Konstantin Kuzminsky, one of the last living figures of a historically influential circle of underground Soviet Nonconformist & Russian émigré writers and artists since the 1960’s, passed away in early May at 75. Born April 16, 1940 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg, Russia), Konstantin Konstantinovich Kuzminsky (alternatively also known as “K.K.K.”) had been a highly visible figure in many areas of the growing literary and artistic communities of Nonconformist under Soviet Rule and, later, even more visibly on the Russian-American émigré scene during Glasnost and Pereistroika, as well as remaining active until his passing.
While often only described as a “poet” or “performance artist,” his various contributions can also be found in the history of progressive independent publishing in the U.S.S.R. (a movement commonly referred to as “Samizdat” [literally “self-publish”]) as well as being an artist, collector, and in general a very unique outspoken personality who unintentionally would gather a following from the alternative Russian émigré scene, who say they are still inspired by the famed poet’s unforgettable warmth, friendship, encyclopedic mind and unstoppable tongue, always sharing endless anecdotes and gossip readily available to dish often dark humor upon the mention of any random personality from Russian culture and history.
Even prior to his immigration, he is known to have quite brazenly supported and arranged unofficial apartment exhibitions showcasing alternative art movements, then forbidden by the Soviet Union’s communist doctrines of the time. Besides assisting other poets, writers, and thinkers, one of Kuzminsky’s earliest samizdat assemblage projects was of his own work “Whale Hunter.” Other noted works include “Dumb Suitcase (Nemoy Chemodan)” and “Feathers to the wrong side (Perya ne v tu Storanu)”, both circa 1974. Years later, in 1980 he reissued “Whale Hunter” in the United States.
In 1972, New York’s Doubleday & Co. published “The Living Mirror: Five Young Poets from Leningrad,” an anthology painstakingly compiled by Suzanne Massie with translations by the late British expert on Russian history, Max Hayward (1924-1979). The groundbreaking publication of this book would have an immense historical effect on its Russian cultural history. Suzanne Massie – described as “the greatest student I know of the Russian people” by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in his diaries – selected the work of five emerging poets who have since become preeminent in their field: Viktor Sosnora (b. 1936; the 2011 Poet Laureate of the Russian Federation) Gleb Gorbovsky (b. 1931; the 2008 Pushkin Prize recipient), Alexander Kushner (b. 1936), Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), and the late Konstantin Kuzminsky. The latter had actually inspired as the pivotal publication.
“I met Konstantin Kuzminsky in the palace of Pavlovsk in 1968,” wrote Suzanne Massie in response to comment for this obituary. “He was to change the trajectory of my life, bringing me into a new and unknown world, introducing me to the poets and painters and the magnificent city of Leningrad that I grew to love as if it were my own. He was the inspiration for my book ‘The Living Mirror: Five Young Poets from Leningrad’ - all then unknown in the West. He was extreme, unconventional, controversial, unforgettable. Outspoken and extreme in his opinions he angered many. Excessive in everything; smoking, drinking, talking, he lived always on the edge, consumed with his passion for poetry. He could recite the work of countless poets from memory and was unceasing in his unselfish desire to have the art and poetry of his beloved Leningrad known in the West.
“I knew him for many years, but after his arrival in America unfortunately, lost track of him,” Massie continued, “He was an extraordinary individual who, had he been born in an earlier Russia, could have been a brilliant, eccentric professor of Russian literature. He introduced me to Russia and to St. Petersburg, that became the intellectual passion of my life and my work.”
Of the book’s published authors, Brodsky immigrated to the USA in 1972 and went on to be a household name, awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and elected U.S. Poet Laureate in 1991; just this year, on May 24, the day he too would have also turned 75 this year, Brodsky’s old Leningrad family apartment since 1955 officially opened as a Museum of St. Petersburg amid much fanfare.
Meanwhile, the outspokenly controversial dissident Kuzminsky immigrated through Vienna with the assistance of the Tolstoy Foundation, finally in 1978 to the United States and settled in upstate New York steps away from the Delaware River. The artist’s home became what The New York Times accurately described “a pilgrimage site”.
