Category: Issue 26

“A Long Time Ago…”

A long time ago I used to read a great deal about various traditional societies. That is how I learned of tribes whose pre-scientific worldview makes no causal connection between childbirth and sex. They suppose that children are born for unrelated reasons. For example, when a young woman, on a full-moon night after the season of rains, swallows the seed of some special plant that is considered sacred, she is guaranteed to become pregnant soon afterwards.

 

Curious though such beliefs are, they are nothing compared to a much more striking phenomenon. A significant percentage of the population of a certain large Eurasian territory recognize no causal link between the quality of their everyday life and the character of their participation in the regularly held ritual activities that, by analogy with practices established in the modern world, are called “presidential elections” and “parliamentary elections.”

 

Translated from the Russian by Philip Nikolayev

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Born in 1947, Lev Rubinstein was a major figure of Moscow Conceptualism and the unofficial Soviet art scene of the 1970s and 1980s. While working as a librarian, he began using catalogue cards to write sequential texts. He described his “note-card poems,” as a “hybrid genre” that “slides along the edges of genres and, like a small mirror, fleetingly reflects each of them, without identifying with any of them.” His work was circulated through samizdat and underground readings in the “unofficial” art scene of the sixties and seventies, finding wide publication only after the late 1980s. Now among Russia’s most well-known living poets, Rubinstein lives in Moscow and writes cultural criticism for the independent media. His books in English translation include Here I Am (Glas, 2001), Catalogue of Comedic Novelties (UDP, 2004), and Thirty-Five New Pages (UDP, 2011). In Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties (UDP, 2014), his note-card poems appear in their entirety for the first time.

A Peculiar Incident At Harvard University

In October 2008, the relatively dormant Department of Slavic Languages and Literature of Harvard University found itself amidst a stunning revelation. One of the Department’s graduate students, Konstantin Zilber, refused to have sexual relations with a fellow graduate student, Anastasia Frolova.

Zilber and Frolova were dating for nearly a month in the environs of Harvard Square and other Cambridge neighborhoods. Friends and faculty often spotted them together at various coffee shops and cafes. Sometimes Konstantin and Anastasia held hands; on other days they kissed and stared at each other with unmistakable ardor.

It was only fitting for both to consider the next step in their developing relationship.

One evening, as Konstantin was visiting Anastasia in her studio apartment, he decided to move forward with that step and commenced caressing Frolova’s sensitive organs. As he was getting ready for a more meticulous exploration amidst a surprisingly moonlight-abundant autumnal night, his sexual partner-to-be informed him that she was fond of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

In response, Zilber reclined back in disbelief, reached out for his glasses within a nearby night table perimeter, and slowly exhaled a full mouth of air at least several times. Bare-chested and still aroused, he stormed out of Frolova’s apartment.

While both Konstantin and Anastasia independently decided to keep this incident private, many in the Slavic Department became aware of it by the following morning.

As he was preparing coffee for himself on the graduate school cafeteria grounds, Konstantin felt a deliberately perusing gaze burning on his back. The gaze belonged to Mikhail Bernstein, a post-doctoral student and a rising specialist in Boris Pasternak’s poetry. The latter was examining Zilber with a sense of commiseration.

– Pasternak used to have both a wife and a mistress in his time, – Bernstein said. – It is just unfortunate that you have neither.

– What are you referring to? – Konstantin attempted to respond as innocently as possible.

Mikhail lowered his voice to that of a whisper.

– You denied sex to a woman because of Molotov and Ribbentrop! Why do those two even come up in your bedroom?

Zilber shrugged his shoulders:

– You are asking the wrong question. A better question: why is she supporting their criminal 1939 pact, one that spelled out doom for Poland and essentially launched the Second World War?

3.

As far as Frolova was concerned, she hoped to forget the incident and move on to another Harvard relationship.

A foreign exchange student from Russia’s Krasnodar region, Anastasia came to Harvard to study the American period in the literature of Vladimir Nabokov. At the same time, she reminded herself that, like Nabokov, she yearned to make the United States her second homeland. With the right man, of course. A shining blue passport goes well with all colors, particularly with those from “Lolita” and “Bend Sinister” editions.

Both attractive and affable, Konstantin Zilber merited serious consideration, in Frolova’s view. Yet, judging from what happened the other night, Anastasia was beginning to have serious doubts about his mental faculties.

Never before did a man escape from her bedroom in a similar fashion.

– I doubt it had anything to do with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, – Anastasia got some unsolicited opinion from Bella Rosenman, the author of the about-to-be-published book, “The Sexuality of Alexander Blok”. – Men are famous for finding excuses; yet, they flee the sexual intercourse for one and one reason only: when they are unable to perform.

– You really think that he could be?… – Anastasia Frolova found herself on the brink of an important realization.

– The guy is as impotent, as Blok! – Bella Rosenman concluded with certainty.

4.

