Victor Krivulin

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Viktor Borisovich Krivulin, poet and political activist: born Krasnodon, Soviet Union 9 July 1944; four times married; died St Petersburg, Russia 17 March 2001.

Viktor Borisovich Krivulin, poet and political activist: born Krasnodon, Soviet Union 9 July 1944; four times married; died St Petersburg, Russia 17 March 2001.

In Russian folklore there are local spirits called domovye, imagined as bearded little men, crafty but usually benevolent, who guard and look after the home. The poet Viktor Krivulin was the domovoi of the underground culture of Leningrad/ St Petersburg from the late 1960s to its end in the late 1980s. And it was fitting that he should have found a new role as guardian of freedom in the post-Soviet Russia of the 1990s, as vice-president of the St Petersburg Pen Club, as a journalist and as a campaigner for democracy.

During the 1970s and early 1980s he not only produced a substantial body of work but was also a hub of samizdat production. He and his first wife, the philosopher Tanya Goricheva, organized unofficial seminars and edited the journal 37, named after the number of their communal apartment. Later he was involved with other samizdat journals ­ Obvodnyi Kanal and Chasy, the journal of the Leningrad alternative culture club "Klub-81".

His belated first official Soviet publication was in the pages of the club's anthology, Krug, in 1985. His room in a Petersburg communal apartment was itself a cultural club, not only for Leningrad but also for visiting Moscow artists and writers.

After the changes, in his new incarnation as co-chairman of the St Petersburg branch of the Democratic Russia party, he worked with the reformer Galina Starovoitova. She was murdered in November 1998. The following month, representing her party, Krivulin spoke out against the emerging extremist nationalists and campaigned courageously against them in the dirty local elections of December 1998 when right-wingers and anti-Semites were threatening, and using, violence against the opposition.

In his work and in his life he defended individual conscience and moral standards. At Leningrad University in the 1960s he had deliberately sabotaged any possibility of an academic career by publicly resigning from the Komsomol, thus committing himself to poetry and a life on the fringe.

But in fact the real cultural life of the time was right there, on the fringe, in kommunalki, the shabby bed-sitting rooms of communal apartments, where "unofficial" writers and artists met. For much of his life Krivulin inhabited a succession of such rooms, always at the centre of feverish activity. Such habits endured to the end: his last words to his wife Olga were "Go to bed early today, tomorrow we'll make a book".

As a child Krivulin suffered a crippling illness that left him only able to walk with extreme difficulty using two walking sticks. The experience may have given him the toughness to flourish in a hostile environment. A thick skin was useful as much against the inevitable threats and vituperation from the authorities as to endure the backbiting of fellow artists. But, over and beyond that, Krivulin managed to survive with grace, humour and generosity.

Viktor Krivulin's work still remains largely unknown in the West. A few translations have appeared in various British and American journals and in the Penguin anthology of Eastern European poetry Child of Europe (edited by Michael March, 1990); some more are due to appear in a forthcoming Anvil anthology. For the English reader his work remains, for the time being, in a cultural border zone ­ Predgranich'e: which was the title of a 1994 collection. Borders and maps, our projections and images of the world, were leitmotifs of his poetry. Where is the real Russia? How does it relate to the West? Or to its own past?

These questions revolved without resolution. Each of his poems emerges and fades unobtrusively into the larger background of an undefined total work. His specific tone persists throughout, whether querying or laying down the law, an individual voice with its own space, alongside those of Akhmatova and Brodsky, within the ramshackle kommunalka of 20th-century Petersburg literature.

By Michael Molnar