2. Siberian Literature: Rasputin

Dr. Jerry Mikkelson

This is the third installment of our exploration of imaginative literature about Siberia.

Part 1: Early history of Russian writers in Siberia- initially during the movement of Russians into Siberia people were writing chronological accounts, annals, of the Russian exploration of the territory. We read a few stories of Russian writers who were born and raised in Siberia. The first was Wintering Station on Chill River, by Dmitry Narkisovich Mamin-Sibiryak (from A Bilingual Collection of Russian Short Stories, Vol 1, Random House, 1965). Mamin-Sibiryak was born in Nizhny Tagil, near Yekaterinburg in the Urals. The other was the writer Vladimir Galaktionovich Korolenko who was sent to Siberia as political exile. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, Korolenko, and other exiles, even though they were sent to Siberia as punishment, didn't end up hating Siberia. They developed attachments to Siberia (and some even stayed). Other writers before and after the Revolution traveled to Siberia, like Chekhov, who was greatly influenced by the people he encountered, especially by prisoners.

Part 2: Anthology of Native Siberian Writers. Despite an ancient tradition of oral literature, Indigenous written literature has a relatively short history, because of the recent acquisition of written scripts. That is why we were excited by the publication of an English language anthology that we could use for the first time in this class.

Part 3: Tonight we will talk about Valentine Rasputin (Валентин Григорьевич Распутин), a living author. Rasputin lives either near Irkustk (has a summer cottage near the Angara River) or in Moscow. He recently turned 75 years old. In Russia, writers find it necessary to spend time in Moscow because that is where all or most major literary journals and publishing houses are located. During Peristroika in the later 1980's to 1991, there was a period of political activity on the part of writers, and many became involved in the pressing debates of the. Rasputin was drawn in. Gorbachev appointed Rasputin as one of two writers to be part of a presidential advisory board (about 10 people on the board). Rasputin says that as a writer and as a Siberian he used a completely different language than the governmental representatives-- his was a spiritual, environmental, artistic language as opposed to their economic and political language.

Siberian Russian literature (all of the kinds of writings by ethnic Russians) reached its Golden Age of Russian literature in Siberia was during the latter part of the Soviet period. The oldest writers of this period were born before the Revolution, like Sergei Pavlovich Zalygin (The Commission), who was born in 1914. Viktor Petrovich Astafyev was old enough to fight in WWII. Vasily Shukshin (Stories from a Siberian Village) and Alexander Vampilov (Last Summer in Chulimsk) are also included in this group. However, Valentin Rasputin is considered the most important writer of this period, as evidenced by the fact that he has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature. Dr. Mikkelson's introduction to Siberia on Fire gives an overview of Rasputin's career. The short novel is Rasputin's main genre (he has written six). He has also written a number of short stories, and many essays (about other writers, Irkutsk, Baikal, other parts of Siberia). Rasputin considers his "little homeland" to be eastern Siberia, more specifically the Angara province. He considers himself a Siberian patriot and a Russian patriot (believes Siberia is an inseparable, permanent part of Russia).

For a complete appreciation of Rasputin you would need to read the six short novels. His writing career goes back to 1962. He was a journalist after graduating from Irkutsk university in the 1950's, but as soon as he published his first piece of creative literature he gave up his position as a journalist. Because only members of the Soviet Writers Union could be published during the Soviet period, he had to be invited to become a member before he could make a living as an author. He was fortunate because he had a mentor who introduced him to influential members of the Writer's Union, and he became a member in 1966. This was the year that the short story Vasily and Vasilisa (Vasili i Vasilisa) was published (not long enough to be a short novel). His early work was originally published in Irkutsk, but as it got attention it was republished in Moscow. (The New York Times review of the movie version).

In Money for Maria (Den'gi dlia Marii), a woman doing a year-end inventory of goods and money for a store discovers that 1000 rubles were missing. That was a punishable offense during the Soviet Period and she was expected to find a way to pay it back. The story is about her attempt to get help from the villagers (mainly loans) to help her get out of her plight. The conversations she has with the people she goes to for help are the powerful aspect of this story and the source of its importance as a literary piece.

