Kirill Medvedev was born in Moscow in 1975. In his midtwenties he published two collections of poetry with established Moscow poetry presses; the work was distinguished for being in free verse, which was still relatively rare in Russia, and highly autobiographical. The books were well received by sympathetic critics but declared “not poetry” by hostile ones. Medvedev, by his own account, began to consider the political background of the aesthetic judgments made by his contemporaries. Why did people react so violently to things they were unaccustomed to? And why, even more disturbingly, did people who claimed to like his poems have such a distanced attitude toward them, as if, ultimately, poetry wasn’t going to change their lives one way or the other? Medvedev came to the conclusion that he was living in a half-feudal, half-capitalist hell, and that the previous generations of the Russian intelligentsia, who had fought so fiercely (and so bravely) for their right to a private life, were partly at fault.
In post-Soviet Russia, private life, and the private business that it defended, had become synonymous with callousness, political withdrawal, and cynicism. By 2003, Medvedev had seen enough. He declared that he was leaving the literary world, relinquishing copyright to all his works, and ceasing to publish anywhere except on his own website (a little later, his LiveJournal page). “This is not a heroic pose, or a publicity stunt,” he wrote. “It is a particular, necessary self-limitation. I am convinced that my 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, and genuinely contemporary art in my country.”
Eventually Medvedev joined a small socialist party called Vpered (Forward) and became the editor of its lively website. In 2007 he founded the Free Marxist Press, which began to publish the works of Western Marxist thinkers such as Ernest Mandel, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Herbert Marcuse, and Terry Eagleton, as well as, when possible, native Russian ones. In recent years Medvedev has stepped up both his political and publishing activities and founded a rock band, Arkady Kots, named after the Russian Jew who translated “The Internationale” into Russian. This past spring and summer, Medvedev and Arkady Kots were visible and active at Occupy Abai, the protest encampment in the center of Moscow, and half the band was arrested at a protest of the jailing of Pussy Riot.
Medvedev now posts new poetry on his Facebook wall and continues to reject copyrighting his works. I selected the following texts from Medvedev’s Facebook page and from a collection of his poems and essays, It’s No Good, to be published this fall by n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse. (It’s No Good includes translations by Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill, Bela Shayevich, and me.) As always, they are published without Medvedev’s permission.
A sickening aesthetic atmosphere has taken hold in our country. The average cultural consciousness is a putrid swamp—half-Soviet, half-bourgeois—in which Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Joseph 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 trash—trash-food, trash-ideology, trash-culture—and fragments of religion, fragments of Sovok, and fragments of a dead empire; all of it bulges and sticks out in all directions; the ball rolls and gains speed, ready to shatter into pieces or else crush anyone who gets in its way.
There is no intelligentsia in Russia anymore. There are just fragments, moving around Moscow and the other cities, remnants, shards. Some have found work at the glossy magazines, some have started drinking too much and deteriorating, some vote for Yavlinsky, some haven’t been able to find work at all. What connects them, if anything? Two Russian-Jewish poets of the twentieth century, Mandelstam and Brodsky, who formulated two credos: “I’m not a wolf, there’s no wolf in my blood,” by Mandelstam, and “I like the thief better than I like the bloodsucker,” by Brodsky. (Meaning, respectively, a personal pacifism and a kind of ill-defined, unconscious anticapitalism.) We also know that we should not kill. Beyond that we don’t know anything. Except we suspect that even what we do know—that you must not kill—can also be a form of pressure, or a trick; it can even be a way to murder. In the modern world, it turns out, you don’t need to kill with your own hands, you don’t need to be a “wolf”; all you need to do, sometimes, is agree to a tiny compromise.
The proponents of the liberal Westernizing model must hope (if they have any hope at all, which is doubtful) for the support of this increasingly bourgeoisified intelligentsia, which grew accustomed to a level of material comfort in the 1990s and is therefore more inclined to the sort of small compromises that will let them keep it. But the proponents of the imperial-bourgeois model also look to this intelligentsia for support. This is the intelligentsia that, a century ago, the authors of Vekhi criticized for their idealism and lack of interest in material things. So things have finally changed.
Since the 1840s, Russian Westernizers have taught that eventually a property-owning middle class would emerge as the bulwark of Russian material well-being, democracy, and bourgeois blossoming. The chief disappointment of recent history is the fact that this new Russian middle class, having finally in a sense emerged, far from being the steel in the back of Russian democracy, has turned out to be a neurotic, consumerist mass, full of social and national xenophobia, aggressively clinging to its privileges, ready to sacrifice more than just freedom in order to hang onto them. It’s a group of people who could easily become the central node not of a bourgeois democracy but a fascistoid capitalism.
A different part of the intelligentsia has found itself cut off from material success, unable, or unwilling, to win a place in the new market economy. As a result it was humiliated, cast off, stripped of its ideals and its reason for being (when it turned out that the best people were the rich and the famous). These people were unnecessary to the liberal-bourgeois Russia of the 1990s, and continue to be unnecessary in the red-brown-bourgeois Russia of the 2000s. These people currently form a very depressed and potentially explosive group—they sometimes fall into aggressive conservatism, or hysterical fundamentalism, or into depressive anticapitalism. This is all perfectly natural, because the collapse of old values and ideals, and rejection from the new world, is a very difficult experience.
