The summer of 2008 saw the release of a typographically and artistically magnificent volume, Russian Poetry from Latvia(Russkaya poeziya Latvii), containing verse in three languages, Russian, Latvian and English. It was put together by two poets, Artūrs Punte and Sergejs Timofejevs, and published by the lone star promoters of Latvia’s Russian diaspora’s culture, the energetic and resourceful Orbīta group of authors and artists.Below you’ll find an interview with Punte and Timofejevs, the latter being also the author of the anthology’s ample foreword.
The article is reprinted courtesy of its original publisher, the Latvian daily Diena.
Let’s start perhaps with discussing the differences, if there are any, between the Russian poetry in Latvia and the one created in Russia.
Sergejs Timofejevs (ST): Here, the local Russian poetry first appeared as a distinct phenomenon in the second half of the 1980s, which coincided with democratisation and the struggle for [the country’s] independence. It was unrelated to the Soviet literary system and to the central powers in Moscow. It was a rather beautiful beginning.In actual fact, the generation that came just before us, i.e., Orbīta, had become writers and poets already during the Soviet rule, however most of them seriously set to work in the latter half of the 80s and only some of the earliest among them did so in the first half. My own first publication, appearing in the Rodnik magazine, is dated with the late 80s, which consigns me to the subsequent generation. In principle, that poetry embodied, in a manner of speaking, a feel of freedom, a kind of Europeanness, an orientation toward Europe’s values of arts.Also perhaps not so much showing a focus on the Russian literary tradition but in a way capturing a local feel and manifestations of modernism and postmodernism.
What about Russia in the late 80s, did anything similar take place there?
Artūrs Punte (AP): Paradoxically, no. However, there were parallels between Latvia’s Russian poetry and Russia’s underground poetry. Here, that kind of poetry was accepted in the regular periodicals earlier than in Russia. If you look at the recent periods of Russian literature, the samizdat literature, not known to readers before that, then broke free. It changed the literary landscape drastically; in Latvia it had already happened.And, in Russia it was different also because here the Russian language literature was influenced by Latvian literature. People [from both groups] met in the same Writers’ Union, knew the local arts people but for them the setting in Russia was somewhat less relevant.
What had been the situation before that? Did the Russians living in Latvia write any poetry?
ST: Say, in the 60s or 70s?… It wouldn’t be appropriate to seek any lineage or any serious artistic milieu. Little has been left, not even books or witness accounts.
AP: For example, Andrey Levkin, then editor of the Latvia-based Russian magazine Rodnik, wrote that his generation would be happy to identify with a tradition, if there only was one.
On the other hand, there’s Roald Dobrovenskiy.
AP: Yes, but he’s a prose author. The difference ought to have been—as we have hypothesised—that in the 1970s it didn’t matter where you were, in Rīga or St. Petersburg. Finally, in mid-80s the decisive moment ripened, determining that the specific type of poetry could be written here and nowhere else.
Still, is there any chance to find a lineage connecting to the interwar Latvia’s Russian literature?
ST: No, but there existed here a Russian cultural hub, or at least a few periodicals. The examples were Dlya Vas, a magazine, and Segodnya, a newspaper.
AP: This was quite closely related to the refugees fleeing from Russia to the West.
ST: Dlya Vas was an interesting one. My parents happen to have preserved one year’s volume, I think it’s 1937.Strange as it seems, it was a Russian language magazine writing about Paris fashion, millionaires and their lifestyles, also interspersed with news from abroad, including photos of Hitler and Stalin. It seems completely unbelievable in comparison to the events of that same period in the Soviet Union.
Why does the anthology emphasise the poetic styles of Rīga and Fergana?
ST: It’s only in Rīga and in Fergana, where you can speak about emergence of poetic milieus and generations whose literary styles differed from what was going on in Russia. In Fergana’s case, there was a grouping uniting Russian poets and Uzbek poets. They wrote in Russian, but the Uzbek poets didn’t feel that because of this they would have become part of Russian poetry. They just used Russian as a global language, while also seeking their poetic stepping-stones in Italian, French, Greek and Mediterranean poetry and widely using free verse.
