Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 1918-

(Full name Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn) Russian novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, journalist, essayist, critic, and nonfiction writer.

Best known for his Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) and Arkhipelag Gulag, 1918-1956: Op' bit khudozhestvennopo issledovaniia (1973-75; The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation), Solzhenitsyn confronts in his short fiction and longer works the oppressive actions of the former Soviet Union, while in his later essays he regards the political and moral problems of the West as well. Rejecting the precepts of Socialist Realism, he writes from a Christian perspective, depicting the suffering of innocent people in a world where good and evil vie for the human soul; in this he is thematically linked to such nineteenth-century Russian writers as Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. Although Soviet authorities frequently banned his writings, Solzhenitsyn received the 1970 Nobel Prize for what the Nobel committee termed "the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature."

Biographical Information

Born in 1918 in Kislovodsk, Russia, Solzhenitsyn never knew his father, who died in a hunting accident before he was born. His mother, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, was denied sufficient employment by the Soviet government, forcing the family into poverty from 1924 to 1936. Solzhenitsyn harbored literary ambitions early in life, resolving before he was eighteen to write a major novel about the Bolshevik Revolution of 1918. After earning degrees in philology, mathematics, and physics, Solzhenitsyn began teaching in 1941. In 1945, while serving as the commander of a Soviet Army artillery battery, counterintelligence agents discovered personal letters in which Solzhenitsyn had criticized Communist leader Josef Stalin. Found guilty of conspiring against the state, he was confined to numerous institutions over the course of a decade, including a labor camp at Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan, and Marfino Prison—a sharashka, or government run prison and research institute. While in Moscow's Lubyanka prison, Solzhenitsyn began reading works by such authors as Yevgeny Zamyatin, a notable Soviet prose writer of the 1920s, and American novelist John Dos Passos, whose expressionist style later influenced Solzhenitsyn's own writing. During his imprisonment in Ekibastuz, Solzhenitsyn was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and underwent surgery. Due to bureaucratic incompetence, however, he did not receive radiation and hormone treatments until he was near death, but miraculously recovered from the disease. In 1953 he was released from prison and exiled to Kok-Terek in Central Asia. There he taught mathematics and physics in a secondary school and began writing prose poems, short stories, plays, and notes for a novel.

Freed from exile in 1965, Solzhenitsyn returned to central Russia. He then submitted several of his stories to the Russian periodical Novy Mir, which had published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962. Appearing during a period of openness fostered by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, the work proved a considerable success. However, with the decline of Khrushchev and the rise of less tolerant regimes, Solzhenitsyn fell from official favor. When he was granted the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, he was unable to attend the awards ceremony because the Soviet government would not guarantee his reentry into Russia. The French publication of The Gulag Archipelago led to his arrest, and in 1974 he was expelled from his homeland and eventually settled in the United States. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, however, has since afforded Solzhenitsyn the opportunity to return to Russia.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Set in Stalinist Russia, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich focuses on a simple prisoner, a peasant named Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who wants only to serve his sentence of hard labor with Christian integrity. In it Solzhenitsyn strove to avoid the aims of Socialist Realism, which reflected the official directives of the state and so imposed thoughts and feelings on its readers. Instead he rendered his tale in an understated, elliptical manner intended to elicit spontaneous feelings. Similar in tone to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the stories of Sluchai na stantsii Krechetovka [i] Matrenin dvor (1963; We Never Make Mistakes) offer subtly ironic views of life in the mid-twentieth century Soviet Union. With the second World War as its background, "An Incident at Krechetovka Station" presents the patriotic, devoutly Marxist, and steadfastly "vigilant" army lieutenant Zotov, a railroad station commander at Krechetovka. While assisting a misplaced soldier named Tveritinov, who has been separated from his unit, Zotov discovers the man does not know that the city of Tsaritsyn in now called Stalingrad, and suspects he is a German spy. Turning Tveritinov over to the secret police for questioning, Zotov later regrets his decision, realizing the soldier will likely never see his family again. The title character of "Matryona's Home," an impoverished peasant woman, endures her drab life until she is killed in a train accident. Figuring into a long tradition, Matryona is alternately seen by critics as a symbolic depiction of the idealized Russian peasant—innocent, infinitely patient, and hard-working—or a personification of a quietly suffering Mother Russia. The title of Dlia pol'zy dela (1963; For the Good of the Cause) alludes to the practice of Soviet collective labor, in this case to a group of students' construction of a new school building, which is taken from them to be transformed into a research institute by the opportunistic Knorozov—who hopes to become director of the new facility. For the Good of the Cause illustrates Solzhenitsyn's contention that despite Stalin's death a multitude of "little Stalins" like Knorozov dotted the landscape of the modern Soviet Union.