Konstantin’s weekly meeting with his dissertation adviser, Professor Patricia Matthews, took an unusual turn. Konstantin assumed that it would be literary business as usual between the two, as they would continue their perpetual discussion about Anna’s true reasons for leaving Karenin and eloping with Vronsky: those very reasons that by now constituted approximately 80% of Zilber’s dissertation.

– I want you to know, – Professor Matthews blushed, as if conveying a delicate secret. – I want you to know that had Tolstoy been alive today, he would have definitely condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Konstantin was taken aback, a bit surprised that Patricia Matthews, so proper and reserved on other occasions, would suddenly pry into his personal life.

There was still a glimpse of hope that she merely wanted to chat about a random historical event with Konstantin.

– I am sure he would have, – Zilber played along. – I assume that most people these days condemn Stalin and Hitler for dividing up Poland.

Zilber’s hope was crushed by Professor Matthews’ next statement, however.

– That’s not what I meant, – she said. – What I meant is that Tolstoy would have similarly refused to have sex with anyone who didn’t condemn them.

5.

Frolova was not a big fan of political discourse. She knew that much too often heated debates ended up in bitter disagreements. They were not meant to convince or win over, but rather – to egotistically enunciate one’s own position. That’s why she seldom voiced her personal opinions.

She didn’t remember how Konstantin approached the topic of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact that night. More importantly, she was caught unaware of Zilber’s anti-Stalinist beliefs. Had she known how strongly he felt about the matter, she would have veered away from it, particularly on the verge of their first sexual encounter.

Back in Krasnodar, Anastasia grew up with respect for her elders and for traditions that were sacrosanct to them. One such tradition was the family’s get-together on the May 9th Victory Day. Both of her grandparents fought in the war, spilling blood and liberating one European capital after another. They spoke respectfully of their commander-in-chief, who also happened to be the leader of the country at the time. This veneration was passed on to others in the family after their death. The name of Joseph Stalin commanded respect and gratitude.

She was aware that some accused Stalin of purges, mass killings, and so forth. Personally, she knew of no one who endured such sufferings during his rule. Neither did her parents. What she did know was that he saved millions from the Nazi invaders. And, before the war, Stalin did all he could to prevent it. Such was the purpose of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

When Zilber stormed out of her apartment, he made it sound like her thinking was uncommon and even perverted. Yet, as Anastasia shared her beliefs with others in the department, she proved him to be wrong.

Mainly, she felt a strong support from Kirk Johnson, a fellow classmate who happened to be an ardent admirer of Demyan Bedny’s poetry. Kirk concurred with Anastasia on every point of Joseph Stalin’s greatness. The man had a military genius, not mention his extraordinary managerial capabilities. In addition, Kirk Johnson signaled his own readiness to copulate with Frolova, regardless of Molotov or Ribbentrop.

6.

– I am proud of you! By publicly denouncing the Nazi-Soviet pact you stood up for moral clarity and for historical ethics.

Those were the words of Professor Peter Kreschatnikov, the author of numerous texts on the prose of Ivan Bunin, who also claimed to be the writer’s great-grandson. The latter fact remained unconfirmed.

– Well, I denounced it privately, rather than publicly, – Zilber rushed to clarify. – In the privacy of the young lady’s bedroom. It’s not like I staged a one-man protest next to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

– The details are not important. Posterity will remember you as someone who happened to reside on the right side of history. You may not realize this at present, but what you did transcends bedrooms and even Harvard itself. It transcends time.

– You really think so?

– I am confident of it.

7.

During her nearly eighteen months in the US, Anastasia’s list of acquaintances was dismally low. Whether in the larger Boston area or on campus itself, she barely knew anyone who could comfort her in times of emotional upheaval. She developed a number of short-term relationships with various young men; there were no non-sexual friends, however.

Once the affair was over, there were feelings of emptiness, vagueness, and overall detachment from her surroundings. At times, she felt depressed, at times despondent. Those feelings usually receded whenever Anastasia began to evaluate a new candidacy toward potential matrimony; thankfully, her good looks granted her the powers to be the chooser, rather than the beggar. However, with six relationships during her relatively short Harvard sojourn, she felt that the modus operandi of seeking a prospective husband required an evaluation, an adjustment of sorts.

There was Leva M., a graduate student from MIT, who promised to marry her on their fifth date, but soon backed out upon stern opposition from his mother. The latter made a case against the union for the reasons of Frolova’s non-Jewish identity and her likely appetite for the US citizenship.

There was Sasha L., an undergraduate student from Boston University and an ardent guitar player, with his repertoire mainly dedicated to the Russian bards from the mid-20th century. Sasha serenaded Anastasia with countless mellow songs of Bulat Okudzhava and Yuri Vizbor, but appeared timid about physical engagement. After a few weeks of singing, he disappeared.

