from Issue Two
In early 2000, less than two months after Vladimir Putin was appointed president by Boris Yeltsin in a bizarre New Year’s Eve television address, the first post-Soviet mayor of St. Petersburg died under cloudy circumstances. A longtime heart patient, Anatoly Sobchak dropped dead on a trip suddenly ordered by Putin—formerly his student and in the 1990s his chief of staff in the Petersburg administration. The first autopsy, on the scene, determined the cause of death to have been poisoning. The second, in Petersburg, determined it to have been a heart attack. Sobchak was 59.
It has since become a point of faith among some Russian journalists that Sobchak was the first victim of Putin’s bloody regime. Seven years and many suspicious deaths later, Ksenya Sobchak, the deceased mayor’s pouty, blonde, 24-year-old daughter, appeared in jeans and a tank top on the cover of the Russian edition of Gala. The top button of her jeans was undone so that readers could see more of her midriff. “I give off waves of aggravation,” said the blow-up quote just below her navel. “That’s how I like it.”
Inside, Sobchak was interviewed by the popular liberal journalist Valery Panyushkin. Just a few months earlier, Panyushkin had left his column at the daily newspaper Kommersant to accept the co-editorship of Gala. He explained this surprising decision in his final column: He lived in a police state that murdered its best citizens and crushed all opposition. It bought those who could be bought and attacked all others. It refused to allow any sort of political process, and people writing columns about politics who pretended that such a process existed were kidding themselves. Panyushkin would no longer play along.
His co-editor at Gala would be my sister, Masha Gessen, who was also a popular liberal journalist, though slightly less popular, perhaps, insofar as she was quite a bit more angry. She had spent years warning, both in English (in the New Republic, the New York Times, and U.S. News & World Report) as well as in the Russian press, that the country was sliding toward fascism. She had gotten a little sick of doing this, and the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October of 2006 decided the matter. She accepted a long-standing offer from the German publisher of Gala—in part on the not unreasonable premise that the Kremlin did not read women’s magazines and that she and Panyushkin would be able to publish what they pleased.
The issue of Gala with Sobchak on the cover was the first for the new editorial team. Panyushkin’s first question to the magazine’s first celebrity cover model was whether her father had been murdered. Sobchak’s response was both cruel and correct. “I don’t think that’s a suitable topic for a glossy magazine,” she said.
So here it was: Post-Soviet Russia. Or, really, just Russia, because the transition is over, and this is how things stand. And before we go any further, here is what needs to be said: It’s what they wanted—what the brave individual dissidents and the surrounding sea of their supporters, the liberal intelligentsia, always, in a way, wanted—when they fought for free speech; for Western-style consumerism; for open, porous borders over which multinational corporations, or at least their consumer arms, could cross as easily as if they were entering the old Yugoslavia. They sat in kitchens—people like my parents and their friends—and fantasized about the West. “Hopelessly cut off from the rest of the world,” Joseph Brodsky once wrote of that generation, “they thought at least that world was like themselves. Now they know it is like the others,” he added, “only better-dressed.” But by then it was too late.
The 90s in Russia were like the 90s in the US—a time of remarkable hope, with the good people, the products essentially of the 1960s and post-1960s, in charge and all their hopes pinned to an extremely flawed leader, in the Russian case Boris Yeltsin. He was the one politician pledged to pulling their country back into Europe, and so, like American liberals, who remained loyal to Clinton as he kept betraying them, the Russian liberals stayed. They supported Yeltsin through his 1993 shelling of parliament, through his erratic hiring and firing of cabinet ministers, his drinking! They opposed his war in Chechnya but then supported his manipulation of the 1996 presidential election. Most of all they supported the “free market reforms,” even though it was clear to everyone that Russia was undergoing a vast and historically unprecedented redistribution of resources upward—toward a tiny sliver of the entrenched elite. To say that this was by no means a free market was to align yourself with the Communists.
The liberals refused to do it. And so when the Yeltsin era finally ended on New Year’s Eve, 1999, with a handover of power to a former KGB agent, the Westernizers really had no one to blame but themselves. In truth, as a class, they didn’t blame anyone; they went about their business, and when that business maybe got shut down by the reconstituted KGB, now FSB, they looked for another. They took jobs with American think tanks. Or they left. In short they had become, in the words of the poet Kirill Medvedev, “ordinary people with their ordinary virtues and vices who had decided that they lived in a normal country and could go about their lives as they pleased. (Which is probably as it should be, except not in Russia, because Russia has not become a ‘normal country.’)” For the past two years (and, in the Washington Post, longer than that), we have all been reading about the Putin regime’s oppression of the liberal intelligentsia. These reports are true and, indeed, long overdue. But Putin’s unsentimental remarks upon the death of Politkovskaya—“I repeat, her influence on the political life of the country was minimal…. This murder is going to cause more harm to the government of Russia … than any of her reporting”—actually conveyed an important truth. The attacks against the liberal intelligentsia are real and they are ongoing, but they are also little more than what the Russian military in Chechnya would call a “mopping-up operation.” Because the liberal intelligentsia no longer exists.
