Poetry on the Front Line: Kirill Medvedev and a New Russian Poetic Avant-garde [i]
by Marijeta Bozovic
This article is part of a larger study examining the poetic and theoretical output of a constellation of contemporary St. Petersburg and Moscow poets orbiting around the journal Translit, the Kraft chapbook series, Free Marxist Press, and a number of poetry festivals in Russia. I look at neo-avant-garde poetic practices that link experimental form with progressive politics, finding continuity with the historical avant-gardes of the 1910s and 1920s, with unofficial poetry throughout the Soviet period, and with international language poetry. Tracing the recurrent pulse of the avant-garde suggests an alternative narrative of twentieth-century Russian culture, and shifts the focus on contemporary aesthetic productions from narratives of transition and “catching up to the West” to renewed experiment and transnational dreams of futurity. The field of Slavic literary studies, in many ways still struggling to adapt to the cultural productions of post-Soviet Russia, must reflect the profound changes and politicized aesthetics corresponding to the rise of Putin’s Russia—and to the protest cultures emerging in response. I aim to bring a new generation of Russian poets to critical attention and to explore what I conceptualize as a post-Soviet avant-garde; hence the paradoxical use of prefixes in the working title of my larger project: Avant-Garde Post– : Radical Poetics after the Soviet Union.
Status update: Poetry and a generation post post-
The canonization of the Moscow poet Kirill Medvedev (born 1975) seems to be taking place in real time: in the past several years, international and critical audiences began catching on to a distinctive voice familiar to Moscow literary circles since the early 2000s. For non-Russian readers, the breakthrough coincided with the first volume of his work in English translation, published in December of 2012 due to the efforts of Keith Gessen at n+1and Matvei Yankelevich at Ugly Duckling Presse (Medvedev 2012a). In the past few years, Medvedev’s translated essays on politics and aesthetics have made their way into such publications as The London Review of Books and The New Left Review. Nationally, he appeared on television shows including The School of Slander [Shkola zlosloviia] and Aloud [Vslukh]. His translation and recording of the protest song “The Walls” [Steny; Lluis Llach’s famous 1968 Catalan protest song “L’Estaca,” remade into “Mury,” the anthem of Polish Solidarity in the 1980s] with his rock band Arkadii Kots became one of the anthems of the long year 2012. [ii]
More recently and after a long hiatus, Medvedev marked his return to poetry with new verse in the journal New Literary Review [Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie; abbreviated NLO] and an acclaimed, Andrei Bely prize-winning new volume March on City Hall[Pokhod na meriiu] released by his publishing house Free Marxist Press (Medvedev 2011; Medvedev 2014). For in 2006—and thus when he was just over a decade older than Arthur Rimbaud—Medvedev declared that he would stop writing poetry altogether, or at the very least, would refuse to publish for five years. With the self-imposed moratorium at an end, it seems a key moment to look back at the gesture of disavowal that defined Medvedev’s poetics of refusal, and to study this portrait of the poet as a young man in what is increasingly referred to as Putin’s Russia.
What we discover is a nexus of aesthetics, politics, and technology—and a contemporary incarnation of the paradoxical tradition of the Russian poetic avant-garde. Unlike Rimbaud, Medvedev posted his motivations on LiveJournal, which rather changes the nature of the gesture from dismissal to (digitally mediated) political performance. The “period of spontaneous civic poetry” had come to an end, Medvedev wrote then: “now is the period of stern and sober political choices; cruel analysis; and serious action.” [iii]
Medvedev began distancing himself first from the literary marketplace and then from the Moscow literary scene as early as 2003, soon after publishing two well-received books of poetry. In a manifesto posted on his personal website, entitled simply “Communiqué,” he described the post-perestroika book market as:
[…] a clique of half-literate publishers, putting out anything and everything, without distinctions, hardly managing to slap the price tag on each book in time before shipping it, employing, for commercial gain, the most unprincipled tricks and prevocational strategies, flirting with what are to me the most monstrous and disgusting ideologies. You have a brutal scramble for the top literary prizes and endless set-pieces of literary pseudo-events. You have what are in effect a few cultural lobbies waging a nasty and primitive battle for cultural influence; the disgusting speculation of critics and journalists earnestly serving their masters; or other critics, forcing their half-developed, half-conscious cultural viewpoints down readers’ throats, or propagating their cultural or other types of xenophobia and pseudo-religious quasi-fascism. [iv]
Medvedev found all this not only oppressive but also intolerable: he writes, “I don’t want to have even a tangential relationship to a system that has so devalued and cheapened the Word.”[v] The Word [Slovo] is tellingly capitalized: Medvedev’s is not a vague stance against selling out to commercial interests, but a pointed challenge to the publishers, prize committees, and critics who have profaned something sacred by selling poetry in the same breath as “pseudo-religious quasi-fascism.” What I read as Medvedev’s fundamentally avant-garde gesture of institutional critique rests on a new sincerity; and on a belief that poems, poets, and poetry must retain an active responsibility and a role to play in transforming the surrounding socio-ethical world. [vi]
Refusing all involvement “in literary projects organized or financed by government or cultural bureaucrats,” all public readings, and publication even in journals sympathetic to his politics, Medvedev declared that from 2003 on he would only publish in such venues as “books or magazines put out with one’s own labour and one’s own money, or published on one’s own site on the internet.”[vii] In 2004, he declared his opposition to copyright, stating that he did not and could not have any such rights over his texts, but demanded that his work be republished only
[…] in a PIRATE EDITION, that is to say, WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR, WITHOUT ANY CONTRACTS OR AGREEMENTS, which must be indicated in all the publication data.[viii]
Picking up the glove, NLO provocatively published a collection of Medvedev’s writings a year later—without contacting the author—in a volume entitled Kirill Medvedev: Texts Published without the Author’s Consent. Medvedev responded with an essay expressing his doubts as to whether this venture was quite in the spirit of his disavowal:
One can certainly be impressed by the courage of the ultra-liberal NLO, which thus violates one of liberalism’s core values, the right to private property, and also puts itself at a certain degree of risk—after all my “Manifesto” is primarily an ethical, not a legal, document.)[ix]
However, two interpretations of the NLOgesture were possible: the naïve-positive interpretation that “the power of art defeated the conventions of copyright!” but also the sober and more likely explanation that
[…] a large establishment publisher put an end to the pretensions of the poet Medvedev to a particularly marginal-independent-rejected position, letting him know exactly where he stood in the cultural context and once again demonstrating the capacity of the capitalist system to absorb all sorts of ideologically antagonistic tendencies.[x]
As NLO followed up with a symposium discussion, Medvedev hesitantly concluded that if the episode had prompted “even a minimal amount of thought” about the subjects he had hoped to raise, it could be deemed a success. In 2007, he opened his own independent publishing venture, the Free Marxist Press. Initially staffed solely by Medvedev, the press had as its first releases stapled-together chapbook translations of Western Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse and Pier Paolo Pasolini.[xi]
Militant aesthetics: Violence and the avant-garde
The poetic persona of Kirill Medvedev has thus been shaped as much by his refusal to publish as by his first two books of poetry. Against such a backdrop, over the past several years, new poems began to appear tentatively on the poet’s Facebook page. They have been reposted, copied, collected and translated from there; some have been made available on his personal website; and many found their way into the new collection, March on City Hall.
One such poem, the 2011 piece “On the way to defend the forest…,”[xii] illustrates the ambivalence Medvedev appears to feel about the paradoxes of Russian avant-garde poetry after the historical disappointments of state socialism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Written after and about the real protests over the planned highway construction through the heart of the Khimki forest, “On the way to defend the forest…” marks one of Medvedev’s tentative returns to poetry. It draws attention to and literalizes the term at the heart of my inquiry: the avant-garde, with its military etymological origins.
