Russians proverbially have a soft spot for poetry. After reports appeared that Vladimir Putin planned to lead a flock of endangered Siberian Cranes on an annual migration, while hang-gliding and dressed as a bird, many bloggers responded [ru] with [ru] classic poems about cranes, along with photoshopped images (see below).
It's no surprise that a result of Russians’ widespread interest in poetry is that there are plenty of online communities dedicated to its production and consumption. Stihi.ru [ru] (‘stihi’ translates as ‘poems’), with a user base of almost half a million people, is the largest by far. In fact, this space, dedicated to writing, publishing, and sharing poems, is one of Russia’s largest online communities. Its founder, Dmitri Kravchuk, estimates [ru] that 1% of all users of the RuNet write poetry, and many of them use his website.
More than a decade old, Stihi.ru grew out of a small LGBT forum, but quickly became the hangout spot for thousands of aspiring poets. The sense of community and a well developed system of reviewing and critiquing differentiates publishing there from simply using blogging platforms like LiveJournal. (Though many have found success through LiveJournal, such as young poet Vera Polozkova [ru], who started with posting on her LJ blog and now publishes books commercially.)
Even with its review system, Stihi.ru is designed to be egalitarian and isn't curated. The consequence is that it can be hard to sort out the good from the bad. Accusations of graphomania run rampant, especially from the more elite literary circles. The service also attracts criticism for fostering a space that is so safe, that it doesn’t promote artistic progress. Sometimes this criticism migrates from the online world to real life.
Recently, for instance, three poets blogged about attending the filming of a poetry-themed talk show. One of the two young women reading their poems at the show was a minor Stihi.ru star, who (according to [ru] poet Nadya Delaland) talked at length about the necessity of only giving positive feedback in comments and never criticizing other people’s poetry:
Она говорила, что, как бы плохи не были стихи, нельзя напрямую говорить, что они плохи.
Her own poetry was “predictable” and “banal,” according to poet Boris Kutenkov, who described her in the following way [ru]:
Явно дальше Серебряного века ничего не читано, кроме своих соседей по сайту Стихи.ру, где “поэтесса” благополучно обитает в паралитературной провинции, наслаждаясь своим успехом
Surprisingly, this young poet won the favor of the audience (the talk show had a voting element). But, only because [ru]:
Зал, как выяснилось, был наполнен выходцами со Стихиры, они пришли поддержать Крючкову.
That said, let us leave the judging to the critics. Whatever the overall quality of the work published on Stihi.ru, in the growing vitriol of Russian public discourse, it is refreshing to find a space where arguments can be vehement, but apolitical.