Introduction to ‘It’s No Good’

The following is the introduction to Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good, translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill, and Bela Shayevich and co-published by n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse in 2012. Print and digital editions are available in the n+1 shop.

I first learned of Kirill Medvedev in Fall 2006, when someone handed me a copy of the literary magazine Kriticheskaya Massa (“Critical Mass,” now defunct), featuring a symposium about the release of Medvedev’s book by the Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie (NLO) publishing house. The book’s release required a symposium because Medvedev had renounced all copyright to his works, and NLO had nonetheless gone ahead and published the book without asking his permission. They called it Texts Published Without the Permission of the Author. One essay defended the publication; another, “The Surrender and Death of a Post-Soviet Intellectual”—by the poet, editor, and impresario Dmitry Kuzmin—attacked the author. There was also an essay by Medvedev himself, reprinted (again without permission) from his website. The day after reading all this I found the book in question at the annual Moscow Book Fair. I read it on the subway ride home. It was a mixture of poems and essays and descriptions of Medvedev’s (often one-man) political actions. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. After failing to find another copy of the book at several stores, I finally located three at Falanster, off Tverskaya, and bought them all.

How to describe the political and cultural and just plain human stagnation of the years of mature Putinism, between about 2003 and 2008? “Fear” is not the right word. Moscow has always been a dangerous place, but it was no scarier in 2006 than it was in 1996—it was a lot less scary, in fact. Putin himself, ruler of Russia, was certainly a bad man. But he was not the bogeyman. The atmosphere was of boredom, suffocation, and surrender. Nothing happened. No one wanted anything to happen. “Stability” was the word of the day and in service of this stability people were willing to give up a great deal. The liberal opposition that still made appearances in the New York Times not only had no real presence in Russia—no party organization, no television stations, no support—they were also thoroughly discredited. They had taken power in the post-Soviet period on a wave of popular anger and hope and had disappointed those hopes; they had proved vain, callow, visibly indifferent to the sufferings of millions. (These people unfortunately included many urban intellectuals, formerly known as the intelligentsia. They hated the Soviet Union so much, were so happy to see it gone, that they refused to see how bad things were getting until it was too late.) By late 2003, after the arrest of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky signaled the final end of the hopes of the 1990s, political opposition to Putin came to consist on the one hand of a weird party of teenage outcasts, part Stalinist, part anarchist, led by a former poet turned revolutionary turned federal prisoner named Eduard Limonov (he served a two-year sentence beginning in 2001 for illegal purchase of firearms), and on the other of Chechen terrorists. Real power was wielded by a cabal of businessmen and politicians and businessmen-turned-politicians (and vice versa). Occasionally for prying into business transactions—but not for any political speech or position—a journalist would get shot.

All this, plus money. Russia is a huge exporter of oil, natural gas, nickel, and aluminum. Between 1998 and 2008, prices for these and other raw materials rose, in some instances, by an order of magnitude. The country was awash in cash. And so in addition to total political and cultural stagnation, a culture of “luxury” sprang up; people were buying luxury cars and suits and thousand-Euro leather jackets. In response, a great many people threw in the towel. It was almost impossible to participate in politics; the remaining cultural institutions were either irrelevant, cowed, or (in the case of the new glossy consumer magazines, like Russian Esquire) entirely geared toward the nascent bourgeoisie; it was better to get what you could while the getting was good.

This was the cultural, political, and social situation in the fall of 2006, when I found Medvedev’s book. The crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya had just been shot in her elevator, and Putin had as much as spit on her grave a few days later. To the great indignation of the international press, he declared that no one in Russia cared about Politkovskaya—and he was right. She was shot and it didn’t matter. Perhaps it was time to pack it in for the next decade or so.

