This short story by Rasputin is an excellent example of the Russian nationalist sentiment that Weiner, in “Student Movements”, deems an
ideological odyssey… composed of…upwardly mobile beneficiaries of the system who had comformed but who felt disillusioned and betrayed (p.339)
This betrayal, he goes on, stems from the realization that their native or home environment was being ruined by the socialist system, a system which “on its own would not stop it” (p.339) [since of course the same system started it]. These writers and actors saw cosmopolitanism and Western thought as parts of the problem as well. All of these convictions are apparent in “Downstream”.
The story is absolutely bursting with environmental romanticization, nationalist, and borderline antimodern symbolism. Viktor, an upwardly mobile villager-turned-city dwelling author, would seem to represent Rasputin himself in the story. Before Viktor arrives home, the story is rife with romanticizations of both the environment and solitude, which the reader is to connect to environmental remoteness of rural villages. Viktor romanticizes his village, the river, remote and pristine islands, being alone on the ship, sunshine, and much more. Of all of this, my favorite use of symbolism is the ship. The ship symbolizes an isolated island upon the river, and therefore Viktor’s happiness. The fact that it is the ship’s second maiden voyage represents his return home as a return to childhood and innocence. The river becomes gray and lifeless near the new large, industrial village, where the inhabitants are looking for escapism from their ruined environment via alcohol, and the ship can’t even dock on the poor shore.
Most important, I feel, are the connections Rasputin draws between humans and the environment. These expose his environmentalist leanings, and show that while he still sees humans as integral to maintaining the health of the environment (the environment is not self-sufficient), he does not see them as dominating conquerers and subduers. For example, after leaving the large industrial village, the ship passes some forest removed from humanity. It is “not flooded” by humans to make a resevoir, and “saved from death, was on the brink of happiness…[yet] It looked unkempt and overgrown” (p. 407). The term unkempt implies a lack of human care.
Rasputin also alludes to the inability of communism to fix environmental problems or truly understand humans in the critique of Viktor’s short story book. He was
reproached for…superfluous psychologizing, for diggining into people’s souls too much…no clear…positive and negative heroes… As if people search for friends in books (p. 417).
In other words, there is no black-white good-evil dichotomy in real life. People are complex, not simple, and communism’s simplified view of humans and nature is unrealistic and will not solve or accomplish terribly much. This was a great story which could be endlessly dissected and is highly informative in regards to environmental and nationalist thought at this time in Soviet history.