Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8627
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 in the USSR and the west, was mainly 'sensational' and due to the exposure of what Tvardovski in his foreword calls euphemistically 'the unhealthy symptoms in our development which are linked with the period of the personality cult'. The literary value of the story was discussed very little.
Solzhenitsyn has since published three more stories. Two of them, 'An Incident at Krechetovka Station' and 'Matryona's Household', published simultaneously,4 were read avidly and commented upon sparsely, the subject-matter being apparently less 'revealing' than in the first story. The last Solzhenitsyn story to date (Dec. 1963), For the Good of the Cause5 has scarcely been noticed in the west and has provoked few comments in the Soviet press.6
The four stories, which amount to some 162 closely printed periodical pages (about 80,000 words), provide enough material for the discussion of their content and form, which they undoubtedly deserve.
Considering the stories individually for their informative or cognitive value, two of them, One day . . . and 'Matryona's Household', stand out immediately.
One Day . . . , the longest of the four, is a mine of information, much more so than the well-known 'Notes from the House of the Dead' by Dostoyevski which treats in a not dissimilar artistic manner the same theme—life in a prison camp—and to which it has often been compared. Firstly, we find an almost minute-by-minute time-table of a camp inmate's long day. We are given detailed descriptions of what he wears and eats, what tricks he uses to protect himself against cold, hunger and the senseless cruelty of his fellow-prisoners and, especially, of his guards. Further, we are acquainted with the organization of the camp, the lay-out of the compound and of the building-site where the prisoners work, the system of guarding them inside the camp, during their daily march to work and back, and while they work. Then, the work itself is described thoroughly. In brief: having read the story, we know how the prisoner lives, what he does and thinks, we know what punishment he can receive and for what, and even what would happen to him if he escaped.
A comparatively large proportion of space is devoted to the portrayal of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov and his fellow-inmates. The mass of the prisoners are divided into 'good ones', i.e. all those whom the author calls 'donkey-workers' (rabotyagy), and 'bad ones', i.e. those who managed to find for themselves by hook, but largely by crook, a 'cushy job' as an orderly, cook or minor clerk, to avoid manual work and increase their chances of survival. A whole range of means is reported by which such a position of relative security can be obtained: from morally unimpeachable ones, like possession of a specific skill or smartness or just sheer luck, to the morally bad ones, like exaggerated servility or bribes, or—worst of all—denunciation of fellow-prisoners to the camp authorities. Thus, the 'bad ones' who collaborate with the camp authorities are subdivided into two groups on the simple criterion of whether they do this under duress or of their own free will.
The 'good ones' are also subdivided into the group of the 'better' and the 'not-so-good'. This subdivision is much more subtle and reflects, to some extent, those values which enter into the Soviet code of ethics: thus, the man who helps his fellow-prisoners in any way (e.g. the brigade leader Tyurin) or who pulls his weight conscientiously in the work (e.g. the brigade member Klyovshin) belongs to the first group. (A curious and rather unexpected detail which, in all probability, also reflects an attitude common in the Soviet Union outside the camps but, this time, is opposed to the 'official line', is the possibly unconscious unwillingness on the part of the author to put the non-Russians into the group of the 'better ones'; for instance, the two Estonians who help others and work conscientiously, etc., etc., and possess in addition other moral and civic virtues, are nevertheless classified as 'not-so-good ones'. Is it that Solzhenitsyn, like his nineteenth century predecessors, still views non-Russians as incapable of entirely pure, unselfish and noble motivations? This explanation seems to be fortified by Solzhenitsyn's other nineteenth century traits, as will be shown later.)
The guards and warders in the camp and the soldiers who escort the prisoners to outside work and guard them there are shown in much less detail. Both groups are clearly enough the prisoners' enemies. But the soldiers of the escort are hated only as representatives of the authorities, of 'them', while the camp guards are hated with a frightening intensity (e.g. the secret police officer Volkovoi who, not long before, carried a whip which he used freely on prisoners, mainly those incarcerated in single cells of the BUR, this 'prison within the prison' and the only solid stone building on the camp site).
One Day . . . provides the reader with direct information on other matters, less detailed but no less revealing. For example, the few remarks about the 'free men' (volniye) living near the construction site and for whom the prisoners have built houses and a cinema, show that their life is not so very much easier than that of the prisoners: their food is bad, very inadequate and rationed (the year in which the action takes place is 1951); they are apt to steal at the site not only the materials and the tools which belong to the government (therefore, perhaps, in their minds, to nobody or even to 'themselves') and which, for this reason, have to be guarded day and night, but even, incomprehensibly, the bowls from which the prisoners eat.
From incidental references to kolkhoz life we learn (in addition to more familiar matters) of a farm on which no able-bodied men remain; instead, with the connivance of the farm's authorities, they travel across the country, sometimes even by air, earning big money by smearing with the help of three pseudo-artistic stencils carpet patterns on old bed sheets or any old piece of fabric.
There is in the story a wealth of indirect information as well. Perhaps the most interesting is a short survey of Soviet history from a peculiar though not unique angle: the generations of camp inmates. From 1930 to 1951 the flow of prisoners never diminished. The first prisoners, victims of the collectivization drive, were serving their first term when in 1935, after Kirov's assassination, a new wave was sent to the camps, followed by that of the Great Purge which started in 1937. They were serving their second term when, after the war began, the soldiers who managed to break out of German encirclements and get back to their lines began to arrive, and continued to arrive until the end of the war. And those of them who survived were serving their third term in 1951 and 'breaking in' new prisoners—actors, students, Baptists, Heroes of the Soviet Union, naval officers, directors of industry and bureaucrats, old men, middle-aged men and almost children—who came in a continuous stream to the camps with uniform sentences, now expediently increased to 25 years.
The question of people's attitude to work as treated in One Day . . . , in relation to the place of work in the official Soviet scale of values, deserves a short study in itself. It will be referred to again briefly below. The 'big scene' in the story is the prisoners' work on building a wall. At first glance this scene is the apotheosis of work, a song of praise to work (and, incidentally, the story's only 'redemption' theme). But, seen more closely, it becomes quite plain that Shukhov and his brigade do not work for the work's sake but in order to erect as quickly as possible a shield against the killing frost and to receive a bigger ration of bread. Their enthusiasm has no other basis. Among his mates Shukhov is the only one who pays attention to the quality of the work (and even he slips a little towards the end of the scene), and the pride of work well done is a particular feature of his own character, not the general attitude. (This was the only feature of Solzhenitsyn's story which was reproduced in the otherwise appallingly bad dramatization which was telecast early in November 1963 by NBC ('Bob Hope Theater Program') in the USA and which managed to transform Shukhov into what he is not in the original, namely, into a socialist-realist 'positive hero'.)
The story 'Matryona's Household' is also full of information, this time of a very different kind. It is much shorter than One Day . . . . The action takes place in the summer and winter of 1953 and is concerned with the life of a peasant war widow. Below the author's placid narrative a frightening picture of a Central Russian peasant's fate is revealed to the reader.