Now, in 2008, four responses are possible: accommodation to the regime; retreat into a quasi-Westernized, oil-funded corporate culture; highbrow court jestering; or total and utter marginalization.
Let’s begin with accommodation, the treason of the intellectuals, though some would simply call it common sense. Even before Putin took power—that is to say, before the repressions got going—many intellectuals had already decided that the technical aspects of governance were for the moment a higher priority in Russia than democracy. They founded institutions with post-ideological names like The Fund for Effective Politics and magazines with names like Expert. And in the case of Expert, which first appeared in the wake of the 1998 economic collapse, this was not entirely cynical. People were tired of endless ideological wrangling. Russia was falling apart; someone had to take responsibility for it. If this meant occasionally having to hold hands with Putin—well, Putin was president of Russia. These people were business-oriented and wonkish and represented a real, emergent, post-ideological yuppie class.
Yet there is a certain kind of intellectual who will always be uncomfortable with ordinary pragmatism—he will need to make a grand renunciation of his old beliefs in order to explain his newfound support for the regime. In the early Putin years, these renunciations came fast and furious. The most infamous was a very short article called “Kak Ya Stal Chernosotentsem” (How I Joined the Black Hundreds) by a young literary critic named Dmitry Olshansky. In a series of moves that would be highly familiar to anyone who’s read American neoconservative conversion narratives, it described Olshansky’s discovery of various contemporary writers whose work had been unfairly neglected by fashionable liberal critics. He’d been lied to! And what was worse, it turned out the liberals who preached tolerance were actually highly intolerant—for them, simply reading these books meant you were a questionable element, a latent nationalist, and an anti-Semite. A chernosotnets. And with this, Olshansky, at the age of 24, announced his break with respectable liberal opinion.
The article was shocking to people not just because it appeared in a respected liberal paper and exhibited poor taste (skinhead gangs, not unlike the Black Hundreds, really were going around Moscow beating people up) and such a tin ear, but precisely because it seemed so clearly to have its ear to the ground. If a young opportunist like Olshansky said these things, this could only mean that the time for their saying had arrived.
In the years since the article, Olshansky has led a kind of double life. By day he remains a respectable writer on cultural matters; by night he is a blogger. At olshansky.livejournal.com, he says things that you can’t necessarily say in public, calling on Russia to invade Estonia, for example, after its removal of a Soviet war memorial from the center of Tallinn (this was the big news in Russia last May), and habitually referring to his enemies as “scum.” And you can see the use this has: it’s like Olshansky has created a separation of powers within a single writing career so that livejournal Olshansky can do the dirty work, while mild-mannered Mitya can continue to appear in polite society.
When I arrived in Moscow early last May, he had just published the first issue of a new cultural-political print magazine called Russian Life. It was an impressive production, well edited, well made. Olshansky had attracted a number of young Moscow journalists to the project, gradually producing the appearance of a new right-of-center intellectual formation: resolutely anti-glossy—the closest the first issue came to a lifestyle piece was an interview with a former dissident in her kitchen—and persistently pro-Russian. And yet it was not a genuine intellectual project, but something else, for at some point in every article there rose to the surface like some repressed but ugly memory an antagonism to the not-quite-dead liberal intelligentsia. They continue to keep great Slavophile writers out of the mainstream; they hang out in Moscow galleries while the rest of the country rots. And Russian Life even managed to find an old dissident who would say that her fellow dissidents prattle on about free speech while the Russian people suffer. Russian Life has that unmistakable aggrievement, that hostility, magically renewed from some fountain of right-wing youth, that is also familiar to anyone who’s ever glanced at the cultural or social writings of the post-60s American right. And it leaves an unpleasant taste.
Olshansky was an hour and a half late to our meeting—a lot even for a Russian. I sat in the brand-new offices of Russian Life, which occupy an entire floor in an old mansion in the center of Moscow. The magazine is handsomely funded by people associated with the Fair Russia party, an opposition party set up by the Kremlin to make sure that the pro-Kremlin party’s electoral victories are not too suspiciously large. While I waited for Olshansky, I helped the handyman assemble a leather couch and recalled how, ten years before, I used to visit Itogi, the liberal magazine where my sister worked, handsomely funded by the liberal oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, when it had just moved into its offices near the Voykovskaya metro. In early 2001, when Putin was breaking Gusinsky’s empire with the help of “tax inspectors” in ski masks and Kalashnikovs, those offices would become the property of Russia’s biggest company, Gazprom.
