By Jonathan Miller
A version of this article first appeared in the Cornell Chronicle on April 14, 2022.
Dmitry Bykov is a man of letters. He is also a man of words, sentences, verses, paragraphs, chapters and books – more than 80 of them, including novels, literary biographies and collections of poetry, criticism and essays. That’s not to mention his output as an editor, journalist, television and radio personality, teacher and globetrotting lecturer on topics ranging from Russian and Soviet history to Black American literature.
Sometimes his words get him in trouble.
Bykov is one of Russia’s best-known public intellectuals. His satirical poems and political commentaries often take aim at President Vladimir Putin. Putin has not been amused.
In April 2019, Bykov fell violently ill on an airplane on his way to a speaking engagement in Ufa, Russia. He began vomiting uncontrollably and eventually lost consciousness. It would be five days before he emerged from his coma and another six before he was released from the hospital. There was no clear diagnosis.
The following year, opposition leader Alexei Navalny would experience the same symptoms, also on an airplane. Tests confirmed that he had been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. A 2021 investigation by the news outlet Bellingcat concluded that both men had been targeted by a secret “poison squad” of Russia’s Federal Security Service, as had several other well-known government critics. It is widely believed (although not proven) that Putin personally ordered the poisonings.
Bykov remained in Russia after the incident, in part to help care for his elderly mother. But it was much harder for him to work. He was banned from teaching at the university level and appearing on state radio or TV. Several of the media outlets where he had worked were shut down. He says spies attended his lectures and reported to their bosses on what he calls “my non-careful words.” Officials labeled him “an enemy of the people.”
He compares the atmosphere to that of the United States in the 1950s during the McCarthy era. “The bullying is really unpleasant,” he says. “Sometimes you feel yourself in exile in the motherland.” He continued to challenge the government, but he found it increasingly difficult to make his voice heard.
“The writer may be the only person who really needs political freedom,” he says. “To discuss serious problems and serious challenges, you must have no political restraints.”
In February, just days before the Russia invaded Ukraine, Bykov and his family left Moscow for Ithaca. Since then, he has been a vocal opponent to the war on social media and in interviews, lectures and other public appearances.
As a visiting critic in the Institute for European Studies, part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Bykov will be in residence for one to two years, engaging with Cornell faculty and students and completing several writing projects.
“The Einaudi Center’s work on democratic threats and resilience is a vital focus that unites scholars, activists and writers from around the world,” said Einaudi director Rachel Beatty Riedl. “Dmitry Bykov lives that spirit of democratic resilience, even under threat. He writes because he needs to reach people with his ideas and his words – this is the essence of freedom.”
Talk of the future taboo in Russia
Bykov says the war in Ukraine lays bare a larger conflict in Russian society over the direction the country is headed. Putin, he says, is obsessed with the past, or at least his version of it. “The future is the most forbidden, the most banned topic in Russia,” he says. “The past is always the field of battle. The future is discussed only by science fiction. And the image of the future is very gloomy.”
He claims Putin is paranoid (“he’s afraid of everybody”) and delusional (“yesterday he invents something, today he believes in it”) and accuses him of lying about everything from Russian history to Ukraine’s military capacity. “I write every day because I feel like my writing replaces all these lies, all these wrong words produced by Russian power,” he says.
Bykov did not leave Russia because of the Ukraine conflict. Last year, he was awarded a teaching fellowship from the Open Society University Network’s Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative, one of the international rescue organizations that works with universities like Cornell to find placements for fellows in safe locations. He was invited to Ithaca by Global Cornell, partnering with the local nonprofit Ithaca City of Asylum, which supports writers and artists at risk. He says he could go back home if he chose to; he has no intention of emigrating to the United States.
But there is “a professional danger” in remaining in Russia, he says: “First of all, when you’re frightened, you can’t work much, and you can’t work well.”
And fear has another, more pernicious effect.
“The most dangerous thing is not censorship but self-censorship,” he says. “Because when you begin to restrict yourself, and you feel yourself a coward all the time, and you’re editing your work and taking away all the sharp places, that’s a professional harm.”
Bykov says he is proud of his journalism and political activism, and he is honored to be called a “dissident.” Still, he says, “I would rather be known for my literary writing than for my politics or my poisoning.”
Literature is his greatest passion. He is an expert on Russian and Soviet literature and an avid student of American letters. Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian who spent more than 10 years at Cornell, is one of the authors he knows best.
He says he has never been tempted to settle on one type of writing. When he isn’t producing satirical poetry or journalism, he says, “I feel that I have forgotten my civic duty.” When he only writes journalism, “I’m afraid I have forgotten about eternity.” When he doesn’t teach, he feels he’s neglecting future generations. When he teaches too much, “I think that I’m too chatty and I should write in silence.”
“Every kind of work I do consoles me somehow psychologically,” he says, noting that one critic jokes that he only works in one genre: Bykov.
During his time at Cornell, he wants to write a trilogy of novels, which he predicts will be his masterpiece. He also wants to write a novel in English. (Only one of his books, the dystopic comic novel “Living Souls,” has been translated into English.) He also looks forward to engaging with students and speaking in public.
Bykov says he relishes the relative quiet of Ithaca. “I was editor-in-chief of a big newspaper,” he says. “I was famous, and I’m very proud of it. But you know, I’m not very fond of fame – and my safe life, and the safe life of my child, is more important for me than being well-known.”
And with safety will come words. “When I feel anxiety, I cannot write,” he says. “When I feel fear, I cannot write. When I write here, I am free.”
Jonathan Miller is a freelance writer based in Ithaca, and a member of Ithaca City Of Asylum’s board of directors