A few months ago I got a copy of this book from Keith Gessen, a contributor and editor at N+1 who covers the Russia beat. Keith is a friend of Marxmailer Thomas Campbell who is a member of Chto Delat (What is to be Done), a collective of artists and intellectuals in Russia who share Medvedev’s leftwing politics. Whether they share Medvedev’s love of Charles Bukowski, whose poems he has translated into Russian, I don’t know…
I was surprised that the NYT would review Medvedev’s book and even more surprised that it would be so flattering. I am including an excerpt from the review below as well as a passage from “My Fascism”, a wonderful rant about the cultural and political rot in Putin’s Russia-that wonderful BRIC power that has the blood of 80,000 Syrians on its hands.
A Litany of Betrayals, Petty Yet Terrifying
‘It’s No Good’ by Kirill Medvedev
By DWIGHT GARNER
Published: March 20, 2013
The feminist Russian punk band Pussy Riot, some of its members recently imprisoned, stands for many things, notably opposition to the policies of Vladimir Putin. One of its best-known songs contains the line “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” Another is titled, depending on the translation, “Putin Is Wetting Himself.”
IT’S NO GOOD
By Kirill Medvedev
Translated by Keith Gessen with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill and Bela Shayevich
278 pages. n+1/Ugly Duckling Press. $16.
The band rejects the criminal capitalism so prevalent in Russia. When Madonna and Björk offered to perform alongside the group, a Pussy Riot member replied: “The only performances we’ll participate in are illegal ones. We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist system, at concerts where they sell tickets.”
This stance echoes one taken years earlier by the young Russian poet Kirill Medvedev, whose writing is introduced to American readers in “It’s No Good,” a spirited compendium translated by the novelist and n+1 magazine editor Keith Gessen, along with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill and Bela Shayevich.
It’s not often you open a book, flip to its title page, and read a declaration like the one printed here: “Copyright denied by Kirill Medvedev, 2012.” He’s opted out of the literary world. He’s decided that his books will appear in pirate editions or not at all. Mr. Medvedev notes, in an observation that hangs over this book, “It’s strange now to think that business was once portrayed as the enemy of authority.”
In his introduction to “It’s No Good” Mr. Gessen calls Mr. Medvedev “Russia’s first genuinely post-Soviet writer.” It’s no surprise to learn that Mr. Medvedev and members of his folk-protest band, Arkady Kots, were detained by the police for performing in support of Pussy Riot.
From “My Fascism”:
Just as culture didn’t take advantage of the post-Soviet moment (to develop, to interrogate itself, to change), neither did business. There was no bourgeois revolution, no “rise of the middle class”; instead, we had the creation of a vulgar, vicious, largely ethnic-based clan capitalism. It was Komsomol activists who taught the new generation about contemporary values: careerism, success, drive, the “quick buck,” etc. These men told the young: “It’s best not to work at all, but if you must work, make sure you are paid for it well, unlike the losers who work as doctors, miners, teachers. He who has the money also has the power.” It’s strange now to think that business was once portrayed as the enemy of authority. During the 1990s, big business quietly tried to amass and secure power; now those in power are trying to do the same to big business. During the ’90s, it was “commercial structures” that evicted Muscovites from their apartments and shut off their electricity; now it is the government that does it, passing in the process what-ever laws it needs.
The rise of criminal capitalism in Russia in the 1990s took its toll on books as well. Toward the end of the decade, the publishing industry experienced a real boom. I’m not sure it was a particularly healthy or thriving industry, but somehow or other publishers were making money from books. This engendered the notion that a book could be an object of consumption. And in this way the anti-literary sentiment of the 1990s acquired, in a sense, an economic foundation. Russian literature-centrism seemed to be a thing of the past.