AP: When studying at the Moscow Institute of Literature in late 1990s, I had already grown used to the processes then taking place in Rīga, so I was deeply shocked about the discussions, sometimes seriously extending over several seminars, on whether free verse had a right to exist… I dared to object mentioning that there were already excellent poets using it, but I met with reproaches saying that I wasn’t the one to judge the state of things. At the literature department of the University of Latvia, such premise would never have been used in a seminar. In Russia, even in the underground milieu with its interest in alternative strains of literature, the hero of the day was Brodskiy, who used classical devices, the stylistics typical of modernism while obviously expanding it a great deal and taking his inspiration from the literature of the West. And still he belonged to the tradition of classical modernism. He may have just about five free verse poems. Concurrently, in the 1980s, we have here Oļegs Zolotovs writing lines that are long enough to require the publisher to print them in the landscape orientation on a book’s pages; and you cannot make out what metre those have been written in. For him [Latvian] authors such as Uldis Bērziņš and Jānis Rokpelnis were the reality, while no poet based in Moscow or St. Petersburg would be able to know them.
The anthology titled ‘Russian Poetry from Latvia’ is already available at leading bookshops. Photo by Vladimirs Svetlovs, ‘Orbīta’.
You’ve written that the 80s’ generation of Rigan Russian poets are disillusioned in the Rīga of the 90s.
ST: Perhaps not exactly disillusioned, but before that time there had been a hope that Rīga would quickly become something similar to Prague… A cultural hub of Eastern Europe, if you wish.
AP: Yes, an illusion about a multiculturalism. Clearly, the local situation asked for a much greater importance for the construction of a nation-state. Maybe that illusion could exist only among the local Russian authors, for whom it would seem cool that Latvians intermingle with Russians. The moment it all ended went unnoticed.
ST: It was a time when the border checks [between the countries] didn’t exist yet and organising various things was easy. Literary events and festivals of avant-garde art could take place, featuring many guests from Russia and from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
AP: Also, the Rodnik magazine published in Rīga was sold in tens of thousands of copies outside this country.They must have thought that things could only improve from that point and that Western markets would also open up… Once you realise that here it makes no sense to publish a magazine in more than a thousand copies, everything changes.
ST: Most of the subscribers lived outside Latvia. When the prices skyrocketed, they just couldn’t carry the cost anymore. The money they earned from annual subscriptions lost all its value in mere six months. Many among them were not prepared for a situation where you need to turn a profit—simply because the Soviet [social] system provided a surreal opportunity to be provided for and be an artist. Even the most talented failed to adapt and start making money. For example, Aleksejs Ivļevs gave it a try: he drew some naïve cards with cats flying over Rīga. The entire educated class of local Russians found themselves disillusioned. They had thought they were backing democracy and independence, and then shortly after it turned out they weren’t even nationals of this country.
AP: It shows in the example of Vladimir Linderman, who initially participated in the [pro-Latvian] Popular Front but then joined the ranks of [Russian] National Bolsheviks.
But you slipped into the new system seamlessly.
AP: [Because] we belonged to later period.
ST: I think it’s different with Linderman, as he appears to be a natural born revolutionary.
AP: Yes, he’s determined to oppose. While pornography was illegal and there was “no sex”, he also became a publisher of porn. That’s his life scenario.
ST: Once I watched him talking to a Dutch journalist—he was already a National Bolshevik—and I asked him what would happen if he won [politically]. There was no answer from him.
AP: Yes, that’s the paradox with the National Bolsheviks. Today’s party leader Eduard Limonov in Russia is among the few who defend democratic values, while in fact the National Bolshevik agenda is something quite different; and yet currently it appears that he’s pro-democracy, he backs fair elections, and so on. Both of them, Limonov and Linderman, are artists.
Artūrs Punte enjoying the library donated by Roald Dobrovenskiy at ‘Orbīta’s’ abode in Andrejsala’s Power Shop.
Can Russian literature have an adequate existence in modern Latvia, or is this a rather monoethnic-oriented society?
AP: Yes, it can, and possibly it’s just okay that it isn’t turned into some matter of national importance but instead takes up a certain niche segment. What’s important is that it’s not pressed against.