The title of The Last Day (Poslednij srok, 1970) refers to the fact that it focuses on the events that take place in a Siberian village where the protagonist's aging mother is dying. The son, who is the only one still living in the village, summons his siblings to come pay their last respects to their mother. The short novel by Rasputin which won major literary awards in the Soviet Union was Live and Remember (Zhivi i pomni, 1975). It is set during WWII and begins with the main character fighting at the front. It is a tragic story. He is wounded and given leave to recover; at first he was told he could go home for awhile, but at the last minute his orders are changed and he is ordered back to the front. At the train station, where he is awaiting the train back to the front, he decides instead to take the train back home. Of all Rasputin's novels, this is the one that grips you the fastest and entangles you in the suspense. After the main character returns in secret to his home, his wife goes to the banya and notices that the pair of skies that had been hidden there are missing. She quickly reaches the conclusion that only her husband could have found them, and that he needed them because he was hiding out in a hunting shack on other side of river. They begin to meet there secretly. But others begin to suspect that he is around, and when she gets pregnant, this leads to the tragic ending.

After this he wrote three more novellas. In Farewell to Matyora (Proshchanie s Materoj, 1976) he describes the tremendous changes that occurred in villages after the building of the huge hydroelectric dams on the Angara River. Dam construction on major rivers always changes things in a major way, both environmentally and socially. The novella involves a village of people on an island, many generations had lived in Matyora (the Russian word "mat" means mother). They are told that when Bratsk dam was completed in 1960's a tremendous amount of land would be flooded and they would lose their village. This story is based on Rasputin's own village. They had enough time to dismantle buildings and move them, but more than one village is moved to the same site and the social relationships between residents are disrupted. This is the setting in which the catastrophic warehouse fire occurs.

Rasputin has a new novella now being translated by Meg Winchell and Dr. Mikkelson, Ivan's Daughter, Ivan's Mother.

Siberia On Fire: Stories and Essays by Valentin Rasputin. Selected, Translated, and with an Introduction by Gerald Mikkelson and Margaret Winchell. 1989. Northern Illinois University Press, Dekalb, IL.

In Vassily and Vasilisa, what did you find was most memorable? With a short story always fair to say what is the point of it?

Students expressed surprise that young people continued to live with their families within the same home. This is still common in villages, but also not uncommon in cities. In most cases people live in tighter quarters than typical in the US. Affluent younger couples may live in more western style apartments. The situation described in the story, however, is not caused by being in a multi-generation extended family (they were not crowded by village standards). The story is not about how crowded they are, although that would be something an American reader would see in it. Many of Rasputin's stories mention alcoholism. But what is the cause of the original separation? Vassily is violent and beats Vasilisa, that is the source of the tension.

Students noted that the characters in the story are always busy, and that they are manual laborors, and while they did have time for celebrations, they spend most of their time engaged in physical labor. They seemed to have a lot of resilience given the amount of work they did.

Vassily and Vasilisa didn't get a divorce, instead he lived in a shed close by. Eventually a younger woman moved in with Vassily. Within the context of the time and place, why wasn't this an unusual situation? Why did Vasilisa initially dislike her, but then become her friend? Vasilisa initially hated her because she thought she might lose the house, and she was jealous because the new woman was younger. However, Vasilisa's daughters got close to her, which opened the door to their relationship. This leads us to the bigger question of why do these people remain attached to each other despite the problems? Why did the two women eventually become friends? They became friends because they found something in common, both are women who have skills they can use to better things for their children. They found things in common as human beings, and this trumps the rest of the problems.

The story ends with Vassily dying--but before he dies they reconcile. How can they do that? Because by that time the second woman had left to find her son (the reason she was in the village in the first place) and once she left he reproached his relationship with Vasilisa. The ending has kind of a noble ring, because these were two people who had good reason to be angry and resentful, but instead they overcame the negative emotions. He was able to feel remorse for the way he treated her, and she responded through the ritual of serving him tea.

French Lessons is probably the single best known story of Rasputin's in Russia because it was part of an anthology read by all children in the Soviet Union. It was made into a movie, as were other stories by Rasputin. Many think it is his best short story. It is written in the first person, and reflects his own biography. Before Dr. Mikkelson met Rasputin he taught this story in his class at KU.

Rasputin was born in 1937, and this story was set in 1948, during a period of general famine and malnutrition throughout Russia (not starvation or Terror Famines as earlier, but still a rather grim time). On page 26 he writes that

"Famine still held us in its grip that year, and my mother had three kids to feed, with me being the oldest. In the spring, when we were especially hungry, I had swalled some potato sprouts and grains of oats and rye, and I had made my sister swallow them too, in hopes of getting them to take root in our stomachs-- then we wouldn't have to think about food all the time..."