In this poem, a smaller group of activists quite literally moves in advance of a larger force. Initially, we expect this bunch of “student-pacifists, / useless intellectuals and local pensioners” to be no match for the OMON riot police sent out against them, but with all the cinematic logic of a spaghetti western—or of a Quentin Tarantino film—a machine gun fells the OMON “like the trees of Khimki forest.” The unlikely victors gaze at the pile of bodies and discuss the relative degree of bloodshed vis-à-vis the October revolution over a little vodka. Just as they toast in the hope
[…] for the police and the army
to come over to the side of the people,
that is to say our side,
at that very moment they see
dressed up as OMON fighters
in camouflage suits the color of the forest,
our reinforcements were on their way.[xiii]
At first, the short piece reads as wish fulfillment and revenge fantasy. In the summer of 2010, Medvedev joined Evgeniia Chirikova and other eco-activists in the Khimki protests. Violence did indeed erupt—but in a more typical turn of events, the activists were attacked and beaten by neo-fascist youth. Not unlike filmmaker Tarantino in recent projects, we might conclude, Medvedev reimagines history in favor of the victims and reallocates the weaponry.
However, despite the seemingly firmly drawn ethical and battle lines, the poem is really about a series of disconcerting ambiguities and abrupt reversals. The narrator first muses on the “old idea” that weapons signify powerlessness. (The psychoanalytic reading is too close to the surface to need much pointing out.) The word “powerlessness” [bessiliie] repeats four times in the first stanza, exactly as does “weapon” [oruzhie]. In as many as six instances, one of the two neuter nouns is the last of the line. The effect is intensely repetitive, lexically ascetic, and oddly but compulsively rhythmic for free verse.
The narrator’s first idea is followed by a “very earthly and real feeling of powerlessness” when he sees the OMON. Yet another borrowed idea from a more combative theoretical text reverses the earlier stance. Weapons, the poet “thought” [podumal; the first stanza takes place almost entirely in his thoughts], would allow for great philosophizing about pacifism. And yet he is all too able to philosophize—in fact, he is capable only of philosophizing—even without weapons and in the face of the approaching OMON.
Or is he weaponless? “And then suddenly from this apex of our powerlessness a weapon appeared”: a weapon appears born of thought and recalled theory, even as it physically parts “our side,” that is, the side of the student-pacifists, fallen intellectuals, and pensioners. A more interesting inversion still flips the two factions.[xiv] They (that is, we) who have come to defend the forest, cut down the police like trees. And in the last line, when reinforcements arrive in the guise of more OMON, it is hardly clear which side they are coming to join. Translator Keith Gessen clarifies and interprets by assigning these reinforcements a possessive pronoun in English, “our reinforcements were on their way” (Medvedev 2012a, 267-268, emphasis M.B.). The original, however, gives the spare and more ambiguous “towards us move reinforcements” [k nam idet podkreplenie].
Has the toast come true, just like that, and the police have come over to the side of the people, “that is to say,” as Medvedev adds with a good dose of self-irony, “to our side”? Or have the defenders of the forest become indistinguishable from the very troops sent out against them? Were they the vanguard of a revolution to come, one that will be bigger than October? (The narrator claims: “There were fewer people killed during the October Revolution than there were today.”[xv]) Or have the idealistic activists been absorbed into the very forces against which they made a stand, “our side” lost in the disguise of camouflage suits the color of fresh trees? The moment the machine gun appears, enemy bodies metonymically replace the endangered trees.
Encoded in this modest and, compared to Medvedev’s earlier work, atypically short if narratively linear poem, we glimpse many central paradoxes of any contemporary avant-garde: the tangled thorns of an avant-garde that comes after revolution; and the questionable possibility of a stand against dominant institutions in the face of all-assimilating late capitalism and the culture industry alike. The military metaphor hovers on the surface here, tangible; and the poem betrays and elicits mixed emotions over the encoded, if usually hidden, implicit violence of the avant-garde.
I suspect it is no coincidence that one of the first Western Marxists Medvedev chose to translate for his press was Pasolini, who famously and unpopularly pointed out the central irony in the 1968 clashes between Italian student protestors and the police: the long-haired leftists fighting for social justice were for the most part children of well-educated middle- or upper-middle-class families and brought up in relative comfort and affluence, whereas the short-haired police who met them with batons actually came from the working class (Rumble and Testa 1994, 152). In 2010s Russia, with the cultural divide between sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and digitally savvy Moscow and the rest of country only increasing, Pasolini’s observation seems cuttingly apropos. By drawing attention to these paradoxes and yet challenging the vivisection of the population into segments, Medvedev pushes his poetry to do double duty, aesthetically and politically. For that reason, he reads simultaneously as one of the most exceptional and yet paradigmatic voices of a new generation.
Translation: It’s no good
Before protest, before the disavowal of literary institutions or gradual grudging returns, where did Medvedev come from? The poem opening Medvedev’s first published book of verse It’s No Good (in 2000) is an ode to, or a lament on the art of translation (Medvedev 2002a). Fittingly for the first poem of a first book, in “I’m tired of translating…,” a new voice announces an entrance, searching for form and inspiration. In other words, we see a story of origin; however, with the origin always problematized and deferred.
Medvedev suggests that his poetry begins with and is born out of translation—of which he has already grown sick. But he seemed to find inspiration in translating Charles Bukowski into Russian. Frankly he claims:
there are really brilliant passages—
I’m sure of that
when I was translating the poems
of charles bukowski
I was convinced that I was writing
the best poetry then being written in russian.
We can guess what he saw in Bukowski: working class realia [byt] as populist subject matter and a pedestrian language and formal freedom atypical in Russian verse. Through the effort to convey one voice, the second voice comes in, changing both in the process:
I felt there was no one
who understood him
as I understood him[xvi]
Bukowski remains a fascinatingly marginal figure in American poetry, although his assimilation too is underway. Five years ago, the Huntington Library in California held the biggest retrospective of his work to date, Charles Bukowski: Poet at the Edge. The retrospective’s title is interesting in itself: Bukowski felt more “over-the-edge” than “avant-garde” to a generation of readers that had lost faith and interest in the latter. Reviewer Jon Hopwood writes: “‘Avant-garde’ as a term was all but meaningless by the 1970s, the time Bukowski experienced his first wave of popularity outside of ‘underground’ literary journals. What had once been transgressive was now mainstream, as Americans collectively went beyond their ability to be shocked culturally” (Hopwood 2010). However, Bukowski’s “raw language and emotion, still had the ability to shock, and not just blue-noses but those who deemed themselves […] unflappable.” As the exhibit stressed, the high culture industry, like the critical establishment, is concentrated on the East Coast and Bukowski was a Californian.
It has taken Bukowski far longer to enter the literary mainstream than, say, Norman Mailer, despite relatively similar politics and doses of vulgarity, misogyny, and violence in their writing. But Bukowski was unapologetically a working class writer and, in Hopwood’s words, “the United States is a country that is fearful […] to admit that it even has a working class” (Hopwood 2010). Bukowski wrote in a language and on subjects that astonishingly still had no place in high literature. He never bought into such fundamentals as the American dream—or the nuclear family—and proved considerably harder to clean up than the Beats. Worse yet for his prospects of highbrow assimilation, people actually read him: Bukowski found a cult following during his lifetime and after, but not yet a place in the Norton Anthology of American Literature (Hopwood 2010).
