Notes of an undesirable

Writer Dmitry Bykov responds to his fine for working with the ‘undesirable organisation’ that is Novaya Gazeta Europe

Notes of an undesirable

Dmitry Bykov. Photo: Yuri Kochetkov / EPA-EFE

Following my conversation with Boris Grebenshchikov on the Novaya Gazeta Europe YouTube channel, an administrative protocol was issued against me for collaborating with an undesirable organisation.

While I wouldn’t like to indulge in excessively flattering parallels, of course, it gives me great pleasure to respond by quoting Tolstoy’s 1901 reply to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church: “The synod’s edict is altogether very bad, and the statement at the end, that those who signed it pray that I may become such as they are, makes it no better.”

In his ironic, good-natured and quite proper response, Tolstoy writes that the edict was “an incentive to evil feelings and deeds, for, as was to be expected, it evoked in unenlightened and unreasoning people, anger and hatred against me, culminating in threats of murder expressed in letters I received”.

While I’m writing this from Fair Lawn, New Jersey, a literal English translation of Tolstoy’s ancestral home of Yasnaya Polyana, I’ve thankfully yet to receive any such letters myself — probably because they don’t know my current address. Nevertheless, feted murderer-turned-politician Andrey Lugovoy, the prime suspect in the poisoning of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, has promised those who left Russia over the war in Ukraine that they’ll die a dog’s death, while Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the State Duma, wishes them as much on a regular basis.

It seems strange to pay attention to minor administrative protocols as the Duma prepares to start confiscating the property of dissenters and defectors.

In the past, I would always mentally say goodbye to all my belongings whenever I would leave Russia to teach in the US, but that farewell took on extra significance two years ago following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Just as Tolstoy found the part of the synod’s edict concerning his separation from the official church to be broadly fair, so I find the confiscation of belongings from those who flee the country to be quite justified. Of course, I could also say that it’s a repulsive measure that takes us back to the days of Stalin — and Stalinism repeated is worse than Stalinism the first time around, as the claim that it was an honest mistake won’t really wash. I could become incandescent with righteous indignation, but, fundamentally, it all makes sense.

This goes at least some way towards putting us on par with Ukrainians, who have perfectly understandable grievances with the Russian opposition — namely that it neither protests enough nor does it suffer sufficient persecution. As our homes are now being destroyed much as Ukrainian homes are, we have every moral right to call ourselves victims of war, although, to paraphrase Joseph Brodsky, I don’t personally find the role of a victim to be a particularly appealing one.

I prefer Chesterton on suffering: “No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, ‘We also have suffered.’” After all, the more flagrantly they act, the better — and the more chances there are that this time really will mean “never again.” That’s exactly how I explain God’s indulgence of state atrocities or the abominations of its stooges.

The more they take away today, the more they’ll give back tomorrow. Then, the most important thing will simply be not looking too smug.

In my 54 years of Russian life — February will mark two years since I was last in Russia — I have published around 90 books of poetry, prose and biography, I’ve worked for 30 publications, taught at three schools and five universities, and hosted some 10 television and 10 radio shows. In other words, most of my life has been spent on modestly paid work. I have never been involved in business or politics and have never been a member of a political party. I did take part in a few peaceful demonstrations and I spent six months in the Russian Opposition Coordination Council (for which I was poisoned both figuratively and literally).

How is it that they first made me a “foreign agent”, and they now fine me for collaborating with an “undesirable organisation”? Did they simply forget that they deprived me of all my work when they shut down Novaya Gazeta and Ekho Moskvy two years ago, and that they banned me from teaching long ago?

The fact is that there are no desirable organisations left in Russia for whom I could work with a clear conscience anyway.

Maybe the authorities and their supporters find me undesirable precisely because I don’t fear competition. They, on the other hand, can’t stand it, and in order to occupy all public space themselves, feel the need to expel all professionals from the country on the grounds of their ideological undesirability.

But they were the originators of an ideology that’s impossible to work with, one incompatible with common sense, let alone conscience. They were the ones who started a war, rewrote the Constitution, turned cannibalism into valour, poisoned the air and made the country breathe hydrogen sulphide — and it was they who made all of this synonymous with Russia, which will now never be fully cleansed of Putin and Putinism.

Some things are irreversible, and that’s something we have to accept. You can have perestroika, or even a revolution, but that aftertaste will remain, and it won’t go away. Germany, unable to cleanse itself of Nazism, now faces the return of this familiar aberration, even if it is called an “alternative”. God forbid.

There’s no reason to believe that even a nuclear war, should Russia resort to such a scenario in the face of combat stalemate, would sufficiently cleanse the country’s image in the eyes of the few survivors.

But even talking about all this makes me ashamed, because among those named “foreign agents” are Boris Grebenschikov, Andrey Makarevich, Alexey Venediktov and Dmitry Muratov, who have all done more than me, while languishing in their prison colonies are the likes of Alexey Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin, people far better than I. So I consider my undesirability and thus my presence among the ranks of the foreign agents to be modest recognition for modest achievements.

In my case, the ban on journalism has actually been beneficial: finally freed from the drudgery of newspaper work, in the past two years I have written at greater length — and, I think, to a higher standard — than I did in the five before that. The writing process is also easier for me now — I no longer need to tone things down, cut any phrase that might be deemed extremist from my texts, or look for politer ways of saying the word “bastards.” Now I’m outside the tent pissing in.

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