Revolting Russians by Chris Cumming

The revolutionary strategies of It’s No Good by poet Kirill Medvedev and the 2012 documentary Winter, Go Away

Palace Revolution

Voina, Palace Revolution, 2010. Photos courtesy of Voina.

One weekend afternoon ten years ago, I went for a walk through Hell’s Kitchen and wound up in a huge protest against the Iraq War. As I walked east toward Times Square, away from the quiet avenues by the river, I began to see people holding signs and hear chants in the distance, and then, on Eighth Avenue, I found myself in a dense and nearly unmoving mass stretching uptown and downtown as far as I could see, penned in by blue police sawhorses, part of the largest crowd I’ve ever been in. For a few minutes I stayed in the crush, empty-headed and curious. I felt that I was in the wrong place, that the real protest must be taking place somewhere else in this mile-long mass of people. I did not immediately understand that this was it, that there would be no speeches or actions, that the crowd had no intention of challenging the restrictions that the police had set. I did not understand how this was supposed to prevent the invasion of Iraq. The point, I thought, must be the news coverage it would receive. I realized that I had expected newspapers to run front-page headlines on the protests only the next day, when I saw that none had done so; in fact—and though I remember this clearly I wonder if it can really be true—there was no mention of the protest anywhere in the next day’s New York Times.

Years later I read Don DeLillo, that student of crowds, tell an interviewer that he had sensed a “politeness” in the protests against the war, something uncertain and insincere. “It was a curious feeling, as if the form itself were empty,” he said. The protests were unequal to the extremism of what the government was prepared to do. Instead of the threat of disturbance, we had, and still have, protest as a means of message amplification, protest so that people have a crowd to point cameras at—a form of protest meant to create a Most Photographed Barn in America, a movement that through some recursive trick of mass media becomes more powerful as it receives more attention. But what I noticed missing from the Iraq protests, and from the Occupy Wall Street encampment, was any effort to spur unrest and disruption. I had thought that Vietnam had proven that widespread social disturbance—a terrible cost, sure—is the price a protest movement pays to stop something even more terrible. What would have been an appropriate price to have paid, in violent social disruption, to have prevented the catastrophe in Iraq? Why was nobody, including me, willing to consider paying it?

The Russian protest movement is more willing to make these calculations. There is no politeness in Russian opposition, and the terms of debate are harsher. Their protests are not so hopelessly modest compared to the radical and violent forces they’re opposing. And there are Russian radicals so strange and with views so unpopular that they resist being absorbed and neutralized by commercial forces in the way the American opposition has been. The idea that radicalism should even try to resist absorption by the forces of commerce sounds almost quaint in America. If the point of an opposition movement is to grow, blob-like, by accretion, why shouldn’t it absorb more moderate views? And why shouldn’t it use whatever means are available—like branding and marketing—to increase its appeal?

One of the reasons that Kirill Medvedev’sIt’s No Good has been so exciting for American readers is that Medvedev rejects this sort of compromise in both politics and art. It is strange that a marginal, nearly unknown figure in Russia, a Marxist activist and free-verse poet who writes only for his own blog, should get as much attention in America as Medvedev has—including a favorable review last week in that mouthpiece of socialism and experimental poetry, The New York Times. No doubt this reflects the tireless publicity work of his publisher, N+1. But there’s more to it: many people in America are disgusted by our politics and depressed by our literary culture, and Medvedev’s central subject is the miserable marriage of these two. His analyses are uncompromising and ideological. And his own life, even his Russianness, give his opinions a legitimacy on these subjects that American writers’ lack. He has behind him a tradition of Russian artists who combine political and aesthetic radicalism, something American writers don’t really have.

Medvedev is a writer in whom several strains of Russian protest, from Soviet-era dissent to absurdist-punk, coexist uneasily. By pedigree, he belongs to the tradition of late-Soviet intellectuals (his father was a well-known journalist and activist in the Gorbachev years), but his essays ceaselessly criticize what he sees as that generation’s mistakes—and in return, for many years this older generation of Russian leftists viewed him as a nuisance and a joke. By his early 20s, Medvedev had written two books of verse and established himself in the Moscow literary world. He was invited to publish and to recite, his work was read and debated. But in 2006, he deliberately abandoned respectable, moderate leftism for disreputable, radical leftism. His reasons for doing this are interesting: Between the authoritarian Russian state, the trivial competitiveness of the publishing world, and a contemporary art scene increasingly irrelevant to the wider culture, Medvedev felt oppressed. “I don’t want to have even a tangential relationship to a system that has so devalued and cheapened the Word,” he declared. “In such a situation I find it impossible to participate in literary life, to publish even in publications I find sympathetic, to take advantage of those persons or institutions that are open to me, to develop the literary and poetic community that until now has interested me.” So he renounced the copyright to all his work, ceased doing readings, published essays attacking the ideological mistakes of his former friends, and gave himself over to quixotic political actions like his “one-man protests” of theaters and TV stations, protests which, in at least one instance, got him punched in the jaw by a security guard. Now he apparently supports himself as a courier, while devoting himself his writing, the Marxist press he founded, and his punk band.

