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Multiple voices: Latvia’s Russophone poets embrace the power of difference

Multiple voices: Latvia's Russophone poets embrace the power of difference

Russian culture in the former USSR doesn't have to be nostalgic or imperialist, says Kevin M. F. Platt. Latvia's Russophone poetry collective Orbita take a multilingual, multidisciplinary approach to exploring their multiple identities

17 March 2014
Text Kevin M. F. Platt
Translation of poems Kevin M. F. Platt

The North

I sit and calmly eat my vodka

In a certain establishment in the north of the city.

I’ve got a pocket full of lighters;

I can light anything I want on fire or warm my hand.

You take a seat, too, you lovely, pale tribe;

Make yourself comfortable on fate’s warm snout.

Just no calls to other mobile networks—

That’s the one rule of our society.

And she sat down, and was silent for the whole way,

The whole way from six pm to eleven.

Afterwards I stood up and said thanks for the evening—

For the time, space, and movement.

Sergej Timofejev

The original of the poem above is in Russian. Yet it’s difficult to say whether it is a Russian poem. For one thing, it’s written in free verse, and Russians are a bit particular about rhyme and meter. More on that below. For another thing, the poem’s author is a Russian-speaking citizen of Latvia. Sergej Timofejev is one of the ringleaders of the Riga-based poetry and multimedia collective Orbita, which has made a name for itself in over the past decade or so with its sui generis texts that push the boundaries of mainstream Russian poetic traditions and expectations, charting out new possibilities for Russian literature in the context of 21st-century “global Russian culture”. Orbita’s modern, multicultural approach has never been more timely: their embracing of their liminal position in Russian and European culture is a corrective to the nationalist, revanchist rhetoric that has emerged during the recent Ukrainian crisis. As the borders between Russian and European space are reasserted anew in light of recent events in Ukraine, an increasingly tense politics of ethnic identity will undoubtedly make the interlingual, international and inter-ethnic balancing act of Orbita more challenging, and more important, in the coming years.

“Since the collapse of the USSR, Russian cultural life in the Baltic has, on the whole, become somewhat attenuated and rather conservative”

The Orbita group bucks the general trend for literary life among the Russians of Latvia. (I will refrain entirely from entering into the details here of what “Russian” means in this context, given the notorious genealogical complexity of Russian ethnicity. Let’s just agree that anyone in Latvia who speaks Russian with no foreign accent can be called Russian for our purposes.) If you ask a Russian-speaking resident of Riga what distinguishes Baltic Russians from “mainland” Russians (as I have done many times), he or she will likely tell you that the former are “more cultured” than the latter. This, it seems, is a distant historical echo of the Russian association of high culture with Europe — palpably inscribed into geography in Peter the Great’s western and high-cultural capital, St Petersburg. With St Petersburg, Russians entered into European culture. In Riga, Russians are in Europe itself. The idea of Baltic Russians as marked by a separate culture is not a new one. In the late Soviet era, this conception of culture’s location in the landscape helped to make the Baltic more generally a space of progressive experimentation in literature, the arts, music and political life — among all of the ethnic groups and languages of the region.

Yet that was more than two decades ago. Since the collapse of the USSR, Russian cultural life in the Baltic has, on the whole, become somewhat attenuated and rather conservative — if not provincial. Being in Europe, as it turns out, is sometimes rather challenging for Latvia’s sizable Russian-speaking minority in the 21st century. On the whole, the majority of Russians in Latvia feel themselves cut off from the cultural homeland (although they consume a fair bit of television and press from the Russian Federation) and marginalised in Latvia. Educational policies aimed at guaranteeing universal Latvian language competence have rendered younger Russians rather less competent in the Russian cultural canon, in speaking and writing literary Russian, than their parents. (Latvian language and education policy is another complex subject — and a politically contested one — that I will not broach here.) This situation, along with the “nationalisation” of cultural life wrought by the end of the Soviet internationalist era, has contributed to make mainstream Russian cultural life here a matter of nostalgic gestures to historical roots, religious holidays, ethnic foods and dances. In this light, the oft-repeated idea of the especially “cultured” status of Baltic Russians seems to be an anxious mantra, evocative of times past rather than reflective of the present.

