Vasily Peskov: Lying in a hayloft in a hole in the roof I counted 44 stars…

“Vasily Peskov. Author’s photo”. I’ve seen such a caption with the obligatory “photo of the author” in the pages of “Komsomolka” for more than half a century. I have so many clips in this time that there are enough for more than a dozen books by Peskov. And I don’t remember that this “photo of the author” was ever absent. Thousands of published photos. But the weird thing is! – In the community of photographers, Peskov wasn’t even considered one of their own. I have not seen him at photo exhibitions, and the work of a journalist and participated in the exhibition, and not more than a couple of times. And I remember only one picture of it hanging on the wall: the helmet and the pigeon.

Essay “Vasiliy Peskov” from the book by L. Sherstennikova’s “Left Behind” 2 is printed in abridged format.

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Vasiliy Peskov

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Three flew in to Nevon. 1960


At other photographic “gatherings”: discussions, meetings, conferences, Vasily Mikhailovich was also not noted. Writing journalists, of the established, famous ones, at the mention of his name also somehow absent-mindedly exclaimed, “Ah, that, the one about the birds…”. In encyclopedias, when Peskov’s name was mentioned, it was first of all mentioned as a writer, and only then as a journalist, TV presenter or photographer..

I noticed Peskov in the newspaper almost from his first appearance. I was in my third year at the institute. And after the “first meeting”, when passing by the newspaper stands in the street at that time almost all central and local newspapers were posted, and the stands were found everywhere , I looked for the familiar signature on the pages of Komsomolskaya Pravda. And meeting it, I would immediately turn to the kiosk and buy a newspaper, anticipating the pleasure I would get from reading and from the pictures. And, I must say, I was never disappointed in my expectations. What am I! Turns out a lot of people, old people included, were looking for the same thing in a recent newspaper.

In previous newspapers occasionally encountered short texts published under the heading “Notes phenologist. “Spring. The roads have thawed, the snow in the fields is settling. But in the woods it will lie until mid-May. Prepare the sledge in summer and the cart in winter. Views of the harvest remain views. But the toilers of the fields…” – and so on, generalities. The article is short, about twenty lines. But to read it is a longing. No one probably didn’t even read it. And Peskov’s story is about the same thing, about nature, but in a different way: he was skiing, and suddenly a mouse jumped onto his ski run. You can “see” from the text the snow-covered forest, the little beast, and his desperate desire to give his life for the price of a small drama that takes place around us every minute… But not everyone can see and feel them. Much less to feel it and open the eyes of another.

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2. A golden eagle pouncing on its prey

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3. A mouse frightened away from under the snow

You can’t say that before Peskov, the picture and the text existed apart. Every published photo has a “subtext”. And in magazines in general there were photo essays and photo essays in which the text and photos were on an equal footing. But Peskov was probably the first to establish the “symbiosis” of photography and a detailed text as a special genre.

Peskov also introduced the pronoun “I” in his reports. Before him I could be mistaken it was not customary for a journalist to “yakakak”. You should have written in the third person. “Wheat is ripening in the fields. Collective farmers are preparing their machinery for harvesting…” Occasionally, the mighty and great often writers were allowed to speak in the newspaper on their own behalf. Still, it is better to use “we” instead of “I”: we approve, welcome, protest, express our anger and indignation… And the crown of all is “There is an opinion…”.

And here: “I took off my boots, shook out the grain that had piled up in them in the current. The sparrows come in droves for a treat…”. Or: “Lying in the hayloft in the gap in the roof I counted 44 stars”. And if I turned my head a bit, I’d probably count sixty-six? What does it matter how many stars? It was not about cognac… A seemingly random, but precise detail can depict the whole situation and behind it, the authenticity of the moment and the understanding: the writer is not lying, and that’s just how it was. Further, in any text, even one retold from someone else’s words, Peskov will dig out the twists and turns that will determine the author’s entire “baking.