“A salty fish from Leningrad who was a sort of soldier on the frontier of the freedom of the human intellect and spirit,” Stuart Heady reminisced via Facebook. “He could recite a thousand poems by forbidden writers. He knew Leningrad intimately and spoke perfect English, which resulted in his working with Robert & Susan Massie as they researched their book and movie, "Nicholas and Alexandra". They helped him get published in the West and that became a way to emigrate with his wife Emma. I knew them in Austin, Texas. Where Konstantin Konstantinovich Kuzminsky was set up with a gig teaching comparative English and Russian literature. He quickly became a fixture of the art scene and there were always people in their tiny apartment. Often it was full of expat Russians singing folk songs. The world came to visit. Allen Ginsberg came to visit. CBS' Fred Friendly came and took away a manuscript, a diary by a women poet, a friend of Kostia's who was then in prison. "Yulya's Diary" came out as a PBS movie in 1980.
“Kostia loved language, so he used the sounds from any and all languages in a musical whimsy in his performances. He was a vivid and passionate and completely honest guy. After a night of trading stories and killing off bottles of wine and vodka, I found myself awakening on a bare floor. I couldn't move. I realized that Kostia had me pinned down like a wrestler. His cigarette drenched beard was in my face. As I focused, he asked me, “Who are you?” I tried to figure out what he meant. He repeated the question more dramatically and insistently, “who are you, man?” He wouldn't let it go for the longest time. Kostia was intensely passionate about truly what freedom is and he sought to make everyone he came in contact with wake up to who they were or could be if they could shake off the poses and the need to make ourselves into modified units. After all, he had survived a KGB attack which left his belly distended and a stint in a psychiatric prison.”
In the 1980’s and 1990’s Kuzminsky became a very socially active figure in the émigré community. He was the founder of the social club and exhibition space BASEMENT (“Podval”), where he showcased art and handmade books. Kuzminsky was a founder and contributor to both KOJA Magazine in 1996, and the young experimental publication Magazinnik since March 2002 featuring avant-garde prose by newcomers Sasha Galper, Diana Gerasimenko, Leonid Drozner and many others along side more established figures such as Boris Lurie (1924-2008), Vagrich Bakhchanyan (1938-2009), Alexander Shnurov (b. 1955) and Henri (Anri) Volohonsky (b. 1936).
“The collaboration between the grizzled Russian writer and his fresh-faced acolytes is the driving force behind much of the experimental poetry, performance art and video work in the Russian immigrant community in New York City,” Susan Sachs reported in a May 3, 2002 NYT piece (titled “Upstate Quest For A Russian Soul”).
Kuzminsky’s own work was featured in many group exhibitions, including in 1982 at Franklin Furnace as well as Ronald Feldman Gallery (as part of “1984”), which also included Erik Bulatov (b. 1933), Konstantin Bokov (b. 1940), Komar and Melamid (b. 1943 and b. 1945), Igor Makarevich (b. 1943), Lev Nussberg (b. 1937), Dmitry Prigov (1940-2007) and many others.
Perhaps the artist’s most significant contribution is his production of The Blue Lagoon Anthology of Modern Russian Poetry, a massive 10-volume (sometimes referenced as 9-volume) epic publication that was the brainchild of Kuzminsky and Gregory L. Kovalev. Each volume contains over 600 pages of text alongside a treasure-trove of visual material. It took him close to a decade to compile and publish this project in its entirety. The attributed co-authorship of Gregory Kovalev was reportedly a tribute to a blind sage & poet from an earlier generation who had played a large in Kuzminsky’s own development as a young dissident in Leningrad.
Dr. Emily Lygo, Senior Lecturer in Russian & Modern Languages at the University of Exter and author of ‘Leningrad Poetry 1953-75. The Thaw Generation’ (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010), commented, “Kuzminsky’s compilation and publication of The Blue Lagoon Anthology of Modern Russian Poetry must be recognized as one of the great services to Russian poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Russian Samizdat Art (New York: Willis, Locker & Owens 1986), compiled by the Russian-born multidisciplinary & performance artists The Gerlovins, recounts as well as visually testifies to Kuzminsky’s practice of holding unofficial Nonconformist Russian art exhibitions in his apartment in the Soviet Union.
“His language, as well as his collages, displays a colorful, eccentric style, but not as extravagant as his personality,” the book shared. “He likes to appear naked at public events talking non-stop about the high estate of poetry. He enjoys memorizing all random incidents, facts and names.”
The 2006 documentary film "Konstantin and Mouse,” was directed by Andrei Zagdansky, who wrote a personal obituary for Kuzminsky in the Russian-language online newspaper Svoboda (of Radio Svoboda). Zagdansky remarked on the late artist’s passing, “he was an absolutely extraordinary man, and will be remembered as a poet, publisher and as a large than life avant–garde figure.”
