Russian poetry is alive and kicking with young guns blogging to millions of fans, fronting bands and sparring on stage
The advertisement had promised jazz, hip hop, Dagestani rap and – even more exotic – ‘poems like heavenly birds’. Not exactly what you would expect to find at the Duma Club, a cosy, retro bar that, tucked away in a warren of courtyards in downtown Moscow, seems more suitable for secret meetings. Inside, a poet is reciting in impassioned tones to a full house of fashionably dressed twentysomethings clinging to his every word. “Stop! My mascara is running,” cries one. “No, go on. Let’s have more.”
Welcome to Chtetse (The Reciters), a poetry-reading movement that’s at the forefront of a revival in Russia’s most respected literary form. “It’s about synthesis, the maximum number of genres and the development of new forms,” says Pavel Krasnov, aka ‘Pasha Plokhoy’ or ‘Pasha The Bad’ – a one-time rap artist who promotes and organizes Chtetse events at bars and clubs across town. “We are the intellectual underground.”
It’s hard to think of a country where poetry and poets are more revered than in Russia. In central Moscow, statues of Pushkin and Mayakovsky dominate squares named after them, and memorials to other poets, from Sergei Yesenin to Alexander Blok, are scattered across the city’s squares and boulevards.
Reciting poetry comes easily to Russians, who are taught as children to memorize and recite masterpieces from the country’s literary canon at social gatherings. President Vladimir Putin congratulated women on International Women’s Day (8 March) by reading a poem, while foreign minister Sergei Lavrov composes verse in his spare time.
Public poetry readings were popular in Soviet times but vanished in the 1990s as more Western-style entertainments became available for the first time. They’re now returning in a new format that is rewriting the rules of the Russian literary scene.
The days when hushed crowds would cram into stadiums to hear respected poets recite over crackly microphones are gone. “Poems need silence, but it’s hard to get people to come unless there’s music as well,” says Ruslan Shishkin, a poet who recites at Chtetse gatherings.
Chtetse grew out of the hip-hop scene in Ekaterinburg in 2009 and, with a network of affiliates that has expanded to nine other Russian cities, has been driving the wave of interest in poetry events. In Moscow alone the number of poetry readings taking place at literary festivals, theatres or small private bars has soared in the past few years. “We’re seeing an explosion in poetry,” says Alexei Avdanin, a chemistry student in Moscow who has been writing verse since he was 12.
One of the newest venues is the Theatre of Poets in Moscow’s Begovaya district, where the stage is open for all to perform, rather like – although serious poets may wince at the term – a literary karaoke.
Even whackier are the poetry ‘battles’ where contestants, after first reciting their poems in more formal fashion, pit their wits against rivals, exchanging jokes and insults in verse. The winner is decided by the level of audience applause.
Battles are all about hype and can be an ordeal for sensitive souls. But performing in public is the price poets must pay for recognition, says Ruslan Shishkin, who began reciting with fellow poets in his home town of Belgorod, in southern Russia, when he was a teenager. “I was so frightened the first time,” he says. “I remember reading from my mobile phone and my hand was shaking.”
Some readings go better than others, but the sheer thrill of sensing an audience’s appreciation was enough to make Shishkin resolve never to give up writing. “Performing made me understand what poetry can do for people,” he says.
Stars in Russia’s new poetry universe include Vera Polozkova, Sola Monova and Akh Astakhova, who tour the country performing to packed theatres reciting poems about love, personal relationships and day-to-day life. At once glamorous goddesses and kind elder sisters, these poets have achieved rock-star status, performing with live music and videos. For fans who can’t afford it, there’s always YouTube, where these emotionally charged recitals can be played again and again.
Russian critics tend to turn their noses up at the new breed of ‘internet poets’, but they no longer have the last word on what passes for literary merit. The age of media has buried forever the romantic stereotype of the introverted poet doomed to “write for the table” with no hope of ever being heard, says Veniamin Borisov, a Russian poet who performs at – and helps promote – Chtetse events. “Fame is now decided with just one click.”
Dedicated literary websites have proliferated over the past few years, offering poets a forum to publish and discuss their work and find news about forthcoming literary events. Russia’s Writers Union has thrown its weight behind stikhi.ru (which translates as ‘poems’). With more than 200,000 daily visitors it is one of the most influential of these online platforms. Meanwhile, VKontakte, Russia’s Facebook, has launched a ‘Writers and Poets’ page where you can post your work, or videos of recitals, but poems may soon drop down the page if they don’t quickly gather enough likes. Websites like these dangle the possibility of fame but, as Avdanin says, “there’s no guarantee” that a poem will attract even one of the vital clicks.
A traditional way for poets to get attention is to perform in the streets. Moscow’s pedestrianised Arbat Street, where the legendary 20th-century bard Bulat Okudzhava once lived, is a popular venue. When the weather is fine, Avdanin performs here, often reciting in a commanding voice for up to three hours. Passers-by are usually appreciative – unless they are police, who make a point of moving street artists along.
Like many young Russian poets, Avdanin began writing love poems, but abandoned sentimental themes after discovering the work of Boris Ryzhy (a poet from Ekaterinburg who won the Anti Booker prize in 2000, then one of Russia’s most prestigious literary awards). Ryzhy came of age just after the Soviet Union collapsed, and wrote about the horrors of life as crime and violence swept across impoverished Russian provincial towns in the 1990s.
Tragically Ryzhy, who committed suicide in 2001 at 26, did not live to see the respect his work now enjoys in Russia. Things are much better than in Ryzhy’s time, says Avdanin, but Moscow, with its harsh weather, grim buildings and monuments redolent of Russia’s tragic history, evokes a strange combination of resilience and melancholy that infuses his work as a poet.
Ryzhy also influenced Shishkin, who writes emotionally charged poetry he describes as “screaming aloud”. He says he searches for truth and justice in his work and connects with people of all ages and backgrounds. “They feel I know the pain they go through,” he says.
Shishkin is grateful to Chtetse for providing him with a nurturing family in Moscow that has helped him find his feet as a poet and develop a less aggressive voice.
Offering a sense of belonging is what Chtetse is all about, says Pasha the Bad, who detests poetic snobbery. The sense of the universal quality of poetry, that, like a bird, can transcend all boundaries, is central to Chtetse’s philosophy. “It’s not important what you did before a Chtetse event – made sculpture, loaded trucks or slept all day after a wild night out… You’ll find yourself in a world where you can express yourself and be yourself.”
Illustration by Alexis Mackenzie
Words by Isabel Gorst
This story appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Baku magazine.