Writers in Their Society: Soviet and Canadian Writers

Conference in Castlegar, B.C. — March 18-19, 1989
Paper presented by Koozma J. Tarasoff, Ottawa, Canada
Also see news commentary at end.

Four Russian writers were on hand together with some of Canada's literary elite. I escorted the Russians across Canada. Stops were made in Calgary, Edmonton, Castlegar, Grand Forks, and Vancouver.
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Left to right: Vasili Belov, noted prose writer and poet; Victor Petelen, biographer; Olga Folkina, poet; Egor Isaev, poet; and Alexander Vaschenko, scholar.

From March 10 – 23, 1989, I accompanied the group on a Western Canada Reading Tour as well as a two-day Workshop on ‘Writers in Society’ in Grand Forks, BC. My role was that of official photographer, assistant interpreter, and tour host. Photo 1204_31, March 1989 by Koozma J. Tarasoff. All rights reserved.

I.     Role of Writers in Society

        How do we represent ourselves to the world? How do we transmit our experiences or our messages to ourselves and others? Or, how do we clearly communicate with others? The answer seems clear enough for we  usually communicate through words using  information from our senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and  feeling.

        However, communication is more than just words. It involves our tone, the way we deliver or package our message, and the nature of our readiness or glasnost (openness) to respond to the pressing issues of the day in a manner that is accurate, fair, and balanced. Lev N. Tolstoy did this many decades ago when he elaborated an old, but historically valuable idea of  nonviolence and the strategy of understanding and love in human relations.

        In a manner of speaking, without words, the Doukhobors — a minority group which opposed the Orthodox Church and the right of government to wage war — did the same when they burnt their firearms on June 28-29, l895, in a firm public resolve to get rid of the institution of war once and for all. That act by this small group of illiterate Russian peasants has served to this day as an Olympian torch for an idea whose time has come.

        As members of society, writers are carriers of a particular  history and culture, each with a distinctive stamp of who we are. They reflect the strengths of their society, its warts and blemishes, as well as its future directions. They perform a noble role in society.

II.     What it Means to be a Writer in Canada

        Canada's population of nearly 26 million is made up of roughly one third English background, one third French, and one third other. This three-fold multicultural mix provides a challenge for its members to learn to live  in peace with different traditions, languages,  and approaches. Canadian writers often explore  these diverse and interesting paths through the medium of nonfiction writing, novels, poems, plays and other writings.

        One striking fact that affects all Canadians is that we are neighbors to two huge countries: the USA and  the Soviet Union. As a consequence of our location and small population size, Canadians stand in a unique position to play an intermediary role between these two politically-competing giants. Like David facing Goliath,  Canadians can stand up and be counted in a number of ways.

        As Canadians we can protest the testing of nuclear weapons on our soil. We can pull out of NATO. We can cease developing new weapons. We can once and forever bury the "deterrence" theory (which even the military has no confidence in) and therefore scrap plans to build nuclear submarines (if there is no threat, because there is no enemy, there is no need for such potentially-suicidal death delivery machines). We can stop selling military arms to other countries. We can also help strengthen the United Nations. Last, but not least, we can actively support  joint business, scientific, cultural and environmental ventures the world over, but especially with the Soviets. These are activities where Canadian writers can play a supporting role as cultural brokers in the international arena.

        At the same time, as writers we belong to a region, to a nation, and ultimately to the world community. Or, as literary giants Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910), William Lloyd Garrison (1804-1874), and Thomas Paine (1737-1809) have stated, we are first and foremost citizens of the universe. Our country is mankind. Our dual citizenship gives us a special responsibility in our global context. Crossing cross-cultural and international boundaries is one of the important roles that we can play in our struggling world community.

        Yet writers do not always achieve this noble goal. As with other members of society, like in government, business, even the peace movement, we often fall prey to stagnation.

