Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Essay - Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) (Vol. 9)

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) (Vol. 9)

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) 1918–

Russian novelist, poet, short story writer, dramatist, and journalist, Solzhenitsyn has suffered constant attack for his detailed accounts of the Soviet prison camps and the degradation suffered by their innocent victims. Arrested for an unfavorable remark about Stalin and sentenced to eight years in a forced labor camp, he draws much of his material from personal experience. Themes of good versus evil, the value of life, and the maintenance of human dignity through inhuman conditions permeate Solzhenitsyn's novels. Though awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature and lauded for "the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensible traditions of Russian literature," many of his works have been barred from publication in Russia. With the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, a document of Soviet systems of terror and political crimes, Solzhenitsyn was arrested, deprived of his citizenship, and expelled from Russia. He lives in exile in the United States, and continues to experiment with larger prose forms. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

August 1914 differs from Solzhenitsyn's previous writing in that it does not concern people and events having a direct connection with his own personal experiences, either in the army, or as a political prisoner or "permanent exile," or as a patient undergoing treatment for cancer. (p. 409)

Solzhenitsyn attempts some innovations in his method of presentation: he intersperses his account with an occasional montage of documents, official communiques, newspaper items and advertisements (often with satirical intent), as well as cinematographic sections, e.g., a scenario of death and destruction during the Russian retreat. However, these are innovations only for Solzhenitsyn, since the technique in fact seems to be borrowed from Dos Passos, who has long been very popular in Russia. Parts of Solzhenitsyn's novel are reminiscent of Dos Passos's 1919….

Inevitably, comparisons have been, and will be, drawn between August 1914 and Tolstoy's War and Peace. Such comparisons seem rather unrewarding, at least as far as one can judge from the first part of Solzhenitsyn's novel, in which the emphasis is on war rather than peace. Solzhenitsyn makes little effort to employ contrasting scenes of war and peace as a structural element and furthermore, his "message" that the Russians could have won the battle with better officers and more efficient communications and logistical support is hardly Tolstoyan. Tolstoy's presence is felt in the novel, indeed quite literally, since he occurs as a character at the beginning of the novel, but Tolstoyanism is viewed negatively or at least as inadequate. (p. 410)

The tone and orientation of Solzhenitsyn's novel will please some and irritate others, but what of the book as literature? Setting aside politics and philosophy, one must admit that the detailed scenes of battle and military maneuvers sometimes become quite monotonous. Although he is not portraying events in which he personally took part and although his subject has no direct connection with the Soviet experience, it is clear that once again he feels compelled to set the record straight, to tell the story the way it really happened and to counteract the official version of events. The result is that sometimes the polemical intent obtrudes or the novel slides over into a narrative method that is closer to documentary than fiction….

A tentative evaluation based on a first reading of [August, 1914] would be that it towers above the sort of trash that usually comes out of the Soviet Union, but it may not seem quite so exciting to readers familiar with the major writers of the twentieth century in Western Europe and America. (p. 411)

J. G. Garrard, "Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 'August 1914'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1972 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 46, No. 3, Summer, 1972, pp. 409-11.

[It] becomes increasingly difficult to pin down "Solzhenitsyn's philosophy" or "Solzhenitsyn's political views." In fact, if we seek in such categories definitive generalizations, our quest is bound (at this point) to be futile. Any human being as intensely observant of reality and as compulsively analytical in his observations as is Solzhenitsyn will inevitably be involved in a constant process of augmentation, revision, and refinement of his hypotheses about life. The messages contained in the growing creative oeuvre of such an individual are experimental, often containing contradictions as yet to be resolved.

However, what is true about the totality of a man's oeuvre is not necessarily true about an individual work of art, for a work of art exists as a precisely balanced complex of structural relationships. When there is ambiguity in a work of art, that ambiguity itself can be described with at least relative precision when compared to the myriad aspects of a man's life work. Thus, the universe of ideas and the interrelationships between ideas expressed in a single novel, for example The First Circle, can be analyzed in terms of the structural relationships inherent in the novel itself. (p. 47)

What has been written about The First Circle thus far suffers from two major difficulties. First of all, Solzhenitsyn's works burst with such rapidity and dramatic impact on the international literary scene in the 1960's that there was a tendency to consider the most impressive of the early works together…. [While his protagonists] clearly had important traits or ideas in common, they certainly cannot be simply identified with one another or with Solzhenitsyn himself, nor should they be considered without taking into account the total structure of the novels in which they appear. However, there was a tendency to discuss at once characters from several different works …, thus blurring the quite distinct aspects of the meaning of each individual work.

