KREMLIN RENEGADES
By Sarah Champion

(written April 2000)

"Jive talk is used more in connection with marijuana than with junk. In the past few years however, junk has spread into hip or jive-talking circles. And junk lingo has to some extent merged with jive talk."
William Burroughs (Junky)

"The goal of translating a drug expression from English is to find the right equivalent in Russian," explains Alex Kervey. "For Burroughs' Junky, I choose to use the hip Moscow slang from the beginning of the '90s and drug addicts slang of the mid-'90s. The book became a cult success because people read it and were like, 'that's our language!' What's strange is that you hear people speaking like this now because they're influenced by the translation."

We're in a room in the Southern suburbs of Moscow, from where 27-year-old Alex Kervey organises a subterranean publishing house called Tough Press. As usual, he is dressed in black and surrounded by stacks of books, CDs, magazines and manuscripts. He keeps his shades on whenever possible and speaks English learnt from cult American writers, peppering conversations with words like "hustler", "hoodlum", "hipster", "pusher" and "heat".

"Junky is popular in Russian criminal society because they understand this language," he continues. "Each district of Moscow has its own gang which controls pubs, restaurants, bars and so on. I was sitting drinking beer in a rough bar with some local hoodlums when this guy walked in who was in one of the suburban gangs. I was talking about literature and he overheard me mention Junky. He was like 'Oh, I got a copy of that and so have all my friends. We love it.' I was surprised that he read any book at all. He was a very intelligent gangster."

While establishment publishing houses employ elderly, out-of-touch, Soviet era translators, Tough Press are pioneers, using twentysomethings to translate the books the big companies won't touch and rework them into apt street language. As well as Burroughs Junky and A Ghost Of A Chance, they've already published Hunter S Thompson's Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas and Hells Angels. Soon to come are Aleister Crowley's Diary Of A Drug Fiend, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, Stewart Home's Blow Job and more Burroughs. They have more works translated than they can afford to print, with Virtual Government: CIA and Mind Control Operations by Alex Constantine, Hakim Bey, Genisis P Orridge, Charles Bukowski, Jeff Noon and more waiting. They're also aiming to encourage homegrown alternative writing, publishing novels by Georgy Ospiov and FR.DV.

"I felt the market was huge," says Alex. "Youth minds were fresh and desperately looking for something to get their spirit up. They're tired of political correctness. All this literature was absolutely unknown in Russia up to the beginning of the Nineties."

A descendent of Nikolai Yazykoff , one of the top Russian poets of the early 1800s, Alex's life has always been filled with art, music and literature. His grandfather taught at the University of People's Friendship (one student was Carlos 'The Jackyl') and so his house was always full of South American and black students. "I was listening to the Ventures, Scott Walker, Alex Harvey Band and George Clinton at the age of six. By the time I was seven I had discovered punk rock: Television, Richard Hell and Alternative TV."

As a teenager, Kervey played jazz bass in restaurants and sold rare LPs on the black market to make money, while at night he read Kerouac, Salinger, Terry Southern, Celine, Miller, Nietzshe, Leary, Crowley and John Lilly in the Library of Foreign Literature. This was the late '80s when such books were still illicit and these were the only copies available. Kervey would spend painstaking hours photocopying classics like On The Road, manuscripts he still treasures. He continues to be a fanatical archivist. "My computer is a whole counter-cultural library. People come to my house all the time to get information."

In the '70s and '80s, a black market of home-made translations flourished and copies would exchange hands secretly between friends. After Glasnost, this developed into a massive open pirate publishing market. "To this day most books published are bootlegs, even those put out by big companies," explains Alex. In Russia all books published before the country signed up to the global copyright agreement in 1973, can be reproduced for free. This is another thing that discourages the publication of contemporary works. "Tough Press is breaking the mould, insisting on negotiating official rights. It's a matter of respect."

Tough Press was born after Alex failed to sell translations he'd done himself to big publishers - they either simply hadn't heard of the writers or found the material offensive. He decided to go it alone. However, even in contemporary, supposedly-democratic Russia, publishing remains risky and problematic. Financing is the first hurdle. When most young people earn under 100 dollars a month, it's impossible to sell the books for more than a dollar, but determination and unorthodox methods win through. For example, Hells Angels' publication was funded by profits of Moscow biker chapter the Nightwolves' tattoo parlour and Harley Davidson business. Alex also claims Tough Press is backed by a global organisation called T-Resistance-Institute (TRI) with 600 or 700 members. "It's a secret society using artistic funds to make political changes."

