Valentin Rasputin
Valentin Rasputin; drawing by David Levine

Walter Benjamin made a once famous claim that the Nazis had “aestheticized” politics. Their emblems, uniforms, and parades were not just the sign of their beliefs and policies but identical with them. The Nazis were an obvious case, but it could be argued that the French revolutionaries saw themselves, and have subsequently been seen, in the same light: persons and styles of life that embodied, as well as expressed, the New Order and the New Man. Lenin was not in this sense an aesthete, but the system he founded rapidly acquired the same characteristics, grafted on to more ancient Russian reflexes; it became obsessed with the outward and visible signs of being Soviet Man, perpetually decent, heroically overfulfilling the norm, but also intensely status conscious, living in a world of aesthetic degree where badge and rank were all-important.

In such a world “defaming the motherland” or “slandering the Soviet State” logically becomes a charge of accepted gravity: the equivalent of slashing the Mona Lisa with a razor or spraying bad words over a two-million-dollar Van Gogh. To have contempt for Soviet manners was to help to destroy an important art form. Since Western society is not an art form, and has no pretension to be one, the citizens can say what they like about it and nobody cares. But in 1980 Vladimir Voinovich was warned by friendly KGB men that the Soviet people were running out of patience with the way he represented them, and so he accepted an invitation to join the faculty of the Institute of Fine Arts in Munich, where he still lives. None of his subversive work had of course been published in the Soviet Union, but it was known he had written it, as well as supported the human rights movement.

There is a certain irony, which Voinovich must have enjoyed, in leaving one work of “art”—Soviet Russia—and going to teach and study real art in a Western institution. But now all is changed—the Soviet art form has vanished. Voinovich’s novel The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, which slandered the Soviet army, is going to be published in Moscow, and so will be his new novella, The Fur Hat, which slanders, among other things, the Soviet Writers’ Union. In its famous rooms are heard such cases as that of

prose writer Nikitin, who had allowed a foreign publisher to publish his short novel From the Life of a Worm, which libelously depicted the Soviet people as worms. Nikitin himself swore that by worms he meant worms only, nothing more or less, and it was actually the truth, but of course no one believed him.

But this freedom to publish may well cause the publication itself to self-destruct—if the Mona Lisa has become just an incoherent mass of paint there is no point in slashing her. Voinovich himself must have anticipated the possible fate of the kind of satire he writes, and it is also ironic that the warning given him when he was a subversive writer in Moscow that his life in the Soviet Union might become “unbearable” has now backfired on those who gave the warning. What could be more unbearable for a decent Soviet man than to find the art form of which he formed a part has disappeared, that he is no longer represented—humane, brave, and idealistic—in a hundred novels and movies? A character in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed says that if God does not exist, all is permitted; and the same must be true of the figures in a Soviet picture when that picture is taken down from the wall. With nothing to cling to and no act to perform must he not become the victim of what the Czech novelist Milan Kundera called “the unbearable lightness of being”?

But not necessarily. Voinovich, like Andrei Sinyavsky and others, has long portrayed Soviet man as totally two-faced, saying and acting one thing and quietly doing another, paying lip service to socialism and its gleaming heights while tampering with the accounts and getting hold of foreign imports on the black market. Now there is a comfortable and understandable mode of life for you, which has been going on as long as the human race itself. The young ambitious idealists who know to behave and conform in order to get a good job in the Party or army, turn Lenin’s portrait to the wall when they meet to drink together; stuck to the other side of it is a picture of a famous courtesan of tsarist days. They are doing what healthy and sensible young men have always done—supporting the State and enjoying their own freedom: having it both ways.

Yet Russians have never found that simple tactic easy, and for “good” Soviet Russians it would be very painful indeed to accept and adjust to it. Better a Soviet Gotterdämmerung than an openly cynical and comfortable demoralized society. And in Valentin Rasputin’s novella The Fire the idea of such a Gotterdämmerung is both symbolized and openly suggested. It takes place in a small town on the Angara river in Northern Siberia, a wretched town of shoddy concrete high-rise buildings put together for the people evacuated from the old settlements on the banks of the Angara itself. A huge dam has been constructed for hydroelectric power, and the river, which flows northward from Lake Baikal, has flooded everywhere for miles along its banks. (An even more radical scheme for changing the course of the Siberian rivers is, or was, “being debated” by Kremlin experts.)


