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Vasily Shukshin – On Russia and Its People

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Vasily Shukshin – On Russia and Its People


In the mid-twentieth century, the spirit and voice of the Russian people, with all its power, made itself known in the works of the writer, actor and director Vasily Shukshin. “Living on the land are Russian people, and they chose one. He will speak for them all – retentive of the people’s memory, wise with its wisdom.” These words couldn’t be better suited to the man himself.


Shukshin’s life, which began eighty years ago, was typical of so many Soviet people. The son of peasants, he lived through the famine and cold of a village that had been subjected to dekulakization, as well as the difficulty of the war years. As the son of a repression victim, he knew how to make his way in life. Owing to his talent and his teachers, he was not only able to force his way though, but also to defend , but he defended the right to be himself.

His fate was an agonizing search for self and place in life. This search was inextricably linked with reflections on the history of the entire Russian people. His Soviet education did not erase in him the awareness of himself as a Russian man, as a national writer. It was on this path that his contribution was the most significant but also the least known.

Shukshin is often referred to as a village writer. Indeed, when he arrived in the capital, he was, in his own words, “a deeply rural man.” Shukshin still met with that moral lifestyle of the Russian peasantry, which was based on work, love of the land and a sense of truth and justice. The fall of a Russian village and the loss of its population was often accompanied by a break in values, which inflicted in him a feeling of personal pain. But the “village” in the narrow sense of the word was not what worried the writer.

The state of the soul and the fate of the Russian people were the main chord of his creative nerve. Objecting to the use of the term “village prose” with respect to those like-minded contemporaries (e.g., the writers Belov, Astafiev, Abramov and Rasputin), Shukshin stressed that “there is no mere problem of the village, but rather there is a problem of the Russian people, one which is common to the entire people, to the government.” “They praise us for our literary talent, not guessing or hiding that through us the Russian people are gaining their voice, exposing the brutish cultural making of fools” – this was how he responded on the meaning of life of writers of the “earth” movement, as well as on the meaning of his own life.

For Vasily Shukshin it was not an easy path from feelings of empathy for his heroes to the achievement of an awareness of the need to understand and synthesize the historical path of our people. “In my books and movies I have spoken only of those whom I know... I shared, as well as I could, my memories... Now is the time to go on the road to broader reflections. A new life and new courage are needed to open the new depths and complexities of life. I hope and believe that it’s in the future, my picture (and perhaps a book), which will be able to better comprehend the essence of the world, the time in which I live.” He did not have the time to realize this vision, though. But Shukshin’s creative work reveals his understanding on the history of Russia.

Shukshin connected this path with the fate of Russian people, and the roots he saw in the economics and ways of living in his native part – the peasantry. His evaluation of the Soviet period was unequivocal: having destroyed the village as the basis of this order, the Bolsheviks had destroyed the foundation of Russian statehood. Shukshin saw that the fate of the people was determined by the interaction of two factors: its spiritual potential and external influences (in particular the policies of the state). In these factors he distinguished between objective and subjective sides. The process of modernization was objective, which implied the inevitable transformation of peasant labor and the erosion of traditional values.

In the objective process, however, Shukshin distinguished between the activities of the state, which were not grounded by the interests of the people, and, therefore, something he could not accept. Included here was the policy of collectivization (as it was carried out), as well as the government’s policies in the village in the postwar decades.

The finale of Shukshin’s last film, The Red Snowball Tree, is filled with deep meaning. The resistance of the main character, Egor Prokudin, a man of thievish morals, ends with his murder – a symbol and allegory of the fate of Russian peasantry (and the Russian people?) in the twentieth century. “The circumstance, that he is killed by vindictive monsters as opposed to something else, is, perhaps, my miscalculation as an author, because in death there appears another, superficial sense,” Shukshin once commented. “As for his former cronies, here I do not want to smooth out the corners .... It is no coincidence that the ringleader said: ‘He was not a man, but a boor. There are a lot of them in Russia.’ You see, they are not simply killing a ‘reformed thief,’ they are killing a convinced opponent, an enemy, a laboring man standing in open opposition to them based on principles.”

In searching for the underlying causes of the processes taking place in the Russian people and the peasantry, Shukshin turned to history. The starting point for him was the second half of seventeenth century. It was then that the spiritual discord between the state and nation was laid; this discord was to become a characteristic of subsequent Russian history. In place of class representation an absolutism began to be endorsed. The Sobornoye Ulozheniye of 1649 finally established serfdom. Patriarch Nikon’s reforms generated centuries of spiritual and religious schism. It was on this soil that Peter I emerged to form a bureaucratic empire based on the Western values of the ruling class.

In the national memory this era is strongly associated with the name of Stepan Razin, a leader of the rebellion of 1670-1671, which became a response to these changes. “In Stepan Razin I am led by the same theme that began so long ago and right away – the Russian peasantry and its destiny,” Shukshin explained. “As soon as you have the earnest wish to understand the processes occurring in the Russian peasantry, you then get the irresistible urge to see them from the outside, from afar.”

After conceiving a novel and film about the national hero, Shukshin studied literature and documents and actually traveled to the places of the revolt. Shukshin saw the meaning of the war in the people’s effort to restore their desecrated liberty. For him the revolt’s leader personified “the focus of the national characteristics of the Russian people, forged together in one body, one soul. Razin was made the popular anointed one because he was the first to dash to the will of the universal, not the class, but the general,” he said.

The thought of Stepan Razin did not come to Shukshin accidentally. The strength of the Soviet state was built, in part, on the exploitation of the Russian regions, which in particular came in the guise of neglecting the country’s historical center. In the face of the divergent interests of the Russian people and the Soviet state, Shukshin turned to the figure of Razin as to the image of the people rising against the will of the state, which is actually alien to the aspirations of the people. It was important for him to recall how attempts to suppress freedom ended in Russia: external (labor) and internal (spiritual).

He did everything possible to obtain permission to film the production. However, the parallels to the contemporary situation were so obvious that implementation of Shukshin’s creative ideas sparked opposition. His novel about Stepan Razin – I Have Come To Give You Freedom – was released only after his death, but the movie was never filmed.

Shukshin never did drop the curtain in his reflections on the history of the Russian people. He never doubted in its future, but he did ask what kind of future it would be. “Russia has its own way. Its path is grave, even tragic, but not irredeemable ... We still don’t have anything to be proud of,” he said with pain. The social upheavals of the twentieth century showed that people were often unable to resist the destructive influences. But a person unfaithful to his spiritual foundation is a person condemned to death. Therefore, this is how the peasant-turned-thief Egor Prokudin suffers from terrible spiritual discord.

Amending the beginning of life’s structure is impossible, and the people are not obliged to prove their right to remain themselves. As if leaving his spiritual testament to us, his descendants and his countrymen, Vasily Shukshin wrote, “The Russian people chose its history, as well as maintained and erected a degree of respect for those human qualities that cannot be revisited: honesty, industry, conscientiousness, goodwill ... Through all our historical catastrophes we have maintained the great Russian language in its purity, as it was given to us by our fathers and grandfathers ... I am certain that everything was not in vain: our songs, our stories, the incredible burden of our victories, our suffering – do not give all this for a whiff of tobacco... We were able to live. Remember that. Be human.”

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