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The Molodaya Gvardia articles did not appear completely out of the blue. There was, through the 1960s, a movement of writers celebrating, or rather lamenting the destruction of, Russian village life. Solzhenitsyn himself had contributed to this with his Matryona's House, published by Novy Mir in 1963, a celebration of an old peasant woman whose only apparent quality was the patience with which she bore a hard life and the contempt and disregard of her neighbours and relatives.  Novy Mir played a prominent role in this development. As early as 1957 it had published Vladimir Soloukhin's Byways of Vladimir. Geoffrey Hosking (20) describes it, saying:

'When Vladimir Soloukhin walked through Vladimir Oblast in 1956, he had the sense of throwing off spiritual barriers raised by a generation of hectic activity: the people who caught his imagination were the craftsmen of Mstera [a traditional centre of miniature lacquered box painting - PB] and the peasants who grow rowan trees in Nevezhino, men who have pursued their calling in much the same way for centuries.' (p.706) (21)

(20) Geoffrey Hosking: 'The Russian peasant rediscovered: "Village Prose" of the 1960s', Slavic Review, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Dec., 1973), pp. 705-724.

(21) Note by Hosking: 'Vladimir Soloukhin's 'Vladimirskie proselki 'was first published in Novyi mir, 1957, no. 9, pp. 82-141, and no. 10, pp. 75-134. It is available in an English translation by Stella Miskin: A Walk in Rural Russia (London, 1966; New York, 1967).'

As well as Matryona's House Hosking lists other contributions Novy Mir made to the 'ruralist' or 'village prose' school, including 'Efim Dorosh's rambling yet passionate Derevenskii dnevnik' (Rural diary) in which 'the peasant and his traditional way of life occupy the centre of the stage. The villages, the fields and woods and lakes of the Rostov region, the local linguistic usages, the private cows and garden plots, the onion domes of the churches, the lacework friezes of the peasant huts - all these things he sees as a single ecological and human organism which bureaucrats and planners disturb at their peril. Kolkhoz chairmen and party secretaries play a positive role only insofar as they understand this' (pp. 708-9) (22); Boris Mozhaev's Iz zhizni Fedora Kuz'kina (Episodes of the Life of Fyodor Kuzkin - 1966) was also published in Novy Mir, as was Vasilii Belov's Plotnitskie rasskazy (A Carpenter's tales - 1968):

'In Olesha's view, a man who by his own labor creates wealth for himself and for the community is not a kulak. But a man who sells what he has bought, or who hires others to do his work for him, is an exploiter. When Aviner calls Feduilenok an exploiter because he hired labor for the haymaking and harvesting, Olesha corrects him: "That wasn't hiring, that was pomochi...." Pomochi is the term for the traditional mutual help given by villagers to one another during periods of intense work, such as haymaking and harvesting, when no family can cope with the demands of its own plot of land. In comparison with this inherited system, the collective labor of the kolkhoz is shown to function badly. It is organised by officials who do not understand the land, and the proceeds are not for the benefit of the community but go to maintain an army of officials. "And the kolkhoznik gets what's left over. Sometimes damn all." This is what has demoralised the village, so that all the able-bodied men have pushed off elsewhere, and the only person left to mind the horses is an old woman with a hernia.' (pp.176-7) (23)

(22) Note by Hosking: 'The numbers of Dorosh's 'Derevenskii dnevnik' can be found in Literaturnaia Moskva, 1956, no. 2, pp. 549-626, and in Novyi mir, 1958, no. 7, pp. 3-27; 1961, no. 7, pp. 3-51; 1962, no. 10, pp. 9-46; 1964, no. 6, pp. 11-83; 1965, no. 1, pp. 81-87; 1969, no. 1, pp. 3-41, and no. 2, pp. 6-59; 1970, no. 9, pp. 39-73. His hopes and fears for the future of the Russian village are most succinctly presented in the last number, Novyi mir, 1970, no. 9, esp. pp. 49-56.'

(23) Geoffrey A.Hosking: 'Vasilii Belov - Chronicler of the Soviet village', The Russian Review, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 165-185

Molodaya Gvardia itself, which published the articles by Lobanov and Chalmaev, had also published a host of stories and poems celebrating village life and, by implication at least, old Russia. Vladimir Soloukhin worked in its editorial office from 1958 to 1981. He was one of the most popular writers in Russia, writing in a usually breezy, cheerful, personal style about often rather grim subjects. In 1968 he published an account of his travels round Russia searching for icons. (24) He had chosen his time well. This was the period, 1958-1964, of Khrushchev's campaign against the Church, when churches were being closed down and abandoned or turned into warehouses. The icons were of no interest to anyone - especially the best and oldest icons. These had gone black - the title of Soloukhin's book in Russia is Black panels - because of the drying oil used by the painters, and had often been overpainted with several layers of later work which had then also gone black. Soloukhin's book begins with his first experience of seeing a restorer at work:

'Now at last we were really looking through an aperture in the dark curtain. On the other side of it everything was bright and festive, red and blue, sunny and lively, while we on this side remained in a dull, dark, gloomy world. It was like looking at a bright screen from the dark of an auditorium - a screen showing a different period of time, a different beauty, a life other than ours. Another planet, another civilisation, a mysterious, fairy world.' (pp.22-23)

(24) Vladimir Soloukhin: Searching for icons in Russia, translated by P.S.Falla, London, Harvill Press, 1971.