The author of Texts Published Without… was just 31 years old. He had published, through traditional channels, one book of poetry—Vsyo plokho (“Everything’s Bad,” or “It’s No Good”)—and another book, Vtorzhenie (“Incursion”), that was a mixture of poetry and essays. Both had been well-received by critics, although also denounced in some circles as self-indulgent, “not poetry,” and so on. The poems were free verse, which put them slightly outside the Russian poetic tradition; they were more reminiscent of Charles Bukowski (whom Medvedev had translated) than any Russian predecessor. But what put them really outside the Russian tradition was their everyday-ness. It was bad enough for a poet not to rhyme, but to discuss at length how he found some cheap pâté at an expensive supermarket—and not as a metaphor for anything, really: he was mostly pleased to have found some cheap pâté—was a little much, or too little. There had been a strain of anti-Romantic Russian poetry going back all the way to Pushkin; in the late Soviet period, especially, the great conceptualist poets, Dmitri Prigov chief among them, enjoyed puncturing the pretensions of highly rhetorical Soviet poetry with their verse-tales of going to the store to buy stale bread. (The Soviet conceptualist novel par excellence was Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue (1984), the entirety of which took place in a line outside a store.) So it wasn’t as if Russian poetry had never not rhymed, and it wasn’t as if it had never been to the supermarket. The difference may have been that Medvedev, while doing away with much of the formal apparatus of Russian lyric poetry, had retained its messianic element. He was not an ironist; he was very much a Poet. In the end, as Medvedev says of his one-time friend turned antagonist Dmitry Kuzmin, the combination of all these things in one person proved really very aggravating.

Medvedev’s evolution as a poet and thinker leading up to his renunciation of copyright and rejection of the literary world was visible in his first two books. The poems in his first book, It’s No Good, were memoiristic and introspective, though that book, too, began with a rejection—of translation. The first poem of Medvedev’s first book declared that he would no longer translate other poets, but be himself a poet. The rest of the book expanded, confidently and sometimes exuberantly, on this discovery. In his second book, Incursion, doubt began to creep in: poems and essays responded to his critics, made further declarations, pleaded for more time. The book included a long essay on the terrorist attacks of September 11; a discussion of Medvedev’s translations of American pornographic novels; and some reflections on the different Russian words for cock and cunt. It concluded with a long diary about the author’s frustrations with money and publishing and writing that was framed as annotations to the published diary of the dean of the Gorky Literary Institute.

Then came the break with the literary world. Looking back on it, Medvedev has said that what troubled him most about the reception of his first two books was not the criticism of his poetry, nor, on the other hand, that some people really liked his poetry and were willing to publish more of it—but that, in the end, all of this was in some profound way irrelevant. Arguments about poetry never spilled over into real life. They did not change anyone’s behavior. They certainly (this was in 2002, 2003) did not affect anyone’s view of whether the United States should invade Iraq.

Medvedev began, by his own account, to read more deeply and widely, especially in leftist political philosophy. He concluded that he must change his life. On his website he announced that he would no longer participate in the literary scene in any of its manifestations: no publications, no readings, and in fact he no longer claimed any copyright to his work. Only pirated editions: no contracts. He began writing long essays, which he posted online, about the fate of the Russian intelligentsia. And eventually he took to the streets. In early 2007, a few months after I discovered his book and started giving it out to my friends, my sister, a journalist in Moscow, sent me a link to a Russian news story. “Is this your Medvedev?” she asked. The article described how Medvedev had set up a one-man picket in front of a fashionable theater in central Moscow because the director had signed a letter in support of Putin but was now staging a play by the anti-totalitarian poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. One of the theater’s guards came out, infuriated, and punched Medvedev, who nonetheless continued his picket. That was my Medvedev, all right.

As I read Medvedev’s critique of the Moscow literary and intellectual world, what struck me above all was how it answered so many of the questions my friends and I had been struggling with in New York. Here we were, writing about the depredations of multinational corporations—how they dodged taxes, off-shored work to places with lax or no labor laws, and destroyed the environment—and then publishing our books or articles with places that were owned by . . . multinational corporations. But it was complicated. Viking-Penguin, which published my first book, was owned by the large British company Pearson, which made its money selling books and educational software. In the past Viking-Penguin had published writers like Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo; on the other hand, in 1990, it declined to publish the paperback version of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses after the Iranian fatwa, in a craven surrender to intimidation and censorship. Still, Viking-Penguin is hardly Exxon-Mobil. On the other hand HarperCollins, with which I’d also published a book, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire, NewsCorp—a lot more like Exxon-Mobil. On the third hand, Harper is the only major New York publisher whose employees have formed a union. And on the fourth hand…

Medvedev cut through all this. In the Russia of the 1990s and early ’00s, the blood of the oligarchs was still visibly on their hands. Those hands were not meant for shaking. Sure, it was complicated—nice, well-meaning people worked at those publishing houses, magazines, etc., and one always needed the money—but it wasn’t that complicated. Medvedev likes to quote Brecht on writers who “imagine that they have got hold of an apparatus which in fact has got hold of them.” To play within the system is to play by its rules; you could choose, also, to walk away, and that’s what Medvedev did.

