Lev Rubinstein, Russian poet and political figure, dies at 76

Lev Rubinstein, a Russian poet, activist and prominent figure in the Soviet literary underground movement died in Moscow on Sunday from injuries sustained in a car accident six days earlier.

The poet, 76, was hit by a car in a pedestrian crossing on Jan. 8, and was placed in a medically induced coma, local media reported, adding that law enforcement had launched a criminal case against the driver.

His daughter Maria confirmed his death on Sunday morning, writing on her Livejournal blog: “My father, Lev Rubinstein, died today,”

Mr. Rubinstein was considered one of the founders of Soviet-era Moscow conceptualism, an artistic movement that sought to undermine socialist ideology and its restrictive formats imposed on artists. Serving as an antithesis to the official doctrine of the socialist realism art form that churned out idealized and superficial scenes of Soviet life in a realist style, the conceptualism movement involved bold experimentation across various media such as painting, sculpture, performance and literature.

Mr. Rubinstein worked in his own unique style at the intersection of literature, visual arts and performance. He was known for his “postcard poems,” in which each verse was written on a separate card, inspired by his time working as a librarian at his Moscow alma mater. The final work, resembling a library catalog, prompted the reader to interact physically with the poem.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, he published his works first abroad and then in Soviet samizdat, clandestine, makeshift publications aiming to copy and distribute censored works across the Eastern bloc.

Later in his career, Mr. Rubinstein turned to journalism and activism, writing for staple Russian outlets of the 1990s and 2000s such as Itogi magazine, Kommersant newspaper and the Weekly Journal. In 1999, he was awarded the Andrei Bely Prize, the oldest Russian independent literary prize celebrating samizdat writers and poets who worked outside Soviet censorship.

Mr. Rubinstein closely worked with Memorial, one of the country’s oldest human rights organizations, which was recently shut down and outlawed by Russian authorities.

“Shakily poetic, astute and ironic, he was himself a way of perceiving the world. We speak, have spoken, and will continue to speak Rubinstein’s language,” Memorial said in a statement on X.

“Today’s Russia has no place for free citizens and independent poets. It barrels through them, not stopping at the red light to see them cross the road,” the statement added. “The poet who had many times outlived himself, could not live through Putin’s Russia.”

Mr. Rubinstein’s death prompted an outpouring of memorials from many Russian activists, writers, artists and supporters, inside the country and in exile.

“His poems, his stories, his thoughts about how human nature works, and his attempts to understand and explain the world around him will remain with us and long after us. His voice is heard now and will continue to be heard,” journalist Sergei Parkhomenko wrote on his Facebook page.

Mr. Rubinstein took part in numerous demonstrations against the persecution of fellow artists and writers and was an outspoken critic of repressions in Russia and in neighboring Belarus, President Vladimir Putin’s policies and the 2014 Russian incursion in Ukraine. In 2021, he voiced support for opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was arrested when he returned to Russia from Germany after being treated following his poisoning with a nerve agent.

Last March, Mr. Rubinstein signed an open letter against the invasion of Ukraine.

“Any war is terrible not only because it is very easy to start and very difficult to end. It is terrible not only because people die and cities get destroyed. In war, people’s souls are destroyed and distorted, and the consequences of a war are at times disastrous even for the generations that come after,” Mr. Rubinstein said of the war.

“There is an old lady who, of course, looks bad now, but you shouldn’t forget about her. Her name is hope,” Mr. Rubinstein said in an interview last year with independent Russian-language media outlet Meduza. “And you should turn to her from time to time because she is built into the human psyche. You have to have hope and do what you can to the best of your ability.”

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