Just as an earlier generation of Russians knew John Steinbeck and Jack London far better than most Americans, so too is Medvedev a displaced Bukowski fanatic. What happens between the two is a kind of charged literary chemistry. I use such language on purpose: Medvedev often flirts with homoeroticism in his verse, looking for some kind of intensified alterity in the figure of the gay male poet or artist—for example, in Pasolini—as if finding in such models an energy or marginal status from which he would simultaneously borrow and distance himself. Thus Medvedev writes of his translation:
I think it was genuine contact—
when two different people
begin to understand one another
in my opinion this
was a real event
in art and in life[xvii]
Despite being two “completely different people,” bodies as well as bodies of work, they merge and occupy the same space, in language that smacks of erotic innuendo:
I think it’s only worth doing
if you really feel
you can become one
with the author
to every line
pick up and amplify
Medvedev did not “betray” his poet: this translation constituted genuine contact, a real event “in art and in life.” We notice that pervasive pairing: real contact must take place in both; the real event must disrupt both, allowing for an interpenetration of art and life—the battle cry of the avant-garde. At the same time, the very phrasing separates the two terms by means of the conjunction, intimating the continuing autonomy of one from the other.
The poem opens and closes with the declaration that the lyric persona will “probably” stop translating entirely. For translation is too easy a pleasure and hence one the poet must deny himself:
because translation is like
a sweet dream
whereas actually creating something
Translation is a sweet illusion whereas creation is suffering. Some of the other oppositions set up thus far include true vs. false translation; American vs. Russian; vampiric betrayal vs. real contact and love. Of course, the kind of translation Medvedev means to give up is commercial work, such as the detective novel by John Ridley—a young African-American, and hence another potentially marginalized figure with and against whom Medvedev seems simultaneously to identify. Ridley makes the compromise with the market that serves as one way out of a creative writer’s perpetual dilemmas: lack of money, lack of readers, sense of irrelevance and inutility. His clever novel [detektiv]
like a tarantino film
a satire of Hollywood
and a critique of
the hollywood establishment
but with the use of
all the same old tired hollywood clichés[xx]
Medvedev would later pen a similar critique of Vladimir Sorokin, whose early texts he considers intelligent but who all too quickly joined the ranks of de-clawed postmodern entertainment. As Medvedev puts it, Sorokin’s “transformation into a trendy plaything of the mass media coincided with the decline of conceptualist artistic principles that had sought to clarify the meaning and mechanisms of art’s power over the individual. That critique was embraced by the elite mainstream in the 1990s […]” (Medvedev 2012a, 118). The market adapts quickly: we might consider Sorokin’s assimilation one of a multitude of examples of the “death of the avant-garde” perpetually prophesied by its prominent critics. Medvedev seeks to resist, though it costs him readers, credibility, and even if he must find ways to transubstantiate his practice of writing poetry. In a sense, he recasts himself as a performance artist, whose extended practice is to perform the poet, defiantly mute.
Kill the fathers
If the early poem “I’m tired of translating…” already interrogates the relationship between poetry and the market, the next poem I would like to zoom into, “I recently ran into the poet Lvovsky…” from the second collection Invasion, turns to questions of cultural capital (Medvedev 2002b).
Again we start with a moment of contact (or near contact) between two male poets with an affinity for each other’s work. The narrator runs into his friend Stanislav Lvovsky in the subway:
Lvovsky was going down and I was going up
I was chewing gum
and at the moment
we saw each other
I was blowing
a giant bubble;
our eyes met
and we smiled at one another;
I was curious what he thought
looking at me[xxi]
Formally, there is little to shock us in Medvedev’s verse. His long digressive poems experiment primarily through their subject matter, their lexicon, and their fearless willingness to be prosaic: such poems are as likely to include meandering ruminations on the joy of finding cheap paté in the grocery store side by side with abstract discussions of political theory.
Again, this is more typical of American poetry after the 1970s than of Russian verse. In “Weak Narrativity: The Case of Avant-Garde Poetry,” Brian McHale traces a longer, digressive, and weak narrative in contemporary English-language poetry and reads it as a response to modernist lyricism:
[Modernism] interdicts narrative modes of organization and submits the long-poem genre to a general ‘lyricization.’ The result is a form of long poem lacking any continuous narrative, but instead made up of lyric fragments strung together in sequence […] The Waste Land is paradigmatic in this regard.
With postmodernism, narrativity returns, but with a difference […] Postmodernists recoil from the modernist recoil. But of course it is too late now to return naively to premodernist forms of narrative poetry. Instead, postmodern poets resort to various strategies of having their cake and eating it too, of telling stories without committing themselves to the master-narratives wherein such stories are inscribed […] An alternative strategy, one that is harder to describe, seems to evoke narrative forms of coherence without fully submitting to them. (McHale 2001, 162)
The main narrative may be weakened and deferred through various disruptive strategies, incorporating, for example, “a proliferation of ‘minor’ narrative genres: anecdotes, gossip and hearsay, jokes, dream narratives, ekphrases of paintings with a narrative content” (McHale 2001, 162). As McHale puts it, weak narrativity precisely involves “telling stories ‘poorly,’ distractedly, with much irrelevance and indeterminacy, in such a way as to evokenarrative coherence while at the same time withholding commitment to it and undermining confidence in it” (McHale 2001, 165).
This description seems highly apt and useful for reading Medvedev’s poetry, especially the longer early works. The poet withholds commitment and undermines confidence in his own poem. Catching himself after a series of digressions, he writes:
this text should be dedicated to the problem of communication
and the core of this composition should have been the bubble
the bubble-gum bubble
but everything shifted somehow
and got mixed up.[xxii]
The giant chewing-gum bubble returns unexpectedly as the forgotten secret heart of the poem, a center that refuses to hold. Something bigger still, an invisible force, keeps the two poets apart and breaks down the possibility of genuine human communication.
Medvedev wonders what his friend was thinking. Later, he can guess: Lvovsky must have been thinking about the gossip just spread about Medvedev online (possibly on LiveJournal), murmurs that Lvovsky nobly tried to shut down. Clearly, the quality of Medvedev’s verse was the subject of discussion, but look how he chooses to express it:
[…] when medvedev was young
his father sold off his huge collection of books
and the boy was left
without a good education
without an awareness of the
history of russian free verse[xxiii]
The gambler father, as we shall see, is a recurring trope; the lost inheritance, in this instance, is a library of Russian free verse. In place of that missing giant collection (the second “huge” [ogromnoe] in the poem; for the huge bubble blocking the lyric persona’s ability to communicate with the other poet might as well be the huge lost library of literary precursors) we have several other signposts of literary genealogy. The most obvious and expected one is phrased negatively; the poet does not “IMAGINE I AM / MAYAKOVSKY,” but also unmistakably central as evidenced by its placement within five lines of capital letters.