Quite the opposite took place with Pavel K., a law student from Boston College. Pavel possessed an insatiable sexual elan, obliging Anastasia to a string of continuous sleepless nights, which soon transitioned into fits of back pain and even constipation for Frolova. There were days when she could barely walk. Those nocturnal encounters obviously had to end.

Konstantin, as it happens, was the normal one, compared to others. Or, so she initially thought.

– When a woman is unable to find a peace of mind with a man, she has no choice but to turn to a fellow woman.

She often heard this fateful conclusion from Professor Miriam Weinstock, whose seminar, “The Lesbian Ego of Marina Tsvetaeva”, was quite popular in the department.

8.

He, too, yearned to meet a soulmate and get married, hopefully before finding a permanent faculty position. While Konstantin lived in the United States since the age of ten and had plenty of opportunities to forget the native tongue by assimilating into the American mainstream, he remained faithful to his roots and was looking for a lifetime partner with Russian heritage, ideally for someone who recently came from his home country.

That in itself presented a challenge.

There was always something peculiar about those spoiled, long-legged, model-looking Muscovite girls. Some insisted on having their wardrobe sourced by New York’s 5th Avenue boutiques; others were fanatically in love with Vladimir Putin’s regime. Then there were those who represented an unhealthy mix of the two.

Anastasia’s positive attitude toward the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact took Konstantin’s experience with women to a new level.

9.

This incident took place six years ago. I chose to commit it to paper only now, in late 2014, when neither Zilber nor Frolova is affiliated with Harvard.

Since then, Frolova has returned to the Krasnodar region, where she found work as an English translator for an energy firm. I don’t believe she is married yet.

Zilber failed to find a job in the academia and is currently teaching Russian language in one Boston’s private schools. Earlier this year, he got engaged, though I don’t know much about his fiancée.

As for others – Joachim von Ribbentrop was obviously hanged in Nuremberg for war crimes in 1946.

Vyacheslav Molotov outlived the pact’s co-signer by forty years, dying in quasi-oblivion during the waning days of the Soviet era.

October-November 2014

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Alexander Veytsman writes poetry and prose in both English and Russian languages. His original poems, translations, as well as short stories and essays, have appeared in more than 30 publications in Russia and the United States. Over the years, he served on the editorial boards of The Word and Interpoeziya literary journals, in addition to chairing the Compass Translation Award under the auspices of Cardinal Points journal.

A Story Told by an Eyewitness, about the Miracle of Miracles—a Mechanical Artificial Leg of Major Gavril Propoitsyn (of the Life Guards of the Cuirass Detachment), who Lost his Natural Leg in the Battle of Ochakov

Russia is a darksome land—
Given to us for joyful command . . .
—Oleg Okhapkin

 

Reading in the Russian Invalid about the extraordinary inventions of the unheralded Russian genius Ivan Petrovich Kulibin, which at that time enjoyed great favor, the restless Major in question expressed the desire to serve the Empress and Fatherland for even longer on the Field of Mars. With this in mind, he sent the Russian Newton a tearful letter, together with three full wagons of roach fish.

Having partaken of the fish, Ivan Petrovich Kulibin delayed the building of a steamboat on the lake of Tsarskoe Selo, and at his leisure fulfilled the request of the disabled veteran. In three-months’-time, he fabricated and exhibited in London a mechanical artificial leg that was comprised of six moving parts, and the appearance of which was strikingly reminiscent of a human one. Thanks to this leg—and in the presence of the Empress and an enormous gathering of people—the disconsolate major was made tremendously glad.

Being accepted into the cavalry once more, Propoitsyn found himself marveling at the peerless power of Russian talent, for the artificial leg became more kith and kin to him than his own real one. On more than one occasion, she protected her patron from enemy cannon fire with her chest, and in the darkest of nights fearlessly ran ahead of his horse and lead the way.

One time, when she was set at liberty at a bivouac, the leg in question secretly made her way into the encampment of the enemy, entrapping there the Turkish Pasha Hassan. For this act of selfless zeal, she was awarded the order of St. George with swords and a ribbon, directly from the hands of the commanding officer. Subsequently, she would embark on espionage missions in the garb of a Crimean Tartar.

At the battle of Borodino, the brave major was introduced to the renowned cavalry officer and maiden Nadezhda Andreevna Durova. Tying the bow with his beloved immediately upon the completion of the campaign, Propoitsyn, bathed in glory, abandoned his military service for the sake of the dulcet pleasures of family life.

With no task allotted to her, the leg abandoned her benefactor and never returned to him again. She sold a potent German medicinal elixir at the market in Elets, for which she was on more than one occasion subjected to the whip at the local precinct. Subsequently, she would visit many a corner of our expansive Fatherland, sowing rebellion and discontent with her unusual visage.

It was well-known that the criminal leg in question, armed with a six-barreled musket ordnance of Aglits craftsmanship, galloped off into the sunset from bushes in a field at Ermolaev. Frightening passers-by according to her whims, at the order of the local mayor she was caught and placed in a gaol. The community placed the children, begotten by the criminal mechanism and the merchant orphan Marfa Iroshnikova, in the state-run shelter.

