Mikhail Epstein 

Like a Corpse in the Desert:

Dehumanization in the New Moscow Poetry


In the book: Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999, pp.134-144.


The new Moscow poetry has a disquieting effect on those readers who feel in it a fuzziness of aesthetic orientation points. There are complaints about its hermetic quality, its excessive complexity. . . . It is not a question of complexity of language only, but of the absence of a stable center, which used to be identified with the lyrical hero. All complexities were clarified once they were correlated with a centralized system of self-reference: "I am so-and-so . . . I see the world as such . . . ." Whether or not such a hero was demonically horrible or cynically depraved, fanatically cruel or naively obtuse (as in the poetry of the Decadents, Futurists, members of Proletkult or the Oberiuts), he would nevertheless provide the reader with the pleasant possibility of aesthetic empathy, of expanding the reader's Self by assimilation of the author's or the lyrical hero's.

Now there is no one with whom to identify. Poetry ceases to be the mirror of the narcissistic Ego. All that remains of this Ego's last lyrical sighs on the surface of the poetical mirror is a murky little stain of banalities. Instead of multiple mirror images, there is the crystalline structure of stone, which does not return the gaze back upon itself. The poetry of Structure displaces the poetry of Ego. At a decisive historical moment, the "I" exposed its own insubstantiality and inauthenticity. Like a traitor, it relinquished its responsibility. The latter was subsequently picked up and carried by structures: the social, semiotic, atomic, and genetic structures. . . . It is not the human being who speaks through the discourses of these structures, but an Other, who persistently addresses the human being. It is up to us to understand this speech.

The new lyric poetry is an experiment in assimilating these alienating, im-personal or supra-personal structures, behind which one feels the presence of an entirely different Subject, who does not nearly measure up to the accustomed yardstick of subjectivity, like the one conjured up in Protagoras's saying, "man is the measure of all things". Rather, it is the object that becomes the measure of all that is human, since in its objectness it mediates this recalcitrant Other, which the human subject experiences as originary to the Self. The new poetry is thus not self-expression, but rather other-expression. It is a journey through worlds in which humanness has left no trace, but into which the human subject has been allowed to peer through the strangely structured crystalline lens of the poetic eye.

The proliferation of "extreme cruelty" and "primordial tenderness" as the forms of animal and plant life in man, which Alexander Blok once identified as the "crisis of humanism," has now reached its maturity. In our present day and age, the locus of the former individual is occupied by a multiplicity of self-animated forms of being, bonding through a kind of "musical" pressure: "the civilization of Humanism" has been vanquished by the "spirit of music." Osip Mandelstam left a similar testimony, expressed in almost the same words: "The synthetic poet, our contemporary . . . In him the voice of ideas, of scientific systems, of political theories is singing in just the same way as nightingales and roses sang in his predecessors." The movement of lyric poetry beyond the sphere of the lyrical "I" reveals the depths of a new experience, which is more primordial, more originary and hence more holistic. Its structuredness and trans-subjectivity defy definition and are best described in religious terms, even if this description has no immediate connection to any concrete religious tradition. The essential thing is not the object of representation, but the subject of enunciation, which in the new poetry is located beyond the auctorial persona. This elusive subject, as a consequence of all the processes of dis-embodiment and "de-personalisation," cannot help manifesting the characteristics of a transcendental Subjectivity.


The structures that have replaced the absent center—the "lyrical hero"—differ in kind. The Conceptualist poets (Dmitry Prigov, Lev Rubinshtein, Timur Kibirov, Mikhail Sukhotin) investigate the mechanisms of mass consciousness and colloquial speech, which appear to function automatically in by-passing the will and consciousness of the human subject. They speak "through" him. What is exposed are the empty schemas of commonplace ideas, the exhausted dummies of contemporary world views — "concepts" [kontsepty] in general. "Life is given to man for the rest of his life . . ." (Lev Rubinshtein); "The outstanding hero, he marches on without fear . . ." (Dmitry Prigov); "Stalin's falcons are proudly soaring . . ." (Timur Kibirov); "Sing me a song of anything you like, a swan song, oh my bright red cotton flag. . ." (Kibirov).