A second difficulty emerged from the compositional structure of Solzhenitsyn's long novels. As has been pointed out by a number of critics and by Solzhenitsyn himself, these novels are polyphonic. This term … indicates that many characters in a novel are given independent "voices," either in dialogue or in represented discourse, and that each character's actions and ideas are described from within. (p. 48)

In The First Circle there are at least a dozen different characters who make eloquent statements which have great moral and philosophical force. Any one of these statements is impressive enough to be attributed to a man of Solzhenitsyn's moral stature. But, examined carefully, these statements are different from one another, and the views held by the characters who utter them are distinct. What is even more important in Solzhenitsyn's polyphonic works is the interplay between the views held by characters (which Solzhenitsyn creates with convincing eloquence) and the explicit actions of the characters, which may cast those views in an entirely different perspective. (pp. 48-9)

The First Circle is a carefully planned and executed attack from an existential basis on two of the prominent ideological systems which affect human behavior in the Communist countries and in the West. The first system is the explicitly evident ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism which is the tacit official foundation of every philosophical or scientific system in the Soviet Union. For brevity, I shall use the term dogmatic Marxism to designate this ideological complex.

The second adversary ideological system might be described as pragmatic egotism, a desire for power, privilege, official recognition, and material wealth. (p. 49)

An ideology based specifically on Christianity does not constitute a major element of the structure in The First Circle…. To say this is not to assert that Solzhenitsyn himself is an atheist or that his personal philosophy does not include important elements of Christian belief. Rather, it is to claim that Christian ideology is not at issue in The First Circle, except at those points where it overlaps existential understandings which can be possessed by Christian, agnostic, and atheist alike.

Solzhenitsyn's method in the novel is two-fold: (1) to show the moral bankruptcy of both the ideologies of dogmatic Marxism and of pragmatic egotism; and (2) to bring forward, in opposition, existential truths about the nature of man and of moral behavior. The novel entails, then, both a rejection and a quest. The existential truths are not easily stated; they must be groped for by the reader, as they are groped for by the questing protagonists, Gleb Nerzhin and Innokenty Volodin. This process of self-discovery and ethical illumination is manifest in the plot, a double detective story similar in its line of development to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. (pp. 49-50)

[Both] plots on the surface level are accompanied by deeper quests in which both Nerzhin and Volodin are engaged: "Why did I act as I did? Why did I risk consequences which involve suffering and possible death for the sake of a moral gesture?" Neither Nerzhin nor Volodin fully understands the complex reasons for his act, although both sense some of the truth. The rest they must search out, and this search constitutes the major action of the less than seventy hours which elapse … [in this long novel] from crime to punishment. Just as the novel begins with the "transgressions," it ends with Volodin's arrest and Nerzhin's exile to the forced labor camps.

The clues which lead Nerzhin and Volodin to a more complete understandings of themselves and of the foundations of ethical behavior come from two sources: the internal effects of their own actions and what they learn, either directly or indirectly, from the examples of the lives of others. These clues are, of course, transmitted to the reader as well, who has the additional advantages of being able to view the other characters in this polyphonic novel from an internal perspective and of being witness to events and inner thoughts of which Nerzhin or Volodin are not explicitly aware.

Of primary importance in the dynamics of the novel are the realizations reached by Nerzhin and Volodin as a result of their own acts…. Nerzhin does not want to find some kind of intellectual construct, an ideology, which will put all the phenomena of life in comprehensible interrelationship. He is more interested in actions than in ideas. The actions themselves are the primary concrete reality; he seeks only the understandings which emerge from the necessity of those actions. (pp. 51-2)

[When it is pointed] out to Nerzhin that cooperation on the cryptography project could make him free and innocent …, Nerzhin reacts violently to this implication that others have the right to define what he is…. Nerzhin demonstrates his determination that no amount of coercion will make him accept any version of reality other than the one he defines for himself by his own actions.

This existential gesture of defiance is by no means unique in The First Circle. Innokenty Volodin, even while in a state of confusion about the objective validity of his motives, realizes, almost with an outcry, that individual existence is impossible without individual choice and action….

