MORALITY IS TRUTH'
Compiled from the articles, speeches and letters of Vassily Shukshin by L. N. Fedoseyeva-Shukshina.
Here is my village...
Here is the house where I was born...
And here is my mother... Twice married and twice widowed, the first time at 22, the second at 31, in 1942. She devoted most of her energy, in effect her entire life, to her children. Now she thinks that her son is a success and has become a big man in the city. Let her think so. It was from her that I learned to write stories.
Here are my aunts:
Avdotya Sergeyevna. A widow. She brought up two children.
Anna Sergeyevna. A widow. She brought up five children.
Vera Sergeyevna. A widow. One son.
Widows in the 1941/1945 style.
They used to sing well once. Now they can't. I've asked them to, but they can't.
People of amazing endurance! I'm not prone either to exaggerating or belittling the Russian national virtues, but from what I have seen, from what I was used to seeing in my early childhood, I'm sure that there can hardly be anyone else capable of enduring what the Russian woman can endure, and has endured. God forbid that anyone on earth should ever have to endure so much. Life should not be like that.
They are not aware of this. And I only began to understand it myself many years later. And I felt I wanted to tell their stories... Their stories and the stories of the other people in my village.
I was nine when I arrived in Biisk with my parents... The place frightened me. There were so many people! And everyone was rushing somewhere. And no one knew anyone else. In our village everyone knows everyone else. This was an immense new world.
I was frightened to death the first time I walked across the squeaking, swaying pontoon bridge... That was the first wonder that I saw. Gradually I came across other wonders. For instance, the fire station. The observation-tower totally bewitched me, and I swore that I would be a fireman. Then I wanted to be a sailor on the steamship Anatoly, and then a driver, so that I could drive on to the bridge, and it would settle under the weight of the car...
But once I had been to the bazaar, I decided that I would definitely be a petty-thief-l thought that in that bustling crowd, with so much stuff lying about, it would be much easier to pinch a melon than from Aunty Semyonikha's kitchen-garden in our village. (I did not know the criminal code at that time.) But then the idea of being a fireman won out after all—I really liked the shiny helmet.
Then the war started, and we went back to the village. My father went to the front.
That early spring morning when I left home, I was sixteen years old. I still wanted to run and slide on the smooth, thin, glassy-bright ice, but I had to go off and find my way in a wide, mysterious world where I had not a single relation, where I didn't even know anyone. I felt sad and a little bit afraid. My mother saw me out of the village, made the sign of the cross over me before I set out,
sat down on the ground and burst into tears. I understood that she was afraid and in pain, but clearly it is more painful for a mother to see her children hungry. My sister stayed behind, she was still little. But I could go, and I did.
I found myself back in the town, as a student at the Automobile Engineering College. I was older and a bit braver. But the place still frightened me. I had to understand too many things differently. The horizon had moved too far into the distance, and life was huge and complicated.
...No. No matter how deep I look within myself, I find no "suppressed malice" against the town. The only thing approaching dislike is envy of the town, because it lures the young people away from the village, and this causes me pain and alarm. It is painful to hear the unhealthy silence descend on the villages in the evening: no accordion wandering aimlessly, no songs to be heard... The cocks crow, but even here something's not quite right, they sing too many "solos". There are no fishermen's fires glowing beyond the river, no hasty gun shots thundering out in the dawn on the islands or beside the lakes. The marksmen and the singers have all moved away. It's worrying... Where have they gone to?
If the economist and expert on social phenomena can demonstrate with figures that the outflow of population from the village is an inevitable process, he can certainly never demonstrate that it is painless or lacking in drama. And art is surely not indifferent to the path trodden by humanity . Especially in such large numbers.
The man of the village, the peasant, is a man of great kindness, and his kindness is obviously extremely important nowadays, in our turbulent, mechanised world. We should do well not to forget the soul. We should do well to be a little kinder, not to forget, in our high-speed lives, that we are people, so let's be... We are only given one chance to live on earth. So let's be a little more considerate to each other, a little kinder.
...So now as I come close to forty, I am neither a genuine town man, nor any longer a villager. A terribly awkward situation to be in. Not even like falling between two stools, more like having one foot on the shore and one in the boat. You have to swim, but you're afraid to. I know it's not possible to maintain such a position for long before you fall. It's not falling that I'm afraid of (what fall? from where?), I just feel really uncomfortable. But my situation does have its positive points. The comparisons, and all the to-ing and fro-ing "from there to here" and "from here to there" automatically turn up ideas not just about the "village" and "the town", but about Russia.