“Bilingualism is a distinctive feature of Orbit, and it reflects the group’s highly self-conscious location on the border”

Against this backdrop, the poets of Orbita stand out in sharp relief. This is a loose organisation comprised of the five poets who created the group in 1999: Timofejev, Semyon Khanin, Zhorzh Uallik, Artur Punte and Vladimir Svetlov. In addition, the group includes a large number of affiliates active in literature, visual art, music and so forth. Orbita is a hotbed of activity: a web portal, exhibitions, happenings and group appearances at festivals in Latvia, Europe, Russia, and publications of various sorts, poetic, artistic and critical. Although the poets of Orbita write in Russian, the group’s publications — including the poetic almanac, Orbita, multimedia DVDs, and a variety of other projects — are bilingual Russian–Latvian editions, produced in exquisitely designed and inventively laid-out volumes. Much of Orbita’s activity takes the form of poetic performance in collaboration with ethnic Latvian musicians, composers, artists, and poets in multimedia happenings involving recitals, music (either live or DJ), and projected video art with subtitles in Latvian and at times in English. Bilingualism is a distinctive feature of Orbita, and it reflects the group’s highly self-conscious location on the border between Russia and Latvia, or between Eurasia and Europe.

glue’s not quite right

and the eye colour hair colour height are slightly off

go easy opening it

at the border try to look honest

and smile

so the seams’ll be less obvious

on the other hand the first and last name are magnifico

and the age suspiciously young

while the watermarks are so fine

that there’s totally no reason to flinch

if someone looks long and hard at your face

Semyon Khanin

In short, Orbita is an intentionally trans-ethnic and trans-linguistic phenomenon. And this is one of the keys to its success: theirs is an avant-garde of cosmopolitan hybridity. In distinction from the majority of Russian cultural production of the Baltic region, these poets transcend marginality and provincialism by forming a literary bridge between ethnic enclaves, languages and cultures. Their poetic work, as in Khanin’s poem above, often presents subtle meditations on this border position and on the complexities of contemporary identities articulated in the interstices between distinct geographies. Whereas Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote paeans to his Soviet passport and the citizenship it granted, Khanin is concerned with a form of identity forged (in this case, literally) at the level of individuals in motion across multiple borders.

Tallinas Street, Video Poem by Artur Punte. Music by Linda Leimane (2012)

Each of the Orbita poets is possessed of an individual and irreducible poetic voice. Yet we may make certain general observations about their work, illustrating its distinction from the poetic mainstream in Russia. For a start, this is free verse — a marginal and contentious form in Russia, which, unlike most European countries, has retained a remarkable devotion to strict poetic forms. This is not to say that there is no free verse in Russia, but simply that it is far from dominant: while one is always somewhat surprised to hear an Anglophone poet reciting rhymed couplets, it’s just the reverse in Russia, where free verse is always unexpected for mainstream poetry audiences. One of the Orbita poets told me of a confrontation with a Russian poet at a festival: he was accused of a sort of “formal betrayal” of Russian poetry, of writing in free verse in order to produce easily translatable texts. Free verse marks the Orbita poets as both experimental and as “extraterritorial”. But snarky poets aside, this is part of the key to Orbita’s success in Russia, where they are published by the most cutting-edge journals and publishing houses. For these poets, pushing the formal boundaries is part of an overall practice of posing creative challenges to the geographic and temporal bounds of tradition.

Radio Wall, an installation by Orbit at Cēsis Art Festival (2012)

There is more to Orbita poetry than free verse, of course. This is verse so free that at times it turns into other forms of media. Orbita has been a pioneer of video poetry. And their group appearances are often happenings or performances, rather than recitals — as in the Slow Show they presented several times in 2013, involving readings over background ambient noise produced with outdated transistor radios. They have authored tens of interactive art installations involving poetry, bicycles and walls on which are mounted hundreds of (again) transistor radios broadcasting multilingual poetry readings. To capture the overall gestalt of this poetic/artistic production, though, I have to resort to imprecise terms. In rising up above landscape, above poetic tradition, above traditional media, and at times above the fixity of national languages, Orbita achieves a lightness and inventiveness, coupled with intensity and introspection, that can only be compared with free jazz. And that’s something genuinely new for Russian poetry.

Guest-Workers, Video Poem by Artur Punte (2007)

From the cycle Colleagues

to S. T.

Peculiar things are at times fastened

to window frames on facades of buildings;

allright, a birdfeeder, or a rearview mirror,

two even, a basket or, imagine,

a rusty little bell—on a fourth-floor window.

I believe everything can be explained;

just so, it was possible literally by a few gestures to determine

that our pal here came to us from Pernu,

whereas that girl, for example, emerged whole from a newspaper

and in future will sit behind a cash register,

and all just because it has fewer keys…

Is it worth pretending to be a simple passer-by any longer?

How long can you squint at rooftops,

And flinch at stray droplets?

Who needs the little bell and for what purpose

(variation: the rearview mirror) on a fourth-floor window?

What are people from your past doing here?

At whose expense are their slight smiles?

Who will make sure in your absence

that kitchen jars are full: tea, coffee, sugar?

What else? In your explanatory note

give short answers in simple form.

Artur Punte

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