The Russian Version of Politics and Poetry

Language is our principal means of understanding the world and its people.  Free expression can be transformative and therapeutic, but also wrenching and dangerous.

As Vietnam veteran Bruce Weigl said in the previous installment in the Political Poetry series, “Words had become treacherous things to me because I had learned how words can twist and bend things to suit one’s needs and how that can so easily lead to murder and suffering.  Once I found poetry, I began to see that I could also repair some wrongs simply by telling the truth about my experiences in the war.”

Language is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, of a mysterious world packed with tempted and often tormented men and women – a complicated world in which governments routinely use words to create enemies and turn people into killing machines.

And yet, words also enable people to redeem themselves, to understand their real and imaginary enemies, and, at times, to love them.

Naming things is how we define and tell who we are.  Poetry does this not through the magic of mathematics, or the relentless logic of Socrates, but through the orchestration of sounds, sights and emotions in evocative phrases.  Through poetry, people explore and define our complex and dangerous world.  For T. S. Eliot, “the end of all our exploring/ will be to arrive where we started/ and know the place for the first time.”

Poet Elena Fanailova courageously explores Russia and its place in the modern world.   Here is how she puts it in her poem “Lena, or The Poet and the People”:


I always used to say:

Never show your poems

To your children or relatives.

To workers or peasants

You have to show factories and production plants,

To the poor – other people’s problems, to the rich as well.

But I

Show the work of native speech

In a country of natural resources;

I am not fucking anyone over,

Like that poetess, Johanna Pollyeva.


Fanailova was born in 1962 in the city of Voronezh, in Southeastern Russia.   A once prosperous region rich in natural resources, Voronezh was devastated in World War II.  Fanailvoa’s grandmother fought in the war, and, like all Russians, Fanailova grew up in its shadow: between 20 and 27 million people died in the Soviet Union, an estimated 14 million in Russia alone.  The Voronezh region suffered again economically after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is still struggling to recover.

Fanailova graduated from the Voronezh Medical Institute and worked for six years as a doctor at the Voronezh Regional Hospital.  She also earned a degree in journalism from Voronezh State University.  In 1995 Fanailova moved to Moscow to work as a correspondent for Radio Svoboda, the Russian branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in which capacity she  hosts ‘Liberty in the Clubs,’ a joint inter-media project between the Russian Service and participating cafe clubs in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

One of Russia’s foremost poets, Fanailova is an outspoken champion of women’s rights and opponent of authoritarian government.  She puts thought into action and speaks her political mind in public.  The poetess Johanna Pollyeva she mentions above is one of President Vladimir Putin’s oldest and dearest political advisors.

There is no misinterpreting Fanailova’s politics, but this does not make her poetry any less complex.  Politics, war, and explicit sex are part of her lexicon, not separate things to be named.  In this respect, her poetry captures the turbulent spirit of her times: of Russia’s transformation from Utopian Socialism to freewheeling capitalism; from dogma to mafia; from sexual repression to sexual exploitation; from war to war to war.

She captures the spirit of the times, with its fissures, rifts, and alienation.  This is edgy poetry, told in intimate detail, with the cold eye of a physician and the grit of a war correspondent who has witnessed the death of love, and felt the grip of cynicism.  It occurs in a modern world in which the private person is a vanishing species, and public discourse a labyrinth of meaningless words.  A world in which political transformation has led Russian women out of the barracks and into a Pussy Riot.

Fanailova rides the human body on its withering journey through cultural and political upheavals.  And through her poetry, with its images from everyday life spoken in a common voice, she is changing how Russian men and women view and understand themselves.   Whether she is breaking through an old, restrictive writing style or a paternalistic political system, Fanailova is saying something about the Russian here and now.

Americans influence her, and can learn from her.  Her book of collected poems, “The Russian Version” (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008) is conscious of her American audience and sources of inspiration.   I thank her translators (Stephanie Sandler and Genya Turovskaya) for their artistry in bringing Fanailova’s work to America.  I am particularly grateful to Anastasia Skoybedo, who translated my correspondence and interview with Elena.  Translators are an indispensable link in the poetry of the new century.

