Obituary: Vladimir Soloukhin

For quarter of a century Vladimir Soloukhin, a major contemporary Soviet writer from the 1960s to the 1990s, led a campaign to stop the destruction of an important part of the Russian national heritage - Russian Orthodox churches. His "Letters from a Russian Museum" (1966), and "Black Panels" (1968) were spectacular protests in literary form and in their time created a sensation, making their author a national celebrity. But it had taken 20 years for his feelings about the subject to come to maturity.

Vladimir Alexeevich Solouk-hin was born in Alepino, a village in Vladimir Oblast, in 1924, a few months after the death of Lenin. His father, Alexei Soloukhin, was a so-called Stolypin peasant and was one of millions of victims of Stalin's bloody collectivisation campaign responsible for the destruction of rural Russia in the 1930s - 20 million died through artificial starvation.

Vladimir was a student at an engineering school in the town of Vladimir, near Moscow, from 1938 to 1942. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 he was incorporated as a soldier into an elite squad of guards responsible for the security of the Kremlin. His ambitions, however, lay in literature. By mid-1945 his peasant background and war record had helped him to get into print - poems and short stories of no literary value.

In 1946 he was accepted as a student at the elite Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow. From 1951 on he contributed regularly to the weekly magazine Ogonek, again mainly poems and short stories. Rozhdenie Zernograda ("Birth of Zernograd", 1955) was a contribution to Khrush-chev's propaganda campaign targeted at young people to go and work in the so-called tselinnye zemli - new, previously untouched lands in far away areas such as Kazakhstan, where sub-human conditions prevailed.

In 1957 Soloukhin received official recognition for his Vladimirskie poselki ("Vladimir Villages"), in which he described his visits to villages in his native territory - poor, delapidated, and abandoned - in the beautiful literary style for which he became known. In his devotion to the government, the following year he took part in a vicious official campaign of harassment against Boris Pasternak; as he later wrote, he was to regret this action all his life. Nonetheless, this public loyalty secured his acceptance as a member of the Presidium of the Union of Writers of the Russian Federation.

In 1964 he published an autobiographical novel, Mat' Machekha ("Step- Mother"). During the Brezhnev years he travelled extensively around the country searching for and studying icons and churches. It was at this time that he returned to his peasant roots, and his researches into Christianity, collectivisation and icons changed his heart and turned him against the politics of the Soviet Government.

It was about these subjects that he wrote his two most important books, Pisma iz russkogo muzeya ("Letters from a Russian Museum") and Chernye doski ("Black Panels"), about the systematic destruction by the Soviet Government of Russian icons and Russian Orthodox churches. They made him a national celebrity. But the price was that he was attacked by the Soviet literary establishment. From this time he was completely unpublishable in Russia, but his London publisher, Vladimir Chuguev of Iskander Ltd (Iskander was the 19th-century writer Alexander Herzen's pseudonym during his London exile) published Rodnaya Krasoca ("Native Beauty", 1968) and later other books.

Meanwhile in Russia his popularity grew. From the Seventies onwards he wrote for the important Novy Mir magazine and others and made public appearances in response to invitations from all over the country, speaking out on what was happening to Russian churches. The authorities realised it was too late to silence his views so had to tolerate him, and in 1979 he was awarded the State Prize of the Russian Federation. In 1980 he wrote Vremya sobirat kamni ("It's Time to Collect Stones") about the destruction by the Soviet Government of the important Russian monastery at Optina Pustyn, once a place of Christian pilgrimage.

He was delighted by Gorbachev's perestroika. In 1988 his very important book, Smekh za levym plechom ("Laughter Over the Left Shoulder"), which was anti-Communist, was published in Frankfurt. The following year in the Moscow magazine Rodina (number 10, 1989), for the first time, he gave a critical analysis of Lenin's heritage. In 1990 Communists viciously attacked his last book, Kameshki Na Ladoni ("Small Stones on a Palm") about the fate after the Second World War of Russian prisoners of war and refugees who fled collectivisation and the Gulag and were handed over by the Allies to Stalin, many to their death. At his Moscow apartment Soloukhin amassed the biggest collection of valuable Russian icons in private hands, worth according to rumour some $2m US dollars.

Vladimir Alexeevich Soloukhin, writer and campaigner: born Alepino, Vladimir Oblast 14 June 1924; died Moscow 4 April 1997.

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