Live and Remember by Valentin Rasputin. Trans. Antonina Bouis.
Review by Caroline Dillard.
28 April 2021
Live and Remember by Valentine Rasputin
Valentin Rasputin was born in Atalanka, a village of the Irkutsk Oblast, on March 15th, 1937. He attended Irkutsk University where he studied history and philology, and he graduated in 1959. Out of college he began his career in writing with the Komosol newspaper in both Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk. The Komosol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) was essentially the youth division of the communist part of the Soviet Union. Less than a decade after his introduction to the writing world Rasputin was admitted to the Union of Soviet Writers following the publication of Money for Maria (1967). This novel focused in on the social inequalities and changes that native Siberians faced, and served as the beginning of Rasputin’s career in writing about environmental activism. Rasputin was a strong proponent for environmental conservation and protection in Siberia due to his personal connections. Following the construction of the Bratsk Reservoir in 1967, Rasputin saw many of the places he grew up in flooded and destroyed. While the Siberian author was environmentally very “liberal” many of his other political views were extremely patriotic and nationalist. He was even viewed by many as being anti-Semitic and very intolerant of many social issues. Valentin Rasputin had a long, prosperous writing career until his death in Moscow in 2015.
Rasputin can be most accurately categorized as a village prosaic author. His emphasis on themes of family, rural life, and an overall connection to nature is present in nearly all of his work, and it is what he is most known for. The plots of his stories are always set in small Siberian villages and his “heroes” are nearly always simple peasants. There is, however, something about Rasputin’s writing that transcends the mundane plainness of common village life. Shneidman’s Soviet Literature in the 1970’s argues that “his art, however, is unique, and it is difficult to place it within the mainstream of ‘village prose’… their [the protagonists’] problems and conflicts are of a universal nature and transcend the narrow confines of the remote countryside.” (75) What makes Rasputin’s writing so unique is his ability to understand his characters at a much deeper level than they may seem. His commonplace villagers are full of life, struggle, and a sense of individuality that not many can convey so thoughtfully and artistically. The idea of the ‘home’ is another one of the most well-represented motifs in Rasputin’s work. The plot often draws back to elements of home life and family in a way that is both familiar and extremely foreign. This idea of the ‘home’ is most clearly represented in Farewell to Matyora and Live and Remember.
Live and Remember was originally published in 1974 and is a work of historical fiction set in World War II era Siberia. The novella follows a frontline deserter (Andrei) and his wife (Nastyona) through the trials and tribulations of harboring a wanted criminal during the harsh Siberian winter. Andrei was drafted into World War II to fight for the Soviet Union. After numerous injuries he made the decision to desert the frontlines and return to his home village of Atamanovka, small locality of Zabaykalsky Krai, Russia. Upon secretly returning to his hometown, he only tells his wife, Nastonya about his presence back in Atamanovka. Nastyona is now fated with not only her own life, but that of her husband, who must remain a secret to the rest of the village, including his own family. She carries the burden of his guilt as her own. It becomes clear very early on in the book that the couple is fated to a hopeless future. This psychological torture that both Nastyona and Andrei face is projected onto the reader, and you begin to feel their pain as your own. Andrei can never be revealed, and Nastyona must live the rest of her life as a lie.
The presence of nature in Live and Remember is something that cannot be overlooked. Just as Nastyona and Andrei’s fates are tied to each other, they are also tied to the changing seasons. Throughout the book the harsh, unforgiving Siberian winter parallels with the feeling of hopelessness and darkness that Nastyona feels about her situation. As the winter thaws out, she is faced with even more challenges, including hiding her unborn child. Finally, as spring has set into Atamanovka and the Angara has thawed, she seals her fate in the depths of the river. I took this final act of Nastyona as her, in a way, freeing herself through the coming of spring. The tender and warm Nastyona met her end at the hands of the tender and warm Siberian spring. The only hope for our tragic heroine was at the bottom of the Angara.
“On her knees in the stern, she leaned over lower and lower, staring intently with all the vision that had been allotted for her many years to come into the depths, and she saw: a match flare up at the very bottom.” (Live and Remember 216)
This final scene in the last chapter of the book is both heartbreaking, yet somehow relieving. All Nastyona wanted was to live and be happy, as anyone should, and she never got the opportunity to do so. A woman who was so drawn to life took her own just to be free of her suffering.
Just as Nastyona was taken by the Spring, Andrei was taken by the winter. Throughout the book and his time spent in the Siberian wilderness Andrei devolves into primal and animalistic ways. He learns to howl like a wolf and learns to survive solely on instinct. He is driven not by the love he has for his wife but by cowardice and fear. Andrei is consumed by the harshness of the winter and it wears him down until no humanity remains.
This book has a level of complexity reached through internal torment and struggle that makes it difficult to put down. While the reader understands from a relatively early point that our heroine and her husband are doomed, there is always a sliver of hope that remains. With one miscalculated decision Andrei dooms not only his own future, but that of his wife and unborn child as well. He binds the characters to their land in a way that is poetic, yet tragic. The contrast of life and death, and hope and despair blends seamlessly with the presence of winter and spring. It is a deeply emotional and moving story that will leave the reader in a state of both sorrow and resentment.
Rasputin, Valentin G., et al. Live and Remember. Northwestern University Press, 1992.
Shneidman, Norman. “Soviet Literature in the 1970s.” Valentin Rasputin: Village Prose
Reconsidered, 1979, doi:10.3138/9781487575571.