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BOOKMARKS the Gorbachev Foundation blog of the Cambridge Cultural Memory Working Group biography of Joseph Brodsky





1985, has been the subject of heated debate ever since. Today, the controversy has taken on a new urgency – not just because of the 25th an- niversary, but also because Russia is again facing the challenge of change. We introduced Perestroika because our people and the country’s leaders understood that we could no longer con- tinue as we had. The Soviet system had made our country a major power with a strong industrial base. The Soviet Union was strong in emergen- cies, but in more normal cir- cumstances, our system con- demned us to inferiority. What we had to abandon was quite clear: the rigid ideologi- cal, political and economic system; the confrontation with much of the rest of the world; and the unbridled arms race. In rejecting all that, we had the full support of the people. It is much more diffi- cult to answer the follow-up question: what did we want to achieve? We came a long way in a short time – moving from trying to repair the existing system to recognising the need to replace it. Yet I always ad- hered to my choice of evolu- tionary change – moving de- liberately so that we would not break the backs of the peo- ple and the country and would avoid bloodshed.

While the radicals pushed us to move faster, the conserva- tives stepped on our toes. Both groups must bear most of the blame for what happened af- terward. I accept my share of responsibility as well. We, the



Mikhail Gorbachev


erestroika, the se- ries of political and economic reforms I undertook in the Soviet Union in

reformers, made mistakes that cost us, and our country, dear- ly.

Our main mistake was acting too late to reform the Commu- nist Party. The party had initi- ated Perestroika, but it soon became a hindrance to our moving forward. We also acted too late in reforming the union of the republics, which had come a long way during their common existence. They had become real states, with their own economies and their own elites. We needed to fi nd a way for them to exist as sovereign states within a decentralised democratic union. In a nation- wide referendum of March 1991, more than 70pc of voters supported the idea of a new union of sovereign republics. But the coup attempt that Au- gust, which weakened my po- sition as president, made that prospect impossible. We made other mistakes, too. In the heat of political battles we lost sight of the economy, and people never forgave us for the shortages of everyday items and the queues for es- sential goods. Still, the achievements of Per- estroika are undeniable. It was the breakthrough to freedom and democracy. Opinion polls today confi rm that even those who criticise Perestroika and its leaders appreciate the gains it allowed: the rejection of the totalitarian system; freedom of speech, assembly, religion and movement; and political and economic plural- ism. After the Soviet Union was dismantled, Russian leaders opted for a more radical ver- sion of reform. Their “shock therapy” was much worse than the disease. Many people were plunged into poverty.


democratic path. Recently, there have been a number of setbacks in this regard. For instance, all major deci- sions are now taken by the ex- ecutive branch, with the par- liament rubber-stamping for- mal approval. The independ- ence of the courts has been thrown into question. We do not have a party system that would enable a real majority to win while also taking the minority opinion into account and allowing an active oppo- sition. There is a growing feel- ing that the government is afraid of civil society and would like to control every- thing.

The achievements of Perestroika are un- deniable. It was the breakthrough to free- dom and democracy

Health, education and culture took heavy blows. Russia began to lose its industrial base, its economy becoming fully dependent on exports of oil and natural gas. By the turn of the century, the country was half destroyed and we were facing chaos. De-

mocracy was imperiled. Pres- ident Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 re- election and the transfer of power to his appointed heir, Vladimir Putin, in 2000 were democratic in form but not in substance. That was when I began to worry about the fu- ture of democracy in Russia. I understood that in a situa- tion where the very existence of the Russian state was at stake, it was not always possi- ble to act “by the book”. Tough measures and even elements of authoritarianism may be needed at such times. That is why I supported the steps taken by Mr Putin during his fi rst term as president. I was

not alone – around 75pc of the population supported him in those days. Nevertheless, stabilising the country cannot be the only goal. Russia needs develop- ment and modernisation to become a leader in an interde- pendent world. Our country has not moved closer to that goal in the past few years, even though for a decade we have benefi ted from high prices for our main exports, oil and gas. The global crisis has hit Rus- sia harder than many other countries, and we have no one but ourselves to blame. Russia will progress with con- fidence only if it follows a

I sense alarm in the words of President Dmitry Medvedev when he wondered: “Should a primitive economy based on raw materials and endemic corruption accompany us into the future?” He has also warned against complacency in a society where the govern- ment “is the biggest employer, the biggest publisher, the best producer, its own judici- ary… and ultimately a nation unto itself.” I agree with the president. I agree with his goal of modern- isation. But it will not happen if people are sidelined. If the people are to feel and act like citizens, there is only one pre- scription: democracy, includ- ing the rule of law and an open and honest dialogue between the government and the peo- ple.

