Russian Soilnby Michael WardernSiberia on Fire: Stories and Essaysnby Valentin RasputinnTranslated by Gerald MikkelsonnandnMargaret WinchellnDeKalb: Northern Illinois UniversitynPress; 252 pp., $30.00 (cloth),n$12.50 (paper)nIf blood and soil are the stuff ofnnationalism, what does a Russiannpatriot do when the soil goes bad? Henbecomes an environmentalist—at least,nthis was the response of Valentin Rasputinn(no relation to Gregory Rasputinnwho haunted the ill-fated reign of TsarnNicholas II). But the Siberian-bornnRasputin is more than another policynadvocate: David Shipler, the New YorknTimes correspondent and author ofnRussia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreamsn(1983), has written that Rasputin isn”widely considered the most talentednwriter in the country.” That designationnis not insignificant in a culturenwith such a rich literary tradition, yetnRasputin is more, too, than a skillednwordsmith.nPerhaps “mystic” is the best word fornhim. “Neither the sky beyond thencircle of fire nor anything to either sidenwas visible, and the rain made a continuousnnoise. Sometimes it fell silent forna bit and sometimes it came downnhard, and then the fire would hiss evennmore, resisting the water, shooting thensmall coals upward in annoyance andnmurmuring warnings from time tontime with angry puffs.” This vividnimagery is found in the short storyn”Live and Love,” about a boy’s nightsnduring a berry-picking outing on thentaiga near Lake Baikal in Siberia. Thenfiction and nonfiction pieces in Siberianon Fire all convey Rasputin’s almostnanimistic feelings for nature.nIn “What Shall I Tell the Crow”nRasputin describes the creative feelingsnof a writer who draws sustenance fromnforest life in the autumn: “Next to menthree birch trees were sadly tossingndown their leaves just like fortunenREVIEWSntellers as they played some game. Thenair was absolutely still …” GeraldnMikkelson and Margaret Winchell,nwho have turned Rasputin’s SiberianizednRussian into sharp, unclutterednEnglish, traveled continuously by carnwith him when he visited the Midwestnin 1985; they describe his religiousnbeliefs as a blend of Orthodox Christianitynand Siberian shamanism. Rasputin,nwho plays down a formal commitmentnto Russian Orthodoxy, has saidnhis philosophy is better characterized asnthat of old women who live in the smallnvillages. However that may be, his concernnwith the purity of water in LakenBaikal, or the destructive deforestationntaking place in Siberia, has less to donwith politics and more to do with man’snessential relation to nature.nAnother important motif in thenworks of Rasputin is the idea of Siberianas preserver of Russian culture. In thennonfictional “How Did They End UpnIn Irkutsk?” and in “Baikal,” Rasputinnwrites of how the Old Believers of then17th century split with the Westernizersnand headed from Moscow to thennorthern forests, and thence to Siberia.nHe also points to masterpieces now innthe Irkutsk Art Museum that came tonreside there when White sympathizersncarried them East during the Civil Warnof I9I8-1921. Confronted with a ferociouslynharsh climate and primitivennative cultures, Russian pioneers innSiberia over the last four centuries havenheld to their culture to survive; andntheir descendants will undoubtedlyndraw from these same roots as they freenthemselves from brutally imposed Sovietncommunism.n”The Fire” dominates the othernstories and essays. Published in 1985, itnis an apocalyptic vision of the destructionnof the Soviet Union, foretold innthe metaphor of an unquenchable firenthat breaks out in the food and supplynwarehouse of a small lumber town.nThe denizens of this manufacturedncommunity have no roots, some havingnlived formeriy in old villages nownsubmerged by the construction of anhydroelectric dam, others having beennshipped in from other parts of thenSoviet Union. The novella’s protago­nnnnist, Ivan Petrovich, was a young soldiernin the Great Patriotic War. In hisngrueling effort along with other townsmennto put out the fire, Ivan reveals hisndespair over the loss of the old ways:n”the general unwritten law, the verynearth under their feet, had changedninto a vestige of the past, into somenkind of abnormality and almost intontreason.” Looting, drunkenness, andnviolence break out despite the efforts ofnthose who still try to hold onto remnantsnof the old ways of pulling togethernto help the village.nThe genius of Rasputin and othersnwho have come to be known as thenderevenshiki (village writers) is to writenof events in small towns, rather thanndiscuss matters of political ideology ornof grand historical sweep. The censorsncould not object to a realism thatnseemed to pose no ideological threat.nYet there is little doubt that Rasputin,nespecially in Live and Remembern(1974) and Farewell to Matyoran(1976), offers a stunning rebuff tonLenin and his heirs who raped the landnin the name of progress.nWalter Laqueur (in his book ThenLong Road to Freedom and in the NewnRepublic, February 5, 1990), Bill Kellern(in the New York Times Magazine,nJanuary 28, 1990), and others have attemptednto link Rasputin with anti-nSemitism. Gerald Mikkelson and MargaretnWinchell, who are perhaps thenleading authorities in America on Rasputin’snbeliefs, are appalled and outragednby these accusations. There isnnothing in Rasputin’s literary worksnthat deals with the subject of-the Jews,nand it would seem that this terriblencharge is ill-founded. However thatnmay be, Mikhail Gorbachev surprisednmany observers by announcing lastnMarch that Rasputin would join hisnpresidential cabinet as its then onlynnon-Communist member. Many observersnin the Soviet Union believe thenposition was given to Rasputin in ordernfor Gorbachev to gain support fromnenvironmentalists, with whom Rasputinnhas undisputed credibility.nMichael Warder is associate publishernof Chronicles.nAUGUST 1990/37n