The Writer in Russia

The Writer in Russia

Kirill Medvedev is a new and very attractive figure on the Russian cultural landscape. A poet first, he published two books of confessional free verse early in this decade to much acclaim as well as controversy. Soon after, spurred in part by some of the violent reaction elicited by his poetry, he experienced a sharp leftward turn. In 2003, he announced that, given the conditions of the Putin regime (which he read as a mutant continuation of 1990s neoliberalism rather than as a backward step toward Soviet-style statism), he would no longer participate in literary life—he would neither publish nor give readings nor participate in round tables. In the years since, Medvedev has continued to develop his stubbornly independent position, more recently joining the nascent socialist movement Forward as a contributor to its Web site and as an activist. In all his writings, he has questioned the orthodoxy of the previous generation of Russian thinkers, the vast majority of whom were programmatic free market liberals. Medvedev is at the forefront of a new generation of Russians who are beginning, very gingerly, warily, and humbly, to apply the European left’s critique of postwar capitalism to their native situation.

In this essay, Medvedev attempts to connect some tendencies he sees in current Russian art, poetry, and politics. What he finds there is “the new emotionalism,” an appeal on the part of poets and politicians alike to personal experience and authenticity. In part this apparently inward turn is a natural reaction to a situation in which all public debate (about capitalism, about Putin) has been eliminated; but it is also a necessary condition for the current regime to remain in power. Followers of the American literary scene—with its rash of memoirs (including fake ones), continued but debased identity politics, and frequent appeals by even the least memoiristic writers to their “sincerity”—as well as followers of the American blogosphere, with its shrill self-assertions and self-promotion, will find much that is familiar in the world Medvedev describes.

The essay was originally published as “Literatura Budet Proverena: Individualny proekt i ‘novaia emotsionalnost’” or “The Situation of the Writer in Russia: The Individual Project and the ‘New Emotionalism,’ ” in Medvedev’s self-published volume of essays Reaktsiya Voobshe, Moscow, 2007.
—Keith Gessen

The intelligentsia’s will, and their desire, was directed, intentionally, at isolation. This is how they thought about the government: “You are cretins, leave us alone—we will study higher math, theoretical physics, and semiotics. And everything will be fine.” They failed to understand that in fact they were violating their own political conscience. They lacked the audacity and the will to recognize themselves as a political force. And when perestroika began, they were completely disorganized, intelle...