The historical avant-garde is present, but so is the neo-avant-garde: “I stand among jokes and caresses / as one of my favorite poets, Leonid Gubanov, once wrote.”[xxiv] Gubanov, a nonconformist poet of the 1960s, founded the neo-avant-garde circle SMOG and edited the short-lived Moscow journal Avant-Garde[Avangard]. In 1965, he was arrested after protesting the Siniavskii-Terts trial and forcibly hospitalized in a mental institution. Such histories, not the library of books sold by his father, form Medvedev’s legacy. He writes:
[…] I always feel the dark corners of Moscow tugging at me […] I need to return to them, to run from the glossy magazines, into those folds of humiliation and failure that I came from, and that have always produced the literature that means the most to me. I’m a child of the Russian intelligentsia, I’m a person of culture, and culture for me does not consist of rhymes and motifs, but of legends, of gossip, like a thread winding through the centuries […]—and that’s the only thing worth inheriting (not the “outlines of a poetics” or whatever). This is the only cultural inheritance that interests me. I’d like to be the descendent of Leonid Gubanov, the Moscow poet who was trampled and humiliated and yet never gave in to the Soviet authorities, and of Roald Mandelstam, who died in poverty and obscurity. Their voices cry inside me, I want to record an album of their poetry, but I feel like I shouldn’t, or can’t, if I’m a poet with status who is part of the normalized mainstream.[xxv]
Medvedev’s intelligentsia roots run deep and form an important part of his literary autobiography. His LiveJournal blog, zoltan-partosh.livejournal.ru, takes its name from Medvedev’s great-grandfather, a Hungarian poet, translator, pediatrician and communist who fled to the Soviet Union in 1919 after the Hungarian revolution was quelled, as Gessen summarizes in his introduction to Medvedev’s work. Partosh was briefly arrested and then released during the purges of the 1930s: György Lukács wrote a letter vouching for him. Kirill’s father, Feliks Medvedev, was a popular perestroika-era journalist: 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 […] Lev Loseff, a cheer went up through the building” (as retold in Gessen 2012, 17).
The younger Medvedev has also written on Brodsky—whom he calls the best example of the intelligentsia ideal. As he puts it, Brodsky
[…] was a man who had an enormous influence on the literary scene from his earliest poetic experiments, and was subsequently nominated by a large and in its own way influential intellectual milieu for the poetic representation of its own values. He handled the assignment masterfully, and for his efforts, he received enormous moral—and, as it happens, also material—dividends. The trial against him became one of those events after which, according to every moral and aesthetic law, the country should have shattered into little pieces… As far as I’m concerned, a person like that cannot be a private citizen, even if he really wants to be. (Medvedev 2012a, 117-118)
Oedipal tensions echo in both his poetic and biological genealogy. According to Medvedev fils, he and his mother lived in relative poverty due to the father’s gambling. In a perfect metaphor for generational ressentiment, the legacy has been gambled away by the fathers, fallen intelligents and lapsed idealists. In yet another meditative manifesto entitled “My Fascism,” Medvedev writes:
The ‘90s-era Russian liberal intelligentsia had one supreme goal. It wanted to catch up to its Western counterparts, acquiring and digesting the works of postwar Western culture that the Soviet Union had suppressed, and it wanted the modernist heritage from the first half of the Russian century (Akhmatova, Nabokov, etc.) returned to its rightful place. From there it hoped to create a truly “competitive” national culture and ideology. But once it had received […] its cultural inheritance, the liberal intelligentsia refused to evolve. It continued to debate questions that had been solved long ago, like whether you should consider Malevich’s “Black Square” art, and so forth. […] regressiveness, provincial ambitions, and a parochial vision of the world ruled the day. What never emerged was a class of intellectuals—that is, people who see their duty in a disengaged critique of Authority, in a non-identification with any official discourse. With rare exceptions, the Russian educated class fails to understand this duty to this day. (Medvedev 2012a, 117)
This passage sketches the stagnation of one generation and outlines the program for another, and is entirely illustrated through examples of cultural inheritance. Medvedev names iconic names—Akhmatova, Nabokov—identified explicitly as Russia’s modernist heritage. It is not quite in the same breath that he brings up Malevich, but with anxiety over wallowing in old debates provoked by the historical avant-garde. A final point of interest is his discussion of “engagement.” We would expect from this poet a call for engaged art: the traditional avant-garde cry, so to speak, to bring down the walls between life and art. Medvedev instead calls for the new generation of Russian intellectuals to practice non-engagement, the first item on the agenda being non-identification with authority and its institutions.
Not long after publishing his second book, Medvedev began his series of disavowals. He devoted himself to his LiveJournal site, to political essays, activism, and actions. He seemed to be looking for a way to live in the world as an artist without being an artist—without creating appropriable product or intellectual property. For example, one action consisted of a one-man picket outside of a commercial theatrical production of Bertolt Brecht, and ended with Medvedev punched by the theater security guard.
I read Medvedev’s poetic and political actions as one unified project, through the lens of the avant-garde: an aesthetic producer refuses to participate in the literary market or to collaborate with institutions allocating cultural capital, and rejects copyright for online publication and prestigious publications to join the anonymous graphomaniacs on LiveJournaland Facebook. His poetry, essays, manifestos—as well as the other trans-verbal media his verses spill into, including music, video art, and pickets—all interrogate the role of literary and artistic institutions in the ideological apparatus of power.
Building from Peter Bürger’s seminal theory and from a number of provocative critical responses to the question, Is there a future for the avant-garde?, I read the latest (re)turn of the Russian avant-garde as a combination of powerful local poetic counter-traditions, re-imagined through, reinvigorated by—and in solidarity with—international theory and aesthetic practices. It is unsurprising that Medvedev’s poetry has found champions in the journal n+1 and in Ugly Duckling Presse, both of which are and are not in some sense Russian, emerging as they do out of Russian New York. Medvedev visited the city during the height of Occupy Wall Street, and was deeply moved by what he saw. Within the year he would use the “human microphone” call-and-response technique at Moscow protests; a year later he was organizing Occupy Abai (see Gessen 2012, 20).
Excited by the events of 2011-2012, years of international protest from the Arab spring to Occupy to Moscow’s new Decembrists; the success of his indie publishing house and of the St. Petersburg-based leftist poetry and theory journal Translit, Medvedev returned to poetry. In the summer of 2012, he participated in the St. Petersburg poetry festival on Novaia Gollandiia, along with the rest of his band Arkadii Kots. If we consider aesthetic productions primarily as relational events, the borders between poetry and protest rock quickly break down, reflecting the poet’s actual practice. Medvedev performs both poems and songs at readings, including the art-historically aware ballad “Be Afraid of Groys” [Boisia Groisa; about art and cultural theorist Boris Groys] and “Comrade Kots [Tovarishch Kots]. The latter describes how the police began calling Medvedev himself “Kots,” effectively illustrating the fluid continuity between poet and activist, original and translation, and even between individual and collective identity.
Named after the Russian-Jewish socialist who translated the Internationale, the group came together in 2010 to reclaim the music of political struggle and to record the forgotten voices of the underground, including an album based on the verses of Roald Mandelstam. Arkadii Kots also regularly performs the poetry of controversial actionist Aleksandr Brener, one-time collaborator of Oleg Kulik (the actionist/performance artist who, for a stretch, infamously styled himself as Man-Dog). Medvedev writes:
In our time I believe there has been one man who reacted fully and originally to the collapse and degradation of the Russian intelligentsia: the poet and artist Alexander Brener. Combining the main traits of the Russian intelligent, the Western intellectual, and the “artist from the Third World”—the pride and the sense of historical purpose of the first; the independence of the second; the identification with the oppressed of the third—he turned himself into a ticking, internal time bomb. Finding himself face to face with a situation in which the poetic word had exhausted all its force—in the West naturally, because of new technologies of entertainment and a powerful critique of logocentrism; in Russia unnaturally, because of the violent archaization of the Russian literary language under the Soviets—Brener announced his utter creative impotence in advance and began to practice direct, radical actions. To protest the war in Chechnya he went into Red Square with boxing gloves, to challenge Boris Yeltsin to fight him; to protest the commercialization of Russian revolutionary art he spray-painted a giant green dollar sign on a Malevich in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, for which he received a six-month sentence in a Dutch jail. (Medvedev 2012a, 137-138)
It is striking that the Russian neo-avant-gardist must reclaim the historical avant-garde from (but also through) the mediation of the West. Brener’s action brings to the surface the troubling power of his statement, and the violent urge to re-radicalize a Russian avant-garde artifact utterly absorbed by the international art world as institution.
