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Russia: The Citizen Poet

Volokhov, whose true native identity has been awakened, is now leading a “flying detachment” around in circles in the forests, living for his trysts with Zhenka. For three weeks they enjoy a nightly idyll in a country bathhouse, and conceive another of the novel’s fateful mixed-blood babies, before the sinister and ubiquitous Gurov/Gurion hunts them down and drives Zhenka away to the destroyer-village of Zhadrunovo.

By this time, Gurov has become something like Voldemort from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, a far more implacable ethnic cleanser and fanatic of pure blood than either the Varangians or the Khazars, who “have no eschatology” and have long since forgotten why they are at war. Gurov is finally overcome by the ferocity of the shamaness Asha’s passion for her pureblood Varangian lover, Borozdin, and their unborn child. True to the genre of fairy tale (skazka), the magical power of love prevails over Gurov’s “alternative” historical mission, and all the rest.

The Varangian–Khazar civil war ends in a chaotic “Final Battle,” whose outcome has been agreed in advance by the leaders of the exhausted armies. Magical tales are never logical, and the very illogic of Living Souls neutralizes the various grand rival historical narratives with which the characters have muddled each other’s heads, and over which they have gone to war. Left behind after all the competing theories have canceled each other out are love (no respecter of ethnic boundaries), poetry, and the romance of the open road. The melancholy song of the natives, “Not alone in the field little road,” is the novel’s refrain. Russian territory has always been “a transport system,” as Gurov himself explains one night over vodka in Volokhov’s Moscow kitchen, after “outing” him as a native: the “simple secret panacea for the Russian people” has always been “to leave home.”

When ZhD was published in 2006, Bykov, ever the teacher, gave his readers a preface explaining what he had in mind as he wrote the novel, and apologizing in advance for the ethnic offenses and national discord it might provoke.10 Following Nikolai Gogol in Dead Souls, Bykov calls ZhD a poema—an epic poem—a genre bound up with the origins and identity of the nation, whose principal themes, he says, are “war and wandering.” Russia, according to Bykov, still lacks a national epic, an Odyssey or Don Quixote. Gogol famously compared “Rus” to a racing troika at the end of Dead Souls: “What is the meaning of this horrific movement?… Where are you racing to?” his novel cries. But before he was able to finish Dead Souls Gogol was “driven out of his mind by Russia’s doubleness, inconclusiveness, and formlessness,” Bykov writes.

Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace is too realistic to be a poema, and contains almost no wandering. In Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak came closer than anyone to the epic ideal, but was unable to break decisively from the realist tradition. If ZhD (its title contains Doctor Zhivago’s initials), “an obsession-novel whose twists and turns have pursued me for the past twenty years,” does not “pretend to form the Russian nation,” Bykov writes, it may at least “explain why the nation has so far not been formed,”11 and why Russian history remains a closed circle that no one has yet had the will or power to break.

All these predecessors, and many more, are mapped onto the vast allusive landscape of Bykov’s poema, which depicts Russian history as endless movement, a chronicle of failed relationships between people and territory. In particular, the novel outlines Bykov’s controversial interpretation of Doctor Zhivago in his biography of Pasternak. Bykov describes Pasternak’s novel as a poema and a skazka, a symbolist work that takes a musical, metaphysical approach to history. In its poetics of transcendent love, Living Souls draws on the chapter “Iced Rowanberries,” when Yuri Zhivago encounters a witch, Kubarikha, in the Siberian taiga, who heals cows, sings sorrowful folksongs, and quotes distorted passages of the ancient Russian chronicles, transforming them into shaman visions. Kubarikha’s words provoke in Yuri a vision of his own love for Lara, who is far away, revealing to him the secrets of her soul: “Memories of strange towns, streets, rooms, landscapes….” And Lara, Bykov tells us, “is Russia,” who “draws to herself dreamers, adventurers, and poets,” but who is “destined for the poet.”12

“At the end of an historic epoch abstract concepts always stink like rotten fish,” Mandelstam wrote in The Noise of Time, remembering his school literature teacher, V.V. Gippius, “Better the wicked and gleeful (vesyoloe) fizzing of good Russian verse.”13 Bykov, who has a prodigious facility for improvising light verse, is fond of the word vesyolyi, which means “merry, cheerful, convivial, lighthearted,” or just plain “funny.” Like many in the liberal opposition movement, Bykov believes that the Putin epoch is coming to an end and hopes that its end will be peaceful. Recently, he has turned the gleeful fizzing of Russian verse into a powerful form of political activism.