More intrigue. Here’s a full-page article. “Antoniha.”. The correspondent needs to cross the raging Don River. “Dangerous,” the carriers refuse, understanding the risk. Finally, one agrees. Whether it’s a woman or a man? The clothes seem to be women, but the face is rude… The correspondent took a closer look at the carrier, a conversation ensued, and it turned out that she was a woman, and, moreover, she couldn’t even swim… I won’t retell the details. But the simple encountered in many ways ridiculous woman began to turn into a kind of symbol of the people. The people who lived in defiance of the very logic of existence, the people whose heroism was perceived by the people themselves as commonplace. A routine that has become an indispensable condition of life, or rather, of survival. Not a word of pathos in Peskov’s text, but a lump in the throat when you read it. And there is nothing more important than this material in the newspaper… Academic journalists will say: you write about the basics of the craft. Who doesn’t know that?? Maybe many people know, but not all of them find it easy to look away from the lyrics. Peskov… I wasn’t the only one who bought a newspaper for him..

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4. Dragonfly

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5. Kizhi. 1960s

In a couple of years I was already working in the youth center, in Ufa. The editor, starting the briefing, asked: “Have you read the Komsomolskaya Pravda today??” – “No, what about it?”Rustling the pages. Peskov. “The Red Swordfish”. Some weirdo on an airplane carrying aquarium fish in a jar of water from New York to Siberia. The fish got sick at high altitude – not enough oxygen. The whole plane went into a frenzy. Even the ship’s commander left his seat. “Now come to life!”,” he winked. He attached an oxygen mask to the jar, opened the valve..

A trifle? How else could I say it?? But why this “trifle” becomes the lead story in the issue is a mystery.

And our editor goes on: get on the buses, get on the trains, look for your red swordsmen.

I entered journalism, five or six years behind Peskov. The gap, of course, but not that huge. But I have always looked at him as a man standing at the water’s edge might look at a man who has already climbed the steep shore. How he managed, how he climbed, what knots or roots he grasped, climbing?

In the life of Vasily Mikhailovich everything was, on the one hand, to the extreme commonplace – a peasant half-starved childhood. On the other hand – fantastic “luck”, which allowed him to run up without holding his breath to the highest peaks of journalism, easily avoiding the respectable “climbers” of course, this could not but cause envy and irritation to the latter .

We were both on the editorial board of Soviet Photo magazine and sometimes we would come back together on our way to Savelovsky Vokzal. Peskov was already a member of the Writers’ Union and had the right to visit the “Writers’ Bookstore”, where you could find all of the books that were being published. Let me remind those, who forgot or did not know about that time: there were 100 thousand and 200 thousand copies or more, but the demand was such, that it was possible to “get” a good book, but not to buy it. The same “Footsteps on the Dew” by Peskov, the book later awarded the Lenin Prize and published in 165 thousand copies, was “delivered” to me by my friends who worked at the publishing house. Vasily Mikhailovich never missed the “Writers’ Stall” and came out with a weighty pile of books. Should I have been surprised at the vast amount of information that could be gleaned from his writings, the breadth of his interests and knowledge, relating not only to the “birds. Note that back then there was no Internet, from which today information is extracted with extreme simplicity. At the time, every reference and every reference had to be obtained by turning over books, on your own. Americans say about such people: “Self-made man”, in our country we say “self-made man”… And now it’s good to feel the soil in which this “nugget” was born.

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6. Forest eyes a girl with a little fox

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7. Leaflet. 1960s

Here are some lines from my biography:

“I was born on March 14, 1930, in the village of Orlovo, Voronezh Region. I went to Orlov seven-year school at the age of 8. After graduating from it in 1945, I entered the Voronezh Construction Technical School. Due to illness of my parents, I had to leave my second year of technical college and take a job. I worked as a projectionist for a year. In 1948, the opportunity to go back to school presented itself. He entered the 9th grade at High School 62 at Novosvyatskaya Station.

An initiation to photography came later. When I finished school, I went to military school, but it was closed, so I went home. The school principal invited me to work as a pioneer counselor. Not everything worked out, but I managed to enthuse children about one thing. At my request, the director bought a camera. For the first time in my life I held in my hands a little box with the name “FED” on it. None of my students, it seems, became a photographer. But my own passion for photography made me want to spend nights in a small room with a magnifier and vials of developer-fixing agents. I didn’t know where to study. We lived poorly, we had to relieve my father’s worries. In short, the road to the institute was closed. I didn’t really want to go there. I already understood how important it was to feed myself with what I loved in life. And here the favorite thing was in his hands, but is it possible to feed on it?? Still, I decided: I’m going to be a photographer. At school they dissuaded me: “Photographers nowadays – throw a stick – you’ll get caught!”. But my mother understood me. She persuaded my father to buy a camera.