The little old-Russian village, collectivized of course, and situated about one hour's walk from the railway, is only some 180 km. from Moscow—but one has the impression that it is thousands of miles from anywhere. The wooden hut-houses (izby) were mostly built before the revolution and are in sore need of repair. The streets are unpaved and, in bad weather, the mud or slush reaches to the tops of high boots. There is no shop and the one in the nearest township is virtually empty: it has no butter, margarine only occasionally, and only the 'combi-fat' (low grade mixed animal and vegetable fat) is always available; there is no selection of grains—the raw material for the peasants' staple food, kasha—and the only kind issued is barley, but one has to fight to get it.
Collectivization did little to improve the villagers' lot. They cannot rely on the kolkhoz payment in kind and have to concentrate their individual plots on potatoes—the only and daily fare of the majority of them. Kolkhoz chairmen—mainly strangers from the towns who seem to change quite often and rule the farms as little despots—keep on cutting the size of these plots (probably in order to force villagers to do more work for the kolkhoz), and the cutoff pieces of land remain unused for ever. Peat-cutting is one of the main occupations of the kolkhoz, but the members are not themselves entitled to any peat so that they have to steal it to keep warm in winter. This thieving goes on all the year round and, of course, means not only leaving other important work undone but also being caught from time to time and dragged to the courts (such thieves have formed a steady flow of prisoners into concentration camps). The welfare services are very poor: Matryona, for instance, after 25 years of work on the collective farm, falls ill but, not being a chronic invalid, has no right to a kolkhoz pension. For years she has tried to prove that she is entitled to a State pension as a war widow. The fact that she is not now a member of the kolkhoz does not prevent the chairman's wife all but ordering her to come out and work, without remuneration, in times of 'crisis' on the farm.
The mechanization of agricultural work does not seem to have brought much benefit to the farmers—rather the opposite. Its most heavily felt result is the disappearance of horses, and the women have to harness themselves in sixes to the plough when they want to prepare their individual plots for potato planting. Nor do the schools help the peasants much. The teachers seem to be more concerned with sending to their authorities fraudulent reports of their pupils' progress than with educating them. In consequence, boys of 13 or 14 do not even know their fractions and are barred, through no fault of their own, from competing successfully for places in senior schools and thus are 'condemned' to remain kolkhozniki.
All this information indicates, implicitly, that the life of small kolkhoz peasants is as dreary and dark as was the life of their forefathers a hundred years ago. The men still beat their wives to show that they are masters, the women still find consolation in religion which is more pagan than Christian and consists mainly of superstitions and outward ritual observance. The whole purpose of their life seems to be to collect things which they can call their own, and its only drive is greed. This impression is strengthened by the description of their attitude to the authorities, be it the kolkhoz chairman, the village soviet or the local welfare office (sobes). The people in authority are regarded by villagers as their enemies (the They' of One Day . . .) who prosper by the sweat and blood of the peasants with whom they have nothing in common; in no way are these new masters different from the old land and serf owners, and the fight against them is conducted in the same, time honoured way: by passive resistance, thieving, pilfering and petty swindles and frauds.
Again, as in One Day . . . , work is a curse, and not the means to improve the peasants' lot or to bring about universal satisfaction and happiness. And again, as in the case of Shukhov, this impression is not corrected but rather emphasized by Matryona's own attitude to work. This time it is real love of work for work's sake. For her work is the remedy—and the only remedy—for all troubles. It is not something one does for reward but rather the natural and the only worth-while human activity. But her honest and passionate love of work does not make her life easier in the material sense (she is the village pauper), nor does it procure for her the respect or admiration of her neighbours (the contrary is the case), but it brings about her stupid and unnecessary death.
The two stories, One day . . . and 'Matryona's Household', are not sketches (a genre which has been very popular in the Soviet Union since the early 1930s, and the artistic purpose of which is to draw attention to some external feature of life in general, some topical matter of public importance), but works of art, the purpose of which is to expose a problem (external or internal) which attracts or worries the author personally and which, in his opinion, deserves or needs his comments or his attempt at a solution. As works of art the two stories are based on the author's knowledge, understanding and interpretation of life, in this case, on facts and happenings which he has actually experienced. (In One Day . . . he identifies himself with his characters and three or four times, when speaking about them, he uses the personal pronoun 'we'; 'Matryona's Household' is narrated in the first person.) The descriptive and narrative method he selects is 'direct' and 'objective': he represents life as it would be seen and understood by any 'normal' person, that is, by people who neither possess any special knowledge, skill or understanding, nor have any extraordinary sensitivity, emotionality or mental or spiritual deformity. This method is usually called realism. The specific facts of life narrated and analysed in this cool and detached, direct way acquire through the author's sincere and impassioned moral and intellectual engagement (usually called in such cases compassion) an intensity and sharpness which give them the qualities of universality and authenticity.
The problem which excites and worries Solzhenitsyn in these two stories is a familiar one to Russian literature, namely that of the Russian peasant. His approach to this problem, his comment upon it and—perhaps, it would be right to say—his attempt to solve it, is traditional for Russian literature (particularly that of the nineteenth century). His Russian peasant, as exemplified by Shukhov and by Matryona, is seen with all his faults; and at the same time he is idealized as he was by Grigorovich, Turgenev, Nekrasov, Lev Tolstoy et al. This idealization, for lack of other moral or social qualities present in the Russian peasantry, has to concentrate on two intangibles which can be neither proved nor disproved. These are patience and love of work.
The patience of the Russian peasant was for a long time a favourite theme with Russian writers who liked to see the peasant as the conscious 'bearer of the cross', the martyr suffering willingly and hoping for reward only in the other world. It is difficult to understand this view of the Russian peasant, which was shared even by such exponents of the peculiar brand of peasant socialism as Chernyshevski and the Populists, or by such clear-headed and rational thinkers as Herzen. Ture idealizers', while sympathizing deeply with the peasants, admiring them boundlessly, glorifying their Christian virtue and condemning morally those who seemed to be responsible for these shameful conditions, were content to leave things more or less as they were. 'Progressive idealizers' thought to see the answer simply in overthrowing tsarism and transferring power to other hands; they hardly began to think of how, in practice, this would affect the peasants; they were only sure that their action would relieve the peasants of their undeserved martyrdom.
The notion of the Russian peasant as a mute and always patient sufferer became so widespread (it is the cornerstone of a myth known the world over under the name of 'the Russian Soul') that it does not seem to have occurred to writers (and politicians, too) to look for other inherent characteristics, possibly more specific, to explain his condition (such as inability or unwillingness to think of the common good or far ahead, or to feel as a member of an organization of fellow human beings—characteristics to be found more readily in the masses of all races and nationalities than patience and readiness to suffer).
The Russian peasant's love of work was, again traditionally, elevated by writers of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the level of a moral quality, and that, through a peculiar logic, for the very reason that in real life the opposite is the case. We are told that the peasant is lazy, indolent, fond of dodging work and, when forced to work, doing it in the most perfunctory manner. And, in the opinion of 'idealizers', the peasant is right in being as he actually is, because he is forced to do the work which is of no benefit or no interest to him. Let him work as he wants—they suggest—and he will produce miracles of cleverness, skill and artistry, and all this by intuition or inspiration, without training or preparation.
The curious fact that Solzhenitsyn continues the traditional idealization of the Russian peasants seems to suggest that the conditions of their life today are not basically different from those a of century ago. 'Matryona's Household' indicates that even the peasants' material condition has not changed appreciably. In so far as this is the case, its implications as regards the Soviet regime can scarcely be exaggerated.