Subsequently it was noted that this historical phenomenon made its appearance in live performances at the Paris Exposition. In full military regalia, it played on themes drawn from its Fatherland, finding love and respect among even the haughty French nation.

Further traces of the great invention have been lost to the historical record . . .

This history was transcribed from someone else’s words, in the border town of Narva during the summer of 1986.

 

Translated by from the Russian by Alexandar Mihailovic. Originally published in O & A Florensky, Dvizhenie v storonu knigi (St. Petersburg, Russia: “Retro,” 2002), pages 65–6.

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Olga Florensky

Alexandar Mihailovic is Visiting Professor of Literature at Bennington College. He is the author of Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse, and the editor of the volume Tchaikovsky and His Contemporaries. He co-edited, with Helga Druxes and Karolin Machtans, Navid Kermani, a volume of articles about the contemporary Iranian-German essayist and novelist. His most recent book, The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2018), will be also be published in a Russian translation in Fall 2019, by the New Literary Review (Novoe Literatrunoe Obozrenie) in Moscow. He has contributed reviews to the online journal Kinokultura: New Russian Cinema, and has published articles on religious studies, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian and Ukrainian literature, cultural relations during the Cold War, and LGBTQ identities in Russia. He is currently working on a book about whiteness, gender, and race in contemporary far-right movements in the Russian Federation and the United States.

A Belief In Jest: The ‘Old, Weird’ Russia Of Olga Florensky And The Mitki

My road to writing The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia was a circuitous one. I first found out about the Mitki from buying a pirated recording of their first collection of music, at the Kiev train station in Moscow. Who were these satirical dabblers in paint, print, and sound? Like Yeats’s jester, the Mitki tossed up the gaudy “cap and bells” of their collective disinhibition to a public struggling to understand its sudden citizenship in a new country. Very quickly, other questions jostled for attention. How can artists categorize themselves as ‘non-conformist’ while belonging to a movement?  And how can they regard alcoholism as a productive catalyst for artistic creation, while also acknowledging it as a social ill? In his 1953 novel Junkie, William Burroughs famously stated that he “never regretted” his experience with heroin. The graphic and literary work of key members of the Mitki—among them, Vladimir Shinkarev, Dmitri Shagin, and Olga and Aleksandr Florensky—would seem to assess addiction in a way that is no less indulgent than Burroughs, at least in the recognition of the sporadic creative dividends that substance abuse may yield.

 

In partial response to the questions, I would like to turn to a specific work by a member of the group. One of the artistic productions by the Mitki that first caught my eye was Olga Florensky’s remarkable 1994 claymation film A Story About the Miracle of Miracles (Rasskaz o chude iz chudes), a quasi-steampunk narrative of pre-Emancipation Russian military history that is also a reworking of Nikolai Leskov’s 1881 story “The Tale of Crossed-Eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN3PEszeRiA&) In A Story About the Miracle of Miracles, a mechanical leg designed by the ingenious (and real-life) Russian engineer Ivan Kulibin takes on a life of its own, separating from its owner the officer ‘Major Propoitsyn’. With the help of his artificial leg, which “became more kith and kin to him than his own real one,” Propoitsyn scores a series of decisive victories against the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–74.

 

Olga Florensky wrote the first version of this story in July 1986, in the grim double shadow of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ill-conceived ‘dry law’ or near-prohibition of alcoholic beverages and the failing Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan. With its ornately Leskovian title of “A Story Told by an Eyewitness, about the Miracle of Miracles—a Mechanical Artificial Leg of Major Gavril Propoitsyn (of the Life Guards of the Cuirass Detachment), who Lost his Natural Leg in the Battle of Ochakov,” Florensky’s samizdat-era text (which follows this essay) exudes a strong flavor of geeky countercultural hipsterism. In its archaic and merchant-class era strangeness, her story reeks of what the American rock critic Greil Marcus dubbed the “old, weird” and all but forgotten folkways: hidden and subterranean to the present day, yet for all that foundational to so much of what we experience.  Florensky wants to bring Russian suppressed folkways to the surface, and to show us how an imperial culture’s knowledge of itself may come about most easily on its physical periphery, as well as during its decline. Can there be any other reason for our lack of surprise at the sudden time jump at the end of her story, to another year of cataclysmic events? “This history was transcribed from someone else’s words, in the [Estonian] border town of Narva during the summer of 1986.” An important conceit of the story is that the scribe finds herself struggling to filter out the aftershocks of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as she tries to transcribe a tale about earlier attempted conquests.