What kind of avant-garde legacy is this? It is a pulse beating sometimes strongly, sometimes weakly throughout the last century and a half at the least, offering up a history of unrealized utopian possibilities and interrupted projects. Medvedev’s work reads earlier Russian avant-gardes through the lenses of Western Marxist theory—which is now, somewhat ironically, part of the world culture that post-Soviet Russian writers can re-claim. Keith Gessen asks, what was it that the previous generation, the generation of the fathers, failed to understand?
[…] 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. (Gessen 2012, 18)
Medvedev’s is a post-Soviet avant-garde praxis taking inspiration from and claiming explicit continuity with the historical avant-gardes, and dialectically influenced by Western critical theory—much of which is stitched through with a common red thread. As an explicitly post-Soviet cultural formation, such work dares to move past the traumas of state socialism to reimagine engaged art and alternative social organization for the twenty-first century. In 2011, 2012, and the start of 2013, the years of protest, Medvedev found a much wider audience nationally than before. He speaks clearly to a sympathetic New York. Gessen puts it:
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. […] Medvedev cut through all this. (Gessen 2012, 15)
Reading in terms of the avant-garde
I title this paper “Poetry on the Front Line: Kirill Medvedev and a New Russian Poetic Avant-garde,” for it seems usefully difficult to read Medvedev’s poetic and political project against the backdrop of the seemingly never-ending critical debates over the usefulness and applicability of the term avant-garde in the contemporary moment.
Following the example of Mike Sell in The Avant-Garde: Race, Religion, War, I find it productive to avoid the limitations imposed by historians and theorists seemingly blind to questions of gender, race, religion, and plurality when speaking of a historical avant-garde. Instead, we can work from a more open definition of an avant-garde as “[…] a minoritarian formation that challenges power in subversive, illegal or alternative ways, usually by challenging the routines, assumptions, hierarchies and/or legitimacy of existing political and/or cultural institutions” (Sell 2011, 41). Astutely, Sells suggests that rather than asking the question, Is this avant-garde? of a given work, we ask, What are the benefits of considering this subject in terms of the avant-garde (Sell 2011, 48)?
Poetry, far more so than the visual arts or film, remains inseparable from the linguistic medium and cultural context. We are thus forced to think not only about the possibilities of the avant-garde as a tradition, but a Russian poetic tradition of the avant-garde. While Medvedev does not often describe himself as avant-garde, the term occasionally bursts out of him. For example, he writes: “I am a poet. And we poets do not want to be victims of history, we do not want to be dissidents, the very thought depresses us, we are talented, we are avant-gardists, we want to be that which no one has ever been before” (Medvedev 2012a, 136). Elsewhere he uses the term historically, as in a passionate defense of Mayakovsky for the leftist art and theory collective What is to Be Done? [Chto delat’]:
We are against determinism: we know that history is not foreordained, that it could have turned out differently. And if we assume even a little that the fate of the Revolution could have been different, then we understand Mayakovsky’s fate was determined not by his choice (the only choice worthy of man and poet like himself), but by the fact that the Party in the end was transformed from a vanguard into an obstacle to social revolution in our country. It’s another matter to what degree Mayakovsky’s own position was capable of impacting the overall political dynamic. Given the example of Victor Serge, who wholly associated himself with the Revolution and worked for it but nevertheless (or rather, precisely for this reason) criticized various aspects of Bolshevik policy and Party life, we can say that, yes, it was possible to fight for the Revolution and thus fight for one’s poetry and for one’s life. (Medvedev and Oleynikov 2010)
This bold reading clearly sets up Mayakovsky as a precursor and offers yet another manifesto for Medvedev’s own project. However, he also uses the term avant-garde to describe the other side:
If you do intellectual work, and consider ideology to be either communist or fascist; if you think that normal, sane people are without a doubt free of any kind of ideology, and hold fast to healthy liberal-marketplace convictions; if it seems to you that progress is a prescribed movement in the avant-garde of which are found the developed countries of the West, and that this process cannot be pushed, stopped or changed; then you are, more probably than not, a member of the liberal intelligentsia in its contemporary Russian variant. (Medvedev 2008; translation and italics mine)
The uneasy tension evident between such phrases as “we poets […] are avant-gardists” and the “avant-garde” of neoliberalism is typical of Medvedev, who calls for a weak or critical heroism as the only appropriate response to the current historical moment.
Ambivalence and anxiety about the fate of the avant-garde(s)—especially in later incarnations—is built into the very fabric of contemporary critical discourse. I will recall only a few of the best known and provocative interventions on the subject, to shed light on the productive paradoxes of Medvedev’s poetry and actions. The artistic avant-garde has always taken as its tasks liberation from automatized perceptions and the exposure of the fetishes of ideology, perhaps most importantly as they relate to artistic production and institutions. Yet while this position in a sense won, and modern aesthetic critique largely continues to rest on a distinction between cultural products that estrange and those that enthrall, the avant-garde tradition never realized the demiurgic ambitions that marked its historical beginnings. The term threatens to lose its radical meaning and to obfuscate the absorption of avant-garde art into the institution it once sought to challenge. Critics have been heralding the death of the avant-garde for over four decades.
Marjorie Perloff summarizes one line of the critical reception, filtered through a line of Marxist critics from Trotskii and Lukács to Charles Russell:
The Avant-garde, so the argument goes, naively thought that in reinventing the language (zaum) or in replacing stone sculpture with wall reliefs made from sheet iron, wood, and rope (Tatlin), it was bringing about social change. But in conferring primacy on the language and ignoring the new need for simultaneous collective reception, Futurist poets and painters […] merely perpetuated the split between ideas and praxis and hence deprived the proletariat of an instrument for real revolution. […] [their] ethos was no more than a poignant expression of the alienation of the modern artists from bourgeois society. (Perloff 2003, 33)
Peter Bürger’s 1971 treatise Theory of the Avant-Garde [Theorie der Avantgarde] sharply differentiates the avant-garde (by which he means the historical avant-garde, more or less limited to Europe, and which he uses in the singular) from mere modernism. He defines the avant-garde by its turn against art as an institution: Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain is his central example. According to Bürger, whereas modernism may be seen as an attack on traditional techniques, “the avant-garde can only be understood as an attack meant to alter the institutionalized commerce with art,” (see Schulte-Sasse 1984, xv).
Writing against the post-historical tendencies in art and scholarship of his moment, Bürger calls for a return to the classic works of Marxist theorists such as Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse, and Lukács (Sell 2011, 33). He inherits too a sociopolitical pessimism, and a certain Frankfurt school melancholy haunts his treatise. Confronted with contemporary art praxes, Bürger shows a reluctance to concede future possibilities to a neo-avant-garde—or to any new engaged aesthetic practice. He claims:
The avant-garde intends the abolition of autonomous art, by which it means that art is to be integrated into the praxis of life. This has not occurred, and presumably cannot occur, in bourgeois society […][xxvi]
Instead we have seen that a literature
[…] whose primary aim it is to impose a particular kind of consumer behavior on the reader is in fact practical, though not in the sense […] the avant-gardists intended […] literature ceases to be an instrument of emancipation and becomes one of subjection.[xxvii]
In late capitalist society, he concludes, the “intentions of the historical avant-garde are being realized but the result has been a disvalue.”[xxviii]
So many theorists have responded in kind that American critic Paul Mann could turn the inquiry back on the discourse itself in his 1991 Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde. So many times has the death of the avant-garde been proclaimed, writes Mann, that “[t]he teleology of the avant-garde can no longer be reduced to a thematics of success or failure, of revolt or complicity, of truth or illusion, of sincerity or hoax, of existence or nonexistence” (Mann 1991, 3). The object of inquiry should now be “to grasp the avant-garde as the production of a death-theory, a seemingly inexhaustible discourse of exhaustion.” Rephrased, Mann offers the catchy aphorism, “The death of the avant-garde is its theory and the theory of the avant-garde is its death” (Mann 1991, 3).