On page 27 he writes

"Its hard to say just how Mother got up the courage to ship me off to town... Our Father wasn't with us we were quite poor, and she evidently figured that things couldn't possibly get any worse."

Rasputin's father was in prison because he had been responsible for carrying money to pay wages, but he got drunk, and all the money was stolen. This was an offense in the Soviet Union that got you a prison sentence. Rasputin essentially grew up without a father because his father had been in the war for a number of years, and then in prison.

What in this story is most striking? What kind of a story is it? This is a fictionalized autobiography. Compassion is a main theme; the French teacher reaches out compassionately. Why did she do this? The circumstance was that he was gambling and could get thrown out of school, but he was gambling because he was hungry and suffering from malnutrition. The food that his mother sent to him was regularly stolen by the people who were supposed to be looking out for him. The French teacher doesn't want him to suffer from malnutrition. But the school principal is strict, by the rules. He dresses the way he imagines Stalin would want someone in his position to be dressed ("a little Stalin" was the term used to describe characters like him). The principal humiliates the children as punishment in a manner that reflects the "show trial" mentality. Since teachers are easy to come by and to dismiss, if they are not "ideologically pure" they would be dismissed immediately. Every bit as important as the teacher taking an interest in him and trying to find ways to keep him fed was how he responds to her-- he initially put up a wall, and wouldn't take anything from her. He wouldn't admit  his hunger because of his pride, stubbornness. But this is also a coming of age story, and his pride and overcoming shame was part of character building that made him who he was later in life.

There is a reason why there is an eight year gap between The French Lessons and his next published stories. Even though Live and Remember and Farewell to Matyora were published in that period, he did not do any writing. This was because in 1980 he was attacked by hoodlums (they wanted to steal his jeans jacket). He was left unconscious and almost died. It took him years to completely recover, he had to have a couple of operations on his leg and had severe headaches from the concussion they gave him. When Dr. Mikkelson sent him an invitation to come to Kansas, he was not initially able to come to KU because he was still recovering. In addition, he had some trouble from the political fallout caused by the publication of Farewell to Matyora, which was about the catastrophic impact of dams, which got him in trouble with the authorities. Eventually he recovered and was granted travel privileges so Dr. Mikkelson was able to host him at KU in 1985.

The stories that appeared after this period were quite different than the ones he wrote before-- Professor Brown from the University of Michigan thought that the changes in his writing signaled the decline of Rasputin's work because he became too self engrossed. But Dr. Mikkelson disagreed, and helped prepare the translations of the English language additions of his subsequent writings. These later stories are different, but the change in style and tone certainly did not mark the end of his career.

In Live and Love (1981) the main character is a boy of around 15. The situation is that the boy goes deep into the taiga for berry picking with a couple of older men whom he does not know well, and finds himself coping with a difficult set of circumstances. It is a coming of age story. The boy Sasha was living with his grandma at Baikal because his parents were on a vacation to Baltic Sea. It seems that his father would have preferred to stay behind and pick berries, but his mother talked him into going to a popular resort. The boy is left with his grandmother, who is subsequently  called away to go to north end of the lake and leaves him alone. Under normal circumstances there is no reason he can't handle it, but an opportunity comes along to go berry picking and he accepts it.

What happens to him during that 24 hour period? He goes with two "uncles" deeper into the taiga than he has ever gone before. We should note that In Russia the terms "uncle" and "aunt" are used for older people regardless of their biological relations to young people, so these are not his blood relatives. Mityay had previously spent time in prison, and is a character who had gone through the school of hard knocks. Mityay invites Sasha and Volodya, the other older man, to go on the trip. What happens to the boy? They take a spur of the railroad that was abandoned when they built the Irkutsk dam because the area was flooded-- one line stayed operational for local purposes. When they reach the area for berry picking, Volodya goes off by himself, and Mityay and Sasha go to higher ground. The boy hears noises after dark that might have been a bear, which puts him on edge and reminds him how deep into the forest they are. They went further into the taiga than he had been before, and further than the other berry pickers. The boy is dealing with the darkness, with fear, isolation, being out of his comfort zone. While they are hiking they come across a blow down in the forest, which represents an encounter with the unknown, something of a mystical experience.

