Lev Rubinstein, Russian Poet and a Critic of Putin, Is Dead at 76


Lev Rubinstein, a Russian poet, essayist and political dissident during both the Soviet and Putin eras, died on Sunday from injuries sustained after he was hit by a car in Moscow. He was 76.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Maria in a brief statement on her LiveJournal account. Mr. Rubinstein was struck while crossing a street and had been placed in a medically induced coma. The Moscow authorities said that the driver had committed numerous traffic violations and “did not slow down,” and that they had opened criminal proceedings against him.

Mr. Rubinstein was considered one of the founders of the Russian conceptualism movement, an avant-garde fusion of art and prose that thumbed its nose at the restrictions of the Socialist Realism that predominated in the 1970s and ’80s.

One of his contributions to the movement was genre-bending “note card poems,” with each stanza printed on a separate card. He was inspired by the card catalogs he had encountered as a librarian at his alma mater, the Moscow Correspondence Pedagogical Institute, now known as Sholokhov Moscow State University for Humanities. But being subject to censorship encouraged him to search for a different medium.

“I wanted that the text could be an object, a literary object, a theatrical object — all at once,” he said in a 2020 interview with the literary magazine Pank.

His work was published abroad and circulated within the Soviet Union as samizdat through an underground system of reproducing work that could make it past government censors. After the collapse of Soviet Communism, he continued writing for mainstays of the Russian liberal intellectual press, including Itogi, Kommersant and more recently the website Republic.

In 1999, he received the Andrei Bely Prize, the first independent literary prize for writing that eschews censorship, for service to “humanities studies.” His novel “Signs of Attention” won the NOS prize, a Russian award given annually for a work of prose, in 2012.

“He was a living legend,” Boris Filanovsky, a composer who wrote an opera based on some of Mr. Rubinstein’s works that premiered in 2011, said in a phone interview. The two met two decades ago while lecturing on cultural journalism in St. Petersburg.

“When he read his lectures,” he added, “it felt like all participants were taking communion.”

Mr. Filanovsky called Mr. Rubinstein “our linguistic consciousness,” likening his role in public intellectual life to that of the American writers Allen Ginzberg and Charles Bukowski and the English actor and author Stephen Fry.

“His texts concern the very matter of language — what we say in Russia now seems to be stolen from Rubinstein’s texts,” he said.

In recent years, Mr. Rubinstein continued to write for independently minded Russian outlets. He was outspoken about his opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and his support for the opposition politician Aleksei A. Navalny, who has been imprisoned since January 2021 after spending months in Germany recovering from poisoning by a nerve agent.

Mr. Rubinstein’s death elicited tributes on social media, including one from representatives of Memorial, Russia’s best-known human rights organization, which was banned by court order in December 2021 on the eve of the Ukraine invasion. They wrote:

“Rubinstein was not arrested or tortured, he was not poisoned or persecuted in Russia in the time of war in Ukraine. But his tragic death in January 2024, just on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the catastrophe, seems bitterly symbolic. 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.”

Lev Semyonovich Rubinstein was born on Feb. 19, 1947, in Moscow. His father, Semyon, was a civil engineer who had served on the front during the Second World War, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. The consequences of that war were visible throughout his childhood, he said in a recent interview; he recalled seeing “the armless, legless and eyeless people” when his father took him to the public bathhouse.

His mother, Elena, was born in Ukraine and as a child there, in the city of Kharkiv, experienced the Holodomor, the Kremlin-engineered famine of 1932-33 in which millions died.

After President Vladimir V. Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Rubinstein spoke about a current of “internal imperialism” present in Russia, even among the country’s intellectuals.

“I admit with shame that such an internal imperialism was in us — despite the fact that we were not imperials,” he said in an interview with the independent Russian outlet Meduza published in January 2023. “It took time and effort to overcome this within myself. Now, of course, my friends and I have eradicated this as much as possible.”

Mr. Rubinstein spoke out against the creeping authoritarianism of Mr. Putin, opposing the silencing of the independent television channel NTV. He denounced Moscow’s wars in Chechnya as well as its illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. And he actively took part in events organized by Memorial, the rights organization. In March 2022, he joined writers in an open letter condemning the “criminal war” being waged in Ukraine and performed at the final event held in Memorial’s headquarters, which have been shuttered and confiscated by the state.

Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

When he was asked, a year ago, what advice he would give to Russians living through the increasing repression of wartime, Mr. Rubinstein drew solace from history. “In the late Soviet years, my closest friends and I were convinced that this boring Soviet slime would be with us forever,” he said. “But the opposite happened.”

He added, “From those times, I can give simple advice: Don’t be afraid.”

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