Americans cannot understand all the intricacies in Fanailova’s working of the Russian language, or many of the references to Russian artists and politicians in her poems.  We must study and learn what she is saying, and it is important that we do so, for Russia, by virtue of history and of geography, impacts our lives.   The Soviet Union was, perhaps, America’s oldest enemy, vilified since The Red Scare of 1919, demonized by Reagan as the Evil Empire, and an endless foil for corporate advertisers selling American superiority.  Serious Americans, however, understand Russia’s rich cultural heritage, and realize that we must explore its art and literature.

In Elena Fanailova’s poetry, we discover that we are citizens of the same inner and outer world.

In her poem “Lena, or The Poet and the People,” we meet Lena, a clerk in the all-night store where Fanailova stops after work to buy booze and cigarettes.  Lena asks to read “The Russian Version” and Fanailova gives her namesake a copy.  A few days later she returns for the inevitable critique:


“Could you autograph it,” she says.

To Elena, I write, from Elena.

I hand it over nervously.

For a few days she doesn’t look me in the eye.

Then one day there aren’t many other people,

She says, “So, I read your book.

I didn’t understand a word of it.

Too many names of people no one knows.

I had the feeling that you write

For a narrow circle.  For friends.  For an in-group.

Who are these people, who are they, Elena?

The ones you name?

I gave it to my girlfriends to read,

One of them knows a little bit about literature.

She felt the same way:

It’s for a narrow circle.”


I say, “Well, the part about St. Tikhon of Zadonsk,

You didn’t get that?”

She says, “No, I got the part about Tikhon.”

I say, “What about Seryozha the drunk, did you get that?”

She says, “No, I got that.”

I say, “And the essays, you didn’t get them?”

“I got the prose,” she says,

I even wanted to read more

About the people you were writing about.”


So I say, “Lena, believe me, I didn’t do it on purpose.

I don’t want it to be hard to figure out.

It just turns out that way.”

She looks at me sympathetically

And says, “Okay.”

I keep on justifying myself, “You know,

I write plenty of articles,

And if you understand the ones in the book,

Then you’d get the other ones too, right?”

She says, “Okay, I get it.

So, do you want two beers and menthol cigarettes?”

“Yes,” I say. “Lena,

I’m going to work on myself.

The balloon came back, a sign of wealth.

Look, that’s almost a rhyme.”


Despite the wall of class and education between them, Lena the clerk “gets” Lena the poet’s reference to Tikhon.  Tikhon is a natural part of their world.  But poetry asks the people to make deeper connections, and becomes an impediment at times.  We feel Fanailova’s uneasiness in the poem, and are not surprised that she hates the word “connect.”


It turned out that Lena and I were namesakes.

I hate that word, namesakes

And even more I hate the word connect

It arouses physiological spasms in me

Possibly because

The word has echoes of coitus and sex,

But I prefer pure fucking, pure and simple.

After all, I am my own highest judge.


How is it possible for average Americans and Russians to overcome years of misinformation and mistrust, if a Russian poet has so much difficulty connecting with a Russian clerk?   We are all people, right?  Or is a poet different than the people?  For one thing, a female poet can assume the voice of a man, and speak in the American vernacular, as Fanailova does in the poem “Sun”:


“They stood nearby, very close to me

They smelled of expensive cologne

They were tan — fresh from the tanning salon

Or from the beach.

They wore black suits, well-made, like Italians

They smiled politely

Quickly glancing from side to side

They spoke to each other succinctly: over there, in the car,

You stand there, block the way.

They took out

Long gleaming knives like in movies

From the 90s — Tarantino? Takeshi Kitano?

In short, they took out their knives

And said: If you don’t stay away from her

You’ll be sorry. And they smiled.

They crowded in.

I could smell the scent

Of their skin, their cologne, they obviously read

GQ, possibly Esquire,

Maybe sometime they’ll read one of my interviews. Maybe

They’ll say to one another: hey man, that’s the guy

That we whacked,

What a hoot, man.

Sounding like dubbed American movies.


GQ.  Esquire.  Whacked.  Hoot.  “Sounding like a dubbed American movie.”   Yes, we are the same, in ways often reduced to slang.  But this is poetry, and packed with the contradictions that define our humanity, and our ability to empathize.

