As a young writer Vladimir Soloukhin earned his living by turning out essays for the popular journal Ogonek (Little flame) on topics chosen by his editors. Little of enduring interest remains from these early efforts. His career as a serious essayist began in the early 1960s, after, as he has written, his “eyes were opened” to the Soviet regime’s distortion of Russia’s pre-Soviet past.
The scope and technique of Soloukhin’s mature work cannot be understood without reference to the Communist Party’s literary apparatus and its methods of rewarding, punishing, and censoring writers. The same agencies that awarded him the State Prize of the Russian Republic in 1979 and the Red Banner of Labor on his 60th birthday in 1984, and that elevated him to high office in the Writers’ Union and enabled him to travel widely outside the U.S.S.R., would also censure journals publishing his more offensive
essays, and threatened him with expulsion from the Party and from the Writers’ Union for having written and published the series of short essays Nenapissanye rasskazy (1985; Stories not written). And when the essays collected under the title Vremia sobirat’ kamni (1980; A Time to Gather Stones) were published as a book, all 70,000 copies were sent to library reserve collections, so as not to fall into the hands of readers.
The essays of his mature years are almost all devoted to the same theme—that of recovering a past discarded and derided by Lenin’s heirs. The task of bringing that past to the Soviet reader leads Soloukhin to test the essay’s capacity for concealing offending truths in ostensibly acceptable discourse.
Mikhail Epstein has observed (After the Future, 1995) that the essay approaches its subject obliquely. This is true of Soloukhin’s essays, where paradox must take the place of forthright assertion of propositions. Thus in Poseshchenie Zvanki (1975; A visit to Zvanka) he finds the remains of the poet Gavriil Romanovich Derzhavin re-interred by the Soviet authorities under a tombstone identifying him as “an Actual Privy Councillor and Bearer of Many Decorations.” This is the same Derzhavin who provided Russia’s greatest field marshal with the epitaph “Here Lies Suvorin.” The contrast speaks eloquently, if obliquely, of the decline in the literary climate.
It is characteristic of Soloukhin’s essays that they begin on one theme, which turns out to be merely a device facilitating passage to the real theme. Chernye doski (1966; Searching for Icons in Russia) begins with the theme of collecting as an avocation, but eventually the reader sees that the real topic is the role of religious art in traditional Russian culture. Similarly, A Time to Gather Stones begins with a discussion of the Optina Pustyn Monastery’s importance for the writings of Dostoevskii and Tolstoi, whereas the real subject of the essay is the institution of elders within Russian monasticism. Bol’shoe Shakhmatovo (1979; Greater Shakhmatovo) begins with reference to plans for marking the centenary anniversary of Aleksandr Blok’s birth. In fact, the essay celebrates the liberal intelligentsia of pre-revolutionary Russia, a class incorrectly and unfairly dismissed in the Soviet period, Soloukhin notes, as “idlers and spongers.” In Poseshchenie Zvanki a recollection of seeing the ruins of Derzhavin’s estate is the pretext for an analysis of the intricate structure used by the poet in the construction of his ode to God.
In “Rasskazat’ i skazat’” (1976; Telling and saying) Soloukhin ponders what distinguishes works of a genius, such as Pushkin, from those of Mel’nikov-Pecherskii, a writer of far less talent. Great writers, he suggests, possess the quality of fokusirovka: the ability to reduce complex subjects to vivid images possessing immediate relevance to authentic life experiences. The term and the concept are characteristic of Soloukhin’s own work in the essay genre, especially in Kameshki na ladone (A handful of pebbles), miniature essays contributed to journals on a continuing basis and periodically printed in book form (1977, 1982, 1988). An enormous salmon being consumed at dinner in a portrait of Aleksei Tolstoi becomes in Soloukhin’s essay the objective representation of a writer who would leave the freedom and poverty of exile in order to prostitute his talent for Stalin’s regime. A visit to Joan of Arc’s parish church at Domremy reveals that the list of priests serving there since the 13th century contains fewer names than the list of chairmen in the troubled 50 years of the collective farm that consumed Soloukhin’s home village. In Bol’shoe Shakmatovo Soloukhin evokes early communism’s cultural nihilism by creating the image of village schoolchildren working out math problems on the back of handwritten manuscripts of Aleksandr Blok’s poems, looted from his family’s manor house before it was burned to the ground during Lenin’s campaign of terror against “class enemies.”
