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...
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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 somehow become separated.
Tveritinov strikes up an acquaintance with Zotov, and, as they reminisce about prewar times, the actor’s rich voice and winning manner create a mood that for the first time warms the dreary little station with the ceaseless rain beating down on its roof. Solzhenitsyn characteristically insinuates a darker undercurrent when they speak of 1937. Zotov associates that year only with the Soviet involvement in the Spanish Civil War, but Tveritinov, older, recalls an entirely different side to it, the height of Stalin’s terrifying purges; his moment of silence, eyes downcast, reveals far more than any speech.
The rapport is suddenly shattered when Tveritinov mistakenly uses the pre-Communist name for Stalingrad. Zotov, struck by the horrifying possibility that he may be harboring an enemy of the state, deceitfully leads the actor into the arms of the security police. Not long after, when Zotov inquires about Tveritinov, he is ominously warned not to look into the matter further. This “incident” at apparently insignificant Krechetovka Station is Solzhenitsyn’s metaphor for his country’s wartime tragedy. So caught up in Communist zeal that they are able to see the world as Zotov at first did, only through a point of view that obliterates their vital connection to the rest of humanity, Solzhenitsyn’s countrymen were being forced to share a perverted brotherhood of opportunism and betrayal, brutality, and inhumanity. As a measure of Solzhenitsyn’s burningly ironic message in this story, the “incident” at Krechetovka Station remains Zotov’s torment forever.
“The Right Hand”
In “The Right Hand,” a miniature forerunner of Rakovy korpus (1968; Cancer Ward, 1968), Solzhenitsyn ruthlessly depicts what Zotov might have become if he had not experienced that cruel enlightenment. The story not only excoriates a state-run hospital system that dehumanizes the very patients it purports to serve but also unveils the devastating fate of those whose Party blinders are not removed until it is too late. Having served Communism faithfully, a new patient, clearly terminal, is hypocritically refused admittance to a cancer clinic on a technicality, and this denial of every Party ideal he has slavishly followed snaps his last thread-thin hold on life.
Like the narrator of “The Right Hand,” himself a sufferer, the man who tells the story of “Matryona’s House” recently emerged from the crucible of the prison system. All he wants at the outset is to lose himself in the heart of Russia, yearning for the peace of its countryside to restore his soul. Like Solzhenitsyn himself, he takes a position as a mathematics teacher in a shabby ancient village, living in a large old ramshackle house with a sick and aged peasant woman named Matryona. Matryona owns few things, and what she does have is as decrepit as her cockroach-ridden kitchen: a lame cat, a marginal garden, a dirty white goat, and some stunted house plants. Although she had worked on the collective farm for twenty-five years, bureaucratic entanglements have choked off her dead husband’s pension—she herself is entitled to nothing—and she is almost destitute. Meager as her life is, however, Matryona’s goodness sustains both herself and her lodger, who comes to prize her smile even more than the bit of daily bread they share.
In a strange though altogether convincing way, Matryona’s very generosity is responsible for her death. She had loved one of the villagers deeply and waited three years for him to return from World War I. Thinking him dead then, she married his brother, and when the first man returned, he cursed them both. After Matryona’s six children died in infancy, she reared one of the daughters of her former sweetheart as her own, and now, feeling she has not long to live, Matryona allows the girl and her friends to dismantle the top part of her house for its lumber. In struggling to help pull the heavy timber sledge over a railroad crossing, Matryona is killed by a speeding train.
For Solzhenitsyn, generosity, purity of heart, goodness, and love, the best qualities of the Russian folk, are as endangered under Communism as they had been under the czars. Now it may even be worse; Matryona’s village has become wretchedly poor, with women instead of horses plowing the kitchen gardens, and the system that promised so much offers only corruption, lackadaisical confusion, and mistrust, racing carelessly over people like Matryona on its way to some future too obscure to believe. And yet (one of the hallmarks of Solzhenitsyn’s fiction is the simple “and yet” that illuminates an otherwise hopeless life), he says, Matryona, poor in all but spirit, is the one righteous person without whom not a village or a city or the world can stand. Matryona is the personification of the mystical regeneration held inviolate in the Russian people that Solzhenitsyn instinctively sought upon his release and found intuitively in her. Like the old caretaker of a tatterdemalion monument to a forgotten battle in “Zakhar the Pouch,” Matryona’s stubborn, patient self-sacrifice restored Solzhenitsyn’s faith in humanity at a time when he had learned its opposite all too well.
“For the Good of the Cause”
In his political polemic of the early 1960’s, “For the Good of the Cause,” Solzhenitsyn again pits genuine human affection against villainous bureaucracy. Students of a provincial technical college have helped build themselves a badly needed building, but Party officials usurp it, with the resulting disillusionment wrenching the consciences of director and teachers and breaking the will of many of the students. Their helpless, bitter frustration at official hypocrisy underlies the actions of the vicious hoodlums, inhuman products of a system Solzhenitsyn feels they eventually will indiscriminately trample down, who aimlessly harass “The Easter Procession” in Solzhenitsyn’s last short story.
Solzhenitsyn’s short fiction resembles an Easter procession of his own, advancing from the Good Friday of the repatriated Soviet prisoner of war through loving recognition of the healing goodness in the peasants Matryona and Zakhar and a clear-eyed estimate of perversion of an honest teacher’s responsibility to his students, finally arriving at the realization that the Soviet system and its creatures contain the seeds of universal destruction. The only hope Solzhenitsyn can see lies in the willing acknowledgment of the bond between human beings that springs from the Christian consciousness that all people share their fellows’ suffering. In Solzhenitsyn’s short fiction, his overture to a powerful literary and spiritual mission, we recognize that, however separated we are in time and space, his is the voice of our brother.