        In looking at our society today, what impact has had  the coming of perestroika, glasnost, new thinking, and democratization  on our thinking, and more important, on our actions? For example, have we responded positively and congruently to Mikhail Gorbachev's December 7, 1988 model address to the United Nations for the restructuring of our whole international community and our institutions  in order to usher in a new epoch  in human development? An epoch based on cooperation instead of conflict. the freeing of international relations from ideology (whereby capitalists and communists can work together in one camp), and encouraging us to work together on such global tasks as:
  • "setting up extensive, equal and mutually beneficial cooperation between nations;
  • "using breakthroughs in science and technology wisely;
  • "restructuring international economic ties or protecting the environment;
  • "eradicating underdevelopment, hunger, disease, illiteracy and other scourges;
  • "and, last but not least, eliminating the nuclear threat and militarism."(1)
Such were Gorbachev's reflections (which we all can agree with) on the destinies of the world on the threshold of the 21st century.

        As writers from North America, how many of us have embraced these stated objectives by a Soviet head of state? How many of us had the courage to speak out in support of a profound plan for global survival  that comes from our northern socialist neighbor?

        Or, have we, as many other members of our society have done before, hesitated to provide full support for this new thinking for fear of some assumed or real intimidation in our society? Intimidation from the military itself, the defence establishment, the business corporations that profit from these ventures, the arms pushers that promote drug trade and societal corruption, from  many of our elected leaders who are intimidated or co-opted by those same profiteers, and even from many members of the peace movement (who ought to know better)  who drag their heels and hesitate to follow their conscience and thereby allow the cold war to continue.

III.    What it Means to be a Writer of a Minority (in my case, Doukhobors)?

        I  come from a Russian-Doukhobor heritage, a heritage that has deep roots in the Slavic past (and is now one of the smallest minorities in Canada and the USSR). This quirk of history is enriching and is a real asset to me at a time in our world history when cross-cultural communications are the wave of the future. Until recently, we, as Doukhobors and Slavs in Canada, were considered as marginal people. Critics commonly called us "the men in sheepskin coats", while others like writer Bruce Hutchison labeled us as people who defied "the laws of Canada, as stubbornly and dumbly as cattle"(2)

        It is a tribute to good sense that such derogatory labels did not prevail. Especially after the 1987 signing of a high level disarmament agreement between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, Slavs almost suddenly and vicariously were elevated to new status. We have come of age.

        Today Russian has become an important international language of communication — one that more and more North Americans are just beginning to accept. This is illustrated by the recent doubling of enrollments as well as staff size in many Slavic Departments and Institutes across the continent. Not only is it legitimate to study Russian and the Soviet Union these days, but it has become prestigious to do so.

        Today the Soviet Union provides some the biggest cultural and business opportunities in the world. The Soviet collective experiment, which has for so long been denounced in the West, has become a legitimate area of study. This interest combined with western individualism promises to release new and  exciting opportunities for East-West understanding and growth. We have begun to realize that stagnation is not something restricted to the Soviet Union, but applies equally to our institutions in the West. In fact, the forces of perestroika and glasnostare already  having reverberations all over the world. It is the clarion call and  the wave of the future for our renewal and development.

        More and more we are beginning to realize the need to change our thinking from confrontation to cooperation, from a win-lose strategy to a win-win one, from violence to non-violence. This is a welcome paradigm shift from cave mentality to more civilized human maturity. Rapid change brings forth difficult, though exciting times,  pregnant with new possibilities.

        Canadian and Soviet Doukhobors, I believe, possess a gene pool of historic and cultural experience that can assist them in playing a leading role in cross-cultural communications and in working to free the world from the blight of wars. With our knowledge of the Russian language, we possess useful skills for bridge-building enterprises. We can assist our neighbors with cross-cultural exchanges and joint venture business activities. Also we can work for disarmament, economic conversion, and getting to know the stranger.

        Being part of a local community has its difficulties and advantages. Our difficulties are related to the tribal forces that pull us towards a narrow focus of society, with local pressures towards isolationism. These we must resist; we must seek a balance. As Doukhobors we have an advantage in that our feet are deep in our historic and cultural past, giving us depth, character, and a feeling of integrity; while our eyes are raised to the new beacon of universal disarmament and mutual peace — and this gives us a focussed view on a global context.