Around the same time, literature began to develop a more acute sense of politics. Literary critics became more sophisticated in this realm than art critics, who, along with the artists they studied, had previously enjoyed something of a monopoly on the analysis of contemporary life. The same phenomenon took place in literature proper. And so there was a breakthrough: tons of books were being published, including many from the West, but the translation and production of these books was carried out cheaply, as the spirit of economic competition was prioritized over aesthetic concerns. As a result, the concepts of rebellion, marginality, and political incorrectness, much like literature itself, were suddenly on the verge of total devaluation. Whether this is good or bad—whether in general it is good or bad when literature and other kinds of art become objects of merciless “Russian consumption” as though they were any other material commodity, depends on whether one approves of the social/political system that has taken shape in Russia, or not, and whether one believes that art has the power to change it. Either way, the triumph of consumerism eventually begat a backlash, a movement in the opposite direction—toward a more politicized literature. Scandals erupted, lawsuits against authors were filed, and some books were even publicly and symbolically destroyed while others were banned from bookstores. Technically all these bannings and lawsuits came from the authorities, but at the center of them, in my view, was a resurgent sense that literature was a central element of Russian consciousness—a sense that had started to lose its footing in the post-Soviet chaos.
(In general, all this darting back and forth between scorn for Russian logocentrism and profound dependence on it must seem funny to anyone who holds a reasoned, Western view that the whole concept of national identity should be treated with extreme skepticism. What’s the point? What good does it do anyone? And is the root of evil in Russian logocentrism? In other words, is logo-centrism a compensatory mechanism in the face of irrelevance and ideological stagnation, or is it in fact our only bulwark against the kind of evil that does not utter any words at all and refuses to listen to anyone else’s? It’s possible that both are the case. Recall, for example, the fate of Russian Conceptualism, which in the process of tearing free from the overpowering mythology of Soviet literary culture developed its own ambitions to power, and achieved for itself influence and wealth.)
Right now the government has begun to take an interest in culture, and before long it may decide that it won’t be able to create a national idea without dragging literature into it. I mean, if it bothers to think that long about it. But even now there is talk of creating a government-sponsored system of literary prizes, and of creating a unified writers’ union, like in 1932, and so on.
In this way, literature, if it wants to have any kind of special status—whether privileged or shunned, which in some sense comes to the same thing—and therefore any kind of special effect, either needs to hope for help from the authorities in the form of direct repression (like the incarceration of Eduard Limonov), or else it needs to take itself out of the frame of the current cultural and economic paradigm—all the while knowing that these kinds of experiments are often in danger of total failure and collapse.
Here I’d like to move away from global problems and talk for a bit about my own small personal relations with culture and literature. I should say that I’m not urging anyone to do as I have done; I just want to explain my position.
Three years ago I wrote a poem about how I wasn’t going to translate anymore, because I didn’t want to work for publishers and participate in the formation of a new bourgeois culture. It’s not that I was dead set on following this rule, but it turned out that, for a while, I really didn’t translate much. It was hard for me to stop translating; I’d considered this my calling. But in my logocentric imagination, it was better to renounce one’s gift than to force it to depend on the market. And I still remember how not a single publisher wanted to print my translations of Charles Bukowski’s poetry. “POEMS??!!” they’d say. I’d get upset but also understand that this was the way of things. Now Bukowski is well-known in Russia and gets published all the time. A large publisher recently put out a book of his poems, but I felt like I was no longer interested, this was no longer what I was doing. I had a similar experience when the magazine Afisha asked me to participate in a photo shoot with other young poets, and I said no. What else could I say? What I should have said is: Why didn’t you come earlier, why didn’t you come three years ago? THEN I WOULD HAVE SAID YES. WHY ARE YOU SO BAD AT FOLLOWING THE CULTURAL PROCESS? In truth, I don’t enjoy any of this, these refusals, but there’s nothing I can do—if something is easy to get, you should probably refuse it, but more than that I always feel the dark corners of Moscow tugging at me—even now they still exist, even as they’re being destroyed and sterilized, and I need to return to them, to run from the glossy magazines, into those folds of humiliation and failure that I came from, and that have always produced the literature that means the most to me. I’m a child of the Russian intelligentsia, I’m a person of culture, and culture for me does not consist of rhymes and motifs, but of legends, of gossip, like a thread winding through the centuries, like a moral (as in the moral of a tale), like air—and that’s the only thing worth inheriting (not the “outlines of a poetics” or whatever). This is the only cultural inheritance that interests me. I’d like to be the descendant of Leonid Gubanov, the Moscow poet who was trampled and humiliated and yet never gave in to the Soviet authorities, and of Roald Mandelstam17, who died in poverty and obscurity. Their voices cry inside me, I want to record an album of their poetry, but I feel like I shouldn’t, or can’t, if I’m a poet with status who is part of the normalized mainstream.