Among Solzhenitsyn's other works of short fiction are a series of prose poems, sketches designed to convey a simple idea or image and generally regarded as of lesser artistic interest. Along with these are several short pieces—almost journalistic in character—collected in English in Stories and Prose Poems by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1971). "The Right Hand" features a homeless man who, possessing only a decades-old commendation for "counter-revolutionary service," is neglected medical treatment. "Easter Procession" dramatizes the mocking attitude toward religion and spirituality exhibited by many Russians of a younger generation, and depicts the dangers of hooliganism and anti-Semitism. "Zakhar-the-Pouch," Solzhenitsyn's last story published in the Soviet Union recollects a bicycle trip to Kulikovo, site of a significant fourteenth-century Russian victory against the Tatars, now marred by vandalism. Culled from omitted chapters of his novel Avgust chetyrnadtsatogo (1971; August 1914), the novella Lenin v Tsiurikhe (1975; Lenin in Zurich) represents one of Solzhenitsyn's most unabashedly political works of short fiction, and offers a scathing portrait of the Russian leader Vladimir Lenin.

Critical Reception

In his writings Solzhenitsyn asserts the strength of the human spirit and the responsibility of the writer. The task of the writer, he believes, is "to treat universal and eternal themes: the mysteries of the heart and conscience, the collision between life and death, the triumph over spiritual anguish." Such is the thrust of Solzhenitsyn's shorter pieces of fiction, including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and "Matryona's Home," both of which are counted among his most accomplished works. Regarding these and other writings, critics generally agree that Solzhenitsyn's perceptive analysis of the human condition elevates his fiction above ordinary political or polemical works, and thus continue to place him among Russia's greatest writers.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Odin den ' Ivana Denisovicha [One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich] (novella) 1962

Dlia pol'zy dela [For the Good of the Cause] (novella) 1963

*Sluchai na stantsii Krechetovka [i] Matrenin dvor [We Never Make Mistakes] (short stories) 1963

"Ztiudy i Krokhotnye Rasskazy" (short story) 1964

Stories and Prose Poems by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (short stories and sketches) 1971

Lenin v Tsiurikhe [Lenin in Zurich] (novella) 1975

Rasskazy (short stories) 1990

Other Major Works

Sochineniia (selected works) 1966

Olen' i shalashovka [The Love Girl and the Innocent] (drama) 1968

Rakovyĭ korpus [The Cancer Ward] (novel) 1968

Svecha na vetru [Candle in the Wind] (drama) 1968

V kruge pervom [The First Circle] (novel) 1968

Avgust chetyrnadtsatogo [August 1914] (novel) 1971

Nobelevskaia lektsiia po literature 1970 goda [Nobel Lecture by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn] (essay) 1972

Arkhipelag Gulag, 1918-1956: Op' bit khudozhestvennopo issledovaniia [The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation] (nonfiction) 1973-75

Pis 'mo vozhdiam Sovetskogo Soĭŭza [Letter to the Soviet Leaders] (essay) 1974

Prusskie nochi: pozma napisappaja v lagere v 1950 [Prussian Nights: A Poem] (poetry) 1974

Amerikanzki rechi (speeches) 1975

Bodalsia telenok s dubom [The Oak and the Calf: Sketches of Literary Life in the Soviet Union] (autobiography) 1975

From under the Rubble [with others; also published as From under the Ruins] 1975

Dètente: Prospects for Democracy and Dictatorship [with others] (essays) 1976

Warning to the West (essays) 1976

Victory Celebrations: A Comedy in Four Acts. Prisoners: A Tragedy (dramas) 1983

Oktyabr' shestnadtsatogo (novel) 1984

Mart semnadtsatogo [March 1917] (novel) 1986

Kak nam obustroit' Rossiiu?: posil'nye soobrazheniia [Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals] (essay) 1990

Aprel' semnadtsatogo (novel) 1991

The Russian Question Toward the End of the Century (essay) 1995

*We Never Make Mistakes contains the stories "An Incident at Krechetovka Station" and "Matryona's Home."

†Part of the Krasnoe koleso: povestvovanie v otmerennykh srokakh (The Red Wheel) series.

Gleb Zekulin (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Solzhenitsyn's Four Stories," in Soviet Studies, Vol. XVI, No. 1, July, 1964, pp. 45-62.

[In the following essay, Zekulin evaluates several of Solzhenitsyn's stories that deal with the fate of the Russian peasantry and intelligentsia in the Soviet era, arguing that these works derive from a vital nineteenth-century tradition of critical realism in Russian literature.]

It is little over a year since A. Solzhenitsyn's first story One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich1 was published in the Soviet Union. It made history there2 and, for a time, became the most discussed book in the west as well.3 This interest, both...

(The entire section is 8627 words.)