If you look, you can see this happen in the center of Moscow on a daily basis. This really very tiny piece of earth—from the Tretyakov Gallery, say, to Trubnaya Square, say, to Gogol Boulevard—this little triangle of land where five hundred years of Russian history are concentrated, is now also the most expensive land in Russia. The intelligentsia, which feels that it has a profound connection to this land, cannot afford—literally does not have the money—to remain here. Let me speak for myself. It’s dangerous, difficult, and often demagogic to talk about one’s homeland, but sometimes it must be done.
I have a homeland, and that homeland is the center of Moscow, just as for some people it’s a hillside or part of a forest. And to those who destroy your homeland—by cutting down the forest in which you live or chasing you off a hillside so they can build a luxury hotel—well, you can only wish those people death. I don’t wish death on anyone, but the people destroying my homeland, chopping down and burning and “clearing” blocks and houses, are chopping down and burning and “clearing out” my limbs and my organs—and I hate them, and will not forget what they have done.
I would love to have been born in a small country, a tiny country, the entire breadth of which you could cover in one day, and the cities of which you could count on your fingers. But I was not born in a tiny country, I was born in Russia, and I identify myself with Russia—I think that’s natural and realistic.
Not long ago I was talking with a friend about the late ’60s and ’70s. She said she wondered, if she’d been around then, whether 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.1
On January 24, a one-man picket from the socialist movement Vpered, in my person, took place in front of the Et Cetera theater in Moscow. The picket was staged in connection with a premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s play Drums in the Night. Not long after the start of my picket, a security guard from the theater approached me and asked what I was doing there and by whose permission I was doing it.
I explained that I had every right to hold a one-man picket there without any permission from anyone.
Seeing that I would not be moved by his legal arguments, the guard took out his phone and requested “backup,” but then apparently decided to resolve the problem himself. He said: “Get the fuck out of here if you don’t want your face beat in.” It should be noted that this man (Sergei, as it later turned out) was not your typical burly security guard. He had what is known in Russia as “an intelligent face,” wore glasses, and really looked more like a student from the Financial Academy or the Legal Faculty at Moscow State. Imagine my surprise, then, when, after my reply to his threat that he knew where he could go, Sergei punched me in the jaw.
We were separated by some journalists and employees from the theater who ran over to us. I continued my picket. Soon after, a female administrator emerged from the theater and began talking to the journalists. She wanted to know who had commissioned the picket, how much I was being paid for it, and then began asking the journalists not to report on it. Simultaneously she was trying to calm down a very wound-up Sergei, who kept trying to involve himself in her conversation with the journalists with remarks such as: “What’s he messing with our business for? Does he want his face beat in?”
At the end of the picket, the administrator came over and apologized for the overeager Sergei. I suggested that the Et Cetera theater should be more careful about the people it hires. But it should be said that if our city’s bourgeoisie continues to think that all of world culture, including leftist culture, is at its disposal to do with what it pleases, then these kinds of incidents, and problems for its “business,” will be inevitable.3
The main justification for the existence of the so-called creative intellectual—his self-involvement, his messiness and laziness and odd hours, his overall ineffectual existence—is his ability to perform a speech act. And the question now seems to be: Either the word becomes an actual act or it loses all its force entirely, in which case the intelligentsia will have to “act” in the traditional sense of that term (which, by its very nature, and I say this with myself in mind, it does not want to do)—or it ceases to exist entirely. (Which may be a good thing, I don’t know.) “The hardest thing of all is to be democratic, under any circumstances,” the poet Alexander Brenner and his partner Barbara Shurtz write. “What does this even mean? It’s the hardest thing. Not powerful, but not powerless: democratic. Maybe that’s not the best word. But we’re out of words.” And: “The first democratic writer was of course the Marquis de Sade. Gazing into the revolution, into its terror, its cruelty, its unsustainability, Sade understood that people are made up of three fundamental elements: Sex, violence, and helplessness.”
I find it hard to forget the story of Alexander Blok, who alone among his friends accepted the October Revolution. For me this story continues to yield ever greater and more complex meanings, to the point at which his poetry seems less important than what he did during those years after 1917. Whatever you think of it, his story is very much relevant today; Dmitry Bykov recalled it, too, when he agreed to start working at the same paper as the theoreticians of the new Russian fascism. YES, I’M WITH THEM, as Blok once said about the Bolsheviks to his friend Zinaida Gippius.
We think of the antiliberal and reactionary Blok, his victimhood and his madness, his intoxication with the music, the chaos, that would in the end destroy his world and him—we remember this and project it onto ourselves. YES, WE’RE WITH THEM—with the young Arab men whom well-fed Saudi sheikhs tempt into blowing themselves up so as to get money for their families; with the young Chechen women who are sent to their deaths with promises of paradise by strong and clever men; and with their victims; and with the Palestinians in Israel, chased off their lands; with the Russians in the Baltics, where local authorities have erected a monument to the SS just around the corner from the EU; and with the Russians in Russia, who’ve been fucked over again by their recently elected officials; with Tajiks in Moscow who get attacked by skinheads and harassed by the police; with the “greens” who fight their doomed fight with those who refuse to give up even a bit of their newfound First World comforts; with the National Bolshevik Party, which plays out its cruel circus in the center of Moscow, and is beaten and jailed for it; with … with all of them, we’re with all of them, and we feel no terror at the images of our civilization overrun with whomever it will be—Arabs, blacks, Chinese—because we don’t have anything anyway, just the air, and that’s how it will remain until we have nothing left to oppose it but our race and those things that are fundamentally unacceptable to us aesthetically.4