While for the masses, Russia's freedom seems to have unleashed an enthusiasm only for fast food, designer labels and home appliances, there is a notable passion for literature amongst Moscow's new-fashioned bohemians. The latest phenomena are small basement klubs with bookshops attached. Hidden away in courtyards off side streets, they open from afternoon until midnight and beyond, acting as alternative cultural centres where the more savvy (writers, artists, students) meet and hang out. They play chess, drink beer or coffee, listen to DJs and bands (reggae, dub, easy listening, electronica) and read books from the in-house shop. These stock a wealth of freshly-translated texts from literary classics to sci-fi (Ray Bradbury, Jean Genet, Isaac Asimov, Aristotle, Harper Lee...), alongside local works such as post-Communists Victor Pelevin and Pavel Pepperstein; old school hero Yuri Mamleyev; the ultimate Moscow cult text, Mikhail Bulgarkov's The Master And Margarita; plus innumerable previously banned publications.

"You've got to remember you could spend five years in a labour camp for reading a book like Solzhenitsyn" says Eugene Nesterov, editor of Moscow art/literature magazine 29, who left the USSR to live in America for 12 years, returning after the collapse of Communism. After 11 years in labour camps, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's epics detailed the world of prison camps, secret police, informers, spies and interrogators that characterised Stalinist Russia and are said to have contributed to bringing down the Soviet regime in 1989.

"My first few days in America were spent in a house where there were a lot of Russia books. I found Solzhenitsyn on the shelf. I was reading it on the balcony and left it out there one day. When I realised this, I was filled with terror and rushed back to the apartment in panic thinking someone from the building opposite might see it. I'd forgotten that this was America and no one cared. Then when I returned to Russia in '92, I was walking down the road and I saw a street bookstand with dozens of Solzhenitsyn copies on open sale - and everyone was passing by disinterested. I stood and watched for ten minutes in disbelief."

The days of exile to Siberia for writers are long gone. As is the power of Central Telegraph who censored every printed word that flowed in and out of the USSR. Yet old habits die hard and despite the present democracy, many writers remain outlaws, due to on going censorship of Russian books and media, plus the continuing power of the KGB under it's re-invented identity as the Federal Security Bureau (FSB). Meanwhile, 1998 saw the introduction of a law banning books considered to be drug propaganda. Such editions can be prohibited and removed from the bookshops, the publishing company fined or closed and its proprietor jailed.

Like Britain's Criminal Justice Bill which bans gatherings of ten or more people outside to dance to "repetitive beats", the drug law has yet to be invoked and metropolitan residents don't take it too seriously - even the large publishers dared release Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Welsh's Ecstasy and Aldos Huxley's Doors Of Perception. However, in the immense provinces beyond, bookshops censor their stock. You can only buy Burroughs or Thompson in Moscow and St Petersburg. People travel in from the country to buy copies, ten or twenty at a time, taking them back to their local town and selling them for double. Even in cosmopolitan Moscow, no big bookshops would risk stocking Junky.

"It was a tense situation as we were worried an official might choose to invoke the law," says Alex of Tough Press, speaking only three weeks after the election of Putin. "I'm worried what could happen with the new parliament. The new president is former KGB and Russia may again isolate itself from the West. I'm expecting new laws relating to publishing and drugs any time."

Even more threatening than the laws perhaps, is the wave of "political correctness" sweeping the land. "I consider myself to a renegade because I am not politically correct - you are expected only to speak within the rules of society and not what you really want to say. People won't publish it if you don't follow the rules." One of the most controversial topics is drugs. "Russian society has a very fascist attitude to drug addicts. They're not speaking about treatment, they're just putting them into prisons. Every day in the papers there are articles saying drugs are evil, but no one is explaining the differences between drugs. It's like when a young kid is told by his parents every day, 'Don't open this door'. He was not even thinking of opening it until they mentioned it. It will make the kid question and he will eventually open it."

It's incredible to imagine, but Hunter S Thompson had never been published in any form in Russia until May 1998 when The Independent newspaper printed a Fear And Loathing translation extract and an interview with Alex Kervey. He was quoted as saying, "With the new law we are entering into a new period of cultural confrontation. This is the era of political correctness and it's intolerable for us". This was considered outrageous drug propaganda and the journalist was fired immediately.

Gay writers also fall outside the law and prevalent political correctness. Russia remains an extraordinarily homophobic country. In the early '90s, Russia's only openly gay journalist, twenty-year-old Yaroslav Mogutin was publishing poetry exploring Dennis Cooper territory. Ginsberg praised it as "Russian revolutionary writing meets the beats". Mogutin tirelessly promoted homosexuality in the media, courageously taking on the state by attempting to register Russia's first gay marriage. He received death threats, was evicted from his apartment and was finally prosecuted for obscenity. The authorities described him as, "a corrupter of public morals, a propagandist of psychic pathology, sexual perversions, brutal violence and profane language." He escaped prison by fleeing to New York where he received asylum and the gay scene welcomed him and he appeared in Bruce La Bruce film. Another gay Russian writer, FR. DV, editor of literary magazine Mitin, became a dissident in Prague in order to write and live freely. His complex debut novel of homosexuality and spirituality, The Code Of Destruction, was published last year and continues to be an underground best-seller in Moscow.