There was more. In his essays on the intelligentsia—“My Fascism,” “Dmitry Kuzmin,” “Literature Will Be Tested”—Medvedev began to unravel the problems that had bedeviled us in the US for years. What is the proper relationship of literature to politics? Isn’t the writer’s job simply to write good books and then get them out to as wide an audience as possible? And what, exactly, is wrong with the playful omnivorousness that characterized much of what came to be associated with youth or “hipster” culture in the late ’90s and early ’00s? Isn’t it good to mix and match, to swallow other styles and assimilate them to your own?

Medvedev’s answers to these questions are consistent. In his long, careful essay on Kuzmin, Medvedev describes the construction of a post-ideological literary empire—at a certain point serving a progressive function, opening up space for new writing, but eventually ossifying into reaction, sentimentalism, and defensiveness, because at a certain point it is not simply enough to “publish good writing.” In “Literature Will Be Tested,” Medvedev describes another tendency in contemporary literature—the hunger for “authentic,” personal expression, after the postmodernist refusal of it, and how this, too, can turn rancid if it is not consciously and consistently thought through and critiqued. What is an author for? asks Medvedev. Is he a private citizen who tries to produce masterpieces of literature—whereupon his responsibilities end? The answer, especially in contemporary Russia, must be no. The author must be willing to answer for his texts. The only justification for an essentially unproductive life is that it be lived without compromise.

Medvedev’s critique of the “personal project,” of the author seeking to separate public art and “private life,” contemporary vanity and eternal artistic glory, is primarily directed at liberal authors and critics, followers of Joseph Brodsky, who, despite being humane and sympathetic themselves, ultimately serve to legitimize the much less humane project of atomization and depoliticization. But Medvedev also identifies another tendency in contemporary Russian culture, one that is very adept at connecting art to life and politics and the present day; that rejects material concerns; that is infused with the fire and force of self-sacrifice, God, and nation. This tendency is fascism, and it is very much alive. Of course contemporary fascism will not always look like fascism from the 1930s (though, as Medvedev points out, it looks close enough). It can manifest itself as a paranoid obsession with “the West”; or with Chechens; or with Fifth Column liberals. In the “Eurasian” project of Alexander Dugin, Russian fascism even does away with the master race. Medvedev is certainly not the first person to point out that Dugin (and his one-time partner, Eduard Limonov) has been flirting with fascism. The difference is that Medvedev diagnoses the attractiveness of what they’re offering. The far right has solved something that needed solving, and done so in a powerful way: they have connected politics and art. The enemies of fascism must do the same.

Medvedev’s final contribution is the beginning of a solution. Highly critical of the post-Soviet liberal intelligentsia, he is nonetheless one of the only contemporary Russian writers who has fully acknowledged the scope of its tragedy. These wonderful, erudite, sensitive people of our parents’ generation, the liberal intelligentsia, the friends of Brodsky, the fans of Vladimir Vysotsky—what happened to them? Why did they so badly mangle their historic opportunity? (Medvedev’s own father, Viktor Medvedev, whom he mentions in these pages, was a popular journalist during the perestroika era. In 1987, amid a media blackout, he courageously announced at the Soviet Union of Writers in Moscow that Brodsky had won the Nobel Prize. According to Brodsky’s biographer, Lev Loseff, a cheer went up through the building.) So what was it that these lovely, brilliant people—and Medvedev is always aware, and I hope this comes through in the translations, that he is the bone of their bone and the flesh of their flesh—had missed? What was it that they hadn’t known?

The answer was surprising. It turned out that the thing they hadn’t known was the very thing they thought they knew best of all: Marxism. Not the Soviet “teachings of Karl Marx,” but the many intellectual heirs of Marx in the West in the postwar era. This was the Frankfurt School and Sartre and the Situationist International and Pierre Bourdieu and the Anglo-American thinkers around the New Left Review; but also such non-aligned thinkers as Barthes, Foucault, and Baudrillard. It’s not that these figures were entirely unknown in the Soviet Union, but that they were only partly known, or known in the wrong context. Sartre and Brecht, for example, were discredited among the anti-Soviet intelligentsia for their occasional kind thoughts about the Soviet Union and their willingness to turn a blind eye to Stalinism. It was, in a way, a bizarro world, where gentle, erudite, be-tweeded humanists could tell you that, well, under capitalism some people sink and others float, and the only other option was dictatorship and the Gulag. In the 1990s, in Russia, a lot of these people simply sank. Others adjusted.

