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 Vtorzheniye (Incursion). In these early autobiographical poems, Medvedev is a destitute, critically astute, provocative, perpetually insecure outsider, wandering the streets of Putin-era Moscow in an afflicted, lonely state. There is something of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man in him, and something of Bukowski.
The society brought to light in Medvedev’s poems is spiritually sick, and its inhabitants, especially those with any idealism, are likewise ill. In one poem he writes: “I think that my own consciousness / for reasons of its own / pumps these little doses of sickness / into my body / I think that it’s something like the opposite / of anesthesia.” Others have lost the ability for normal communication or have succumbed to a pandemic myopia. In another poem, Medvedev recalls his time as a janitor at a decrepit nightclub frequented by a savage mafia group, then suddenly shifts to the present:
yesterday I went to the metro
took the escalator down
and almost fainted;
it was like I was hysterical
I really terrified people;
to me, it felt like
that entire mass of people
was literally pressing on me
with their neuroses;
it was as though I had turned up
inside a crowd of human neuroses;
a miasma of anxieties
(arguments with wives, with lovers, low wages,
the sickness or death of a parent, an addict son);
Underneath what might appear to be a relatively stable society, violence and fear predominate. “Murderous ideas / were spewing forth / from the very air,” Medvedev writes. In one of his shortest poems (most go on for pages and pages), Medvedev’s girlfriend Anisa tells him that she is bored hanging out with the young, hip, bourgeois set. Medvedev reassures her. “Not to worry,” he says, “before long you’re going to see something straight out of Dostoevsky, with no chaser.” The couple then shows up at a birthday party with their coterie of “talented losers,” and the hostess erupts in a maniacal rage at her husband, accusing him of beating her and drinking too much. The true condition of the people is suddenly exposed, and it affects Medvedev deeply:
I listened to all this
and was shaken
I was trembling
from weakness and
from the impossibility
of anyone being comforted,
of anyone being helped.
Medvedev would be more explicit about this mordant cultural diagnosis in the later essays. In “My Fascism (A Few Truths),” for instance, published on his website in 2004, he complains that:
[a] sickening atmosphere has taken hold in our country. The average cultural consciousness is a putrid swamp — half Soviet, half bourgeois — in which Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Josef Stalin, the pop star Alla Pugacheva, and Jesus Christ all lie side by side, dead and decomposing. Russia is like a rotten ball, a hideous ball of yarn with a little gold trim on top, but filled with all sorts of waste […]
Yet this productive contempt is all there in his early poems, where his heroes — the diseased idiots, plagued outcasts, and foolish ideas — wage their respective battles for art in the putrid swamp that is Putin’s Russia. The problem for Medvedev is that, when it comes to life off the page, his poems offer no comfort, no help to these heroes, nor to himself.
In one of the central essays reprinted in It’s No Good, Medvedev writes about his former publisher, champion, and close acquaintance (Medvedev does not allow that they were “friends”), the eccentric and flamboyant literary organizer Dmitry Kuzmin. At first glance the essay seems to be a study in the catty politics of Moscow poetry circles, but, as Gessen writes in his introduction, it ultimately critiques “the construction of a post-ideological literary empire — at a certain point serving a progressive function, opening up space for new writing, but eventually ossifying into reaction, sentimentalism, and defensiveness.”
Kuzmin’s important literary clearinghouse Vavilon gave many young poets, including Medvedev, their early break. (Full disclosure: I worked with Kuzmin on an anthology of Russian writers published in English.) Medvedev formed a close association with Kuzmin and shared his ideas about contemporary poetry, admiring his open, inclusive approach. As time passed, however, he began to see certain authoritarian tendencies in Kuzmin’s operation that troubled him. At one reading, Kuzmin demanded that security eject another poet who was drunk and heckling; Medvedev comments that “there is a fundamental, I mean a truly archetypal difference, between doing it yourself, and calling for the guards.” And after Medvedev announced his break from the literary world, Kuzmin wrote him off, effectively, in Medvedev’s telling, ejecting him from the scene.