Conceptualism is the poetry of crossed-out words, words that cancel themselves out at the moment of utterance, as if devoid of meaning. Their presence stands out precisely because of the absence or erasure of sense. They present a riddle of self-manifest emptiness. Each time "the absolutely correct" or "the absolutely banal" word is uttered, an uneasy pause follows, a strained silence, betraying the actual presence of the Absolute. Only this Absolute is that of negativity, of nothingness. It is as if no one speaks like this — except that comrade No One continues to speak like this, and even claims to occupy a leading role in literature and life. As a result of this, many Conceptualist poems have been written in the name of this No One, providing the reader with a striking opportunity to identify with no one . But the main point lies elsewhere. Deliberate banality conceals its own opposite sense, widening the zone of the unsaid. If Conceptualist poetry is not met with sheer laughter, taking it as a parody of stereotypes of mass consciousness, then it is possible to perceive something else through it: the authentic lyricism of the silent Super-Subjectivity standing behind the speaking No One. For it is only in relation to Its super-abundant silence that all words ring hollow, flat, trivial, and disharmonious — just as they are made to ring, deliberately, in Conceptualist poetry.

The sentimental self-appelation of this literary group is "Soulful Conversation" (or "Heart-to-Heart Talk" — Zadushevnaia beseda). This title in itself is, it seems, a deliberate play on someone else's tarnished words, deprived of their sense, which is a hallmark of the Conceptualist procédé. For this group's poetry is neither "soulful" nor reminiscent of a "conversation." Rather it is intentionally superficial and replete with "borrowings" or quotations. It is reminiscent of a dictionary or catalogue. . .

Nevertheless, a keen ear will catch in these "near-verses" a certain echo of Chekhovian intonation, for example, when Chebutykin in "Three Sisters" is reading aloud from the newspapers: "Tsitsikar. An epidemic of small-pox is ravaging the district . . .," or when he is trying to convince his interlocutor: "But I am telling you, chekhartma is mutton." Behind this banal text is a subtext of non-sense, loneliness, and mutual unintelligibility. Compare this with Prigov: "The President has been chopped again, this time in Bangladash . . .," or with Rubinshtein: "Oh, come, do not talk such nonsense! What does this have to do with Woe from Wit, when these are Dead Souls." All of these are instances of emptied signs in a discourse of "useful" information or "content-filled" communication. The subtext itself as the "other meaning" dissolves in Conceptualist texts to give way to "non-sense." The twentieth century has spewed out such a flood of words that it annihilated all underlying psychological foundations, opening up a gaping abyss of metaphysical emptiness. These dead words, "like bees in an empty hive," are swept out by the Conceptualists, allowing silence itself to be heard at the limit of our disappointed auditory sense.


Other poets—like Olga Sedakova, Faina Grimberg, Ivan Zhdanov, Alexei Parshchikov, Ilya Kutik, and Vladimir Aristov—have incorporated into their poetic vocabulary, as if into a red book of speech, all the words that still have life left in them. They have placed the sense of these words under high tension, even excessive tension, in order to reveal the structure of a multidimensional reality. This ultimate reality is not reducible to a lyrical "I" either, but, unlike in Conceptualism, it is revealed in positive terms, "cataphatically," not as an erasure, but as an excess of meaning. Metarealism—the name applicable to this poetic movement—reveals multiple realities, ranging from the one perceived by an ordinary human eye to the one that is open to the compound eye of insects and the otherworldly insights of prophets. The challenge to traditional realism can come from the devastation of reality (Conceptualism), or, on the contrary, from multiplication of realities (Metarealism).

The metarealistic image does not simply reflect one of these realities (as in mimetic Realism), nor is it simple comparison or simile (as in Metaphorism), nor does it refer one reality to another by means of allusion and allegory (as in Symbolism). The metarealistic image discloses an excess of realities, their simultaneous presence and mutual transformability, testifying to the credibility and inevitability of miracle. ". . . I know a thing or two about miracles: they are like sentries on duty" (Olga Sedakova). Each reality is manifest in another through a transgression of that reality's laws of being, and as an exit into another dimension. That is why the metarealistic image becomes a succession of metamorphoses that capture Reality in its entirety, in its dreaming and its waking, in its bonding and dissociating linkages.

