April 27, 2021
Aleksandr Vampilov: The Major Plays, by Alma Law
Aleksandr Vampilov was born in Kutulik, a small town in the Irkutsk Oblast on August 19, 1937. He studied Literature at the University of Irkutsk. While in college he began work for a newspaper and also published his first short stories as a part of a larger anthology. In 1965 he moved from Siberia to Moscow to study at the Gorky Institute of Literature. In 1966 Vampilov became a member of the Writer’s Union and continued to publish new plays up until his untimely death on the 17th of August 1972. Vampilov had returned to Siberia and was vacationing with friends on Lake Baikal when he fell into the water. Though he was removed from the water, it was too late and Vampilov succumbed to a heart attack from cold shock.
When Aleksandr Vampilov fatefully fell into Lake Baikal on the eve of his thirty fifth birthday, Siberian Russian literature lost a rising star playwright. Vampilov’s talent was apparent even in his earliest work, and his polyphonic, yet not overly ideological characters are masterfully constructed. Had Vampilov’s unique style been allowed to progress he well might have been as influential as Valentin Rasputin, another village prosaic author who, caught between older Soviet writing styles and newer influences, clings to a mixture of ideological commitments. Because Vampilov was working in a time of transition between the prominence of village prose and soviet realism, his work pulls elements from both traditions, including thematic elements, such as his focus on nature and interpersonal relationships; the small Siberian village settings; and character archetypes such as the mentor and the holy fool. The semi-mixed ideological forms Vampilov works with lead to a tendency to ask rather than answer questions, especially about axiology and new soviet virtue. Like Chekhov, Vampilov seems interested in showing his viewers a spread of ideas, and asking them to choose which they wish to identify with. Most prominently Vampilov ends all of his plays in the same way: the characters are sent back to the same conditions as the start. It is as if Vampilov is showing the audience a possible playout of events and asking the audience whether or not they are comfortable with what happens. Even in his comedies this project occurs, and rather than ending with a marriage they end with the two romantic heroes in a situation ripe only with the possibility of further love.
Driving this analysis is Alma Law’s The Major Plays which includes two of Vampilov’s earliest works, Farewell in June, The Elder Son, an anecdote Twenty Minutes with an Angel, and two of his later works, Duck Hunting, and Last Summer in Chulimsk. Though Vampilov’s working life was relatively short, this anthology includes a wide breadth of his work and shows the development from his college days through to his 30s as a member of the Soviet Playwright’s Union. Law’s translation is impressive in that it maintains the original flow, speed, and overlap of the language so that the plays would be as well-staged in their translated form as they should be in the native language.
An oft leveled critique of Vampilov is exemplified by Barry Scherr’s argument that Vampilov uses traditional narrative structures and “stock plots.” Specifically Scherr points to the fact that his romances take a nearly stereotypic predictability. Two characters meet, they discover love for one another, they then encounter a trouble which should prevent their love from blossoming, and in the final act they wind up declaring their love for one another on mutual terms. Scherr’s mention of this conformity of tradition does not stop merely with the classical plot format. Vampilov also deals with themes traditionally associated with the Socialist Realist tradition he would have been familiar with growing up in Siberia in the 40s and 50s. This critique from Scherr though is not an indictment, as Vampilov truly makes his own art from the traditional structures, mixing them in his early work with socialist realist ideas and naturalism. In Farewell in June the main character, Kolesov, must choose between a promising future in academia, and Tanya the daughter of the Provost. In a typical Socialist Realist story, the choice would be simple and Kolesov would most likely wind up at grad school with Tanya – because of their mutual affirmation of Soviet values. Vampilov’s ending though, is more complex. Kolya and Tanya, in the final scene, are returned to the same situation in which they met ends with a return to the same conditions as the beginning of the play. Tanya and Kolesov return to romantic uncertainty and Kolesov’s academic future remains uncertain.
In his later work Vampilov seems to shift from elements of socialist realism to an ideology of his own which seems to blend the naturalist localism of village prose and the communitarian values of socialist realism. In Last Summer in Chulimsk, Vampilov centers the novel around an idealized Siberian woman, Valentina Fyodorovna, respectful of her community, and small garden in the center of her town. In nearly every scene in which she appears, she repairs a small fence that is broken and neglected by the rest of the village – showing her love for her community and her idealism. She falls in love with Shamanov, the nihilistic police captain who at first ignores her, then reciprocates her feelings, and finally leaves her after she is assaulted. She is assaulted by a man named Pashka – a bumbling youth who wears a bright red coat and is constantly being scolded for cutting corners to achieve his goals. This assault is what separates Valentina from Shamanov, who retreats further into his nihilism as he leaves Chulimsk. Vampilov’s values are much clearer here, Valentina represents Siberians and village prosaic values. Pashka is the “new” Soviet man, obsessed with outcome and uncaring about the environment, tradition, or the people harmed by soviet values. Shamanov then is the audience, stuck between Valentina’s idealistic communitarianism and the “progress” represented by Pashka. Like with his early plays Vampilov leaves the audience at square one by the end of Last Summer in Chulimsk, as Shamanov leaves town and Valentina repairs the fence again, watched by the entire village.
Vampilov, not unlike Solzhenitsyn, does not seem to be revolutionarily critical of the soviet regime, but asks his audience to consider what is valuable in the world, and to consider what is lost when nature and love are sacrificed for progress. Having been brought up in a small town in the Irkutsk Oblast and educated in Irkutsk, Vampilov would have been caught directly in between Soviet notions of progress and the people who bear the weight of that progress on their land and values. This may be why his early work focuses on college life, on the city, and in his later years he began to write about the countryside again. The balance struck between his love of Siberian and Soviet communalism leaves the audience to ask these questions on their own. What is lost when progress is chased at all costs? What truly matters in life? What does true success look like for a nation? Vampilov offers hints only, never full answers. Had he lived longer his answers may have developed, but like the characters of his plays, we can only return to his beginning, understanding now the cost and rewards of so-called progress.
Scherr, Barry. “Aleksandr Vampilov. The Major Plays,” in Canadian Slavonic Papers, 1996.
Vampilov, Aleksandr, The Major Plays trans. Law, Alma. Routledge, 1996.