Writer's inkwell runs dry as Russia embraces 'ruin'

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

July 08, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

IRKUTSK, Russia -- There are 45 members in the Writers Union in this city of 600,000, which sounds like a pretty high novelist-per-capita ratio, but only one of them has a serious reputation that extends beyond this corner of eastern Siberia.

And even he isn't doing much writing these days, afflicted as he is with a discouragement, a post-Soviet letdown, that borders on despair.

He is Valentin Grigorievich Rasputin, a novelist and short-story writer whose world has been torn asunder by the collapse of the very system that once persecuted him.

Mr. Rasputin was one of those who tried to keep a small light burning during the dark Soviet night. He stood up for what he saw as the tra- ditional strengths and unique traits of Russia, of its land and of its people. He lived under a regime that took literature so seriously -- as a threat -- that it once sent police goons to beat him bloody.

That beating was a testament, in a way, to the power of art -- or so, at least, it seemed at the time.

"We thought literature could take the place of religion," Mr. Rasputin says. "But no. Nothing has ever come of it. We were mistaken when we thought literature had some moral and spiritual effect on the people. And this has been very hard."

To Mr. Rasputin's dismay, the collapse of the Soviet system did not lead to a moral rebirth of a traditional Russia, but to a ragtag commercial spirit that seems to favor the scoundrels of the world.

"We are in the dirt now, morally," he says.

He was hailed at one time, though somewhat condescendingly, as an outstanding "village writer." His theme was Siberia and the Siberians. After the town where he was born was flooded by a giant hydroelectric project, he became an impassioned environmental writer, frequently speaking out in defense of Lake Baikal. His best-known work in English is the book "Siberia on Fire."

He has never trusted the worldly outlook of Moscow, 3,000 miles to the west, and with the rebirth of Russian politics in the last decade, Mr. Rasputin found himself among the hardest of nationalists.

He has been accused of being an anti-Semite, a label that he wearily rejects. But he makes no apologies for his beliefs.

"Yes, I am a Russian nationalist," he says, "but a cultural one, not a political one. Patriotism is a state notion. But cultural nationalism is the preservation of traditions, uniting people. It is a way for the people to understand themselves, to work for themselves, to overcome their faults. What we need is a reconstruction of our people as one body. And I don't mean at the expense of other people. But each culture must respect itself and its values.

"I consider the people of Russia as a spiritual instrument, and this spiritual instrument has been ruined. It will take dozens of years to reconstruct the spirituality of the people -- maybe even 70 years [as long as the Communists held sway]. Of course, Russia will arise, and it will be renewed, but at what price?"

Mr. Rasputin likened nationalism to a strong dose of medicine. It's what Russia needs now, he says, because Russia is so sick, but someday, Russia not only will do without the nationalism but should do without it.

"Here we have a lot of people mixed together," he says. "In each Russian there is a mixture of various bloods. One cannot define a Russian by blood test. To be Russian is a spiritual notion. As soon as we're cured as a nation, we'll abandon the idea of nationalism."

But the cure is not in sight. His voice, which could not be stilled by the police apparatus of the Soviet Union, has fallen silent now in dismay at the unworthiness of his fellow citizens.

"With the situation today, I just don't feel like writing," he said. "If I feel like writing, I start writing. I sit down at the table and start. But I can't force myself. You see, the Russians as a people are ruined."

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