Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his novels are better appreciated and understood when the author’s vision of himself as a writer is taken into consideration; he believed that a great writer must also be a prophet of his or her country. In this tradition of the great Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski, Solzhenitsyn sought to discover a place for the individual in history and in art. Solzhenitsyn viewed art, history, life, and people as continually interacting, forming a single pulsing wave that creates a new, vibrant, and oftentimes disturbing vision of reality and the future. From his first publication, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, to his cycle of historical novels, Krasnoe koleso, Solzhenitsyn concentrated on people’s ability to survive with dignity in environments that are fundamentally inhumane. Whatever the situation of his protagonist—whether in a Stalinist prison camp, a hospital, the army, or exile—Solzhenitsyn demands from that character a certain moral integrity, a code of behavior that separates him or her from those who have forsaken their humanity. It is the ability or inability to adhere to this code that renders the protagonist triumphant or tragic.
Given the importance of the interrelationship of history, art, and life in Solzhenitsyn’s works, it is not surprising that the works are often preoccupied with the larger issues confronting humanity. For the most part, Solzhenitsyn’s novels are concerned less with action and plot than with ideas and ethical motivation. Radically different characters are thrown together into artificial environments, usually state institutions, which are separated from society as a whole and are governed by laws and codes of behavior that are equally estranged from society. Such institutions serve as a means of bringing together and equalizing people who would normally not have contact with one another; previous status and education become meaningless. Physical survival itself is usually at issue—prisoners and soldiers struggle for food, patients for treatment, and “free” people for continued freedom and integrity. For Solzhenitsyn, however, physical survival is not the only issue, or even the primary one. Several of his characters, including Alyosha in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Nerzhin in The First Circle, actually welcome the prison camp experience, for they find their time in camp to be conducive to reflection on fundamental questions.
Nerzhin, like many of the other zeks (prisoners in the Stalinist camps), is also aware that, in contrast to the “free” members of Stalinist society, prisoners are allowed greater opportunity to speak their minds, to debate issues freely and openly, and to come to terms with the society and state that have imprisoned them. The freedom that some of the prisoners enjoy, the freedom that the ill-fated patients experience in the Cancer Ward, is the freedom encountered by those who have nothing left to lose. As the author indicates through one of the prisoners in The First Circle, society has no hold over a person once it has taken everything from him or her. Solzhenitsyn repeatedly returns to the theme of materialism as a source of manipulation and a potential evil in people’s lives. According to Solzhenitsyn, those who maintain material ties can never be entirely free, and therefore their integrity can always be questioned and tested. Worldly possessions per se are not evil, nor is the desire to possess them, nor does Solzhenitsyn condemn those who do have or desire them. He is skeptical of their value, however, and ultimately holds the conscience to be humankind’s single treasured possession.
Solzhenitsyn’s insistence on integrity extends beyond the life of the individual. Solzhenitsyn asserts that because...
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a person has only one conscience, he or she must not allow that conscience to be compromised on a personal level by justifying personal actions or the actions of the state by insisting that the end, no matter how noble, justifies the means. This single observation is the foundation of Solzhenitsyn’s attack on the Soviet state. A brilliant, perfect Communist future is not motivation or justification enough for a secretive, censor-ridden socialist state, not in Stalin’s time or in the author’s lifetime. In Solzhenitsyn’s view, corrupt means cannot produce a pure end.
Detractors of Solzhenitsyn in both the East and the West have claimed that his writings are too political and generally unconcerned with stylistic matters. Given the life and the times of the man, these objections fail to be particularly persuasive. Solzhenitsyn’s language is rich and textured, and both a glossary (Vera Carpovich, Solzhenitsyn’s Peculiar Vocabulary, 1976) and a dictionary (Meyer Galler, Soviet Prison Camp Speech, 1972) of his language have been produced. Prison slang, camp jargon, political slogans, colloquialisms, and neologisms all mesh in Solzhenitsyn’s texts. His attention to language is often voiced by his characters, such as Ignatich in “Matryona’s House” or Sologdin in The First Circle, and his prose is sprinkled with Russian proverbs and folk sayings that often summarize or counteract lengthy philosophical debates. A further indication of his concern for language can be seen in his insistence on commissioning new translations of many of his works, which were originally issued in hurried translations to meet the worldwide demand for them.