 

Florensky also points to the ways in which the machines of war may contain sub-routines for renouncing their bellicose owners. The facts that the name of the Major, Propoitsyn, contains the word ‘drunkard’ (propoitsa), and that the leg in the film is drolly represented as a modified wine bottle opener, also suggest that imperial ambitions are expressions of unhealthy political passions, and the cumulative results of intoxicating violent disinhibitions. As she put it in the program essay for her 1999 exhibit Taxidermy “[t]he more I think about the role of effigies in the life of man, the more I find myself leaning toward the following idea: can it be that he doesn’t have to kill, in satisfying his despotic creative urges? Or, as one friend put it—a Russian born in Germany, with an uncertain grasp of the language of his ancestors—that he does not have to enmortify [primertvliat’] animals? Let the ARTIFICIAL ANIMAL be utterly artificial—may it go with God, in all its violations of anatomy and truth!” Certainly, the subversive gender indeterminacy of the leg in the film—as a fearless battlefield buddy, alluring temptress, traumatized veteran, grammatically feminine body part, and steadfast helpmate all in one—evokes Heinrich von Kleist’s famous 1810 essay “On the Marionette Theatre,” about the consummate versatility and perfection of puppets. Kleist notes that “[g]race appears purest in that human form which has either no consciousness or an infinite one—that is, in a puppet or in a god.” Like Florensky, Kleist wrote in the aftermath of multiple military campaigns, and was intent upon exploring artistic creation as a bulwark against the collective and personal traumas of war.

 

Several nineteenth-century Russian writers—most notably Tolstoy and Saltykov-Shchedrin—famously regarded literature as a criticism of everyday life. In the work of the Mitki, we encounter the group practice of documenting dialectical shifts, of showing us just how states of servitude and conformity can give way to sunburst recognitions of freedom, how jingoism engenders pacifism, and how inebriation may be countered by a sobriety that is no less heady than the intoxication that preceded it. No wonder that Olga Florensky’s original name for Major ‘Drunkard’ (Propoitsyn) was Nepeitsyn (‘non-drinker’). The Mitki’s body of work speaks in a dizzying range of tones and moves along descending scales of affect—from punchy instruction to the sotto voce of a political unconscious begging to be heard.

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Alexandar Mihailovic is Visiting Professor of Literature at Bennington College. He is the author of Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse, and the editor of the volume Tchaikovsky and His Contemporaries. He co-edited, with Helga Druxes and Karolin Machtans, Navid Kermani, a volume of articles about the contemporary Iranian-German essayist and novelist. His most recent book, The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2018), will be also be published in a Russian translation in Fall 2019, by the New Literary Review (Novoe Literatrunoe Obozrenie) in Moscow. He has contributed reviews to the online journal Kinokultura: New Russian Cinema, and has published articles on religious studies, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian and Ukrainian literature, cultural relations during the Cold War, and LGBTQ identities in Russia. He is currently working on a book about whiteness, gender, and race in contemporary far-right movements in the Russian Federation and the United States.

Theses Toward The Politicization Of Art

The crisis of the institution of representative democracy has now rolled into Russia. The place of politics in the classical sense is taken over by management and marketing, by different technologies of manipulation. The public sphere, corrupted and crunched, disappears before our eyes. The ideology of the market subjugates everything, including cultural production, to itself. We are persuaded to be satisfied with the private sphere, private enterprise (in this “to be satisfied” the notorious autonomy of art will take its honorary place).

 

Yet another crisis, a mimetic one (so should we imitate the West or not? and if yes, how exactly and to what degree? how far should the modernization go? and in general: who are we?) revealed itself in the wake of the mass anti-western attitude provoked by the NATO bombings of Belgrade, which finally led to the change of cabinet and in Russian politics as a whole. For political technologists this was an end of the age of (apology of) post-modernity, disillusion with the model of “open society” and with the politics of “human rights”. One of the results of this “reevaluation of western values” was the refusal of the formation of civil society, the rejection of pluralism in the social field – in favor of a centralized hierarchical model of power, roughly displacing any dissenting thinking to the political periphery. Simultaneously we can observe the return of a slightly altered super-power rhetoric by the formula of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, National Character,”which derives from the time of czarism, idealizing the imperialistic pre-revolutionary past (Alexander Sokurov’s “The Russian Ark” here extends a hand to Boris Akunin’s novels). Everybody has gotten tired of reforms and wants stability, which applied to art and literature means: no modernism anymore, no shocks. And the Avant-guard? –  it compromised itself by association with the revolutionary will to rearrange the society (it’s enough to walk through the recently opened “Russian Avant-guard” exposition in the Russian Museum to see how prudently the traces of such association are covered up).

 

Advanced publishers are keeping step with globalization: they think by way of “projects”. The “project” is a contemporary way to join together commercial and creative interests, to give an article the shape of commodity, or what is now called “format”; “project” is at once both an ideological packaging and an industrial production line, which serves to form and to satisfy the customers’ demand “on-the-fly”. Such an approach had already triumphed on television, in the endless serials and around-the-clock musical channels. News programs are also beginning to reproduce the aesthetics of musical clips and soap operas.