Someone in a young newspaper saw my “creations”: “You’re a pretty good photographer, aren’t you?! Come and see us…”. Something was printed. One day Boris Ivanovich Stukalin, editor, called me into his office: “You’re good at captions, too. Try to write something…”.

What did I know at the time? I wrote about nature, which I loved from my early childhood. The note “April in a wood” turned out considerable – almost on a newspaper page. But it got printed. On the same day the editor said: “Come to our editorial office!”.

I’ve been working at The Young Communard for three years. I remember them with gratitude. I was happy about everything: the hustle and bustle of newspapers, the business fellowship, the kindness, the sense of involvement in a serious business, and, what was the most important, I felt that the business was for me and I should treasure it.

In 1956, with the blessing of the chief editor, he sent a note to Komsomolskaya Pravda. It was also a “forest story”. I got a telegram out of the blue: Your essay would be published on such and such a date. I opened “Komsomolskaya Pravda” on a busy day and saw his creation – an essay and a photo under the title “When snowstorms raged”. I was, understandably, welcomed as a hero at Kommunar. And they called from New York and asked me to write something else. I wrote. And Petr Bondarenko, the correspondent of Komsomolka in Voronezh, dropped by to talk to me. The reporter questioned him in detail about everything, saying in the end that it was about an invitation to work in New York. I brushed it off: “Pyotr, I have a ten-year degree…”. Petro squinted his only eye and said: “And I have only four classes, Bunin has a gymnasium, Gorky has an elementary school. The company, as you see, is not so bad.”.

How Peskov’s case went further, I have already said. His notes were eagerly awaited by his readers. In the winter of 1960, while passing through New York, I decided to drop in at the Komsomolka editorial office with a few things to offer. That’s what the time was like! Any man in the street could walk through any door, let alone the editorial office door, and not meet a single guard! I went up to the sixth floor, read the signs on the doors. And he opened the one marked “Illustrations Department”. I remember a window overlooking the courtyard of the Pravda publishing house. At this time of day, the frosty sun was beating through the window, beams were laying on the piled table. But the only thing I remember is the picture. It had black boats on white snow, and farther away three guys standing with their backs to us..

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8. The main passenger. April 14, 1961.

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9. October. 1970s

I didn’t have to guess whose picture it was: it could only have been Peskov’s. And a day or two later I got a confirmation when I saw his note with this photo in the newspaper. “The three flew to Nevon.”. How can I explain my “guessing”?? There was no mystery. First of all, all of Peskov’s photographs were “negative”. They could have been taken of a person from the back, or a single face in full frame, or a landscape, but not as a “photo study” which was sometimes permitted in newspapers, but in some other way, without any visible photographic “effects. The pictures completely matched the text. They did not illustrate, did not even complement, but were simply an integral part of the narrative. When I tried to “detach” one from the other, the pictures often ceased to exist, without text many of them “did not survive”. And with the text… No, not in vain they say: the artist is his own laws, it is a universal mystery.

Peskov’s main strength, it seems to me, is his simplicity. Not simplicity, which is worse than stealing, but availability, understanding, truth, from which the depth, depth and wisdom are born. No matter how many of Peskov’s texts you read, you will never find an intricate word, you will never find a foreign-language replacement for a word that exists in the American language. Talking about nature, he does not trump the Latin name of a bird or animal. Everything is clear, transparent, and therefore poetic. Well, and in photography? It’s all the same. There isn’t a single twist in the picture that could make it memorable or iconic. The very organism of his photos strikes a chord with him. The Middle American nature has the same organic feel: not pretentious, not flashy, but something that grabs your heart..

So, what about Peskov?? About the birds?..

On April 12, 1961 it thundered: a man in space! And who is this man?? Is He A Man?? And if it’s a person, how to find him?? The rigidity of our propaganda spoke not so much of its hardness as of its inflexibility. The man is in space, but everything is done in such a way that no one knows anything. At least the official portrait was given to the newspapers.

And what are the journalists up to?? I understand, they stamp their feet, rush to the phones, to the doors… Anything, any part, anyhow… Who’s going to fool who, who’s going to beat who, who’s going to be the first – it’s a common thing!

And the first “human” materials about the first cosmonaut – in “Komsomolka. And underneath is the caption “In. Sands” though, at first, with coauthor. But Peskov’s hand . And the proverbial “author’s photo.”.