The artistic merits of One Day . . . and 'Matryona's Household' are very considerable. Not only is there sincerity and passion (which, in this case, is indignation at the way peasants, human beings, are being treated), without which a work of art is flat and unconvincing, but also great craftsmanship, ability to narrate a story and remarkable skill in doing so.
Probably the most striking feature of the stories is the calm and detachment of presentation. The emotional stress which the subject-matter itself created must have been tremendous, but it never appears on the surface. 'Internally', this is because Solzhenitsyn is concerned with more than the immediate subject-matter, which is only the outer skin of his ideas and ideals. 'Externally', he achieves this composure firstly, by careful selection of facts, secondly, by strict control over his vocabulary and use of language.
The facts selected for representation are in both stories ordinary-life, external, commonplace facts, like, in the case of Shukhov, getting-up, having breakfast, going to work, working, returning, having supper, spending a few leisurely moments and going to bed; in the case of Matryona, their range is deepened (but not extended) by her hopes, dreams and memories. Never is there resort to emotional colouring, hyperbole or cheap sensationalism (which, with the subject-matter on hand, would be an easy slip to make for a lesser and less disciplined writer). The impact on the reader is achieved through his realization of how and why these commonplace facts of life are different from anything we know in our own life.
The description and narrative are conducted in a language which is cool and placid, simple and matter-of-fact. The type of language used is almost colloquial; it turns into slang or dialect in the dialogues, which are employed sparingly and only in order to emphasize or clarify the narrative or the description. The vocabulary is that of an educated Russian well versed in his national literature. There is no intentional play with words, no attempt to achieve special 'artistic' effects by means of words, though Solzhenitsyn does create a great number of new words, mainly descriptive, mostly by an unusual method of noun-formation; but all his neologisms are perfectly understandable without special philological knowledge and are very effective. (This is another aspect of Solzhenitsyn's work which would appear to deserve a separate small but specialized study.) A particular point to be made about the story 'Matryona's Household' is that in its formal aspect it appears to be almost an imitation of Turgenev. The method of construction, exposition and narration, and also the use of the language and even of expressive and descriptive vocabulary (e.g., compound adjectives) is more than reminiscent of Turgenev's method. (At the beginning of the story Solzhenitsyn refers to Turgenev while speaking about the name of the industrial settlement—Torfoprodukt—where he thought of living: 'Oh, Turgenev did not know that it was possible to put together such a word! ')
The two remaining stories, 'An Incident at Krechetovka Station' and For the Good of the Cause, differ considerably from the first two. As One Day. . . and 'Matryona's Household' in many respects form a pair where one story complements the other while both express the author's concern with a specific problem, so these two stories similarly constitute such a pair.
The action of 'An Incident . . .' takes place in the late autumn of 1941, after a few months of the unrelenting German advance. It covers a period of not more than two to three hours and the scene is the military despatcher's office at a small railway station not far behind the fighting lines.
The direct information in this (as in the fourth) story is of no great importance: we learn about the general disorganization, the lack of food and accommodation natural in such a situation; we are told about the treatment given by the authorities to troops who fought their way back from German encirclement. The indirect information concerns the total Soviet unpreparedness for the kind of war which the German armies brought, the misinformation of Soviet citizens about the external as well as internal situation, which had obviously been going on for many years before the German attack, and, particularly, the practice of the authorities in keeping the population in the dark as to their arrangements and plans. This lack of trust generates what is, apparently, mutual fear: the population fears the authorities and their representatives—the nachalstvo (a word which, in the whole of Russian history, has been probably the ugliest in the vocabulary and which is in use today at least as much as in tsarist days), and the authorities, obviously, fear the population; if their secrecy in relation to the citizens is not the expression of fear (covered by force), then, surely, this unwillingness to share with them the problems which face the country and to invite their help in finding the answers is nothing but contempt. Another result of the lack of trust is, logically enough, the high degree of indifference, even apathy, on the part of the masses (this is illustrated by the behaviour of every character in the story with the exception of the main character and the young refugee woman who worked at the post office): they seem to be interested only in local gossip or in how and against what to swap things with the crowds of civilian refugees who have flooded the station, and how to procure more food, and do not care very much about the fate of these same refugees, or of the soldiers, or even about the fate of their country.
The main interest of the story lies, however, not in the recreation of the atmosphere of mistrust, fear and selfishness, but in the portrayal of the railway station deputy commandant and military transport officer, Lieutenant Zotov. Zotov is a small, rather weak and physically slightly handicapped man (extreme short-sightedness); he received his engineering degree a few days after the beginning of the war; he is married, and his wife, who was expecting her first baby, remained in the western part of the country occupied by the enemy; he longed to go and fight the Germans at the front but, because of his shortsightedness, was sent to the army supply school and became deputy commandant at Krechetovka. He is kindhearted and very honest; he is very conscientious and a hard-working perfectionist in his job: he not only took on more than he was required to do but even finds time to prepare a report on shortcomings in the mobilization plans which he hopes to present to the War Ministry for future use. He was brought up and educated in the Soviet period and it never occurs to him to accept reality in any way other than as presented to him in the school, in the youth organization, by newspapers and other 'educating' mass media. He is intelligent, clever and mentally sharp, but so conditioned that he is afraid to think independently: his own observations and his intelligence force him to wonder about what went wrong in the autumn of 1941, but he is even afraid to think about it and certainly never asks this question aloud, for 'it was dangerous to ask aloud' (p. 11).
Zotov is conditioned to such a degree that he is no longer aware of it and is living sincerely the life of a member of the Soviet educated class, of the so-called working-class intelligentsia. He is enthusiastic or indignant when newspaper leading articles expect him to be enthusiastic or indignant; he sees and understands only what he is supposed to see and understand (for example, when the year 1937 is mentioned to him as a fateful year, he quite naturally thinks about the Spanish civil war and grows as excited about it as he was at the time; it never occurs to him that it was also the year which saw the beginning of the Great Purge, which was an important reason for the catastrophic situation in the autumn of 1941). He thinks only along the lines and within the limits that he is supposed to think.
But Zotov is dissatisfied with himself and feels rather than knows that life around him, too, is not perfect. The feature of his character strongly emphasized by the author is his sincere striving to become an honest Soviet man who possesses all the school-book attributes of a citizen of the USSR. Thanks to the conditioning he was exposed to since his childhood, he seeks strength and 'ideological armament' in Communist writings. Thorough as he is, he goes back to the sources, to Marx, and studies, in the little free time he has, the first volume of Capital (though even his teacher of philosophy at the University warned him not to undertake such an unnecessary task: 'You'll be drowned in it', he used to say—p. 21). He hopes that, once he has mastered this great work, 'he will become invincible, invulnerable and irresistible in any kind of ideological fight' (p. 21).
It is just this sincerity and honesty which are brought by the author into the tragic conflict with his open-heartedness and his simple, even naïve, friendliness. A man by the name of Tveritinov who came out of the encirclement and was trying to catch up with his detachment (which was being sent disarmed, split into groups of forty and under guard to the hinterland for investigation—and we know from One Day . . . that many of them went straight to concentration camps after this investigation), came into his office and asked for help. He was big and heavy, very distinguished-looking in spite of being in rags and had about him the air of almost childish helplessness, truthfulness, simplicity, sympathy and softness. Zotov learned, in the course of questioning him, that he was an actor, and was completely won over by this intelligent, educated man with perfect and extraordinarily delicate manners. For Zotov this was a man from a different, dream-like, ideal world, a kind of man he had only read about but never met. Everything about this man attracted him and he was so delighted, so enthusiastic, to be able to talk to such a man for half an hour and to be of help, that he did not notice the man's strange references to the year 1937 and his slightly odd unwillingness to speak about his pre-war civilian life. Zotov forgot for a moment about his duties and went so far against the regulations as to arrange transportation and even explain in detail the route to be taken by the former actor, naming all the stations and stops on the way. And then, when he mentioned Stalingrad and the man wanted to know what its former name was, Zotov's well conditioned and trained mind was pulled back with a shock into its normal frame. He became not just suspicious but he knew, because there was for him no other possible explanation for this question, that the man was a spy sent by the Germans, probably a former White-Russian officer. Not changing outwardly his friendly manner, he immediately worked out a plan to get the man without arousing his suspicion to the guardroom, where he had him arrested and taken under escort to the nearest secret police office. On thinking about this incident later, he became less sure of having done the right thing and decided to enquire on the following day about his prisoner. He received a non-committal answer, decided to enquire once more a few days later and this time seemed to notice a note of suspicion in the voice of the police investigator. He sensed the danger in pursuing his enquiries and dropped the matter. 'But as long as he lived, Zotov could not forget this man' (p. 42).
Thus, the story is a thorough description (not a psychological study) of a conflict between the strong tendency present in every 'normal' human being to be friendly, trustful and forthcoming towards a fellow-man on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the leaning to disbelief, mistrust and doubt. In this case it is the doubting side of the human character which wins, because it is the side which is being developed, emphasized and fed not merely by various propaganda media but by the whole way of life and by the reality of life. Solzhenitsyn does not condemn Zotov for being distrustful, nor for taking the morally unjustifiable decision which will probably destroy a human life. By portraying Zotov as a sincere, honest and kind-hearted, friendly man he transfers the responsibility for this 'inhuman' act to those who created the atmosphere of distrust, suspicion and hatred and who made men accept this atmosphere as normal, 'natural'.
The connection between 'An Incident . . .' and the fourth story, For the Good of the Cause, is not that of subject-matter but of the underlying theme. The action takes place in a provincial town, probably in the autumn of 1962. It covers, as in the previous story, a very short period—about 24 hours. The plot is extremely simple. The principal of a technical school—a very quiet and gentle elderly man, an excellent teacher and administrator, greatly respected and admired by his subordinates and students for his thoughtful, considerate and intelligent attitude to men and work alike—manages to have a new school built, mainly by the voluntary labour of his pupils. The building is taken over by an intriguing local factory director in order to accommodate an electronics research institute of which he hopes to become the patron and, possibly, the head as well. The school principal appeals to the party authorities; the town party secretary is prepared to back him but the oblast party secretary decides against him and advises him to start building the school anew.
The story does not contain a great deal of direct information, the situation being a well-known one of a kind often discussed and condemned in newspapers as well as in literature (in the so-called ocherki): the opposition of the good—represented here by the school principal, to the evil—represented here by the factory director, is classical for Soviet socialist-realist writings. But even here Solzhenitsyn manages to change the usual, commonplace pattern and to produce something exceptional, providing the reader at the same time with much indirect information concerning present-day Soviet life.
Firstly (and this may appear at the first glance not to be a very original breaking of 'rules'), the ending of the story is not a happy one, evil having won, apparently, the battle against good. Secondly (and this required some civic courage on the part of the author), evil is represented by a high party official and his protégé, and good by a man whose party affiliation is uncertain. Of course, the Party as a whole is not directly condemned in this story, on the contrary—the 'true' party and party spirit (represented by only one man, the secretary of the town organization) are on the side of the school principal, that is of the good; but they are powerless against the little tyrant on the oblast committee. This peculiar constellation of forces is, probably, a reminder by the author that Stalinist practices have not disappeared: Solzhenitsyn refers directly to the oblast secretary as a representative of the 'wilful style of leadership' and compares his manner of speaking and issuing orders to that of Stalin. Here, again, one tends to think at first that, anti-Stalinism being today rather commonplace, Solzhenitsyn is only following the vogue. But this would be underrating the forcefulness and bitterness of his diagnosis of 'Stalinism' which are best expressed, perhaps, in a sentence put into the mouth of the oblast secretary himself: 'I am telling you what you have to do now. And you have to do what I am telling you now' (p. 85). (The Russian meaning would also permit the following translation: 'I am telling you what is good for you. And good for you is what I am telling you now'.)
Further, good is represented by a man who has none of the attributes of the usual 'positive hero' of Soviet literature. The school principal Fyodor Mikheyevich is a weak and timid man. He has a profound and rather irrational respect (which could be compared to fear) for the authorities, for those who have power; he admires their wilfulness, decisiveness, resoluteness, determination and certainty (all qualities which he lacks in his outward actions) and firmly believes in their infallibility. But he has a strength which they lack and which lies in a different field. He possesses qualities which are accepted as good and valuable not in the Soviet Union alone but in every society: he sincerely believes that the aim of one's life is to help others; that the first to be helped are those who are most vulnerable, namely, youth; that youth has to be handled with care, with every possible consideration, honestly and openly; and that only this kind of slow and patient education (in the broadest meaning of the word) of future generations will bring about a permanent and lasting improvement in the conditions of human life and in relations between individuals. In short, the headmaster is an idealist and not a practical man of action; his ideals, though dressed in modern Soviet terminology, are indistinguishable from those of a nineteenth century member of the Russian intelligentsia, of the meek romantic so profoundly despised by the hard realists, the revolutionaries, who had for him only the pejorative appellation of intelligentik.
The two stories, 'An Incident . . .' and For the Good . . . , are on the surface trivial little tales similar to scores or hundreds of stories and sketches which appear in the Soviet Union every year. And yet, in them Solzhenitsyn goes far beyond the limits set for writers by the Party and far beyond the limits which individual writers set themselves out of fear or prudence, courage or audacity. He does so in order to question the very value of the road to the improvement in human conditions taken by the Soviet Union since 1917. He stands on the firm ground of historical facts and does not dream away the Bolshevik Revolution, the methods it introduced to achieve the aims it set, or the changes in the life of society and of individuals it brought about; he does not commit the artistic faux pas of making his idealist headmaster win the encounter with the oblast party secretary, or of clearing up the misunderstanding between the transport officer and the former actor and thus saving an innocent life (which would probably have been done by a lesser writer, and is being done all the time by hack writers). But by representing these incidents as he does, Solzhenitsyn expresses his conscious or unconscious belief that the ways of the Party since 1917 have been wrong. This opinion is supported by secondary incidents (e.g. in For the Good . . . by the behaviour of the party representative on the staff of the technical school; by the reaction of students to the news that the school is being unjustly deprived of the new building, when some of them suggest that a petition should be sent to the highest authorities in Moscow and that even a strike of a sort be staged, but are quickly dissuaded by more 'cautious' colleagues; or by a lengthy discussion between students and their teacher about what literature ought to be, but unfortunately is not, in the new Soviet society).
As in the first two stories where he is dealing with peasants, so in these two also, where his subject is the role of members of the Russian intelligentsia in changing the conditions of life, Solzhenitsyn's treatment of his theme is traditional for Russian literature. His intelligent is the bearer of good and valuable ideals who is not able to transform his ideas into actions (e.g. Turgenev's Rudin). Once the ideals he propagates 'catch on' he is superseded by the man of action who undertakes to transform words into deeds. The substitution of the 'idealist' by the practical and self-assured 'doer' constitutes a twofold danger to the ideal. Firstly, for the man of action it is not the ideal but the means, the method by which things are done that are all-important, and it is not only possible but highly probable that the methods which he uses or is forced to use lead him to something quite different from the original ideal which inspired him to act. In his belief that he acts for the sake of the ideal he becomes arrogant and self-righteous, dismisses with contempt, or even physically annihilates, the intelligent who tries by words or merely by his presence to remind him of his proper aim. Nothing remains for the intelligent who is unable to fight physically but to get out of the way of the man of action and either to give in and adapt himself while feeling or knowing all the time that somehow it is wrong (as Zotov in 'An Incident . . .'), or to give in completely but, unable to adapt, to provoke displeasure and even hatred (as the former actor Tveritinov in the same story), or to appear to give in but remain true to the ideal and hope to preserve it by transmitting it to others (as the principal Ivan Mikheyevich).
Secondly, the man of action tends to stick to methods of action which proved to be successful once. Thus, in fact, he changes into a doctrinaire, a bureaucrat or a bully, whose energy is consumed in sham zeal (see, in ) and in sterile, unproductive activity for activity's sake.
It is curious to notice again that Solzhenitsyn opposes the intelligentsia to men of action in a manner which discloses his traditional—one might say nineteenth century Russian—respect for the former. Placed between two fires—from one side the bureaucratic meddlesome tsarist administration with its bullying executive officers, and from the other side the recklessly radical revolutionaries—the nineteenth century intelligentsia was the group of people who had the ability and the habit of thinking calmly and deliberately, of rationalizing their aspirations, desires and hopes, and of formulating them in meaningful terms instead of catchy slogans. Russian literature lent this group its full support and, by creating a gallery of remarkable characters, men of intelligence, moral integrity, imagination and aspirations, it helped the intelligentsia not only to increase its influence but also to transmit its ideals to future generations.
Once again, as in the case of his first two stories, Solzhenitsyn seems to emulate the nineteenth century writers, implying by this that, basically and fundamentally, the situation today is similar to that of the second half of the nineteenth century.
The artistic merits of both stories, but particularly of For the Good . . . , are outstanding. The most striking feature is, as mentioned above, the apparent triviality and ordinariness of the stories: the saying ars est celare artem fully applies to them. One can well envisage an inattentive and superficial reader who might dismiss them as just another example of ordinary socialist-realist writing. Another feature, and again this applies mainly to For the Good.. ., is the topicality of the subject-matter or, better, the author's deliberate insistence on, and emphasis of, topicality. This seems to be a means to conceal, to cover, the importance and the range of underlying problems.
This topical subject-matter is not 'sensational' as was the case in One Day . . . and 'Matryona's Household.' Therefore the narrative method and the exposition are quite different. They are based mainly on direct speech: 'An Incident . . .' opens with 49 uninterrupted lines of dialogue with not one word of explanation or comment by the author; the first five pages of For the Good . . . are a continuous conversation of a half-dozen or more teachers in the staff room, again without a word of explanation or even identification of speakers by the author. All through the stories direct speech is used to an exceptional extent with the effect that they acquire dynamism and dramatic force which, on the surface, the subject-matter and plot completely lack.
This, of course, is reflected also in the character of the language which is not as laconic, placid, 'unemotional' as in the first two stories. The type of language used in reported conversations is adapted very exactly to the speakers, and therefore is mainly the colloquial language of an educated Russian, but when the speakers are schoolboys and schoolgirls it is slightly coloured by school slang, when they are railwaymen the dialect expressions and constructions and the professional jargon are fully exploited. Descriptive and narrative passages show Solzhenitsyn once again as a writer who has developed his own peculiar language and vocabulary which could be defined, perhaps, as 'crisp' and 'firm' (notable is his preference for nouns, many of them of his own invention), precise and, at the same time, descriptive and sonorous. (Solzhenitsyn's exceptionally good ear is shown in his neologisms which he constructs with new word stems by imitating the sound of old and known expressions or idioms: e.g. his adverb obmyshku which is a mixture of OBnimku='embracing', and pod-MYSHKU=àrm under arm'; or the adverb navyperyodki where the stem vperyod='to the front' is used in imitation of the expression naperegonki='racing each other'.)
One last remark about the language of Solzhenitsyn's stories, this time taking all four into consideration. For Solzhenitsyn, the language is not merely an impersonal, 'neutral' utility developed for any kind of communication with other human beings, but a very subjective, individualized means of re-creating his own particular reaction to, or thought about, a specific observed life-phenomenon. His use of language thus changes with the object of his work, is specially adapted, moulded to suit it. This diversity should not be confused with playing with words for its own sake (as happens with some formalists), or with the exhibition of originality (as happens sometimes with writers who have little to say). For Solzhenitsyn the language is at the same time the tool with which, and the plastic material with the help of which, his thoughts and emotions, the echoing in him of surrounding reality, and his inner life are transformed into a work of art. He is not afraid of showing that what he creates is an artifact, and he seems to be proud of being an artist.
The three stories which followed the appearance of the sensational One Day . . . confirm the opinion that Solzhenitsyn is a man of outstanding literary talent. It is too early to say that he is a great writer but there seem to be indications contained in the stories that he might be one. He has shown the ability to portray his contemporaries in a way which not only holds the attention of his readers because of the artistry with which the stories are 'made', but also compels them to think. His works are not just reproductions, more or less faithful, of certain characters or incidents. They are probes into human life and gauges of human behaviour. As such, they necessarily preach, teach and are, ultimately, moralistic. But this is their secondary or, perhaps, their unintentional function. Solzhenitsyn's works force the reader out of passive contemplation into active emotional and intellectual participation in the life that is artistically (artificially) created for him. By being thus 'engaged', the reader becomes in a very subtle and indefinite way, his co-author. This capacity to make the reader think and feel with him is a sure sign of a great writer.
It is difficult to overrate the importance of the appearance of these stories in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn invites his readers to think more profoundly than does any other contemporary Soviet writer, and about problems which were long 'forbidden'. He seems to tackle in his own sensitive, highly original and very powerful, though indirect, way the issue which must be uppermost in the minds of many Soviet citizens: what justification is there today for the existence of the Party as it is, and for how long is the Party going to exercise its control over their life, the control which does not help but rather hinders the full development of the country? Solzhenitsyn is not an anti-Communist, nor is he anti-Party. He does not oppose—on the contrary, he supports with all the artistic authority at his disposal—those ideals whose spread among the nineteenth and early twentieth century Russians enabled the Bolshevik Party to organize itself and take power. But while in agreement with the ideals, he is violently opposed to the practical application, to the methods by which the ideals were supposed to have been transformed into realities. He is against the practice of Bolshevism.
