Kirill Medvedev's poetic utopianism

Why radical Russian poet Kirill Medvedev's first ventures into English need to be read

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Kirill Medvedev

Russian poet Kirill Medvedev was born in Moscow in 1975, just after the beginning of the Soviet Union’s arguably terminal economic decline before its dissolution in 1991. During this period, Medvedev’s mother was an editor and his father was a journalist; both were concerned by Soviet censorship. In 1994, however, he and his mother fled to Israel after his father blew his successful post-Soviet television career playing poker, racking up huge mafia debts. So what had happened in the intervening years following the fall of the Communist Party to spoil their newfound liberty?

This is the question that Medvedev answers in It’s No Good, his first collection of poems and essays published over the last 13-years to be translated into English. Dealing with the 1990s dream, beset by swinging free market reforms in Russia and the rise of poverty and organised crime, through to the current day, where the mob has taken office, Medvedev examines the fallacy and failures of the free market. Originally published in 2000 by the Muscovite underground imprint/gallery/club Proekt OGI, It’s No Good was Medevedev’s first book after he graduated from the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow. Free verse abounds. There’s a poem about refusing to translate Charles Bukowski and another about lying in hospital surrounded by dying soldiers after getting yellow fever from a dirty needle.

As a Marxist poet, however, Medvedev became acutely aware of the paradox of profiting from the publication of books critiquing capitalism. So in 2004 he solved this problem by rescinding all rights to his published work – and becoming active in the growing anti-Putin protest movement that started in the early 2000s, occasionally uniting disparate groups including chess player Garry Kasparov, proto-Pussy Riot art activists, Voina, and most bizarrely, the National Bolsheviks, a Stanlinist-anarchist far right party.

After rescinding all rights to his work, Medvedev self-published this controversially titled collection Cocks Of The Fathers on his blog in 2004 (kirillmedvedev.narod.ru). However, despite the naughty strap line, it’s actually a meditation on becoming a father and the way in which capitalism turns everyone into a prostitute. Another consequence of relinquishing ownership of his work was that it left it open to be published by opportunists, such as Russia’s trendy New Literary Observer, who published a luxury edition of his writing in 2006 under the title, Kirill Medvedev: Texts Published Without the Permission of the Author. (This garnered the following salty response from the author: ‘One can certainly be impressed by the courage of the ultra-liberal NLO, which thus violates one of liberalism’s core values: the right to private property.’)

Regardless, the landscape of the anti-Putin protest scene is often confusing. Leftwing activists such as Pussy Riot are not the only ones to go to trial: in July this year, one of Putin’s most vocal critics, the lawyer, businessman and nationalist, Alexei Navalny, was also prosecuted. Nonetheless, Medvedev continues to write poetry that’s similar in nature to Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski, protesting harsh social measures, mostly recently including making the distribution of “gay propaganda” a criminal offence. Elsewhere, Medvedev has also started publishing house, The Free Marxist Press. While on his first reading tour of America, Dazed caught up with Medevdev to talk art and politics.

How did Russian writers react to the fall of the USSR?

The difference in reactions was pretty clear. Pro-Soviet or "patriotic" writers  - and in some cases even those who were anti-Soviet but "patriotic” - reacted negatively, as if it the event were a "geopolitical catastrophe," whereas liberal authors were more or less positive it. At the time, I was pretty apolitical and just accepted what was happening.

How do you feel about it now?

Right now, no matter how critical we are  - and should be - of the Soviet system, it's clear that the collapse wasn't much good for most of the former republics, nor for Russia itself. Today, what we're seeing is the degradation of the system of education, the rise of religious fundamentalism, and the collapse of the secular society the Soviet regime had built, say whatever you will. In the Caucasus and Central Asian republics, Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise. And in Russia, an ultra conservative form of Russian Orthodox Christianity has become popular. Nonetheless, at the moment the Central Asian republics are suffering the worst, since a huge proportion of their population are forced to look for work in Russia, where they are confronted with a total lack of labor rights and outright ethnic hatred.

The anti-Putin protests that began in the early 2000s have united disparate political groups. How closely do they work together?

Many different opposition groups have participated in the anti-Putin protests. Last year we tried to create a coalition, a common program, and even elected a coordinating council with about 100,000 people electing 45 candidates from over 100. I ran for a seat as a leftwing candidate but was not successful. From my side, we also argued about whether we should agree to momentarily set aside some of our social demands such as addressing inequality, labor rights, the commercialisation of medicine, education and utilities in favor of more general democratic policies that everyone could agree on such as free speech, free elections, independent courts etc. We didn't come to a definite conclusion, and in any case right now the Coordinating Council is not a healthy institution

Wasn’t there a danger that by allying with members of the right that you could potentially give a platform to your ideological enemies?