In the end the boy finds out that  all of the berries that he picks had become poisoned because he used a galvanized bucket rather than the wooden baskets that the others were using. This is a statement on the relationships between the main characters-- there was no caring on Volodya's part, and as a result it is not likely that the two older men will ever go berry picking together again, because Volodya knew all along that this would be the outcome. Mityay's reaction is the opposite-- he was vaguely aware of it but forgot, and when he is reminded he is furious at Volodya. Volodya represents the character of the uncle who plays nasty tricks on children. Sasha got more of an experience of human nature than he was counting on, and learned that he needed to be cautious about who he puts his trust in.

This story was called Live and Love (Rasputin had already written a novella called Live and Remember). The title-- in the Russian context the word "love" isn't used just for romantic love, it is not embarrassing to say to another that you love them and mean it as something completely outside of a romantic relationship. Both the words "live" and "love" are in the imperative, so they are commands.

The title of What Should I Tell the Crow refers to something that the father and daughter shared. It was the way into storytelling. The crow was an intermediary between the two. Rasputin hints that the crow could be an intermediary between this world and the next, since there is a belief that only the crow can fly between the two. Rasputin actively seeks to be in a state of mind where it seems that there are other realms that we do not ordinarily have contact with.

In this story there is a tension between the major characters, but not in the same way or to such an extreme degree as in previous story. The main characters are father and daughter (this is also an autobiographical story; his daughter was a similar age when he wrote the story). Her response to him about a third of the way through the story changes--the story begins with them in the city, holding hands and talking. She is in school, she missed him, she wanted contact with him. The change comes when he has to go back to country to continue writing. At that point she becomes angry with him. But he has to get back to writing, it was going well and he needed to be in the country to write. His trip back is first by bus, then by boat across the Angara River, to his cabin (other people are living nearby, so it is not isolated).

The rest of the story is about his coping with his daughter being upset when he left. He ends up walking from the shore of Baikal up a path to the mountain rather than walking along the shore. He gets to a plateau, sits on a rock and looks at the lake from above. His thoughts wander-- he's not aware that he keeps moving. It is approaching dark, he retraces his steps, what is going through his mind towards the end of the story top of page 100 regaining consciousness realized that he was a long ways-- for several hours he was in a trance like state and but is not aware of his surrounding. On page 99 he describes how he tried to ponder these matters further and tried to listen-- but he didn't see the sky or the water or the earth, just a road. In this passage he is describing an otherworldly experience. This passage divided Rasputin scholars into camps because he had changed after recovering from the attack.

Rasoutin is religious, but not in the conventional way. Dr. Mikkelson wrote an article on the religious symbolism in the novella Live and Remember, pointing out that Rasputin referred to dates by the names of religious holidays, which was very unusual in Soviet days. In Farewell to Matyora, the leading characters are very devote older women. Dr. Mikkelson became interested in how much Rasputin shares the beliefs of his characters, and when he first met him in Irkutsk, he gave him the article and he didn't disagree with it. Then when Rasputin came to KU he said he admired the characters and shared some beliefs. Two years ago, Dr. Mikkelson went with him to the main cathedral in Moscow (the rebuilt one that had been blown up by Stalin). The Patriarch does the service on the main holidays. Being there with Rasputin was very moving; although he doesn't talk about it a lot, he appears to be devout.

In Siberia On Fire, Rasputin has an essay about his close friend and college classmate Vampilov (he drowned in lake Baikal at the age of 35). Vampilov is now considered the most important playwright of the 1960's. His plays are even now performed throughout Russia, so his work resonates with contemporary audiences.

Discussion Period:

Q. Are most of his works translated?
A. Of the six novellas, five are already published, and the sixth is being readied for publication in English.

Q. Is he still working on anything?
A. Yes, he is still writing, but it is becoming more difficult for him. He told Dr. Mikkelson on a recent visit that it was never easy for him to get started with a story, but once started the sentences wrote themselves. His main problem in was not getting distracted (something that he illustrates in the story What Shall I Tell The Crow).

Q. How does he feel about the fact that writing is becoming more difficult?
A. Dr. Mikkelson says that he has known Russian writers who have said things like "I have no more plays left in me" and switched to writing letters and essays, rather than plays. In contrast, Boris Pasternak won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958, and his best work was written at the end of his life. So different writers have different trajectories. There are a lot of things that Rasputin says he would like to write about, but his frustration with writing is holding him back.