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, reviews and trials. Not to mention his output as an editor, journalist, television and radio personality, teacher, and globe-trotting lecturer on topics ranging from Russian and Soviet history to American black literature.
Sometimes his words get him into trouble.
A guest critic in the Institute of European Studiespart of the Mario Einaudi Center for International StudiesBykov will be in residence for one to two years, engaging with Cornell faculty and students and completing several writing projects.
Bykov is one of Russia’s best-known public intellectuals. His satirical poems and political commentaries often target President Vladimir Putin. Putin was not amused.
In April 2019, Bykov fell seriously ill on a plane on his way to a speech in Ufa, Russia. He started vomiting uncontrollably and eventually passed out. It would be five days before he came out of his coma and another six before he was released from the hospital. There was no clear diagnosis.
The following year, opposition leader Alexei Navalny experienced the same symptoms, also on a plane. Tests confirmed he had been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. A 2021 investigation Bellingcat concluded that the pair had been targeted by a covert “poison squad” from Russia’s Federal Security Service, along with several other well-known critics of the government. 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 his work took a hit. He was banned from teaching at the university level and from appearing on state radio or television. Several of the media where he had worked were closed. He says spies attended his lectures and reported to their bosses what he calls “my inconsiderate words”. The authorities called him an “enemy of the people”.
He compares the atmosphere to that of the United States in the 1950s during the McCarthy era. “Bullying is really unpleasant,” he says. “Sometimes you feel like an exile in the motherland.” He continues to challenge the government, but finds it increasingly difficult to make his voice heard.
“The writer is perhaps the only person who really needs political freedom,” he says. “To discuss serious issues and serious challenges, you must have no political constraints.”
In February, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Bykov and his family left Moscow for Ithaca. Since then, he has been a vocal opponent of the war on social media and in interviews, lectures and other public appearances.
“The work of the Einaudi Center on democratic threats and resilience is a vital axis that unites scholars, activists and writers around the world,” said the director of Einaudi Rachel Beatty Riedl. “Dmitry Bykov lives this spirit of democratic resilience, even under threat. He writes because he needs to reach people with his ideas and words – that’s the essence of freedom.
Talking about the future taboo in Russia
Bykov says the war in Ukraine lays bare a wider conflict in Russian society over the direction the country is headed. Putin, he says, is obsessed with the past, or at least his version. “The future is the most forbidden subject, the most forbidden in Russia,” he says. “The past is always the battlefield. The future is only discussed by science fiction. And the picture of the future is very bleak.
He claims Putin is paranoid (“he’s afraid of everyone”) and delusional (“yesterday he made something up, today he believes it”) and accuses him of lying about everything from Russian history to Ukraine’s military capability. “I write every day because I feel like my writing replaces all these lies, all these fake words produced by Russian power,” he says.
Bykov did not leave Russia because of the Ukrainian conflict. Last year, he received a teaching grant from the Open Society University Networkit is At-Risk Scholars Integration Initiative, one of the international relief organizations that works with universities like Cornell to find internships for fellows in safe locations. He was invited to Ithaca by Cornell Globalin partnership with the local association Ithaca City of Asylum, which supports writers and artists at risk. He says he could go home if he wanted; he has no intention of emigrating to the United States.
But there is “a professional danger” in staying in Russia, he says: “First, when you’re scared, 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 start restricting yourself, and you feel like a coward all the time, and you alter your work and take out all the sharp spots, that’s professional evil.”
Bykov says he is proud of his journalism and political activism, and is honored to be called a “dissident.” Yet, he says, “I would rather be known for my literary writings 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’s not producing satirical poetry or journalism, he says, “I feel like I’ve forgotten my civic duty. While he only writes journalism, “I’m afraid I’ve forgotten eternity”. When he is not teaching, he feels he is neglecting future generations. When he teaches too much, “I think I’m too talkative and should write quietly.”
“Every type of work I do consoles me psychologically in some way,” he says, noting that one reviewer jokes that he only works in one genre: Bykov.
While 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 dystopian comic novel “living soulshas been translated into English.) He is also eager to engage with students and speak in public.
Bykov says he appreciates the relative calm of Ithaca. “I was the editor of a big newspaper,” he says. “I was famous and I’m very proud of it. But you know, I don’t like fame very much – and my safe life, and the safe life of my child, is more important to me than being well-known.
And with security will come the words. “When I feel anxiety, I can’t write,” he says. “When I’m scared, I can’t write. When I write here, I’m free.
Jonathan Miller is an Ithaca-based freelance writer and board member of Ithaca City Of Asylum.