Thus, in conclusion, both the form and the content of Solzhenitsyn's four stories make it possible to divide them into two pairs. The first pair deals with the fate of the Russian peasantry, the second with that of the Russian intelligentsia. Both pairs deal, therefore, with themes which are traditional in Russian literature. Both pairs also show that, fundamentally, the fate of these two important groups of Russian people was not changed by the 1917 revolution, thus implying that the revolution was, in a very important aspect, a failure. Solzhenitsyn's critique is exercised in a manner strongly reminiscent of the best examples of nineteenth century 'critical realism': it is done by means of works of art and not by tendentious publicistic writings. The stories are a great contribution not only to Russian literature but also to its humanitarian and intellectual tradition. In this lies their undoubtedly lasting importance.7
1 'Odin den Ivana Denisovicha', Novy mir, 1962, no. 11, pp. 8-74.
2 See the note by the Chief Editor, A. Tvardovski, 'In Lieu of a Foreword', Novy mir, 1962, no. 11, pp. 8-9, particularly his opinion that this work 'signifies the appearance in our literature of a new, original and fully mature master'.
3 Two translations into English (one in the UK, another in the USA) appeared almost simultaneously, as did much comment in the press.
4 'Sluchai na stantsii Krechetovka' and 'Matryonin dvor', Novy mir, 1963, no. 1, pp. 9-63.
5 'Dlya polzy dela', Novy mir, 1963, no. 7, pp. 58-90.
6 A critical review appeared in Literaturnaya gazeta (31 August 1963) by its Deputy Editor, Yu. Barabash. Three letters critical of his views were published in Novy mir, 1963, no. 10, pp. 193-198.
7 Since this article was written (December 1963), many discussions on Solzhenitsyn have appeared in the Soviet Union, mainly in connection with the (unsuccessful) submission of his 'One Day . . .' for the 1964 Lenin Prize for Literature. Possibly the most interesting article was that by V. Lakshin in Novy mir, 1964, no. 1, pp. 223-245. Its title—'Ivan Denisovich: his friends and enemies'—sums up very pointedly Solzhenitsyn's importance today as a Soviet writer: critics, other writers and even the reading public (to judge from selected letters which were printed) have split into two groups, for and against. The heterogeneity of terms used in the discussions is only apparent and indicates solely the different levels at which they are being conducted. Though the argumentation of the 'enemies' is based on the rejection of Solzhenitsyn's choice of heroes, it means, in fact, that they do not consider Solzhenitsyn to be a socialist-realist writer and therefore they object to the publication of his works. The 'friends', however, maintain that only the works of Solzhenitsyn have given the right to Soviet literature to be properly called literature. (This split first became noticeable at the international conference of novelists held in Leningrad in the summer of 1963.) A very thoughtful and outspokenly pro-Solzhenitsyn article by Eva Fojtíková has appeared in the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences' journal eskoslovenská Rusistika IX, 1964, no. 1, pp. 34-38. But all these articles concentrate on 'One Day . . .' and have only rarely fleeting mentions of 'Matryona's Household'. The two other stories are left out of the range of the discussion. I would venture to suggest that the reason for this is the following: the problem of Soviet peasants posed by Solzhenitsyn in his first two stories, though difficult and unpalatable, is obvious and well-known, therefore it can, and is, or is going to be, tackled by the Party, while the problem of the intelligentsia as raised by Solzhenitsyn in his last two stories cannot, because to tackle it would mean for the Party to abolish itself in the form in which it exists today.
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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."
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.
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.
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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 of any out of the ordinary Soviet work of art. The newness and originality have worn off; in the wake of Solzhenitsyn's book several timid exposés of life in prison camps have appeared, but One Day still stands unique and unchallenged. The present-day generation of writers in the Soviet Union has been cut off from so much of the literary heritage that the normal continuity has been interrupted. As a consequence, what passes now for Soviet "literature" has strayed too far from the mainstream of Russian literary tradition. In the twenties (by far the most exciting period in Russian post-revolutionary letters) it looked for a while as if the thread might be picked up again. But all such attempts were successfully thwarted in the long run by Zhdanov-type watchdogs established by the authorities. Literature was regimented into a mouthpiece of party-line propaganda and became one of the mass production tools of Soviet "soul engineering." In contrast to this Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece marks a return to the great tradition of the nineteenth century. As M. Hayward put it: " . . . I would like to say that however Solzhenitsyn may be 'rated' now and in the future, he has in terms of the Russian literary tradition broken through a barrier as an interpreter of the 'popular' mind, if not as a writer who commands universal interest."1
To be sure, changes have taken place in Soviet letters: literature has been taken out of the permanent deep-freeze of the Stalin era, but the superficial "thaw" of the fifties has not been able to affect the inner, permafrosted core of literary development.
Disregarding the political implications involved, Solzhenitsyn's interest in verbal experiments, his predilection for popular (sometimes regional) speech, his skillful employment of skaz, link him with the great tradition of the past and mark him as the heir of N. Leskov.
The most striking feature of Solzhenitsyn's version of skaz (especially in One Day) is his masterful fusion of two separate elements of speech: of popular expressions and the Soviet prison-camp slang. A singular attention to peculiarities, local and individual, of the spoken language results in the creation of a unique idiom, characteristic of a particular social group. In succeeding works Solzhenitsyn resorts to skaz only occasionally, more so in "Matryona's House" than in the rest. And it is precisely in these two stories that Solzhenitsyn is at his best as the "interpreter of the 'popular' mind." In both stories the chief protagonists are of peasant stock—one more link in the long chain of peasants peopling the pages of Russian nineteenth-century fiction. Significantly, one could hardly call either of them a kolkhoznik. In the case of Matryona especially it is possible to pinpoint her origin with some degree of accuracy: she is a spiritual offspring of the heroine of one of Leskov's less famous stories, "Malania—Golova Barania" (Malania, the Muttonhead). The relationship between Matryona and Malania is best illustrated by the explanation offered for Malania's nickname: "Tak prozvali ee potomu, chto shchitali glupoyu, a glupoyu ee pochitali za to, chto ona o drugikh bol'she, chem o sebe dumala." (She was so called because she was considered a fool, and a fool she was deemed because she was more mindful of others than of herself.)
In his interesting article on One Day, Roman Gul advances the notion that Solzhenitsyn "joins the writers of the Remizov school"; that "he, the run-away scribe and icon-painter Remizov . . . reechoes in A. Solzhenitsyn."2 It seems that this is subject to argument. As Leonid D. Rzhevsky correctly points out in speaking about Solzhenitsyn's language: "In Solzhenitsyn's hands, however, it is alive and genuine; for which reason it is unjust as certain critics have done, to number Solzhenitsyn among the disciples of such an artificial stylist as Remizov . . ."3
Remizov formulated his views on the Russian language in "Moroznaya t'ma" (Frosty Darkness). He maintains that too few distinctive features of the original Russian have survived in the bookish, written language which has come under the influence of foreign tongues: ". . . Russian bookish style, but what is Russian about it? It's a mishmash: Church-Slavonic, French and German."4 He objects to the overabundance of "shchi" in contemporary Russian—the tendency to overuse participles—and finally claims that "v imenakh—taina i maghia" (There is mystery and magic in the names of things.)
