BooksWeekend

A Russian Poet Recounts Literary Life in 1966

Soviet-era poet Igor Kholin describes social realities of life among the writers living in cultural exile outside Moscow.

Igor Kholin, © 2017 Ripley Whiteside

I heard an apocryphal story several years ago that went something like: Americans had tried to export reality TV and game shows to post-Soviet Russia, but nobody watched them because nobody in Russia believed they could ever win anything, or that their lives could actually change for the better. Such self-delusory rags-to-riches hopes, the story implied, were the stuffing of American birds — that by some game, gamble, or luck (or all three) we’ll all eat turducken for Christmas.

A quick Internet search for “Russian Reality TV” upends this myth. There are, in fact, dozens of reality shows, many of them knock-offs of talent shows like American Idol. Most of the search results, however, link to an announcement for a Siberian survival show set to premiere in 2017: “REAL LIFE HUNGER GAMES: Sick rules for bonkers new Russian reality TV show allow contestants to ‘fight, rape and MURDER each other.’”

It’s appropriately Putinesque — a made-for-TV dystopian co-ed outlaw manliness contest. Perhaps American reality TV concepts were just too soft, lacking a certain shirtless-former-KGB-agent-riding-bareback-on-a-horse ethos.

But, alas, Game 2: Winter wasn’t really real after all: “Controversial Russian Reality Show Turns Out to Be a Hoax,” The Hollywood Reporter reported on July 7, 2017. It had all been a headline grabbing social experiment, said its would-be producer, Yevgeny Pyatkovsky. To what end, we may never know. Apparently the world will have to satisfy itself with the fights, rapes, murders and other fake news that must stand in for reality these days.

If only the true banality of our day-to-day lives in Russia or the US these days were as wry, bitter, and endlessly amusing as the writings of the “unofficial” or “non-conformist” Soviet poet Igor Kholin (1920 – 1999):

Today was Yodkovsky’s birthday. A mixed crowd. Ugly. Urin, Klabukov, Shylonsky, etc.

Lots of Booze. Yodkovsky got drunk before everyone else. It was all over by midnight. People read their dumb poems. I’m tired of this shit.

So begins Kholin’s diary on August 6, 1966 in Ainsley Morse and Bela Sheyavich’s excellent translation, Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems, published in 2017 by Ugly Duckling Presse. A collection of works written in late 1966, this slender book is a revealing window into the anti-heroic social realities of life among the writers and artists living in the relative cultural exile of the Lianozovo suburb of Moscow.

Like his New York School contemporaries in the US (about whom he was almost certainly unaware), Kholin’s diaries and poems seem to draw much of their energy from the gossip and shit-talking of an inwardly looking coterie that had no real audience outside their own circle. Cut off from publishing because they didn’t and wouldn’t adhere to the state’s heroic Socialist Realist conventions of art and poetry, even in post-thaw, pre-Glasnost Russia, they traded manuscripts in samizdat, much in the same way New York School poets outside academia exchanged mimeos and self-published pamphlets. James Schuyler’s diaries and diaristic poems, Aram Saroyan’s minimalist concretions, and Ted Berrigan’s affectionate takedowns of his friends all come to mind. But there’s something even more charmingly flat and brutish in Kholin’s writing. From August 22, 1966:

We talked about Sapgir’s poems. A lot. Kropivnitsky only acknowledges his early work, which is excessively literary, contrived, overly romantic, and all riddled with banalities like the face of a pockmarked crone. Although it definitely shows some talent.

It’s hard not to laugh at the insecure certainty in these assessments of his friends, especially considering Kholin was a 2nd-grade dropout and didn’t even take up poetry until he left the army after WWII. As Shayevich and Morse note in their introduction, “he barely survived … a bullet that grazed the corner of lips came out his back. He wore his scar as a permanent smirk, a wound that seemed to shape his voice.” And you can hear that smirk throughout. From September 2, 1966:

Sapgir has developed yet another stage of drunkenness. Reading poetry. We recall the three previous stages. One: kisses ladies’ hands; two: I’m a genius; three: talks shit about everyone; and now there’s poetry, too, a drifting stage.

Soaked in vodka, bad sex, misogyny, and self-deprecation, the diaries alone are a fascinating time capsule, supplemented by the excellent side-notes that provide thumbnail biographies of all the characters orbiting the Lianozovo world at that time. Additionally, artist Ripley Whiteside contributed a series of Joe Brainard-ish black-and-white renderings of the central characters in Kholin’s life, which somehow manage to make everyone and everything feel even less romantic.

But the 27 untitled poems that conclude this volume are the extra dash of bitters that make the book. They not only echo New York School aesthetics, but also take their place alongside the anti-poetic tones of Nicanor Parra, Oliverio Girondo, and Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, Alberto Caiero and Ricardo Reis. Hats off to Morse and Shayevich for managing to translate the rhymes in these almost-childlike verses.

Not allowed on the subway—visibly plowed
Outside, the fog was a thickening cloud
He slumped on the sidewalk, as if in a trance
While he was passed out, they made off with his pants

It’s not surprising that many of the poems feel like dirty playground rhymes or limericks. Many of the non-conformist Russian poets were able to work in official capacity writing children’s poetry and stories (see Eugene Ostashevsky’s recent book of translations, The Fire Horse: Children’s Poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam and Daniil Kharms, New York Review of Books, 2017). The frustration at these constraints rings clear through the contrast between the childlike form and the adult content:

A windowsill, some sweet décor,
The flowers getting watered;
Downstairs around the corner store
The boys are getting blotto;
Meanwhile the neighbors down two doors
Are beating up their daughter.

Igor Kholin didn’t get much attention during his lifetime, even when many unofficial poets finally saw publication after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While visual artists associated with Lianozovo have been known in the west since the infamous Bulldozer Exhibition of 1974, during which Soviet authorities plowed under an unsanctioned outdoor exhibition of unofficial art, we’re just now beginning to see the full extent of what the Soviet underground’s anti-heroic social realist poets have to offer. It’s not surprising that all of it spits and grumbles in the face of the polished heroics of Socialist Realism, which quickly found its way into the capitalist markets for aestheticized nostalgia that had little, if nothing, to do with the realities of Soviet life. It was all a lie. Kholin, quoted in the introduction from an interview near the end of his life, states:

For some reason that’s always how it works out: no matter how formally inventive I get, I always still end up with realistic poems. […] In my view, most of the Soviet poets who present themselves as realists are actually so abstract, rhetorical, and scholastic that they’re really the ones that should be called formalists, not us.

As Trump and Putin make out like bandits in the cocktail of propagandized social media delusion that passes for reality these days, perhaps we can all look forward to a reality show as bleak as Kholin’s.

Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems by Igor Kholin (2017) is published by Ugly Duckling Presse and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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