Throughout this process discussions took place over whether the various groups should participate in a tactical coalition with people who were obviously their enemies. Speaking more generally, it's always hard to find the right balance between ideological sectarianism and pragmatism, with the latter always threatening to slide into a complete lack of principles. But it's my opinion that only through focusing more intensively and aggressively on the social agenda that the protest movement can enter a new phase. Secondly, I feel that most of the current opposition groups do not hold any really “dangerous” views and should therefore be included, with the exception of extreme nationalists who play the ethnic card and also "loyal liberals," that is, the neoliberal wing of the Putin regime  - like former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin - which tries to balance loyalty to the regime with the occasional rebellion from it.

Why do you think the Pussy Riot arrests drew the Western media’s attention when many other protestors have been arrested in similarly controversial circumstances?

I think it's understandable that the nonviolent feminist activism of Pussy Riot would be closer to and more comprehensible to the West. My hope is that the egalitarian, anti-capitalist message of Pussy Riot was also heard in the West – after all that's what makes them such a radically new phenomenon for the Russian scene, and so incompatible with the old dissident discourse.

Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, 'I will contend until I am shot that art as soon as it is brought into contact with politics inevitably sinks to the level of ideological trash.' What do you think the proper relationship between art and politics should be? 

Far too many Russian authors and other intellectuals have taken Nabokov's pronouncements on this matter - and other similar pronouncements - too much to heart. In the 1990s, doing so led them into total political paralysis and degradation. A huge swath of the intelligentsia simply lost the political ground beneath their feet because they decided that politics and economics were best left to professionals. There's no question that ideology can have a negative effect on one's art; it can even destroy it, as we have seen on numerous occasions in the 20th century. But a complete rejection of politics will have an equally negative effect. It's difficult to combine politics with aesthetics, but it needs to be done. It's a challenge that art must meet, in order to develop, in order to constantly question and reexamine its own functions and rules, and in the end, in order to remain itself.

One of your essays references the Russian poet Josef Brodsky who was jailed in the USSR for his so-called “parasitic” lifestyle. How do you feel about that? Is it not more advantageous to sacrifice the freedom of artists in order to maintain the freedoms of society?

This is a false binary. The freedom of the artist in no way threatens the freedom of society, which consists in not allowing the elites and their individual representatives - the one percent - to have unlimited power and to enrich themselves to no end. The poet, the artist, who is equally free from the authorities and from the market when he works on his aesthetic, ethical, anthropological experiments, can in this way resist commercialisation and standartisation, and in that way can very well serve society's interests.

Your early poems seem to focus on personal experience. Yet you later criticise hipster writers for reviving the essentialism of individual experience. Isn’t this a contradiction?

I don't think there's a contradiction here. I have always thought that poetry is based on the transmission of one's personal experience, that even collective political feelings are expressed in poetry through working with personal emotional experience, through speaking in one's own voice. What I was criticising were poets who believe that the aesthetic processing of their experience through the medium of language fences them off from all ideological tendencies and contexts; as if, because the experience is their own, it doesn't intersect in any way with common or general - or, for that matter, political - experience. I support the depiction of individual experience in poetry, but I am against the kind of fundamentalism of individual experience you sometimes see, which often plays a depoliticising role.

In the introduction to It's No Good, the novelist Keith Gessen attempts to locate your style of verse poetry into the canon of Russian poetry. Do you agree that this is the case? 

Emotionally I feel myself to be a part of Russian poetry, including its messianic elements, but it so happens that, historically, Russian poetry was always aligned with the right. Pushkin accepted Tsar Nicholas I as his censor; everyone’s favorite avant-garde Soviet poet, Alexander Vvedensky, considered himself a monarchist; Brodsky was a proponent of liberal capitalism, and so on. Of course we had the experience of leftist poetry during the 1920s, but I think the need for a new form of civic activism, for new forms of political participation, is a very powerful and productive challenge for Russian poetry right now.

Your later writings seem to consist of actions and essays and politics. Have you abandoned poetry?

No, I still write poetry, and in fact the American edition of the book has some of my most recent poems. My publishing house, The Free Marxist Press, will soon be putting out a collection entitled "Attack on City Hall” too.

Poetry is unique among the arts because it fundamentally exists beyond the concerns of the market. But today, is there really any hope for poetic or Utopian thinking in a world of falling profits and social unrest?

I agree that poetry is a free space that has not yet been appropriated by the market or by what in Russia is called "political technology." And in that space you can indeed work out new forms of existence, and understanding, including in the realm of politics. But it's just a working out, and nothing more. Whether these new forms can be realised in actual life depends not on poetry as such but on how integrated poetry can become in the new radical, democratic culture that we are trying to build - a culture where the utopian element that is always present in poetry is felt more and more, and which can help take us outside the boundaries imposed on us by neoliberal "common sense”.

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