With precision, and an ear to intonation, Fanailova’s poetry dissects the words, muscles and tendons of modern men and women, and their mirror-image cultures, as they merge to form some unnamed hybrid, and then spin apart again.  The mind remains as mysterious, our condition as absurd, as it was to the ancient Greeks, as concepts of personal and collective identity shift along with national boundaries, under waves of immigrants, against the clash of political ideologies.

America and Russia have one other thing in common: they both fought futile wars in Afghanistan.  For both nations, these wars are unspeakable things.  In her poem “Afghanistan,” Fanailova bluntly contrasts our scripted (official) memory with what really happened.  The poem describes the conversation of a Russian veteran of Afghanistan and his wife at a beach, and the ease in which they describe the horrors of war.   Here is the last stanza and line:


Now they’re at the river getting soused

And reminiscing about the good old days.

And it’s as though a strange chill tugs

Against their corporeal flesh.

Now the lovers are both forty.

Or, more precisely, the husband and wife.

The kid is ten, they had him late by Soviet standards.

Their scars speak for themselves.


I’ll never find another country such as this.


The last line paraphrases a popular Russian song.   The song goes like this:


“Oh how vast you are, my native country,

How many forests, fields and rivers you have:

I know of no other country such as you.”


Many Americans feel the same unconditional love for their native land, for its purple mountains majesty, as expressed in the Russian song.  Many Americans also see beyond the myth, to the trauma below the surface, as articulated so eloquently and ironically by Fanailova in the last line of her poem: “I’ll never find another country such as this.”  Whatever country that may be.

Elena Fanailova’s poetry tells us what we have been, what we are, and what we may become as we evolve as individuals and nations.   Thanks again to Anastasia Skyobedo, I recently had the honor of asking Fanailova about her poetry and politics.

DV      In the poem “Lena, or The Poet and the People” you say, “I didn’t do it on purpose. I don’t want it to be hard to figure out.  It just turns out that way.”   What are the main things you are trying to say in this poem and your poetry in general?    Why is poetry difficult to understand?

EF      I expressed one thought and one feeling in this poem. It is a feeling of bewilderment and grief at the fact that people do not understand the language of contemporary poetry, and overall, do not really understand each other. And the thought that this has been happening for a while—since Romanticism. There are two classic works that describe the relationship between a poet and the audience: Alexander Pushkin’s “Conversation Between a Book Seller and a Poet” and an article by Marina Tsvetaeva “Poet and Time” (and the connected to it “Poet on Criticism”). It is interesting that Tsvetaeva was describing her understanding of the relationship between the poet and his audience at approximately the same time and from the same standpoint as Ortega y Gasset in his “Dehumanization of Art”. It is hard to understand contemporary poetry, and contemporary art in general, because the language of art is far removed from everyday life.

DV      In the poem, “Lena, or the Poet and the People,” you say:


Do I want to be beloved by the people,

Like Vodennikov (poet or pianist?),

Am I conducting a purely socio-cultural experiment

Like D. A. Prigov?

I already conducted one experiment

In his memory

At the election of a king of poets

At the Polytechnic Institute

(I read an anti-Putin ditty

At a festival sponsored by his Administration.

The pure wave of icy hatred

That rushed at me from the audience —

Students from provincial theater institutes —

Was more than I had felt in a lifetime.

Now that’s a useful experiment.)

DV      How do you see the relationship between you, as poet, and the people?  There is a rich tradition of poetry in Russia.  How do you fit in that tradition?  What is the nature of political poetry in modern Russia?   Are poets like Johanna Pollyeva judged differently than anti-Putin poets?

EF      I do not have any haughtiness when it comes to “the common people,” but I cannot be unaware that I, as any artist, am more observant and sensitive and have better developed intuition, not only when it comes to myself, but also when it comes to the flux of information, contemporary history, and that, which Osip Mandelstam called “the noise of time.” I see myself as his successor in contemporary poetry. This means a great responsibility, a duty to tell people what they have no ability to express themselves.

Contemporary political and social poetry began developing in Russia about eight years ago. It has to do with the transformation of power, with its drifting towards authoritarianism. Poets, as sensitive beings, cannot disregard it. The young, educated audience loves Kirill Medvedev, Roman Osminkin, and Andrei Rodionov. Johann Pollyeva writes speeches for the Kremlin and simultaneously is the author of pop songs (I was particularly impressed by the video where she performs in a leopard print dress, with a deep décolletée, and in high heels). I think that those who really like her work are really ordinary people who don’t even know that she is the main speech-writer for the Kremlin.