 

The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property (Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”). In other words, there are economical, political antagonisms, interests of different social groups, but instead of resolving or fighting for them we are channeling them – into Gesamtkunstwerk, into spectacle. This is a constitutive principle of faschizoid art. At a certain point – by means of high technologies and electronic mass-media – it merges with spectacle, as Guy Debourd defines it.

 

The model of political art is Brechtian theatre. What manifests itself as a quantitative leap at the level of theory in Brechtian theatre comes out as estrangement, when aesthetic illusion is interrupted by means of caesura, or syncope, introducing the moment of reflection and exercising an arrest, the suspension of dialectics. Such an aesthetic, which derives from “the uncovering of device,” from “estrangement” of Russian formalists, carries out several functions: it draws the recipient into the process of self-reflection and self-consciousness and at the same time the very essence of art as such is questioned, suspended. Thus the auto-referential nature of art obtains its adequate incarnation. In a certain sense it is the highest point, an acme of aesthetic reflection, inasmuch as it not only implies the process of self-reflection, but also thematizes the auto-referential nature of art. All radical experiments in visual art, Godard for example, proceed from this experience of rupture, the destruction of aesthetic illusion. Not to let this illusion harden into totality, not to allow aesthetics to grasp the world in representation. At the moment that  it is grasped securely in representation, there Gesamtkunstwerk immediately appears – the totalitarian project, in which form crushes down matter and where the very social matter is dematerialized. Sociality with its antagonisms and struggles of interests turns out to be “removed”, “sublimated”.

 

Thus political art must not be confused with propaganda; it is an art which by means of estrangement, caesura, self-reflection, fragmentation, destabilization of the subject and dispersion of the narrative provides us with the a-semantic gaps, folds of meaning, not yet appropriated by ideology. Art, which draws the reader or spectator into the process of co-creation and becoming and thus bringing to understanding that he or she are connected to the bodies and consciousness of others.

 

We were raised in circumstances when it was urgently important to escape from the power of the collective body, to avoid depersonalization. However, today the evolution of depersonalization is different; it goes through the concretization of everything, through the exchange of commodities, through the consumption of images, the terror of mass-media and the compulsory withdrawal into the private sphere (as to a ghetto). In the conditions dictated by the invasion of commodity, with its fetishism and theological devices, art is also transformed into a mere commodity, a materialized labor, a mechanism of production of already known, prefabricated cultural meanings, which serve to maintain the status quo.

 

From here yet another necessity arises: to dismantle prefabricated cultural meanings, emphasizing thereby our own lack of wholeness and incompleteness. The particular question: how to politicize our own lack of wholeness? For we are originally incomplete, being colonized, traversed by others, by their discourse. Yet at the same time we are addressing  them. Our problem lies in the fact that we are frustrated by the soviet type of collectivism. From childhood we bear the spirit of rejection of collectivity, but together with collectivity we annihilate solidarity, compassion, justice, the possibility of community.

 

Let us take for example “The Crazy Pierrot,” or “Weekend,” or better still “The Gay Science,” made in 1968. Two “characters,” male and female, and the actual revolutionary events at the background. Slogans, pictures of Lenin, quotations from Derrida and Foucault. And everything is penetrated by strange erotic emanations. Visual sequence works as a syncope, caesura: collective actions on the streets and immediately following – the naked body or a fragment thereof. This is Brechtian, Benjaminian rupture in an aesthetic fabric, rupture which turns us back to reality and through reality back to art, because we ask ourselves: what is art? where is the border between the intimate and the public?

 

In Konstantin Boltyansky there is also the problem of the impossibility of personal memory as something detached and separate, belonging exclusively to me, the subject. In history, our common history, something happens that dematerializes memory, crashes and collapses it, leaving us only the ashes of memories, the ashes of archive. I refer to his “Family Album”. Typical amateur shots, nothing special. “I, Kostya Boltyansky, in a given year on the river with my mother.” Boy, parents, friends, acquaintances — the most simple, everyday shots. Written everywhere – I, Boltyansky, this or that year. Then suddenly, at the end of the album, we read that these are not his photographs. He used photos of various people and simply attributed his name to them. With this nomination, he blew up personal history and blew up art, demonstrating the entire problem of  the veracity and authenticity of the photographic document. A huge question arises: what is “me” if all my history, the history of my life, starting from birth, can be replaced by the stories of other people?  There is a negative moment in this — a moment of radical doubt, a gesture that calls into question both the concept of a document and art as such, and at the same time confronts us with the unique, irreducible nature of personal experience of time.