It’s thrilling to read this work. Finally, ideology instead of careerism and compromise! I think there are many people who feel, like I do, that American literary culture is in a bad place right now, that it reflects the dysfunction in other socio-economic structures in the country (the university and the publishing marketplace, especially), that in form and means it has failed to keep pace with the massive shifts—the massive deterioration—in American life since the turn of the millennium. I think there are many people like me who often wonder, at the end of a contemporary American novel diagnosing or satirizing some pernicious aspect of contemporary American life, what, exactly, the writer thinks should be done. So it’s a thrill to read Medvedev rigorously examine the political and ideological failings of Russia’s intellectual culture and draw conclusions that apply no less to America’s. In one essay, he argues that the fixation on pseudo-sincere personal writing and memoir can become a force of “dark reaction,” in another he criticizes the publisher Dmitry Kuzmin for trying to build an aesthetically heterogonous and apolitical publishing house; in “My Fascism,” the collection’s best essay, he analyzes the seductiveness of right-wing ideology in literature and tries to chart the way toward an alternative. And it’s still more satisfying that Medvedev was not content to theorize but changed his life, pissing off a lot of people, through his dedication to these issues.

Medvedev draws from several traditions. There’s the influence of American free-verse poetry, from Whitman through Bukowski, of leftist European writers like Brecht and Pasolini, and, above all, the massive shadow cast by the poets of the Russian Silver Age. But he is also within a tradition less well known to Americans, a tradition of protest that that combines absurdist art with an aesthetic that’s similar to punk rock. This is a tradition that stretches from the Oberiu group of the 1920s to artists and activists like Edward Limonov, Alexander Brener, and Sergei Kuryokhin (he of the famous pseudoscientific proof that Lenin was a mushroom) who flourished in the ’80s and ’90s, and is now represented by groups likeVoina and Pussy Riot. There is more than a trace of this tradition in Medvedev’s one-man protests as well.

In the early Revolutionary period, radical movements like Oberiu and the Futurists staged absurd public performances—the Oberiu recited poetry in made-up languages, Mayakovski insulted the crowd at readings, the Futurists held “street happenings” at which they wore crazy outfits and then sat around in parks or cafes, behaving perfectly normally. The significance of these performances was twofold. Like Dadaism, they opened new possibilities for art. They also demonstrated that absurdism is politically dangerous—dangerous to the state and dangerous for its practitioners. This form of Russian art was all but erased after 1929, when the Russian Association for Proletarian Writers was given power and began targeting groups that did not produce “proletarian art.” The Oberiu group, led by the writers Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky, was silenced in 1930 after a review accused them of “literary hooliganism,” calling their nonsensical performances “a protest against the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Both Kharms and Vvedensky died in the custody of the Soviet state in the early 1940s, and their most important work did not appear in Russia until the 1970s and 1980s. But more recent radicals have looked to Oberiu as an example; Pussy Riot, for instance, quoted Vvedensky (“The incomprehensible pleases us, the inexplicable is our friend”) in the closing statement at their trial.

Around the time that Kharms’ and Vvedensky’s work started to appear in bookstores, the protest movement began to be associated with a Russified form of the punk aesthetic. The novelist Edward Limonov, probably the most important figure of the Russian protest movement during the middle Putin years, is one of many responsible. Limonov began as a rebel poet, a worshipper of Mayakovski, whom the authorities expelled from the Soviet Union in the mid-’70s. He came to New York, where he lived off welfare, had sex in alleys, and hung out with Richard Hell. His novels enjoyed a brief vogue in America and France before it became clear that he was far more of a nationalist than Western intellectuals could stomach—for example, there’s an video of him hanging out with Radovan Karadzic during the war in Bosnia, firing a machine gun into Sarajevo. Later, he spent time in prison for ordering the invasion of Kazakhstan with a homemade army, allegedly hoping to reclaim the land for the Slavic race. The trial was a farce, but, this being Limonov, the charges seemed maybe just plausible enough. Limonov had, after all, founded the National Bolshevik party, whose flag combines Soviet and Nazi imagery. The Nazbols, as they’re called, ultimately became the most visible anti-Putin street-protest group for most of the last decade.