More grimly still, critics including Mike Sell have increasingly turned their attention to the violence inherent in the militaristic term, and the easy slide from left to right (the red/brown alliance) along axes of nationalism and masculinism. The violence was brought home painfully by the experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s comments after September 11, which suggested that terrorism might be the “ultimate work of art” of the new era, and which seemed to concede to acts of violence the only way to radically disrupt or blur distinctions between aesthetics and life.
Returning to Kirill Medvedev and the post-Soviet context of his work, we are faced with an additional turn of the screw. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, neo-avant-gardes can easily be read as farce, aftershocks of the misspent revolutionary impulse of the early twentieth century and a priori discredited by the violent disappointments of state socialism. These concerns manifest themselves across Medvedev’s oeuvre, from the very first poem discussed in this article, “On the way to defend the forest…” with its veritable “machine gun of the avant-garde” that emerged so unexpectedly amid the pacifist protestors. Can we be humanist and avant-garde? Medvedev defines himself as a Marxist humanist on his Facebookprofile, but much of his poetry questions what such a thing might look like.
Is it first avant-garde as tragedy then, and subsequent avant-gardes as farce? Or are there other ways to read such cultural returns? Hal Foster’s 1996 Return of the Real offers one compelling alternative. Foster gives a psychoanalytic reading of art as institution, in the process sketching a compelling dialectic of the avant-garde. The avant-garde stands for the repressed real of the art institution: hence, even as one “[…] avant-garde recedes into the past, it also returns from the future, repositioned by innovative art in the present” (Foster 1996, x). We can understand the returning real in two ways here: in the Lacanian sense, repressed objet petit a; but also in the prosaic usage of “real.” What also returns in the progressive art of Foster’s study is the body; politics; engaged and situated art. Today’s artist is very often an ethnographer: she is heir to the academic field of anthropology as much as to the visual arts.
Like Mann, Foster blurs the borders between avant-garde artist and avant-garde critic. “Since the middle 1970s critical theory has served as a secret continuation of modernism by other means,” Foster writes: “after the decline of late-modernist painting and sculpture, it occupied the position of high art, at least to the extent that it retained such values as difficulty and distinction after they had receded from artistic form.” The choice between Pop Art and Jacques Derrida does not take very long; for it is critical theory that
[…] has served as a secret continuation of the avant-garde by other means; after the climax of the 1968 revolts, it also occupied the position of cultural politics, at least to the extent that radical rhetoric compensated a little for lost activism (in this respect critical theory is a neo-avant-garde in its own right).” (Foster 1996, xiv)
Today’s avant-gardist is the child of both theory and practice.
For Anglo-American poetry, an important resource for Medvedev’s and many contemporary Russian writers’ own poetics, Marjorie Perloff has argued in 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics that we are currently experiencing a “carrying-on, in somewhat diluted form” of the avant-garde project “at the very heart of early modernism”:
What strikes us when we re-read the poetries of the early twentieth century is that the real fate of first-stage modernism was one of deferral, its radical and utopian aspirations being cut off by the catastrophes of the 20th century. Indeed it almost seems as if poems and art works made a conscious effort to repress the technological and formal inventions of modernism at its origins. Now that the long twentieth century is finally behind us, perhaps we can begin to see this embryonic phase with new eyes. Far from being irrelevant and obsolete, the aesthetic of early modernism has provided the seeds of the materialist poetic which is increasingly our own. (Perloff 2002, 3)
Finally, I would like to close with another Marxist humanist and theorist of the avant-garde theorist increasingly central to my inquiry.[xxix] In his perceptive and profoundly optimistic body of work, the Principle of Hope—rather than reading artifacts of contemporary culture for signs of the triumphant conquest of ideology—Ernst Bloch shows us how to read for ruptures, for glimpses of utopia. In one poetic passage opening his magnum opus, Bloch offers something of a condensed manifesto:
The New is greeted as a brother who has travelled from the region where the sun rises […] We listen in that direction, strain to see. […] Thus as children we jumped up, not always in fear, when the bell rang outside. Its ringing cuts through the silent gloomy room, especially towards evening. Perhaps now something darkly intended is coming, that which we are looking for, that which is looking for us again. Its gift transforms and improves everything; it brings a new age. The ringing of this bell remains in every ear, it is associated with every good cry from outside. Of course expectation alone does not bring it. But if it is well attuned to the sound and what it means, the expectation does not let us ignore the sound. […] The obsession with what is better remains, even when what is better has been prevented for so long. When what is wished for arrives, it surprises us anyway.[xxx]
Bloch reads the past as accessible, full of unrealized potentialities to be returned to, re-interpreted, and redeemed. His work offers a model of how to mine even ideological products for aspects useful for radical theory and practice.[xxxi]
Bloch’s critique is rooted in a humanist anthropology, and his understanding of cultural products as storage places for a utopian surplus that anticipates the “new age,” “the better,” “that which we are looking for, that which is looking for us again,” as he writes so eloquently in the passage above. In one way out of the academic theory-death of the avant-garde, a Blochian reading shifts the emphasis to the always-new potential receiver—so crucial to the projects of contemporary engaged Russian poetry, and to Kirill Medvedev’s practice. Reading contemporary Russian poetry with Bloch, as it were, we can understand these new returns to familiar-sounding critiques as attempts to mine and detonate the unrealized utopian potential waiting in the rich tradition of avant-garde theory and practice.
In turn, it is the task of the cultural critic, as well as of the activist and the artist, to read the “good cry from outside” and to relate it to the “obsession with what is better.” So perhaps there is use for humanities scholarship after all—a truly utopian notion.
The return of Russian leftist poetry
This discussion—and Kirill Medvedev’s poetics—must be understood in the context of the dramatic anti-utopianness of contemporary Russia. The state and mainstream cultural establishments alike have long had “Stability” [Stabil’nost’] as their slogan, as if “not terrible” were the only goal and all alternative forms of social organization had been permanently discredited. Medvedev’s collage of poetry, criticism, and action stands out against a backdrop that has unlearned how to dream. Is the return of the repressed here not the resumption of Russian avant-garde projects, read through the lens of the Western Marxist theory once so inspired by the historical Russian avant-garde, in an extra dialectical turn? Medvedev reexamines old potentialities, looking for gaps and interstices where protest, opposition, and utopianism remain possible. It is on such possibilities that my own readings in turn rest.