 

In Russian poetry, a similar experience can be found in Yan Satunovsky, in Vsevolod Nekrasov. This is the poetry of dislocation (the time is out of joint), disjoint, spasmodic articulations and feet, interjections, stumps, “torn”, “forgotten”, “flushed in the toilet” shreds and scraps. Here is the extreme poverty of language media, muttering, tongue-twisters, sudden breaks revealing a system of public and private taboos. The struggle for the possibility of a personal, individual statement is conducted in the territory of an ideologized, terrorizing idiom. “No, I can not …”: shame acquires a political, ethical ring, disavows  language as a hotbed of communal violence and potential dictatorship. A largely opposite example is Mikhail Sukhotin’s poem about Chechnya, in which he makes a desperate attempt to expropriate politics, to return it to the public sphere. From this effort, Kirill Medvedev emerged with his choked up speech directed to the void of publicity. Many of Sergey Stratanovsky’s poems, both early and recent (“Next to Chechnya”), I would attribute to politicized art, which does not exclude the presence of metaphysical, historiosophical problems, quite the opposite.

 

The disposition of capitalism, when everything could be converted into everything else and everything is displaced, activates a nostalgia for something absolute, that cannot be transformed into commodity. All totalitarian structures, from religious sects to political extremists, exploit this nostalgia, they impose this absolute from above. The role of the intellectual, of the artist consists in the deconstruction of this coming-from-above despotic discourses that pretend to represent the absolute. But at the same time that role lies in discovering those points where the dimension of the transcendental, or sacred, break off the horizontal chain of values, pointing in the direction of  that which couldn’t be inscribed into the restricted (capitalistic) economy. Like eroticism, laughter, purposeless expenditure or sacrifice, which Bataille considered as the fundamental, irrevocable needs of human beings.

2003

Translated from the Russian by Alexandr Skidan with Larissa Shmailo

*

Born in Leningrad in 1965, Aleksandr Skidan is one of Russia’s most important contemporary poets and cultural critics. His new book of essays is Сыр букв мел. Об Аркадии Драгомощенко (Syr bukv mel. Ob Arkadii Drogomoshchenko 2019). His poetry collections in Russia include Delirium (1993), In the Re-Reading (1998), Red Shift (2005), Dissolution (2010) and, most recently, Membra disjecta (2015). A selection of his poetry in English translation appears in Red Shifting from Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008. He is also the author of four books of essays: Critical Mass (1995), The Resistance to/of Poetry (2001), Sum of Poetics (2013) and Theses Toward the Politicization of Art and Other Texts (2014). His poetry has been translated into Danish, English, Estonian, Finish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Swedish and was published in different anthologies, both in Russia and abroad. His many translations include books by authors such as Paul Bowles, as well as various short stories, poems by Charles Olson, Michael Palmer, Susan Howe, and criticism by Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Jan-Luc Nancy, Paolo Virno. In 1994 Skidan was selected to participate in Iowa International Writing Program. From 1999 to 2005 he ran a translation workshop in the American program Summer Literary Seminars in Saint-Petersburg. Skidan is the recipient of the Andrei Bely Prize (2006), Turgenev Award for the short prose (1998) and “Most” (“Bridge”) for the best critical text on poetry (2006). In 2018 he was awarded Joseph Brodsky Memorial Fund fellowship. Since 2009, he is a co-editor of the Moscow based New Literary Observer magazine.

To Chaadaev

Not long indulged by sweet illusions
Of love and hopes for better days,
We saw our juvenile diversions
Pass like a dream or morning haze;
And yet our hearts remain afire
Under the yoke of tyranny,
Our souls consumed by the desire
To serve our country’s destiny.
We still await in anguished languor
Our festival of sacred freedom
Much in the way that a young lover
Awaits a tryst that’s been agreed on.
While, thus ablaze with liberty,
Our hearts remain alive to honor,
Let’s to our mother-country offer
Our spirit’s full nobility!
Comrade, believe: it will emerge –
The star of dazzling ecstasy;
Russia will wake from her mirage;
On ruins of autocracy
We yet shall see our names writ large.
[1818]
Translated from the Russian by Philip Nikolayev

*

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1937) was a Russian poet, playwright, and novelist of the Romantic era who is considered by many to be the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature.

Sevastopol Stories

***

The wretched people rush about,
the heavens burn, as does the earth….
Freedom alone can’t be the end:
freedom can only be a means

for something greater than itself.
There might not be a name for it,
or else a name that I don’t know.
But surely such a thing exists!

In life, the smoke of the Fatherland
is unbelievably bitter
(it’s only sweet in literature),
and nothing can be seen in it:

not Rome, Crimea, not people’s faces.
And only the sea’s indifferent
to how long this must still go on,
to whose it is, to whom it belongs….

***

No war takes place all
that far away:
a stray bullet flies—
and cuts me down.
And the shadow on the wall
grows too thin:
no war happens that isn’t somehow Russian.
No land is all that far away—beyond fields
lie more fields, not
an eye for an eye.

***

It’s a good thing Papa’s dead,
that Mama, too, is in her grave:
he, the Odessa-Kiev screw-up,
she, the chick from Borislav.
They sleep amid the thundering din—
as only lovers seem to sleep:
they can’t see the house in ruins,
the orchard’s burned-out cherry trees,
they don’t care who’s answerable….
Two homelands square off, face to face,
and nothing’s better in this world
than slipping away
*****to an early grave.

