Russian Village Prose Writers and the Soviet Collapse

The Russian literary style of village prose came about in the late 1950s in response to reforms in the Stalinist era, such as urbanization, collectivization, and modernization. It, from this perspective, dealt greatly with romanticizing the regressive ways, and the desire for regression of the Russian peasantry, many of whom were displaced by Stalin’s reign. This took on a kind of desire for peasant traditions: religion, simplicity, and a kind of natural unity, thus placing these village writers, whether or not they intended to be there, in with the Russian nationalist movement. This movement, of which a great deal was these village writers, as they were an accessible manifestation of the movement, played its largest role in contesting Gorbachev to bring about the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The tradition of village prose as a political manifestation arose as somewhat of a retort to socialist realism, and yet both of these movements fluctuated around very similar political events. The influences of the village prose writers were not different from those of the social realist writers. The response was, in general, directed toward the Stalinistic modernization and collectivization, and the changes that were made to the Soviet Union as a result. However, unlike the social realists, the perspective of the village writings, emerging well after the death of Stalin, was completely inverted, representing the industrialization as an unfavorable turn of events, rather than an aspiration.

It is natural that this kind of sentiment would arise through the situation of the villagers. “Tens of millions of people left the countryside and moved into the towns to live permanently. In the process much that was characteristic of peasant life was destroyed. The manner in which the collectivization of agriculture was carried out certainly made this breakdown of peasant life sharper and more bitter than it has been in almost any other country.” There is, on the part of the writers a desire to if not genuinely affect the situation that the peasants are placed in, to report upon it, as was done often through a documentary, only half-fictionalized “sketch,” of village life. This kind of sentiment also follows in a tradition, as can be seen in the likes of Vera Figner, of the Russian intelligentsia being recruited to assist and try to be representative of the peasantry. The defense by the village writers on behalf of the peasants seems to take on, very much, this kind of defensive tone, even though recycled into more modernized terms: “They insisted that the peasant should retain his special psychological identityâÂ?¦In investigating the peasant ‘soul,’ writers were motivated by sympathy for the underdog, unfairly treated and exploited.”

What the village prose writers attempted to do was to sentimentalize village and rural life, in much the same way that the social realists idealized technology and progress. The village writers represented this technology as being in conflict with traditional values. This theme-the conflicting nature of the old-fashioned and the new-is paramount in Solzhenitsyn’s short story, one of the earlier, and seminal influences upon the village prose style, “Matryona’s House.” The conflict here even goes so far as being stated outright rather directly by Solzhenitsyn through the mouthpiece of the old village woman Matryona: “When she heard on the radio that some new machine had been invented, she grumbled from the kitchen, ‘Nothing but newfangled things these days. People won’t want to go on working with the old machines, so where’ll they put them all?'” Here, the peasant setting is used to highlight the side of a conflict previously represented in the social realist tradition. Solzhenitsyn is showing, rather simply, the drawbacks of modernization.

This conflict became less outright, through the development of the style past this singular conflict, into a fairly distinct idealization of the peasant villagers as representative of a more pure Russian nature. “For some writers, emphasis on the moral importance of the peasant’s intimate contact with the land became strongly tinged with a kind of wistful idealization of Russian rural existence.” This can be seen in the writings of Vasily Shukshin, and Valentin Rasputin, two noted writers of village prose. The works of both of these writers seem to be more elaborate, and perhaps a good bit more conflicted than Solzhenitsn’s very clear cut answer to the question of progress, however, these texts, interestingly, seem to create a portrayal of a peasant culture far more archaic than that of Solzhenitsyn’s “Matryona.”

One of Rasputin’s texts, Farewell to Matyora, depicts an old-fashioned, elderly set of peasants, set during, more or less, the height of the Stalin era, who mourn the loss of their threatened village – Rasputin perhaps makes a statement regarding the sweeping force of the Stalin in that the village is not only to be abandoned, but to be completely effaced in the flood from a hydroelectric dam. However, the text is also threaded with younger characters, desirous of a move into the future, or at least far more questioning of the peasant ways, so as to genuinely explore the questions presented by the changes: “I think that Mother clutches pointlessly to the past, but how different am I? But Mother has lived her time, and I still have t to work and live. I understand that you can’t build the new on an empty spot and that you can’t get it out of thin air, that you have to give it something dear and familiar, that you have to put in no little effort.” Despite this, the judgment seems to have already been made-the overall tone of the novel tends to be extracted from a kind of idealized peasant dialogue. Reactions to most of the events that take place in the novel come filtered mainly through a “peasantized” lens, giving not only a kind of stoic reaction to change, like that of Solzhenitsyn’s villagers, but rather a kind of validation of the peasant tradition as viable and true, even though under attack.

