simply not enough for me to read.

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Sasha Razor is a PhD student at the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures at UCLA.


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