The words used in these images are not crumpled up and discarded; they are not thrown out as if they were "no one's," as happens in Conceptualism. Instead, they gravitate towards a limit of all-pervasive resonance and polyvalence, where they take root in the depth of the memory of language. The more the various layers—such as the temporal and ethnic—of the cultural soil intermingle, the more fecund the germination and the more abundant the shoots. Metarealism is a poetry of semantically overloaded and underlined words, which exceed their customary meanings.

The following lines by Ivan Zhdanov could be a self-characterization of this poetry:

Either the letters cannot be understood, or

their grand scale is unbearable to the eye —

what remains is the red wind in the field,

with the name of the rose on its lips.

Meaning acquires such intensity that the difference between the signifier and the signified disappears. Of the letters, which designate the name of the rose, only the wind remains, spreading the color and smell of the rose to become "red," thus acquiring the quality of the designated flower. To "name" is thus to acquire the distinguishing features of that which is named. In the metareality explored by the Metarealist poets, the humanly-constructed, arbitrary opposition between object and word has been abandoned. Objects exchange distinctive features with words so that the world is read like a book written in letters of incomprehensible proportions..

The poets who went through the experience of stagnation, of frozen time [bezvremen'e], understand the grandeur of condensed and saturated cultural space. By contrast with the poets of the 1960s who saw the world in terms of its divisions into epochs and periods, countries and continents, the poets who started to write in the 1970s and to publish in the 1980s have their spiritual existence in a multidimensional continuum, in which all times and all consciousnesses, from the neolithic period to the neo-avant-garde, converge. The flow of history has forfeited that linearity of direction called progress. Having slowed down and broadened out, time has formed a delta: this is a descent into an ocean, where times do not follow one another in sequence, but where waves roll in all directions in an infinite space.

The new poets are catchers of the oscillations of meaning, which traverse all epochs simultaneously: an "ooh!" emitted in the Middle Ages is echoed in the middle of the twentieth century . . . All of these poets have experienced not only the negative effects of historical stagnation, which has transformed them into a belated, "stagnant" generation, but also the positive discovery of supra-historical foundations, rising out of the shallows of recent decades.

Stagnation is a parodic monument to eternity. Thus, the group of Metarealist poets is addressing itself to this eternity; another, the Conceptualist group, is exposing its parodic nature; while a third is commemorating it as a monument.


The poetry of the group Moskovskoe vremia [Moscow Time] and of the poets who are close to it (Sergei Gandlevsky, Alexander Soprovsky, Evgeny Bunimovich, Bakhyt Kenzheev, Victor Korkiia and others) contains a multitude of signs betokening contemporaneity. But this present emerges as a meticulously preserved layer of the past in a region of future archeological excavations. "...We recognize the years of our lives in the concentric circles of Moscow" (Evgeny Bunimovich). The poets of this circle rarely lapse into the distant past or into metaphysical inquiry. They are closer to the crowded and phantasmic milieu of Moscow's antiquity of the 1970s and 1980s. For antiquity it is, by virtue of the fact that it has been viewed, by accident or design, from a new post-historic perspective, in which it appears as one of the curious cast-offs of a bygone era, even if this era is still our lived present. This contemporaneity as antiquity is the last remnant of temporality itself, the bitter-sweet, nostalgic experience of parting.

It is significant that the poets of this group retain a lyrical hero in their verse. But this hero is not so much experiencing life as hoarding lived experience — sad and honest testimonies with which he fills the precious archives of the disappearing "personality of the twentieth century," the museum of the Last Man.

Was I here or not on occasion,

Rhyming verse on a live thread?

To this day I am torturing my heart,

All is grist to the die-hard.

(Sergei Gandlevsky)

As distinct from the grass-root poets, the archaists, who endeavour to defeat the present by the past and who seriously adopt literary styles prevalent some one hundred years ago and more, the poets of Moscow Time exhibit the tastes and sensibilities of archeologists, who do not substitute one time for another, knowing the fragility and friability of the half-decomposed material of which the "lyrical I" is made. With this "I," the Moscow Time poets are carrying on their painstaking restoration work, knowing how quickly it may crumble if exposed directly to the here and now. In their poems, this "lyrical I" is illuminated as a distinctly outlined but frozen silhouette, seen as if inside a transparent fossil. In the dense associative texture of their writing, time coagulates in the form of clear ingots that have cooled down and been tossed ashore by an ancient surf. What name will posterity give to this epoch, this generation? Perhaps it will be called the "Amber Age" of Russian poetry.