These are moments of great drama and heightened tension in the novel, but the structure of Solzhenitsyn's novel as a mystery of motive requires that the choices be made early. However, the climactic moments are re-experienced by the reader in the lives of a number of the other characters, both within the sharashka and outside it, both in the novel's present time and in flashbacks. This technique, which might be called resonance (retaining the metaphor of the term polyphonic) keeps the existential act, one of the novel's most important elements, constantly before the reader's eyes [with many instances of resonant acts and statements]. (p. 52)

The two major protagonists are aided in their quests not only by their own observations, but by the stories and advice they receive from others. Of particular importance are the roles of four mentor characters. In the case of Nerzhin, these are the zek painter Kondrashev-Ivanov and the peasant zek janitor Spiridon Danilovich; in the case of Volodin, his own mother and the Greek philosopher Epicurus. (p. 53)

Spiridon is always moved to act in the best interests of those human beings who are close to him emotionally, those human beings with respect to whom he can perceive an existential principle of reciprocity. (p. 54)

As Spiridon's life progresses, his concept of his fellow man widens to embrace all of those in whom he can sense similar concerns and feelings, similar sufferings and pain. Throughout, there is a principle of reciprocity in Spiridon's existentially-based morality; it emerges from the ability to put yourself in the place of the other, to give to the other the same status, the same considerations, that you give to yourself. On the level of direct interpersonal contact, this basis for ethics emerges from the most elementary relationships of human existence.

When Nerzhin asks Spiridon directly: "Is it conceivable that a person on this earth can sort it out: Who's right? Who's guilty? Who can say?"…, Spiridon replies with the Russian folk proverb: "The wolfhound is right, and the cannibal—not" (Volkodav-prav, a lyudoed—net). Nerzhin is stunned by the simplicity of this reply.

These five words constitute the novel's climax, for they provide Nerzhin with the final link in the existential ethics he is learning…. He who instinctively protects the innocent (as a wolfhound does the sheep) and battles against those who would harm the innocent (as a wolfhound kills wolves) is good; he who survives by eating his own kind (as the cannibal does) is evil.

Armed with his full realization, Nerzhin, the powerless prisoner about to be sent to a Northern camp where he will probably die, becomes unhesitating in his actions and invincible in his inner strength. (pp. 54-5)

[For] Volodin the task is to understand the worth of the act and the positive values to be found even in its dire consequences. Part of that understanding lies in Volodin's previous experiences and thinking. However, this background is withheld from the reader until the second half of the novel—when Volodin's search for meaning in life is presented in a series of flashbacks which are integrated with the new understandings he gains during his last two days of freedom and his first few hours of arrest….

[Volodin's] enlightenment comes principally from two volumes he finds in his dusty library: his mother's diary and the writings of Epicurus. These function in Volodin's search for meaning as do Spiridon's stories for Nerzhin. The notes on ethics composed by Volodin's mother contain the same elements as Spiridon's maxim: "Respect the opinion of others, even those antagonistic to your own" (the principle of moral reciprocity) and "What is dearer than anything in the world?… To know that you do not take part in injustices" (the principle of non-participation in evil)…. (p. 55)

From Epicurus, Volodin learns that humility brings great strength and inner peace. The man who needs little cannot be a victim of Fate. A man must carry the value of his life within himself where it cannot be affected by external circumstances. Good and evil can be comprehended instinctively…. The two sets of criteria complement one another—their point of contact is the inherent simplicity of moral choices….

As Nerzhin and Volodin come to new realizations about the nature of individual existence and of ethical action, other important characters move in the opposite direction, toward personal and moral disintegration. As noted above, this negative regression, which mirrors the positive progression of the two main protagonists, is due to the poisonous effects of dogmatic Marxism and pragmatic egotism. (p. 56)

Although Rubin always interprets large scale events in accordance with his [Marxist] ideological views, his personal behavior quite often does not conform with the dictates of that ideology. Thus, he is disturbed by the injustices suffered by his friends, anguished by the inhumane practices in the prisons and camps. Even when threatened by an increase in his own term, Rubin refuses to write denunciations of his fellow prisoners…. Solzhenitsyn suggests that Rubin's ideological beliefs are in conflict with the truths which emerge from his very existence, his existential knowledge. (pp. 56-7)

The contradictions between ideology and existential impulse, both within Rubin and within Sologdin, constitute the third important plot element in the novel (the other two elements being Nerzhin's and Volodin's quests)…. Solzhenitsyn uses each character to unmask the other—each character issues to the other a challenge which will provide the climactic test of ideology versus existential impulse. (p. 57)

[Eventually] Rubin confirms Sologdin's accusation that for him the end justifies the means, in his personal life as well. Solzhenitsyn has shown us that political morality and personal morality are not separate categories—one infects the other.