If the laws against drug writing or obscenity are not enforced, there are other dangers - as young poet/novelist Alina Vitynoskaya discovered. I meet her in the stylish club/bookshop Pushing (a pun on Pushkin, Russia's venerable poet), a basement painted orange and blue with mattresses for lounging. She is stylishly dressed in typical Muscovite black and brings an assemble of followers. Having issued several volumes of apocalyptic poetry, which she describes as "psycho terror", in 1994 she penned an article for New Time magazine about synthetic psychotropic drugs (i.e. LSD and ecstasy). As well as the science, she explored the way people assert it inspires their art. At the time LSD was popular with upper class kids and artists. "I collected a lot of information, interviewing people in dance and rock clubs who were talking openly about it."

A few months later Alina was arrested on drugs charges by 15 members of the FSB. "The people from this secret agency tried to get me to give information about all the kids from upper class families who were taking LSD that I'd interviewed. This dossier would be used to blackmail their parents. A lot were children of members of the government and they thought they could blackmail them into passing certain laws and so on."

Refusing to impart facts, Alina found herself in Bytyrskaya prison, a grim locale where prisoners often die. "All courts work closely with FSB and police, so I expected to spend two years in prison." The truth did not come out until she'd been inside six months and smuggled a letter to her grandmother which a newspaper was persuaded to print. A media scandal ensued with her prison diary being serialised and phalanx of well-known writers signing a letter in her defence. She was released after one year with no charge.

"When I was released, they expected me to leave the country quietly, but I made up my mind to stay and fight, so I was arrested again after two years, spent another six months in prison while they re-tried me, but they failed again." Her novel and a book of her prison writings have since been released making her a cult figure.

A fresh possibility for information dissemination is the Internet, still in it's infancy in the former USSR but growing fast. Alexei Cvetkov, author of gonzo story compendium The and political writing collection Anarchy Non-Stop, has just initiated a website of literature, essays, political reviews and news. "I want to unite Russia's cultural and political underground," he says. Yet even the Web seems to be targeted by sinister censorship forces. "I talked on a TV show about oppression of the new, young political left and the amount of people being arrested in towns and cities all over Russia. I gave the address of my site and within 40 minutes a hacker had got in and spoiled the files. It is impossible to be sure, but I believe it was someone working for FSB as they are known to have a huge army of hackers."

Alexei is part of a movement of novelists, poets and journalists challenging Russia's embrace of wild capitalism. Alexander Tarasov, a respected sociologist, journalist and poet, runs an alternative research centre analysing Russia's left and is watching closely. "There was an underground in Russia formed in the Soviet days of the '60s, '70s and '80s, but after the fall of Communism this disintegrated. No one is interested in the old dissidents thesedays. Anti-Soviet words and music are now respectable. But while they've became redundant and joined mainstream, a new underground forming."

Where insurrectionists once rejected Communism and looked to the West, the new generation sees Western values as the enemy. Not unlike the WTO demonstrators in Seattle and Washington, they speak cynically about the vacuous "American lifestyle" foisted on them, the banality of globalisation, the evils of the World Bank. The revolt now is as much against the uniformity of junk consumer culture as against the state.

"We need mount an aesthetic resistance to phoney culture and the new world order," agrees Georgy Ospiov, host of alternative rock radio show Transilvania Disturbs and regular correspondent with Charles Manson. "I consider myself to have been a genuine heretic for 25 years. I never stuck to one ideology, whether right or left. It has been a long, dangerous trip, but I think the biggest danger of all is to lose your identity. Nowadays, it's easy. If you want to preserve you originality you have to keep twisting. We need to respect our own history: Soviet film noir; spy thrillers; interesting Soviet pop music; the Jewish Hasidic musical tradition which was a lot of similarity to jazz; the hundreds of Russian pulp fiction titles which were of the same quality as Raymond Chandler."

Ospiov's short story anthology is distributed by Tough Press this summer. "Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade immortalised the character of loner in the big, murky, town: sleazy atmosphere, drinking dens, dangerous girls, queer guys. I try to immortalise the characters of my small industrial town in the Ukraine in the '70s. I like these kind of people. They deserve to have a voice. They can't write, only consume junk which destroys their lives. They have a certain kind of a beauty. I want to write about all this which is beyond the so-called anti-Communist writing. My writing is short stories of B-movie people."

A Russian literary agency refused to offer Ospiov's book to publishers in the West because they claimed it would ruin their reputation due to its bad language and sleaze. Since Perestroika, writers have theoretically become free to write what they wish, but it has not quite worked out like that. The establishment is fearful of the new literary underground. Yet throughout Russia's history its literature has been associated with dissent and unrest, even respected idols like Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov being suppressed, so it seems only natural that the new generation should challenge the status quo.

ENDS


 
 
 
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