Having renounced all copyright to his works in 2004, Kirill Medvedev is one of Russia’s most sincerely radical contemporary poets and essayists, as well as a member of the folk-protest band Arkady Kots. His unrhymed, free-verse poems chart the unromantic reality of post-Soviet Russia.
Interview: Maria Dimitrova
Portrait: Reineke Fuchs
Maria Dimitrova When did you first realise you were a socialist?
Kirill Medvedev The experience by which I came to socialism was in the 1990s. From one point of view, it was a collective experience. At that time I was working in journals – I wrote articles and did translations – and I was relying on getting paid for it but if that didn’t happen, I had no rights. I considered it a personal failure and didn’t realise it had other implications to it, that it had a political dimension. At that point, I felt that despite the hardships, things were moving in the right direction, that there were some positive developments. It wasn’t until the 2000s, under Putin, that I realised this wasn’t actually happening and that we were in fact regressing as a society. That made me reassess my experience of the 1990s, but later on.
MD Did your poetry arise from political concerns, or did you always write poetry and later conceived it as inseparable from politics?
KM Poetical problems worried me for a lot longer. It was once I had achieved some status and recognition as a poet that I started to analyse that through a political lens, and it was in some way under the influence of Walter Benjamin’s work about art that was becoming diffused in Russia at that time – the message of which was that what an artist says is dependent on his position in society and the context of it.
In 2002 to 2004, these various strands came together – my desire to develop and grow as a poet at the same time as an increased political consciousness under the influence of this emerging left theory that was permeating Russia. The new kind of poems I began writing in 2001 were inherently very politicised in terms of their form, so in a way it was poetry that stimulated and enforced my further politicisation.
MD How did that alter your relationship with poetry? You gave up copyright in 2004 and have written about participation in a compromised system as a form of complicity. Have any of your ideas changed since then?
KM The history of copyright vis-à-vis poetry hasn’t changed, but the more interesting experiment I conducted was that for five years I decided not to publish poetry at all, or anything. That was even more interesting because I wanted to see whether I would still retain the desire to write poetry in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be read. For a while I didn’t, but I eventually resumed.
MD Can art in this sense ever be responsibly practiced as a private individual? You write in your essay “My Fascism” that “we need to go away with this false notion of ‘literature as a private activity’”, but that what you hope for is to “someday live in my homeland, with my son Bogdan, and to practice my art, unpoliticised, as an ordinary private citizen”. Under what kind of conditions could that be possible?
KM It would be an ideal situation, this idea of the autonomous artist, but I am not sure it’s possible. Not in capitalist society, anyway, because if you can’t close your eyes to the contradictions, if you aren’t willing to subscribe to the ideology that says you can separate yourself from society, then it’s not possible. It’s normal to want to eliminate those contradictions and to do your own craft, but the difficulty is that under capitalism there is this fundamental hypocrisy that people shouldn’t believe that they have anything in common with each other. Live your life, don’t put your nose into the lives of others. In Russia, it is “live your life, don’t put your nose into politics”, but in the West, it is “live your life, don’t put your nose into the big narratives because this is where extremism and fascism and totalitarianism lie”. I think we have to acknowledge that politics is a natural state for a person to operate in and we just need to step up in our own development and acknowledge that this would not be easy, that it would involve a lot of hardship and struggle. Among poets, some began to realise that things were going wrong under Putin and they had to react somehow, and this created this contradiction between their default apolitical position as opposed to that of the poet as citizen. The way they try to resolve this is by thinking they can be political now because things are abnormal but the minute things go back to normal, they can go back to their apolitical state. It is the left poets who are reminding them that the political poet is the normal state, and that is how it stays.
MD Talking about the process of deideologisation of the last two and a half decades, and this unwillingness to subscribe to big narratives, you’ve also mentioned the reluctance of people to talk about “the Soviet project” in Russia. Some of the work of the Free Marxist Press, translating and publishing works by what could be deemed the intellectual forebears of the project, does something to fill that space, but what else is involved in that process of defining?
KM This is a question of the nature of progress. The Soviet people, my parents and grandparents, that entire generation, they believed that the Soviet journey is one towards progress and that the casualties and sacrifices are justified by that teleology. Then what took its place was the opposite idea: we went to the opposite extreme, where the Soviet project became viewed as a regressive project, a perversion of history, and development became synonymous with the development of liberal capitalism. But, paradoxically, the needs of that project require coming to terms with the same kind of casualties and sacrifices again, this time in the service of this new situation, this new movement that we saw in Russia in the 1990s. So there was a great deal of trauma when people had to refuse the ideals of their youth as supposedly false and dangerous to “civilised humanity” in order to acquire what was called normal life, and eventually to find no ideals, no normal life. This is something the current regime is trying to take advantage of, by giving people a kind of simulacra of both notions of progress.
Fighting this is very difficult and the discussion about the USSR and the toll the subject has taken on people opens up new ground for critical thinking. It’s natural to react against the generation of our parents, who are the liberal intelligentsia and who decided that the question of the Soviet Union was settled, that capitalism is the answer, and that we can talk about the casualties of the Soviet Union but never of the casualties of capitalism. The Soviet discourse, the process of reflecting on how complex and ambiguous the Soviet legacy was, opens up new opportunities to look at contemporary reality because it also allows a poet or an intellectual to feel that she is not just moving with this big stream of history on which she can pin all political and moral responsibility while working independently; it requires her to redefine her position.