        As a Doukhobor writer, I have been guided by several very powerful images and metaphors which I use periodically to underline our basic human survival values.

        One of these is the metaphor of Plakun Trava — which Russian ethnographer / historian Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich wrote about in his Doukhobor Book of Life(3) that he compiled in the form of an anthology of oral literature when he visited his countrymen and women in Canada at the turn of the century. This is an image, which the Doukhobors adopted for themselves, from a peculiar weed that flows against the prevailing water current. The water symbolizes human institutions that have as their aim to socialize and assimilate the masses under their control.

        Another image is that of the historic 1895 Burning of Firearms. A third is the image of Bread, Salt, and Water. A fourth is the Peace Dove, while a fifth is the image of the recent historic signing of a disarmament agreement between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in the USA, with the inscription: "The pen is mightier than the sword."

        All five speak to the reality of our day. The second and the last two call for the elimination of the institution of war and violence, something that the Doukhobors have pioneered for over a century. In today's terms, this idea has come of age. We have seen the images on TV that show the dismantling of some of our nuclear missiles from its huge stockpile of 60,000 warheads. As a Doukhobor writer I applaud this dismantling process and urge the dismantling of others. For me, one missile is too much!

        The third image is a powerful symbol of hospitality that Slavic pioneers have used for centuries, and one that the Doukhobors have borrowed from their heritage. It is a also a symbol of equality and equal status. These ingredients are placed in front of all traditional Doukhobor meetings, in much the same way as the Mace is placed in the Canadian Parliament when the House of Commons is in session.

        Today, bread, salt, and water, as our staff of life, reminds us that we all deserve to have a basic standard of living. As human beings we deserve to use the fruits of our environment and our labor in a sensible way. By direct extension, we have the responsibility to treat our resources with care. This means looking after our fragile environment: our beautiful Rain Forest, our waters, our trees, and the air we breathe. These precious natural resources are to be used not with a sense of exploitation, but with a sense of stewardship. There is enough for all if we see ourselves as being an integral part of our universe — and not as its exploiters and conquerors. More and more people are beginning to realize that we must return to the wisdom of our early pioneers and treat our environment as a friend.

        With the previously unquestioned ascendance of science and technology, of computers, and our thirst for excessive profits and greed, we have brought our environment to a sorrowful state of decay. To avert total catastrophe, we must immediately stop this decay through the application of our new-found skills of internationalism, cooperation, compassion, and global respect for our environment. As writers in society, we can play a powerful role in supporting this campaign as we go about heightening awareness of the societal dangers that we face today. We are not only entertainers, recorders and informers, but we serve another important role in society as social change agents.

IV.   The Joint Soviet-Canadian Venture in Perspective

        The handshake, home visits, the friendly kiss, the words of welcome, the exchange of visitors and cultures, and the breaking of bread together, are all gifts that we give to one another as well as provide a model for others to follow. This model is so important today because it provides us a direct link in getting to know the stranger, and therefore helps us to dispel some of the misconceptions that have crept into our vocabulary through the cold war years.

        This  gathering of Soviets and Canadians is a celebration of our mutual experiences. It is a sharing of insights, beautiful expressions, glorious sounds of voice and music, warm feelings, and more. In brief, it is an exchange of gifts like the ancient peoples once performed extensively for group solidarity, or what we as anthropologists have discovered taking place in our fieldwork around the world.

        To all. thank you for making this happen. The words of writers have a magic quality about them. Like birds flying across the ocean, words can fly across political boundaries and bridge the communications gap between the West and the Soviets, between individuals and the group, between capitalists and communists, between the local community and the world. By Soviets and Canadians coming together in this community, we have contributed to this vital global human endeavor of getting to know the stranger.

