Searching for Russia’s Soul

Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Russian writers began to strike out in new and bold directions, slowly but surely testing the limits and constraints of official government censors. The harshness and terror of the Stalinist regime gradually gave way to more tolerance and freedom of expression, although the path to greater artistic freedom was not always straight or easy to follow.

The new “thaw” in Soviet society, which continued through the eventual accession of Nikita Khrushchev to power in 1953, was exhilarating, although there were clear limits to this newfound freedom. When Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was published in the West and the Nobel Prize was awarded to him in 1958, he was forced to reject the award and his novel was not published in the Soviet Union for nearly thirty years.

During the 1960s and 1970s, efforts by Soviet writers to describe the reality of life in the Soviet Union often resulted in forced exile, a government policy that resulted in the loss of many leading Soviet intellectuals. The most famous expulsion was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s involuntary exile in 1974. But the seeds of change were sown and writers everywhere began to test the limits, searching for ways to express their ideas, and seeking new outlets for their musings.

The Village Writers

One group of Russian writers, relatively unknown in the West, found an outlet for their essays in the journal, The Young Guard, and, later, Our Contemporary. While the members of this group were Russian nationalists, they shared none of the virulent, aggressive characteristics of the Stalinist regime; instead, they lamented the devastation of Russian culture and the way in which World War Two, the social upheaval following the war, and political dogma had undermined the values of the past. Since many of these writers saw this devastation most clearly portrayed in the poverty and demoralization of Russian villages, they were dismissed by their opponents as “village writers.”

Some of these writers were, in fact, peasants by origin, and their writings demonstrated the way in which peasant language could enrich literature. For them, the village was a microcosm that clearly revealed the symptoms of a deep spiritual disorder in Russian society. Slowly, carefully, often using indirect imagery, they probed religious issues and suggested that the Communist Party’s deliberate undermining of religious values contributed to the malaise in post-World War Two Soviet society. Because their writings were so honestly and deeply concerned about community life in Russia, government censors hesitated to block their publications.

Soloukhin’s A Time to Gather Stones

One of these village writers whose essays have now been published in English is Vladimir Soloukhin. In his recent book, A Time to Gather Stones, Soloukhin writes about the way in which Russia’s natural environment has been ravaged by irresponsible industrialization, and he expresses outrage at the systematic destruction of many of the monuments and artifacts from Russia’s past. His concern is for Russia’s identity, for Russia’s soul. If the people of Russia lose their links to the past, this memory loss will cause a national identity crisis and, ultimately, the deterioration of contemporary Russia into a cultural wasteland.

The preface of Soloukhin’s book offers powerful insights on this theme:

I was born into a large peasant family, and we lived near the ancient Russian city of Vladimir. Hence I saw with my own eyes a large part of what took place in Russia during the course of entire decades, even if only from the example of our small hamlet, Olepino.

I remember collectivization and dekulakization, when peasant families were taken away to the nearest railroad station, and from there into the taiga and tundra to a certain – almost one-hundred-percent certain – death.

I remember how they threw down the bells from the bell tower. I remember the closing and destruction of the churches, and how ancient icons and books were thrown out of them. I remember how the militia took away first one person, then another, and how these people didn’t return.

I saw all these things, just like the majority of my compatriots, but (just like the majority of my compatriots) I feel as if I didn’t really see them. This was delusion, temporary insanity, hypnosis.

Today our country, or perhaps the population of our country, has been awakened from its hypnotic spell, but nevertheless many people don’t want to see everything that happened in our country. Vision is restored slowly and not in everyone.

I “recovered my sight” much earlier. The awakening of my social, civic thinking and national self-awareness dates to the very beginning of the 1960s. And what did I see when I opened by eyes? I saw our land, our country, had been ruined, disfigured and plundered. I learned that over ninety percent of our country’s ancient monuments, in particular its cathedrals and monasteries, had been destroyed. I learned that in Moscow alone during the 1930s four hundred and fifty ancient cathedrals had been blown up.

Soloukhin’s intellectual journey represents one facet of the powerful currents at work in Russian society, currents that reflect the struggles of the Russian people to determine their identity in the wake of the collapse of Communism. The struggle is a much deeper one than the debate over which form capitalism will take in their country, or how many political parties will be formed and what their political platforms will highlight. The search for Russia’s soul involves a deep reflection on Russia’s cultural past, including its rich religious heritage – a heritage that the Soviet regime attempted, but failed, to eliminate.