New Emotion: On Kirill Medvedev
April 8, 2013 | by Lucy McKeon
In 2006, a leading Moscow publisher issued Texts Published Without the Permission of the Author, comprised of the works of a well-known Russian poet. Rather than a lawsuit, the book resulted in a literary symposium, accompanied by a debate about the nature of copyright and, finally, the first translation of Kirill Medvedev’s works into English. In December 2012, It’s No Good: poems/essays/actions—a compilation of the thirty-seven-year-old poet-activist’s work—was published, indeed, technically without the permission of the author, by n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse.
Medvedev, a controversial figure in the contemporary Russian poetry scene, stopped publishing in 2003. He would continue to release poetry, essays, and calls to political action on his Web site, LiveJournal, and Facebook page. But he renounced all rights to his own work. “I have no copyright to my texts,” he wrote in Manifesto on Copyright, “and cannot have any such right.” He became more deeply involved in leftist activism. Some thought him washed up, a has-been, even crazy. Others were angered by what they deemed a gimmick.
Critical of the post-Soviet liberal intelligentsia, makers of the culture who came to dominate an increasingly booming nineties Russia, Medvedev—who was born in Moscow in 1975—and his work issue directly from the tradition he critiques; his father was a well-known post-Soviet journalist. A decisive moment of separation might be found in his abdication of the most basic literary right.
“The average cultural consciousness is a putrid swamp,” Medvedev writes in his essay “My Fascism” (2004), “half-Soviet, half-bourgeois—in which Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Josef Stalin, the pop star Alla Pugachev, and Jesus Christ all lie side by side, dead and decomposing.” Privatized, commodified, and depoliticized, the neoliberal artistic consciousness is blind to the connection between cultural production and the distribution of money and power.
In his introduction to It’s No Good, Keith Gessen imagines the American writer weighing the pros and cons of various publishers owned by multinational corporations: “On the other hand HarperCollins, with which I’d also published a book, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire, NewsCorp—a lot more like Exxon-Mobil [than Viking-Penguin is]. On the third hand, Harper is the only major New York publisher whose employees have formed a union. And on the fourth hand …Medvedev cut through all of this,” he concludes. This consistency impresses Gessen.
Before breaking from the literary world, in his midtwenties Medvedev published two collections of poetry: Everything is Bad (or It’s No Good) and Incursion. His poems are autobiographical free verse, unusual in Russia, and were dismissed by some critics as not really poetry. For years he translated Charles Bukowksi into Russian.
Medvedev’s poetry—casual, often explicitly political, humorous; even silly at times—fiercely diagnoses the banality and disease of Putin-era Russia. A lonely and alienated narrator-flâneur wanders Moscow, sharply aware yet stupefied. After familiarizing oneself with Medvedev’s eye, one becomes at home with his rhythm, develops affection for his subtle and poignant observations: cheap pâté amid a mega-grocery store, “the syrupy poison of empathy” we feel at others’ misfortunes, wonder at the intense loneliness of a newborn’s first six months of life.
In his essays, Medvedev calls for a reclamation of the Russian language and, therefore, of literary culture, from the comfortable stability of post-Soviet Russia. The years following perestroika, characterized by privatization, conformism, and alienation, made Russian not just meaningless, Medvedev argues, but empty and impotent. “Either the word becomes an actual act,” he writes in “My Fascism,” “or it loses all its force entirely.”
Medvedev joined a small socialist party called Vpered (“Forward”), becoming editor of its Web site. He describes a literary culture bloated with the self-important aesthetic of sincerity in “Literature Will Be Tested” (2007), where “personal projects” of self-expression take the place of critical perspective—what Medvedev calls “the new emotionalism.” In 2007, he founded the Free Marxist Press, which publishes the works of Marxist thinkers like Ernest Mandel, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Herbert Marcuse, and Terry Eagleton, as well as Russians.
Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika allowed for an expanding sense of freedom of speech and a recognition of the past formerly unimaginable. The liberal intelligentsia cheered. But what to do with a previously controlled history once exposed? Historian Eric Hobsbawm disputed the notion that history is a prophylactic against unwanted futures: it’s what you do with knowledge of the past that will determine what follows. With the passage of time, the buried effects of old atrocities resurface as mourning, commemoration, and debate and either change or become stuck -as is Medvedev’s concern- in the stale grip of fearful collective memory and newfound material comfort, obscuring contemporary reality and stagnating society.
