For nearly an hour on Tuesday evening, a roomful of roughly 20 students and faculty members found themselves whisked into the politically charged literary scene of modern Moscow.
The young Russian poet Kirill Medvedev, accompanied by editor and translator Keith Gessen, gave a reading from “It’s No Good: poems / essays / actions,” a recent collection of Medvedev’s poems, manifestos and personal writings. The two delivered Medvedev’s colloquial, often tongue-in-cheek, poems in both English and Russian — Gessen reading the translations at a careful, even pace and Medvedev following with a rapid rush of words. While most of Medvedev’s works are blatantly political, filled with references to Berlin, Tiergarten, the Bolsheviks and the Russian intelligentsia, they also incorporate short narratives that describe taking the Moscow metro or browsing bookshops.
Medvedev’s poems are particularly concerned with the state of literature in contemporary Russia. His work is partly a record of the back-and-forth dialogue between Russian writers, who call each other “spoiled little Socialist[s]” and deliver vodka toasts. In one poem, Medvedev eavesdrops on an argument in which one poet asks another — “Are you a subculture or political party? Make up your minds.”
Medvedev himself publicly announced his exit from Russia’s literary world in 2003. He made the decision to free himself from literary politics and allowed himself time to decide his political stance, he said.
“He felt he had a choice between remaining an exclusively literary figure or entering political life,” Gessen said.
The Russian literary scene remains filled with outdated authors of the Soviet era, who interpret the current Russian government under Vladimir Putin as communism’s second coming, Medvedev said.
“In order to understand [the Putin regime], we need to free ourselves of the old Soviet discourse,” Medvedev said, adding that he thinks the Putin regime is not a restoration of socialism but of capitalism.
Medvedev said he feels that it is beneficial to keep a high profile in Russia’s current political climate. The new regime, unlike the Soviet Union, will consider the West’s possible reactions when responding to political activists such as himself, he explained.
“Right now … it is important not be silent,” Medvedev said. “The more visible you are, the more likely it is you will be allowed to continue speaking.”
Medvedev is distinct among Russian poets for his willingness to participate in a conversation that extends beyond Russia, said Slavic Language and Literature professor Molly Brunson. By taking part in public readings and bringing his work to American universities, Medvedev is contributing to the globalization of contemporary, activist culture in Russia, she said.
“His commitment to being one of the mouthpieces for this new leftist, activist movement is apparent in his decision not only to have his work translated into English, but also in giving public performances,” Brunson said.
Medvedev’s poetry is also radical in that it breaks from the traditional forms that are still highly important in Russia, said attendee Roman Utkin GRD ’15, adding that both Medvedev’s political beliefs and his poetic style can be seen as expressions of the left.
Gessen is co-editor of n+1, a literary and political magazine based in New York City.