On another stylistic level, Solzhenitsyn employs two narrative techniques that enhance his focus on the exchange of ideas and debate as a means of attaining truth: erlebte rede, or quasi-direct discourse, and polyphony. Quasi-direct discourse involves the merging of two or more voices, one of these voices usually being that of a third-person narrator and the other the voice of the character depicted. Through this device, Solzhenitsyn draws the reader as close as possible to the thoughts, perceptions, and emotions of the character without interrupting the narrative with either direct or indirect speech. Similarly, polyphony, a term introduced by the Soviet critic Mikhail Bakhtin in regard to Dostoevski’s narrative and structural technique and a term that Solzhenitsyn himself applied to his own novels, is employed in order to present more empathetically a character’s point of view. Polyphony allows each character in turn to take center stage and present his or her views either directly or through quasi-direct discourse; thus, throughout a novel, the narrative focus continually shifts from character to character. The third-person omniscient narrator serves as a linking device, seemingly allowing the debates to continue among the characters alone.
In addition to these literary techniques, Solzhenitsyn’s prose, particularly in The First Circle, is permeated with irony and satire. A master of hyperbole and understatement, Solzhenitsyn is at his best when caricaturing historical figures, such as Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Joseph Stalin, to name but two. Solzhenitsyn further deepens the irony by underscoring small physical and verbal gestures of his targets. The target need not be as powerful as Lenin or Stalin to draw the author’s fire, and there are touches of self-irony that provide a corrective to Solzhenitsyn’s occasionally sanctimonious tone.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Not all of Solzhenitsyn’s works are dependent on irony and satire. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is striking for its restraint, verbal economy, and controlled tone. This povest’, or novella, was originally conceived by the author in 1950-1951 while he was in the Ekibastuz prison. The original draft, written in 1959 and titled “One Day in the Life of a Zek,” was significantly revised, politically muffled, and submitted to Novy mir.
Set in a labor camp in Siberia, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich traces an ordinary day in the life of a prisoner. The author reveals through a third-person narrator the stark, grim world of the zek in meticulous detail, including the daily rituals—the searches, the bed checks, the meals—as well as the general rules and regulations that govern his daily existence: little clothing, little contact with the outside world, little time to himself. Every detail of Ivan Denisovich’s day resounds in the vast, cold emptiness of this remote camp. As György Lukács noted of the novel, “Camp life is represented as a permanent condition”; into this permanent condition is thrust a common person who quietly and simply reveals the essence of retaining one’s dignity in a hopeless, inhumane environment.
Uncharacteristic of Solzhenitsyn’s works, the tone of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is reserved, solemn, and dignified; irony surfaces only occasionally. The tone is probably somewhat attributable to the editing of Tvardovsky, whose language is felt here. Throughout the work, which is uninterrupted by chapter breaks, the focus remains on Ivan Denisovich and the passage of this one day. Secondary characters are introduced only insofar as they touch his day, and flashbacks and background information are provided only to deepen the reader’s understanding of Ivan Denisovich’s present situation. Unlike Solzhenitsyn’s later novels, which focus largely on an institution’s impact on many different individuals, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich focuses on one man. Criticism of the camps is perceived by the reader, who slowly observes and absorbs the daily steps of this man. Only after Solzhenitsyn has revealed the drudgery of that one day, one almost happy day, does he place it in its context, simply stating that “there were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like this in his sentence, from reveille to lights out. The three extra ones were because of leap year.”
Unlike its predecessor, Cancer Ward directly reveals the constant intense emotional pressure of its characters and its themes. Solzhenitsyn fixed upon the idea of writing this novel at his discharge from the Tashkent clinic in 1955. He did not begin writing the novel until 1963, and only after a two-year hiatus did he return to serious work on Cancer Ward. In 1966, having finished the first part of the work, Solzhenitsyn submitted it to the journal Novy mir; it was rejected by the censor. Meanwhile, Solzhenitsyn completed the novel, which soon began to circulate in samizdat. Eventually, Cancer Ward was smuggled to the West and published, first in excerpts and later in its entirety. It was never published in the Soviet Union.
On the surface, Cancer Ward depicts the lives of the doctors, patients, and staff of a cancer clinic. The two protagonists of the novel, Pavel Rusanov and Oleg Kostoglotov, are socially and politically polar opposites: Rusanov is a member of the Communist Party, well established, living a comfortable life with a wife and a family; Kostoglotov is a former prisoner who arrives at the hospital with no one and nothing. Because of the cancer that has afflicted them both, they find themselves in the same ward with an equally diverse group of patients. The novel is largely plotless and focuses on the contrasting attitudes of the patients in regard to the institution, their treatment, and life and death, as well as other philosophical and political issues.
