World | Poetry

Direct Expression

An interview with the dissident Russian poet and essayist Kirill Medvedev

July 29, 2013


Kirill Medvedev performing with his band, Arkady Kots.

Kirill Medvedev is difficult to classify. He has spent much of the past several years as a stay-at-home father and dropped out of the prestigious Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow. As an act of protest against the capitalist corruption of the Russian publishing world, he has denied all copyright to his works, even refusing a lucrative deal with a well-known leftist press because, he says, there are no rights. At the same time, he’s gained an international reputation as a poet; his first English-language collection, It’s No Good, edited by N+1’s Keith Gessen, was recently published by N+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse. Medvedev also performs with the boisterous radical rock band Arkady Kots.

A target of arrests and criticism—not to mention fists; Medvedev was reportedly punched by a security guard at a protest and by a Russian politician at the 2010 Moscow Book Festival—he lives out his values as a critic of the Putin regime and of Russia’s steady march toward autocratic, pro-market conservatism. He helms the Free Marxist Press, a tiny operation in which he translates many thinkers of the European left—Slavoj Žižek and Herbert Marcuse among them—into Russian. Medvedev is engaged in an intellectual project that sets him apart from the majority of poets and writers in the overwhelmingly right-wing Russia of today.

A muscular blend of satire and empathy, Medvedev’s poetry depicts Muscovites who call to mind Gogolian characters, minds whose aperture on the world is in a half-closed state. This quality migrated in a new form to Soviet Russia from the imperial state: it is in the characters of Yuri Olesha’s Envy; it is the force that Bulgakov’s pagan witchery and satanic revelry disrupts in The Master and Margarita. What Medvedev conveys is that this way of being didn’t dissolve with the Soviet Union—in fact, it has found an all-too-comfortable refuge in the new Russia. Medvedev paints a picture—somehow both phantasmagoric and grittily realistic—of a world that is populated by two types. The first are the bankers, workers at “glossy magazines,” fascists, and “shadow people”—those whose interests can be bought by the government. The second are the Russian people who Medvedev’s distant literary cousin Gogol found so difficult to fully capture: the “holy lonely creatures,” shocked into complacency by having the rug pulled out from under their feet a few times too many.

Medvedev’s poetry and his political essays cannot easily be separated. His point of view—that poetry should reflect the political, even its own “relations of production,” and that it can aim to create solidarity rather than emphasize individual subjectivity—may at first look like a weird echo of the Soviet literary bureaus of old. But it’s just the opposite: he is struggling to form a meaningful notion of the left that is independent of the history of the Soviet Union—and a form of poetry that both embraces the fecundity of human thought and reignites the political relevance of the Russian intelligentsia.

I spoke with Medvedev in Cambridge, Massachusetts during his American tour. Medvedev answered interview questions in Russian, and Gessen translated and asked a few questions of his own. Read his poem “The End of the Ceasefire (The End of the Objectivist School?).”

• • •

Goldhammer: You often seem to express similar ideas about political narratives in both your essays and your poems (I’m thinking in particular of the “City Hall” poems in It’s No Good). If you have one idea and you want to work it out, how and when do you decide which medium to use?

Medvedev: I know I need to write a poem when I see that no other medium will work for it. That is, I don’t have a clear polemical argument that I can express in an article or essay. I can’t express it through direct speech; I can’t sing it in a song. Then there’s nothing left but to write a poem. Poetry, I’d say, is the thing you produce when you don’t know yet which form you are working in.

Goldhammer: When did you decide that you needed to write essays, statements that are in prose rather than in poetry? And do you see a difference in the responses that your poetry generates from readers, as opposed to your essays?

Medvedev: In that moment, it seemed to me that I needed to express my thoughts in various forms that are in certain ways complementary. I will say something in an essay or political statement that is very clear, and then I will write a poem in which I show that in fact it’s much more tangled and complicated than that. In this way, too, there’s a kind of dialectical completion. The statement of the manifesto—the clear statement—is not thereby cancelled—but it is made more complex. My poems and essays sometimes complement one another. Other times—and this is actually more interesting—they contradict one another.

Goldhammer: Right, so there is some ambiguity that can exist in the poems that complicates the statements in the essays, but that only serves to provoke a response from the next essay—like the two of them are going back and forth in dialogue with one another.

Medvedev: That’s right, and it can also go the other way round, because a poem can contain direct speech, a clear message, and an essay can then introduce ambiguities and complications to that. So it’s not always the case that the essay is the clear, direct argument and the poem is ambiguous. Sometimes it’s the other way round.

Goldhammer: In It’s No Good you write a lot about the “New Sincerity” as a literary movement and a school of thought in contemporary Russian poetry. You make this interesting point that the sincere voice, that way of writing, was at one point a good way to break through stultifying, impersonal Soviet rhetoric. And then on the other hand it was a good way to bring some personal testament of experience to sort of disrupt the impersonal jargon of postmodernism. But now you say that the sincere voice has held over for too long. So I’m wondering what type of voice or discourse in writing you feel would be needed to disrupt the discourse of Russian society now.

