Russia: Writers Put Down Pens to Stand Atop Soap Boxes

This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.

There is a famous, if a bit navel-gazing, line by the Soviet era Russian poet Evgeny Evtushenko:

Поэт в России – больше, чем поэт.

A poet in Russia is more than a poet.

Evtushenko wrote the line in the 1960s, and was referring to the way Russian poets and writers have often taken metaphorical approaches to say what other people could not say in a totalitarian state. He was also quite charitably referring to himself — after all, we all would like to write our own reviews.

Several Russian writers have recently been active in the public sphere: penning the odd op-ed, signing the occasional petition [ru]. Some have spoken at rallies, and helped organize opposition marches. Others have been party activists and even candidates for political office prior to becoming famous. So it appears that at least some Russian intellectuals have taken the phrase to heart, also taking it perhaps a step further than was Evtushenko’s original intent (although he himself became an elected Soviet deputy, towards the end of Perestroika.)

Dmitry Bykov at a “Control Stroll” protest in Moscow. 13 May 2012. Photo by Evgeniy Isaev, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Now, nine people who self-identify as writers are running in the (chiefly online) elections for the so-called “Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition,” and a tenth strongly considered registering as a candidate before ultimately dropping out. Bearing in mind that writing is not the most popular of professions, this is a hefty proportion of the total (which includes just over 200 men and women). Of course, some of these “writers” are just barely so.

For example, Oleg Kozyrev [ru] is first and foremost a popular opposition blogger [ru], currently ranked 59th [ru] in the Yandex rankings. Konstantin Krylov [ru] may have written science fiction under a pseudonym, but he is mainly a nationalist political philosopher, publicist, and also blogger [ru]. Then there are the minor poet [ru], the newspaper columnist [ru], the promoter of cloud democracy [ru], and the lawyer [ru] –- writers all.

Three are heavy hitters, however. One of them, Dmitry Bykov [ru], doesn’t even call himself a writer in his candidate profile -– he just lists his various literary awards. He’s got quite a few, including two “National Bestsellers” [ru] and one “Big Book” [ru]. Bykov is a professional writer: a novelist, a biographer, a dabbler in poetry, and a household name. Over the past year, he attended most of the opposition rallies, sometimes as a headline speaker.

As it happens, Bykov criticized the Coordinating Council elections in his Facebook on September 15, two days before he registered in the same elections as a part of Ksenia Sobchak’s coalition of candidates [ru]. He wrote [ru]:

Во-первых, никаких стопроцентно авторитетных и перспективных лидеров они не выявят. […]  Вторая причина относительной неважности будущих выборов заключается в том, что выбирать, по сути, некого

Firstly, [the elections] won’t identify any absolutely authoritative or high-potential leaders. […] The second reason for the relative unimportance of the coming elections is that there is really no one to choose.

On September 17, when Bykov did register, he did so beside Sobchak and several public intellectuals, one of whom was Lyudmila Ulitskaya [ru], the second major writer on the list of CC candidates. Ulitskaya has a low profile on the RuNet and does not blog much, but still has name recognition as an internationally acclaimed writer. Maybe her candidacy will lend weight to the program statement [ru] of Sobchak’s block:

Мы не политики и никто из нас не считает своей личной целью борьбу за власть.

We are not politicians and none of us considers struggle for power a personal goal.

While Ulitskaya and Bykov fall solidly into the “liberal” camp, Russia’s radical left has its own representatives among the literati. When Sergey Udaltsov announced that he had a strong showing of leftist candidates, two of the names were Sergey Shargunov [ru] and Zakhar Prilepin [ru].

Both men are established writers with leftist views, both edit the online publication Free Press [ru], and both have a prior political history. Prilepin, now an award-winning writer, used to be an active member of Limonov’s National Bolshevik party. Much of his writing deals with his experience as an antigovernment activist.

Shargunov is also a literary award finalist, who from 2005 to 2007 was the leader of the youth wing of a now defunct party, Dmitri Rogozin’s Rodina. At that time, he regularly updated his blog [ru], which these days is pretty much empty of new content. When Rodina closed shop and transformed into Just Russia in 2007, Shargunov at first was included in the party’s list of candidates for the parliamentary elections. Soon thereafter, however, he was kicked out of the party, presumably for radical views.

The not-at-all penguin-like Boris Akunin. 14 March 2012, photo by Pavel Samokhvalov, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Since Shargunov and Prilepin are not members of the usual protest “tusovka,” both would be welcome additions to the opposition “shadow government.” In the end, although Prilepin did consider running [ru] for the Coordinating Council, only Shargunov registered as a candidate. Maybe Prilepin was swayed by his old party boss Eduard Limonov, who wrote the following [ru], just prior to registration closing:

Удальцов сегодня похвалился, что левые будут “мощно представлены”  на выборах в КС. Он назвал помимо себя и  Ильи Пономарева  таких “левых”, как писатели  Сергей Шаргунов и Захар Прилепин. Я очень не советую моим друзьям Прилепину и Шаргунову  участвовать в  легитимизации  буржуазных вождей оппозиции, хитрые буржуи хотят вас использовать.

Today Udaltsov bragged that the leftists will have “massive representation” to the CC elections. He named besides himsef and Ilya Ponomarev such “leftists” as writers Sergey Shargunov and Zakhar Prilepin. I strongly discourage my friends Prilepin and Shargunov from participating in the legitimatization of the bourgeois leaders of the opposition. The crafty bourgeoisie simply wants to use you.

Another writer is conspicuous by his absence from the list of candidates. This is Boris Akunin, historian and mystery novelist, and another ubiquitous face at last winter's opposition rallies and protests. In a blog [ru] post titled “Political Ornithology,” Akunin called on people to participate in the elections -– as the electorate.

He employs a laborious bird-based metaphor to explain his reasoning, using a poem by Maksim Gorky as a jumping off point. Essentially he distinguishes between “seagulls” (political activists), “loons” (the politically aware but largely inactive people), and “penguins” (the unaware, dark and unwashed masses). According to Akunin, this election is about “seagulls,” while he is a “loon,” and so will not participate. I’m sure this cleared it up for a lot of people.

This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.

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