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. But your ambitions (my ambitions) won’t let you just be another conqueror in this city, in Rome. The people who came into the train station (the poetry competition took place in one of the chambers of the train station), and those reading my poems translated into Italian on the big screen in the waiting room, said that they liked the poems; I traveled there and back by bus, it was a long slow trip through daytime and nighttime Europe—I experienced a complete fugue state on the way—I felt like I could see and understand reality without actually coming into contact with it, I was untouchable, and on the way there and back I wrote a long poem whose reading six months later became my final public appearance as a poet.
I have a website, and I’m very happy that this is where my relations with the literary world end. I think this is a very simple and natural state of affairs. I see in this a kind of purity of genre, like a sonnet or haiku or a strictly organized architectural space. I understand that this is how thousands of poets exist. Many of them are talentless, but some are not, some are gifted, and there are probably those among them who are more gifted than I, but no one knows anything about them. In any case, I’m happy to be like them. And people will say: “You’re lying. Those poets are unknown and will die unknown, whereas you, in any case, won’t entirely disappear. This is just a game to you.” And yet I think that in the end this isn’t just a game.
I don’t like it when former victims, rebels, and avant-gardists become themselves masters of the culture. Like the actual revolutionaries they once modeled themselves on, they often become undisciplined and brutal masters. This is an old and boring story, as old as the world, one that one would really like to avoid in one’s own case.
The thing is that for worries such as I have, for qualms such as mine, people IN THIS SYSTEM often receive presents—and I would not like to receive any presents.
Of all the many kinds of artists that I know, the only one I like right now (and I should say that I am not this kind of artist yet myself, but I hope to be) is the artist-monk, who has (like a real monk) no rights, only responsibilities. His responsibility is to pray. That is, God in this instance is the social body, which gives some people the talent to move other people, and gives other people other qualities.., and in this context praying consists of living an honest life and creating uncompromising art so as to balance out the amount of dirt with which the rest of the social body is filled—be it a narrow stratum, or your nation, or all of humanity.
And the culture that I see around me is busy with other things—whether good things or bad things, they are things that don’t interest me, and so I don’t want to have any formal connection to this culture. Is that so hard to understand?
I am, of course, exaggerating. I’m forcing reality to fit under my favorite rubric of “it’s no good.” It’s not entirely true; some things are good; there are oases. It’s possible, for example, that there’s something interesting going on right now in the theater. I know for certain that in poetry at the beginning of this decade there was a surge, which went largely unnoticed within poetry circles, not to mention outside of them, because the world of poetry is still on the whole reactionary, even ideological liberals within it are aesthetically very reactionary. But the surge I’m talking about couldn’t help but happen, because tectonic shifts in the Russian language are taking place, there’s a very powerful process of rejuvenation, as at the beginning of the 19th century, and many successful experiments were attempted, by which you could easily measure the condition of contemporary Russian and its possibilities. You could even measure the condition and the possibilities of society in general by reading these poems.
The main conflict of this time—for Russia, a very serious one—was the conflict between received ideas of what poetry is and what it ought to be (simple and “soulful” versus intellectual and complex; rhyming versus free verse; “spoken” versus written, and so on) as against the idea, until recently foreign to these parts, that poetry is only the maximal expression, via the medium of language, of this or that authentic way of seeing, and that it is precisely this—the degree of its expressiveness—that is the only criterion by which you can determine its quality.