Interstices appear in new collaborative projects, independent presses, and journals. But Medvedev’s appropriations have as much to do with occupying digital as physical spaces, in an attempt to imagine for our age something of Benjamin’s “Author as Producer.” Or, it might be said that Medvedev and his friends and collaborators, including the Translit poets Pavel Arsen’ev and Roman Osminkin, are fumbling towards works of art in the age of digital reproduction. Medvedev uses—to give a partial list—his personal website, LiveJournal, and Facebook—as well as his one-time friend, collaborator, and Russian online poetry guru Dmitrii Kuzmin’s vavilon.ru and litkartaplatforms.[xxxii]
Poetry especially has been powerfully affected by digital remediation and modes of dissemination. Using Facebook, for example, politically engaged poetry is readily reposted but also translated or in some way illustrated. Remediations in part lean on “universal languages”: guitar poetry, video poetry, and readily understandable physical performance. Such re-appropriations seem especially remarkable and inventive given Facebook’s roots as a Harvard- and Ivy League-only thinly disguised online dating site; and we are only beginning to scratch the surface. One can only wonder how Charles Bukowski might have used Twitter. Remediated and appearing in the guise of new digital and hybrid genres, leftist poetry has a chance to return as the literary repressed.
I will close with a brief discussion of one final poem, a newer text that first appeared on Medvedev’s Facebook site. Only a few signs mark the untitled piece as a poem at all—although once recognized as such it has been reprinted (without permission) and is included in the new collection and Gessen’s translated anthology.[xxxiii] The poem begins with another set of oppositions, displacements and conflations. The wife of a dead activist turns to our narrator—thus framing the entire text as a dialogue between a man and a woman, beginning with questions and ending with a lullaby. She asks what should be done, not for her husband for it is too late, but for N, another jailed activist. Medvedev too is an activist who might be jailed, extending the chain of replaceable male bodies: in jail, as in the army, identical units of exchange.
They must do something: international campaigns are failing, so action must be taken locally. As in melodrama, time is of essence, for an activist in jail is a ticking clock.
And I say, we have two choices. Either we patiently build the
labor unions…or we have to do something really ugly
because no radical art actions are going to help here,
are going to get through.
And she says, yes, and then what? We commit a terrorist act? […]”[xxxiv]
We remember that terrorism is one possible child of the avant-garde. The “slow building” [terpelivoe stroitel’stvo] of a new culture, is another. What if we follow Sell’s all-inclusive definition of minoritarian formations that challenge power, and read avant-garde poets as labor union activists?
How long will it take,
although, it’s true, it’s the only way.[xxxv]
The final lines seem to integrate poetry with the slow building of a new world. Night comes, the lines shorten; somewhere warm a pretty mother sings to a well-fed child:
sleep sleep sleep my little one
sleep my baby child
sleep tighter my little one
you’ll need lots of strength
the working class needs brave strong tough fighters
there are difficult times ahead[xxxvi]
We end with poetry embedded in life-practice in an utterly unexpected way—a militant lullaby. Poetry will return and in varied camouflage: as fight song, performance, chanted slogans, social media, embodied theory, and critical interventions.
Yale University Marijeta Bozovic
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Bürger, Peter. 2002. Theorie der Avantgarde. Mit einem Nachwort zur 2. Auflage. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.
Gessen, Keith. 2012. Kirill Medvedev: An Introduction. In Kirill Medvedev, It’s No Good: Poems/Essays/Actions, trans. Keith Gessen, with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill, and Bela Shayevich. 11–21. New York: n+1/Ugly Duckling Presse.
Hopwood, Jon C. 2010. “Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge” Exhibition at Huntington Library. Yahoo Voices. June 3, 2010. http://voices.yahoo.com/charles-bukowski-poet-edge-exhibition-the-6131808.html, accessed November 18, 2013.
Kellner, Douglas. 1997. Ernst Bloch, Utopia and Ideology Critique. In Not Yet: Reconsidering Ernst Bloch, ed. Jamie Owen Daniel and Tom Moylan, 80–95. London, Verso.
Mann, Paul. 1991. The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
McHale, Brian. 2001. Weak Narrativity: The Case of Avant-Garde Narrative Poetry. Narrative 9,2:161-67.
Medvedev, Kirill. 2002a. Vse plokho. Moskva: Klub Proekt OGI 2000. http://www.vavilon.ru/texts/medvedev1.html, accessed November 18, 2013.
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Medvedev, Kirill. 2008. “Liberal’naia intelligentsia”. Kratkii ideologicheskii razbor. Chto delat’ 18 Kritika i istina. 2008. http://chtodelat.org/category/ar_4/nr_9_7/?lang=ru, accessed November 18, 2013.
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Medvedev, Kirill. 2013b. Beyond the Poetics of Privatization. New Left Review82:64–83.
Medvedev, Kirill. 2014. Pokhod na meriiu.Moskva: Svobmarksizd-Translit, 2014.
Medvedev, Kirill and Nikolay Oleynikov. 2010. On Propaganda in Art. Chto delat’, special issue The Urgent Need to Struggle. 2010. http://chtodelat.org/category/b8-newspapers/12-70-1/, accessed November 18, 2013.
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[i] Originally published in Zeitschrift für Slavische Philologie 70.1 (2014); a redacted version was reprinted in the colloquy “Poetry after Language” on Stanford University’s digital scholarship platform ARCADE (http://arcade.stanford.edu/content/poetry-front-line-kirill-medvedev-and-new-russian-poetic-avant-garde, 11 August 2015). *English translations added, wherever possible, from Keith Gessen’s edited volume of Medvedev’s poetry and essays translated into English. See Medvedev 2012a; page numbers in brackets refer to this edition. Other translations are mine.
[ii] Medvedev 2013a; 2012b; 2013b respectively. See Works Cited for links to videos of Medvedev’s television appearances and protest anthem.
[iii] Medvedev LiveJournal site: “Why I decided to start this journal 23.10.06” (accessed 18 November, 2013). “эпоха спонтанной гражданской поэзии”; “Теперь наступает эпоха сурого и трезвого политического выбора, жестокого анализа и серьезного действия” .
[iv] Medvedev website: “Communiqué” (22.09.03). “кучка издателей, зачастую полуграмотных, издающие уже всe подряд, не разбирая, едва успевая налепить на книгу нужную бирку, использующие в коммерческих интересах самые беспринципные приемы и провокационные стратегии, заигрывающие с самыми чудовищными и отвратительными для меня идеологиями. Нечеловеческая борьба за премии. Бесконечные инсценированные псевдособытия в литературе. Несколько литературных лобби, ведущих жестокую и примитивную борьбу за культурное влияние. Омерзительные спекуляции критиков и журналистов, откровенно служащих хозяину; критиков, либо навязывающий читателю свой недоразвитый полуосознанный культурный мирок, либо проповедующих культурную и иную ксенофобию и псевдорелигиозное мракобесие” .
[v] Ibid. “К системе, настолько девальвирующей и опошляющей Слово, настолько профанирующей его, не хочу иметь даже косвенного отношения” .
[vi] Cf. Rutten, forthcoming.
[vii] Medvedev website: “Communiqué” (22.09.03). “в литературных проектах, организуемых и финансируемых как государством, так и культурными инстанциями”; “Только книги или другие носители, выпущенные своим трудом и за свои деньги, публикации на собственном сайте в Интернете” .
[viii] Medvedev website: “Manifesto on author’s rights” (30.11.04). Capitalization given as in the original. “ПИРАТСКИМ ОБРАЗОМ, то есть БЕЗ РАЗРЕШЕНИЯ АВТОРА, БЕЗ КАКИХ-ЛИБО КОНТАКТОВ И ДОГОВОРЕННОСТЕЙ С НИМ, что должно быть указано и в выходных данных” .
