Anatoly I. Pristavkin, 76, Russian Writer, Is Dead

July 20, 2008

By DOUGLAS MARTIN

Anatoly I. Pristavkin remembered how he and other orphans were forever shuttled about “like a flock of little animals” during the hell that was World War II in Russia. His scars showed in the suffering children who traipsed through many of his 26 novels, and in the toughness of his opposition to the Soviet authorities.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Pristavkin, the consummate outsider, was astounded to find himself in a position of power. But his concern was still the hurting and the powerless. In the 1990s, he led the Presidential Pardons Commission that defied tough-on-crime Kremlin hard-liners to free 70,000 convicted criminals.

So when Mr. Pristavkin died at 76 on July 11 in Moscow, a death widely reported by Russia’s state news media, it was slightly jarring to hear Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin praise him for his dignity and ideals. After all, it was Mr. Putin who, as president in 2001, ended the pardons commission, of which Mr. Pristavkin had been chairman for a decade.

The commission dealt with sad, perhaps small cases. They included the father of three small children who had stolen a gas tank worth $10.80 and who, for that crime, had served three years and three months of a four-year, two-month sentence. Another case involved a widow with a disabled 4-year-old son doing five years for stealing a purse containing $31.

Mr. Pristavkin called the commission “a drop in an ocean of cruelty” when he fought to save it. His own profound knowledge of cruelty harked back to his boyhood, when he was imprisoned for stealing a cucumber.

In “The Inseparable Twins,” Mr. Pristavkin’s most widely available novel in English, he recalled how he and other orphans were treated in a godless society: “The only thing we could call ours was ourselves — ourselves and our legs, ever ready to run away should anything happen — and our souls, which, so we were always being told, didn’t exist.”

His was a life that encompassed, then transcended post-revolutionary Russia. First came the war-defined childhood. He then lived a proletarian ideal by working as a laborer and glorifying this in early writings. He soon discovered a voice that grated on official ears but that found welcome during cultural thaws. He organized writers against the establishment.

In 1991, his appointment to the pardons commission signified monumental change. In a country where the government had long ruled absolutely, government functionaries were barred from the commission. Mr. Pristavkin won the right to handpick intellectuals from outside government for what became a 17-member body.

The unpaid committee met weekly, sometimes for 10 hours straight, to sift through appeals. Presidents Boris N. Yeltsin and Putin usually approved recommendations, including the release of Edmond Pope, an American businessman convicted of spying in 2000.

Anatoly Ignatyevich Pristavkin was born to a working-class family on Oct. 17, 1931, in a Moscow suburb. When he was 9, his mother died, and a few years later, so did his father. He was sent by train to an orphanage in the Caucasus. At 12, he went to work in a canning factory.

“Perhaps that is why my characters are either former inmates of children’s homes or people who began working at an early age,” he wrote in 1962 in the journal Voprosi Literaturi, or Problems of Literature.

Mr. Pristavkin completed a junior college course in aircraft mechanics and served in the army. In 1958 he published his first sketches, and in 1959 he graduated from the Maxim Gorky Literary Institute. He went to Siberia to work as a concrete mixer during construction of the Bratsk Electric Station.

After Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956, Mr. Pristavkin was more openly political, calling for struggle against “the cult of personality.” He wrote that he aspired to “something loftier.”

In the last days of Communism, in 1989, Mr. Pristavkin headed the April Committee, a group of 500 writers challenging the monolithic writers’ union. He was a leader in forming a Soviet chapter of PEN, the international writers’ organization. Suddenly, he stood at the forefront of a new literary elite.

In 1991, he initially turned down the pardons job, saying he wanted only to write. Then the Kremlin called to say that President Yeltsin had signed a decree appointing him. Mr. Pristavkin was told that if he did not begin work soon, those condemned to death would be executed. He quickly accepted.

Mr. Pristavkin, an absolute opponent of the death penalty, used his position to help reduce the number of executions to 10 per year from 1993 to 1995. From 1989 to 1991, before the commission began, 228 of 470 people sentenced to death were executed. (Since 1996, Russia has refrained from executions but has not banned them.)

The pardons commission was opposed by Mr. Putin’s lieutenants, who thought it coddled criminals. Mr. Pristavkin provocatively replied that what the apparatchiks really wanted was an unpaid labor force to build dachas for themselves.

The commission was replaced in 2001 by 89 regional pardon commissions, which have since then acted on very few cases, according to Russian press reports.

According to a biography by the office of the Russian president, whom he advised after the commission ended, Mr. Pristavkin had a wife, three children and four grandchildren.

Despite his sympathy for prisoners, Mr. Pristavkin drew the line at terrorists and those who harmed children. He refused to reduce the sentences of three coal miners who out of boredom had raped a passing girl and killed her by burying her alive.

He papered his office with pictures of his 13-year-old daughter — so he could see her as a potential victim.

New York Times

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