Olshansky was flushed and excited when he finally arrived.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I got called in to the Kremlin suddenly.” I wasn’t expecting that.
“Whenever a new magazine opens,” he went on, “they are interested.”
“What did they say?”
“Just that they’re very interested in what we’re doing. That they’ll be reading us with interest. Just reading. Not censoring or anything. So it’s not like you read about in the Washington Post.”
I was floored by this. What on earth did he think they were telling him but to watch himself? After that we sat for an hour discussing contemporary Russia. Olshansky is reedy, young, eager to please, and tolerably well read. The week before, on his blog, he had called those who disagreed with his position on Estonia “scum” and “trash.” A few weeks later, he would call the movie director Aleksei Balabanov—whose remarkable film Cargo 200 had just opened in Moscow—a “cockroach.” I sat there, at the long conference table Olshansky has in his office, and watched as he swiveled around on his big leather chair, giddily. No one seems to take Olshansky seriously, and it’s not hard to see why: he is thin and squeaky-voiced; he exudes unreliability, a moral uncenteredness, and people can sense this. But he understands power and how to gravitate toward it—and those in power, in turn, understand him.
And out in the street, it’s Mercedes, Mercedes, Audi, Mercedes. There are sushi restaurants, Irish bars, bizness-lanch destinations. Ten or even five years ago such places were filled with mid-level thugs in gold jewelry, yelling into their cell phones; walk into a restaurant now and you are surrounded by the lawyers, bankers, and real estate brokers who service the oil and gas money gushing through the city’s arteries. Russia is just a few barrels a day behind Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil exporter; it is way ahead of Canada as the world’s top gas exporter. A block from my sister’s apartment stands the huge, black, steel-and-glass Lukoil headquarters; its front courtyard is cordoned off by a thick glass wall, so you can’t get too close, but as you walk along the perimeter you can see the company employees, pacing back and forth in the courtyard, smoking cigarettes. Any culture with this much sudden money needs people to dispense advice on how to spend it, and this, after accommodation, is option No. 2 in today’s Russia. The editor of Russian GQ has a Ph.D. in medieval history and used to teach at Moscow State University; the editor of Russian Vogue used to teach literature there. Russian Esquire looks like nothing so much as the American Artforum, but it also buys monthly billboard space for its cover image in key locations throughout the capital; in May of last year, it was the huge ruined face of Iggy Pop.
My sister is now the head of a glossy women’s magazine. Who would have thunk? My sister, who at the age of 20 dropped out of college to work at Bay Windows, the gay Boston newspaper, and never looked back. She soon moved to Los Angeles to become an editor at the Advocate, the magazine then specializing in outing closeted, gay-bashing celebrities; and then, when it became possible in 1993, she moved back to Russia. The first war in Chechnya started not long after, and Masha soon began traveling there and writing fierce dispatches about it for the New Republic. She then became the chief correspondent for Itogi, writing primarily about the terrible state of social services in Russia; she went to Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, and she was in Belgrade, in 1998, when NATO started bombing the city. In recent years, after the demise of Itogi, Masha continued to report on social issues for Bolshoi Gorod, a city weekly, and kept up a combative column in the expat daily Moscow Times, the bellwether of Anglo-American business and political opinion in Russia since 1994. But Politkovskaya’s death was too much. “You buzz around the regime,” Masha explained to me at the time. “Buzz and buzz and nothing happens. Except you’ve raised your danger level just a tiny bit. And I have two little kids.”
One day last May I attended an editorial meeting at Gala. The staff of ten huddled in their office, with Masha presiding.
Red Couch. The famous German photographer Horst Wackerbarth is coming to Moscow later in the month to pursue his red couch art project. Horst likes to place his red couch in incongruous spaces and sit people down on it and photograph them. Gala will partner with Horst in Moscow—it will find people (to keep things interesting, the magazine will try to find people who dislike each other), Horst will photograph them, then Gala will publish the photos. The editors begin inventing potential pairings—there aren’t that many, actually, because of the Russian celebrity deficit; also my sister wouldn’t know them, if they existed. “Does Horst travel with the couch?” someone asks. Yes, he travels with it.
Feature shoot. “Wives of the Decembrists.” A reference to the women who suffered alongside their husbands after the failed December uprising of 1825. Masha wants to photograph the wives of the leaders of the new Russian opposition, Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov, whose marches in Petersburg and Moscow had been brutally dispersed by OMON riot troops in March and April. Lilya, the magazine’s 20-year-old fashion editor, doesn’t get it. She knows what a Decembrist is, but why is Limonov one?
