Viktor Petrovich Astafiev is one of the best representatives of Russian literature of the second half of the 20th century. Astafiev's colleague, Nobel Prize-winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsin, called him an “adamant truth-lover, one of the first to react to the moral depravity of our life.” Astafiev's life and work is an example of selfless service to people and truth. Every Russian and every foreigner, if they are really concerned with the problems on the Russian national agenda, will find Astafiev’s books most helpful. To many he was more than a talented writer – he was a man in whom they had infinite faith. A war veteran, Astafiev is renowned for his ruthlessly truthful stories about the World War II.
The land where Astafiev lived, East Siberia, is measured not by the hundreds but by the thousands of kilometers. A native Siberian, for a larger part of the year Astafiev lived in the settlement of Ovsyanka on the Yenisey River, where several generations of his ancestors once worked the land. Astafiev also had an apartment in Krasnoyarsk, a city that is at least a four-hour flight from Moscow. “I would like to be back in the village, sitting quietly near the Russian stove, or go to the taiga, to such spots where, I am sure, no visitor will find me. In my 75 years on the day of my birth, 1 May, I remember only five years with such nasty weather. In the evening I like to go out to the Yenisei and sit for a while on a log. This makes me feel stronger. In my vegetable garden I have onions, salad, strawberries. I plant everything and reap the harvest myself. I have also a few trees I brought from the taiga mountain ashes, larches and cedars. One cedar already bears nuts. Perhaps this is the greatest joy in my life after the joy of creation.”
One of the main characters of Astafiev's prose is the nature of Siberia. The pages devoted to nature are so vivid that the reader can immediately imagine the amazing spots that only a few have managed to see with their own eyes. Astafiev has described the powerful Yenisey, and smaller rivers such as the Nizhnyaya Tunguska and the Oparikha, each with its own character.
Astafiev was the first Soviet author to bring up the problem of ecological disaster in his novel “The Tsar -Fish,” which was immediately recognized as a literary masterpiece but also came under criticism. Astafiev spangled the 550 pages of the book with rare dialect words and expressions. Even a native Russian-speaker would find this book difficult to read. But this did not deter translators and publishers, and Astafiev’s book can be found in 27 foreign languages. “The Tsar-Fish” and other of his books have been published in millions of copies in and outside Russia, among them “Theft,” “A Shepherd and a Shepherdess,” and “The Last Bow.”
Astafiev could not imagine human existence without reading books: "I read Cervantes ‘Don Quixote’ not as a young man but much later. This is the book of books, the most merciful book and its main character is the most merciful man. There was a period when I read a lot of Shishkov and Gorky. Then I passed over to Dostoevsky and only at 45 discovered books by Ivan Bunin, who was not available in the Siberian province. And my love for Turgenev’s novel “Rudin” caused me some trouble. During World War Two I served in the communications troops. I spent my every spare minute on my favorite book and used to quote for my comrades my favorite excerpts about the life of the Russian gentry in the mid-19th century and about Rudin’s philosophic strivings. But my comrades thought all this was absolutely out of place and wouldn't listen to me.”
Astafiev became an orphan at an early age. When World War II broke out, he volunteered for the front and fought as a rank-and-file soldier all the way through. He was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and a medal “For Bravery.” In 1951 Astafiev published his first story “Civilian.”
Astafiev’s books reveal what he thinks of the Russian national character and the Russian national idea. In 1995 he published the novel “The Condemned and the Killed,” another book about World War II - probably the most cruel of all. He tried to tell the whole truth, however bitter and unbearable it might be. Death, horror and the madness of war are described without reservations. Astafiev, who has seen action himself, repeatedly addressed the subject of war, trying to say what he knew about the past so that the past might never repeat itself. He had the courage to take a glimpse at the enemy trenches, show the hardships of war experienced not only by Russian but also by German soldiers. Hundreds of documents about World War II have passed through his hands, documents that became available only recently. These documents shocked the writer, made him take a different view of many historical events. He arrived at the conclusion that Leningrad ought to have been surrendered in 1942, and that the storming of Berlin was a mistake of the command. “To my mind, the most important, most interesting and most difficult thing facing Russian literature is a test for truth. Strange as it may seem, it was easier to fight one's way by letting out “grains” of truth. Our literature was only good enough for three minutes of truth. And today, when one needn't lie, it has suddenly proved so difficult. Life as it is, undisguised reality observed and brilliantly recorded by a writer - is the eternal source of literary renewal.”
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