Kuzminsky played a large role in Zagdansky’s earlier documentary Vasya, a posthumous biographical film on the life and work of his close friend, Russian-American painter Vasily Sitnikov (1915-1987).
Artist Danas Berznitsky, who collaborated with Kuzminsky on several late projects, including the volume "Life of Vasily Yakovlevich Sitnikov,” what the editors began in 2008 and considered the 10th and final entry in The Blue Lagoon’s anthology, said “To me, Konstantin was a dear friend, an inspiration, a teacher and a co-author. Although I have lived far from him in the last few years, we were constantly in touch and managed to accomplish several published works before he died. And I am still not fully in admittance with that fact; to me his personality was so big, that it felt like he will be here forever.
“I met him around 2000-2001 and discovered a huge world, that has deeply affected my further life. From the atmosphere in the house, all the amazing artwork he kept, [which included] huge collections of all sorts of beautiful and curious things from all around the globe, to his majestic personality, the Borzoi dogs they had, his lively way of talking and his enormous capacity of mind & charisma.”
Konstantin introduced Berznitsky to the Nonconformist art world of the 1950’s-1960’s in Soviet Union, as well as to many of his friends who were part of this world, many of whom had also emigrated. “Later, when I showed him my drawings, he was very positive about them, and suggested that I illustrate one of his poems. I did a hand made book with illustrations, which Konstantin loved very much. We became good friends since. I visited him regularly, made some more works with his texts.”
“Konstantin, in my opinion, was the "last of the Mohicans” of the real anti-system underground bohemia. Full of contradictions (of course), radical to the end, knowledgeable, funny, deep, discerning, conflicting and scandalous…. His sense of humor was his companion. His memory was phenomenal; he could recite and remember basically everything that interested him. And tell it to anybody who would listen; and he could talk for hours, with the only break to light his next cigarette! Do you know, that huge part of his Anthology he had to recreate from his memory?”
“In my opinion, he was not as big a poet, as he was a personality - an all-connecting knot. He was the center, the magnet, for all kinds of creative people of all generations.”
Kuzminsky’s relationships with poets of his generation, like Brodsky and Allen Ginsburg, could also be reportedly volatile. According to Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life (reissued by Yale University Press in 2012), Kuzminsky recalled showing his first poems to Brodsky in 1959. In response, Brodsky simply recited “Cologne Pit” (by his mentor Boris Slutzky [1919-1968]), a grim piece on the theme of Soviet prisoners of war whose dying bodies had been dumped and left to perish from disease and starvation. “This is how you write,” Brodsky advised.
The papers of Brodsky’s biographer Lev Loseff (1937-2009), who penned the aforementioned book, were donated early last year to the Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and East European History & Culture located within the Rare Book & Manuscripts Library at Columbia University. Loseff’s vast materials, dating since the 1950’s, shows much correspondence with these émigré intellectuals including Sergei Dovlatov (1941-1990) and Konstantin Kuzminsky, according to the Archive’s curator Tanya Chebotarev.
Hedwig Gorski, multidisciplinary poet, wrote “Konstantin presented the world a huge personality, and with such great ones, their death presents an even larger loss because the vacancy gapes with absence for many more people. I first met Konstantin in Austin, Texas, during the late 1970s where he dominated the poetry scene by sheer outrageousness. He remains an unforgettable performance poet from our early days there. He had a Russian wolfhound (Borzoi) at the time which he smuggled out of Russia when it was a puppy by lying to border agents saying it was not a Russian wolfhound but a different breed. He lived up to the iconic glorified stereotypes Americans have of Russian dissident writers with his Dada flair for theatrics. His courage to flaunt his individuality remains evident in the few extant films and photos we have of the great Konstantyn Kuzminsky.
“Anyone who met him would never forget him and his wife, Emma, who was often a foil for this giant creative being.”
Writer Gene Fowler added: “Jeff Woodruff and I were driving Allen Ginsberg around… and took him to visit Kuzminsky. Kuzminsky told the author of ‘Howl’ that his poems were "shit sandwiches," but Ginsberg took it pretty well. Seemed he'd heard stuff like that before.
“Susan Bright cast Kuzminsky in my play "Beefers" in the role of a professional wrestler named ‘Dink Darling the Dainty Destroyer,’ but she had to replace him with Grady Hillman because KKK could not process the concept that he wasn't supposed to read the stage directions. It was fun to see him rehearse nonetheless.?”