Early in 2011, Bykov launched a satirical Internet project called Citizen Poet with the actor Mikhail Efremov and a producer, the former newspaper editor Andrei Vasiliev. Every week, Bykov would compose a verse pastiche of a well-known poet around some item of political news. Efremov, a comic actor of astonishing versatility, would then perform this “news-in-verse” for the camera dressed as the poet. Mimicking poets from Pushkin and Lermontov to Edgar Allan Poe and Rudyard Kipling, Citizen Poet poked ever more daring fun at then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his sidekick, President Dmitry Medvedev. By September 2011, when Medvedev announced that Putin would run for a third presidential term in the next election, the Citizen Poet clips that appeared online every Monday morning were notching up hundreds of thousands of hits; some were watched over a million times.

Though Bykov is one of the organizers of the Moscow opposition movement, he describes Citizen Poet as a “cheerful [vesyolyi] aesthetic project” rather than a “protest project.”14 Nonetheless, its impact was political; in the course of a few months, it had made the Russian heads of state publicly ridiculous, releasing a riot of long-suppressed collective laughter. Lines from Bykov’s parodies and nicknames he had invented for Putin—“the Great Pu,” “Pussin”—were among the most popular slogans painted on the homemade placards in the carnivalesque anti-Putin street protests of 2011 and 2012.15 Citizen Poet exposed the “illusoriness of Putin’s machismo, its artificiality,” he says. As well as ridiculing the stylistics of state power, the show reminded Russians of the poetry they had been made to learn at school.

The week Putin dived to the bed of the Black Sea and pulled up two sixth-century-BC amphorae, Efremov, in a crumpled raincoat, pulled a mini-amphora out of a fish tank, reciting a parody of Mandelstam’s Black Sea poem, “Sleeplessness, Homer….” Putin’s crooning performance of “Blueberry Hill” in front of Sharon Stone and Kevin Costner at a charity gala was greeted with a wicked spoof in the style of the fabulist Ivan Krylov (Russia’s Aesop). Soon even the Kremlin press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had declared himself a fan of Citizen Poet. Bykov and Efremov were invited to an audience with Putin, which they prudently declined.

Independent-minded oligarchs offered financial backing. Presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov (the butt of one memorable spoof in the style of the children’s poet Kornei Chukovsky) sponsored a sell-out tour by Bykov of the Russian provinces. Alexander Mamut (who recently acquired the UK bookstore chain Waterstones) published a glossy album of the project. The exiled tycoon Evgeny Chichvarkin organized two shows in London (now a city with many prominent Russians) on the weekend of the presidential election in March 2012, after which the trio declared the project dead. The last poet to be reincarnated by Efremov was a sinister Joseph Stalin, fondling his pipe as he hymned the nightingale and the dawn of Putin’s third term. Bykov read from his laptop an impromptu poem that he had composed then and there on a theme suggested by the audience: a string of bawdy punning couplets on the Pussy Riot arrests, with much play on the “organs of the law.”16

Bykov has recently raised a caveat about the comic frame that his verse has placed around Putin’s rule. After the Russian president’s surreal micro-light flight this summer teaching Siberian cranes how to migrate, Bykov told his public that he would provide no poetry on the subject: Putin had flown out of Russian politics. “Hearing the general laughter, Putin’s people have made him into a figure of fun to distract us from what is really going on,” he warned; “all we should be talking about now is how to build a modern education system and how to make an economy that does not depend on natural resources.”17

Bykov has reminded his nation that among its most precious resources are the Russian language and its literature, whose richness is the fruit of centuries of ethnic and cultural mixing. His role as political improvisatore in the fast-maturing opposition movement that has taken shape over the past year has put citizenship back into Russian poetry—and a little poetry back into Russian citizenship.


Corrections November 22, 2012

  1. 10

    Unfortunately, Porter has not included this preface in her abridged translation. 

  2. 11

    See Bykov, ZhD: roman (Moscow: Prozaik, 2011), pp. 5–6. 

  3. 12

    See Dmitry Bykov, Boris Pasternak (Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya, 2010), pp. 720–736 (in Russian). 

  4. 13

    See The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, translated by Clarence Brown (Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 114 (translation altered). 

  5. 14

    See Vera Krichevskaya’s full-length documentary on Citizen Poet, Grazhdanin poet. Progon goda (2012). 

  6. 15

    See Rachel Polonsky, “With My Little Eye,” Prospect, March 2012. 

  7. 16

    Multiple cell phone recordings of this improvisation were uploaded on YouTube and can be found by searching Google for “Bykov Pussy Riot.” 

  8. 17

    Bykov, “Otvlechennoe,” Novaya gazeta, September 8, 2012. 

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