Vasilii Shukshin

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Vasilii Shukshin was not destined to be an international film star. His face slightly askew, nose detouring to the right on its way to Roman nobility, eyes hooded, and stature meager, Shukshin was an actor that only a Russian could love. And they did. As actor, director and writer, he produced a string of movies, beginning with There’s this Guy (Zhivet takoi paren’, 1964), and including among others Happy-go-Lucky (Pechki-lavochki, 1972) and his final and greatest success, Snowball-Berry Red (1973). Each film and story he created celebrated in one way or another the chudak, the specifically Russian oddball whose tongue-tied integrity leaves him on the edges of life, but in the heart of simple folk.

His most enduring role was Egor Prokudin, hero of Snowball-Berry Red, which Shukshin wrote, directed and played the year before his death. Egor was a ne’er-do-well who fell in with the wrong crowd as a young man. A string of robberies sent him to prison, and the film finds him released back into society and resolved to do good. It is not to be. Lacking job skills, slightly befuddled by the complexities of modern life, and gnawed by a yearning for a simple life that he lost when he was taken from the village to the city as a child, Egor cannot find a purpose, and falls easy prey to his old gang when they come back for him. When the love of a good Russian woman, played by Lidiia Fedoseeva, gives him the strength to turn them away, his old comrades cold-bloodedly kill him. The stark symbolism of this final scene, when Egor’s red blood stains the white bark of the birch, touched Russians deeply in the age of Soviet internationalism.

Shukshin was a maverick, not a rebel. A party member from 1955, his pedigree was quintessentially Soviet. Born in 1929 in the village of Srostki, in the Siberian district of Altai, he did odd factory jobs in provincial cities, served in the navy, and taught history in his native village before he was accepted into film school in Moscow. The eagerness of Russian audiences to identify with his characters brought him acting success, which he then parlayed with his considerable writing skills. He won a string of prestigious state prizes for his writing, directing and acting from the mid 1960s, and his work resonated with, but never quite belonged to the school of village prose that gained popularity in those years. The village movement (derevenshchina), with its love of rural simplicity, and the staunch purity of character that it bred, had an uncertain relationship with the Soviet state. Although it fostered the Russian national identity that had become central to Soviet patriotism, it also denied the benefits of much of what the Soviet system had created. Thus when he died while filming Sergei Bondarchuk’s patriotic war fest, They Fought for the Homeland(1975), his legacy proved ambiguous. Was he a non-comformist like Vladimir Vysotskii, whose innate Russianness did not indispose him to western influence or the modern world; or a Russian nationalist along the lines of village writers Valentin Rasputin and Fedor Abramov, who eventually turned their backs on the greater world.

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