DV      If I understand correctly, you advocate for freedom of expression for everyone, perhaps especially for women, whose voices have been suppressed, historically, worldwide.   Are democratizing poetry and universal freedom of expression conscious themes in your work?  If so, how do you use your craft to promote these political themes in your poetry?  How do you craft your poetry?

EF      I adhere to the motto of the second wave of feminism: what is personal is political. That means that I do not really follow mottos, but rather follow my own personal understanding of freedom and my feel for language. If my soul and body do not feel well because of the curtailing of freedom, I write about it quite directly, using common words, but can employ really complex poetic methods.

DV      In America, Radio Liberty is associated with Cold War propaganda.   You have a program at Radio Liberty that brings together well-known artists and historians to discuss current topics before a young, café club audience.   It’s dedicated to fighting aggression and fascism.   During the 2012 anti-government protests in Russia, these clubs became meeting points for protesters both before and after the rallies. You discuss politics on your show, and engage in political action.  Why are you against Putin?  Which politicians do you support, and why?  Would you have Edward Snowden on your program?

EF      I am not really against Putin, I do not know him personally. I am against that symbolic meaning that his persona has in public. For “the people” he is an officer of the KGB, a new Stalin, an authoritarian ruler, a tyrant of a new type. A lot of people really like this image of “the father of the nation.” I—not so much.

I do not support any of the politicians—I do not see a politician in Russia with whom I am satisfied on all counts. But I follow oppositionists like Sergei Udaltsov and Alexei Navalny, and the whole opposition movement in general, with great interest. Perhaps at some point it will become stronger. In my programs I try to pick up on and to understand how the democratic movement in Russia can develop and what it can become.

I think that this association of Radio Liberty (and in Russia it is practically the same as you have described it to be in America) is based on the old concept of radio. No one wants to believe that this radio station has not been connected to the CIA for several decades. We try to present objective analysis and always present different opinions, even those with which we do not agree.

I would rather invite Julian Assange to the program. I find him more interesting and I understand his motives more.

DV      You describe yourself in “Lena, or the Poet and the People” as someone who is different.  Not someone who thinks she is better than the people, but someone not interested in people things like Christmas trees or the president’s speech.   At the end of the poem you say:


And of course, she’s right:

It’s a complicated text,

Even when it pretends to be simple,

Like now


DV     The world is a complex place, and so, consequently, is poetry.   Can poetry help to bring the American and Russian people closer together without pretending, in ways their governments won’t allow?  Or is it a supreme challenge, perhaps impossible?

EF      When I wrote “complicated text” I meant the whole subtext of Pushkin and Tsvetaeva I mentioned earlier. I think that poetry can bring together poets with only those people who are seriously interested in poetry. It is not only due to governments, but also due to different social structures, the level of maturity the society has and the level of responsibility of its members. I am responding to your questions from an American Academy in Rome, where I am currently on the Joseph Brodsky Fellowship. One of the greatest conversation partners here is Alice Waters; she is a restaurant critic from Berkeley. By Russian standards you can only expect snobbism and interest in glamour from this kind of person. Alice, on the other hand, runs social programs in school centered on healthy eating. For Russia this is still an unachievable dream. In our country, successful people have only just began to realize that they are involved in the lives of the “people” that I have described in my poem.

DV     Thank you, Elena Fanailova, for your insights and poetry.

Elena Nikolayevna Fanailova (born 19 December 1962) is a Russian poet.  She has contributed verse and literary reviews to Znamya, the New Literary Review, Critical Mass, Mitin Journal, and many other publications. She has also translated the verses of Serhiy Zhadan from Ukrainian. She received the Andrei Bely Prize in 1999 and the Moscow Count Prize in 2003.   To order her collection of poems “The Russian Version,” please contact her publisher Matvei Yankelevich at Ugly Duckling Presse.

One of Elena Fanailova’s poems will appear in the anthology With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, March 2014).   

For information about pre-ordering the anthology, please contact John Crawford at

For information about Douglas Valentine and his Political Poetry series, please visit his website  or email him at


Douglas Valentine is the author of The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs, and The Strength of the Pack: The Personalities, Politics, and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA.