In his smile of many shades, there was his own, Vampilovian style.
Humor is the inversion of life. Or better yet, humor is the inversion of common sense—a smile of the mind.
Aleksandr Vampilov was born in 1937, a year remembered in Russia as one of both national self-confidence and widespread terror. Communist rule had reached new heights under Josef Stalin, inspiring advancement across the Eurasian landmass and turning the Soviet Union into a world power with growing international influence. Domestically, however, life often was defined by repression, as the year saw the worst of the purges carried out by the Secret Police against all aspects of society. Such contradictory conditions undoubtedly led the post-Stalin generation of novelists, poets and playwrights to redefine Russian literature in the 1960s. Among the most important of these are Irkutsk native Valentin Rasputin and, of course, Vampilov.
Perhaps it is not coincidental that that same year scholars were particularly active, as 1937 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Aleksandr Pushkin, Russia’s most revered poet. It was in his honor that Vampilov was named.
He was born and grew up in Kutulik (meaning “dale” or “nook” in the indigenous Buryat language), a small village three and a half hours northwest of Irkutsk along the highway leading to Krasnoyarsk. Despite the rural nature of his upbringing, Vampilov was nonetheless born into a well-educated family that was seen as part of the intellectual class. His father Valentin Nikitich Vampilov, a Buryat and a graduate of Irkutsk State University, knew five languages and was a private tutor for the son of Irkutsk’s mayor-general. After graduation, he returned to his native Kutulik, where he taught Russian and literature and later became director of the local elementary school. There Vampilov’s mother, Anastasia Prokopievna, also worked, teaching mathematics. On August 19, 1937, she found herself in the delivery wing in Cheremkhovo, and the family’s fourth and youngest child, Aleksandr, was born.
Valentin Nikitich wrote to his wife: “I’m sure all will be well. Our child may be a son and could become a crook, and I’m afraid that he might not be a writer, since in my dreams all I see are writers. The first time I dreamt that the very Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy and I were looking for firewood, and that we found it. In the second dream I drank vodka with Maksim Gorky and kissed him on his bristling cheek. I’m afraid that a writer will not be born.” And later, after the birth: “Good job, Tasya, you gave birth to a son. My foretellings were right… a son. For the other feeling to come true…shall we name him Lev or Aleksandr? I have prophetic dreams, you know.”
Such a father could have given much to his son, but soon after Vampilov’s birth his father was denounced, arrested, and shot. Later, according to G. Mashkin, “with a sad smile Aleksandr said, ‘My father was taken away because he had too many books for a provincial teacher.’ ” It is interesting to note that both sides of Vampilov’s bloodlines contained learned men, particularly religious leaders: on his father’s side were several generations of Buryat lamas, and on his Russian mother’s were Orthodox priests. Perhaps such a blend of religious cultures explains the young Vampilov’s character, at once humbly laconic and invested in both the past and the meaning of actions surrounding him. Moreover, it might shed light on the meteoric rise of a boy from rural Siberia into the strata of Russia’s literary heritage.
Anastasia Prokopievna took care of her four children along with their grandmother, Aleksandra Afrikanovna Vampilovna. Vampilov did not know his grandfather, who had also fallen victim to repression. The eldest child was Mikhail, followed by twins Galina and Vladimir, the latter of which suffered from a heart condition and died at age 16. Later Mikhail was to become a respected geologist, and Galina a renowned teacher of Russian language and literature. Throughout Vampilov’s early years, the family was tight-knit and loving and emphasized the importance of cultural and intellectual development. Shurka, as he was then known, had a childhood typical to Russian provincial life at the time, replete with wooden stores and schoolhouses and gardens full of cherry blossoms, lilac bushes, and apple trees. Family members and neighbors remember him running through the yards, getting into trouble and playing with everyone he could. Who knew that within a few short years, scholars would know tiny Kutulik by name and travel there to learn more about its famous son?
Although there was no theater in Kutulik, Vampilov first became acquainted with the stage through a drama group at school. He was not an excellent student, as he himself confided in letters to a fellow classmate: “I highly recommended myself as a student that could receive all sorts of grades (even the rare F) and could occasionally get caught up in conversation during lessons and see that spring had sprung in the windows.” However, he was an active boy who loved soccer and fishing and taught himself to play mandolin and guitar. He also edited the school paper, acted in amateur productions, and wrote poetry.
“I don’t want to study anything but literature after high school…I’m ready to read for days without so much as stopping to eat! Regarding German, physics, and chemistry, however…” So Vampilov wrote in those same letters while still in the tenth grade. In one, he goes on to express his wish to enroll in the literature faculty at Irkutsk State University, to which he arrived in 1954 and proceeded to fail the entrance exam for German—“the tongue of Hitler,” as he bitterly referred to it. Nevertheless, he passed the exam the next year and from 1955-1960 studied under the auspices of the university’s philology department. For him, these were carefree years full of happiness and hope. “My head was spinning from the springtime, from youth, from success. At that time I wasn’t chasing happiness, I was stepping on its heels without meaning to.”
Had Vampilov enrolled immediately, he would have studied alongside Valentin Rasputin, but the two would not meet until later. For the provincial young man, everything was new: the city and its entertainment, the people, new books, new music, the number of precocious peers around him. His relationship to his studies was multifaceted: he did not perform well enough to graduate with the honor of a red diploma, but he was hardly a laggard. Around Vampilov formed a cohort of friends with similar interests, in which ruled a spirit of youthfulness and creativity. To this day, many of Vampilov’s friends remember him from this time as a natural leader in any setting. Each spring the group left the city to work on a collective farm (a typical pastime for young men and women across the Soviet Union); photographs from these excursions document the young author’s antics, as he and his friends reenact scenes from famous paintings.
The group loved to stroll around the streets of Irkutsk, debating and discussing, or else sit with the books of Remarque, Yesenin, and Babel in the university library. Often they would lay away some of their student stipends for classical records, and together would listen to Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. Vampilov loved to sing. Sergey Ioffe, one of his friends, remembers: “When the group got together, Sanya [Vampilov] would take the guitar and usually sing something quietly, heartfelt. He loved traditional Russian songs and old-time ballads.” He also played mandolin in a student instrumental ensemble. Perhaps, then, he could have grown to be a great musician or poet, but in his third year at the university Vampilov began to write short stories. By some accounts he wrote during lectures, and, at the request of his friends, would read his stories at meetings of the literary society. He read seriously, adding even more mirth to the words. His subjects tended to mirror himself and his greatest preoccupations: life, love, and art. In 1958 the first of his stories were published in the newspapers Irkutsk University, Soviet Youth, and Lenin’s Maxims. These he signed under the pseudonym A. Sanin, a play on Sanya, his own name among friends.
The given specialization at the faculty prepared students to teach Russian language and literature. Many students, however, had no interest in working in the schools, preferring to use their creative energy in the field of journalism. During the fall of his fifth and final year at the university, Vampilov joined the news team at Soviet Youth as a correspondent. There he worked while finishing his studies, traveling around the oblast and reporting on major regional happenings, including the building of the Bratsk hydroelectric station and construction of new and old cities in Zheleznogorsk and Usolya. The majority of his articles from this time are in the form of essays and feuilletons that border on the literary, the only difference being the reporting of fact rather than invented plotlines. Soon his mastery revealed itself, and his articles began to stand out among the others. While working for the newspaper, his first book of stories, A Confluence of Circumstances, was released in 1961, when he was just 24. The opening lines of the eponymous story would come to reflect Vampilov’s career, and indeed, the course of his life: An incident, a trifle, or a confluence of circumstances sometimes become the most dramatic moment in a person’s life.
In the spring of 1960 Vampilov received his diploma. While many of his classmates were sent to teach at schools near and far, he stayed on at the magazine’s editorial staff, with which he formed an informal young artists’ association that served to encourage and critique members’ writing. Igor Petrov, a classmate and friends of Vampilov’s and now a long-serving professor in ISU’s Department of Journalism, remembers casually visiting his friends at the editorial offices during this time while he began his career in radio. Such an easy-going atmosphere did not translate into irresponsible reporting, however. Indeed, readers from all generations favored Soviet Youth for its inspired reporting from the city and the surrounding oblast. In 1962, Vampilov was sent to Moscow to enroll in advanced journalism courses. During that same year, he attended his first literary seminar and began to write for the stage.