“I don’t like it when former victims, rebels, and avant-gardists become themselves masters of culture,” Medvedev writes in “My Fascism,” published two full years before he wrote the Kuzmin essay. “Like the actual revolutionaries they once modeled themselves on, they often become undisciplined and brutal masters.” While he doesn’t make the direct connection, it’s clear that, in Medvedev’s estimation, Kuzmin developed into such a master. In the later essay, Medvedev objects to the way “Kuzmin’s system, not in itself but in the general literary context, reproduces the structure of a repressively tolerant society.” This critique is obviously intended to carry some echoes of the larger political context (Putin was thought of first, some may remember, as a liberal reformer). But the argument never fully transcends recrimination, and one can’t avoid the suspicion that maybe Medvedev is still just pissed off at his former acquaintance.
Then there’s the fact, impossible to overlook, that Medvedev and Kuzmin are both children of the Soviet intelligentsia. In his essay on Kuzmin, Medvedev wonders whether his former publisher would have even been a member of the underground if he’d grown up during Soviet times:
It’s not clear that had Kuzmin been born twenty years earlier, he would have found himself in the underground; it’s possible he would have been the editor of some more or less progressive journal. And he would have used his power to fight for interesting, worthy authors. (Now that I’ve written this, I start to doubt it. In any case, had Kuzmin been a member of that culture, the culture would have had to be different. Otherwise he would have been thrown out of it. Or maybe not? I don’t know.)
This sounds like a criticism, but Medvedev wonders along the same lines about himself in “My Fascism”:
Not long ago I was talking with a friend about the late ’60s and ’70s, and she wondered aloud whether, if she’d been around then, she would have known any dissidents. And I said to her, well, I definitely would have known them, and you would have known them through me.
But afterward I thought, No, that’s not right. If I’d been around then, I may well have convinced myself that I was just a poet, a private individual who needed to work on his craft, and kept my distance. Whereas my friend, with her strong, unerring sense of justice and fairness — she would unquestionably have been out on Red Square on August 25, 1968 [the day of a symbolic eight-person protest in Moscow against the Soviet invasion of Prague, that landed all the protestors in labor camps].
In each of these passages, Medvedev seems unsure just what would have become of him and his publisher in a different historical moment, and regards Kuzmin as a kind of reflection of himself, a kind of reflection to define himself in opposition to. In his analysis of Kuzmin’s poems, Medvedev describes his own perfectly: “They seem harmless enough, but you can see a very serious struggle taking place inside them.”
Nowhere in Medvedev’s work is that serious struggle more visible than in the last poem he wrote before breaking with the literary world (originally untitled, but called “Europe” in this volume), which concerns itself mostly with an epic bus trip he took from Moscow to Rome and back. It meditates, in turn, on aesthetic terror; the film Amélie; the vulgarity of a certain style of tourism; German soldiers fatally surprised by the early snow in 1941; altruism; Belarussian nationalism; a Leni Riefenstahl retrospective held in St. Petersburg, the city of the German blockade; and the ridiculous and surprisingly moving Soviet film that his fellow passengers (Russian athletes on the way to Milan) watch on the bus:
and just now we watched an old Soviet film
about World War II,
the action takes place around here somewhere —
I am ground, over, over, come in, this is ground, over, the
communications officer says,
she is a pretty young officer,
but no one answers, they’re dead (they’re gone),
they’ve been killed,
though not before communicating the movement of the Nazi
and their impending attack
from the northwest,
I cried over this “I am ground, over, over, come in, this is ground,”
I’d had a lot to drink on the road from Moscow to Minsk,
but I would have cried even if I hadn’t had a single drop
between Moscow and Minsk
This visit to Rome was clearly a turning point for Medvedev. He recounts the same trip in “My Fascism”:
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. That all this recognition, such as it was, and the fact that I’d dreamed of this recognition for so long, changed nothing. You can’t change the world that way, you can’t rise to the next level of existence that way — you can only end up getting something for yourself, feeling like a conqueror for a short time.