Soloukhin’s orientation toward his audience is that of Everyman on a voyage of discovery and self-discovery. In “Sovkhoz im. Lenina. Dom kul’tury” (1984; The house of culture at the Lenin Soviet farm), devoted to an exhibition of paintings by Konstantin Vasilev, Soloukhin refers to himself as a verkhogliad (a slang term meaning “superficial observer”). Yet he affirms the importance of the amateur when, after listening to professional academic artists dismiss Vasil’ev’s work as primitive and transparent, he recalls seeing a queue of 500 people waiting in inclement weather to see the artist’s work at an exhibition held on a remote collective farm. What the experts did not see, concludes Soloukhin, was Vasil’ev’s gift of spiritual resonance (odukhotvorennost’) with the Russian people’s innermost aspirations.
When Soloukhin was able to reduce his output of essays and begin writing fiction, the sensation, he has noted, was similar to that of removing heavy work boots and donning track shoes. The burden undertaken by the essayist is derived from the essay’s “capaciousness” (emkost’), its appetite for taking on features of all literary genres, in order to mediate between life and life’s sciences. In Soloukhin’s late and postSoviet essays, such as Drevo (1991; The tree), Pri svete dnia (1992; In the light of day), and Solenoe ozero (1994; Salt lake), the genre plays host to a wide assortment of expository devices in efforts to re-create in the reader’s imagination a vision of the past with the power and capacity to explain Russia’s 20th– century experiences.
Vladimir Alekseevich Soloukhin. Born 14 June 1924 in Alepino Stavrovskii, Vladimir region. Studied at the Vladimir Engineering Technicum, 1938–42, graduated in tool mechanics; Gorkii Literary Institute, Moscow, 1946–51. Served in the army, until 1945.
Married Rosa Soloukhin. Feature writer, Ogoneki. Joined the Communist Party, 1952.
Member of the board of the Union of Soviet Writers, 1958–75; member of the editorial staff, Molodaia Gvardiia publishing house, Moscow, 1964–81.
Awards: State Prize for Literature, 1979; Red Banner of Labor, 1984.
Essays and Related Prose
Vladimirskie Proselki, 1958; as A Walk in Rural Russia, translated by S.Miskin, 1966
Veter stranstvii (The wind of traveling), 1960
S liricheskikh pozitsii (From lyrical points of view), 1965
Pis’ma iz russkogo muzeia (Letters from the Russian museum); Chernye doski; Vremia sobirat’ kamni, 1966; Chernye doski as Searching for lcons in Russia, translated by Paul Falla, 1971; enlarged edition of Vremia sobirat’ kamni, 1980; as A Time to Gather Stones, translated by Valerie Z.Nollan, 1993
Tret’ia okhota (Third hunt), 1968
Poseshchenie Zvanki, 1975
Slovo zhivoe i mertvoe (o vremeni i o sebe) (The word living and dead [about time and self]), 1976
Kameshki na ladoni, 3 vols., 1977–88
Bol’shoe Shakmatovo, 1979
Volshebnaia palochka (Magical cane), 1983
Sozertsanie chuda (The contemplation of a miracle), 1984
Bedstvie s golubiami, 1984
Nenapissanye rasskazy, 1985
Chitaia Lenina (Reading Lenin), 1989
Rasstavanie s idolom (Parting with the idol), 1991
Pri svete dnia, 1992.
Solenoe ozero, 1994
Other writings: several novels (including Stnekh za levym plachom [Laughter over the Left Shoulder], 1988), poetry, and many works of Russian “village prose.”
Collected works edition: Sobranie sochinenii, 10 vols., 1995– (in progress).
Brown, Deming, Soviet Russian Ltterature Since Stalin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978
Dunlop, John, “Ruralist Prose Writers in the Russian Ethnic Movement,” in Ethnic Russia in the U.S.S.R.: The Dilemma of Dotninance, edited by Edward Allworth, New York: Pergamon Press, 1980:80–88
Givens, John, Review of Soloukhin’s A Time to Gather Stones, Slavic Review 54 (Spring 1995):245–46
Turkov, Andrei, “Energy and Talent,” Soviet Literature 6, no. 435 (1984): 103–06
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