It wasn’t that the Russian intelligentsia didn’t know that they were missing something. To the contrary: the crime of the Soviet regime was precisely that it had cut them off from what they called world culture. A key figure in this for Medvedev is Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky, who himself managed to escape to the West, would write movingly of his generation’s attachment to culture—what he called, quoting Osip Mandelstam, “a yearning for world culture.” World culture, for Brodsky’s generation, got through in dribs and drabs, and was hungrily consumed. “Nobody knew literature and history better than these people, nobody could write better Russian than they, nobody despised our times more profoundly,” he famously wrote. And, having grown up around them, in Moscow and then in the United States, I would add: no one loved the Beatles more than these people; no one loved Fellini more; no one read Hemingway, Robert Frost, Jack London more carefully. So what had they missed? What had they failed to know? It was, in a way, their own history that they could not see, their own achievement. What Medvedev discovered was that the thing they’d missed was what had been under their noses all along.

This book presents a large portion of Medvedev’s writings from the past decade. It includes his first published poems, from It’s No Good; poems from his second book, Incursion; and then his essays, manifestos, and further poems, mostly from the period of his literary exile, gathered from published sources and also from his website (kirillmedvedev.narod.ru) and his LiveJournal account (zoltan-partosh.livejournal.com); more recently Medvedev has been posting new poems on his Facebook page, and those are also included here.

I don’t know if our translations can capture the honesty, transparency, and passion of Medvedev’s writing, both in his essays and in his poems, but we’ve tried. As all translators know, it is the plain style, the conversational style, that is often the hardest to capture. And Medvedev, though very much a student of Western writing and thought, is entirely focused on his Russian audience.

That audience now exists in a way that earlier it had not. When I first met Medvedev, in the spring of 2007, three and a half years after he left the literary world, a year after the publication without his permission of the NLO book, he started a DIY venture he called the Free Marxist Press.[2] Its entire staff consisted of Medvedev. Its first books were little stapled pamphlets by Western Marxists, often translated by Medvedev—Ernest Mandel, Herbert Marcuse, Piero Paolo Pasolini. They were printed by a copy shop on the fourth floor of an old apartment building in central Moscow. Medvedev met me one day at the Pushkin statue with a big ugly gym bag: he had just picked up the entire print run of one hundred copies of his own book, of essays and action reports, and he gave me one. At the time he was regularly dismissed—as he writes here in his essay on Kuzmin—as a crazy person, a marginal person, a former writer.

In fact I think Medvedev is Russia’s first genuinely post-Soviet writer. And I’m happy to report that he has returned, in his way, to the Russian literary world—but on his own terms. The Free Marxist Press has expanded—its first full-length book, Terry Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism, translated by Medvedev, came out in 2010, and since then the press has published writings by Žižek, Badiou, the French sociologist and philosopher Michael Löwy, as well as Russian writers on revolutionary history, protest, and the Soviet dissident movement. It has grown in seriousness, prestige, and import, becoming, in effect, post-Soviet Russia’s first independent left-wing publisher, putting out the works of its own people and those sympathetic to it, just as Medvedev calls for in “My Fascism.” In late 2011 it published as a separate book a long, rhyming poem by Medvedev about interviewing Claude Lanzmann, the friend of Sartre and director of Shoah, on a visit he made to Moscow. In 2009 Medvedev founded a rock band, Arkady Kots—named after a Russian poet and socialist who translated the Internationale into Russian—which now plays with more regularity in Moscow and other cities, usually performing the poems of the art-terrorist Alexander Brener set to guitar and drums.

In the fall of 2011, Medvedev visited New York for the first time, and spent a few hours at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park. He was moved and excited by it, though he insisted that the movement needed demands. Two months later, I watched a YouTube video of Medvedev, at one of the big protests in Moscow, using the human mic to declaim a poem by a revolutionary Moldovan poet. A few months after that, he and a friend were singing Arkady Kots songs in a police van. In the spring of 2012, he was active in the Occupy Abai encampment in central Moscow, where, on May 12, Arkady Kots led the encampment in singing Medvedev’s translation of the old Catalan antifascist song “L’Estaca.”

I hope this book finds readers for whom Medvedev can begin to mean as much as he has meant to me these past six years.

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