Live and Remember.

Valentin Rasputin’s 1974 Живи и помни (Live and Remember) begins softly and tentatively, like the Kreutzer Sonata: in the frigid winter at the start of 1945, the aging Mikheich discovers that his trusty old carpenter’s ax has disappeared from its hiding place beneath the floorboards of the Guskov family’s bathhouse. The thief took some tobacco and a pair of skis as well, but it’s the ax Mikheich can’t stop complaining about, and since whoever took it couldn’t have been from the village (no local would have taken the skis), he figures he’ll never see it again. He’s still muttering about it when his daughter-in-law Nastyona comes home and wonders tiredly why he’s going on about some hunk of metal when the entire world has been turned upside down. (“Nastyona” is an unusual diminutive form of Nastasya; in a nice touch, you discover halfway through the book that she was called Nastya, the usual diminutive, until she married Andrei and his father started calling her Nastyona — since then, everyone does.) But at night, just as she’s falling asleep, something pops into her head and she can’t stop thinking about it. In the morning she sneaks off to the bathhouse and has a look around, but doesn’t notice anything amiss. She can’t let it go, though, and the next day she leaves a loaf of bread there. For two days nothing happens, it’s still there, and she decides she must be wrong, but she replaces it with a new loaf anyway — she can’t get over the fact that no stranger would have known to look under the floorboards. Sure enough, two days later the loaf is gone; she finds crumbs and a cigarette butt. Now she’s sure.

As she suspected, her husband Andrei, who went off to war over three years before, has returned; he finds her in the bathhouse and tells her his story. After fighting and being wounded in the battle for Moscow, at Smolensk, and at Stalingrad, he was wounded so badly he had to be sent to a hospital in Novosibirsk to recover, and he was told by fellow recuperating soldiers that he would surely be sent home. But instead he was ordered back to the front; full of resentment and sure he would be killed this time, he went to the station and found himself unpremeditatedly getting on a train going the wrong way, to Irkutsk, and realized he was going to make his way back to his native village, Atamanovka on the Angara. He tells Nastyona he came back to see her — not his mother, not his father — and she mustn’t tell anyone he’s there: “if you do, I’ll kill you.” He tells her where he’s staying (in a disused house on the other side of the river) and she sneaks across on the ice to bring him his rifle and some food.

That sets up the basic situation; for the rest of the novel, she tries to keep him hid and supplied while fending off the increasing suspicions of her in-laws — the police have been by to ask about Andrei’s disappearance. Their relationship is well portrayed: they become closer than they had been for years, but they’re still in different worlds; after a lyrical passage in which she shares her fond memories of prewar life with him, we learn that he has stopped listening because he’s obsessed by his own terrible memories of the war. The screws are tightened when she discovers she’s pregnant (of course, they’ve been making love); she asks him if he might risk coming forward — surely they’ll forgive him? — but he says they don’t forgive you for desertion: “If they could shoot me and then revive me and shoot me twice more, they’d do it.” Her desperation and his steely resolve are brilliantly portrayed; I was reminded of both Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina, and this book can hold up its head in that company. The war ends (he knows without being told, because he hears the guns being fired off in celebration across the river) and her pregnancy starts being more apparent; the tension builds unbearably until the final page. This is a magnificent, tragic novel, and I recommend it without reservation; the translation by Antonina W. Bouis seems well done, so even if you have no Russian you can appreciate it. It’s even better than Последний срок (Borrowed Time; see this post), and I might never have read either if I confined myself to Russian lit’s greatest hits and started with his famous Прощание с Матёрой (Farewell to Matyora). Score another one for my obsessively thorough chronological reading program.

Of course, as always with Rasputin there are plenty of Siberian dialect terms (even after exhausting the resources of the internet I still have no idea what чесы means in “затем все стихло, но скоро до Настены донеслись мерные, чуть чмокающие чесы одноручного весла”), and at one point there’s a riff on local pronunciation:

[Andrei’s] mother was from downstream, around Bratsk, where they say “ts” for “ch” and “sh” for “s” […]. On the Angara there are a few villages where people talk that way — fine, full-grown, hard-working people, especially women — and where that breed came from, nobody knows. Above and below those villages they talk normally, but here for some reason they can’t, as if their tongues were hooked up differently.

Мать была из низовских, из-под Братска, где цокают и шипят: «крыноцка с молоцком на полоцке», «лешу у наш много, жимой морож». На Ангаре всего несколько деревень с таким выговором и с красивым, как на подбор, рослым и работящим народом, особенно женщинами – откуда тут взялась эта порода, никто не знает. Выше и ниже этих деревень говорят нормально, а тут почему-то иначе не могут, словно у них как-то по-своему, по-особому подцеплен язык.