“The fire next time…” No doubt Rasputin had heard of that idea. Demoralized and dispossessed, the inhabitants of the new settlement allow its huge storehouse, which holds all the winter supplies, to catch fire, and concentrate chiefly on saving the vodka. Formerly self-reliant farmers, they have been now put to destroying the adjacent forests by unscientific logging; and only a few old taiga hands like Ivan Petrovich, the story’s hero, are still capable of representing the proper sort of Soviet exemplar. The threat to the environment has now turned into a global dilemma, and although Rasputin is apt to be sentimental about the wise old Siberian hands who loved and preserved their fauna and forests, he admits that the modern Siberian destroys his environment as thoughtlessly as the State itself, if not so systematically.

The Fire continues from an earlier tale called Farewell to Matyora, the name of an island engulfed by the artificial lake. Significantly it is its heroine, Darya, and the older women who try to maintain a dignity and continuity of existence, and even to try to preserve the graves of their ancestors from the old settlement. Rasputin, who makes frequent references throughout his work to religious and superstitious belief, both Russian orthodoxy and Siberian shamanism, has disclaimed any allegiance to the rituals of the Church, but has professed a closeness to “the philosophy of old women.” Crumbling into an increasing unsureness of himself, the Soviet hero can still rely on his old mother, the pre-Soviet heroine.

As a townsman of Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia, he seems to feel a certain gloomy pride in the sturdy backwardness of the Russian people—their inability to produce sophisticated and slippery political operators. He is not a Communist, but he thinks the Party is needed now to offer some kind of reassurance to the ancient desire for authority of the old Russian narod. More disquietingly, Rasputin has said that though he feels no ill will toward the Jews, they should be required to repent of their sin in killing Christ, and of their part in the “ritual murder” of Nicholas II, the last tsar. To persecute them would be quite wrong, he has said, but good manners nonetheless demand such a gesture on their part. As if this potentially incendiary talk of ritual murder were not enough, there are other sinister aspects to the “primitivism” in Rasputin’s outlook. He is one of the band of ethnic Russians who feel themselves to be beleaguered by vociferous minorities in their own country, and he is keen on preserving Russian “integrity” in a manner that can hardly help to remind us of the “Aryan purity” associated with Nazi Germany.

In their selection and introduction to Rasputin’s stories, his essays on Baikal and Siberia, his critical pieces on such Siberian authors as Shukshin and Vampilov, the editors do not deal with his prejudiced nationalistic attitudes toward Jews and others but they have done an otherwise excellent job, and Rasputin seems to be an author who deserves it, despite the sinister side to his thinking I have mentioned. The American idiom that has crept into the translation hardly seems to suit him, however; and it is not easy to see what the real quality of his writing is. Stories like Farewell to Matyora, The Fire, and French Lessons, are unquestionably impressive, and their Siberian setting gives them a kind of independence of outlook and a freshness of manner not often found in the familiar genre of Soviet realism.

His first story, “I Forgot to Ask Lyoshka,” is about three young men building a road through the taiga who find that their friend Lyoshka is injured by a falling tree. The foreman will not allow them a truck to evacuate him, and as they carry him to the settlement they discuss the priorities of building communism or taking thought for individuals. Such a debate—itself by no means improbable in a Russian setting—is by now fairly familiar as an orthodox Soviet theme in fiction, but Rasputin manages to give it his own kind of authenticity and poignancy, especially as the closure is not conventional: Lyoshka dies before they can get him home.


