Siberian Writer Valentin Rasputin Fears for the Planet's Fate

Like such talented American environmental writers as Edward Hoagland and John McPhee, Siberian novelist Valentin Rasputin is a voice crying in the wilderness. In his most famous book, Farewell to Matyora, Rasputin chronicled the end of an ancient Siberian village, flooded by a dam for a new hydroelectric plant and its villagers forcibly resettled in a new town. It is a work of astonishing power, with great resonance for the Soviets, whose massive drive to modernize and compete with the West has led to vast destruction of the environment and traditional values. As Matyora’s peasants gather for the village’s last, bittersweet harvest, one of the old women thinks, “Ah, how kind and good we all are when considered separately, and what senseless and great evil we create together—as if on purpose.”

That message made the 1976 publication of Matyora a creative and professional watershed for Rasputin—and perhaps for the entire Soviet Union. One of the most talented and influential of a literary group known as the derevenshchiki or “village writers,” Rasputin (no kin to the notorious “holy man” of the same name) had previously plumbed the vital, disappearing values of old Russia with his short stories and novels. In Matyora (published in the U.S. in 1979) Rasputin went one step further. He assumed a bold, critical stance toward dehumanizing aspects of the Soviet system, specifically its treatment of Siberia as a colony to be raped for its rich resources. “I wrote Matyora consciously to show what was happening to the natural environment,” says Rasputin, 50, who lives with his wife and two children, Maria and Sergei, and Sergei’s wife and child, in a sprawling apartment in Irkutsk. “We don’t realize how important nature is in our moral, spiritual and physical creation. Every change or destruction of nature is also the change and destruction of man.”

The authorities of the state-controlled Union of Writers were disturbed by Rasputin’s message—and by the mystical vibrancy of his writing—and he was ordered to appear before the Central Committee of the Communist Party. “They told me that they didn’t like my book, but they would not interfere in its being published or read,” he recalls. The rebuke was surprisingly mild, but authorities were somewhat harsher with director Yelem Klimov’s film, Farewell, based on the novel. They refused to send it to the 1982 Cannes film festival.

“No, I don’t know why they did that,” answers Rasputin one afternoon at home. His wife of 26 years, Svetlana, an economist, pours tea (“When people used to offer tea, they usually meant vodka,” interjects Rasputin. “Now it’s always tea”) before leaving to go to work. “When the censors wanted to prohibit something and there was no basis for it,” Rasputin continues, “they would claim ‘uncontrollable second meaning.’ ”

Rasputin’s passionate concern with the environment—for 20 years he has led the battle to protect Lake Baikal—grew from the fate of his own Siberian village of Ust-Uda. “It was right on the banks of the Angara River, a remarkable river, very clean, very pretty,” he says. “I don’t think I was even 1 year old when I started to fish. Now, three hydropower stations have been built on the Angara, and a fourth is under construction. These are tragic changes.”

Rasputin, the elder son of office workers, was the only one of their three children his parents could afford to send to nearby Irkutsk State University. (“Now I see how much easier it is for my brother and sister to live without higher education. I envy them,” he laughs.) He graduated with a degree in Russian language and literature and decided to became a journalist. Ironically, one of his beats was the construction of the power stations on the Angara. “At first, I, too, was in favor of them,” he says. “But the more I read, the more I understood that the cost of this [cheap] energy did not include the destruction of the land and water. I tried to write about this, but the newspapers would not print the stories. After seven years I left. I wanted to write my own views about this problem.”

Rasputin published several collections of stories, then in 1966 an acclaimed first novel, Money for Maria. He received the U.S.S.R. State Prize for his third novel, Live and Remember, about a soldier who deserts during WWII. All the while he was working on his opus, Farewell to Matyora. Explains Rasputin: “It took me 10 years to become sure of myself as a writer and to be sure I could describe that problem in a way that would move people.”

Like many Soviets, Rasputin chooses to pass over his personal troubles in silence. During our conversation about his life and work, he never mentioned that seven years ago he was brutally beaten by five hoodlums at his apartment house entrance. Demanding his blue jeans, they pounded him with brass knuckles and inflicted a severe brain concussion. Says an American friend, Gerald Mikkelson, professor of Russian literature at the University of Kansas and translator of a volume of Rasputin’s works to be published this year: “He needed several operations. For at least a year he couldn’t write. Finally, in 1981 he began. Even after that, he went through a spiritual and creative crisis.”

There is an air of quiet tragedy about Valentin Rasputin; the damage he has seen perpetrated on people and nature seems to prevent any false optimism. He is working on two nonaction works, an ethnographic study of Siberia and a history of the fight over the pollution of Lake Baikal. And he has more fierce warnings to sound. His latest novella, The Fire (see box), concerns a huge blaze in a town similar to the one where Matyora’s villagers were relocated. The villains of the story are “guest workers,” riffraff, scornful of the locals and their values, whom the Soviets typically bring in to clear-cut the virgin forest. “It’s a scathing critique,” says Mikkelson. “It carries his idea about the destruction of a spiritual culture to the extreme. There’s very little hope in it for any return to what’s valuable in Russian culture.”

In this context, Rasputin says that he is cautiously waiting to see how Gorbachev’s glasnost will affect his beloved Siberia. “This policy of openness is needed to name the people responsible for past mistakes,” he insists. “Remember, we had openness once before with Krushchev, but things didn’t progress too far because we didn’t want to take responsibility for all the mistakes.” Like his fictional villagers, Rasputin embodies a peculiar Russian fatalism. “We will know in a few years,” he says. “Either everything will be possible, or everything will be absolutely impossible.”

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