In that lengthy verbal confrontation which prepares the novel's climaxes, Sologdin's ideology also comes under attack from Rubin. Rubin accuses Sologdin of believing that his own personal fate is a matter of overwhelming importance, that he is a superman, and that other human beings could be sacrificed if it meant advancing his own cause. Rubin accuses Sologdin of believing that the ends justify the means in one's personal life…. (p. 58)

At the time of this confrontation, Rubin's accusation seems to the reader unjust, for Sologdin has been presented earlier as a character with great inner strength, personal dignity, and nobility…. We are given every reason to believe that Sologdin, like Nerzhin and Bobynin, will make a grand gesture for the sake of moral purity.

When Sologdin does make an important discovery (a plan for an absolute encoder), it appears that he will withhold it from his captors because of ethical considerations…. (pp. 58-9)

[The] reader is suddenly shocked to find that the chivalrous knight is motivated not by conscience, but by self-interest [for he requires guarantees that he himself will benefit from the plan]…. Actually, this surprising denouement has also been prepared by Solzhenitsyn. Previous passages have described not only Sologdin's strength and dignity, but also his arrogance, conceit, overblown pride, and hypocrisy. Sologdin believes that humanity progresses only through the efforts of exceptional individuals like himself—he considers the "people" to be a crude mob. He plays at modesty and humility, while his real goals are freedom and recognition for himself. Sologdin's hidden ideology of pragmatic egotism overrides the innate ability to distinguish right from wrong just as effectively as does Rubin's. (pp. 59-60)

[Ideological] pitfalls which lead to immoral action … affect many … characters in The First Circle…. Many who are basically decent succumb. On the other hand, those who are free of the dual blinders of dogmatic Marxism and pragmatic egotism generally are led, through their day-to-day contact with their fellow men, to actions which are marked by innate decency and morality. (p. 61)

Herbert Eagle, "Existentialism and Ideology in 'The First Circle'," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1977, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Spring, 1977, pp. 47-61.

"Prussian Nights" [is] a clumsy and disjointed 1400-line narrative which can be called poetry only because it is written in meter and rhyme. Sent to any publishing house or émigré Russian journal bearing any name but Solzhenitsyn's, it would be rejected unhesitatingly….

Since the poem itself is so bad, one might surmise that Solzhenitsyn published it in order to illuminate [a] moment in military history. However, everything he describes was covered in much greater detail in the memoirs of his old camp-mate, Lev Kopelev, and these were published in Russian two years ago and just issued here….

"Prussian Nights" is written in trochaic tetrameters, in imitation of, and argument with, the most famous Russian war poem, Tvardovsky's "Vasily Tyorkin." Unfortunately, rhymes are so numerous in Russian that those who have no poetic talent are often attracted to verse. Solzhenitsyn has no gift for metaphor. The only comparison that isn't a cliché is bizarre: ink as crocodile lymph. His descriptions are flat and verbose. The frequent use of exclamations and italicized or capitalized words is a vain effort to make up for the punch that the poem otherwise lacks. The one theme that might have given interest and intensity is the regret of the narrator: He is sorry to see the atrocities, but he does not actively oppose them; he himself loots when the booty is right, and he has his sergeant force a German woman into his room. But this theme, too, is smothered by the interminable descriptions of fires and ordnance. (p. 10)

[In the translation] the rhymes are incomplete and Solzhenitsyn's clumsy but regular trochaic tetrameter is rendered in iambic lines that vary from seven to twelve syllables and are haphazardly mixed with trochaic ones. The strain for rhymes leads to many awkward inversions, herniated grammar … and many changes of meaning…. The only thing one can say is that the translation is equal to the original. (pp. 10, 19)

Carl R. Proffer, "Russia in Prussia," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 7, 1977, pp. 10, 19.

Solzhenitsyn composed Prussian Nights in a labour camp in the late 1940s. He had to bring it together and carry it in his head because it would have been suicidal to commit it to paper. It is a narrative poem in that iambic metre that is the staple of Russian narrative verse from Pushkin on: at its best its rhythms sometimes evoke Evgeny Onegin, while at other times it is more reminiscent of the coy beat of children's poetry. Although he must have reworked it later the poem bears the stamp of its original circumstances, when an insistent rhythm fulfilled that mnemonic function which it has always had in oral poetry. Whatever its occasional rhythmic weaknesses, imaginative use of rhyme and assonance prevent the verse from ever collapsing into Hiawatha jingle. It also reminds us of the author's command of a very special language, popular, idiomatic, dense, often difficult, an artistic adaptation of the rhythms and turns of ordinary speech; one of his greatest strengths as a writer and one that too often goes unnoticed.