What’s holding Russia back is fear. Among both the people and the authorities, there is concern that a new round of modernisation might lead to instability and even chaos. In politics, fear is a bad guide. Today, Russia has many free, independently minded people who are ready to assume re- sponsibility and uphold de- mocracy. But a great deal de- pends now on how the govern- ment acts.

Writer-in-exile Joseph Brodsky would have turned 70 this year. When asked if he was Russian or American, Brodsky replied that he was Jewish, a Russian poet and an English essayist. Dmitry Bykov, journalist, poet, and writer, explores the spectre of a larger-than-life poet.

Thank God I did not meet Brodsky

Dimitry Bykov



here were no po- ets in Russia who didn’t want to meet Brodsky, regard- less of their per-

sonal feelings about him. Many would have sold their souls – or at least a kidney – for the right to say: “And at this point, Brodsky says to me…” The Nobel prize win- ner happily combined his poetic gift with excellent self-promotion skills. His recommendation mattered both in terms of career and in terms of reputation in the literary world. I very much wanted to read my poems to Brodsky. I know I am a good poet, and I don’t need anyone’s encourage- ment to confirm this. To be honest, I didn’t even hope for his approval: I think Brod- sky didn’t care much about anyone else’s verses. But I was fond of him and wanted to see him in everyday life. A man is weak, and when I travelled to the US in 1994 I had an underlying, shameful and unrealistic desire to see him even if from afar, he who wrote: “As long as you re- mained with me, I knew that I existed”. For some reasons I myself doubted my exist- ence at the time, and Brod- sky was a great consolation. I had a commission from



Mark H



he steady new-mil- lennium expansion of broadcast televi- sion in Russia via cable and satellite

has seemingly done less to enlighten society than to illustrate Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety pc of everything is crud.” Indeed, Russian TV since about 2003 has been making Sturgeon look conservative. And the recent modest splashes of televised hetero- doxy noticed by the Western press – Putin and Medvedev puppets doing two minutes of “satirical” New Year’s dit- ties – would hardly seem to augur great changes on the horizon, either. Yet the tele-situation here is actually more complex. Con- siderable non-crud – pro- gramming of real quality and genuine social import – has appeared on Russian TV over

the last decade; and several quite extraordinary broad- casts have already been aired this year. Given that Ameri- can and other outside ob- servers often use television as an index of Russia’s freedom of speech and press, these counter-examples from the lonely 10pc surely deserve more recognition than they’ve received to date. Let’s start with some oldies but goodies. For most of the past decade the Kultura channel carried Felix Razu- movsky’s outstanding series on Russia's 1,000-year search for its national identity, titled

Kto m

y? (Who Ar e W


For those who thought Rus- sians could not or would not air an extended accounting of their own history that is at once scholarly, self-critical and open-minded, this mul- ti-tiered series will come as a revelation. “The past still has us by the throat,” Razu- movsky has said – and Kto my? is a commendable at- tempt to loosen its grip, often by carefully stripping away

Several series dem- onstrate that Russian TV does include pro- grammes well above the merely tolerable

layer after layer of ossified Bolshevik mythology. No less remarkable was his- torian Viktor Pravdyuk’s mid-decade series Vtoraya

Mirovaya. Den za Dnyom. Russka ond W

ya V The Russian V

orld W . Da y Da.

ersion). This is

ersiya (The Sec- ar

y b y

a not another Soviet-style documentary on the Great Patriotic War, but a scrupu- lous examination of the whole of World War II and the problems that both the war and its retelling have visited on the Russian people. This 96-segment epic couldn’t have been better timed: its resolutely non-ten- dentious narrative includes forthright descriptions of the

criminal misconduct on Sta- lin’s part which cost untold Russian lives. Mayor Luzhk- ov might want to watch


ya Mirova

ya and then

reconsider his plan for mounting posters of the Gen- eralissimus for Victory Day. Also rating high marks is the long-running and ongoing Rossiya series hosted by histo- rian-journalist Nikolai Sva- nidze, Istoric

heskie khr oniki

(Historical Chronicles). This

review of Russia’s 20th centu- ry includes 80 hour-long in- stalments, most focusing on a single year and a single key in- dividual – for 1910 it’s Leo Tol- stoy, 1918 is Leon Trotsky and so on. A recent account of 1979 centred on Vasily Aksyonov, using the writer’s tribulations and his luminously prescient novel of that year, The Island of Crimea, to take a fi nely-fo- cused snapshot of a country on the verge of disastrous for- eign adventure and collapse from within. The Chronicles are surely "TV worth watching", and the fact that Svanidze is a mem-

ber of the Public Chamber – a bully pulpit from which he inveighed recently against the mayor's prospective Sta- lin posters – makes one feel better about both that insti- tution and the institution of Russian TV itself. The most recent good news on the Russian airwaves came in the form of a ground- breaking multi-part series and a stunning fi lm of, well, somebody’s mother talking to you… for eight hours.