And there’s a nice use of an ambiguity in Russian:

She was glad that Mikheich wasn’t there and she didn’t have to give him any explanations, and to Semyonovna [Mikheich’s wife, her mother-in-law] she said she was going to go down and fish […]. Nastyona said it that way — skhodit [‘go down’] — so that it wouldn’t be clear whether she was walking somewhere or taking a boat; the verb could mean either.

Она обрадовалась, что Михеича нет и не надо с ним объясняться, а Семеновне сказала, будто сходит порыбачить […]. Настена так и сказала – «сходит», чтобы непонятно было, пойдет она куда-то пешком или поплывет в лодке, – то и другое означало «сходить».

There’s a 2008 movie based on the novel, but it’s not very good apart from the convincing performance by Darya Moroz as Nastyona (it was seeing her perform the role onstage that made Rasputin give up his longstanding refusal to allow a film to be made); it was worth seeing, though, to be able to visualize the details of life in a Siberian village. Washing clothes in a hole cut in the ice can’t be much fun…


  1. цокают и шипят: maybe they moved to Siberia from around Pskov? Tzokan’je is (or was, at least) quite common in nothern Russia and Pskov, lisp (shepel’aven’je) is not a very common characteristic of any dialect as a quick search of Encyclopedia Internetica shows, but it is some marginal feature of Pskov speech.

    чесы: unless it is some local word, most probably it is a nominalization of чесать, scratch, comb, and in general do something hastily or vigorously.

  2. I know an Anyuta who totally hates being addressed as Anya. When you meet her for the first time, she says: “some people are embarrassed to call me Anyuta, so if you don’t feel comfortable with it, Anna is fine as well. Just not Anya.”.

    Her parents called her Anyuta, like most parents would do*. Then she went to school. Unfreindly teachers dissatisfied with her achievements would say “Anya” and this is when and how she learned “Anya”. Thus, Anyuta is her name, Anya is a cold teacher form of her name, Anna…must be an abstract formal thing.

    The reason why it could be embarrassing is that it is an affectionate intimate form. I can’t imagine how anyone could object though. It sounds just great.

    *not Anyuta specifically, just anything warmer than neutral.

  3. It sounds just great.

    I agree!

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    I know an Anyuta who totally hates being addressed as Anya.

    I empathise. I myself am not now, never have been, and never will be a “Dave.” Mind you, the psychopathology must be different in my case. I went to schools where the teachers never called you by your personal name at all. (In fact, we usually called each other by surnames. My children refuse to believe this, thinking that this practice was an entirely literary trope confined to old-fashioned British school stories.)

  5. I empathise. I myself am not now, never have been, and never will be a “Dave.”

    I think you may be missing the point. If your situation were parallel, you would insist on being called “Davey.” Anyuta is not a given name but a double diminutive; the actual name is Anna.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah, but my true name (used by everybody entitled to use it, except my blood relations, who call me “David” for some reason) is a diminutive. It’s just not “Dave.”

    (And, of course, it is not pronounceable with your human vocal apparatus, but that is a separate issue.)

  7. Some people call me David and others call me Dave. It depends on how long they’ve known me. I used to be happy to go by Dave, until I decided it was not a serious name for an adult. So then I became David. Must have been when I was around 40 or so.

  8. Dmitry Pruss says

    Generally in America it’s strikingly common to insist that only one variation of someone’s name is right. Russian isn’t a fertile media for that. The names always change depending on the social settings. So when some common, semantically neutral variation of a Russian name is strongly rejected by its bearer, then it does strike people around as unusual.

    Vyatka and Ustyug Russians were a major source of Siberian migrations. Their surnames and their Y / mt-DNA are all over the old Siberia. And tzokanye is a big part of how they speak over in Vyatka, So my guess would be this. (These transplants commonly didn’t mix much with the neighbors in the historical times, both due to isolation by distance but also because of the Old Order faith)

  9. This old book describes tzokanie among the Old Order Siberian Russians (in one village on the Upper Lena and around Okhotsk), and draws parallels with the same Northern Russian dialects like we already mentioned.

    But others also note tzokanie in the Sibirlar Tatar dialect, and attribute it to Finno-Ugric influences.

  10. David Marjanović says

    old-fashioned British school stories

    “Scared, Potter?” – “Yyyyyou wwwwwish.”

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    I should make it clear that I didn’t go to that school. Too progressive and trendy for my family. We prefer the Old Ways.