Fashion shoot. The theme of the July issue is “Passion”—how should the fashion shoot express this? Evgeniy Klimenyuk, the deputy editor and only man on staff, suggests that the models could be photographed naked in a bedroom and that the featured items could be scattered in different spots around the room. Katya Krongaus, the magazine’s star reporter, suggests that the models should keep their clothes on except, it being summer, they’ll be in the ocean! As the one in charge of relations with the designer boutiques, Lilya does not like this idea at all: “You want to return the clothes to the store after that?” Someone suggests a kind of compromise: the model would be naked, but she’d be surrounded by the Russian national soccer team. Again Lilya shakes her head: “Esquire did that three months ago.”
The meeting breaks. We go outside to get some lunch. A little kiosk next to the building is under construction; a few weeks earlier a small bomb went off across the street, killing a man on his motorcycle, severely damaging the kiosk, and giving Alyona Kamenskaya, Gala’s copy editor—formerly the copy chief at Itogi—a slight concussion, three floors up.
The legendary linguist, cultural critic, and performance artist Alexei Plutser-Sarno lost all his teeth while serving in the North Baltic Fleet in the late 1970s.
“Because you were funny?” I asked when he told me this. Plutser shook his head.
“Because you were Jewish?”
“No,” he said. “It was just a form of social exchange. I took a lot of teeth too.” He smiled a big metal smile. “It was a kind of barter system.”
It was during his time in the North Baltic Fleet, Plutser explained to me, that he started collecting Russian curse words. After completing his service, he studied semiotics with Yuri Lotman at the University of Tartu, and eventually began amassing material for an enormous dictionary of Russian curse words, the first two volumes of which appeared in 2001 and 2005.
I first met Plutser-Sarno in late 2006 at a party thrown by a new literary agency in the basement of a rock café near the Kitai Gorod metro, where I had gone with my friend Stephen Boykevich of Agence France-Press. The agency had put out a tremendous spread, and now everyone was drunk. Plutser, who is tall, dark, and wears large black-frame glasses, was introduced to me as a linguist, but quickly explained that he was now the editor of a glossy magazine called Corporate Management. Almost immediately he produced the magazine—beautifully printed on thick white cover stock and, according to the composition of the “consultative board,” funded by some of the richest men in Russia. It’s hard to imagine them reading it, though: the texts were high-theoretical sociocultural reflections on postindustrial capitalism in Russia—as if the new Condé Nast business magazine Portfolio had been written entirely by Roland Barthes.
But Plutser’s excursion into management theory had given him a unique perspective on Russian political life. When Stephen suggested that Putin for all his faults had at least begun to fight corruption and stabilize the economy, Plutser-Sarno went on the attack. “What exactly does Putin do?” he demanded. Then, looking around the café for listening devices, he added: “I mean, aside from making things better. We all know he makes things better. Did you hear that, Mr. Putin? But aside from that,” turning back to us, “what does he actually do?”
“You know,” Plutser went on, when we couldn’t answer, “all this talk about who killed Politkovskaya, who killed [Alexander] Litvinenko—that’s all for the newspapers, for the television. It’s all games. But we’re grownups, right?” Steve and I nodded. “Well, let’s talk about grown-up things. Last year in Moscow there were 3,000 hostile takeovers. Three thousand! That is not a hospitable business environment.”
So Putin, while a dictator, was not a very effective dictator. Or maybe he was, because Plutser continued to look for listening devices. Then, not finding any, he turned to me. “Tell me,” he said. “How long have you been working for the FSB?”
The next time I saw Plutser-Sarno he was wearing a long, white robe in Pavilion 19 of the Central House of Artists and drinking directly from a bottle of red wine. It was Art Moscow 2007, an international contemporary art fair, and Plutser was steeling himself for his performance. “It’s time to whip Russian art!” his announcement explained. “Plutser-Sarno, as the body of Russian art, will take the whipping upon himself.” When the time came, Plutser lay down on the floor in his white robe and was struck repeatedly by a fake bloody whip. Audience members were invited to whip him themselves. “Oh!” Plutser, prone, would cry as the lash fell. “Russian art deserves more! Hit Russian art harder! Oh!”
At one point, a short, somewhat incongruous-looking man in his late fifties took Plutser-Sarno up on his offer and delivered some lashes. In return one of the artist’s assistants handed him a certificate, which he came over to me to read. “This certificate attests,” it said, “that Yuri Abagur is a true hangman of Russian art.”
“Hmm,” said Yuri. He wore a polyester dress shirt and slacks—a mid-level businessman, or bureaucrat, or even cop, he didn’t fit into the scene—and he looked vaguely dissatisfied by his certificate.