The performance artist and activist Alexander Brener—who also had a role in shaping this absurdist-protest movement—is best known for spray-painting a green dollar sign on a Malevich painting and for his artistic works exploring the mediums of public shitting and fucking. In 1995, by way of protesting the war in Chechnya, he stood in the Red Square in boxing gloves and shorts, challenging Yeltsin to a fight. Brener also helped guide the Voina in the early 2000s.The strangest figure in Russia’s absurdism-punk-politics triangle is Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s PR director during most of the 2000s. As the architect of Russia’s so-called managed democracy, Surkov’s strategy, according to the journalist Peter Pomerantsev, was to turn politics into a theater of ideological nonsense, a vast and confusing distraction, so that offstage the well-connected oligarchs who actually run the country could plunder and battle for power. Managing democracy was also a way for Surkov to channel his thwarted artistic ambition. He studied modernist theater in his youth and collaborated with the rock bank Agata Kristi while in power. It’s generally believed that he’s the pseudonymous author of a popular bildungsroman from 2009 about a young man whose life story suspiciously resembles Surkov’s own; Surkov, in the preface, says it’s the best book he ever read. He was said to have two framed pictures on his desk in the Kremlin: Putin and Tupac.

The influence of this form of radical absurdism is obvious in the anti-Putin protests shown in Winter, Go Away!, a documentary shot by a group of recent film-school graduates and produced by Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper. The film introduces the thoughtful young artist Matvey Krylov—a follower of Limonov—just out of jail for throwing water in a prosecutor’s face, painting “Putin” on the floor of an art gallery using his mohawk. Another activist marches on stilts built out of wood stolen from the offices of Putin’s party. One of the first shots in Winter, Go Away! is a young man walking through a demonstration reciting Osip Mandelstam: “I’m no wolf by blood, and only my own kind can kill me.”

It’s a revealing moment, one that underscores a division between this new generation of the Russian opposition and the previous one. How to remember Mandelstam—as a revolutionary young poet or as a martyr to the revolution? For the current generation of protestors, the great Revolutionary-era artists figure as models of radicalism and nonconformism, rather than the victims of radicalism. Medvedev writes in one poem, “All those years of discussing the victims of the revolution/ have frozen our blood,/ have turned us into/ frightened ducklings, unable to defend our own rights, much less someone else’s … ” I can imagine being repelled by that idea, but it is at least honest in recognizing a truth: that the crimes of socialist regimes, awful as they were, have become a useful tool for neutering leftism. Interesting how difficult it is to imagine an leftist American writer or academic—for whom producing books and essays on the crimes of Stalin et al is a virtuous cottage industry—saying the same thing. It’s equally difficult to imagine it coming from a perestroika-era leftist. This is a real generational change. I think it’s what Keith Gessen means when, in the introduction to It’s No Good, he calls Medvedev “the first authentically post-Soviet writer.”

At the center of Medvedev’s critique of the late-Soviet generation of intellectuals is the claim that they were wrong to separate politics from private life and art. “We need to do away with this false notion of ‘literature as private activity,’” Medvedev writes in “My Fascism.” Joseph Brodsky, for Medvedev, is the model of this type of artist, one who sought to resist the politicization of everyday life that the Soviet Union enforced. But a retreat from politics, though reasonable in the context of totalitarianism, passed on no firm principles—no ideology—to oppose the gangster capitalism of the 1990s. The anti-ideological leftists of the current generation have still not offered a compelling alternative to Putinism, in Medvedev’s view. And so other ideologies—fundamentalism, authoritarianism, neo-Nazism, paranoid nativism—have offered their own explanations for what’s gone wrong in post-Soviet Russia, filling the space that Russia’s leftists have refused or been unable to occupy. Medvedev hopes that there will be a “rebellion of humanism” against these violent and intolerant forces, through the development of a truly democratic art. His essay concludes, “I hope someday to live in my homeland, with my son Bogdan, and to practice my art, unpoliticized, as an ordinary private citizen.”

But this aspiration is incoherent. Is this really what Medvedev has been working for after his break from the literary world—to usher in a new political era, and thereby be free of politics? Once things get better in Russia, once democratic art appears on the horizon, will he shift his energies from politics back to literature? Though Russia’s politics are arguably in worse shape now than at any time in the last thirty years or so, we see in Winter, Go Away! that a new generation of Russian artists is in fact emerging to oppose authoritarianism with democratic ideals. Does this mean that Medvedev will soon be free to practice his art, unpoliticized? It’s No Good does not give the sense of an artist emerging from politics, but rather the opposite. The best poetry in the book all comes before 2007 or so, which shouldn’t be surprising. The idea that a poet can create a new form of art by spending all his time at protests just doesn’t make any sense.

Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good, published by N+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse, is available now. You can buy it here and here.

Chris Cumming is a writer living in New York City.

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