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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Literature Is Losing Out

Culture in Russia is slowly dying out. and not because the government has thrown it to fate's mercy, giving only paltry sums for its survival. Once upon a time Russia did more reading than any other country in the world. The thick literary journals had circulations in the millions and hundreds of thousands. Good books were snapped up in a matter of hours.


Poetry was recited in the capital's best halls and in suburban sports stadiums. Theaters were filled to overflowing for any talked-about play or simply some classic. Because everyone needed art.


Not anymore. Our life is fall of pornography, worries about the future, lines, conversations about the fantastic prices and meager salaries. The lifeless eyes of exhausted women and the despair of old men: this is our life. As are the shiny limousines and expensive furs of beautiful and insouciant women. Stickups and shoot-outs on the city streets, overcrowded hospitals and frightening mugs in crowded restaurants: all this is the life that some curse while others use it to suit themselves. Art for some has become prohibitively expensive, for others a waste of time. Those who cannot pay for concert and theater tickets do not go for that reason, those who can pay and 10 times over do not go because it does not interest them.


Life is divided into two unequal arts. and culture is on the dividing line. The tragedy of our time is that the years of perestroika really did restructure our psychology. Many abandoned the world of spirituality for that of ready money and profit. These days it is more important to have a good income than a good knowledge of literature and art.


What is more, money and knowledge are incompatible. Either you make money or you love books. Both things take time. and there is no time to spare. So choose what works for you. The soul, weighted down with dollars, sinks imperceptibly lower. But art is not in the habit of bending over backward to get the attention of moneybags.


When I meet my fellow writers, I am shocked at the monstrous changes in them: the spiritual weariness, lack of faith, embitterment, even despair and disappointment in everything.


You cannot create in that mood, you cannot captivate young souls with beauty, souls yearning for light and goodness. How often I now encounter indifferent eyes in the metro where just three or four years ago people were rustling the pages of newspapers and journals, poring over books. My last collections of poetry were published in editions of 50, 000 to 100, 000 copies and they did not last long. The same was true for many poets. But for three years now I have been unable to publish my "Selected Poetry": it seems that now no one needs poetry. Although I receive many letters from readers, phone calls from strangers asking where they can find volumes of mine, publishers keep flooding book counters with the Anzhelika adventure series, with "Love With Witnesses", "Sex Primer", and the like. Kitschy titles flash, naked girls beckon, appalling book covers spark curiosity.


I do not want thoughtlessness and vulgarity to engulf our homes and souls. When I give readings (they still occur), I see the eyes of people who have not given in to the general panic and petty temptations. This summer on Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko gathered hundreds of people in the Writer's Bookstore where he read them his verses for several hours on end and signed autographs. No, culture cannot perish in Russia because the need for goodness and the search for beauty will never die in the soul of the people that gave the world Pushkin and Dostoevsky, Tyutchev and Tolstoy.


Other days I feel less sanguine. I recently dropped in to see Anatoly Zhigulin, a good poet who lost his health and six years of his life to Stalin's camps. Many of Zhigulin's verses are full of bitterness and despair, yet they enchant us with their candor and piercing purity. Zhigulin wrote a book called "Black Stones" about his hard life, his youth wasted by the system. and here this amazingly honest and kind person was, like so many of his fellows, in a bad way. An invalid, famous and no longer young, he is obliged to live on a small pension since our profession no longer feeds us. How are we going to live, Andryusha? he asked me, his eyes brimming with grief and hopelessness.


But live we must. Because if I do not shine, you will not shine and he will not shine, and who will cleave the darkness? The great Turkish poet Naz Hikmet said that. and so we will shine. This cannot go on forever. I believe that our sufferings will cleanse the atmosphere of the caustic fumes of profit, incomprehension and vulgarity. There may be only a few romantics left on Earth, but they are there. They are right beside us. I can feel their shoulders and their breathing. I have not given up writing poems. People will need them. Maybe only a few people and maybe not now but they will need them. . .


Andrei Dementyev is a poet and the former editor of Yunost. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.