For many centuries the Mansis have lived in North Siberia--a small people, but sturdy and of great endurance. They are thought to be the remnant of what was once a much more numerous people who trekked away westward in search of a new home. One may only conjecture just why this fragment of the tribe remained.
The Mansis had no written language. But that does not by any means indicate that they had no poetic sense. The soul of a people is preserved in customs, in songs, in games, in the tales of the good forest fairy Misne, in riddles--in many and various things. For a people is not inarticulate. There are laments, there are lullabies, and tales told in the long winter nights. But for a people to express itself for others to understand, written literature, written poetry is needed; then indeed the poet becomes the voice of the people, their heart and tongue.
The Mansis did have poets, of course, before writing came to them. Perhaps they became shamans dealing in magical incantations, or perhaps their emotional powers were expended on the observation of nature and imbuing natural phenomena with life.
With the coming of literacy one could expect the coming of the real poet who would absorb all the spiritual poetic treasures accumulated over the centuries and offer them to the eyes and ears of other peoples great and small throughout the world.
It was Yuvan Shestalov who had the good fortune to become this first Mansi poet. But it was good fortune for his people too, because this first poet was one of vivid talent and great scope.
There are his books: "Misne," "The Eyes of the White Night," "Fire Upon Fire," "The Song of the Last Swan," "The Blue Wind of Kaslania" and "A Heathen Poem." There are his poems: "The Game of Bears," "Kara-Yuia," "On the Iron Sledges," "Thoughts in the Taiga," "The Idol," "Yulian," and "Throb, My Drum." This is the store of his lyrical poetry and his frank prose.
There is a well-founded opinion (and Yuvan Shestalov's work confirms it) that although a true artist in the course of his life may write various works, he builds up with them a single, unified canvas. It is like a huge mosaic, in which poems and stories, at first apparently unconnected, suddenly join to form a harmonious picture with a single idea, a single composition, welded together by the author's perception of the universe.
Yuvan's grandfathers, his great-grandfathers, his distant ancestors were hunters. It is known that hunting brings men closer to nature, merges them with it more deeply than anything else. So it is natural that all Yuvan Shestalov's work should be so expressive of nature as it exists in his native parts. His trees and animals, his fish and his grasses live, think and act on a level with people.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that Yuvan Shestalov's works are only the voice of nature, vivid and varied as this voice might be. The spontaneity, the new-born poetic freshness of his talent is multiplied by his partaking of the wealth of the twentieth-century culture, for this Mansi writer has studied in college, travelled the world, met dozens and hundreds of contemporaries, read thousands of books. Just as one drop is a fragment of the ocean, one of the multitude of drops which go to form it, so the soul of the poet is that magic particle of the world which contains the whole. When in Vietnam children perish under a barbarous rain of bombs, a burning pang wrings the responsive heart of the poet. A day flies past with its blazing fury of life, with the opening of the first gas borehole in the North, with new speeds hidden in the metal of air and land expresses--the iron sledge of modern man, with the rattle and roar of new construction jobs which are transforming our old earth, and the poet absorbs all this complex variety, all the feelings and thoughts of his contemporaries, he is part of all the achievements, the difficulties, the successes of our day.
Behind his people lie a thousand years. Then came five decades, decades which in significance are equal to centuries, and all this lives in the poet. He himself is the vivid, living embodiment of a people that has found itself, of the new page in its history which came with the socialist revolution, the power of the Soviets, with Lenin. He himself, who knew the cold of a windowless, smoky hut and today possesses all the mighty spiritual wealth of humanity, is the personification of what the new way of life really means, what this way of life gives to each people and to each individual. His poems reflect the acute contradictions of the present-day reality, the pain of man in our day and his triumph.
Yuvan Shestalov is the voice, the tongue and--grandiloquent as the word may sound--the founder of Mansi literature.
--VLADIMIR SOLOUKHIN, 1972.