  12. tzokanie in the Sibirlar Tatar dialect

    Not only there:

    Ch-dialects or Southern Mishar: пытчак, pıtçak < Kazan пычак, pıçak (knife)
    Ts-dialects or Northern Mishar: пыцак, pıtsak < Kazan пычак, pıçak (knife)

    ч ⟨ç⟩ /ɕ/,

    Funnily, no mention is made of Ryazan oblast.

    This is, afaik, a ts-dialect village:,_Ryazan_Oblast

  13. Thanks for the recommendation. Is Rasputin undergoing a rennaissance or is it just you, Hat, who is rediscovering him? When I was studying Russian literature in the early 1990s he was certainly not in the canon. At least at Stanford everyone spent a lot of time on Silver Age authors and emigre writers.

    And my Russian friends in my generation loved Sokolov, Aksyonov, Limonov, Yerofeev, etc. But Rasputin never came up. My sense was that he was viewed much like Solzhenitsyn, as a reactionary writer focused on a vanishing rural Russia who didn’t have much to say to ambitious and worldly Muscovites. But he certainly sounds like more than that.

  14. Is Rasputin undergoing a rennaissance or is it just you, Hat, who is rediscovering him?

    Just me, though I hope my PR campaign may inspire others to read him.

    My sense was that he was viewed much like Solzhenitsyn, as a reactionary writer focused on a vanishing rural Russia who didn’t have much to say to ambitious and worldly Muscovites. But he certainly sounds like more than that.

    Yes, that’s how I learned to think of him as well; I don’t know if I would have even read him if Прощание с Матёрой hadn’t been so highly praised. But everything I’ve read by him has been terrific; he’s a much more “literary” writer than Solzhenitsyn, and if he hadn’t turned to the anti-Semitic right I suspect he’d be much more widely viewed as a modern classic. Which he undoubtedly was. (Roman Senchin, in his introduction to my collection of stories by Tendryakov, starts off lamenting that a similar fate has befallen Tendryakov — a wonderful writer who’s gotten left out of the common memory.)

  15. @Vanya: “And my Russian friends in my generation loved Sokolov, Aksyonov, Limonov, Yerofeev, etc. But Rasputin never came up.”

    He’s always been on the canon since his two big hits got published (Live and remember and Farewell to Matyora) but who would admit to loving him, considering his abominable politics and general narrow-mindedness? You’d probably hear a grudging admission – yes, he wrote two first-rate novels (plus some more stuff) but beyond that, he’s simply horrible. Solzhenitsyn was a very different case because he was a dissident and an anti-Soviet fighter – The Archipelago was his license to do as he pleased.

    It would be interesting to read Matyora in a combo with a novel in Spanish or Portuguese about some indigenous community in Latin America threatened into extinction by a project like that Angara dam.

  16. Viktor Astafyev is another superb writer (and Siberian) who turned to the Dark Side politically.

  17. Did he? I thought he supported Yeltsin in 1996 against his Communist rival.

  18. Opposing Communists is not exactly a guarantee of good politics. To quote the NY Times obit: “Mr. Astafyev had ugly moments of anti-Semitism, accusing Jews in his writings of corrupting Russian culture.” But it’s true he wasn’t one of the blind patriots; he opposed the Soviet attacks on Solzhenitsyn and the Chechen war.

  19. …a reactionary writer focused on a vanishing rural Russia who didn’t have much to say to ambitious and worldly Muscovites.

    And Sholom-Aleichem wrote about vanishing [not quite, but never mind, it disappeared] world of shtetl. Who cares? It’s quality of writing that matters.

  20. You and I agree, but a lot of people don’t. Far more readers notice and care about people, plots, and political positions than know or care about quality of writing.

  21. But what is “quality of writing”? Characters and plots are one thing; whether a fiction is still contemporary or not is another.

  22. @LH: “Opposing Communists is not exactly a guarantee of good politics.” Supporting them was a guarantee of bad politics in the 1990s — that’s what crossing to the dark side meant to me, the one issue far above all others. Whether you recognized the enormous, irreparable damage inflicted on the country and its neighbors by the Communist regime or you refused to acknowledge it (or qualified your recognition with “they did some good things”) was the most important dividing line. To this day, it appears that most Russians have not quite taken in how disastrous the years 1917-1953 were to the nation.

    Astafyev did not oppose Zyuganov on a whim in 1996: he broke with Rasputin (his friend and protégé), Belov et al. on principle. In the early 1990s, Astafyev was working on what would be his next-to-last, unfinished novel, Cursed and Killed. It was widely perceived as pacifist; it also depicted the Soviet regime both as inhuman and directly responsible for millions of military casualties during WWII. Accordingly, Astafyev opposed both the Chechen war and any attempts to revive the Communist regime.