He then sets off on his travels (according to the obituary published in The Independent, 9th April, 1997. his collection was eventually said to be worth £2 million). Throughout his journey he is continually regretting the loss of the beauty the churches had given the Russian countryside:

'I drove to Yeltesunovo, left my car on the outskirts of the village and went on foot to look at the ruins of the church. There were still traces of blue on the interior walls. It seemed as though a heavy shell had been fired through the building, after which tanks had gone through it, and now the wind was blowing freely through what was left. The bell-tower, which had been a landmark for miles around, had disappeared without trace. In former days travellers had been able to stop and count all the neighbouring villages nestling among fields and woodland: Rozhdestvenno, Ratmirovo, Fetinino, Kichleyevo and finally Yeltesunovo. From the outskirts of Vasilyevo they could discern, in the golden-blue haze, twenty-one white belfries thanks to which they were able to take their bearings. In winter, during snowstorms the bells were always rung, performing the function of a lighthouse. And those who passed by could simply admire them, since they were the glory of the undulating Russian countryside, while from the towers themselves you could admire the vast expanse of the Russian land.' (p.76)

And he has a number of conversations with people, usually old women, who know what the icons really mean:

'"How do you tell between light and darkness? When there was a monastery and a church here, and we used to decorate the icon with flowers - do you think the village was a darker place then? You're mistaken, my young friends. The icon came down to us from the bright days of antiquity, and now, as you can see, it's been swallowed up by the darkness of ignorance. And here are you two young men looking for it - why? Because the icon is a light and a flame, drawing you to itself.' (p.73)

'The board was on a shelf about two inches from the floor: I bent down and stretched out a hand to take hold of it and inspect it in the light. I could just see, through the blackness, that the whole surface was occupied by a picture of the Virgin with huge mournful eyes. I had almost touched it when it was snatched from before my eyes by the ex-nun, who had darted in sideways like a sparrow-hawk and, with the rapidity and skill of a conjuror, concealed the precious object under her white-spotted black apron. Her eyes as she did so were full of determination, anger and downright hatred, mixed with fear in case I should try to seize the icon from her.

'"Good heavens," I said, "I only wanted to look at it."

'"You shan't, you shan't!" she cried in a frenzy. I expected her to start stamping her foot at any moment. "Haven't you mocked them enough? Are you still not satisfied? Don't I remember how you went at them with axes? You shan't, I tell you! Hit me instead if you like, chop me to bits, throw me into the stove - I won't let you touch it!"' (pp.78-9).

He describes an encounter with an old woman in the recently closed Volosovo monastery:

'In front of the taper and the open book we saw a tiny, bent old woman dressed in black. Her whole body trembled feverishly: her hands, her shoulders, her head, her lower lip and her tongue as she strove to get words out. None the less, we managed to hold a conversation with this strange being in her out-of-the-way habitation.

'"I live alone here, all alone. Yes, I'm a nun. They pulled everything down, and I'm the only person left. I made this little cell for myself, and I get along somehow. So far they've left me alone. What's my name? Mother Eulampia. Before I was a nun? Oh, my dears, that was a long time ago, what's the good of remembering? Katerina, my name used to be. Anyway, here I am looking after the icons. I'm still alive and I look after them. I keep the flame burning night and day."

'"Who put you in charge of the icons? Who asked you to look after them?"

'"Why, God, of course. I protect them by God's order."

'"So I suppose this is your main business in life, your chief duty?"

'"It's the only duty I have. As long as I'm alive, my one business is to keep the flame alight in front of the icons. When I'm gone, the candles will go out too."' (p.109)

Another conversation evokes the 'liquidation of the kulaks' a frequent theme in village prose (and the subject of Soloukhin's powerful short story The First mission, which finally won over Solzhenitsyn, highly suspicious as he was of such a successful writer so 'close to the nomenklatura(25)):

(25) Soljénisyne: Esquisses d'exil t.2, pp.330-331.

'Antonida had no antique icons, but she had a Virgin of Kazan that we liked the look of: it was painted in the nineteenth century, but in a handsome style.

'"Will you sell us this one?"

'"Oh, dear. Oh, dearie me. It's a remembrance from old Masha Volchonka."

'"Was she a relation of yours?"

'"She was our neighbour - they were kulaks, and a cart came one night to take them away. It was winter, there was a snowstorm blowing. They bundled the children and all into a sledge and that was the last we saw of them. Aunt Masha rushed round to say goodbye; she fished this icon out from under her coat and said: 'Here, keep it; it'll remind you of me.' So I've kept it, and every time I dust it I think of her."' (p.145)

And finally:

'Aunt Dunya kept on repeating: "I've told you already, I don't understand things like that. But I won't change my mind about the icons. The idea of my letting you take one out of the house - how do I know who'd get hold of it? You'd only make fun of it, anyway, you and your friends."

'"But we wouldn't, Aunt Dunya - the very opposite! Everyone would admire it as a beautiful picture, a great work of Russian art!"

'"There you are - who says icons are there to be admired? Prayers are what they're for - you pray to them and you keep a light burning in front of them. Is an icon some sort of naked girl, that you want to admire it?'

'"You don't understand what I mean, Aunt Dunya."

'"I've told you already, I don't understand things, so you needn't waste your time asking. I won't change my mind about the icon. How could I deliver it into the hands of strangers? If I did, Our Lady would appear to me at night and say: 'Avdotya, how could you do such a thing as to give me away to the first person who asked?' What could I say to her then, what could I reply to our Blessed Mother?"' (p.161)