In French Lessons, based apparently on an episode from Rasputin’s own childhood, a young boy from the taiga is sent to a town school, and attracts the attention of a woman French teacher. The title and theme would suggest in a Western setting a conventional sexual situation, explored with more or less delicacy; but Rasputin convincingly suggests that the developing relationship has nothing sexual about it. The boy, who never gets enough to eat, is interested in food, while the woman, herself a town dweller, is intrigued by his primitive background and expectations, as well as by an odd game with stones in which she feels a longing to share. Divorced, experienced, anxiously full of kultura like most young Soviet women, she feels the urge to enter childhood again and engage in primeval ritual. After she leaves she sends the boy macaroni, which he has heard of as a great delicacy, and three red Kuban apples. “Until then I’d only seen pictures of apples, but I guessed that’s what they were.” So the story ends.

It may be that Soviet authors find tradition and patterning even harder to avoid than their Western counterparts do. For all his feeling and intelligence Rasputin does not entirely escape the guidelines prescribed and conditioned by a Soviet background, but his combination of thoughtful writing with an unusual viewpoint—“the philosophy of old women”—makes everything he writes original and likeable. In total contrast is Voinovich, the sophisticated emigré who yet has in common with Rasputin the difficulty of detaching his writing from a preformed and prestressed convention—in Voinovich’s case that of the hilarious satire on all aspects of Soviet custom and practice. In a sense this satire is too easy, and in some cases lends itself to the kind of free-wheeling irony that spins off into a fantasy that can become interminable, risking tedium and self-indulgence. Even such an accomplished and civilized writer as Sinyavsky (Abram Tertz) shows symptoms of this in his Fantastic Stories and in his political allegory The Makepeace Experiment.

Voinovich has a much lighter touch, and The Fur Hat is an enchanting and delightful tour de force, mixing Gogolian poetry with Jewish humor. The satire is obvious and its convention familiar, but that is not really the point. As Dostoevsky said, Russian prose—especially fantasy prose—comes out from under Gogol’s Overcoat, and The Fur Hat borrows not only Gogol’s inspiration but some of his properties. Yefim Rakhlin is a successful Soviet author who has written eleven books of Soviet-style adventure, with titles like Tanker! and Arctic!, in which decent and fearless people struggle with the elements for the sake of Soviet progress and achievement. Yefim is not a good writer, but he actually believes in his decent and fearless people, and this helps to get him medals and increase his sales. But a moment comes when the Writers’ Union decides to distribute complimentary fur hats to all its members, graded downward from reindeer fawn for the most distinguished; and to his intense chagrin Yefim receives only an order for one fur hat—tomcat, domestic, fluffy—an allocation so humble that it should go only to desperate young writers who hawk unpublishable manuscripts about Stalingrad or the steppes. The scene with the official who allocates the hats is among the funniest in recent fiction.

Yefim is like all of us, only more so; and he shares with his great prototype, Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich, the power to move a reader to tears even as he laughs. As status symbols a new overcoat or a fur hat are identifiable by all mankind. But Voinovich is no sentimentalist: his fun never draws attention to a meaning, even as it produces its most engaging paradoxes. In one of Yefim’s most popular novels, Ore!, a member of a geological expedition breaks his leg and at first tries to conceal the fact, and even asks to be left behind, since a much-needed vein of ore has been discovered,

and if the state badly needs it, it is more precious to him than his own life. (For decent people, something is always more precious than their own lives.) The hero is naturally rebuked by his decent comrades…. They do not abandon him, they do not shoot him, they do not eat him.

At this point the narrator abandons the manuscript in despair, while reflecting on the mystery that the man who can believe and write all this is an avid listener to the BBC and loves nothing more than to hear about the ups and downs of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Chagrin disintegrates poor Yefim. He resolves to smuggle a book to the West. The narrator slyly advises him to put some sex in it, preferably homosexuality, which is greatly favored in Western novels. Accordingly, in Operation! the navigator is found in bed with the first mate, and the cook sleeps with anyone on a routine basis. But Yefim has no luck. That is reserved for the cunning Mylnikov, whose books have become steadily more popular in the West. He gets good reviews in the Times and the Manchester Guardian, where he is called a latter-day Chekhov (a nice swipe at the reflexes of Western critics), and at Yefim’s funeral he recites into the narrator’s ear, “neglecting no detail, an article about him that had been published in The New York Review of Books.”

This Issue

March 15, 1990