Why does Yury Kublanovsky Remain a Critic?
During the last decades of the Cold War, Western perceptions of the USSR often crystallized around the cases of prominent Russian dissidents. The Western media paid close attention to dissidents like physicist Andrei Sakharov and Nobel Prize-winning authors Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky. However, this admiration masked an important fact — many members of the loosely defined “dissident movement” were fierce critics not only of Soviet communism, but of Western capitalism.
One of these critics was the poet Yury Kublanovsky. Today, Kublanovsky works as the poetry editor of the prestigious literary journal Novy Mir. As a co-chairman of the Russian Writers’ Union, Kublanovsky is a pillar of the Russian literary establishment, but such success was almost unthinkable two decades ago. Then, in the closing years of the Brezhnev era, Kublanovsky was blacklisted for his unapologetically anti-Soviet poetry. He found himself working as a janitor at a Moscow church, smuggling his poems to the West with the help of foreign journalists. In 1982, the KGB forced him into exile after his first collection — edited by Brodsky — was published in the United States. He spent the next eight years engaged in political activity within the Russian émigré community. He worked for La Pensee Russe, the venerable Russian anti-Communist newspaper based in Paris, and for U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, based then in Munich. In 1990, after President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms allowed him to publish freely in the Soviet Union, he returned to his homeland. He has lived in Russia ever since.
The offices of Novy Mir, where Kublanovsky works, are located on a small sidestreet near Pushkin Square in Moscow. This square, named after Russia’s most celebrated poet, was once the center of Soviet publishing, and the major newspapers Izvestia and the Moscow News are still located here. Now, however, the square is dominated by the flashing lights of the Shangri-la casino. Inside the offices of Novy Mir, the crumbling walls reflect the financial decline of the proud publication. Founded in 1925, Novy Mir was once the pinnacle of the Soviet literary press — as well as a rare voice of liberalism – publishing Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Stalinist masterpiece One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962. Under glasnost, the journal’s circulation skyrocketed from 175,000 to over two million. But, since then, the print run of this monthly “thick journal,” as literary magazines are traditionally referred to in Russia, has dwindled to a mere 9,000. Still, many consider it to be an important arbiter of Russian literary taste. It is here that Kublanovsky presides over his poetry fiefdom.
At 56, the poet is an imposing figure, with a head of flowing silver hair that resembles a lion’s mane. Seated in his office at Novy Mir, the windows looking out onto the blue cupolas of a nearby Orthodox church, Kublanovsky reflected on the evolution of Russian culture in his lifetime.
“The state of contemporary literature depends greatly on the spiritual state of society,” he said in an interview. “Under Soviet rule, literature was crushed by censorship. ... Then, it seemed to all of us that, if only this censorship was removed, a thousand flowers would blossom, and it would lead to a new dawn of Russian literature. … Of course, the reality turned out to be significantly more complex.”
That complex reality included plunging interest in the classics, an explosion of pornography and the tabloid press and the success of postmodernist authors like Vladimir Sorokin, who achieved notoriety with their coarse language and sexual subject matter. Against this backdrop, Kublanovsky remains a fiercely articulate defender of tradition.
“Earlier, Russian literature was instructional, in the positive sense of the word,” he said. “The writer considered himself to be the bearer of certain higher truths. … Now this is gone and another mission has not appeared. Thus, a new kind of playful, relativistic literature has arisen, which, on one hand is low-quality and, on the other, spiritually void.”
A Busy Pen
Kublanovsky has appeared on television to express his views, but his primary outlet is Novy Mir, where he writes reviews and selects the journal’s poetry. He also continues to write his own poetry, which has earned him several awards, including the Solzhenitsyn Prize in 2003. The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko has included Kublanovsky in his massive anthology of twentieth-century Russian poetry, which was translated into English. Many others have applauded Kublanovsky’s career as a poet and critic.
“Kublanovsky is a consistent and enlightened conservative,” politician Grigory Yavlinsky said in statements published on his web site. “His social views are understandable and transparent.”
In his social views, however, Kublanovsky does not always agree with liberals like Yavlinsky. He was a bitter critic of Russia’s free-market reforms and pro-Western direction during the 1990s.
“I was extremely unhappy with the Yeltsin regime,” he said during the interview. “So I’m eager to see some changes. I want to see Russia adopt an independent path, free from the vestiges of communism, and from the current oligarchic free-for-all.”
Kublanovsky looks favorably on the policies of Vladimir Putin, who has emphasized the supremacy of the state over Russia’s billionaire oligarchs. In this respect, Kublanovsky differs sharply from many former dissidents. Other ex-dissidents — especially democratic liberals — have criticized Putin, regarding him as a throwback to the Soviet era. Yelena Bonner, the widow of Andrei Sakharov, has warned that: “Under Putin, a new stage in the introduction of modernized Stalinism has begun. Authoritarianism is growing harsher, society is being militarized, the military budget is increasing.” As evidence, Bonner and other liberals cite the return of numerous ex-KGB officials to prominent roles in government, as well Putin’s own KGB background.
But Kublanovsky takes a different stance. He views the growing power of the state as a normal, positive trend in Russian society, especially after the chaos of the 1990s. In his words, “agents of Western influence” came to power under Yeltsin and steered Russia in the wrong direction. He says that the results included the subversion of Russia’s foreign policy, massive theft in the name of free-market economics, and the coarsening of Russian culture. As for Putin’s KGB background, Kublanovsky dismisses these concerns as overblown.
“Putin worked in intelligence, the elite part of the secret services,” he said. “So you shouldn’t make him out to be a rank-and-file KGB soldier.”
Kublanovsky, however, is unwilling to give Putin his whole-hearted endorsement. He believes that it will take several years to see whether Putin can truly turn Russia around and doing so will take deeds, not words. In particular, he is disappointed by the Kremlin’s environmental policy.
“Something utterly terrifying is taking place with regard to the environment. Under Putin, it’s even worse than it was under Yeltsin,” he complained. Specifically, Kublanovsky cited a new law on forestry that was rushed through the Duma, allowing development in areas that were previously off-limits.
Kublanovsky’s views have formed over the course of half a century. His beliefs draw heavily on Russia’s pre-Revolutionary traditions — above all, the Orthodox faith. But Kublanovsky also spent eight years in the West, and this experience had a profound influence on him. Primarily, he became disillusioned with Western materialism. Thus, he reserved his fiercest criticism for the consumer culture that he sees enveloping Russia — and the world.
© Russia Profile, 2011