While those close to Vampilov had suspected that he could one day write spectacular novels, no one had foreseen his pivot to playwriting. In hindsight, researchers have begun to compare his career to that of Anton Chekhov, as both began with the short story form. The following year, while still working for the magazine, he finished two one-act plays, Raven’s Wood and One Hundred Rubles of New Cash (later retitled A Story with a Typesetter and Twenty Minutes with an Angel).
In 1964 Vampilov left the magazine and began to work freelance. Soon after came his debut as a playwright with the publication of A House with a View of the Field in Journal magazine. “To be a writer, a poet, an academic takes not only hard work, talent, a good heart and what have you. The most important thing is to commit yourself to this path fraught with challenges, commit yourself wholly and implement this commitment in your life. To have talent, a wish, a dream is to have everything but what’s most important: a serious commitment and real effort. It’s an achievement.” So Vampilov thought, and so he committed himself.
The following year, during a seminar in Chita, Vampilov was accepted into the prestigious Writers’ Union, formalizing his early success. Of the thirty artists recommended for induction, seven were from Irkutsk. Along with three more young writers, these seven provided the foundation for what was called the “Irkutsk Wall”: Rasputin, Mashkin, Krasovsky, Samsonov, Sergeev, Shugaev, Pakulov, Ioffe, Lapin, and the soul of the Wall, Vampilov.
In 1965, Vampilov left “to conquer” Moscow along with his friend Vyacheslav Shugaev. Vampilov went door-to-door among the city’s theaters with his first full-length play, Farewell in June, but alas to no results. In fact, the play’s premier was not to occur in Russia at all, but rather in Klaipėda, Lithuania. Little by little, provincial theaters picked up the play, but those in Moscow and Leningrad failed to notice his work. “I’m not complaining,” he wrote in a letter to the manager of the Yermolova Theater Yelena Yakushkina, “I’m just furious, and I damn this all to hell.” Despite his youth, Vampilov’s plays were soon to be recognized for the profundity they contain within their seemingly unremarkable subject matter. For example, in his widely adored The Elder Son, a pair of young men find themselves stuck in the cold on the far end of town after public transport has stopped for the night. In the name of shelter and a little to drink, they trick a man into believing that one of them is his long-lost son, thus continuing the eternal strife between fathers and sons as first written into Russian literature a century before by Ivan Turgenev. Likewise, his magnum opus Duck Hunting is remembered as perhaps the greatest play of the post-Stalin period for the psychological insights displayed through the protagonist. Indeed, such portrayal of human nature led Soviet apparatchiks to view the play with suspicion.
The Elder Son made its Leningrad premiere four years after Farewell in June appeared in Lithuania. Vampilov did not live to see his work staged in Moscow, nor the publication of his final play. Last Summer in Chulimsk had been slated for publication in the September, 1972 edition of Angara magazine, but Vampilov met his sudden end in August.
It happened in Lake Baikal, just outside of Irkutsk. Vampilov was preparing to celebrate his thirty-fifth birthday on August 19. Two days before, he and his friend Gleb Pakulov left Port Baikal for Listvyanka, a lakeside resort town not far away, for a day of fishing. While the boat skirted the shore several dozen yards out, it hit a tree branch in the water and capsized. Vampilov yelled to Pakulov to hang onto the boat and wait for help, then began to swim toward shore. As Pakulov later remembered, Sanya nearly made it to shore when, standing upright, he flailed his arms and fell face down. His heart had given out.
Not far from that fateful shore now stands a monument to the author. His relationship to Lake Baikal was a complicated one: while he dreamed of owning a dacha on its waters, his writings appear to tempt the lake’s legendary temperament. In a letter from his school days he writes, “Baikal finally saw: the sea is pretty, but hardly holy, judging from the stories of Baikal’s fishermen.” Later, he wrote, “when will this puddle calm down?” In the end, Baikal took him into the entombing darkness of its waters.
Scholars insist that the plays Vampilov left behind do not reflect the full potential of his talents. Had he been able to continue, perhaps he would have written a novel. As it stands, we have but five completed plays, Farewell in June, The Elder Son, Provincial Anecdotes, Duck Hunting and Last Summer in Chulimsk. In each, the complexity and subtext are seemingly never-ending, and are sure to keep our interest for generations to come.