    Astafyev’s letters to Eidelman in 1986, however, had been an extremely ugly business: it’s all the more unbelievable that – despite all his xenophobia and anti-Semitism of the late 1980s – Astafyev changed course in the 1990s and spoke out against the “Red-Brown” menace. (The dominant strain of Russian revanchist Communism in the 1990s was a mix of anti-capitalism, Soviet-Russian imperialism, and xenophobia.)

    By the way, the NYT called Rasputin “Russian Writer Who Led ‘Village Prose’ Movement” in his obituary but it’s rather doubtful that an author born in 1937 could have led a movement started by authors born in the 1920s – that is, men who had seen action in WWII. Astafyev didn’t appreciate being called a “village writer” – he probably saw himself more of a war writer – but even counting him out leaves Boris Mozhayev and Fedor Abramov as the founders.

  23. “Opposing Communists is not exactly a guarantee of good politics.” Supporting them was a guarantee of bad politics in the 1990s

    Of course; there’s no contradiction between the two statements. Change “Communists” to “Trump” and update the decade and it works for current America. But you seem permanently stuck in 1996; yes, it was important to defeat Zyuganov, but that was a one-shot deal, and as you may have noticed, things didn’t go well for Russia anyway. Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, is a long-lasting (sometimes I fear permanent) plague on humanity that causes terrible damage to this day. Yes, he did better than Rasputin and Belov, but that doesn’t make him a knight in shining armor.

    By the way, the NYT called Rasputin “Russian Writer Who Led ‘Village Prose’ Movement” in his obituary but it’s rather doubtful that an author born in 1937 could have led a movement started by authors born in the 1920s

    I don’t think they mean “led” as in “created” but as in “was the most important member of” (which of course is debatable in itself, but certainly defensible). In any case, headlines are created by headline writers to 1) use as little space as possible and 2) draw attention; they do not reflect the views of the reporter who wrote the story or the paper’s editorial board, they’re just blurbs.

  24. I should add that when I say “stuck in 1996” it’s just an observation, not a putdown; I myself am stuck in 1968 — I can (and sometimes do) go on and on about how awful Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were from my vantage point as a Gene McCarthy diehard, even though rationally I know that both men were better than I took them to be at the time, but my grandsons could care less, and I’m sure their Russian equivalents would find your worries about Zyuganov incomprehensible. Tempora mutantur, but we change less easily.

  25. Sholom-Aleichem wrote about vanishing [not quite, but never mind, it disappeared] world of shtetl.

    True, and I don’t recall any young Muscovites in the ‘90s reading him either. I am simply being descriptive not prescriptive.

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    There is enough additional evidence for taking a negative view of both RFK and LBJ now available that was unknown or concealed as of 1968 that it might plausibly net out whatever negative youthful views hat had that now seem overblown in hindsight.

    I see that Astafyev was mixed up with the so-called Письмо́ сорока́ двух, which as a call to utilize illberal means to forcibly suppress the illiberal (with some inevitable risk of collateral damage to some who were not actually illiberal) might stir up controversy or confusion about whether it was on the bright or dark side of whatever division one might have perceived as salient at the time.

  27. It’s not that my negative youthful views seem overblown (I still take strong exception to lickspittle service to Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy in the one case, continuing and escalating the Vietnam War in the other); it’s just that at the time I was insufficiently attentive to RFK’s apparent conversion as a result of his interactions with poor/Black people (he probably would have made a pretty good president) and LBJ’s (in retrospect almost incredible) ability to get significant civil rights legislation passed (in the process severely damaging his own party’s electoral prospects, as he knew perfectly well).

  28. No, if we’re trying to draw parallels, Russia’s case would be more like George Wallace vs. Lyndon Johnson, with Nixon (Putin) not merely capturing the Southern Dem vote but rolling back the civil rights legislation and case law starting with Brown. Effectively re-segregating the South and even the Army; flying the Confederate flag over the White House. Astafyev would be like some old cranky redneck, occasionally using the n-word but preaching to his people that God will punish them without mercy for the sins of slavery and segregation. Unless they repent and mend their ways, perhaps.

    It sounds very silly, I know, but disastrous all the same.

  29. I wasn’t trying to draw parallels in national politics but in being stuck in a particular year when the politics seemed especially all-important. Obviously the situations of Russia in ’96 and the US in ’68 were completely different.

  30. Political positions are transient but people sometimes choose them because of their intransient principles. Astafyev sided with Yeltsin and Rasputin took the opposite side in 1993 and 1996 because their worldviews and their politics were different.

