A Sentimental Education

Poet, essayist, translator, activist — Russian writer Kirill Medvedev has worn and taken off many hats

While many things about present day Russia might seem still a bit Soviet, from the paranoia of the Putin regime to the ever-present dysfunction, what’s really impressive is the extent to which the country has been integrated into global consumer capitalism. Russians, at least a certain slice of them, travel, buy iPhones, and follow Hollywood movies. Russian society may be unequal, or unfree, or just plain trashy, but it’s all of these in a way that’s more and more like everywhere else.

It could be this that Keith Gessen of n+1 has in mind when he calls the poet, essayist, and activist Kirill Medvedev “Russia’s first genuinely post-Soviet writer.” Medvedev, a selection of whose work in Gessen’s and others’ translation has just been published by Ugly Duckling Presse, is part of the first generation of Russian writers in a very long time whose problem is having too little attention paid to them instead of too much. Yes, there’s Pussy Riot, but for the most part these days politicized Russian artists get the same privilege as their Western counterparts: They get ignored.

Instead of being cast in the role of heroic dissident, Medvedev faces commodification and the new capitalist banality, writing about specific Russian socioeconomic realities that feel both personal and reflective of what’s currently haunting that part of the world. One of his best poems is about shopping at an expensive supermarket “at the corner of the Garden Ring and Arbat”: 

among the piles
of expensive
I found a sprat pâté
for seven rubles

The abundance makes him feel “a terrible suffocating longing and pity” even as he tries to dismiss his reaction as “a form of fetishism” and “a symptom of reification.” Having bought the pâté and some fish, he concludes:

I thought of how often
in my confrontations
with the face
of the society of consumption
sentimentality replaces disgust.

Medvedev is actually happy to have found some cheap pâté. But the jargon-laden turn the poem takes shows he is interested in more than the poetics of the everyday. He attempts to use sociological categories to deal with what he knows he ought to critique, but they turn out to be insufficient to the emotional response the goods engender in him. It’s not a coincidence that he brings up ‘sentimentality.’ For what to do about sentimentality becomes Medvedev’s biggest problem.

Medvedev’s first brushes with minor fame came through his involvement with a circle of online writers called Vavilon. Vavilon poetry represents a tendency Medvedev labels “the new sincerity,” which he defines as “the appeal to personal experience (childhood; romantic and sexual encounters; family life) to the exclusion of social and political experience, justifying this by appealing to its authenticity (personal, emotional, etc.).” Yet this vision of literary culture came to seem to him dangerously naïve and apolitical.

Medvedev’s critical writing stakes out a position in opposition to the notion that poetry can be a private activity independent of the social conditions surrounding it, a concept he identifies with Joseph Brodsky. While the desire to write unencumbered by a party line of one party or another is understandable, Medvedev says, in Putin’s Russia or under liberal capitalism more generally this is a dangerous illusion. An artist who makes such a move will be “indulged as a vessel” for ideas of “timeless, ‘apolitical’ categories, of great masterpieces, of existential freedom.” Or, as he more piquantly puts it:

“Do whatever you want,” the new commissars tell them. “You are free, independent artists. Just don’t worry your pretty little heads about politics; after all, you’re smart, you know yourselves that it’s a dirty business. Your art will obviously outlive us all. Just leave the politics to us.”

In Medvedev’s view, the new sincerity rejects postmodernism in favor of authentic experience but winds up nonetheless serving global capital, as the individual biographic projects of leading artistic figures become commodities. Medvedev’s early poetry, which had brought him to the verge of success, came to seem to him suspect — in recounting his experiences, in talking about panic attacks on the Metro, spats and quarrels among the “bourgeois intelligentsia,” mob bosses and aging hookers, was all he doing making an individual project of his own, a pointless poetics of changing social circles, not society?

And so he beat his retreat. He renounced all copyright to his work, saying he would no longer participate in a system he considered irredeemably corrupt. He started a blog. He began holding one-man pickets, like protesting a staging of Brecht by a Putin supporter, a stunt that got him punched out by a security guard. Then he started up a press that puts out Russian translations of Western leftists, and gradually moved toward socialist activism.

There is one important way in which rejecting bourgeois frivolity turns out different in Russia than in the US. At the same time that Putinism was establishing a stranglehold on the country, when liberalism seemed bankrupt and the remaining leftist opposition were geriatric Brezhnevites, the far right was on the rise. Extreme nationalists, after all, also make powerful connections between politics and art based in authenticity and sincerity, offering a vision of a homeland echoing with both nostalgia and loss and shared struggle for future unity. So before Medvedev could come out as a socialist, first he had to figure out whether he was a fascist.

