Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Critical Essays

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn initially responded to his prison and labor camp experiences in easy-to-memorize poetry and later in tiny self-contained prose poems, written down in the 1950’s and assembled as a rough set around 1962, although not published at that time in the Soviet Union. Shortly after his initial success in the journal Novy Mir with the short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn also published there his short stories “Incident at Krechetovka Station,” “Matryona’s House,” and “For the Good of the Cause” in 1963. Like “The Easter Procession,” “The Right Hand” never appeared in the Soviet Union until the end of glasnost in the late 1980’s, although “Zakhar the Pouch” was published in Novy Mir in 1966 and was the last of Solzhenitsyn’s works printed publicly in the Soviet Union. Each of these short pieces contains the germ of a larger work to come, just as each of the individuals or groups named in the titles of the stories reflects one facet of Solzhenitsyn’s overriding theme of his country’s agony under Communism.

The essence of Solzhenitsyn’s message lies in his peculiarly Russian view of shared suffering as vital, even necessary, to human spiritual survival. To this end, he announced in his Nobel lecture that only art, only literature, can bridge the immense gulfs of time and space between human beings, bringing experiences of those faraway others close enough so that their lessons may help overcome evil. Although Solzhenitsyn has not completed large-scale treatments of all the themes presented in his short fiction, the individualization of experience he began with Ivan Denisovich, the lowly camp inmate whose shining humanity enables him to survive, clearly emerges from the prose poems and the short stories, its successive stages mirroring Solzhenitsyn’s own existence in Stalin’s prison system.

“Incident at Krechetovka Station”

“Incident at Krechetovka Station” draws heavily upon Solzhenitsyn’s wartime experience. Set in the critical autumn of 1941, this story defies all the conventions of Soviet war literature, in which the cliché of patriotic self-sacrifice predominates. Its protagonist, Lieutenant Zotov, an assistant transit officer, is sympathetically portrayed in sharp contrast to the self-serving functionaries around him, who collectively form the story’s antagonist, the “system” to blame for categorically condemning both the guilty and the innocent.

“Incident at Krechetovka Station” opens in cold pouring rain with one of Solzhenitsyn’s typically abrupt laconic dialogues which achieve a forceful immediacy. Zotov, a youngish man isolated by the war from his family, has gentle features that toughen as he self-consciously straightens his glasses. He observes the misery of the wretched civilians who clutter the station, but he submerges his sympathy for them in his devotion to Marxism. Soon Zotov is miserable himself, however, distressed by a growing suspicion that the war is not proceeding in tune with Party propaganda.

For more than half of the story, Solzhenitsyn shuttles between the chilly “present” and events in Zotov’s past, gradually hinting at the shattering perception Solzhenitsyn himself had grasped as a youth: the vast gap between communism’s promises and reality. Zotov haltingly approaches the truth through chance encounters with other actors in the drama, first in a few poems from line officers critical of their leadership, then in the hunger and cold of the old people and the children in the town. Solzhenitsyn characteristically allows Zotov to linger over the predicament of starving Russian soldiers being repatriated, like Ivan Denisovich, to Stalin’s labor camps, their only crime being their surrender to the German army. Lonely and often despairing, Zotov tries to take refuge in his cheap volume of Das Kapital, but somehow he cannot finish it. Distracted by the pain of the war’s victims, which his heart sees, and by his revulsion at those who prey on them, which his Communist glasses cannot quite shut out, Zotov is disturbed time and again, finally by an “incident” in the bedraggled person of Tveritinov, a former actor trying to find the military detachment from which he had...

(The entire section is 1763 words.)