Gessen: If I can ask, myself, could you define what you mean by the New Sincerity?

Medvedev: What it means?

Gessen: Yes, and why you think it needs to be disrupted. Because I’m not sure.

Medvedev: At a certain point, direct speech or New Sincerity was a historically necessary answer to two discourses that needed to be disrupted: the Soviet and the postmodern. At the time, it didn’t actually matter what was being said in these poems—the need for this direct mode of expression was so sharp; it was so necessary. The ethical, moral, political content didn’t matter—as long as it was direct.

Goldhammer: So as long as there was a personal testament to one individual’s experience—that was really the most important aspect.

Medvedev: It was important at that time. But at a certain point the contradictions present at the very start of the discourse came to the surface. One of those contradictions was the fact that this discourse was founded by people who had done very well under the new regime, the post-Soviet regime. These were people who worked at glossy magazines, in public relations, at banks. This was, in a sense, the new elite. You could even say that these people, working these jobs, were so emotionally disconnected from them—had jobs at which they were not allowed in any way to express their emotions, their feelings—that this is part of what created a need for them to write these very expressive poems. But also in a way to shield themselves, to cover up from others and themselves, the fact that they were working in this system, right? So this split very much mirrors the same kind of split that exists in liberal ideology. You have your job, and that is your private life, your private business, and that doesn’t concern anyone. And then you have your public self and your poems, which can be very sincere, very emotional; in fact they often touch upon things in your private life—your personal relations, your consumption of culture in various ways (films, museums). But it’s only the part of your private life that you are willing to share with others, as opposed to, for example, what you do for a living. And so the problem is that this poetry is never able to rise to the level of saying something about society as a whole, because it basically blocks off this whole other part of life.

Why do I think that this discourse exhausted itself at a certain point? I think, to be honest, that it was largely for political reasons. To a certain point, if you and the people around you thought that things were going OK, Russia was going in the right direction, and you were part of a kind of vanguard, part of the elite of the capitalist reforms that were going pretty well, then despite various criticisms you might have of Putin, etc. you could continue to write private poems about private problems. But at a certain point, around 2006 or 2007, when people started looking around and thinking that there was something really wrong in the direction the country was going and specifically with the Putin regime, then they had no choice but to start thinking: “maybe we have something to do with this. Maybe we are involved in this thing that has gone wrong. And maybe our poetry, our art, ought to be expressing a little bit more than just what’s going on with our love lives. It ought to try to at least reflect on our position within this situation.” Which isn’t to say that everybody all of a sudden realized this, all together, but I do think that this general sense of things did enter people’s consciousness, and in so doing, kind of blew up the discourse of the New Sincerity.

Gessen: And now we can get to your question, which is . . .

Goldhammer: Yes, I was going to ask what sort of discourse writers should be using to disrupt the system as it stands right now. I guess what I would say is that the critical difference might be in what people decide to share with one another. Or what may be important to share in common.

Medvedev: I wouldn’t say that I have a clear idea—or any idea—of how everyone should write and what people will react to. It’s always a question of experimentation. You write something and you put it out there and you see how people react. I can say for myself that I think that a very interesting project for poetry is experimentation with direct political statements, despite the fact that this kind of poetry had been discredited quite a bit throughout the 20th century. And not only despite that, but because it’s been discredited. It continues to be a provocation. People say, “You can’t do this, you can’t write like this.” But poetry comes, in part, from people saying, “You can’t write like this.”

Goldhammer: In the book you mention an article by the poet Igor Vishnevetsky on a pro-Kremlin Web site, which praise leftist poets. You wrote to Vishnevetsky and said that you were surprised and asked him why he did it. And he said, “What does it matter who’s talking about these things as long as they get to be talked about?”

Medvedev: Well of course, things here are not unambiguous. The question of where to publish, and where not to publish, is something that I used to think about a lot. I still think about it a lot. It seems like there are two arguments. One of them is based, really, on a low level of political culture: the author is so enamored of his own statements and own writing that he thinks it doesn’t matter where it appears, and it doesn’t matter in what context or medium, it will be so magnificent that it will break through everything and stand there in its glory. This, frankly, is the sign of an undeveloped political consciousness.

The other reason is based on a quite serious political reflection. For example I was talking with Boris Kagarlitsky, who is a longtime leftist poet, thinker, and writer, who has been publishing for a long time in various publications that are in fact odious pro-Putin publications. And I said, “Why do you do this?” His answer was, “Look, it’s a question of political tactics.” If a publication has not as yet determined its course, publishing there is a way of reaching its audience and getting your message to those people.

Gessen: Is this not a self-serving argument? Do these pro-Putin places, for example, pay money?