The syntactical devices of Solzhenitsyn and Remizov are also quite different. Remizov's sentences are reminiscent of Gogol's; they are involved, complicated. One of the syntactical devices favored by Remizov—the introduction of parenthetic words, blossoming into parenthetic clauses—is absent in Solzhenitsyn. On the contrary, his sentences are short, concise, sometimes elliptical: "Svoimi nogami—da na volyu" (To step out to freedom with your own two feet—One Day); "Ne shli slova, kakie skazat" (The right words didn't come—"An Incident at Krechetovka Station"). Unfortunately, the compactness of the Russian cannot really be conveyed in English translation.
Participles abound in popular speech and Solzhenitsyn does not avoid them; in fact at times he amasses them in considerable numbers, as for instance "novopribyvayushchim brigadam," "prevrashchavshimi ego," "mogushchego peremoch" (newly arriving gangs, transforming him, who could overcome), which all appear in the space of a page in One Day.
Remizov's concept that "there is mystery and magic in the names of things" is completely alien to Solzhenitsyn. Remizov searched for his "magic names" in old exorcism-charms, invocations, incantations, in the scribe-language of seventeenth-century Moscow, as well as in the popular speech of that period. Solzhenitsyn's idiom is of a different nature entirely; it is a mixture of popular speech and Soviet slang. This apparently is the spoken language of the group to which he is drawn stylistically.
The similarity to Remizov—interest in form and the use of distinctive speech traits—can be explained in terms of the common Leskovian heritage. One of Leskov's favorite devices, popular etymology, appears in several of Solzhenitsyn's works, especially in "Matryona's House": "Kartof ' neobluplennaya, ili sup kartonny" (Potatoes in jackets or cardboard-soup); "Tuk kak zima zakrutit, da duel' v okna, tak ne tol'ko topis h, skol'ko vyduvaet" (When winter strikes and the wind blows in the windows, the heat escapes as fast as you can stoke up the stove); "ya ne preminul postavit' sebe razvedku—tak Matryona nazyvala rozetku" (I didn't waste any time in putting in a radio-outlet, 'secret service' as Matryona called it); "portsiya vo mne" (a hex is on me).
The same device is used in "An Incident at Krechetovka Station": "A mylo teper' produkt defektivny!" (Soap is now hard to get).
Even where, as in "An Incident at Krechetovka Station," the author is forced to render the drab, colorless speech of the chief protagonist, Vasya Zotov, he manages to slip in popular expressions, so dar to his heart, either through the speech distinctions of the "episodic" Aunt Frosya, or the "ancient granddad" Gavrila Nikitich, or in general descriptions.
As far as popular speech is concerned Solzhenitsyn has a field day in "Matryona's House." Matryona herself tends to employ what can be best termed "high style" in popular speech, close to the language of stariny and folksongs: "Po-byvaloshnomu kipeli s senom v mezhen's Petrova do Il'ina" (As of old hay-mowing was in full swing at the height of the summer, from the end of June to the end of July); "A teper' chego budet—Bogu vest!" (What will happen now—only the Lord knows!) And the author himself appropriates this style: "A na etom meste stoyali i perestoyali revolyutsiu dremuchie neprokhozhie lesa" (And in this place had stood, and had outlasted the revolution, thick, impenetrable forests); "i poprosila ona u toi vtoroi zabitoi Matryony—chreva ee uryvochek. . . ." (So she asked the second Matryona, the dejected one, for a shred of her womb).
And again in For the Good of the Cause, in the main relying (because of the milieu) on everyday Soviet speech, at times the melodious, clear-ringing line of popular speech breaks through: ". . . tak rukovodit', kak nazyvayut v narode 'rukami vodit'" ( . . . to offer leadership in a way that is called among the people 'to make empty gestures'); "a russkii yazyk raschudesno obmozhetsya i bez nikh" (and the Russian language will manage perfectly well without them).
That Leskov was thoroughly familiar with this device, too, is illustrated by the following quotations from the already mentioned "Malania—Golova Barania": "zhivut chasom s kvasom, a poroyu s voduyo" (They live for a short while on kvass and at other times on water); "Bozh'e slovo pomnim, a chelovecheskogo boimsya." (God's word we remember, but man's we fear.)
Parenthetically it might be noted that the young Lydia Georgievna, one of the teachers in For the Good of the Cause, sometimes intersperses her speech with solemn, antiquated expressions like: "Glasnost' est' mech isteliay-ushchii" (Notoriety is the sword that heals) or "Kniga zapechetlevaet nashego sovremennika, nas samikh i nashi velikie svershenya" (Books are records of our contemporaries, of ourselves and our great accomplishments). These faintly Church-Slavonic locutions became a hallmark of Soviet "high style" oratory from the first years of the revolution. Kluev has commented with regard to Lenin that one can hear "an abbot's cry in his decrees."
As in Leskov some of Solzhenitsyn's elliptic sentences approach the cadence of rhythmical prose. The speech pattern of Ivan Denisovich, for one, is characterized by a generous use of diminutives and participles and by a lyrical quality common to folktales: "A russkie—i kakoi rukoi krestitsia, zabyli" (As for Russians, they've forgotten which hand to cross themselves with); "Teplyi ziablogo razve kogda poimet?" (You can't expect a man who is warm to understand a man who is cold); "Staryi mesiats Bog na zvezdy kroshit" (God crumbles up the old moon into stars). The last comment appears also in Leskov's At Daggers Drawn (Part six, chapter 18, "Solomennyi dukh"—The Straw-Phantom).5 The quality of a terse comment, characteristic of proverbs, sometimes with the verb in final position, is perfectly caught by Solzhenitsyn.
As for diminutives (or terms of endearment), they still survive in popular speech and are especially numerous in Ivan Denisovich's idiom: "Khlebtsa pozhevav" (Having chewed a bit of bread); "A rybki pochti net, izredka khvostik ogolennyi mel'knet" (There wasn't much fish, only once in a while a teensy bare tailbone would show up). This is used, true to the tradition of Russian folklore, even in connection with notions of a rather sad, disagreeable nature: "zloi veterok" (a nasty little wind); "Sredniaia takaia kartoshenka, morozhennaia konechno, s tverdynkoi . . ." (A medium-sized spud, frost-bitten of course, with a hard core . . . ).
However, one of Solzhenitsyn's most effective devices and the one most persistently used by him is the deliberate introduction of unusual prefixes. These prefixes do not change the meaning of words radically, they only impart to them a different lexical coloring. This device can be traced to Leskov, too; however, it is only fair to mention that Leskov used it rather sparingly: "besschastnye, dospeiu, o peredu dumat'" (unfortunate ones, I will have time, think about it beforehand) in "Malania—the Muttonhead"; "dovei na pamiat'" (brought to memory) in "Otbornoe Zerno" (Selected grain); "iabloki ne zarodilis'" (a poor crop of apples) in "Obman" (Deception), to name just a few. Solzhenitsyn's innovation is the consistent use of this device. Usually along with the form used by Solzhenitsyn, another, with a more familiar prefix occurs to the native speaker. Sometimes an adroit use of this device lends a popular-speech quality to Solzhenitsyn's discourse. Some of the prefixes might be traced to "local peculiarities."