The one plot line that runs through the novel centers on Kostoglotov, who, having been imprisoned and consequently deprived of female companionship for years, becomes an avid “skirt chaser,” pursuing both his doctor, Vera Gangart, who ironically falls victim to the very cancer in which she specializes, and a young medical student, Zoya. Kostoglotov throughout the novel continually objects to the secrecy that surrounds his treatment and demands that he has a right to know. In a twist characteristic of Solzhenitsyn, Zoya informs Kostoglotov that the X-ray treatment that he is receiving will temporarily render him impotent. This serves as another reminder to Kostoglotov that, as in prison, his fate, his manhood, and in fact his life are beyond his control and in the hands of yet another institution. Throughout Cancer Ward, the abuses, idiocies, and tragedies of Soviet medical care are revealed, as terminally ill patients are released believing they are cured, patients are misdiagnosed, and hospitals prove to be poorly staffed and supplied.
Unfortunately, Cancer Ward suffers from its near absence of plot, its heavy-handed dialogues and debates, and its lack of focus, either on a genuine protagonist or on an all-encompassing theme. The reader feels little sympathy for Rusanov, a Communist Party member, or for Kostoglotov, despite the fact that he has been unjustly imprisoned and is a victim of cancer. Kostoglotov is generally impatient, intolerant, and at times completely insensitive to others. Nevertheless, he does grow in the course of the novel. In a discussion with Shulubin, another patient in the ward, Kostoglotov dismisses Shulubin’s warning that happiness is elusive and only a mirage, but when he is finally dismissed from the clinic, Kostoglotov, wandering the streets free from prison and free from cancer, realizes that an appetite can be more easily stimulated than satisfied. By the conclusion of the work, Kostoglotov understands Shulubin’s warning and abandons his dreams of love with Vera and Zoya.
Despite the work’s significant shortcomings, there are scenes in Cancer Ward that remain unforgettable for their sensitivity and poetry. One such scene involves the two adolescents Dyomka and Asya. Dyomka is to lose his leg; Asya, a breast. Asya, a seventeen-year-old, worries about her appearance in a swimsuit and her future with men, lamenting that no man will ever touch her breast. In an act of both hope and despair, Asya asks Dyomka to kiss her breast before, as the narrator observes, it is removed and thrown into the trash. Throughout the novel, compassion, sensitivity, poetry, and philosophy are shamelessly interrupted by the reality of the cancer ward. The sharp contrast between the human spirit of hope and the ominous presence of death and destruction in the form of cancer simultaneously underscores the fragility of human existence and the immortality of the human spirit. It is this spirit that is admired and celebrated in this novel and that is also a feature of Solzhenitsyn’s finest work, The First Circle.
The First Circle
The First Circle, like Cancer Ward, is largely autobiographical, based in this case on Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in the sharashka. The author began writing the novel while in exile in Kok-Terek in 1955. Between 1955 and 1958, Solzhenitsyn wrote three redactions of the novel, none of which has survived. After 1962, he wrote four additional redactions of the novel, the last of which appeared in 1978. The novel was first published abroad in 1968 and, like Cancer Ward, was never published in the Soviet Union. The 1978 redaction differs from the sixth redaction (the edition used for all foreign translations) largely in the addition of nine chapters. The discussion below is based on the sixth redaction.
The First Circle masterfully combines all of Solzhenitsyn’s finest assets as a writer. It is by far the most artistic of his novels, drawing heavily on literary allusions and abounding with literary devices. The title itself is a reference to Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), alluding to the first circle of Hell, the circle designated for pagan scholars, philosophers, and enlightened people, where the pain and the suffering of Hell are greatly diminished. The sharashka, as Lev Rubin indicates in the chapter “Dante’s Idea” (chapter headings are particularly revealing in this novel), is the first circle of the Stalinist camps. Unlike Ivan Denisovich, who is in a hard-labor camp, the zeks in the sharashka have adequate food and livable working conditions. The zeks inhabiting the sharashka thus have a great deal to lose, for if they do not conform to the rules governing the sharashka, they may fall from the first circle into the lower depths of the Stalinist camps.