harv oanie zla (The Entice-

ment of Evil) was an eight- part Kultura series which pre- sented the post-Soviet audi- ence with its fi rst televised re- construction of the great moral and personal dilemma of every Russian outside the USSR in the 1930s: to recon- cile yourself with the reality of a Soviet state or to continue to defi ne your Russianness alone, outside Russia and without hope of ever seeing it again. Using a group of touchstone fi gures that includes Marina Tsvetayeva and her husband Sergei Efron, the serial so ef-

fectively illustrates émigré life and the successive stages many of the eventual return- ees went through – disorien- tation, doubt, hope and fi nal- ly despair – that the genera- tions who remained here can literally discover in it a lost world of their compatriots, with a uniquely alien-yet- Russian mentalitet. As Sva- nidze commented after the last episode: “This fi lm should be shown in our schools.” All of these series demon- strate that the watchable 10pc of Russian television can and does include pro- grammes well above the merely tolerable. Though few outside the country appear to have noticed, Russian TV has in fact been gradually yet sig- nifi cantly helping the nation reclaim its history – a com- mendable exercise indeed, and a process any country’s “vast wasteland” should want to emulate.

Mark H Teeter teaches Eng- lish and Russian-American relations in Moscow.

Peter Vail, writer, journalist, and a close friend of Brod- sky. Vail mentioned me in one of his articles, which offered a sufficient pretext to seek a short visit with the maestro. We met with Vail in a small cafe not far from my hotel, and I began to make over- tures about Brodsky. “And what about Brodsky?” I asked carelessly. “Isn’t he planning a new book?” “Yes, indeed, he has a lot of new stuff,” confirmed Vail. “Great poems, very different from what he wrote before,” he said, noting that he had heard some of them recited by the author recently. At these words, Vail grew a cou- ple of inches taller in my eyes.

“Does he receive any visi- tors?”



Following countless scandals across Russia involving the police, in 2009 President Medvedev ordered a major overhaul of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (national police authority) and the State Traf- fic Safety Inspectorate. It was the first official recognition that Russia’s police force is poorly managed and fails to meet contemporary needs. But nothing has changed since then. Moreover, recent “incidents” on the roads once again revealed the deep- seated corruption and abuse of vested authority that rekin- dled a fierce debate about the urgency of police reform.

Time for a U-turn



Reforms to the police force initiated six months ago have not moved forward an inch unless you consider the chatter of lobbyists as effective action. Moreover, none of the reformers planned to do anything about the State Traffic Safety Inspectorate. Of course, everyone recognises that Russia’s traffic police are corrupt, incompetent and useless. But how do you cure the country of this elephantine tumour? Is it possible? Or, may be it would make sense to follow the example of Georgia and Ukraine, which simply disbanded their traffic police forces and rebuilt them from scratch. If we streamline the 100,000-strong army of baton- twirling loafers into compact flying squads unencum- bered with redundant administrative functions and powers, our roads could indeed become safer. The traffic police would be able to shed the ballast of 40,000 or 50,000 incompetent and corrupt staff, leaving the rest with doubled or even tripled salaries to patrol the roads with an equivalent boost in enthu- siasm. From now on, the number of accidents on a given stretch of the road should be the sole measure of their performance. Reducing the accident rate is the only job we actually want the traffic police to do.

The web versus courts



On March 5, traffic police stopped several cars on Mos- cow’s ring road, asked the drivers to form a roadblock and did not allow them to leave their cars. Several min- utes later, a speeding Audi rammed through the impro- vised barrier and raced away. The public learnt about the accident only because one of the motorists posted a video of the event on a website. Experts agree that cases of damage inflicted by government officials out- number lawsuits filed by citizens for compensation. It seems that the main obstacles to suing the govern- ment are price and procedure. It takes money to hire a lawyer and a lot of time to take the government to court. When the expected damages are approximately $1,000, few will bother. On top of that, it’s highly prob- able that the ruling will go against them (as in many other situations when individuals try to force authori- ties to adhere to the law). Far easier and more cost- effective to make oneself heard and find help on the web. So forget about court settlements and buy a car video camera (get them online for about £140). They continuously record visual data and sound, even in the dark. If you are a victim of abuse, you can post the foot- age on the web. It is simpler than suing and cheaper than legal fees.