Ludmila Koehler (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Russian Literary Tradition," in Russian Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, April, 1967, pp. 176-84.

[In the following essay, Koehler studies use of language in Solzhenitsyn's short fiction and contends that the author "has in terms of the Russian literary tradition broken through a barrier as an interpreter of the 'popular' mind."]

The first novel of A. Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, swept into the world like a gust of fresh wind. Sufficient time has elapsed since to make clear that the purely literary qualities of the novel far outweigh the political sensationalism that inevitably accompanies the appearance...

(The entire section is 2614 words.)

John Clardy (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the Impending Event: An Added Dimension to Solve an Old Problem," in Cimarron Review, No. 13, October, 1970, pp. 16-23.

[In the following essay, Clardy studies the importance of the "impending event" as a device used to maintain interest in Solzhenitsyn's narratives about "the revelation of character, " including "Matryona's Home," the novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and the novel The Cancer Ward.]

Any writer who deals mainly with the revelation of character is apt to have trouble making his stories interesting to the reader. Even in the hands of a master, this type of fiction can earn the author the label of...

(The entire section is 3628 words.)

Vladimir J. Rus (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Point of View Analysis," in Canadian Slavonic Papers, Vol. XIII, Nos. 2 & 3, Summer-Fall, 1971, pp. 165-78.

[In the following essay, Rus investigates the narrative technique of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—especially in terms of Solzhenitsyn's use of "represented discourse" to convey Shukhov's speech and thoughtsand its relation to the work's theme of restricted consciousness.]

In a very timely study1 Dorrit Cohn has made an attempt to establish the term "narrated monologue" as the English equivalent of the French "style indirect libre" and the German "Erlebte Rede."...

(The entire section is 4772 words.)

Abraham Rothberg (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "One Day, Four Decades," Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Major Novels, Cornell University Press, 1971, pp. 19-59.

[In the following excerpt, Rothberg focuses on the naturalness of language and "sober, documentary tone" in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.]

Solzhenitsyn not only staked out new territory for contemporary Soviet writers by dealing directly and candidly with the [prison labor] camps in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; he also explored new terrain in the use of language, exploiting a combination of prison, peasant, and pornographic slang unusual in the idiom of Soviet books. Especially objectionable to such conservatives as...

(The entire section is 1593 words.)

John B. Dunlop (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Solzhenitsyn's 'Sketches'," in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials, edited by John B. Dunlop, Richard Haugh, and Alexis Klimoff, Collier Books, 1973, pp. 317-25.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1972, Dunlop examines Solzhenitsyn's short sketches, or prose poems, as works "primarily concerned with the spiritual inadequacy of modern life."]

In a rare interview granted in 1967 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn remarked that he had completed sixteen stories of from fifteen to twenty lines each. These stories, he said, immediately acquired enormous popularity within the Soviet Union.1 On another occasion he stated:...

(The entire section is 3258 words.)

Leonid Rzhevsky (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ivan Denisovich—Zotov—Matryona," in Solzhenitsyn: Creator & Heroic Deed, translated by Sonja Miller, University of Alabama Press, 1978, pp. 33-48.

[In the following excerpt from a study originally published in Russian in 1972, Rzhevsky looks at the stories One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, "An Incident at Krechetovka Station, " and "Matryona's Home" in order to uncover affinities in their themes and narrative styles.]

There will not be, there never was a glittering world!
A foot cloth in the hoar frost, a bandage around your face.
An argument over porridge, the shout of a brigade leader,

(The entire section is 5571 words.)

Stephen S. Lottridge (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Solzhenitsyn and Leskov," in Russian Literature Triquarterly, No. 6, Spring, 1973, pp. 478-89.

[In the following essay, Lottridge associates Solzhenitsyn's "Matryona's Home" and "Zakhar-the-Pouch" ("Zahar-Kalita") with nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov's "well-known series of stories about righteous men."]

This article will deal with Alexander Solzhenitsyn's short stories—especially, though not exclusively, with "Matryona's House" and "Zahar-Kalita"—in relation to the works of one of Solzhenitsyn's most important literary predecessors, the great storyteller of Russian literature, Nikolai Leskov.1 The possibility of a connection...

(The entire section is 4814 words.)

Christopher Moody (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Matryona's Home" in Solzhenitsyn, Oliver & Boyd, 1973, pp. 28-49

[In the following excerpt, Moody analyzes One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, comparing it with "Matryona's Home. " He concludes that the works "together . . . provide a picture of goodness and truth at the mercy of evil and falsehood."]

Alexander Solzhenitsyn has been described by different critics as both an old-fashioned writer and a genuine innovator. Paradoxically, both of these views are correct. In the early 1930s, when his fame in the Soviet Union was at its height, the official aesthetic of socialist realism, with...

