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Village Prose: An Exchange

In response to:

On Gorbachev: A Talk with Andrei Sakharov from the December 22, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

The transcript of Andrei Sakharov’s talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington [“On Gorbachev: A Talk with Andrei Sakharov,” NYR, December 22, 1988] contains several very questionable statements about contemporary Russian writers.

In answer to a perceptive question by James Billington about Russian nationalism, Dr. Sakharov began by discussing the chauvinist group Pamyat (which had its origins in a desire to preserve old monuments of Russian architecture, but which evolved into a group that directs its venom against anyone who isn’t Russian, including Jews, “Masons,” and Georgians). Sakharov and Sergei Kovalyov then exchanged opinions on three Russian Village Prose writers (Belov, Rasputin, and Astafiev), connecting them with recent Russian chauvinist activity.

In the process of writing a book on Russian Village Prose, I have read hundreds of works by these and many other writers. I have corresponded with a number of them, and I have interviewed several, including Rasputin. These writers are not Pamyat activists; their lobbying efforts are devoted to environmental issues. In their stories, novels, and essays there are only on very rare occasions anything that could be cited as evidence of chauvinistic beliefs. In recent works, Belov and Mozhaev have fallen into the trap of blaming (incorrectly) the excesses of collectivization primarily on Jewish members of the Party apparatus. Rasputin, to my knowledge, has no other sin on his conscience than not having denounced Pamyat. Chauvinism, specifically anti-Semitism, is in no way typical of Village Prose.

Russian Village Prose has concentrated on describing traditional Russian villages from the 1920s to the present. The writers have celebrated many aspects of the old rural way of life, trying to preserve the memory of it as the thousand-year-old Russian village passes into history. Some Village Prose works, for example Rasputin’s Farewell to Matyora, are among the most beautiful in post-Stalinist literature. In general, this movement is largely responsible for reviving Russian literature after the ravages of Socialist Realism.

Pamyat is indeed an ominous development. It is not in any important way connected to Village Prose writers, who represent for the most part positive aspects of Russian nationalist feelings.

Kathleen Parthé
The University of Rochester
Rochester, New York

Sergei Kovalyov replies:

Neither Sakharov nor I ever maintained that Astafyev, Belov, or Rasputin belong to Pamyat or that they completely share its views. In fact, neither of us spoke about so-called Village Prose as a whole. This is, by the way, quite apparent from the text published in The New York Review of Books. Quite the contrary, like Professor Parthé, I consider Village Prose to be a significant literary phenomenon. We were talking about something else. Replying to a question from Mr. Billington about the positive ideas of the Russian nationalist movement, I said I could see no such ideas in contemporary Russian nationalism. The basic logic of my position is as follows:

The deep crisis that has gripped all areas of Soviet life is apparent to all and can no longer be concealed. Many are asking the question: “Whose fault is it?” It is very tempting to look for the guilty parties among outsiders, and probably for this reason Russian nationalists discover the guilty everywhere except inside Russian society. In all Russian troubles—whether they refer to the October Revolution, collectivization of the peasants (1929–1934), the mass terror, the destruction of historical monuments, or the pollution of Lake Baikal—the guilty are always non-Russians. In keeping with its doubtful cultural level, Pamyat, or at any rate many of its representatives, insist that there is a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy; they look for a sinister meaning and for evidence of such a conspiracy in the running of the Moscow metro or in the innocent design details in theater productions, street signs, and so on.

Of course, I by no means believe that the authors I mentioned share those absurd notions. However, the regrettable tendency to look for non-Russian perpetrators of Russian misfortunes is widespread even in circles of the Soviet intellectual elite. This tendency is common to most Russian nationalists, both among writers, regardless of their literary genre or level of talent, and in academic circles. In my view, both this tendency, inevitably involving chauvinism, and the very fact of its popularity among certain intellectuals are very dangerous. In fact, I spoke about this at the Kennan Institute. Dr. Sakharov also noted that there is reason to assume that the KGB supports Russian nationalism to some extent—and that represents an additional, important danger.

Let me offer evidence for these statements. Astafyev refers, in his letter of 1987 to the Moscow historian Natan Eidelman, to “the seething pus of Jewish super-intellectual arrogance.” Is this one of the “very rare occasions [when] anything…could be cited as evidence of chauvinistic beliefs,” that Professor Parthé mentions? In the same letter, Astafyev writes: “As we [the Russians] rise again, we shall get to the point where we begin to sing our own songs, dance our own dances…. In our chauvinistic beliefs, we shall get to the point where the Pushkin and Lermontov scholars of our country will also be Russian and—terrifying to think—we ourselves will compile the collected works of our own classics…and—O horror, O nightmare!—we ourselves will provide the commentaries to Dostoevsky’s diaries.” Astafyev seems to suggest here that the fifth item (on official identity documents) about one’s nationality has up to now been impeding access to the scholarly world for Russians (not, as is more widely believed, for Jews and other non-Russians).^1

The other writer I mentioned, V. Rasputin, said at a meeting with readers on December 18, 1987: “I am not against a Museum of the Decembrists,2 but against a memorial to the Decembrists in Irkutsk designed by the Muscovite sculptor Shapiro. [Laughter, applause] …Among those who are ruining Lake Baikal is Volevkovich [a Jew], this is understandable. But not only Volevkovich, Zhavoronkov [is responsible] as well. And he’s a Russian!” So the quality of the memorial’s design and the attitude toward nature is determined by nationality. In my opinion, this is chauvinism. (Summary published in the weekly newspaper Russkaia mysl, Paris, February 12, 1988.)

The literary merits of V. Belov’s book Vse vperedi (Moscow, 1987) pale beside the xenophobia vividly expressed in it.

The kinds of appallingly chauvinistic forms assumed by Russian nationalism in other literary genres are convincingly shown in M. Kaganskaya’s interesting article, published in No. 11 (1986) and No. 2 (1987) of the journal Strana i mir. I strongly recommend this article to those doing research on contemporary Russian literature and to all interested parties. It shows that in such different genres as Village Prose and science fiction, the basic idea of the nationalists is the same—the special role of the Russian people in the world struggle between Good and Evil.

I sincerely wish Professor Parthé success in her work but it seems obvious that research into literature, including Village Prose, should not avoid the controversial issues mentioned here. I think that a writer’s affiliation to this literary trend, the merits of which in the rebirth of contemporary Russian literature are beyond doubt, should not inhibit scholars from conducting full, many-sided, and objective research.

  1. 2

    Military officers who staged an ill-fated coup attempt in 1825 following the death of Czar Alexander I (translator’s note).

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