On March 17th 2006, the workers of the Yaroslavl factory Kholodmash blockaded the factory administration,, demanding that wages withheld for many months finally be paid and that Kholodomash be saved from closure through renationalization. After the region’s deputy governor for industry conceded to talks, the workers lifted their blockade. As was to be expected, negotiations held between activist workers, the administration, and the regional authorities soon found themselves in a dead-end. At this point, the workers of Kholodomash were already in contact with local activists. Together, they organized a political meeting and blocked one of the city’s central streets. The struggle reached its highpoint with a hunger strike, during which the head of the factory’s independent trade union Olga Boiko and a number of her colleagues barricaded themselves up in the factory administration and hung posters out of the windows with their demands. Again, the administration was able to maneuver its way out of a tight spot. As soon as the hunger strikers were told that all remiss wages would be paid in full, most of them declined to continue the struggle. (See https://yaroslavl.socialism.ru/ for coverage in Russian.)
On June 5th, the Moscow poet Kirill Medvedev held an evening in support of the workers of Kholodomash at the independent gallery “Francia,” dedicated to the poetry of Aleksandr Brener and Velimir Khlebnikov. The action was not limited to identification with “grass-roots” protest. Confining itself to the framework of a “elitist” cultural event. Kirill collected money for the workers’ benefit, making explicit the direct financial connection that is almost always left out of the picture, even in “engaged” art, where political exhibitions are realized with sponsorship or grant money. The action was carried out with the socialist movement “Vpered!” (Forward!). Its demonstration of a poet’s clear-cut political position and his solidarity with the protest movement is something extremely rare in the Russian literary scene.
Sergei Ogurtsov (SO): Kirill, three years ago you announced that you would make no more public performances, and that you would never again participate in projects organized by the state or by cultural institutions. You then proceeded to annul any copyright claims on your authorship, thus confirming your exit from the literary process. After these anarchist beginnings, you joined the socialist movement Vpered!, and recently carried out an action in support of the workers of Kholodomash. This seems like an even more clear-cut articulation of your political position…
Kirill Medvedev (KM): As I have declared in the past, I have no intention of returning to poetry readings. There would be no point in going back to the literary process. I am interested in the action as a possibility for acting beyond institutions, or more broadly, the connection between the artist’s creative independence and his or her political engagement, and even more broadly, the connection between “elite culture” (what an ugly turn of phrase!) and “grass-roots” emancipation; I want to develop this subject in both theory and praxis, as far as possible.
There were moments in history when the art and the politics of the time fell together. The most striking example to date is the October Revolution, when eruptions in art and mass consciousness coincided, resulting in a strange alliance between the new state and the avant-garde, and a mass of missed opportunities which still seem intriguing today. There were more missed opportunities later as well, in the 1950s-60s, for example, when there were two extremely powerful forces at work. On the one hand, there was fresh culture, which people really needed after being confined to the Stalinist zoo. On the other hand, the proletariat felt that the “thaw” under Khrushchev was for somebody else and not for them, that it was being shoved into yet another cage. Literally two or three years later, it all ended. Joseph Brodsky went on trial. The underground began to form as a special zone with its own, often pathological complexes and ambitions. Famous “aesthetic” (and not political) divergences with the Soviet state soon led to the total dominance of a view of the political as something low and unworthy, etc. Trotsky once predicted that the Soviet Union would end with either proletarian uprising against the Soviet bureaucracy or capitalist restoration. The former was beaten down with the latter. Perestroika was yet another missing opportunity. We wouldn’t want to be defeated once more when such a situation emerges again.
SO: Even far more than visual art, poetry is usually a private affair, which is why so many people see it as an opportunity for gaining personal freedom. At what point does an artist’s individual life converge with the common? Where do politics begin? How would you characterize the poet’s specific mission in the “culture of resistance”?
KM: What the artist does is only his or her private affair for as long as he or she keeps from showing it to anyone else. As soon as someone’s art is presented in public, all the talk of their private position suddenly seems moot; the artist is now questioned as a public figure. This is where politics begin, most importantly because art is one of the means through which political regimes legitimate their existence. And the form in which the artist disseminates his-her work is part of his-her political position. A clear-cut political position (in all senses) is the guarantee for real artistic freedom and substance.
I feel close to Marxism: to me, the content and function of history is the struggle for emancipation, for people to finally gain the possibility for solving their eternal problems (solitude, death, love) as free beings, and not as dwarves, alienated from themselves and from others, oppressed by necessity, ideology, and mass culture. The best that culture and every single artist has to offer is the will to get beyond him or herself, to move out of the confines of context, class, nation, or culture, toward universalization, solidarity, and unity. But in order to get beyond yourself, you have to know yourself. I think that art needs to a) fascinate or shock, b) lead toward thought and analysis. Without the latter, the former is pop or propaganda, while the latter without the former is a speculative, unfeeling product. In art, an artist can be unconscientious, odious, or even reactionary, as long as he-she is expressing his-her emotions directly, honestly, and passionately. But in politics, he-she attempts to transform this self-knowledge into action, making sure that all of this will serve absolutely unambiguous goals in the final analysis, furthering the spread of awareness and leading to emancipation.
SO: Today, Russian poetry seems limited to a discursive-artistic ghetto: there is not much public interest, there are no institutions, and the market is underdeveloped, meaning that integration into “social life” has yet to take place. The literary milieu has the form of a liberal association of literary designers, who argue about neither politics nor ethics. But in terms of aesthetic development, nothing really seems to be emerging. What do you think about the future of poetry and it upcoming authors?
KM: Poetry contains everything. It is a mould for the condition of society, and the seed of its future. The level of society’s interest in poetry expresses the degree it is interested in itself. People in Russia today are typically involved in constant self-evasion. They live from one day to the next. The system of consumerism gives them more and more possibilities for doing so.
For my generation (born between 1968 and 1979), the central problem was and still is the encounter with the bourgeois world; should one make oneself at home in it, or struggle against it. Many interesting authors have been forming against this backdrop; at some point, their “social fate” takes shape – lifestyle journalist, designer, doctor, or marginal figure. They may follow their trajectory or they may attempt to alter it, to write about it, or to refrain from doing so. Real breakthroughs can only occur once authors make the connection; it is only at this point that they can really express themselves. The younger generation has yet to make this experience. Those born in the 1980s largely generate texts that combine everything – personal experiences, literary impressions, global cataclysms – in an endless song of restless humanity, trapped in the monitor. Reading them reminds me of Brecht’s poem “The Interrogation of the Good.” “…You are a good friend. But are your friends good people? You are intelligent. But who is your intelligence serving? You never work to your own advantage. But whose advantage are you working towards? … Considering your achievements and your good qualities, we will put you up against a good wall and shoot you dead with good bullets from good guns and then we will bury you with a good spade in good earth.” By the way, this all applies to me as well; it is my central theme: interrogating the good person within myself.