Writer Rasputin laments loss of Russian identity

July 06, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

Moscow -- Valentin Rasputin lives deep in Russia, on the edge of Siberia, pressing a thousand years of conquering czars and toiling peasants close to his soul.

Mr. Rasputin, a writer who is nearly as famous inside Russia as Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn is outside the country, holds dear the vision of an intensely spiritual nation, cleansed by centuries of suffering.

As he writes and speaks about the kind of Russia he wants to emerge from the chill grasp of the Soviet years, he watches unhappily as Snickers candy bar wrappers flutter across the streets of Irkutsk, where he lives. The television series "Santa Barbara" can be seen there six times a week.

Western, especially American, culture and commerce have penetrated deep into eternal Russia, with all the restraint of an assault by the Marines.

Not only is television heavy on American soap operas and such third-run movies as "Werewolf, The Apocalypse," it's also chock full of commercials, selling an instant American lifestyle in the world's least instant country. The commercials serve up instant meals, instant beauty and instant happiness through relentless ads for boxed mashed potatoes, shampoo, and soap and candy bars.

When Mr. Rasputin has returned the fire, defending his vision of a Russia untainted by the West, he finds himself variously criticized and praised for being a zealous nationalist.

Nationalism has been the yeast leavening a rising Russian assertiveness, one keenly felt in international affairs in the last months. As a result, Russia has insisted on taking a strong, visible hand in Bosnia. It was quick to interfere with wounded pride in negotiations with North Korea.

Much of the world fears that this impulse will lead Russia toward attempts to re-establish its empire in Georgia and other former Soviet republics on its borders.

As one voice in the nationalist chorus here, Mr. Rasputin speaks with more care than Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who shouts that Russian soldiers will soon be washing their boots in the Indian Ocean.

But Mr. Rasputin speaks for the millions of Russians who feel deeply humiliated by their hasty descent from superpowerdom. He shares their revulsion of a government where nearly every official is considered corrupt.

To understand him, perhaps, is to understand a powerful force at the heart of Russian politics today.

"Russia must rise from its knees and get back the respect of the international community," Mr. Rasputin said in an interview here in Moscow. Russia, he said, should accomplish this task alone, ++ without handouts from the West.

"After World War II, Russia was in very bad condition," he said, "but we were able to rebuild in a very short time. A common symbol of nationhood can be the source for that kind of energy.

"With that kind of energy, the country could restore order, put an end to robbery, get rid of Mafia structures. The people would understand the future is in their hands, and they would stop stealing small parts of property and putting it into their pockets.

"Even upright people, when they see that the country is being robbed, are trying to steal a part of it for themselves."

Mr. Rasputin, who said Russia was meant to be a land where people look out for each other and where they celebrate their literature, their religion and cultural institutions, is dismayed by what he sees as a wildness around him -- much of it pouring in from the West.

He sees crime, pornography and prostitution and feels a corruption of the national spirit.

"It is necessary to pass a law to protect morality," he said. "Everyone must consider himself a clean and morally and spiritually fulfilled person. After that, the wave of dissipation and debauchery and changing people into a kind of depraved animal will be stopped."

In his novel "Farewell to Matyora" and in a collection of essays and stories, "Siberia on Fire," Mr. Rasputin was a voice of dissent in the Soviet days. While other writers were praising the giant dams and factories that tore through Siberia as the greatest progress, Mr. Rasputin was lamenting the ecological damage and cost to traditional ways of life.

But for him, the death of communism brought not a return of the true Russia but the imposition of yet another foreign lifestyle.

"We are not better than other people," he said. "We are simply different. I am speaking these words as a Russian nationalist. Maybe we are even worse than many other nations. But it is impossible to accept others' ways of living. First we were forced into communism; now we're forced into wild capitalism."

Mr. Rasputin defines nationalism as emphasizing self-respect.

"It contains knowledge of history, culture and defense of the country, including defense of the ecology of the country," he said. "But it does not mean trying to elevate my own nation by suppressing other nations. That is insulting and not right."

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