The poet, musician and activist Kirill Medvedev is few contemporary Russian leftist voices that has had some play in English. Several of his writings have been translated: his collection of poems and essays, It’s No Good, articles and poems in N+1, an article in the Guardian on disavowing his copyrights, an essay in the New Left Review, two essays in the London Review of Books, a post on LeftEast, an essay on the Russian Reader, and a short profile in the New Yorker.
To modestly add to this corpus, the following is my translation of a short interview with Medvedev recently published in Novaya gazeta. In it he stresses the need to close the chasm between Russia’s urban intelligentsia, or creative class and the Russian working masses. Although the division between the Russian intelligentsia and the masses has deep historical roots, the current efforts to foster this split has, in many ways, served as a means for Putin to consolidate his authority in his third term. Quick to eschew the notion of a “zombified mass” and the specter of a “civil war,” Medvedev views the recent long distant truckers’ protests as well as his conversations with people throughout his travels in Russia as having the potential to bridge that gap and find a common political language.
The poet, musician, and Left activist on the truckers’ protest, Bolotnaya and the Russian revolt
Interviewed by Yan Shenkman.
Kirill Medvedev, the lead singer for Arkady Kots has been arrested many times and for many different reasons, for protests in support of the Bolotnaya prisoners to openly leftist, socialist speeches. He has also been actively involved in the truckers’ protests. He was arrested while picketing, released thanks to public pressure, and is now waiting for his trial at home. A well-known poet and translator, the winner of literary awards, and author of several books, Kirill is one of the very few who believe that the intelligentsia and the people can still come together. Moreover, that it’s necessary to do so.
Yan Shenkman: In December, shortly after your arrest, you and your band went to the Khimki truckers’ camp, performed, and fraternized with them. What do these people represent to you as a Left activist?
Kirill Medvedev: Well, for starters, they aren’t the type of workers who have nothing to lose but their chains, but are rather a radically minded middle class, although there are both individual entrepreneurs and salaried employees among them. They’ve done relatively well since the Soviet times, love their work, and do not want to lose it. They have a sufficiently high level of personal and collective self-respect. There is something emotionally similar in their reaction to the responses to the monetarization of benefits ten years ago: Why do they treat us like shit? It’s remarkable that all these drivers from different parts of the country, including Dagestan, are acting in concert. I really feel that they are generally a metaphor for a new civil and geographical unity. It’s wonderful that all sorts of people and political forces sympathize and help them. And particularly we, the Left, believe that it is necessary to link their protest with other labor protests, and explain to people that the Platon system must be abolished, that this isn’t just about truckers, and agitate for an independent trade union and help create it. This is what must be done at the given moment.
This means coming together is possible?
Can and must. The main thing is to not take cultural and stylistic differences for class conflict. The Moscow intelligentsia fears civil war, and is afraid of the notorious Uralvagonzavod. [Recall that in 2012, a group of Uralvagonzavod workers sent Putin a video offering to clear the streets of the protesters. The workers of Uralvagonzavod have since come to symbolize Putin’s “silent majority”—Sean] But a civil war between Uralvagonzavod and Café Jean-Jacques patrons is imaginary. It’s nonsense. Not long ago, by the way, Uralvagonzavod was preparing to go on strike, and strikes have been known to happen only among class conscious workers trying to defend their rights. Let’s put myth aside. The workers themselves are not good or bad, but there are those among them who beat the intelligentsia and creative class by a mile in terms self-organization. Of course, the destruction of education and healthcare, the fight against violations of the Labor Code, and for a real right to strike are boring for some and are not as interesting as the free speech and fair elections. But the [truckers’ protest] in fact unites everyone.
In fact, you, a staunch leftist, performed for protesters at Bolotnaya. And you have repeatedly stood up for those arrested on May 6th.
Well, the Left also took part in the protests and there are many leftists among the prisoners of May 6th. As a matter of fact, we need to constantly remember that all sorts of people [protested at Bolotnaya], or the propaganda about the incident will win out. The problem is that, in terms of rhetoric, the prevailing view among the protesters is that they are the only free and thinking people in Russia. There’s a division between right and wrong. The authorities skillfully took advantage of this and started a confrontation which we all suffer from up to now. The formula is simple: let’s respect each other, let’s not view each other as wretched sovoks [i.e. those with a soviet mentality] and obnoxious kreakls [i.e. those of the creative class], and everything will be fine. Most of us have common interests.
So you say a civil war is imaginary. But you know that there is senselessness and merciless in the event of revolt, and that it’s entirely possible, that they will not beat the oligarchs and government officials, but those who are hard to get along with, like you and me? The entire history of Russia speaks of it.
This likely а revolt will not remove or abolish non-participation. What sometimes seems like a wise moderation can just bring blood and chaos, and radicalism, as any sharp turn or a sudden stop, can veer you away from the abyss. Yes, evidently, some kind of spillage is already inescapable. But you need to participate because of this and to try to avoid ruthlessness and senselessness. It is to make sure that at the crucial moment those same truckers, for example, after realizing that there’s no way to escape politics, that they grab for leftist ideas, and not, say, nationalist ones. But there are no guarantees. Marx said that the first thing a victorious proletariat will do is hang him and Engels from a lamppost.
He just didn’t live to see, but it could be completely like that. . . And yet you are very different. It is completely normal for an ideological socialist to fight for workers’ rights, but [tolerate], say anti-Western rhetoric. You, an intelligent man and a translator of Charles Bukowski, are unlikely to put up with this. And it’s because there are [differences], right?
If we imagine them as a kind of zombified mass which, by definition, is anti-Western and xenophobic, then we will view them as enemies. But we would not be socialists if all of this would result in exclamations like, “Oh, look, some of them are anti-Maidan, and somebody said something xenophobic, and someone said something anti-American. That’s it, we’re not with them, they’re bad. It’s just silly. Furthermore, American culture and poetry is one thing, but to talk about American imperialism, but not forgetting Russian imperialism, is a joy to any leftist. So it’s possible to find a common language.
The Left has a bad reputation in this country. As soon as you say the word “socialist”, you get, “Well, they want everyone to live in khrushchevki again, that everything will be rationed, and that there will be the gulag.” They say you’re a soft version of Zyuganov.
The reaction you mention usually comes from liberal society. For the intelligentsia, the Soviet Union is primarily the gulag, but unfortunately, the topic of the camps which is mostly among intellectuals, is incorrect and historically inadequate, but it’s there. I’m much more concerned with how to communicate with the majority, which normally relates to the Soviet Union, and for whom the prison camp isn’t main thing in the least. I travel a lot. And lately the conversation with fellow train travelers often begins with Ukraine and Bandera, and everything flows from that. Of course, there are fanatics, but basically, if you get into real problems—one’s apartment, work, the medical clinic, and prices—it’s quite possible to find a common language. As a result, you can talk about the gulag, and the reaction is usually quite standard: they all know and acknowledge it, but we, any grandmother will say, have achieved a lot, we won the war, I felt the country needed me, and the people it. And I have no objections. She really has a much better feel for the Soviet era, it’s her personal feelings, and they’re not from television. You can’t tell people that they have lived their lives in vain, that they and their parents were all just pathetic and deluded victims. The entire history of the Soviet Union from the beginning to the end is the history of the conflict between the past with the future, the archaic and the progressive, and monstrous senseless sacrifice and the tremendous achievements. I’m sure many will call me a sovok or even a Stalinist for this opinion. And that’s the big problem. To solve it, to at least try to, both sides need to at least have contact.