Russia: The Citizen Poet

Living Souls

by Dmitry Bykov, translated from the Russian by Cathy Porter
London: Alma, 439 pp., $14.95 (paper)
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Mikhail Metzel/AP Images
Dmitry Bykov receiving the Big Book Award for his biography of Boris Pasternak at the Central House of Writers, Moscow, November 2006

Over the past few years, Dmitry Bykov’s creative flow has been noisily saturating his Russian audience with literary allusions, giving new life to old books. Now in his mid-forties, Bykov has published five novels and three lengthy biographies,1 as well as numerous collections of short stories, essays, and verse. A graduate of Moscow University’s Journalism Faculty, he regards journalism as more important than writing books.2 Hardly a day passes without at least one article, broadcast, or blog in which Bykov finds some ingenious connection between a political event and a line of poetry or a character from a novel; he comments on everything from the St. Petersburg Economic Forum to the punk protest group Pussy Riot.3

Bykov’s latest talk show, News in the Classics, airs live three times a week on the radio station Kommersant FM. Everything that happens has a parallel in literature, Bykov maintains. The aim of the show is “to help Russia to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.” So far, as he sees it, Russian history has proved cyclical, and the cycle is tragic.

Following the example of his mother, Natalya Bykova, a renowned teacher of Russian language and literature, Bykov also finds time to teach in high school. The classroom, he says, is the only place where he feels truly useful, as he tries to explain to adolescents (“wild beasts”) “why literature is necessary, and what an author had in mind when he wrote one thing instead of another.”4 In every setting—TV studio, lecture hall, or political street protest—he communicates an infectious bonhomie. Through YouTube, the curly-haired, mustachioed Bykov, round and rumpled in T-shirt and combat jacket, is now in front of a virtual classroom packed with many thousands of attentive listeners, whose responses to his latest impromptu aphorisms on the relations between politics, history, and literature hang below on never-ending comment threads.

The novel Living Souls is at once a futuristic geopolitical fantasy and a panoramic satire of post-Soviet life. It is Bykov’s first work to appear in English. Its Russian title is ZhD, Cyrillic initials with numerous possible significations, among them the Russian word for “Jews,” zhidy. Hyped by its Russian publisher as “the most politically incorrect book of the new millennium,” it depicts the final struggles in a civil war between Varangians (who call themselves “Russians”) and Khazars, rival colonial powers with antipathetic cultural norms.5 Within Bykov’s imaginative scheme, these two “virus races” have been contesting Russian territory since the ninth century, at the expense of the ever-passive native population, who remain pagan and prehistoric, living a hidden vagrant life, moving in circles, speaking their own riddling poetic language. The West, having discovered a new form of energy, Phlogiston (mysteriously produced out of emptiness), has lost interest in Russia (as well as the …

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Letters

Corrections November 22, 2012

  1. 1

    Bykov’s biographies of Boris Pasternak and Bulat Okudzhava were published by Molodaya Gvardiya in 2005 and 2009; his biography of Maxim Gorky was published by Astrel in 2008. His biography of Vladimir Mayakovsky is due out next year. 

  2. 2

    See www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXyfdD7 W1-Q. 

  3. 3

    Three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced in August 2012 to two years in a labor camp for dancing in front of the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior for a YouTube video of their “punk prayer,” “Mother of God, Drive Out Putin.” “God does not need a lawyer,” Bykov remarked the day after the sentence, see Bykov, “Zashchita,” Novaya gazeta, August 18, 2012. 

  4. 4

    See Svetlana Romanova, “Dmitry Bykov: In School My Hour is Worth about Two Thousand,” at slon.ru/russia/dmitriy_bykov_v_shkole_moy_chas_stoit_gde_to_dve_tysyachi-684310.xhtml (in Russian). 

  5. 5

    According to Russia’s twelfth-century Primary Chronicle (and widely accepted historiography), the Varangians (“Russians”) were Vikings who came from Scandinavia at the request of the ungoverned east Slav tribes to found the first Russian state in Kiev in 862. The Khazars were a Turkic people who created a state on the southern steppe in the lower Volga region north of the Caspian Sea, whose ruling class converted to Judaism in the eighth and ninth centuries, and whose prosperous empire, the Kaganate, was finally subdued by the Kievan prince Svyatoslav in the mid-tenth century, leaving few traces. Arthur Koestler, in The Thirteenth Tribe (Random House, 1976), which Bykov invokes, popularized the theory that Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews are the descendants of the Khazars.