(The entire section is 8362 words.)

Robert Louis Jackson (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Matryona's Home': The Making of a Russian Icon," in Solzhenitsyn: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Kathryn Feuer, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976, pp. 60-70.

[In the following essay, Jackson explores the theme of social upheaval and disorder as it is evinced in the life of the symbolic figure Matryona in "Matryona's Home. "]

"O, Rus! My wife! Our long road lies painfully clear ahead!"

Blok, "On the Field of Kulikovo"

"It chewed 'em all up. Can't even pick up the pieces."

"That's a detail. The nine o'clock express nearly jumped the track, that would've been...

(The entire section is 4666 words.)

Sheryl A. Spitz (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Impact of Structure in Solzhenitsyn's 'Matryona's Home'," in The Russian Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, April, 1977, pp. 167-83.

[In the following essay, Spitz analyzes the significance of the structural and linguistic devices of "Matryona's Home" apropos the work's themes, ideals, and ironies.]

"Matryona's Home" is considered to be not only one of Solzhenitsyn's finest works but also one of the greatest short stories in recent Soviet literary history. It has been discussed in almost every survey of Solzhenitsyn's work and has often been translated. Unfortunately, these discussions and translations have not always been adequate to the demands of the story. In...

(The entire section is 6825 words.)

Andrej Kodjak (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Short Stories," Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Twayne Publishers, 1978, pp. 104-22.

[In the following excerpt, Kodjak offers a survey of theme and plot in Solzhenitsyn's short fiction.]

Solzhenitsyn's short stories and novels written roughly over the same years are closely linked with one another philosophically. There is, however, a significant difference between the three novels and the short stories. At least two of the novels deal directly with prison life, and the third, The Cancer Ward, alludes to it through the figure of Oleg Kostoglotov; in his short stories Solzhenitsyn does not concern himself with this feature of society. There he seems rather to be...

(The entire section is 7168 words.)

Edward E. Ericson, Jr. (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Genesis: Prose Poems and Stories" and "History Recovered," in Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 18-33; 115-45.

[In the following excerpt, Ericson studies the developing themes in Solzhenitsyn's early prose poems and stories and examines the novella Lenin in Zurich as a political work intended to demythologize the Russian leader.]

Solzhenitsyn had done some writing during both World War II and his imprisonment thereafter. We cannot be sure how much of this work, probably mostly poetry, he committed to memory before he felt it necessary, for safety's sake, to destroy the manuscripts. His narrative poem...

(The entire section is 8531 words.)

Robert L. Yarup (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," in The Explicator, Vol. 40, No. 3, Spring, 1982, pp. 61-3.

[In the following essay, Yarup observes that Solzhenitsyn uses sense perception in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to demonstrate how "the most primitive, physical aspects of man are subjugated to Soviet domination."]

Reveille was sounded, as always, at 5 A.M.—a hammer pounding on a rail outside Camp HQ. The ringing noise came faintly on and off through the windowpanes covered with ice more than an inch thick, and died away fast. It was cold and the warder didn't feel like going on banging.


(The entire section is 882 words.)

Paul N. Siegel (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Solzhenitsyn's Portrait of Lenin," in Clio, Vol. 14, No. 1, Fall, 1984, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Siegel argues that Solzhenitsyn's vituperative portrait of Vladimir Lenin in his Lenin in Zurich "has many of the traits of [Josef] Stalin and is also in part an unconscious mirror image of Solzhenitsyn himself," but "bears little resemblance to the historical Lenin."]

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's portrait of Lenin in Lenin in Zurich, which consists of chapters drawn from three volumes of his work in progress, is of interest in itself, in the light it casts on the historical accuracy of his project, whose avowed purpose is the correction...

(The entire section is 5244 words.)

Hugh Ragsdale (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Solzhenitsyn That Nobody Knows," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 71, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 634-41.

[In the following essay, Ragsdale associates Matryona of "Matryona's Home " with Mother Russia, and probes the cultural concerns espoused in the work, calling it "the Slavophile protest against urbanism, technology, alcohol, against the neglect of old folk values."]

For the second time Alexander Solzhenitsyn last year returned home from exile. He has had a house built in the environs of Moscow, where he plans to take up residence. He foreswears politics, yet he publicly condemns revolutions—both French and Russian—and declares that Russia should be...

(The entire section is 2660 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Allaback, Steven. "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." In Alexander Solzhenitsyn, pp. 18-61. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1978.

Characterizes One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich as Solzhenitsyn's most straightforward narrative.

Cismaru, Alfred. "The Importance of Food in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." San Jose Studies 9, No. 1 (Winter 1983): 99-105.

Emphasizes "Solzhenitsyn's concern with food collection, ingestion, digestion, and with body preservation in general" in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.


(The entire section is 591 words.)