***

1.

The neighbor whistled like a hooligan,
and I hadn’t yet turned six….
All that happened in Lugansk.
And now that place doesn’t exist.

2.

Today, like yesterday, I whisper,
“Shots are firing, bullets whistle…”
and thanks to that, the heat’s still worse:
as if it’s not July, but hell.
But somehow I’m here standing, still:
and life feels like a cosmic joke.
“But how am I alive in hell?”
“Think: kindergarten,
***********Lugansk.
**********************You know.”

***

That’s it. Sevastopol in July,
and, sailing away, my grown-up son,
but I joke, say it’s all a lie:
a person’s never really alone.

Sevastopol in July, which means
it’s not someone else’s, deserted:
somewhere there beyond the trees
a young and beautiful Tolstoy lurks.

It only seems the town, the eighth
wonder, has been emptied—a young
and beautiful Vladimir takes
Chersonesus, commands the water.

And “Silistria” is again in port,
and Nakhimov is still so young.
Alive.
********** *So pour me out some wine
of what was water just this morning.

***

All thanks to the fanatic prince
for accepting the one true faith,
for drowning idols in the Lethe—
whom God helped, none could hinder—
for stopping up the mouths of the people
with water drunk from the Dniepro,
for the little that’s still ours to keep:
to put our trust in the chosen Lord

***

What a terrible country this is:
what she once was, she’ll always be.
Perhaps I dreamed her up? So, then,
open my eyes: I’m washing her dirty
laundry for all to see, still mooning
over her chasms, her far-flung charms….
The Inspector’s coming all too soon!
We can’t say that we weren’t warned….

***

In memory of my mother

How old would you have been today?—
surely it can’t have been that long!—
a fallen leaf suggested to me
in this hot summer of Our Lord.

You should still have some good years left,
instead of these nineteen now gone!
Well, how goes it there, with God?
Tell me: does He exist or not?

A joke. Don’t be afraid, no need….
At night I pray for the Motherland,
just as I learned in kindergarten,
for Kiev’s Old Rus, notwithstanding.

Even if, as with the prodigal
son, the path goes nowhere: if He
exists, I’ll pray all the same.
If there’s no God, I’ll tell Him, “Be!”

***

In winter no one believed in the thaw,
and then no one believed in frost:
believing that way’s not easy now,
that Christ was born on Christmas morn.

What seemed so right when I was small:
I can’t say that’s wholly gone….
They say that there’s a “Christmas” village,
or maybe it’s a tiny town.

They’re likely singing carols now,
and I join in with all the rest….
I recall that miracle—
the first bright star that lit the east.

I recall the time-worn Bible,
still recall the whitewashed stove,
recall beloved Grandma Evdoka,
the sweet Ukrainian she spoke.

Where did that go: six-year-old me,
Ukraine, and Christ?” “Squeeze your eyes
shut tight, no mercy—
******          *tighter, tighter—
********************* *until it hurts,
*********************** *****until you cry.”

*The three short stories of Sevastopol Stories, published by Lev Tolstoy in 1855, grew out of Tolstoy’s experience of the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855) during the Crimean War. In February of 2014, Russia forcibly seized the Crimean peninsula from independent Ukraine, initiating hostilities there and in eastern Ukraine that are ongoing.

 

Translated from the Russian by Katherine E. Young

*

Inna Kabysh is the author of eight collections of poetry. Her first collection, Lichnye trudnosti, was awarded the 1996 Pushkin Prize of the Alfred Toepfer Fund (Hamburg, Germany); she has also won the 2005 Anton Delwig Prize; the 2014 Moskovsky schet Prize; the 2016 Anna Akhmatova Prize; and the 2016 Deti Ra Prize. Individual poems have appeared in English translation in Tupelo Quarterly, Trafika Europe, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Subtropics, and many others. A digital chapbook for the iPad, Two Poems, appeared in 2014, while Blue Birds and Red Horses appeared in 2018. Several of Kabysh’s poems have been made into short films by Russian and American directors; many have been set to music.

Katherine E. Young is the author of Day of the Border Guards, 2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist, and two chapbooks. She is the translator of Farewell, Aylis by Azerbaijani political prisoner Akram Aylisli, named one of 2018’s “Eleven Groundbreaking Works” by Words Without Borders, as well as Blue Birds and Red Horses and Two Poems, both by Inna Kabysh. Her translations of Russian-language authors have appeared in Asymptote, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The White Review, The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and 100 Poems about Moscow: An Anthology, winner of the 2017 Books of Russia award in Poetry; several of her translations have been made into short films. Young was named a 2015 Hawthornden fellow (Scotland) and a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts translation fellow. From 2016–2018 she served as the inaugural poet laureate for Arlington, VA.