The prolific historian and author Dr. John E. Bowlt wrote, “K.K.K. lived for poetry, for the making, conservation, and declamation of poetry. For all his colorful behavior, outlandish vestments, and love of scandal, K.K.K. was a creative genius who treasured the Russian language in its rhythms, syncopations, semantic plurality, harmonies, and disharmonies, and who used these things both to compose his own verse and to rescue the verse of his dissident contemporaries.
“He was at once a prophet and the Devil’s advocate, an infant terrible and a transgressor, a man who loved dogs and hated bourgeois ritual and perhaps, in the end, only one person, his devoted wife, Emma, could withstand and still nurture the vastness of his passionate tantrums, mercurial moods, and almost supernatural artistic stamina. K.K.K. was a product of Mother Russia and he bore high the banner of her culture as he told the world about Russia’s literary and artistic wonderland, of which he was both dragon and wizard.”
The artist Dietmar Kirves (b. 1941) shared Kuzminsky’s involvement with the “NO!art Movement”, described as “strategic juncture where artistic production and socio-cultural action meet.” Clayton Patterson (b. 1948) actively collaborated with Kuzminsky and the “Art Party Pravda” art group, which he maintains archival phtographs from. “The art group Art Party Pravda had many Russian intellectuals & known artists,” Patterson recalls, describing it as an amazing subculture of the NYC Downtown art scene that held numerous events and resulted in political split-offs. He introduced Kuzminsky to both Boris Lurie (1924-2008) and Harold Hudson Channer (born 1935). “K.K.K. was bigger than his Wikipedia page,” Patterson commented.
Kuzminsky passed away from unreported causes on May 2, 2015. He is survived by his wife of over forty years, Emma [“Mouse”] Podberyozkina of Hancock, New York; and two granddaughters currently living in St. Petersburg, Russia, from a previous marriage. “He left a void, that will never be filled,” said sculptor Leonid Lerman (b. 1953).
Dr. Gerald Janecek, a preeminent expert on the Russian Avant-Garde Poetry of the 20th century, reminisced: “Kuzminsky played a key role in my personal and scholarly life by introducing me to whole layers of alternate and underground Russian poetry. When we first met in June 1980, he showed me the recent edition of Apollon-77, which featured the work of interesting and innovative poets I had not even heard of.
“His dictum: ‘Pushkin can wait; you need to pay attention to living poets,’ struck a chord with me and ever since I have devoted my primary attention to contemporary Russian poets, many of whom I have gotten to know personally. Some have passed on and K.K.K. now joins them in the pantheon.”
MEMORIAL DAY: KUZMINSKY, A POET
Published in: DAILY KOS, on May 25, 2015
"Look, man," this Rasputin look alike in a thick brown robe lectured, as he held up the little rubber spider that he had ordered, and which had just come in the mail along with belly button brushes and whoopee cushions, "these will destroy the police state more surely than missiles."
He mimicked a Soviet customs guard. "And what is this?" "A joke. It's funny." He mimicked the facial expression, the contempt. The dismissal. "Move along. Move along." Returning to himself, he pressed his point. "KGB has no sense of humor. They cannot imagine and this gets past them. But - a child understands."
Konstantin Konstantinovich Kuzminsky was born in November 1941, just before the siege if Leningrad. He was a poet's poet.
He passed away May 2, 2015. He was a warrior of the human spirit and the truest freedom for the mind and heart and soul. He survived the worst that the police state and the Twentieth century can inflict. He taught all those around him to be free in their minds. He inspired many.
He was noted for memorizing poems and stories by many of his generation's best "unauthorized" poets and writers. He became a repository for the underground poets and artists who were still in the Soviet Union after he emigrated in the mid seventies. Packages would arrive at his little house next to a beer garden on the east edge of the University of Texas pretty frequently. He had a definitive collection amassed, which became organized as an academic collection under the title, "the Blue Lagoon Anthology of Russian Underground Art and Literature."
He came to the West through the intervention of Robert & Susan Massie, who were in Leningrad researching their book and movie, "Nicholas and Alexandra." Kuzminsky served as a tour guide and consultant, as he knew the city intimately and spoke perfect English.
They published his biography and work in a volume featuring five important young Russian poets. This was his ticket out. Kostia was recruited for a teaching position at the University of Texas at Austin. He taught comparative Russiand and American literature.
His wife Emma, had been an architect. Her English was not so good and she had to work at UT as a janitor.
I spent a lot of time during 1977 and in the next several years, visiting and interviewing Kostia. I also produced some poetry video featuring his performance. His most powerful work, I thought, was a blenderized mixture of many languages, musical sounds and alliterations.