Hunger for broader “world culture,” intensifying over the seventy-four years of Soviet control, came to a head for those Russians able to cash in on the country’s economic prosperity in the nineties and early naughts. For the intelligentsia, the great hope of the nineties might have been the creation of a truly humanist ideology. Instead, Medvedev argues, they failed “to work out, within [themselves], the ability to understand and accept something outside their own personal ‘identity.’” A Russian neoliberalism dedicated to becoming on par with the West naturalized a culture of corporate capitalism. Luxury goods and Western cultural exports were devoured with gusto. Publishing boomed.
In the mid—twentieth century, Soviet state control exerted a political constraint on the arts by imposing the notorious aesthetic of “socialist realism.” In contrast, Medvedev identifies a different constraint exerted seventy years later, not by political decree but by the more subtle, and perhaps more irresistible, force of self-interest and private property.
In the decade following Putin’s 1999 rise to power, many citizens of the former Soviet Union embraced a sometimes suffocating stability, even in exchange for democratic liberties. The nineties had ushered in a widespread mainstream disillusionment with a long-imagined but insufficient democracy. A 2011 poll found that fifty-three percent of Russians value “order” over human rights.
Meanwhile, art was increasingly treated as separable from political and corporate reality. Central to his critique is Medvedev’s rejection of the artist-as-private-citizen ideal as embodied in the Soviet poet-hero Joseph Brodsky, who popularized the notion in his 1987 Nobel Prize address. Exiled from the Soviet Union in the seventies, Brodsky is upheld as a great symbol of freedom of speech and artistic independence by the American and Russian lefts (recently, parallels were drawn between him and Pussy Riot; Medvedev’s activist folk band, Arkady Kots, was detained by police for performing in support of Pussy Riot in April 2012).
But Medvedev identifies the cultish following of such faux-purity as naively apolitical, an irresponsible passivity that ignores the interconnectedness of art and politics, most obvious in the artist or intellectual’s uncritical acceptance of money and exposure. Gessen writes, “To play within the system is to play by its rules; you could choose, also, to walk away, and that’s what Medvedev did.”
Logically, Medvedev’s answer to individualized disconnectedness calls for a synthesis of twentieth-century leftist political and intellectual thought, “a situation where several senses of the word ‘humanism’ begin to collide.” Where something from poetry meets something from philosophy; where postmodernism, logocentrism, psychology, culture and counterculture, “and probably something else, too, that we haven’t though of yet,” writes Medevedev, join to form “a new shared understanding of humanity.” Only in this utopian future society could the artist as private citizen responsibly exist and create.
If Medvedev seems highfalutin or simplistically ingenuous, this may speak more to the American postcapitalist context in which he is judged than to his sincerity. The Russian equivalent of David Foster Wallace’s “New Sincerity”—the idea that a post-postmodern literary rebellion will have to risk eye-rolling cynicism in its genuine belief in something—was defined by nineties dissident poet Dmitry Prigov and critic Mikhail Epstein in response to the abstraction and postmodernism that dominated late and post-Soviet culture. “Postconceptualism, or the New Sincerity, is an experiment in resuscitating ‘fallen,’ dead languages with a renewed pathos of love, sentimentality and enthusiasm,” wrote Epstein in “A Catalogue of New Poetries.” This is Medvedev’s “new emotionalism.”
“In the new situation,” Medvedev writes in “Literature Will Be Tested,” “when a long-repressed freedom of expression mingles with neoliberalism, it is God again who starts to speak through the poet. And this God is nothing but the rumblings, the convulsions, the subterfuges of capitalism itself …” This form of sincerity has misled artists to apolitically navel-gaze in “flaccid tolerance”—to reject responsibility and collectivity in favor of individual feeling and experience that at its most extreme “comes down to a single question that today hangs over our country and our world: What does it matter that a fraud took place if everyone’s happy?” It’s for a sincere belief in something beyond the self that Medvedev searches.
“This is not a heroic pose, or a publicity stunt,” Medvedev wrote of rejecting copyright. “It is a particular, necessary self-limitation … if the mainstream, represented in my person, adopts such a half-underground and, as far as possible, independent position, then, maybe, there will be more honest, uncompromising, and genuinely contemporary art in my country.” It may feel instinctual not to believe him—or to assume that no one will follow. But what if they did?
Lucy McKeon is a freelance writer and photographer, and a graduate student at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.