New Russian Political Poets
Poetry after Brodsky
The most influential Russian poet of the second half of the 20th century was, by far, Joseph Brodsky. While his poetic style, a virtuosic and self-conscious endpoint to the tradition of Russian classicism, was difficult to imitate, his ethical and moral example was contagious. Brodsky’s trial in 1964 — he was accused of “parasitism,” i.e., not working, i.e., being a poet who refused to participate in Soviet society — turned him at the age of 24 into a world-renowned figure, a martyr in the service of poetry. As he himself said many times, including in the lecture he gave on receiving the Nobel Prize, Brodsky was the representative of a particular Soviet generation whose highest ambition was to be left alone; whether they were poets or mathematicians or painters or factory workers, they simply wanted the government to leave them be. Brodsky’s word for this was privacy. “If art teaches anything,” he said in his Nobel lecture, “it is the privateness of the human condition.”
The generation of poets after Brodsky (Dmitri Prigov, Lev Rubinstein, Sergei Gandlevsky, Mikhail Aizenberg) took many aesthetic paths, but all followed Brodsky in their essential belief in the private role of the poet. This was partly out of necessity: you could not write freely within the system of official Soviet publishing. But after the Soviet Union collapsed and the former underground poets started coming out into the light, they did not, for the most part, change their minds. Poetry was a private enterprise. A poet, in his off-hours, could deliver socially engaged lectures and write essays, but poetry itself, lest you fall into old Soviet habits, was to remain simply poetry, nothing more.
In the next generation, born around 1970, this tendency held. The main poetic publishing project of the turn of the millennium was Vavilon.ru, a huge web archive organized by the poet and impresario Dmitry Kuzmin. Vavilon published and archived some late Soviet underground poetry, but focused primarily on finding new poets working in some novel vein. As long as a poem did something new, it could be published on Vavilon.
One of the young poets promoted by Vavilon and Kuzmin was Kirill Medvedev. His work was confessional free verse in the style of a more intellectual Charles Bukowski, whom Medvedev had translated. His first book of poems, It’s No Good, was short-listed for the prestigious Andrei Bely Prize in 2002. Two years later, however, Medvedev announced that he was leaving the literary world. It was an extension of global capitalism, he wrote; he wanted nothing more to do with it. From here on out, he renounced copyright to all his works and published only on the internet or through other self-publishing mechanisms.
Medvedev’s announcement, generally ignored or misunderstood at the time, appears now to have signaled the return of political engagement to the Russian literary scene. The past decade has seen a flowering of political poetry in Russia, much but not all of it coming from the left; its institutional nodes are the Free Marxist Press, started by Medvedev in Moscow in 2007, and Translit, a St. Petersburg–based literary and political journal founded in 2005 and edited by the poet Pavel Arseniev. As this limited but I hope representative sample shows, the poetry comes in many styles and genres. Medvedev, who began as a demotic poet, has lately adopted a more dramatic and slightly more elevated style. Galina Rymbu, a young poet originally from the Siberian city of Omsk (where Dostoevsky served his prison term), writes poems that are part confession, part social commentary, part incantation. Elena Kostyleva’s work, which also belongs to a new trend in frank female confessional poetry, is characterized by a mixture of irony, anger, and dark humor. Roman Osminkin is very much in the tradition of Prigov, attacking the very language he uses even as he uses it — but as a socialist writing socialist poetry. Finally, the verse plays of Keti Chukhrov, an art theorist and philosopher, dramatize the philosophical and sexual conundrums of contemporary Russian life.
What these poets have in common is a desire to address contemporary Russian realities, and to occupy, through the medium of poetry, a position that has been both the glory and the curse of Russian poetry for the past two hundred years. That is, to be something more than poets.