Vasily Mikhailovich talks about the beginning of this space epic. And it’s fun to listen to:

“That was a very special April…” “Komsomolskaya Gazeta”, represented by editor-in-chief Voronov, knew about the upcoming manned space flight. Tamara Apenchenko used to work for the newspaper. She was invited to a service where pilots were being trained, who came to be called astronauts. Tamara broke official secrecy. But service is service and friendship is friendship..

The night before, Voronov called us into his office. “The flight will probably be tomorrow… Not a word to anyone, listen to the radio in the car in the morning. At Gagarin’s house take care of the pictures right away and hurry up to the editorial office”. We found out the cosmonaut’s address at an ordinary kiosk in “Mosgorsprakty”. Hurry up and get in the car. And five minutes later, we were at a house familiar to Tamara. The rooms were already filled with neighbors. Everyone happily crowded around the TV and congratulated Gagarin’s wife Valya. The Gagarins’ two daughters were gnawing on apples and didn’t know what was going on. The mother now smiles and now wipes her tears with her hand.

There’s pandemonium in the newsroom. Everyone is rushing to ask questions. There was a great deal of interest in the photos. I had a lot of responsibility. Valya Gagarina reluctantly gave away her home album for fear the photos would be stolen. I had to tell them to look at each photo in turn. Then I ran to the lab to develop the photos I’d taken that morning. The paper came out.

And where is Gagarin himself?? This question was on our minds. Several people called the editorial office. “We saw a parachutist on the field, he greeted us. Then the military arrived and took the man away. Clearly, it was Gagarin…”

Pavel Barashev worked at Komsomolka. He was an aviation expert. “Let’s call the Kremlin phone.”. A polite man answered: “I understand your worries very well. Listen carefully. In an hour a plane will fly from Vnukovo Airport to the right place. You’ll be taken. But don’t be late…”.

There was a man standing in the doorway of the plane, looking at his watch. We introduced ourselves. And the big car headed for the runway. “Where are we going??”Paul asked the conductors. “They say to Kuibyshev, to get Gagarin.”. The plane was empty, except for the four of us and the pilots, no one. Two hours later we landed in Kuibyshev at the factory airfield. No One Met Us, No One Wanted Us. The young lieutenant asks: “Where are you going??” When he found out what was going on, the guy scratched at the back of his head: “What’s to be done with you??”. It was a reader of our newspaper, and he considered it a duty to help. “I’ll take you to a place, and there – according to circumstances.”

Outside of town, on the banks of the Volga, we saw a big house. At the gate, there’s a man on duty: “Who are you??”. Explain: “We’re from New York. Calling someone. And suddenly we recognize General Nikolai Petrovich Kamanin. He was a young pilot who rescued the Chelyuskin crew. Got a Hero. Remember, the paper wrote about him. “Ah, the Komsomol, they sniffed out where everything was! Go ahead. And sit quietly for twenty minutes.”(We learned later: one of the first Heroes of the Soviet Union was attached to the first cosmonauts by an “educator uncle”.

In the morning we drove straight to the bank of the Volga, to a familiar house. Gagarin on the threshold. A sunny day. Admiring the Volga. A keepsake. And so the line of cars is already at the plane.

The plane, just like yesterday, is empty. Only one, but important passenger was added.”

I can imagine the thrill of the hunting chill of a real journalist’s story. The sensation of the world, the sensation of the century, indeed – of the centuries! And you – the only and the first, who is next to the hero of such a sensation..

Then, when Gagarin died, Peskov will write a farewell word with the phrase: “We didn’t save him”. I’m sure these words came to mind of everyone who heard about the tragedy with the favorite of the whole world. But said them all Seskov.

Then Vasily Mikhailovich will write about the second cosmonaut, the third, the fourth … He will write as he wrote about Antonikha, as he wrote about a bear cub, an old man or a child he met, as about floods in the Meschera … Words are simple and true, and the characters are earthly – not hovering above the ground. And you’re so damn attracted to yourself. And again you believe every word, although you understand: the journalist couldn’t “cut a corner” anywhere.

Then, when something out of the ordinary was happening in the country, you had to wait for Peskov: how did he see it? That’s when everything will be more or less clear. So it will be with the earthquake in Tashkent, with the volcanic eruption, with reports from America, with the Lykov epic.

