Some Russian writers see Alina Vitukhnovskaya's bizarre, scatological verse as the kind of brilliant poetry that appears just once in a decade.
"I can only compare her gift to that of Marina Tsvetayeva," says Konstantin Kedrov, a member of the Writer's Union and the Russian Pen Club, and a columnist at the daily Izvestia. "She is the talent we have been waiting for for the past 15 years, the poet who stands out among all her contemporaries."
But prominent literary critic Mikhail Odenberg thinks Vitukhnovskaya, author of five published volumes, "is a complete nonentity, poetically speaking. I have nothing to say about her verse."
The controversy over Vitukhnovskaya's work arises from her highly publicized trial and imprisonment for alleged drug dealing. Vitukhnovskaya, 24, remains under investigation and is awaiting another trial. Since her October 1994 arrest and during her subsequent incarceration for nearly a year in Moscow's Butyrka prison, authors including Andrei Voznesensky and Andrei Bitov have rallied to her support. But Vitukhnovskaya's critics say these Soviet-era writers endorse her for political reasons, simply because she is a poet who claims to be persecuted by the government.
On Sunday, the German Topfer Fund will award Vitukhnovskaya the prestigious Pushkin Stipend -- a monthlong grant to study German culture in Germany. But she plans to decline. "They [the authorities] would probably let me go, hoping that I would stay in the West. But I am going to stay here and see this case through to the end and not make it easy for them," she says.
At the time of her arrest, Vitukhnovskaya had been working on a series of articles about LSD. According to Vitukhnovskaya, Federal Security Service investigators wanted the names of drug users from her Bohemian circle of friends who were children of the political and business elite.
"They were after kompromat [compromising material], but I refused to be a tool in the KGB's hands," she says, sitting in her spartan apartment filled with books by German philosophers, her own published works and alternative music tapes. Authorities told Vitukhnovskaya she would stay in prison until she was ready to talk. Vitukhnovskaya's lawyer, Karen Nersisyan, says the security service continues to harass the poet
Kedrov likens Vitukhnovskaya's situation to the 1937 Stalin purges. "Alina's case proves that our secret service has not changed. They falsely accused her, scared teenage drug addicts into bearing false witness and kept Alina in prison hoping to break her spirit," he says.
Two-and-a-half years after the arrest, Vitukhnovskaya is trying to follow the course of many other persecuted artists: She decided to turn her "unreal prison life into art," and regularly jots down notes on how she views herself in this situation. Vitukhnovskaya also went public. After a few months of passivity in prison, she began to bombard the media with information about her predicament. While incarcerated, she went on a hunger strike for one week. "I did not want to show them my fear. I resisted them by making myself unpredictable," she says.
Three days after leaving Butyrka, Vitukhnovskaya wrote "The Last Old Woman Money Lender of Russian Literature," an avant-garde anti-utopia poem on freedom, slavery and totalitarianism.
Two characters, a Hitler-Mao and his lover Eva Brown-Tsia Tsin, who is a man, rule a country that is a combination of Germany, Russia and China. Dictators outlaw fish, which "is the symbol of many things, perhaps the symbol of everything." The sole hero, Inzhenerik, "looked truth in the eye, only to find EMPTINESS."
In her own search for truth, Vitukhnovskaya hopes she will not be looking at such an abyss.