By David Blomenberg, Reviews Editor
There’s a certain renegade quality to the publishing of this book that resonates not only with the disposition of the activist poet it introduces to the English-reading public, but also chimes with Russia itself, the country whose health—both political and artistic—is always at the heart of Medvedev’s work. There’s a degree of lawlessness in the Russian mode that extends beyond internet scams and an entrepreneurially cavalier attitude toward copyright law. In 2004, Medvedev issued a “Manifesto on Copyright” on his website, declaring that anything he writes can only be “collected and edited according to the desires of the publisher, released in a PIRATE EDITION, that is to say, WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR, WITHOUT ANY CONTRACTS OR AGREEMENTS.” We can assume that UDP has held up its end of the bargain.
Among the pieces presented in this survey of Medvedev’s work are obituaries for writers, journalists, and activists, including a man named Stanislav Markelov, killed in the center of Moscow along with a journalist who was with him at the time. The act, he said, was not “just the murder of a human rights activist and antifascist, but a crime AGAINST JUSTICE…The continuation of this battle will serve as the best memorial to him.” Being a writer and activist does have its risks, and Medvedev takes them.
Keith Gessen, in the introduction, says that “Moscow has always been a dangerous place, but it was no scarier in 2006 than it was in 1996—it was a lot less scary, in fact.” Reading this brought me up short—was it really all that bad? I’d been to Moscow in the mid-nineties, when the city center’s swimming pool (the world’s largest at one time) had been replaced by a the world’s largest Russian Orthodox Cathedral, itself a copied replacement for the cathedral that had been blown up in the 30s by Stalin. The demolition of the cathedral was to do the double-duty of breaking the back of the Church and to clear the way for the monstrous Palace of Soviets, a towering cylinder topped with an almost equally-tall statue of Lenin in famous taxi-hailing pose; a building that would be a powerful symbol for the new regime Soviet engineering–not always being up to the tasks they had placed before them—found that the site’s substrate couldn’t support the massive project already underway and thus the largest swimming pool was born, heated to Jacuzzi-toasty coziness throughout the bitterest winter months. By the time I first arrived in town in 1994 it was choked with weeds and lilypads.
Memory didn’t retrieve any sense of menace at first. In Moscow, I wrote hometown newspaper columns on the ridiculousness of the place, such as having to wait in three lines in order to buy a toothbrush, or the Mafiosi swanning their trophy girls in floor length mink through the Pushkinskaya McDonalds with a tray of Big Macs and “milk cocktails,” otherwise known to the world as shakes. The mobsters could be picked out at 50 yards due to their mismatched designer suits in novelty colors. But most of the issues that came to my mind about my time there were those of the recently-graduated tourist—the drab buildings, the grittiness, the inconvenience. The mobsters were people to be snickered at with their expensive lack of taste in dressing and choice of eating establishments.
Eventually, though, I remembered the deeper issues the 20-something me gradually clued in on. The city and the nation were packed with superlatives, sure, including the rate at which the changes were taking place. Pensions for the elderly weren’t pinned to the dizzying rate of inflation, which left many to beg on the streets or move in with family. Yeltsin was President, the Russian parliament building had been surrounded and fired upon by tanks the year before, and I’d made the mistake of reading all three volumes of Gulag Archipelago before I touched down at Sheremetyevo airport. To me, the city seemed full of ghosts. Red stars, hammers-and-sickles—emblems of the old regime that had killed so many, that was the reason for so much fear-mongering when I was in grade school—were everywhere, but we were in a new age. The ruble was back to having the double-headed eagle. The Kremlin flew the White, Blue, and Red instead of just the Red.
But also in the news were darker reports. Parliament members were showing up with distressing frequency in vacant lots on the outskirts of Moscow with their hands duct-taped and gunshot wounds to the back of their skulls. And journalists, too, now that I thought of it, often ended up dead if they chose to expose government and Mob corruption, offed by briefcase bombs or other methods seen in spy thrillers: exploding cars, machine-gunned in elevators, or held for ransom. I soon got the sense that things were well enough for a lowly college instructor, but Russia was still a place where to stick one’s neck out carried very real risks.
Medvedev does this repeatedly, shining a harsh light not only on the suppression of the Chechen uprising and the school massacre in Beslan, but on the artistic community. Writers and artists are guilty as well. “We need to do away,” he says, “with this false notion of ‘literature as private activity.’ Because poetic language in Russia, even the most refined and individualized, is, sorry to say, far from bring your private business. It’s a source of healing or a method of oppression, it’s a potion that can heal or destroy, and Russia itself is a mewling, pulsating mass, full of mute madness, which needs perpetually to be described…If you don’t give Russia a living language, it will take a dead one, a zombie language, a dead form that pretends to be living, and it’ll be your fault. And everything will remain as it’s always been.”
On my return to America, I found, parliamentary assassinations aside, that much in my home country was very much like that of the country I just left. Such problems have only gotten easier to spot in recent years— the kowtowing demanded by governmental organizations, corporate culture, and artistic circles, the mounting offenses committed in the name of profit by conglomerates. In reading this book, it becomes clear that Russia’s issues are also our own. Among the eulogies are hard-edged and funny poems and articles relaying abuses of authority, corruption, and, above all, a sense of a country on a white-knuckle trajectory from Cold-War hangover to unbridled capitalism.
Medvedev says, in varied and compelling ways, that it is precisely meaningful and incisive criticism that is necessary for the continued success of any system, either artistic or politic; it is falling into line and asking no questions that greases the rails that lead from a Palace of Soviets to a stagnant algae-choked marsh. Where most Western writers and artists content themselves to gripe in editorials or to post passive-aggressive tweets, Medvedev actually does something, continues to agitate, and, in the works contained in this volume, shows that dissent is not treason, that instead dissent is a vital element for progress. We have much to learn from him.
Translated by Keith Gessen, with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill, and Bela Shayevich
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