“The village Matyora slept. The old women dreamed dry, anxious dreams which came down to them secondhand, but the women didn’t know about that. Only at night, casting off from solid land, the living and the dead meet-the dead come to them in body and word and ask for the truth in order to pass it on even further, to those who they remember.”
As can be seen, regardless of the stance that is taken regarding the morality and value of the Stalinist movement, the village mentality, whose idiom is used throughout the text, and taken as being as viable as the characters. Almost everything, from houses to samovars are personified, and given spirit, and the entire peasant experience is romanticized through this inhabiting of the village superstition by the author.

Shukshin writes in very much the same fashion. His writing, oddly, takes very little in the way of blatant political or social position like Solzhenitsyn, and yet he still very much presents a rather romantic vision of peasant life, including superstition, like Rasputin, and imbuing a religious sensibility in his villagers. In his short story, “Strangers,” he quotes at very extreme length a passage from a book about Tsarist generals, uniting this with a portrait of the life of a late village cattle herder by the name of Uncle Yemelan. Shukshin relates an almost impressionistic description of the life of Yemelan, and even editorializes, creating a idyllic, if sarcastic depiction of Russia:

“I tell myself over and over again that, after all, they are children of one people, even if it might make me furious, and yet it doesn’t. Both of them have been lying in the earth nowâÂ?¦But what would it be like if they met somewhere over there? After all, I imagine that there are neither epaulets nor jewels over there. Nor palaces either, or mistresses, nothing like that at all. Two Russian souls would meet. And yet even there they’d have nothing to talk about, that’s the thing. You see, once strangers, always strangers-forever and ever. Vast and great is our Mother Russia!”

Here, while being somewhat facetious, he is nevertheless attempting to, at very least bring to light the discrepancy regarding the state of the Soviet Union, resignfully mourning the disparity that has existed amongst Russians. However, this equality is not based upon anything other than ties to Russia; he is mourning that “two Russian souls” have nothing to discuss, not Soviet citizens.

Shukshin’s writing also encompasses the defunct Russian tradition of religion, in much the same way as he deals with this tsarist reference, with sarcasm, yet some level of serious consciousness regarding the topic with which he is dealing. His story “I Believe!’ actively analyzes the contradiction between the Soviet atheism and the traditional Russian Orthodoxy. In the story, Shukshin describes the nature of resignment toward the conflict between modern Communist values, and the historical Russian-in the words of Shukshin’s own priest character: “So, then, the idea of Christ sprang out of the desire to overcome evil. Otherwise, what would we need Christ for? Picture this: good has triumphed. Christ has triumphed. But then, what do we need him for now? The need for him passes. So, Christ is not something eternal and abiding, but rather he is a temporary means, like the dictatorship of the proletariat.” This is much like the mixed messages which are presented in Rasputin. The priest declares this debasement of the religious system, while at the same time exercizing historical tradition in part, using peasant cures, drinking glass after glass of rendered badger fat in order to cure his illness. The reader also sees these characters as the opposites of the ideal they are supposed to attain, the priest proposes a religion that is based upon nothing at all, neither Communism nor traditional Orthodoxy. This reflects upon the passive peasant attitudes, illustrating that a resigned attitude proves the easiest way out, but in his sarcastic way, painting shallow characters, Shukshin seems to be in advocation of the abandonment of a passive peasant role, and to mobilize the peasantry to try and rectify their circumstances, rather than try and create a new, fused culture.

It is, thusly, not difficult to see that this form of writing is certainly conducive to joining in with the nationalist tradition in Russia. The style deals with a uniquely Russian population, and looks to them in a way that tries to unify the villages, the authors, and the readers in a way that avoids Soviet factors. Unified Russian nationality, shown in a romanticized way serves this purpose. The fact that the villagers are identified as being so archaic brings this to light as well; traits of the villagers predating the Communists are discussed at great length in the village prose texts: Orthodox religion, pagan superstition, tsarist rule, and so on, all showing, even if not necessarily attempting to, the roots of the Russian people, in a very romanticized way. “In hunting and describing the traces of a vanishing antiquity in folk customs and songs, and in praising of medieval icon painting and church architecture, writers were also engaged in a search for historical continuity through the rehabilitation of pristine Russian culture.” This trend by the village writers, Brown states, unifies them with the nationalistic trend that is seemingly omnipresent in Russia at all times to some degree or another.