...Nowadays, for all our libraries, museums, cinemas, radio and television, acquiring culture is by no means simple. You need help to get started. Such help can take almost any form, but it is always essentially the same-intelligent, kind and disinterested. It just happened that from the age of about twelve I was helped in choosing what to read—first by a Leningrad schoolteacher who happened to teach in our village school during the war. I had developed an abnormal passion for reading, but I was a poor student. My mother couldn't understand what was wrong and she went to the teacher. She came to our house, asked what I read ... and drew up a list of the books I should read. She said that when I read those she'd draw up another list. I can still remember the library in Sebastopol... I was in the navy and I used the officers' library. And the elderly woman librarian there might as well have had a list too...
The final list was drawn up by Mikhail Ilich Romm when I became his student at the Àll-Union Institute of Cinematography. I can remember almost all the books on these lists, many of them figured more than once... I would be glad to draw up a list for someone myself, I believe in them so much now, and I am so grateful to the books and the people.
At one time I was a teacher in a village school for adults. To be honest, I was no great shakes as a teacher (I had no special training and no experience), but even today I still remember the warmth and the gratitude in the eyes of the young men and women who had already worked hard all day long, when I managed to tell them something important and interesting in an interesting manner (I taught Russian language and literature). I loved them at moments like that. And in my heart of hearts I was proud and happy to believe that here and now I was doing something really worthwhile. It's a pity that there are so few moments like that in our lives. They make us happy.
They ask me how it happened that a village boy like me suddenly upped and left for the Literary Institute in Moscow (not surprisingly, of course, they didn't accept me—I'd never written a single line in my life: I joined Romm's class in the school of directing at the Ail-Union Institute of Cinematography).
The need to take up the pen and write seems to be natural to the disturbed spirit. It's hard to think of any other motive that could move a man who knows something to share his knowledge with others.
I was born in the countryside, a traditional peasant. I went to work very early. During the war we didn't finish school. After seven classes of study I went to work. At fourteen. I went to work, and then ... my time came round and I joined the forces and served in the navy. And only afterwards did college studies become part of my life.
Before that I had passed the tenth-class examinations as an external student. In other words, the period from the beginning of my independent life to the opportunity to make sense of everything that I had seen in the institute-some ten or eleven years—was spent in collecting and absorbing material. Which meant that things could be explained to me at the institute on the basis of my own experience of life. This is probably what gave a more or less independent slant to my comments on the topics they set us.
I was lucky enough to find myself studying under a very interesting man, a man of profound intellect. A genuine intellectual. Mikhail Ilich Romm, now unfortunately deceased... I shall be grateful to him for the rest of my life.
1954. The entrance examinations for the All-Union Institute of Cinematography. I could have been better prepared, my level of scholarship was less than brilliant, and my general appearance puzzled and perplexed the examination board. As far as I can tell now, I was saved by the composition which they had set me to write before I met the actual lecturer. It was called something like "Please describe the activity in the corridors of the AUIC at the present time". A really exciting subject. I made up for everything else In this piece. Our arguments, our jokes, the things that made us angry—I laid it all out in detail.
And then I met Mikhail Ilich Romm. The other applicants in the corridor drew a terrible picture of a man whose very glance would reduce you to ashes. But the eyes I encountered were remarkably kind. He started to ask me all about my life, about literature.
The dreaded examination proved to consist of a warm and sincere conversation. Undoubtedly my entire future was decided there and then as we spoke.
True, I still had the selection committee to deal with. They were also clearly astonished at Mikhail Ilich's choice. Even here I stood out as less enlightened and polished than the others. The chairman of the committee asked me ironically:
"Do you know Belinsky?"
"Yes," I said.
"And where does he live now?"
Everyone on the committee fell silent.
"Vissarion Grigorievich? He's dead," I said, and launched into an unnecessary attempt to prove that Belinsky was dead.
All this time Romm listened and said nothing. Above his spectacles those kindly eyes were fixed on me in a slightly ironical smile...
And now I wonder: what was so attractive about him?
Probably the fact that his mind was constantly at work, I could never—I still cannot—imagine him going fishing, for instance, or standing in a queue. I realise that it is possible to think anywhere, but in my memory he is always reasoning and debating. Reasoning aloud, for everyone, or listening, watching—and still reasoning. As you grow older you begin to understand the strength of a man who is constantly thinking. A strength that is immense, irresistible. Everything passes: youth, charm, passion— everything grows old and decays. Thought remains, and the man who bears it with him throughout his life is beautiful.