ST: Here, another issue crops up: is it at all important to the local Russian diaspora? They’ve become used to doing without Russian culture. If they have a link to it, then it probably points at somewhere in Moscow or St. Petersburg, a place where, for example, books and films are available. It seems that among wider public there’s no interest in Russian culture. It may, alas, be related to the subjective aspects of the media. The Latvian media, still, are much more responsive to our activities than the Russian media.
It’s believed that literature ought to not separate itself from its social environment, and yet we haven’t heard about any authors in Latvia who’d exploit the local ethnically varied situation and write specifically about what’s it like to be a Russian or a Latvian here. Say, UK’s Indian authors do write about that and they receive attention because it’s interesting enough.
ST: Not sure yet whether it will happen—but I have written lyrics for an Intars Busulis’ album and imagined that, based on that material, there could be a theatrical production. If that succeeds, it may be the first such piece.There is a fair number of Russians like me but there exists no centre that would attract activity, no institution or media outlet. There’s often talk about a russophone environment but in fact it’s very disparate.
AP: The difference is in that even to a “culturally illiterate” Latvian it’s obvious that the Latvian culture is located here. At the same time, many Russians would be completely surprised having found out that there exist local Russian poets.
ST: It’s not that we would like to complain about the way things are. We just don’t feel like we ought to. If you have a project in mind or if you want to publish a book, all of that is indeed possible.
AP: It’s much more typical to hear from those who’ve visited foreign countries and there heard about Orbīta.
Arts and culture professions have nowadays become by and large optional, thus having lost their role of “missionaries”. Likewise, poets may feel that their romantic aura is now gone. And it might be more rewarding to be a prose writer.
ST: I’d say that there was a rapid decline in attention approximately in mid-1990s. There were other things to be taken care of. Nevertheless, at the very end of the 90s, the interest again grew to quite an adequate level. It appears that the average size of a poetry book printing is more or less the same in London, Moscow or Rīga.Poetry nowadays is indeed a cultural underground. While music and film have assumed a role in entertainment, poets still are attributed a “weighty” status. One could say that the latter have not sold out yet … but who would be willing to buy anyway?
AP: The only situation when there’s a buyout proposal was the week before elections, when we got a call asking whether we’d be interested in putting out a collection of poems.
ST: Speaking of publishing the local Russian poets in Latvia, getting yourself started is much more difficult. It’s of course easier if you’re a complete novice writing in Latvian; you get more attention and resources.
AP: A Latvian poet would have to begin by joining the Aicinājums retreat, then the Society of Young Authors, and then proceed to the Writers’ Union. If you’re, however, a Russian poet, you have to think your way through it. Some end up inventing completely different scenarios. Such as the rather vibrant hip-hop era in Daugavpils, which was in fact a derivative of poetic activity that hadn’t found an institutionalised release and instead became a popular form of expression.
Also, the widely known writer Aleksandr Garros moved out from Rīga to Moscow.
AP: And when he still worked at the arts and culture of the Čas daily, it wasn’t concerned with the cultural events in Latvia at all. Having read its arts section you wouldn’t be able to discern whether its publisher was located somewhere in Voronež or in Rīga.
Who knows, could be intentional… or unintentional.
AP: I’d say intentional. It’s easier to run an article on Kirkorov than find something of local interest. This serves as a way of optimising your business, and there isn’t even any ideological message—the way the Latvian press would sometimes portray it saying that the Russian press is biased. There’s optimisation just like in any other business.
Did poetry attract a wider readership in the past?
AP: Hardly. For example, Oļegs Zolotovs is known to very few. At best, 30 copies of his books were sold. But a printing of Semjons Haņins’ sold entirely. The thing with Rodnik was that before it appeared many things were forbidden but, once free rein was given, one felt the need to read everything and anything. Nowadays some of those things wouldn’t be read at all, say, a few of Castaneda’s concoctions. The situation has vastly improved now in comparison to the latter part of the 80s.You shouldn’t say there were readers then and now there aren’t. You can take note of the numbers of copies of Imants Ziedonis’ poetry collections in the 1970s. A printing would have perhaps 70,000 copies. And what about now? Does it mean that Ziedonis’ readership has been lost?