Three of the four protagonists of the novel, Gleb Nerzhin, Lev Rubin, and Dmitri Sologdin, face a decision that may endanger their continued stay at the sharashka. Each must decide whether he is willing to work on a scientific project that may result in the imprisonment of other citizens or whether he will retain his integrity by refusing to work on the project, consequently endangering his own life. The debates and discussions that permeate this novel are thus well motivated, playing a significant role in revealing the character and philosophies of these prisoners while drawing the reader deeply into their lives and minds. The tension of the novel arises as the reader attempts to determine whether each prisoner will act in accordance with his conscience. Placed in a similar situation, Innokenty Volodin, a free man and the fourth protagonist of the novel, decides to risk imprisonment by warning a fellow citizen that he may be in danger. Volodin decides to follow his conscience in the first chapter of the novel; in his case, suspense depends on the questions of whether he will be caught and punished for his actions and whether he will continue to endorse the decision that he has made.
The First Circle is a novel of characters and choices; the choices that must be made by nearly all the characters, primary and secondary, are of compelling interest to the reader, for each choice functions as an echo of another person’s choice. The overall impact of nearly every character (free and imprisoned) being faced with a life-threatening decision based on moral issues vividly demonstrates the inescapable terror of the time. Furthermore, the multidimensional aspects of this novel—the wide range of characters from virtually every social stratum, the numerous plots, the use of polyphony, the shifting to and from radically different settings, the views of peasant and philosopher, the plethora of literary allusions, the incredible richness of the language—show the sophistication and remarkable depth of the author.
Solzhenitsyn’s historical works were first seen with the publication of August 1914 in the West in Russian in 1971 and its English translation in 1972. This book was a greatly shortened variant of the intended whole book, and it was met with general perplexity. Paralleling the “literary experimentation” style of his nonfiction work The Gulag Archipelago (published in English 1974-1978), Solzhenitsyn casts his figures as embodiments of historical situations and ethical issues. Whereas in The Gulag Archipelago he wrote from personal experience, in August 1914 he tries to reconstruct a past of which he was not a part, with varying results. The book’s chapter on Lenin, deliberately withheld from publication in the first edition, was published separately in Paris in 1975 as Lenin v Tsyurikhe and translated in 1976 as Lenin in Zurich. Solzhenitsyn had expanded and reworked it after his 1974 exile. Many other chapters were written and added in 1976 and 1977.
August 1914 was republished in English in 1989, this time in its entirety. It was identified as a section, or “knot,” of Solzhenitsyn’s historical series Krasnoe koleso (words that translate into English as “the red wheel”). Confusingly, this version was published under the title The Red Wheel rather than August 1914. By the time of the 1989 translation, Solzhenitsyn had published two more knots of Krasnoe koleso in Russian, Oktiabr’ shestnadtsatogo (1984; translated as November 1916 in 1999) and Mart semnadtsatogo (1986-1988). A fourth knot, Aprel’ semnadtsatogo, appeared in 1991. That same year the Soviet Union collapsed. The “evil empire” that had formed the fulcrum for the critical leverage of Solzhenitsyn’s prose was gone, and Solzhenitsyn became a prophet without a cause. The work, while historical in nature and presumably impervious to the vagaries of political change, settled into Russian literary history almost like an anachronism. It had a very limited readership.
The structure of the work was intended to reveal the nature of Russia’s history as Solzhenitsyn believed it to be. Unlike the first publication (August 1914), The Red Wheel and Krasnoe koleso as a whole used a framework composed of “knots,” nodes at which historical events are compressed. Solzhenitsyn’s philosophy, responding to Tolstoy’s from Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886), conforms to the proposition that history is shaped not so much by great people as by all people striving to make the proper ethical choices when forced to take part in significant events. Tolstoy’s ideas, however, are revealed in the narration; Solzhenitsyn uses narrative structure instead of describing the idea, leaving the narration in large measure beyond the ordinary means of artistic forms. His intention was to reveal the “full column” of historical actors, yet such a structure tends to obscure history at the same time that it loses literary form through diffusion of the plot.
Solzhenitsyn created an enormous role for himself as a prophet of Russian history with his first novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In his later life, history granted him only a piece of the past. Krasnoe koleso fell outside the interest of the Russian readership it was intended to instruct. Moreover, Solzhenitsyn’s ambitions and personal interests came under hostile scrutiny by the Russian literati, who questioned his motivation for returning to Russia in 1994. Solzhenitsyn remained unmoved by the criticism, however, and continued to work as before, motivated from within, defiant of the exterior world.