The Soviet project itself was like a buffer and potentially an alternative both to individualist consumer liberal capitalism and to traditional fundamentalist society. It collapsed because of its own controversies but also because of pressure from these two movements, and what we have now is an unmediated clash between them, a “clash of fundamentalisms”, as Tariq Ali puts it. It is about the idea of progress again. If we can’t create a new idea of progress, one which combines humanism with collective values – absolutely necessary in light of global ecology problems, for example – then all the technologies would be used either solely for individual comfort, which is self-destructive, or for national or religious reconstruction, which is destructive in other ways.
MD Is it necessary for an artist to always occupy a marginal space?
KM I don’t like the idea that as an artist you should remain marginal or an outsider. A desire to become mainstream is normal. The idea that we should remain victims is pointless. If you want to change anything, you need to propose a conception of yourself as being potentially in power, which is a huge responsibility. In Russia the possibilities for imagining this kind of context are diminishing all the time and this is part of a definite government policy: they want to have modern art and science as long as it’s loyal and patriotic. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who are very capable but who feel that the only way to develop is to go to the West. I don’t like either of those conceptions. I like seeing young scientists and poets and artists who are in demand in the West, who are able to make an impact and exhibit there but who still decide to work in Russia and to leverage their reputation and resources for working in Russia. This is an idea that is very close to me and, something that my friends share.
MD You write about Pasolini being “a powerful and successful man who purposefully turned himself into a victim” because he understood art as an unwavering critique of power. How significant is the vulnerable status – as depicted most eerily perhaps in your poem “Comrade Kots” – of the activist and poet?
KM Being vulnerable is a necessary part of being political, but it’s not enough. The other side of being always ready to become a victim is being always ready to take responsibility for violence as well, which is much more difficult. In Russia we have this 20th-century tradition of the poet as a victim of state dictatorship, and it’s a great tragic tradition that already provides elaborate means of self-identification as a victim. It teaches you to put responsibility for violence on anyone else, which ends up being depoliticising because being political means always taking some responsibility, always knowing that you might not only be the object of political violence but sometimes an active subject, even if you are an absolutely peaceful person, as I am.
What is interesting about Pasolini is that his killer was in a way an incarnation of his poetical and political and sexual passion of 30 years earlier: one of those who were dropped out of this Italian peasant paradise, as Pasolini saw it, and then betrayed by communist leaders who became part of neocapitalism and failed to provide any historically progressive objective for the destructive passion of such young people – an objective which should have been capitalism itself – so they had nothing to do but fall into bourgeois corruption, which is deeply connected with perverted violence and all that. So if we remember Pasolini’s statement that he gave his life to sex, death and political passion, then his final act could, in a way, be read as a final and self-sacrificial statement against power corrupting and destroying people.
MD What is the influence of religion and faith on the collective political consciousness in Russia, especially on the left?
KM I don’t think there is deep religiosity among the majority of Russian people – it is more like a matter of cultural and national identification, of everyday superstition. However, I don’t think any wide project of political emancipation in Russia can be possible without similar processes inside the Orthodox church. The Pussy Riot action in a way stimulated reactionary, medieval tendencies inside the church, but on the other hand gave some space and maybe even a voice to people who are inside the church, but without necessarily supporting the President and Patriarch. I am not a believer myself but I have sympathy for Orthodoxy, I like its aesthetics very much, and though it’s hard to hope for something like a liberated theology in the near future in Russia, I would still support any progressive tendencies there. Considering the left, what is really needed is some religious spirit, in the way Ernst Bloch put it, of hope, which is inherent in human nature and cannot be reduced to concrete economic conditions even as it always expresses itself against their background. That is something a considerable part of the left traditionally refuses and fails to embrace, but militant potentiality of course has some deep connection with faith. You won’t do much without this slightly mystical hope for the future, and without being ready to give up at least your comfort, or maybe even life, for some universal, supraindividual idea. The communist project is still about how to combine this faith, which gives you will for struggle, with rational analysis, which is necessary for not wasting this potentiality.
MD What are you working on now?
KM One of my projects is translating Pasolini’s early poems in Russian. The second is Arkady Kots’ upcoming album Working Class Music, which is funded by the unions and is in the spirit of Mayakovsky. We are creating something that people in the working movement can use as a weapon; I don’t think an artist is necessarily obliged to do this sort of thing but if one does it’s wonderful. In terms of prose, I am going to publish David Harvey’s work on urbanism, Mike Davis, then Adrienne Rich and other authors. I am also looking for the right woman to translate the poetry of Audre Lorde – she is a black lesbian American feminist whose poems rely a lot on African mythology, and it’s not like Bukowski where you can get what he is saying even if you can’t speak English properly.
MD Why a woman translator?
KM Because when a white dude translates feminist poetry, it’s not great. She needs to be a native English speaker, and a feminist, though not necessarily a lesbian perhaps. §
It’s No Good, translated by Keith Gessen, Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill and Bela Shayevich (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015) is out now.