“That’s nothing,” I tried to assure him, as a defense of violent performance art. “There was a guy who shot himself, once, as an art performance.”
“I had a soldier do that in Afghanistan!” Yuri answered immediately. “Shot himself in the foot so he could go home. There’s a spot next to the big toe—it barely hurts.” He showed me on his foot and shook his head. “Boy did I get in trouble for that. The Soviet army, it was a big kindergarten. If anything happened to one of your soldiers, you had all sorts of problems.”
A few days later, Plutser used a different metaphor to describe contemporary Russia. “Everything is great,” he said, as we walked past Mercedes and BMWs on our way to Pushkin Square after another of his art openings, this one featuring his street flyer project, an enormous collection of every imaginable posted ad, from lost dogs to apartments to intimate services. “The bright future is already here. We are all part of Russia, Incorporated, even the people who just come to visit—we are all shareholders and managers of Russia, Incorporated. Of course there are normal corporate rules involved. You dress in a particular way—there’s a corporate dress code. And there’s a corporate code of conduct. You don’t speak ill of the company; you certainly don’t speak ill of the CEO. I mean, not at the office; you can do whatever you want at home. And the most important thing is loyalty. Loyalty is the coin of the realm.”
“But a company like that,” I protested as we passed under the enormous Russian Esquire–sponsored face of Iggy Pop, “when you can’t criticize management, it won’t be able to compete.”
“Compete at what? With whom?” Plutser was yelling now. “When there’s just oil, gas, and nickel—who are you competing with? Tell me! There’s no competition! There’s just raw materials! You take it out of the ground!”
“OK. What if the price of oil falls?”
“Well in that case,” Plutser admitted, choosing his words very carefully, “polny pizdets.” We’re fucked. He said this in all seriousness, because no one, not even Plutser-Sarno, will joke about a fall in the price of oil.
Early last year a ray of hope seemed to shine, in familiar, dissident-like form, from the series of marches (they were called Dissenters’ Marches) organized by the chess champion Kasparov and the outré poet-turned politician Limonov. The liberal press—what was left of it—could talk of nothing else. In fact, even in the glossy press the marches were very much on people’s minds: I spent an afternoon at Gala listening to Klimenyuk, the deputy editor, shout out the latest developments from the wire services. “City authorities will not allow march in Samara!” he announced, about a march planned for the central Russian city to coincide with a Russia–European Community summit taking place nearby. Then, ten minutes later: “City authorities to allow march in Samara!” Then: “Activist arrested for software infringement in Samara.” This was a kind of joke by the Russian security services—Russia’s entry into the WTO has been delayed for years now in part because of complaints from Microsoft that they don’t take intellectual property rights seriously enough. Now the FSB has begun knocking down doors and seizing computers under the pretext that they might have unlicensed software on them. “We live in an incredible country,” concluded Klimenyuk.
In mid-May, I traveled to Samara to see for myself. The day before the scheduled march, Kasparov and Limonov held a press conference in Moscow to talk about the harassment their organization was encountering from authorities. The two made an interesting pair: Kasparov in jeans and a jacket did most of the talking, describing, somewhat incredulously, the behavior of the authorities. “We’ve been told that Aeroflot may already be double-booking tomorrow’s flight to Samara,” he said, so they could claim the flight was overbooked. The chess master did not seem outraged so much by the injustice of this as the illogic of it (only one man can occupy a seat at one time), and he smiled in partial surprise while he spoke. Limonov, dressed beautifully all in black, with a short, trim gray goatee, sat quietly next to him, and spoke a few words when Kasparov was finished. “The only possible politics right now is a politics of heightening contradictions,” he said, “so that people can see the true face of this regime.” The next day, as predicted, Kasparov and Limonov and several Russian and Western journalists were interdicted at the airport and held in police custody until the plane took off. I was on another flight, and flew to Samara without any problems.
Several things impressed me about Samara. The march—which was perfectly pleasant and nonviolent, and to which at least fifty international and domestic media people came, equaling the number of marchers—was not one of them. But I was impressed by the beauty of the mighty blue Volga; I was impressed, walking around before and after the march, by all the young people out along the beach, happily drinking the local Zhigulevski beer from enormous two-liter plastic bottles, the boys cat-calling to the girls as the girls walked slowly by, all of them together utterly uninterested in any march of dissenters; I was impressed, after the march, by the determined multichannel television propaganda barrage, with one of the channels dismissing the march out of hand and showing instead a pro-Putin rally that apparently took place in Samara the same day; and I was impressed by the friendliness of the concierge at my hotel—it was a nice hotel—who called up to my room in the evening to ask if I wanted to have a “girl” come up for some “relaxation.”