The dual revelation that “nothing better than this would ever happen to me” — that the lusts of his writerly ego would never be satisfied — and that “you can’t change the world that way” — that poetry was inadequate as a vehicle for social change — transformed Medvedev deeply. Throughout his career he had been following readers’ reactions to his poetry with great interest, and he now posited that if they could speak with a common voice, they might say something like this:
We like you, we enjoy you, you’re unusual, talented, we value and respect you. But you will never have anything to do with our lives. You won’t push us one centimeter from the path we’re on, even if we ourselves don’t know what that path is or where it’s going. We will read your texts and go back to doing what we were doing before. Thank you.
Medvedev was right to despair about this. Literature is almost as irrelevant to the popular culture in Russia as it is to that of the West. The powers that be don’t even bother censoring writers. (Absurdly, a pack of fiercely anti-Putin writers — Medvedev was not among them — attended Book Expo America in New York in June 2012 as part of the Read Russia program, partially funded by the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication. One can be sure that this was neither an enlightened gesture nor a marker of respect for literature. It was more likely the case that either the Kremlin hadn’t read their works or simply didn’t care about them one way or another.)
Medvedev’s work explicitly addresses a Russian audience, but any American at all concerned with what it means to be a writer today should find It’s No Good of great interest. We don’t tend to have these kinds of conversations about writing, caught up as we always are on the tired issue of whether or not MFA programs are destroying literature. Only one MFA-type creative writing program exists in Russia at the Gorky Literary Institute, and Medvedev was a student there. He refers to its faculty as “the beekeepers from the lit. institute.” While Medvedev finds it immoral, in the context of contemporary Russia, for any writer not to be politically engaged, he simultaneously pines for the opportunity that widespread MFA programs and their accompanying mechanisms of writer patronage afford many of us in the West, the opportunity to be private citizens sitting alone in rooms working on our craft, far removed from whatever’s happening in the streets. If he were somehow to get what he wants — a just society and the occasion to simply write — what then? I can’t help but wonder.
After he left the literary world, Medvedev immersed himself in various political actions and demonstrations. I have never been to a protest in Russia at which I didn’t see him marching, handing out leaflets, fronting his protest-rock band Arkady Kots, or, often, being punched and/or arrested. Leftist groups in Moscow are particularly amorphous, forming and merging and dissolving and reconstituting in perfect opposition to personality-driven systems such as Kuzmin’s. Medvedev was associated for several years with the activist group Vpered (Forward), a collective loosely governed by its membership and a representative executive council. Vpered required all members to participate in weekly actions, and Medvedev outdid himself in this department, often undertaking one-man actions such as rolling a pear through the streets of Moscow on Victory Day. (More recently, he has returned to the literary world as a publisher: his Free Marxist Press, the publishing house he started, releases Russian translations of leftist philosophers.)
I don’t know whether Medvedev has had any more direct effect as a figure in the marginalized opposition to the Russian state apparatus than he had as a member of the marginalized poetry world. In a particularly inspired riff from It’s No Good, Medvedev writes that a new poet imagines his audience into being, and of course this is true in politics as well. Over the course of the past year, a popular political opposition — made up of the middle class and other sectors of society not formerly associated with radicalism — has emerged in Russia where none existed before; the widespread support for Pussy Riot and the recent mass demonstrations against Russia’s ban on adoptions by Americans are only the latest developments of this new national spirit of protest. I cannot say that any of these people have been reading Medvedev—in fact it seems certain that the vast majority of them have not. But it is not a stretch to say that he has played an important role in imagining them into being.
And Medvedev is writing poems again, posting them on his Facebook page. His work, for certain, is more explicitly leftist than it was in his first two books. The struggle is no longer taking place inside them, but right on the surface. And now he lives on the frontlines, as a stalwart in the protest movement rather than in the janitorial closet of a mafia club. His greatest strength continues to be the casual, plain speech narrations that made him so new and controversial in Russian literature to begin with. In one of his early poems, Medvedev, characterizing the storytelling skill of a friend named Zhenya, describes his own power perfectly:
For some reason when one
person tells stories, they can seem
but when another person — for example, Zhenya — is
talking about these kind of incidents, stories,
very interesting, and, most importantly,
any detail from them
becomes practically a confession and
emanates a sort of viscous, unctuous, nervous, delirious