Peskov had been “servicing” the cosmos for a short time. It is not difficult to understand what prompted him to go back “to the meadows”. He could only talk about what he was passionate about. But you can not burn forever with one subject, even if it’s space. But I have also heard other things. Peskov was organically unable to move in high circles. They said that at the wedding of Nikolaev and Tereshkova, the security guards of our first persons rudely shoved the petty crowd, which undoubtedly included journalists and the same Peskov. He didn’t want to be treated as a smerd, so he jumped off the subject. I suppose it’s only a legend. But every legend has its basis.

In 1963, Peskov’s book “Footsteps on the Dew” is published. A weighty volume that contains almost everything he has written in the paper. It’s not just a rare phenomenon for a journalist, but rather a unique one. How many whales there are in journalism, and they have only thin books, and if they are thick, they are almost unnoticed by the general public. And this book is being torn out of my hands: “Let me read it!”. It’s already read in the paper. All the same, give it to me! One year later – out of the blue: the author receives the Lenin Prize for his book! There’s a picture in the paper: Plisetskaya, Cherkasov, Daineka, Rostropovich and Peskov. 1964 laureates. Worthy company..

I never noticed the laureate’s badge on the lapel of Peskov’s jacket. However, Peskov seems to have worn a blazer only on solemn occasions and for TV appearances. It was more of a jacket, sometimes a leather one. Or better – a sweater and a raincoat… I heard from my friend Lesha Pleshakov who worked together with Vasiliy for some time and who knew the forest and nature as well as Peskov himself, which, apparently, was the reason of his interest in each other: the prize was spent on a good cause. Peskov bought a cow for his parents.

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11. The Wolfman

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10. Valentina Gagarina. Going for a landing. April 12, 1961.

Everyone had already forgotten about Peskov’s cosmonauts. Forgotten and “The tragedy of the Kurbs,” where Peskov spoke of the new scourge – the ravenous and cruel attitude of man to nature. Back then the only thing that was written about ecology was in very small letters, after the reports of new victories over it. They forgot that behind the “birds” there’s a reflection on the “Fatherland”. That was the title of his essay, and then there was a long newspaper discussion on the subject that went on for years. I think Peskov wrote in it: “I’m a communist and I respect Marx, but I don’t understand why the main old street of the city should be named after him? Call Marx Avenue the best street of new buildings.”. In those days it was, perhaps, not so risky to talk – they would not kill or put in jail, but they could well siege, shove..

When Vasily Mikhailovich, coming to “Soviet Photo”, said something about his next “animal” trip, he used to say: “In the forest, it’s not the beast that’s scary, but the man”. We knew how forest rangers died at the hands of poachers, there were some of Peskov’s acquaintances among them. But how could you remain calm if a wolf or wild boar chasing you ran three meters away?? It may be hard to stay calm, but you shouldn’t lose your temper. Peskov recalled stories with bears, which he photographed quite often in Kamchatka, the Caucasus, and Alaska. A photographer once in his youth came across bear cubs. The camera snapped behind the fleeing bears. And then the bear cub appeared. She didn’t run away from the man, she rose on her hind legs and boldly went for him. The situation was acute: there was no escape from a bear! And Peskov, intuitively rather, shouted fearfully and swung his camera at the bear. That one was taken aback, sank down on four paws, turned around and, hurrying the little ones, disappeared into the bushes..

Peskov’s popularity, or rather recognizability, increased to infinity, when he became for ten years the host of the extremely attractive program “In the Animal World”. There were only two TV channels at the time. The faces that appeared on the screen were memorable. Today it is hard to remember the names even of the presenters who “live” on the screen day in and day out. Back then, any presenter became almost a member of the family. One must think that Peskov received letters by the ton. How he managed with them – I do not know, knowing his respectful attitude to each person, and understandably – to his messages. And letters are addresses and subjects. Rereading Peskov, you realize that he did not lose touch with his characters.

On my shelf I counted a dozen books by Peskov. But this is only a small part of what he managed to publish. There is no 12-volume collection of essays, no individual books that I would like to have. Peskov wrote about Africa and Antarctica, Alaska and Kamchatka… But more about the American unremarkable country roads which he made famous..

In his last years, Peskov suffered a severe stroke, the death of his daughter. He understood that life is not eternal, but he takes a philosophical view. Apparently, then it was decided that his ashes should be scattered, as they did with the ashes of Konstantin Simonov, the writer he respected. He had searched for a stone in advance, moved it to his native village of Orlovo and inscribed: “The main value in life is life itself”.

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