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Faces of Radicalism

By Anna Aslanyan.


When talking about the spirit of London, Peter Ackroyd, the biographer of the city, has often mentioned Stoke Newington as a place known for its radicalism. Among the famous residents of the area were Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of feminism (arguably) and the grandmother of Frankenstein (definitely), and Edgar Allan Poe, who went to school there. Poe has recently returned to his old school-yard in the form of a bust, unveiled during the Stoke Newington Literary Festival; it remains to be seen whether it will contribute to the place’s present-day character, bohemian and arty, if no longer overtly rebellious.

More timely, perhaps, than the opening of Poe’s bust, was another festival event, where Owen Jones was talking about his tribute to class war casualties, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. For those who think that chavdom is a uniquely British phenomenon, let me add that a week later the book was eagerly discussed at the 6th Moscow International Open Book Festival. Participants argued about its prospects in Russia, some coming up with a number of publishing ideas. Those included possible Russian versions of the neologism “chav”, from “prole” to “lumpen”, and a strong suggestion to replace “working class” with something less grating, say, “the plain people of Britain”. Who is being more radically demonised then? Your call, the workers of the world.

Comparing the festival in Moscow to Stokey Lit Fest is a bit like comparing the Moscow Metro to the London Underground: the former looks extremely grand, while the latter was built the year when serfdom was abolished in Russia. This is not to say that Stokey is an old tradition – it started last year, but has already become a feature of local life; nor am I accusing the Moscow organisers of being showy: a few marquees in a courtyard, some book and vinyl stands indoors, a couple of drinking holes, one of which ran out of wine early in the day. The analogy stems from subtler things, such as the Stalin-era mosaics that adorn some Metro stations and those prehistoric carriages still used on the Tube.

Going back to the atmosphere of radicalism, the festival in Moscow gave Stokey a run for its money having invited Eduard Limonov, once known as a Soviet outcast in the 1970s New York, who described his tribulations in the famous novel It’s Me, Eddie, now a major opposition figure in Russia. The leader of NBP (the National Bolsheviks, an uber-radical party), having done time in jail, is busy again with his subversive activities, yet hasn’t stopped writing poetry – his collection of erotic poems, To Fifi, has just been published in Moscow. Introduced as “the only Russian poet who needs guards today”, Limonov quipped: “Otherwise, you’d be reading poetry over my grave now”. Mixing new works with earlier ones and erotics with politics, the author proved that he is not one to snub working class – or plain people, for that matter. At the end of the reading he pronounced the 20th century literary project failed and said that “novels are the kind of writing children should learn at school, no more”.

Political debates at the Moscow Book Festival were omnipresent; were Labour MP Diane Abbott to appear there after her Stoke Newington event, she could have been mistaken for a harmless literary agent. As for the Russian literati, they were keen to talk about the moral aspects of collaboration between intelligentsia and power and other, no less burning issues at every opportunity, between book launches, panel discussions and readings. Luckily, there was enough time and space for more fortuitous things, such as The Dictionary of Moscow Common Truths, a mini-guide to bohemian life in the city compiled by several writers and put out by OpenSpace. Its gems include “Cooking at home? Aren’t restaurants far cheaper though?” and “What do we do, grow old with Putin or leave the country?”


If all these Stoke Newington vs Moscow reflections sound too far-fetched, it should be noted that the two festivals did, indeed, have some common denominators, most notably Lee Rourke, whose The Canal was discussed in Moscow as passionately as in N16. The way contemporary books change the fabric of the city is a subject that interests many Muscovites. Some festival goers were lamenting the fact that Brick Lane the novel killed the eponymous street, wondering what role Tom McCarthy‘s Remainder played for Brixton. Iain Sinclair, whose book is about to hit Stoke Newington’s bookshelves, was on the minds of his (potential) Russian readers, as was Ackroyd who has many fans in Moscow and further afield, including Siberia. One question it would be really tempting to put to him is, can Stoke Newington revive its radicalism by strengthening its ties with Moscow? A partnership between the two literary festivals might be a good start. The Dictionary of Moscow Common Truths has a couple of entries on London, one of which sounds pessimistically prophetic: “It’s a sad joke, but its pastures green await us all”. Another one, “To support Chelsea is the same as to join United Russia”, referring to the “presidential party”, is evidence enough that radicalism is not dead.


Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 21st, 2011.