This nationalism, of which village prose is a significant portion, comes to play, once more, a significant role in Russian politics around the time of the village right around the time of the village writers. It through “inclusionary politics” on the part of Brezhnev’s regime, in response to a set of nationalist intelligentsia, which places the village writers in a position of prominence, despite its criticality of the Soviet policies. “The Brezhnev program’s attempt to co-opt village prose and other Russian nationalist intellectuals was a direct response to the decline of the mobilizational power of the official Marxist-Leninist ideology and an attempt to strengthen the regime’s legitimacy and its mobilizational power.” This inclusion, ironically, into the nationalist movement seems to be based upon an unintentional relationship between the themes of village prose and nationalism, though not always, as seems to be the case with Rasputin: “The nationalist writer Valentin Rasputin was the first to propose (jokingly, some have said) in 1989 that Russia should “secede from the union.” He became actively involved in politics during the Gorbachev era. This movement, while it did not maintain this kind of political favor under the Brezhnev regime, this temporary backing still bolstered the village writing, and the national sentiments that when along with it, for the people: “A variety of developments in the Brezhnev yearsâÂ?¦the mildly subversive work of poet-bards like Vladimir Vysotsky and the “village prose” writers – certainly conditioned the reception of Gorbachev’s reforms.”

It was in the Gorbachev era that this Russian nationalism plays its most important role, which is involved highly in the collapse of the Soviet state. Due in large part to the relaxed policies of Gorbachev, nationalistic dissent, exacerbated highly by Brezhnev’s inclusionary policies several years prior. “Unlike other nationalisms in the Soviet republics, Russian nationalism did not involve mass ethnic mobilization against the center. Instead, it was confined to a narrow circle of elites, especially Yeltsin and his supporters, who used nationalist rhetoric and arguments to wrest legitimacy from Gorbachev as head of the Soviet Union and to argue for a preponderant Russian state that would eclipse the Soviet regime.” This nationalistic force proves in large part, according to Tuminez, to be too much for Yeltsin to control either: “Yeltsin and his entourage did not realize until too late that their espousal of Russian nationalism and a preponderant role for Russia would deal a fatal blow to the Soviet state (as opposed to the Soviet regime). Yeltsin managed to exact his revenge against Gorbachev, but at the cost of losing the Soviet Union… The large majority of Russians proved indifferent to the cause of empire, being unconvinced of its value and unwilling to act or make sacrifices for its maintenance. In essence, Russian elites and masses both lost the will to preserve the empire and ended up defecting from it.” This nationalistic movement that has been created is most certainly a forceful, and a lasting one, and indeed is capable of causing problems, as stated by Kotkin at great length, and has caused all of the problems that the nationalist movements in Russia have faced, such as internal contest from within, forcing a new form of authoritarianism to maintain control, and also issues with foreign ethnicities, such as the Chechens, which seem to be rooted in a large way in the nationalistic self-image of the Russian people.

The village prose movement, lasting through the mid-twentieth century in Russia, though it developed as a Stalinist response, trying to combat the movements of industrialization and modernization, and even so simple as an attempt to merely portray the rapidly-dwindling peasant villager. This form of literature was eventually, through its regressive desires, united with the Russian nationalism, searching for just this type of link to join between historical Russians. During Brezhnev’s regime, the village writers were recognized along with a political movement toward nationalism. It was this recognition of the nationalists and the village writers which contributed to the overall overthrow of Gorbachev, and the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union.

Works used here: Brown, Deming. Soviet Literature Since Stalin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (1978). 219. Brudny, Yitzhak M. Reinventing Russia: Russian Nationalism and the Soviet State, 1953-1991. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press. (1998). 60. Hosking, Geoffrey. Beyond Socialist Realism. London: Granada Publishing. (1980). 50-1. Rasputin, Valentin. Farewell to Matyora. Trans. Bouis, Antonina W. Evanston: Northeastern Univ. Press. (1979). 82. Shukshin, Vasily. “I Believe!” Stories From a Siberian Village. DeKalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press. (1996). 14. Shukshin, Vasily. “Strangers.” Stories from a Siberian Village. DeKalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press. (1996). 208. Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. “Matryona’s House.” Stories and Prose Poems. Trans. Glenny, Michael. New York: Farrar, Strouse, and Giroux. (1971). 24. Strayer, Robert W. “Decolonization, Democratization, and Communist Reform: The Soviet Collapse in Comparative Perspective.” Journal of World History. 12.2 (2001). Tuminez, Astrid S. Nationalism, Ethnic Pressures, and the Breakup of the Soviet Union. Journal of Cold War Studies. 5.4 (2003).

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