For readers brought up on the poetry of preceding generations, this metapoetry—Conceptualism, Metarealism, Archeologism ("Lyrical Archive")—seems deathlike owing to the fact that it is not engaged in the "battles" of contemporaneity. Where are the passions, the enthusiasm, the call to action? Gone is the lyrical hero, emotionally open, bursting with eagerness or indignation, having traversed the world from Canberra to Calcutta, or, contrarywise, having stayed ascetically moored to the shores of his native land. In the place of this affective "I" or a thoughtfully reserved and self-assured "We," there is now a strange lyrical "It."

This "It" is impersonal and cannot be visualized in concrete human form. Even love no longer represents an emotion, a force of attraction, but the outline of a tightly enclosed, self-envelopping space, whose curvature is ruptured now and again by an earthquake, which separates the lovers, or whose shattered mirror breaks in order to unite them again. The Earthquake in the Bay of Tse, a poem by Alexei Parshchikov, and The Distance Between You and Me is You..., a poem by Ivan Zhdanov, are both about love. But love is treated in them from the perspective of topology and geophysics rather than of psychology and the "human sciences."

The new poetry is thus not like a child of Modernity, with its focus on Man as the center of the universe. It is rather like the memory of past ages or the foreboding of future times, in which Humanity may cease to be a necessary starting-point and will instead become the point of ultimate arrival.

In any case, what makes us think that poetry must be "cut to size" to fit the human subject, or that the poetic hero must be fashioned in the image of his historical contemporary? That he must have the same burning heart, the same eyes dimmed with day-dreams or passion, and the same language fit for communicating with fellow citizens? By contrast, the prototypical image of the lyrical "It" is embodied in wheels, one inside the other, which were moved by the Spirit of the holy cherubim. "The spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels," not in the human face or figure. And this "projection that had the power of sight" did not emanate from two human eyes but from the myriads of eyes around the wheels, reminiscent of Parshchikov's representation of the superhuman expansion of sight in the aftermath of an earthquake:

Otkrylis' dorogi zreniia,

zaputannye, kak gribnitsy,

i ia dostig izmenenia,

naskol'ko mog izmenit'sia.


Smykaia soboi predmety,

ia stal sredoi obitaniia

zreniia vsei planety.

Trepetanie, trepetanie...


The paths of vision have opened up,

tangled like mycelia,

I have achieved transformation,

as much as I could be transformed.


...My self throws together objects,

I have become the environment

of the whole planet's vision.

Tremors, tremors... .

Aleksei Parshchikov

Is it then not in the Book of Ezekiel nor in the Book of Isaiah that we find the origins of the poet-prophet, such as was first foreshadowed in biblical poetry and subsequently bequeathed to Russian poetry by Pushkin? We may recall Pushkin's The Prophet (1826) -- a truly prophetic poem in regard to this new way of trans-subjective thinking: after the lyrical hero meets a seraph in a desert, his weapons of subjectivity--the sensitive heart and the idle tongue--are to be torn out. The flaming coal and the snake's stinger that replace them are signs of the dehumanization of the poet's being, allowing him to rise above sentimental self-expression and to attest to a Spirit that is not reducible to an anthropomorphic image. All that is human dies in him:

"Like a corpse I lay in the desert..."

What sort of a creature was the monster that lay in the desert with a coal in its breast and a sting in its mouth? A corpse that was yet a prophet, ready to arise at the call of the Lord.

Contemporary Russian poetry also has a corpselike aspect at times, since it has lost all the distinguishing features of the living, the human. What juts out are forked tongues, membranes, charcoallike objects. But we feel it: this entire unimaginable aggregate is ready to arise and proclaim the truth at the first word from above — it is made to palpitate. The seraph has already completed his laborious task: the new superhuman organism is ready for life. And those who see in it only a subhuman monster and a conglomerate of mechanical devices do not suspect that it is from It that they can receive the Word containing God's will and thought. To transmit this message to humanity, the prophet has to kill all that is human in him. To set hearts on fire, the prophet has to have a burning coal in the place of a heart.

We are living in an uncertain time interval of perhaps a very short duration.

...And the voice of God called out to me...