But there was only one moment that I will never forget, and it happened as I rode on local Bus 61 to the march itself. It was a Friday afternoon, and hot, and the bus soon filled with women finishing up their household errands for the week and heading home. Many of them held shopping bags; they spoke on the crowded bus in clusters and called hello to one another as they got on. We passed the city park on the right, and the big beer brewery on the left, and finally took a right up the hill toward the central fountain where the march was going to take place. Suddenly all traffic disappeared. Looking up ahead we could see a number of police officers in their sky-blue shirts, standing by the side of the road next to their police cars. And then, on our right, just off the main road, they came into view very gradually, but it was as if everyone on the bus saw them at the very same moment: several large, old, rusted Soviet buses, each filled to capacity, brimming to capacity, with blue shirt upon blue shirt upon blue shirt. These were just local police, not the OMON riot troops, but they were present in such sheer numbers that the women on the bus, who had by now stopped talking, all—with the genetic memory of hundreds of years of state violence—unanimously gasped. “Bozhe moi,” one woman said. My God.
And that was the lesson of Samara, to me. “When they bring out a thousand cops for a hundred protesters,” one of Limonov’s lieutenants had said to me the week before at a secret meeting of the National Bolshevik Party in Moscow, “the state looks strong. Actually it’s weak.” But I don’t think that’s true, and it didn’t feel true on that bus. The women did not become outraged on that bus, or aware of the state’s precarious grip on power, or reality; they became frightened. And they were right to become frightened.
The final option for living under Putin, at least until the oil prices collapse, is to drop out. This is what Kirill Medvedev has done. Medvedev published his first book of poems, Vsyo Plokho (Everything Is Bad), in 2000, at the age of 25. Written in a shockingly plain confessional style, in a free verse that Russian poetry has mostly abandoned since Mayakovsky, it was immediately declared a classic by Moscow’s younger poets. Like the American literature of those years, it expressed a very personal, private ennui. Here we have everything we always wanted, Medvedev’s poems implied, and yet it is not enough:
I was talking the other day with some friends
about how I didn’t feel very sure of myself
in this world.
And then the conversation turned to a guy
who seemed to stand quite squarely on his feet,
in this world,
and who, it turned out, had already had (and he was still young)
about 320 lovers.
The poem goes on like this for a while. The genius of it, what people were clearly responding to, was that it refused to treat traditionally poetic themes, but jumped outside of poetry to create a kind of sociology, with great honesty and straightforwardness, of the younger Moscow intelligentsia. “I’ve met a fair number of people,” Medvedev continues, “who, hating the way they’re made, / their gentle liberal manner, their conscience, try, with all their might, / to squeeze this from themselves.” Russian poetry, like all postwar poetry, suffers from a problem of content: how, in an increasingly specialized modernity, do you write about the things you know when the “things” you know are just mostly the highly educated, relatively privileged, articulate people that everyone else knows, too? Medvedev’s insight was to write about those people anyway. And this turned out to be taboo.
“I read those poems at readings and people had extremely strong reactions,” he told me when we met in Moscow. “I mean, almost to the point of fistfights. And I realized that these reactions really had nothing to do with poetry, as such. And I began to try to figure out where they were coming from.”
In the years that followed, while his American contemporaries moved into a vacuous humanitarianism, Medvedev discovered Marx. And then, on the other side of Marx, the recent classics of what Perry Anderson has called Western Marxism: the Frankfurt School, Gramsci, Bourdieu, and Brecht. And Medvedev made a startling discovery. That world of intellect like their own that Brodsky’s intelligentsia had so ardently believed to lie somewhere beyond Poland, that small, parallel, but freer kitchen-world? Here it was. “The entire theoretical and practical arsenal of leftist resistance of the second half of the last century,” Medvedev would write, “this is that legendary ‘world culture’” of which the intelligentsia had dreamt all those years. And it was not liberal; it was radical and Marxist. Like Olshansky, in other words, Medvedev was breaking away from the powerful orbit of the Moscow intelligentsia; but unlike Olshansky he was doing it by keeping true, more true than they themselves could, to the dreams that his parents (our parents) had once had.
Then, a year after his book came out to such acclaim, Medvedev issued a communiqué on his website, declaring that he would no longer publish his work. He outlined the contemporary situation as he saw it: an aggressive government, an infantile avant-garde, and in between them a corrupt, greedy, indiscriminate group of publishers who could “hardly manage to slap the price tag on each book in time” before releasing it to the public. The Russian bourgeoisie and the international bourgeoisie deserved each other, and Medvedev didn’t want any more to do with either: “I find this all very oppressive,” he wrote. “Under these circumstances I find it impossible to participate in literary life.” He would no longer give readings; he would publish only on his website; and in general everyone could go to hell.
