[Marxism] It's No Good: Poems/Essays/Actions by Kirill Medvedev

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Apr 10 07:45:27 MDT 2013


http://www.bookforum.com/review/11396
Apr 9 2013
It's No Good: Poems/Essays/Actions by Kirill Medvedev
Greg Afinogenov
web exclusive

Since the Cold War, there have only been two reliable ways for a Russian 
intellectual to get noticed in the United States. One is being a 
dissident with charisma and sufficiently nonthreatening political views. 
The other is writing poetry or literature of such austere depth that it 
makes American literary culture seem shallow and comfortable. (Even 
better would be, like Brodsky or Solzhenitsyn, having a little bit of 
both.) The two are not, despite appearances, at odds. The arcane poets 
and political misfits both draw on and contribute to a deep-seated set 
of stereotypes about Russian literary culture: the mystical Russian 
soul, the perennially menacing government, the censor's leaden hand 
always strangling free artistic expression. It's not hard to imagine the 
Russian intelligentsia as a heroically anachronistic blend of Les Mis 
and La Bohème, slaving away in garrets to bring down the system without 
betraying the purity of art.

So what are we to make of a Russian poet and intellectual whose 
inspiration is less Dostoevsky than Bukowski, whose enemy is less Big 
Brother than the free market, and who isn't ashamed to call a poem "Big 
Rubber Cock"? If nothing else, Kirill Medvedev is a refreshingly 
idiosyncratic figure. He began as a translator from English, and the 
influence of American poetry is noticeable in his work—something quite 
rare for his colleagues, who are unaccustomed to taking it seriously. He 
has also made himself an enemy of the literary establishment in other 
ways. In 2003, he declared that he would no longer participate in 
"literary projects organized or financed by government or cultural 
bureaucrats," publishing on his website a blistering communiqué that 
denounced the literary world as a "nasty and primitive battle for 
cultural influence." Soon, he announced that his work could be published 
only as a pirate edition without his consent or permission. (In 2005, 
the prominent NLO publishing house did just that.)

This withdrawal from literary society was not motivated by peevishness 
or professional failure, but a growing sense of alarm about the Putinist 
literary intelligentsia's refusal to examine its own political function. 
In treating literature as a thing apart, separate from the increasingly 
hopeless and degrading world of politics, the descendants of Brodsky 
were gradually becoming complacent "cultural bureaucrats." Medvedev has 
accordingly rededicated himself to the creation of a theoretically 
up-to-date Marxist publishing house and an activist poetic community in 
Russia, even if it is hard to believe that reading Terry Eagleton will 
avail likeminded poets much in their struggle against the Putinist 
state-oligarchy.

Medvedev's poems—many of which have been translated and published in 
It's No Good, edited by Keith Gessen—marry a self-consciously democratic 
observational pluralism, in which encounters with fellow poets share 
space with reflections on sausage and Hollywood movies, with a strong 
sense of political and personal mission:

If I were to cry at Amelie, I'd cry because
goodness
if it exists,
exists only in some forms
that are impossible for me to reach,
that are suspicious, skittish, awkward,
unreachable …
it exists, if it exists,
in diseased idiots,
plagued outcasts,
foolish ideas,
other people's annoying children…

These are not the stately, rhyming edifices of Mandelstam or the other 
Silver Age poets. Neither are they the gnomic unpunctuated fragments of 
Sergei Sviridov or the other poets of the post-Soviet avant-garde, who 
have barely made it into English translation but whose influence is 
pervasive in contemporary Russian poetry. Instead, Medvedev's verse 
feels scribbled: notes on napkins, jottings from European bus voyages, 
snatches of odd stories heard or experienced. It is hard to believe that 
Marxism, even in its updated '60s-vintage Marcuse version, could sound 
compelling and new in a poem instead of tediously preachy. Yet the sense 
that there is something the poet is fighting for gives substance and 
heft to the style, which can otherwise lend itself to bohemian 
self-indulgence. The result is a collection of serious poems that take 
the reader seriously, no less so for their frequent lightheartedness.

Still, it is the essays, not the poems, that form the heart of the 
volume. "My Fascism," the most urgent and driven of them, is an attempt 
to pick up the cultural pieces after the 1990s. During that decade, as 
Russia was collapsing into an orgy of violence and state-backed 
capitalist rapine, postmodernism became the dominant literary movement. 
(The novelist Viktor Pelevin, probably the most influential Russian 
postmodernist, is still one of the country's bestselling authors.) Yet 
nothing like a functional liberatory ideology ever emerged from the 
world of the '90s intelligentsia; to many, the neo-fascist visions of 
Aleksandr Dugin came somehow to seem more forward-looking and appealing 
than anything it could offer. Medvedev's essay tries to figure out 
why—and then to move beyond this failure by offering an alternative, 
progressive literary creed that does not abdicate its political 
responsibilities.

"Dmitry Kuzmin" is much more personal. It concerns a poet who was one of 
Medvedev's closest collaborators and who later broke with him in a 
public and acrimonious fashion. Resisting the impulse to indulge in 
recriminations, Medvedev uses his falling out with the poet as a 
launching point for broader questions: What does it mean to write 
conceptual poetry? How are poets embedded in social relationships, to 
one another and the outside world? What happens when we link these 
relationships to ideas about movements and "innovative poetics"? 
Kuzmin's attempt to embrace and enclose contemporary poetry, however 
well-meaning and ecumenical, becomes for Medvedev an analogue of 
"repressively tolerant" capitalism; in the marketplace of ideas, 
nothing, in the end, really matters.

These essays—together with the other analytic and programmatic texts 
compiled in It's No Good—show Medvedev to be a sensitive and highly 
disciplined, as well as passionately engaged, observer. They are 
particularly rewarding to read because of the peculiarly marginal 
position Medvedev occupies in the world he discusses in such detail: 
having withdrawn deliberately from the cultural bureaucracy, he is free 
to dissect it with the candor that it deserves.

Less convincing, in the essays and elsewhere, are his occasional lapses 
into messianism. Medvedev is no dissident—for one thing, he lacks the 
driving sense of redemptive, Christlike victimhood—but he does have a 
fondness for quixotic protest "actions." These are not always the 
hard-nosed praxis he seems to want them to be. Thus, one of his actions 
was a protest at the Ostankino television station over an episode in 
which a talk show had unexpectedly confronted an old '70s rocker with 
the woman with whom he had had an affair decades previously. The Russian 
internet was up in arms, so Medvedev decided to arrange a meet-up to 
demand the host's resignation. The write-up frames this as an experiment 
in finding "a basis for political action," but it is unclear why. After 
all, Medvedev's whole body of work seems to militate against the idea 
that any protest is better than no protest: How can pseudo-political 
mobilization that does not question the premises of the system be any 
better than the mobilization of nationalists or soccer hooligans?

For all that, It's No Good remains essential not just for understanding 
the political and cultural realities of Putin's Russia but also the ways 
in which these realities, and the struggles around them, are our own as 
well. The familiar dissident mythology is content to depict the country 
as a distant and alien land whose opposition fights for "the rights 
Americans take for granted"; few Americans could imagine being Havel's 
greengrocer. Medvedev's broadsides against establishment complacency and 
repressive tolerance, on the other hand, could just as easily be pointed 
at the West. This makes the book a lively and engaging, as well as 
edifying, read—even with the obscure references and Russian names that 
inevitably accompany translations, it's not hard to see that we live in 
Medvedev's world too.

Greg Afinogenov is a PhD candidate in Russian history at Harvard University.




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