In Romm's class we studied more than just directing. Mikhail Ilich required us to try our hand at writing as well. He sent us to certain spots—a post-office or a railway station—and asked us to describe what we saw there. Afterwards he read out our sketches and analysed them. He once gave me a piece of advice: "Keep writing, but don't be in any hurry to send your work to editors, give it to me." Of course, I feel ashamed now for taking up Mikhail Ilich's time. But I set about it with a will, writing pieces and taking them to him. He read them and returned them to me, made his comments and told me to carry on. And then, at the end of the fourth year, or the beginning of the fifth, he said to me: "Send them out at random to all the editors' offices. If your work comes back, send it to someone else next time. That was the way I started." I did as he said. I drew up a list to avoid confusion. The first response was from the journal Smena.
Romm supported me in my first steps. But the time came when he said: "Now you're on your own, you're tough enough." It was a moment of joy, and sadness, and great importance. A major turning-point in my life. My life in art was filled with intelligent and kind people.
So far so good. But what about finding my own way as an artist—what was I to write about? Knowing the village, there was nothing else I could write about. I could be daring here, I was as independent as possible. My inexperience might lead me to imitating at first, but nonetheless it seemed to me that I made good progress along my chosen path... And in general I think that I am still following it; that is, the subject of my stories and films is still the village. I feel I would need three lives to say everything about it.
Over its long history the Russian people has selected, preserved and set on a pedestal of respect human qualities which are beyond further revision: honesty, industrious-ness, conscientiousness, kindness... Through all our historical catastrophes we have preserved the great Russian language, our heritage from our fathers and grandfathers... You must believe that it has not all been in vain: our songs, our folk-tales, our incredibly arduous victories, our sufferings... We have lived fully. Never forget that. Or that you are a human being.
...It's rare for me to envy anyone, but I envy my distant ancestors for their persistence and their immense strength. I wouldn't know what to do with that kind of strength nowadays. I can imagine the effort their journey cost them—from the north of Russia, the Volga and the Don eastwards, to the Altai. I can scarcely imagine it, but they actually made that journey. And if we weren't so cautious with fine phrases nowadays, I would say that I bow my head before their memory, and thank them with all the depth of feeling that my heart can muster: it was they who won my beautiful homeland—for themselves, for us, for those to come after us. The clear skies of my homeland possess a beauty rare on earth. But that is all too easily said: there is a great deal of beauty on the earth, the entire earth is beautiful... It's not a question of beauty, more probably of what our homeland gives each of us for the journey, should we have to follow the opposite route to that followed in ancient times by our ancestors—from the Altai back westwards; in general terms, what his homeland gives a man for the whole of his life. I said that our skies are beautiful but so is our soil, upturned by the plough, so are the people whom I love and remember.
Is it really mine, this homeland, where I was born and grew up? It is. I say it with a sense of profound correctness for I have carried my homeland in my heart all my life, I love it, it is my very life, it gives me strength when times are hard and I am in distress...
My homeland... I have always lived with the feeling that some time I would return to the Altai to stay. I think that perhaps I need to believe in this out of the basic need for security in life: to know that there is always a place to go back to when life becomes unbearable, its fine to live and struggle when there is somewhere to go back to, but it's a different matter when there is nowhere to retreat. I think that the Russian man draws a lot of strength from this feeling that there is somewhere to retreat, somewhere to catch one's breath and gather one's thoughts. I imagine there is some immense power in the land where I was born, some life-giving force which is capable of restoring the vigour of the blood. Clearly, the vitality and staunchness of spirit that our ancestors brought with them still lives on in the people there, and it is true that a man's native air and native speech, the song he has known since childhood and the gentle voice of his mother are a healing balm to his soul.
I regard the eternal efforts of artists to fathom the working of the human soul as the most modern developments in art. This is noble and difficult work. Counterfeit is almost impossible here, for work which merely imitates investigation is soon exposed by the fact that people have no need of it.
...The philosophy on which my life has been based— for almost forty years now—is the philosophy of courage. So why should I, as a reader and a viewer, deny myself the happiness of looking truth straight in the eye?
Surely I can tell when they are telling me about real life, and when they are trying to deceive me. I'm no politician, I can easily get confused in complicated matters, but as a rank-and-file member of the Communist Party of the USSR, I believe that I belong to a party of action and justice, and as an artist I cannot deceive my people, for instance, by depicting life as always happy.
The truth is sometimes bitter. If I conceal it, if I pretend that everything is fine, everything is wonderful, then in the final analysis I deceive my party too. If its members believe me, instead of thinking carefully and applying their energy to solving the problems they come across, they will remain calm. That's no way to manage things. I want to help the party. I want to show the truth.
Morality is Truth. Not truth with a small "t", but Truth. For it is courage and honesty, it means sharing the joy and pain of our people, thinking the way the people think, because the people always know the Truth.