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Russian Soil

If blood and soil are the stuff of nationalism, what does a Russian patriot do when the soil goes bad? He becomes an environmentalist—at least, this was the response of Valentin Rasputin (no relation to Gregory Rasputin who haunted the ill-fated reign of Tsar Nicholas II). But the Siberian-born Rasputin is more than another policy advocate: David Shipler, the New York Times correspondent and author of Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams (1983), has written that Rasputin is "widely considered the most talented writer in the country." That designation is not insignificant in a culture with such a rich literary tradition, yet Rasputin is more, too, than a skilled wordsmith.

Perhaps "mystic" is the best word for him. "Neither the sky beyond the circle of fire nor anything to either side was visible, and the rain made a continuous noise. Sometimes it fell silent for a bit and sometimes it came down hard, and then the fire would hiss even more, resisting the water, shooting the small coals upward in annoyance and murmuring warnings from time to time with angry puffs." This vivid imagery is found in the short story "Live and Love," about a boy's nights during a berry-picking outing on the taiga near Lake Baikal in Siberia. The fiction and nonfiction pieces in Siberia on Fire all convey Rasputin's almost animistic feelings for nature.

In "What...

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