The poems he began publishing on the site shortly thereafter also changed. Medvedev still wrote about himself, but now it was himself in the context of others, of a specific political situation. The poems use the same free verse confessional form as the earlier poems, but Medvedev suddenly has a whole world to confess. It’s remarkable. Tonally they are the same, and he mostly still writes about his own life—but the world, in the form of class, poverty, ethnicity, is always intruding. There are poems describing the poet walking through Moscow; attending a concert; taking a long train trip to Italy with a Russian sports team, one of whose members keeps asking him which countries they’re going to. (“I might have said we’d go to Greece, Syria, Ireland—he’d still have/ nodded. / Oh mighty athlete, / we’ll go through Iceland / we’ll look at the sheep, the deer / the sheep-bulls / we’ll look at camels / and the young ice.”) The information processed by the poet is all social information: How do people talk to one another? What do they mean, what do they want, why do they want it—what should they do? And the same questions animate the essays Medvedev began writing in these years: essays about the increasing power of the Russian right and the relationship of the artist to that power; and of the failure of the traditional model of bourgeois liberal tolerance.
Russian writers do not now and never have competed on the international marketplace of ideas the way the major European writers do, and this has led, occasionally, to Russian writers who are able to synthesize European thought in surprisingly succinct ways. Medvedev is such a writer. Brodsky was another. Their poems, too, while formally distinct, share an interest in the workings of the mind of a cultured individual. But while Brodsky was put on trial by an absurdly incompetent Soviet regime,
Medvedev has had different luck. His political actions are all borderline absurd. During the May 9 Victory Day celebrations in 2005, he walked a pear on a leash down the streets of Moscow. In late 2006, he singlehandedly picketed a performance of a Brecht play by a director who had signed a letter in support of Putin’s imprisonment of one of the oligarchs. (The theater’s security guard, proclaiming the picket a threat to “business,” punched Medvedev in the face.) In February 2007, after a cultural program on the government television channel had caused a general outcry on the Russian internet, Medvedev called for a protest at the Ostankino television tower. One other person came. “The idea was to find out how many of the thousands of outraged internet users living in Moscow would attend a protest,” wrote Medvedev, thereby ceasing their “political nothingness,
civic impotence, demagoguery, cowardice, and whoredom. Which, of course, they wouldn’t—though I would have liked to prove that they would.”
I had discovered Medvedev in late 2006 because the liberal NLO publishing house had taken the liberty, without asking Medvedev, of compiling a number of his poems and essays into a book, which it called Texts Published Without the Permission of the Author. Medvedev was angry and amused, but I’d been carrying this book around with me for months, reading it over and over. So it was an interesting experience for me to meet Medvedev; I suppose I expected a god. Instead, Medvedev was slight and thin, and he did not speak beautifully—in fact, he had a stutter. But as I listened to him in Café Bilingua near Chistye Prudy, I thought of what Hannah Arendt had said upon meeting Camus: He stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries.
It’s true. Medvedev is the only writer of my generation, here or there, to have produced, in his poetry and essays and public actions of the past five years, a thoroughgoing critique of a political and literary culture. He has parted ways with the liberals: “They think that everything was going fine and then these bad people came to power,” he says. “But in fact Putin has not reneged on any of the market reforms. In fact, he’s continued them. And clamping down on the free press and on the protests—that’s the only way you’re going to keep the country from exploding, if you continue with the reforms. This is just what capitalism looks like in its peripheral or really semi-peripheral iteration.”
The position of the poet in Russia right now—absolutely naked against the market, utterly marginal but somehow still commanding a tiny living sliver of a readership—has allowed him to stand in perfect and total opposition to his culture, and be right.
In the past year or so, buoyed in part by his participation in the socialist movement Forward, Medvedev has begun to return to regular literary life. In April he printed a tiny chapbook of his poetry (the book says it was published by the Free Marxist Press, whose publisher and editor and only author is, as far as I can tell, Medvedev), and before our meeting I had read on his website that he was soon going to publish a book of essays. He has also begun to write intelligent commentaries on current events for the Forward website.
“How many people are in the party?” I asked him.
“Like a thousand?”
“More like thirty. People.”
