Since the Cold War, there have only been two reliable ways for a Russian intellectual to get noticed in the United States. One is being a dissident with charisma and sufficiently nonthreatening political views. The other is writing poetry or literature of such austere depth that it makes American literary culture seem shallow and comfortable. (Even better would be, like Brodsky or Solzhenitsyn, having a little bit of both.) The two are not, despite appearances, at odds. The arcane poets and political misfits both draw on and contribute to a deep-seated set of stereotypes about Russian literary culture: the mystical Russian soul, the perennially menacing government, the censor's leaden hand always strangling free artistic expression. It's not hard to imagine the Russian intelligentsia as a heroically anachronistic blend of Les Mis and La Bohème, slaving away in garrets to bring down the system without betraying the purity of art.
So what are we to make of a Russian poet and intellectual whose inspiration is less Dostoevsky than Bukowski, whose enemy is less Big Brother than the free market, and who isn't ashamed to call a poem "Big Rubber Cock"? If nothing else, Kirill Medvedev is a refreshingly idiosyncratic figure. He began as a translator from English, and the influence of American poetry is noticeable in his work—something quite rare for his colleagues, who are unaccustomed to taking it seriously. He has also made himself an enemy of the literary establishment in other ways. In 2003, he declared that he would no longer participate in "literary projects organized or financed by government or cultural bureaucrats," publishing on his website a blistering communiqué that denounced the literary world as a "nasty and primitive battle for cultural influence." Soon, he announced that his work could be published only as a pirate edition without his consent or permission. (In 2005, the prominent NLO publishing house did just that.)
This withdrawal from literary society was not motivated by peevishness or professional failure, but a growing sense of alarm about the Putinist literary intelligentsia's refusal to examine its own political function. In treating literature as a thing apart, separate from the increasingly hopeless and degrading world of politics, the descendants of Brodsky were gradually becoming complacent "cultural bureaucrats." Medvedev has accordingly rededicated himself to the creation of a theoretically up-to-date Marxist publishing house and an activist poetic community in Russia, even if it is hard to believe that reading Terry Eagleton will avail likeminded poets much in their struggle against the Putinist state-oligarchy.
Medvedev's poems—many of which have been translated and published in It's No Good, edited by Keith Gessen—marry a self-consciously democratic observational pluralism, in which encounters with fellow poets share space with reflections on sausage and Hollywood movies, with a strong sense of political and personal mission:
If I were to cry at Amelie, I'd cry because
if it exists,
exists only in some forms
that are impossible for me to reach,
that are suspicious, skittish, awkward,
it exists, if it exists,
in diseased idiots,
other people's annoying children…
These are not the stately, rhyming edifices of Mandelstam or the other Silver Age poets. Neither are they the gnomic unpunctuated fragments of Sergei Sviridov or the other poets of the post-Soviet avant-garde, who have barely made it into English translation but whose influence is pervasive in contemporary Russian poetry. Instead, Medvedev's verse feels scribbled: notes on napkins, jottings from European bus voyages, snatches of odd stories heard or experienced. It is hard to believe that Marxism, even in its updated '60s-vintage Marcuse version, could sound compelling and new in a poem instead of tediously preachy. Yet the sense that there is something the poet is fighting for gives substance and heft to the style, which can otherwise lend itself to bohemian self-indulgence. The result is a collection of serious poems that take the reader seriously, no less so for their frequent lightheartedness.
Still, it is the essays, not the poems, that form the heart of the volume. "My Fascism," the most urgent and driven of them, is an attempt to pick up the cultural pieces after the 1990s. During that decade, as Russia was collapsing into an orgy of violence and state-backed capitalist rapine, postmodernism became the dominant literary movement. (The novelist Viktor Pelevin, probably the most influential Russian postmodernist, is still one of the country's bestselling authors.) Yet nothing like a functional liberatory ideology ever emerged from the world of the '90s intelligentsia; to many, the neo-fascist visions of Aleksandr Dugin came somehow to seem more forward-looking and appealing than anything it could offer. Medvedev's essay tries to figure out why—and then to move beyond this failure by offering an alternative, progressive literary creed that does not abdicate its political responsibilities.
"Dmitry Kuzmin" is much more personal. It concerns a poet who was one of Medvedev's closest collaborators and who later broke with him in a public and acrimonious fashion. Resisting the impulse to indulge in recriminations, Medvedev uses his falling out with the poet as a launching point for broader questions: What does it mean to write conceptual poetry? How are poets embedded in social relationships, to one another and the outside world? What happens when we link these relationships to ideas about movements and "innovative poetics"? Kuzmin's attempt to embrace and enclose contemporary poetry, however well-meaning and ecumenical, becomes for Medvedev an analogue of "repressively tolerant" capitalism; in the marketplace of ideas, nothing, in the end, really matters.
These essays—together with the other analytic and programmatic texts compiled in It's No Good—show Medvedev to be a sensitive and highly disciplined, as well as passionately engaged, observer. They are particularly rewarding to read because of the peculiarly marginal position Medvedev occupies in the world he discusses in such detail: having withdrawn deliberately from the cultural bureaucracy, he is free to dissect it with the candor that it deserves.
Less convincing, in the essays and elsewhere, are his occasional lapses into messianism. Medvedev is no dissident—for one thing, he lacks the driving sense of redemptive, Christlike victimhood—but he does have a fondness for quixotic protest "actions." These are not always the hard-nosed praxis he seems to want them to be. Thus, one of his actions was a protest at the Ostankino television station over an episode in which a talk show had unexpectedly confronted an old '70s rocker with the woman with whom he had had an affair decades previously. The Russian internet was up in arms, so Medvedev decided to arrange a meet-up to demand the host's resignation. The write-up frames this as an experiment in finding "a basis for political action," but it is unclear why. After all, Medvedev's whole body of work seems to militate against the idea that any protest is better than no protest: How can pseudo-political mobilization that does not question the premises of the system be any better than the mobilization of nationalists or soccer hooligans?
For all that, It's No Good remains essential not just for understanding the political and cultural realities of Putin's Russia but also the ways in which these realities, and the struggles around them, are our own as well. The familiar dissident mythology is content to depict the country as a distant and alien land whose opposition fights for "the rights Americans take for granted"; few Americans could imagine being Havel's greengrocer. Medvedev's broadsides against establishment complacency and repressive tolerance, on the other hand, could just as easily be pointed at the West. This makes the book a lively and engaging, as well as edifying, read—even with the obscure references and Russian names that inevitably accompany translations, it's not hard to see that we live in Medvedev's world too.
Greg Afinogenov is a PhD candidate in Russian history at Harvard University.