Motorists become a strong force



For two weeks, Russia has been debating a traffic ac- cident on Gagarin Square in central Moscow. On Febru- ary 25, 2010, two women were killed when their Citroen collided with an armoured Mercedes carrying a senior manager from LUKoil, a major Russian oil company. The police immediately blamed one of the women for caus- ing the accident. Had it not been for the outbursts among motorists, the accident might have passed unnoticed. But in this partic- ular case popular feeling was running high, and patience spent, with the government in the firing line. Ironically, unrest is burgeoning not in crisis-stricken workplaces or in the swarming unemployment offices, but on the roads. Today, motorists represent a force that can express and channel the anger of the Russian middle class.

Unbridled abuse from the traffic police breeds public mistrust and hatred towards the authorities, who should have simply conducted an honest investigation of the above accident and share the results openly instead of covering things up to avoid irritating the big shots in- volved. I will not be surprised if a motorist group comes into existence to become the most powerful, inclusive and popular movement in Russia.

“He is an open man, it is quite easy to meet him. He may come to visit me soon, and I will invite you, you will see him,” Vail promised. This prospect dazzled me for three whole days. Fearing to be intrusive, I honestly car- ried out the CIA’s programme intended for Russian jour- nalists, but my brain was working hard. I could imag- ine three scenarios. Scenario No 1, the best one: Vail invites me, Brodsky comes, everyone says, “Aah,” and a cosy party transpires. There’s general conversa- tion, then Brodsky recites something new, and then the kind Vail says: “And now, let Bykov read us something.” I am happy beyond words and read something, Brodsky smiles in a friendly fashion and says, “Not bad, not bad," adding, in his manner, a cou- ple of theoretical ideas about the poet as a tool of language. I fl y to the Sheraton Manhat- tan on the wings of happi- ness, my sweaty hands grasping a copy of To Urania (selected poems by Brodsky), signed by Brodsky himself in an original manner, like, “For good memories, from the au- thor.” A place in Russian lit- erature would be secured. Scenario No 2, awful: Brod- sky is in a bad mood. I recite, he puts me down, and I – the most terrible thing – nod my head, smile and agree, in my usual manner. Die, Dmitry, stop writing. Scenario No 3, the worst one: A general conversation, I feel awkward and out of place in this brilliant society. Then out of politeness, I am asked to read something. I read, trying not to look at anyone. A short pause, and the con- versation resumes, as if I was not there. I go to the Shera- ton Manhattan. It is a prob- lem to buy a bottle of alcohol in New York after 9pm, and

this idea drives me to despair in advance.

The saddest thing was that after that I would never again like Brodsky’s poems: a man is weak. Finally, Vail called me and said he wanted to pass a modest gift with me to a mutual friend in Moscow. We met three days before my departure, in a cafe opposite a bookstore. “Why didn’t you call?” Vail asked smiling. “Joseph was at my place the day before yes- terday.” I started. “And how is he?” I asked, in as careless a tone as I could man- age. “Well, he read, we talked, and the next day he left for Europe, for Sweden.”

“So when will he return?” I asked in a broken voice. “In a couple of months.” In a couple of months I would be doing my routine job in my Moscow publishing house. I saw Brodsky in a dream only once since then, shortly after his death. I saw him in rather a strange interior: a well-lit room, the walls covered with bookshelves, from fl oor to ceil- ing. There was a ladder to get to the top shelves. Brodsky was friendly, treating me to tea and talking about something merry and pleasant, and I felt extremely joyous. This dream is easy to explain. One author said that after Brodsky’s death, however cold and re- served he may have seemed, however distant he looked, we


I saw him in a dream, shortly after his death. He was friendly, talk- ing about something merry

His work concerned everybody in the writing world, we all wanted to know what he was doing

all had a feeling of great per- sonal loss: it is the everyday conscience of the intelligent- sia – my, your, ours – that he brought to literature. Besides, his work concerned everyone in the writing world, we all wanted to know what he was doing. Finally, a vast portion of my life passed against the background of his poems; so, it is only natural that, severe and unreachable in life, he be- came very close, almost like a relative, after his death. Awful if you think about it. Only once in my life I had the feeling of a personal meeting with Brodsky. It was when I was leaving the US on a plane, realising that I would not re- turn any time soon. The plane engine sounded like a men’s choir, and, to this underlying rhythm, I chanted in my mind:

Birth I gave you in a desert Not by chance, For no king would ever haz- ard

Its expanse.

It was a late Brodsky, different from both mature and young poet. As if he grew softer, for a moment, returning to tradi- tional metrics:

Grow accustomed to the desert

As to fate, Lest you fi nd it omnipresent Much too late.

At this point I was very happy that I did not see Brodsky, al- lowing these divine lines to re- main pure, clear, and in the highest sense anonymous, free of any authorship because no man could do that. Indeed, one can easily imagine a lamp be- hind the window, some -50C outside:

Just a lamp to guide the treas- ured

Child who's late,

Lit by someone whom that desert Taught to wait.



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