Reading allowed: the underground literature night taking Russia by storm

Reading allowed: the underground literature night taking Russia by storm

Spoken-word club The Declaimers is rewriting the rules of Russia’s literary scene. Just make sure you don’t let anyone know

31 December 2015

“Have you seen Fight Club?” asks Pavel Krasnov, aka Pasha Bad, a tall, energetic fellow wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word Yunost (Youth). “The Declaimers [chtetsy] is pretty similar,” he assures me. Observing the famous first rule, those who attend Krasnov’s nights do not talk about them, and the events have no advertising or active promotion. Even so, these creative get-togethers attract enthusiastic crowds no matter where they take place — in a club in the heart of Moscow, or in a tiny theatre somewhere in the Russian regions.

It was late in the evening in the middle of the Moscow winter when I finally got to the right place. On an empty street with shabby shop signs, there was a poorly lit stairway to a no-name basement bar. I had strict instructions from Pavel to knock on a black door and say a special password through the intercom.

Once in, for the next four hours I was immersed in an atmosphere of spontaneous creativity, which involved performance poetry, old Soviet guitar songs and freestyle rap. Krasnov, who has a penchant for inventive metaphors, compares this eclectic fusion of genres and styles to the Russian tradition of running out to the snow from an overheated banya and then back again. “We shuffle heat and cold, different moods. This is the trick!”

The nights also mix up people of different social status, ages and professions: most of The Declaimers events are free so anyone is welcome. Guest stars such as poet Ah Astahova or rapper ST share the stage with completely unknown performers. “Once I had a nice talk to a taxi driver. It turned out that he wrote poems and dreamed of becoming an actor when he was young,” says Krasnov. So I offered him to take the floor at our party. And he did it. Why not?” This is the kind of spirit that got The Declaimers up and running.

As I listened to a grey-haired man recite nostalgic poetry while the audience drink home-made cider and discuss the latest Zvyagintsev film, it occurred to me that The Declaimers resembles old literary societies like The Arzamas, attended by Pushkin in the early 19th century, or Left Front of the Arts run by Mayakovsky in the Thirties. The Declaimers do not put on tail-coats and long for days gone by. But like both aforementioned societies, they are opposed to conservatism in literature, to boring formal meetings at the Literature Institue where serious poets present their poetry in the same monotonous key. I have attended some of these: you’re far better off staying at home and getting an early night.

The Declaimers breaks this stereotype of literature as something dull and cheerless. “No melancholy. No gloom. I think that Mayakovsky wanted to get together with his friends, have a drink and a party and share poetry,” says Krasnov. And this is roughly what’s going on at The Declaimers this evening: two cinematography students are showing me their animated Christmas movie; the poet Michael Kedrenovsky is drinking beer on his way to the stage; meanwhile, some guys are writing funny epitaphs for absent friends.

Initiated by Sergey Sokolovsky, The Declaimers evenings originated in Yekaterinburg in 2009 among the local hip-hop scene. Today it’s spreading throughout the whole country, a self-organised creative franchise with branches in Moscow, Kazan, Novosibirsk, Ekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Ulan-Ude — and five more cities coming soon. The Declaimers do not necessarily hope to have a branch in every town of Russia, but nevertheless they’re trying to find like-minded people in as many towns as they can and create a network of talented people. “The thing is to give a chance to little-known artists, to a poet who lives somewhere nearby the Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant, for example, to speak for the audience in Ufa or Kazan”, says Pavel. According to Pasha Next summer, the first Declaimers festival will take place, somewhere , promising something between Woodstock, the Grushinsky Festival and a rave.

The Declaimers may not not have a clear organisational structure or financial sponsors, but on the upside, there’s no one who can order them what to do. Equally, there’s no explicit political orientation. Some of the poetry has political overtones, but first and foremost it has to be well written — there are no boring rants. If Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, wanted to read his philosophical poems at The Declaimers, he would be given a chance, just as opposition leaders would if it turned out they wrote love sonnets. “When you make a choice whose side you are on — left or right — you lose. The Declaimers never lose”, says Pavel, citing Yegor Letov, the leader of Russian post-punk rock band Civil Defense.

The lion’s share of progressive cultural and creative projects in Russia are concentrated in Moscow or St Petersburg. Many young people from the regions strive to live and work in one of these cities, but not everyone gets the opportunity. The Declaimers is there for those with unrealised creative potential, wherever they are in Russia. It gives them a feeling of confidence in what they do and a sense of belonging to a wide-scale project.

As I say goodbye to Pasha Bad at the station, he goes and buys a train ticket to set off for another town, maybe in Siberia, maybe in the south of Russia. Like Fight Club, they may not talk about it, but after all, rules are meant to be broken, and word of mouth is paying off.

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