Medvedev: You might say that, yes. But it’s an argument that needs to be taken seriously, because the question of political tactics is a serious one. There is always the danger with this stuff of becoming a kind of sectarian, where you say, “I only publish in these places, I have five readers, no one else reads me, but at least I am honest, and uncompromising, and consistent.” That to me is a very sympathetic position; I, in fact, like that position very much. But I also recognize that insofar as I am part of a political movement and we need to get our message out, we do need to consider these questions of political tactics, even though in the specific case of Kagarlitsky, I probably don’t agree with him. But I think it’s something that we need to think about.

Goldhammer: How is the Free Marxist Press project going, and how does that fit into all of this? You talk about making Marxism new for people, or making it available to people in a new way. I imagine Russians are inevitably going to have a very complicated response to it.

Medvedev: The interest in Marxism arose among young people about eight years ago because of the need to understand the situation in which they were producing their work. There was a need to think not only about your artistic career and the institutions you were moving through and the people that would advance your artistic career, but to think about the context in which you were producing, how it functions, and also who you’re doing it for. With which stratum, with which class, are you associating yourself? You know? And in this way, you do give up and abandon the romantic conception of the artist. Which, until recently, was everyone’s conception of the artist, from Soviet peasant poets to Soviet conceptualists and postmodernists.

That’s about the intellectual demand for Marxism. But there was also a political demand for a new group of thinkers and activists who would be, on the one hand, critical of the Soviet experience and, on the other, interested in thinking seriously about the possibility of solidarity, the possibility of a more democratic society, a more radical society, and who believe that they could influence the situation through political action. The question is just how. Because in Russian politics in the post-Soviet era you had on the one hand the Communist Party, which consists of Soviet “patriots,” Stalinists, anti-Semites, and, on the other hand, liberals, for whom any kind of leftist rhetoric is simply nonsense. The entire experience of Soviet Russia is a black hole from which we have nothing to learn.

So there was this sort of need for Marxism. And the people who want this are not necessarily radical revolutionaries, who want revolution tomorrow, but they are people who want to think about the possibility of there being more to life than making money. I have noticed here so far that some of my statements, some of the Free Marxist Press’s thoughts about Russian history and the current Russian situation, are something of a novelty because the more what I would call “liberal” version is dominant here—which says that you had Soviet authoritarianism, and then you had the relatively progressive Yeltsin ’90s, and then you have the return to Soviet-style authoritarianism under Putin. There is this idea that you have a very clean break between the ’90s and the 2000s. And for us of course it’s completely different. We think for one thing that the Soviet experience is immensely complex and that the final historical analysis of it, of both its progressive aspects and its reactionary aspects, is still in the future.

The Free Marxist Press is a reaction to both of the demands I mentioned: the demand of the intelligentsia for tools to reflect on their own situation, and also the demand for a new political force in Russia. Despite the fact that several of the people who were involved in the publishing house, including myself, are members of political parties and movements, we made a decision that the publishing house would be independent of any political party, so that it could continue to be a space for reflection, for people who do not necessarily agree with a particular political line. The publishing house is an attempt to combine reflection, criticism, and propaganda. We do not deny that we have political beliefs, and that we are going to advance them, but we also realize that in order for these political beliefs to be apprehended or understood, we need to create this sort of space of reflection.

And the final element is enlightenment—including self-enlightenment. One of the reasons I started the publishing house was that I realized that there was a lot about leftist thought and leftist history that I simply didn’t know; it was not available in Russian. I wanted to translate it and publish it and learn it myself. So we are not putting ourselves in the position of people who have a certain kind of knowledge and are taking it to the masses. It’s more of an autodidactic impulse.

Goldhammer: Going back to the Vishnevetsky issue—you describe the Web site he was writing on as “a space that was created by the Kremlin expressly to strengthen its power via the smokescreen of ‘parliamentary polyphony.’” There are several references to the notion that political sentiment and opinion are “bought and paid for.” One gets the sense that there is an intellectual consumerism that’s cheapening truthful political articulation—the “Word,” as it’s referred to in one piece.

Medvedev: Well, if you are writing about your emotional epiphanies, and you exist in a world of emotional epiphanies, and in fact your readers also exist in a world of emotional epiphanies, you can continue writing in this way, and people can continue being really pleased and delighted. They can be delighted with your poems for a very long time, and then you really are in danger of devaluing these emotions. I think I escaped this myself because I came to a pretty firm political stance, which in fact alienated a lot of readers from me. But for me that was necessary.

There was a period of time when anyone, really, who was upset with the regime and how things were going, could say whatever they wanted, on blogs and social networks, and they could express their emotions this way and feel like instead of going out into the square, they could do this and fulfill their civic duty. And this was sort of a problem. Recently, there have been some people who—not writing poems, not journalists, but just people, private people writing on their blogs—have actually been hauled in. And because of this, people are beginning to be afraid of this kind of expression. Therefore, fear is forming again, and therefore, again, direct political expression is something that needs to be done for everyone. It needs to be forced. You need to do it, and you need to say to people, look—they can’t arrest all of us. We need to keep going.

Read “The End of the Ceasefire (The End of the Objectivist School?),” by Medvedev.

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