University of Rochester

Work of Major Russian Film/Literary Artist Studied in New Book

July 12, 2000

A Soviet Russian artist, equally famous as a film director, actor, and writer, and whose works are still being discussed today, is the subject of a new book by a University of Rochester faculty member.

Prodigal Son: Vasilii Shukshin in Soviet Russian Culture, by associate professor John Givens, is the first English-language study of the figure who perhaps reached more people in more media than any other artist in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. In the book, published by Northwestern University Press, Givens discusses the clash of cultural and social forces in Shukshin's life and work, showing how it reflected the contrast between rural and urban culture in Russia after Stalin died.

The son of peasants, Shukshin was born in Siberia in 1929 and showed no early hints of his future success. After dropping out of technical school at 17, he worked as a laborer, failed to get into military school, did a two-year stint in the Navy, and needed two tries to pass the exams for his general education certificate.

In 1954 Shukshin went to Moscow and entered the State Cinema Institute. He published his first story and got his first movie role within four years. Over the next decade and a half he wrote, produced, and acted in films, and published numerous books and short stories.

Though not a dissident writer, Shukshin filled his work with irreverence and impudence, using colorful rural dialogue to nudge prurient Soviet norms. He earned several prizes for his acting and writing including, posthumously, the Lenin Prize for creative achievements. Shukshin is also credited with revitalizing the Russian short story genre, Givens explains, which was ignored under Stalin's push for epic novels and films.

The decade following Shukshin's death from a heart attack in 1974 saw wide speculation and discussion about his work and his future direction in film or literature had he lived. Shukshin's films can still be seen on Russian television, and new editions of his books appeared in print as recently as last year.

Givens and his wife Laura Michael have previously published a translation of 25 short stories by Shukshin, titled Stories from a Siberian Village. Shukshin's plain, laconic style has earned him comparison to American writers Erskine Caldwell, Raymond Carver, and Sherwood Anderson.

This past year Givens received the University's Edward Peck Curtis Award for Undergraduate Teaching and was named Professor of the Year in the Humanities by the Student Association.