Nothing else is left now but to listen and anticipate so as not to miss this voice in the desert, a desert surrounding the solitude of the prophet who, at least for the moment, resembles a corpse.


Transl. Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover



Movements in Russian poetry covering the first third of the twentieth century.

"Man is an animal; man is a plant, a flower; he reveals features of extreme cruelty, as if not human, but bestial, and features of primordial tenderness, also as if not human, but vegetable." Alexander Blok, "Krizis gumanizma," in A. Blok, Sobranie sochinenii , in 6 vol. (Lenigrad: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1982), vol. 4, p. 346

Osip Mandel'shtam, "Slovo i kul'tura," in O. Mandel'shtam, Sobranie sochinenii in 3 vol. (New York: Inter-Language Literary Associates, 1991), vol. 2, p. 227

See the notion of religious alienation and theomorphism in the chapter "Post-Atheism: From Apophatic Theology to Minimal Religion."

In the original, "Spoi mne pesniu pro vse, chto ugodno, lebedinuiu pesniu, kumach," Timur Kibirov plays with the surname of the poet Vasily Lebedev-Kumach (1898-1949), an official bard of Stalin's era, who wrote many poems and songs glorifying the Soviet regime. "Lebedev-Kumach" literally means "Swan-Red Calico" (the cloth of which Soviet flags were produced).

"And like bees in an empty hive, dead words smell bad" — from Nikolai Gumilev's poem Slovo (1921).

This is the book of the endangered, threatened forms of life, disappearing animals and plants.

"Oblast' nerazmennogo vladen'ia...", in Ivan Zhdanov, Nerazmennoe nebo (Moscow: Sovremennik, 1990), p. 63.

See Nikolai Berdiaev's concept of the "new Middle Ages" and its interpretation in the chapter "Post-Atheism: from Apophatic Theology to Minimal Religion."

See the manifesto "The Paradox of Acceleration" herein.

What is alluded to here is a group of traditionalist poets, populists, and neo-Slavophiles, who are emitting nostalgic sighs about the archaic Russian past and using Pushkin's meters to do so. They believe themselves to be the legitimate heirs of the classical Russian literary tradition. The critic Vadim Kozhinov has tried to create an aesthetic and theoretical platform for this group, which includes members of both the older generation, such as Nikolai Rubtsov, Nikolai Triapkin, and Anatoly Peredreev, and the younger generation, such as Nikolai Dmitriev, Viktor Lapshin, Vladimir Karpets, and Mikhail Shelekhov. This group is introduced by the critic Larisa Baranova-Gonchenko, in the literary miscellany Den' poezii - 1988 (Moscow, "Sovietskii pisatel'", 1988), pp. 165-171.

The groups alluded to here are those of the previous two generations of poets, known as "confessional'" or "variety" poets of the 1950s and 1960s (Evgeny Evtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky) and the "quietistic poets of the soil," who came to prominence in the 1970s (Vladimir Sokolov, Nikolai Rubtsov).

For a more detailed analysis of these poems, see Mikhail Epstein, Vera i obraz. Religioznoe bessoznatel'noe v russkoi kul'ture XX veka (Faith and Image: The Religious Unconscious in Twentieth Century Russian Culture) (Tenafly (New Jersey): Hermitage Publishers, 1994), pp. 50-53.

"As I looked at the living creatures, I saw wheels on the ground, one beside each of the four. ...[I]n form and working they were like a wheel inside a wheel... All four had hubs and each hub had a projection which had the power of sight, and the rims of the wheels were full of eyes all around. When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them; they moved in whatever direction the spirit would go; and the wheels rose together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels" The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, 1:15-20, in The New English Bible with the Apocrypha. (Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, 1970), p.1005.

The Earthquake in the Bay of Tse, in Alexei Parshchikov's collection of poems Figury intuitsii (Moscow: Moskovskii rabochii, 1989), pp. 22, 23.

"And a six-winged seraph appeared to me at the crossing of the ways... With his right hand steeped in blood he inserted the forked tongue of a wise serpent into my benumbed mouth.. He clove my breast with a sword, and plucked out my quivering heart, and thrust a coal of live fire into my gaping breast." The Heritage of Russian Verse, introd. and ed. by Dimitri Obolenski (Bloomington, London: Indiana University Press,1976), pp. 92-93.