Writer Rasputin laments loss of Russian identity

THE BALTIMORE 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."

In Irkutsk, the cultural institutions are under attack. With 600,000 people, the city has its own orchestra, which now is having trouble paying its musicians. Two theaters closed recently, although a circus and another theater still operate.

For Mr. Rasputin, 57, Russia remains a land celebrated by its simple honest folk working diligently in the villages.

But the younger generation has grown up on television and MTV. They don't quite see the evil in Coca-Cola and Pepsi and Mars candy bars.

"We have Coca-Cola, but how will drinking that influence us?" asked Andrei Burenin, a 19-year-old university student. "Our culture can't be undermined by a Mars bar but by our own economic weakness."

Mr. Burenin pointed out that Mr. Solzhenitsyn, an ardent supporter of Russian culture, lived in the heart of the capitalist empire of America for 18 years.

"What did it do to him?" he asked.

Mr. Rasputin remains wary of America and its way of doing business. America, he said, has some regard for the taste of its own citizens and exports the worst of its films to Third World counties, Russia now among them.

"Our countries are destined to keep a respectful distance," he said.

Many Americans themselves might lament the ubiquitousness of American culture, the cities that look alike with the same department stores, the same hotel chains, the same fast-food restaurants.

They, too, might flinch at the idea of American candy bars filling the shelves of stores, even in Siberia.

But the young may have different concerns, and it'll be their world, too.

Sharon Hudgins, an American teaching in a University of Maryland business program in Irkutsk, remembers a serious young woman urgently approaching her after a big test.

"May I please ask you a question, Mrs. Hudgins? It's not for me, it's from my parents.

"How did the last two episodes of 'Santa Barbara' end?"

Mr. Rasputin sees nationalism as a sort of cure for the nation's ills, one that will inspire it, bind it together and renew its self-respect.

But even he isn't sure if Russia is bigger than "Santa Barbara."

"It's a kind of paradox," he said. "Nationalism is increasing without increasing. There's a lot of talk about it but little results.

"It's very important, but it's necessary to be very careful when dealing with it. Nationalism should not cross that border where cultural and moral nationalism become national self-glorification."

In other words, it's better to switch the television to another channel than march off to recapture the empire.

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