[ix] Medvedev website: “On the publication of the book by Kirill Medvedev, Texts Published Without the Author’s Consent” (10.01.06). “Texts published without the author’s consent”; “Можно восхититься смелостью ультралиберального издательства «НЛО», которое решилось нарушить священное для либеральной идеологии право частной собственности, причем, с определeнным риском для себя (потому что «Манифест» можно считать, конечно, только этическим, а не юридическим документом” .
[x] Ibid. “сила искусства победила юридические конвенции!”; “крупное этаблированное издательство отменило претензию поэта М. на особую маргинально-независимо-отверженную позицию, недвусмысленно указав ему на его место в культурном контексте и лишний раз продемонстрировав способность капиталистической системы включать в себя многие идеологически враждебные интенции” .
[xi] “хотя бы минимальную работу мыслы.”  When I asked Keith Gessen how n+1 would handle copyright, he responded with a mixture of bemusement and admiration that Medvedev was “lefter than Lenin.” Verso had expressed interest in releasing the volume in Europe, but Medvedev felt he could not sell or sign away rights he had disavowed: so, no Verso and no European publication. As Gessen explained, Verso relies financially on the sales of foreign rights, taking a full 50% (compared to 10–15%). They were willing to take on a British edition of Medvedev’s book, provided they could sell the rights in Europe. In contrast, n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse followed Medvedev’s stipulation and indicated no copyright (hence personal risk) on the copyright page. Beside this, the editors tried to honor the spirit of Medvedev’s declaration wherever they could: both publishers are small nonprofits staffed mostly by unpaid volunteers (from a personal communication, 12 November, 2013).
[xii] Originally published on Facebook; republished in the journal Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie. See Medvedev 2011. “По дороге на защиту леса…” .
[xiii] “студент[ы]-пацифист[ы], / пропащи[е] интеллигент[ы] и местны[е] пенсионер[ы]”; “как подрубленные деревья Химкинского леса”; “чтобы в этот раз полиция и армия / перешли на сторону народа, / то есть на нашу сторону”; “в виде бойцов ОМОНА / одетых в камуфляж цвета свежего леса/к нам идет подкрепление” [267-268].
[xiv] “стар[ая] иде[я]”; “вполне земно[е] человеческо[е] бессили[е]”; “и вдруг в этой высшей точке нашего бессилия появилось оружие” .
[xv] “то есть”; “на нашу сторону”; “Во время октябрьской революции было убито меньше народу, чем сегодня” [267-268].
[xvi] Все плохо; “мне надоело переводить”; “но там есть просто гениальные куски / я в этом уверен / … / когда я переводил стихи / чарльза буковски / мне казалось / что я делаю / лучшую современную поэзию на русском языке”; “когда я переводил его / мне казалось / что нет никого / кто понимал бы его так / как я” [23-24].
[xvii] “это был самый настоящий контакт — / когда два совершенно разных человека / начинают вдруг понимать друг друга / по-моему такой контакт / это и есть самое настоящее событие / искусства и жизни” [23-24].
[xix] “потому что перевод / это сладкий сон / а творчество / это мука” .
[xx] “он чем-то похож на фильмы квентина тарантино / там есть сатира на голливуд / и критика нравов голливудского/истеблишмента / но с использованием / все тех же старых голливудских уловок” .
[xxi] “s poetom l’vovskim”; Vtorzhenie; “львовский ехал вниз, а я вверх; / я жевал жвачку / и в тот момент / когда мы увидели друг друга / я как раз надувал / огромный пузырь; / мы встретились глазами / и улыбнулись друг другу; / мне стало интересно, о чем он подумал, / глядя на меня” .
[xxii] “этот текст должен был быть посвящeн проблеме общения / и центром его композиции должен был стать пузырь / но потом всe как-то сдвинулось/и перемешалось” .
[xxiii] “когда медведев был юн, / то его отец продал свою огромную библиотеку / и мальчик остался / без регулярного образования / и без знания истории / русского верлибра” .
[xxiv] “ПРЕДСТАВЛЯЮ СЕБЯ/МАЯКОВСКИМ”; “я стою посреди анекдотов и ласк — / как писал один из моих любимыч поэтов Леонид Губанов” [73-75].
[xxv] Medvedev 2012a, 122.
[xxvi] Bürger 2002, 72. “Die Avantgarde intendiert die Aufhebung der autonomen Kunst im Sinne einer Überführung der Kunst in Lebenspraxis. Diese hat nicht stattgefunden und kann wohl auch innerhalb der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft nicht stattfinden” (Bürger 1984, 54).
[xxvii] Bürger 2002, 73. “[…] die vor allem darauf abzielt, dem Leser ein bestimmtes Konsumverhalten aufzuzwingen, ist in der Tat praktisch; allerdings nicht in dem Sinne, wie die Avantgardisten es verstanden. Nicht Instrument der Emanzipation, sondern der Unterwerfung ist hier die Literatur” (Bürger 1984, 54).
[xxviii] Bürger 2002, 73. “Intentionen der historischen Avantgarde werden mit umgekehrten Vorzeichen realisiert” (Bürger 1984, 54).
[xxix] I develop this line of inquiry in a monograph in progress, Avant-Garde Post–: Radical Poetics After the Soviet Union.
[xxx] Bloch 1985, 44. “Das Neue wird als Bruder begrüßt, aus der Gegend hergereist, wo die Sonne aufgeht. […] Nach dorthin wird gehört, kräftig ausgesehen. […] So fuhren wir als Kinder auf, nicht immer im Schreck, sobald draußen die Klingel ging. Ihr Laut zerreißt die stille, dumpfe Stube, besonders gegen Abend. Vielleicht kommt nun ein dunkles Gemeintes, dieses, was wir suchen, was uns wieder sucht. Sein Geschenk verwandelt und bessert alles; es bringt eine neue Zeit. Der Laut dieser Klingel bleibt in jedem Ohr, er verbindet sich mit jedem guten Ruf von draußen. Mit dem großen Wecken, das da ist und kommt; die Erwartung allein bringt es freilich nicht. Aber sie läßt den Klang, wenn sie auf ihn und auf das, was er bedeutet, gut ausgerichtet ist, auch nicht überhören. […] Die Sucht nach dem Besseren bleibt, auch wenn das Bessere noch so lange verhindert wird. Tritt das Gewünschte ein, so überrascht es ohnehin” (Bloch 1995, 41-42).
[xxxi] See Douglas Kellner’s work on the significance of Bloch in Kellner 1997, 80.
[xxxii] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin write of the age of digital media as both a time of unprecedented “remediating” of all other and earlier media, and as fundamentally like earlier moments of experimentation with new form and technology in this respect: “like their precursors, digital media […] function in a constant dialectic with earlier media, precisely as each earlier medium functioned when it was introduced.” See the introductory chapter to Bolter and Grusin 2000, 50.
[xxxiii] First disseminated on Kirill Medvedev’s Facebook page; forthcoming in Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie; also reposted on V kontakte, for example here: http://vk.com/topic-821061_25921892(accessed 18 November, 2013).
[xxxiv] “Я говорю, что вижу два варианта – либо терпеливое строительство / профсоюзов… а если нет тогда надо совсем жестко действовать, / потому что никакие радикальные художества тут не помогут, / не проймут этих козлов, / да говорит она, ну а что? террор? […]” .
[xxxv] “всe так медленно… / сколько же еще времени потребуется, / впрочем, наверное это и правда единственный путь” [271-272].
[xxxvi] “спи спи мой сладкий / спи мой малышик / […] / спи крепче набирайся сил / много сил потребуется / храбрые крепкие мужественные бойцы будут нужны рабочему классу / тяжелые впереди времена” .
First published here: ARCADE