The appeal of a fiery, purposeful nationalism must seriously be wrestled with, he says in “My Fascism,” an essay in which he tries to reconcile his Russianness with his leftism. He explains that identifying with Russia, for someone born there, is both “natural and realistic.” He would like his country to stand for what he holds “dear”: “democracy, rather than despotism; truth, rather than violence; freedom, rather than servility and ass-licking; solidarity rather than individualism; talent rather than fakery.”

Think what you want of that, but in a country where the icons of official nationalism stand in for the apparent lack of national ideology, it’s tough to find a sense of rootedness that doesn’t tend rightward. Attachment to a particular place can seem a way to stand up for something other than the thin air of globalization, an internationalism that might be nothing more than a perfume masking the stench of capital. And Medvedev at his best is very much a poet of place:

I really like when
a series of arches in moscow run
one after the other
creating their own kind of tunnel
out of arches
I know a place
on smolensky boulevard where
five arches run one after the other
creating a very long passage

The UDP edition contains selections from Medvedev’s two conventionally published volumes, It’s No Good and Incursion, as well as later essays, blog posts, accounts of “actions,” and poems from Medvedev’s LiveJournal. After Medvedev turns away from the literary scene, his poetry thins out, but his critical writing becomes richer and sharper. Yet ironically, perhaps unsurprisingly, Medvedev’s activist turn is less interesting than the reflections on consumerism and anomie in his earlier work.

In the later poems the idly fruitful wandering around Moscow that characterize these “poems of an unemployed person” and the thoughtful, sardonic malaise have been replaced by the desire to write more with more social engagement. Now he’s “on the way to defend the [Khimki] forest,” suggesting that the reader join him and “a group of antifascists”:

reach the beautiful empty square at
pass by the FSB thinking about
how one day we’ll pass by this rotten
in such a way that nothing
will be left of it

This is political poetry in the worst sense, agitational with no one to agitate. It is not difficult to see what led Medvedev in this direction, yet unfortunate given the possibilities inherent in his work. In “My Fascism,” he writes: “I have a homeland, and that homeland is the center of Moscow, just as for some people it’s a hillside or part of a forest. And to those who destroy your homeland — by cutting down the forest in which you live or chasing you off a hillside so they can build a luxury hotel — well, you can only wish those people death.” The rage  here is hard not to sympathize with. Medvedev longs for a politics that can struggle with the people destroying his home. Yet how does one write poetry as a committed leftist, not as a private citizen, when trying to be a private citizen is both anathema to your ideology and turns out to be better suited to expressing the need for it?

Over the course of It’s No Good, Medvedev argues that a belief in literature as a private activity can mean turning a blind eye to oppression, and that appeals to authenticity in art can be dangerously reactionary. Liberal intellectuals turn out to be ineffectual or apologists for capitalism or both, and have bad taste in poetry. Copyright and intellectual property are essential ways of maintaining class power in contemporary capitalism. The hegemony of the market needs to be challenged — and here’s how: “the emergence of a new stratum of leftist intellectuals who have mastered the history of leftist thought, leftist politics, leftist art of the twentieth century.”

Medvedev expresses all of these views thoughtfully and with care. He has clearly read widely and spent a lot of time thinking about how to apply his reading to his work and life. Yet wouldn’t it be awfully disappointing if all we get from post-Soviet Russian literature is what we already get from n+1? That is, thoughtful, correct, well-read, well-reasoned Marx-influenced progressive internationalism that has not and never will bring anyone a turn of the wheels closer to the Finland Station.

What we find in Medvedev, finally, is a certain intuition about the relationship of lyric poetry to a possible political poetry. Medvedev’s poetics, just like the fascists and sentimentalists he must judge himself against, is built on intense attachment to a particular place, complicated by his struggle to find out if this attachment makes him one of them. Medvedev’s poetry traces out the contradictions and desires that for nationalists tend toward fascism and for liberals toward a sentimentalizing acceptance of neoliberalism, as he tries to find a way to see home as something more than ideology.

In one essay, Medvedev explains that what makes poetry new is the audience it “brings . . . into being.” Reading a new poet, he sees “not only the words on the page but, behind the page as it were, a new group of people,” the “imagined audience” of the poet:

These aren’t just his friends or people who could be his friends; they are people who could be his readers, who relate to what he’s put down and the way he’s put it down. They won’t all necessarily come into contact with his poetry, in fact most of them won’t. But in the work of a truly new poet these people suddenly come into view.

Medvedev’s early, less overtly political poetry, by expressing a kind of rootedness or shared malaise inside of the oppressive Putinist climate of ‘stability,’ can call a group into being in a way that the more explicitly political poems can’t quite. As it stands now, the Ugly Duckling edition doesn’t express a complete vision so much as document the conflict of an artist compelled to turn to a new model of political engagement, contradicting the very reasons that his work was already political.