  1. Mikhail Gorbachev Address at the United Nations (Moscow: Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, 1988), p.11.
  2. Bruce Hutchison, The Unknown Country: Canada and Her People (Toronto: Longmans Canada Limited, new and revised edition, 1964), p. 241.
  3. Zhivotnaia Kniga Dukhobortsev (St. Petersburg, 1909).

A news commentary by Koozma J. Tarasoff, Ottawa, Ontario, March 30, 1989.

Soviet Authors Hold Reading Tour of Western Canada

It was a privilege and a pleasure for me to accompany five top Soviet authors across Alberta and British Columbia, March 10 – 14, during their first appearance in Canada. The five included
  1. Egor A. Isaev, noted poet, an the outgoing member of the Supreme Soviet, with 7 million books in print;

  2. Vasili I. Belov, prolific novelist, poet and playwright with 20 million books in print, and now a new member of the Supreme Soviet;

  3. Olga A. Fokina, a much-celebrated poet and songwriter with 23 poetry books in print, and one who has the remarkable ability to recite from memory her 1,000 poems that she has composed since 1960;

  4. Victor V. Petelin, a historical and biographical novelist, who chooses important historic figures such as Feodor Shaliapin and Alexey Tolstoy, researches them, and writes about them; and

  5. Alexander V. Vaschenko, the only English-speaker of the group, a literary scholar, with a PhD in American literature with a focus on North American Indian literature.

As I photographed these literary international giants and listened to their presentations, as well as met Canadian authors, I came away with several strong impressions:
  1. Soviet writers respond sensitively to a wide and keen readership in their country. There are much fewer television sets, cars and modern technology to distract them from the enjoyment of local, national and international literature, as compared to affluent North Americans; their price of books are cheaper; and they have a tradition of being culturally literate. Perhaps we in North America are too rich for our own good.

  2. Doukhobors have come of age, according to Egor Isaev, head of the delegation. Their ideas of nonviolence, cooperation, and the cultivation of the inner worth are ideas that are relevant to the issues of peace, environmental protection, inter-group understanding and cultural enrichment. However, according to Ego, Canadian Doukhobors have not appreciated this wider worth and instead have tended to isolate themselves from others through t he narrow institution of sectarianism.

  3. The cross-cultural structure of the tour is a model of the future. Sponsors were not restricted to one sector of society, such as the Doukhobors, English or Canadians. Rather all groups were involved in this cooperative venture: Selkirk College (as the coordinating body), the Association of Canadians of Russian Descent, Society Rodina (in Moscow), Alberta Writers’ Guild, Federation of BC Writers, several Kootenay area school boards, provincial and federal government departments, and local and area Doukhobor groups in Alberta and British Columbia. The wave of the future is for left and right, Communists and Capitalists, atheists and religious peoples, government and non-government people working together on issues common for mutual survival on our global planet. Such as getting rid of nuclear and conventional weapons, working to convert military economy to domestic uses, seeking to preserve our environment for ourselves and future generations, as well as working to solve the problems of poverty, illiteracy, disease and violence.

  4. Most North Americans have unduly isolated themselves geographically, politically and culturally, and thereby have failed to become literate in the rich Russian and Soviet literatures. In order to become aware of this important world creative resource, as we have done with English literature, North Americans need to learn the Russian language (which is one of five top world languages), read materials from the USSR (including translations), travel to the Soviet Union and see and hear things first-hand, and become directly involved in a wide range of cultural, educational, sports, scientific, literary and business exchanges with the Soviet Union.

  5. We need to cultivate our imagination (how to get a flower out of a rock, for example) and our common sense more deeply, broadly and sensitively, so that we will  have the ability to respond more appropriately to the changing nature of our society. Like the “25th Hour” that Egor Isaev spoke about in one of his powerful epic poems, this is the ability to use a kind of sixth senses of seeing things as being magically interconnected (us and the world, me and my neighbor as kinfolk, and the lessons of our history not as statistics but something of the heart), as affecting us personally, and as something that challenges us to follow the path of civilized-living regardless of ethnic background or political boundaries.
A visit to the Soviet Union by Canadian writers is anticipated in the spring of 1990.

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