One video was a talk show format featuring Kuzminsky and Allen Ginsberg. Kostia had glommed onto the work of Kerouac and Ginsberg as a student, and was inspired to be a Russian beat poet. Their work, Kostia explained to me, gave them a model, a way to be free of all the constraints that Soviet writers were constantly pressured to conform to. A whole generation of young writers were searching for intellectual freedom and Ginsberg had been a big inspiration. the interview did not go well, however, as Kuzminsky who had been harassed and nearly killed by the KGB secret police and who had friends who had been killed, insisted on lecturing Ginsberg on anti-communism. The two tried to find a cordial thread but mostly this revealed how different experience can be.
During those years he suffered from severe culture shock. He was deeply, bitterly disappointed with the lack of passion in most Americans, their failure to test the limits of freedom, of trying to get away from what he termed "mediocrative" living or thinking.
"You have Soviet Union in your heads." He would say.
He consumed huge quantities of anything alcoholic and even remotely drinkable. When he was sober he was brilliant. When drunk he would be in a deep melancholy or powerfully, bitingly critical. He was interested in helping anyone understand and could be very good at teaching.
One time when I came over. He was waiting for me. He laid out a copy of PRAVDA, a newspaper famous for being state propaganda, and a copy of the local daily, the Austin-American Statesman. He gave me a detailed tutorial on each story and feature, comparing both newspapers. It was brilliant and chilling. I was stunned to realuze just how similar the media environment in both countries was for the average citizen. The true nature of the dissident is to be mentally strong and it may require enormous courage.
One of Kostia's proteges at the time was a tall, shy and soft spoken young man named Ilya. He had a terrible acid burn scar on the back of one leg which came from visiting an outdoor exhibition of abstract painting. The KGB ran people off and destroyed paintings. They threw acid on people as they ran. One of the painters was a rising star in international art circles. Yevgeny Rhukin and Ilya and a couple of young women went out one evening and returned a couple of sheets to the wind. They fell asleep in Rhukin's studio and apartment. Ilya related how he woke up to a disorienting sense of being held up in the air. The KGB had boarded up the apartment windows and set the place on fire. Rhukin had realized that only one person could be saved. He was a big man. He lifted Ilya up bodily and threw him with enough force to eject him out through a window and out into the street. No one else survived. The KGB launched an investigation into the fire which was an excuse to interrogate all the acquaintances in the local arts community.
One of the members of that community was a woman writer and poet, Julia or Yulya Vosnesenskaya. She maintained a diary. Kuzminsky and Emma always had visitors in their tiny apartment in Austin. Allen Ginsberg turned up there. So did Fred Friendly, of CBS. Someone had mailed a copy of her diary after Yulya had been imprisoned. Kostia gave this to Friendly. Not long after this, a docudrama movie was produced, which came out on PBS, simply titled, "Yulya's Diary." It depicts the scene in Leningrad.
The city was renamed St. Petersburg after the fall of the Soviet Union.
I don't know that Kostia and Emma ever got to go back to visit. I helped them pack up a U-Haul moving van as they departed for New York. There, they found a community of Russian artists in Queens and in upstate New York, where they lived for a time. In his later years he looked a lot more healthy and happy in the pictures I saw.
I remember one morning in his east campus duplex when he woke up and we shared some tea. He had just had a dream. He was sitting on a blanket having a picnic with his mother. Just matter of factly, they were sharing this picnic with the grey corpse of Stalin, sitting there with them without expression. He was never without this haunting
Kostia reminisced that one day his mother took him to visit his father's grave. They took several street cars. It was a mass grave that he remembered being a mile long. His father had been an artist. The Germans had laid siege to the city. Stalin would not let the citizens have guns. The men decided that desperate circumstances called for desperate measures. They each carved fake wooden guns from house planks and rushed the German positions en masse, hoping to scare them away. It didn't work.
Young Konstantin grew up as a street urchin who learned to use his wits to entertain unless be needed to use a knife, which he had had to become good at as well. But fate intervened. Stalin needed to replace an entire diplomatic corps after the war, having hauled large numbers to the gulags. As the son of a war hero, Kostia was sent to a school that specialized in English and also Western literature.
I was deeply moved by how passionate someone could be about art and life and the intellectual honesty to see through what otherwise is just given for us to see. I am a much freer American for having known this salty fish of Russia.
His favorite metaphor, which is one of hope, was that of the single blade of grass found growing up through a crack in concrete paving.
He really was, himself, a blade of grass.
Das Vidanya and Nostrovia Good Buddy
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