Skip to content


Bard Without Borders

For a Russian poet, freedom poses challenges.

Courtesy Alexei Parshchikov

BACK IN THE USA: Parshchikov won green-card status for his "extraordinary ability."

By Cynthia Haven

Moscow poet Alexei Parshchikov has mixed feelings about his newest home. "Germany is a strange country -- a very seductive place to stay and write," he says, half-disapprovingly. We're heading by metro for his apartment in the far eastern suburbs of Cologne, a built-up, industrial area under the permanent curse of the deafening trains.

In a row of white buildings, Parshchikov's flat is small, spare, clean, almost monastic. We sit in an austere kitchen with a white-painted table and two chairs. The only other room, the bedroom, is in bold, primary colors. A Macintosh sits on a desk in one corner. Photographs -- 10-by-12 black-and-whites -- are scattered here and there, for Parshchikov, MA '93, is a gifted amateur photographer. "Empty, empty space," he says, looking around. "My place in Moscow has more books."

But Parshchikov's world is no longer constrained by Moscow. The small, genial 46-year-old has been one of the most avant-garde in a generation of Russian poets buffeted by political and cultural shifts. "Now he's trying to be a normal poet under normal circumstances," says Oxford University's G.S. Smith, an expert on contemporary Russian poetry.

Ironically, "normal circumstances" present tough obstacles for writers who, like Parshchikov, came of age before the Soviet Union fell apart. Poetry and literature had been key avenues of dissent in Russia since the 18th century. By the mid-1970s, what some scholars call a "parallel culture" evolved -- an arts world outside the official culture but mostly ignored by authorities. It was a time of literary chaos, Smith says, when "dozens and dozens and dozens" of poets' cliques vied for supremacy.

But when Mikhail Gorbachev loosened communism's grip in 1986, official culture began to dissolve. Deprived of its reference point, the parallel culture crumbled, too. State support for even government-endorsed writers shriveled. Many of the cliques fell prey to infighting. By 1988, the atmosphere was every-poet-for-himself.

Today, Russian poets and writers must patch together a living as best they can. Some have moved abroad. Parshchikov is an Internet émigré, telecommuting back home, for example, in his role as editor of Commentaries. The Russian magazine, founded a decade ago in the wake of glasnost, is "dedicated to modern thinking and literature," he says. He returns to Moscow four or five times a year to supervise literary projects and give readings.

In the last seven years, Parshchikov has also written five books, including poetry, translations and essays. One collection of poems, Blue Vitriol (Avec Books, 1994), was published in English, bringing him broader notice in the United States.

Some will find his literary style, well, odd. "As Russian poetry goes, he is difficult and more demanding on the average reader. But he's worth the struggle," says Smith. Publisher's Weekly called his imagination "troubled and powerful" and noted, "The defining feature of Parshchikov's poetry is its fantastical elaboration of metaphor, not as a decorative device or an occasion for clever display, but as a fundamental mode of apprehending and transforming the world." Examples: "potato roots protrude from the earth like elbows from a fist fight"; a dying fish "[freezes] up, like a key growing thick in a lock"; "history is a sack, an abyss of money inside it."

"Alyosha's work has a quality at once ancient and entirely new," says American poet Michael Palmer, Parshchikov's friend and translator. "His poems present and project the turmoil of the present in a manner that is entirely his own, a tone of this particular fractured and diasporic moment, where the unsettled is the norm, and where all is in continuous flux."

Some critics compare Parshchikov's work to the Beat poets. In fact, Allen Ginsberg visited him in Moscow in the 1980s. Parshchikov remains grateful: "To me, he was some kind of teacher. He's not a poet only. That is not the point where you can find" -- he snaps his fingers -- "reciprocity with him. That is not the mutual point."

In "New Year Verses," Parshchikov wrote: "Each of us at the beginning inhales a heavenly pledge/ but gives in exchange/ our own life for a strange one . . . ." Parshchikov's own strange life began in 1954 on the easternmost outskirts of the Soviet empire, at a military base about 190 miles from Vladivostok. He pulls down a globe from the top of the refrigerator to show the spot. A few years before that, he tells me, his father was removed from graduate studies at the Kiev Medical Institute in a Stalinist purge of researchers and sent with his wife to China as a military doctor. Parshchikov says his father was doubly vulnerable in this "barbarian process" because of his Jewish background. His mother crossed the border back to Russia for the childbirth, "scared to bear me abroad." The poet spent some of his youth in Byelorussia and the Ukraine.

Literature wasn't his first calling, but he took up writing in his third year at the Agricultural Academy. "Poetry is not too far from agriculture," he quips. Studies at the Literature Institute with critic A. Mikhailov launched Parshchikov into the who's who of Russian literati.

He entered the Stanford master's program in Slavic studies after Professor Andrew Wachtel, now at Northwestern, heard him give a reading on campus. English professor and critic Marjorie Perloff also befriended him. Among Parshchikov's favorite Farm memories: "my beautiful, more-or-less durable bike and the opulent libraries I've never seen again the world over."

A return to the United States may not be far off. He recently obtained approval to emigrate as "a person of extraordinary ability." "Don't smile," he says. "That is their official definition only." Parshchikov fetches a large black-and-white photo of Ginsberg in Manhattan. On it, the mentor warned, "Never look on the States from [only] your Stanford window." Parshchikov hardly needs to. Gazing out from his flat in Cologne, the most recent of many homes, he clearly has many windows to choose from.

Cynthia Haven is a California writer and frequent contributor to Stanford.

Comments (0)

  • Be the first one to add a comment. You must log in to comment.


Your Rating
Average Rating



Be the first one to tag this!