I’ve always thought that whatever happens in Russia is eventually going to repeat itself in some form (a nicer form, usually) in the US. The freewheeling Clinton years were presaged by the much more freewheeling Yeltsin years; and the liberalization of culture that took place in the West in the 1960s was presaged in a way by the de-Stalinization that began in Russia in 1956. There is actually a straightforward causal relationship between these things (Russia and the US react to one another) but also a less straightforward kind of mirroring. This is part of what was so depressing, a few years ago, when it looked like Russia was going to turn into a second-rate normal country: it would offer no new scenarios, no half-baked but fully implemented schemes, for the world to learn from. (“Now it’s work, slippers, and soccer on TV,” as the band Kino once sang.) Well, it hasn’t turned out that way. Russia may be second-rate, but it is not a normal country. And, in this sense, it’s not even second-rate. Russiais a first-rate fucked-up country. And the future of humanity is once again being played out here. The possible reactions to that future—in accommodation, in attempted lifestylization, in amazingly clever but perfectly ineffectual ironization, and finally in simple, lonely, unpopular resistance and solidarity—are options we might soon be choosing amongst, if we’re not already.
Earlier, when translating Plutser-Sarno’s exclamation about what would happen if oil prices fell (polny pizdets), I used shorthand; and in calling his life’s work a “dictionary,” also shorthand. In fact, as I learned when I got back to New York and borrowed the two volumes thus far released of Plutser’s dictionary from the library, he has undertaken a gargantuan project that has no equals that I know of in any language. His dictionary is entirely descriptive; there are definitions, but primarily there are examples, and each volume is dedicated to a single word. The first volume—Khui, or cock—is longer, and includes every single explicit reference to khui that Plutser has been able to track down anywhere in any form.
The second volume of Plutser-Sarno’s dictionary is devoted entirely to the word “pizda,” cunt, and of course I fingered through this volume to look for the strict definition of Plutser’s emphatic expression, “polny pizdets.” I combed through all 861 instances—it was all pizda this, pizda that, but no pizdets. Finally I consulted Plutser’s website—and it turned out that pizdets, while a variant of pizda, had broken off and formed its own self-sufficient curse universe, and was slated to be featured in the fifth volume of the dictionary. In the meantime, Plutser had posted his findings on the site, and while “polny pizdets,” that is to say, total pizdets, was used in a variety of contexts to mean a variety of things, the one that seemed best was definition 3.2.2: “The total extinction of everything on earth.” So that’s what the bespectacled linguist had predicted to me, that time, when we walked under the enormous face of Iggy Pop.
Medvedev was more hopeful than Plutser-Sarno. On my last day in Moscow we met in Pushkin Square—Iggy had been replaced by then on the billboard by a bemused Bill Murray—and he took his newly printed book of essays, Reaction, out of a heavy gym bag packed with the remaining 100 copies, and handed it to me. Several of the essays, including the magnum opus, “My Fascism,” had already appeared in the unauthorized NLO edition, but there were a few things I hadn’t read, including straightforward accounts and analyses of all his Situationist-style political actions and one essay in particular that struck me. Written for the Forward website, it was occasioned by another round of arguments about what to do with Lenin’s body—whether it should be removed from Red Square—and reflected on the fact that Russia was still, for better and worse, a place where a revolutionary cataclysm had actually succeeded in overthrowing a criminal order, and a country still filled with all the old revolutionary stuff. “Watching, alongside the end of postmodernism in the West, the death-agony of the barely born, inadequate, clumsy Russian postmodern,” Medvedev wrote, “we see how symbols are putting on flesh and words regaining their original meanings. Che Guevara is less and less associated now with the cover of a Pelevin novel, a red star less associated with a kitschy Soviet Army cap you’d buy on the Arbat, and if someone is wearing, say, a shirt with a hammer and sickle on it, that means that he more or less consciously shares the socialist ideal, and may even be willing to fight for it.” Medvedev concluded with this: “So it doesn’t matter where Lenin is going to be buried, or where the oligarchs are going to be, or whether Russia will have a Kolchak Avenue. What matters is whether Russia will have a true ‘left turn’; whether power will go to the Soviets, and land—to the peasants, and peace—to the peoples.” Things had come full circle: the dissident was once again a communist.
When I last saw Medvedev, he was at the entrance to the subway, lugging his enormous, ugly gym bag, filled with the hundred copies of his self-published book—a person so marginal, so at odds with the society he was living in, that you felt it very likely he would one day simply be declared insane. And meanwhile, in the news kiosks, the June issues of the glossy magazines were finally on display. My sister was having all sorts of problems over at Gala: ads were down and the advertising director was blaming an anti-war poem (Russia is still at war, Russia is always at war, with Chechnya) from the April issue. A few months later, the German publisher would ask the editorial team to evacuate the magazine of all political content, and Masha would start looking for work elsewhere. But that was later. For the moment, in the kiosks, there was other news: Ksenya Sobchak, the daughter of the deceased former mayor of St. Petersburg, had finally made the cover of Russian Maxim. They’d glazed her in melted butter or something; she looked great.