    Rasputin was a relatively simple soul, politically speaking: modernity bad, big cities bad, the intelligentsia (≈ the Jews) bad. Perhaps that’s why he ran out of steam early and didn’t write much in his last 25 years. Astafyev was anything but simple. He kept writing almost to the end, publishing his last work, The Jolly Soldier, in 1998, at 75.

  31. Yes, Astafyev was an amazing writer. I dip into his «Затеси» now and then when I’m in the mood for a taste, and I’m looking forward to «Прокляты и убиты» when I get into my next WWII phase. (I’ve got a copy of Granin’s «Мой лейтенант» which I’ll doubtless read then as well.)

  32. I’m looking forward to your notes on Farewell to Matyora.

    By the way, I’ve just been reminded that Rasputin was born in the same year and in the same Upper Angara region as Alexander Vampilov, now considered one of the best post-WWII Russian playwrights. You’d have to try hard to find two authors more different than those two.

  33. Relevant to Настена, I just came across this footnote in Верный Руслан in reference to the nickname Стюра:

    Полностью впишут “Анастасия” либо “Настасья”. Отсюда сибирская трансформация: Настя-Настюра-Стюра.

    So perhaps Nastyona could have been further reduced to Styona.

  34. Alex K.: You may be interested in this review of a book about the 1996 election.

    Президент собирается объявить о своем выдвижении на второй срок и начать предвыборную кампанию. Но не может. Генерал, командующий службой охраны президента, обратился к другому генералу, который отвечает в спецслужбах за чтение мыслей, за связи со сверхъестественным и за защиту государства от мистических угроз. И сверхъестественный генерал докладывает, что объявлять о начале избирательной кампании нельзя: Меркурий ретроградный — время неподходящее. Если вы думаете, что это отрывок из нового (или старого) романа Виктора Пелевина, то ошибаетесь. Перед нами исторический нон-фикшен об избирательной кампании 1996 года. Президент — это Борис Ельцин, генерал-охранник — Александр Коржаков, а мистический генерал — Георгий Рогозин, знаменитая личность, деятельность которой овеяна легендами. А, с другой стороны, что в современной российской истории не овеяно легендами?

  35. in the same Upper Angara region

    Reminds me of an old Soviet joke.

    Regional chairman of the Union of Soviet Writers proudly reports: “After the Great October Revolution, enormous progress was achieved in the literary sphere. Tula region now has seven members of the Writer’s Union which represents seven-fold increase compared to the pre-revolutionary period when our region had only one writer – Leo Tolstoy”.

  36. I’m delighted to discover Dmitry Bykov agrees with me about Rasputin in general and this novel in particular:

    Vladimir Krupin, another pochvennik [nativist, usually right-wing writer who focuses on the countryside and its traditions], remembers: “When I read Rasputin’s Borrowed Time [see this post], I wanted to give up literature, because he had said everything that I could have and better than I could ever have.” It really is a powerful thing. After that there was Money for Maria, perhaps less successful, too moralizing, but still a very strong story, and then two absolute masterpieces, published in succession: Live and Remember in 1975 and Farewell to Matyora [see this post] in 1976 — those two texts brought Rasputin into the first rank of not just Russian but world prose.

    One can think about Live and Remember in different ways; I have heard people say that it’s too factually implausible, but that isn’t important, it doesn’t need to be plausible [in those terms], what matters is that it’s psychologically plausible. Nastyona, the heroine who gives shelter to the deserter Guskov and becomes pregnant by him at the start of 1945, is one of the most striking heroines of Russian prose. She is a heroine of patience, a heroine of the cross she bears.

    The Russian:

    Владимир Крупин, другой писатель почвеннического направления, вспоминает: «Когда я прочёл Распутина “Последний срок”, я хотел бросить литературу, потому что он сказал всё, что я мог бы, и лучше, чем кто-либо мог бы». Действительно, это мощная вещь. Потом была, может быть, несколько менее удачная, морализаторская, но всё равно очень сильная повесть «Деньги для Марии», и дальше два абсолютных шедевра, напечатанных подряд: 1975-й и 1976-й, «Живи и помни» и «Прощание с Матёрой» – эти два текста выдвинули Распутина в первый ряд не русской, а мировой прозы.

    Можно по-разному относиться к «Живи и помни», я слышал отзывы людей, которые говорят, что всё это фактически совершенно недостоверно, но это и не важно, не нужно, чтобы было достоверно, важно, что это достоверно психологически. Настёна, героиня «Живи и помни», которая пригрела дезертира Гуськова и от него забеременела в начале 1945 года, она, наверное, одна из самых поразительных героинь русской прозы. Это героиня терпения, героиня креста, который она несёт.

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