ST: If I had to choose between being a 1970s poet with 70,000 copies per printing and a modern poet with just a thousand then, speaking purely about poetry and excluding any politics or social factors, the second option seems fairer and more attractive.
In the recent releases by Orbīta, what would be the specifics of Latvia-based Russians’ poetry?
ST: During the last eight years, the newest Russian poetry uses free verse much more frequently. On the one hand, there’s an interest in the local creations but, otherwise, I wouldn’t say that the literary style would be different to the writing done in Russia.
Why is it that Latvia-based authors do not employ the theme of multiculturalism? It is used in the UK and Germany.
AP: Here it is natural to present the country as a monoethnic nation.
ST: In mid-1990s, while the Latvian national infrastructure was developing, so was also a concept of an independent kind of Latvian literature. Nowadays, when the self-image is better defined, there may begin a greater interest in others as well.
In culture at large, the most interesting messages are often those that propone universal values of some sort.
ST: A novel about the way Rīga and various phenomena are seen by a local Rigan of Russian ethnic origin hasn’t been written yet.
AP: Andrey Levkin’s unpublished novel is based in material about Rīga. He lives in Moscow but visits Rīga quite often.
ST: In his writing, though, Rīga is not exactly a social environment. He focuses more on certain metaphysical qualities of a city. There doesn’t exist any fiction simply portraying a lad from Rīga’s Latgales administrative district.
AP: What you said about the universal values constitutes the next stage: the local arts and culture environment already is faced with it, and there’s quite an active movement of exporting artwork. Artists and authors from Latvia have their works exhibited in other countries or their books presented to foreign publishers. Isolated local creations have been losing attention.
ST: Many things until now remain to be done, because even Latvian readers would find it interesting to see how a Russian sees their social environment. Yet we at Orbīta do not write about it…
Would this perhaps harmonise somewhat the relations between Russians and Latvians, if there arose a specific Latvia-based Russian culture, eventually also creating a stronger bond with and loyalty to Latvia?
AP: From the politicians’ point of view, the smartest thing would of course be to “acclimatise” the local Russians, stop them from viewing the Perviy baltiyskiy TV channel (as it is a “propaganda tool” of a totalitarian country) and ban visaless travel to Russia.
But, Russia has spoken out about admitting travellers of Russian ethnic origins into Russia without a visa.
ST: And that greatly brought to the surface the question of what are the Latvia-based Russians. If they remain sidelined from what’s going on in Latvia then Russia exerts its influence.
AP: This would be an area worth fighting for.
In fact, there’s not just the problem of Russians belonging or not, but also with the strengthening the self-identification of Latvians with the nation. If you look at the rate of emigration…
AP: Perhaps it even exceeds what happened between 1940 and 1945? What if the official Latvianness, as it is publicised, is too idealised and withdrawn from the reality?
‘Orbīta’ always beckons a welcome from its residence in Andrejsala’s Power Shop, whenever it’s getting dark outside and inside there’s an exhibition, poetry event, etc.
If it were more varied instead of being confined to gatherings of many thousands of people wearing ethnic costumes then perhaps young people would better understand what’s it like to be a contemporary Latvian and how to identify with that idea. I see that this does need to be brought up.
ST: When we began our activity, we had a feeling like standing in a doorway: before us, there had been just the Soviet generation but we were already among those who started creating in the freed and independent Latvia. [We thought that] the next generation of local Russians would be Europeans, embracing European values and observing what’s happening in Latvia and elsewhere in the world. But that didn’t come true. Because a large part of society is left to fend for themselves. That’s why nothing changes… but, time goes on.
Born in Rīga in 1977, he went on to graduate from the Moscow Institute of Literature. Punte is a poet and works in advertising. He also edits the Orbīta almanac and the www.orbita.lv website.
Born in Rīga in 1970, he graduated from the Faculty of Philology at the University of Latvia. His occupations span poetry, deejaying, copywriting and journalism. Timofejevs co-edits the Orbīta almanacs and multimedia titles. Jointly with Punte, he’s responsible for organising the Word in Motion festival of poetic video.
Interviewed by Viestarts Gailītis