The poem describes the Red Army advancing across East Prussia at speed, with much exultant burning, looting, raping and killing. The protagonist, a young officer, is caught up with the headlong joy of the advance and is initially utterly at one with his men. However he is delicately made to feel an increasing unease but not estrangement, which culminates in his own halfhearted enforced possession of a German girl.

The evocation of the Red Army is superb. Solzhenitsyn loves the panache, the strange dandyism of the frontoviki—a wild old cossack on top of a vat of alcohol which could be ethyl or methyl, belting down a ladleful in an act of crude but effective chemical analysis. There is great love and warmth in his evocations of that familiar figure the 'stupid Russian', who is never upset when his own wild zest makes his life uncomfortable…. (pp. 22-3)

Solzhenitsyn describes atrocities without the indignation of an outsider or historian who finds them inexplicable. His character is caught up with them, strangely at one with their perpetrators; he never loses his sympathy for them as his conscience grows less easy. This makes for a remarkably honest account of an army on the rampage…. He always writes well of war, presumably from first-hand experience, although at least one passage in August 1914 describing action is lifted straight from Plevier's Stalingrad….

The certainty that he is fighting a just war as his men revenge themselves on two generations of Germans gives the piece a quality his other work often lacks. Some people are put off by his usual stance of unambiguous righteousness and find his work too one-sided for Western tastes. Indeed in latter years Solzhenitsyn has much of the Old Testament prophet about him. There is nothing of that here. Instead we find a balance born of unease, ambiguity, and ultimately complicity in actions with which he sympathises but which teach him shame. One might see the work as pinpointing the moment when its author ceases to be standard Soviet man and starts to become what he is today. (p. 23)

Alex de Jonge, "Prison Verse," in The Spectator (© 1977 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), October 8, 1977, pp. 22-3.

What would he have written, [Solzhenitsyn] has asked himself, had it not been for the experience of arrest and imprisonment? That he would have written, there is no question. He was already writing (and receiving rejections) in the Thirties, but he was working in an aimless way without understanding why he needed literature or whether literature had anything to gain from him, and was mostly concerned about finding fresh themes for his stories. [After his imprisonment] he was overwhelmed with themes. And the purpose of writing had become clear to him: to make what he had lived through unforgettable and to transmit its meaning to posterity….

[Prussian Nights] is called "A Poem" but "A Verse Narrative" would be more appropriate, for Solzhenitsyn, a great writer in prose … is not, and does not claim to be, a poet….

In this, although admittedly inferior, piece, Solzhenitsyn is, just the same, the historian, moralist, and realist he is in his prose works, the contemplative student who is, as always, conscious of each moment's place in the process of history, who holds every man accountable for what he does, and is himself deeply involved in the events he observes and the actions he judges. But there is this difference: Prussian Nights reveals its meaning by implication, in the rhythm and tempo of the verse rather than explicitly, in what is said and done, as happens in the novels. Its incidents are graphic and harrowingly real, but their significance is sensed in the sound of the narrative….

[The narrator's] memories and thoughts occur on the conscious level, but beneath the threshold of consciousness, "the slinking scherzo" of a popular old love song, a devilish, cloying, tempting, wanton tune breaks in upon the monotonous rhythm of the captain's musings. There is something in the song about "a black fan, a precious fan" and there is a refrain that asks, "Is there a heart that could resist it?" The unwanted, annoying intrusion seems irrelevant. But, in effect, it is the judgment of conscience, echoing, in sleazy parody, the listless drift into evil that is the narrative's main theme; the realistic sketches of the tale add up to a monstrous hallucination, a vision of ordinarily decent people reduced, through a kind of inertia of inhumanity, to gross indecency and sordid crime. (p. 3)

[The narrator's] sympathy with the victims, unspoken but evident in the tone of his reflections, is very poignant, as, for example, when he comes upon a detachment of Russian prisoners of war who, excluded from the feast of victory, unwanted and unneeded, are being driven back to their unforgiving land…. At this point, the well-marked, jingly beat of the verse changes abruptly to a long, melancholy rhythm;… he has made one feel again, in a very different context, the infinite sadness of unappreciated grandeur, the failure of selfless effort in the eyes of men. The change of pace is … revealing … with its apparently incongruous, but deeply pertinent, reminiscence of erotic passion. [It is a subtle reverberation] of the despair that underlies the entire work. (p. 4)

Helen Muchnic, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), October 13, 1977.