It is interesting to establish some sort of classification as far as the grammatical categories of the words are concerned. In One Day we find: "na okne naledi" (windows iced over); "srub kolodtsa byl v tolstoi obledi" (The framework of the well was thickly coated with ice); "Nebo beloye, azh s suzelenyu" (The sky was pale and sort of greenish)—all nouns. As for adjectives: ". . . . u nego, besschastnogo, sorok shestoi razmer" (He, poor fellow, wears a size 46); "posle chego vzial okholodeluyu kashku Tsezaria i posher" (After which he took Tsezar's cold porridge and went off); "Izo vsekh prigorblennykh lagernykh spin . . ." (Out of all the bent backs of prisoners . . . ).
A lion's share falls, however, to verbs: "Proklikaias' cherez tesnotu . . ." (Shouting to each other through the crush . . . ) ; " . . . etot zal obtaplivayut . . ." (This hall is heated . . . ); "izdobyt'" (to get hold of); ". . . a teper' Shukhov obvykal so stenoi . . ." ( . . . and now Shukhov was getting used to the wall . . . ); "obkhokhotalsia" (laughed himself sick), etc. The same categories (in the same proportion) are found in other stories.
Almost all these combinations can be found in Dal's dictionary. It is reputed that during his stay in the concentration camp Solzhenitsyn was known to be reading Dai's dictionary for hours on end. As one of his former campmates stated: "I lived in the same barracks with Solzhenitsyn . . . I remember him lying in his bunk, reading a worn copy of Dal's dictionary and writing something into a big notebook."6
No other works of Solzhenitsyn have appeared in Novy Mir in 1964 or 1965 despite the fact that his name was mentioned among the contributors to the magazizne. In the meantime the Russian émigré periodical Grani published a number of short fragments, allegedly from Solzhenitsyn's pen. Their style indeed seems close to Solzhenitsyn's.
Another story, amazing details of which have seeped through the cracks in the Iron Curtain, has thus far not materialized in print. Allegedly it concerns the "liquidation" of a camp in a far-off corner of the Soviet Union: the camp inmates have been released, the administration and guards disbanded, and the police dogs distributed among the local population. The action then switches to a May Day celebration. The peaceful proceedings are suddenly interrupted by the unusual behavior of the dogs, seeing the marching columns. With bloodshot eyes they jump at the marchers, surround them, growl. Finally, some old camp-hand remembers that the dogs used to accompany columns of prisoners only to the camp gates. It was decided to approach and enter a gate, any gate, in the hope that the dogs would consider their duty discharged. The idea worked: the dogs returned to their respective homes with a satisfied snarl. The implications of this tale would hardly be lost on any Soviet reader. However, the story has not appeared in print; indeed, its appearance seems highly unlikely after the Twenty-Third Party Congress, recently concluded. Rumors about a larger novel of Solzhenitsyn's have not been substantiated by publication either.
However, Novy Mir carried in its January 1966 issue a new story by Solzhenitsyn, "Zakhar-Kalita." This story, written with Solzhenitsyn's usual stylistic deftness, appears very close in manner to the fragments published by Grani. It will be interesting to watch Solzhenitsyn's further literary developments, if we are given an opportunity to do so.
1 M. Hayward, "Solzhenitsyn's Place in Contemporary Soviet Literature," The Slavic Review, vol. XXIII, Number 3.
2 Roman Gul, "Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn i shkola Remizova," New Review, vol. 71, New York, 1963, p. 65.
3 Leonid D. Rzhevsky, "The New Idiom," Soviet Literature in the Sixties, New York, 1964, p. 76.
4 A. Remizov, Ogon' veschei, Paris, 1954, p. 124.
5 N. Leskov, Complete Collected Works, St. Petersburg, 1903, vol. XXVII, p. 74.
6 Viacheslav Pallon, "Interview with Boris Burkovsky," U.S.S.R., June, 1964.
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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.
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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 being "dull." Alexander Solzhenitsyn, considered by some critics to be the Soviet Union's most outstanding novelist and short story writer of the post-Stalin period, is the practitioner of such a form of writing. Like Anton Chekhov, he is more interested in the changes that take place in people's views than with plot. Thus, from a casual glance, Solzhenitsyn's stories seem static, rambling, downright dull. Yet, upon closer scrutiny, this proves to be largely illusory. For changes are always taking place in his characters' attitudes and in their relationships. Also, Solzhenitsyn has a clear sense of what is coming, thereby keeping his stories tight (at least by Russian standards) and moving in the right direction. And thanks to his adopting of the literary technique of hanging certain impending events over his characters' heads, he avoids largely the nothing-happens label. How Solzhenitsyn employs this device in his fiction—that is the purpose of this essay.
There are at least three types of impending events: there is the situation in which the characters are found preparing for an occasion and both the reader and the characters know of it; there is the condition in which an event may occur, but both the reader and the characters are not sure that it is going to happen; and there is the situation in which the reader is aware of what is about to occur, but the characters are completely unaware of what is in store for them. Solzhenitsyn himself employs successfully all of these forms in his fiction, although he usually does not hang any of them over an entire story.
A good example of his employing the first type of impending event is found in the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In this work, Solzhenitsyn deals mainly with the experiences of an inmate (Shukhov) in a forced labor camp in the Soviet Far North during the Stalin era. We come to know Shukhov very well, because we see him in many relationships and observe his efforts to survive in the face of the government's attempt to destroy him. The key to an understanding of the book, however, is found in Shukhov's change of views. Little by little, he abandons his thinking only of himself and learns to live for others. Yet, if Solzhenitsyn had hinged his work solely on the unhurried change for the better that occurs in his hero, he undoubtedly would have left us with a boring book rather than an exciting one.
To avoid an inert situation, Solzhenitsyn created an impending event, one that both the reader and the characters are soon aware of. But it is somewhat unpretentiously revealed to the reader. Thus, at the beginning of the novel, we observe Shukhov as he is awakened for reveille at five o'clock in the morning. And we look on disinterestedly as Shukhov, thinking, continues, unlike most of his prison associates, to lie in bed, pulling his only blanket closer to him and tucking his feet deeper into the pockets of his coat. Shukhov is pondering how he could sew someone's mittens, receiving in return for his service some type of remuneration—tobacco, food, clothing; he is also thinking about running to the mess hall and picking up a few bowls for the dishwashers, hoping that by so doing he can discover a vessel or two that had not already been "licked out" by one of his fellow inmates; and he is considering the possibility of going to the infirmary and thus avoid working on the new "Socialist Community Development" center, an undertaking that undoubtedly would result in a great amount of human suffering because the building was to be constructed out in the open where the workers would have no place to get warm, "not even a hole."
This project constitutes Solzhenitsyn's impending event in this story. It hovers over the opening pages of the novel, giving his hero a purpose to pursue (namely, to avoid the task) and lending a certain amount of activity to what otherwise might have been a static situation. It also helps Solzhenitsyn to catch our interest and provides him with an opportunity (which he takes advantage of) to describe more fully the type of surroundings that Shukhov is found living in, creating the atmosphere, the mood for his story.
Accordingly, we observe Shukhov's continued refusal to rise from his bunk. And it is while he is lying there that he suddenly feels a hand strip his blanket from him. Raising himself to confront the offender, he peers into the expressionless eyes of a warder who snaps "S-854, three days in the can, with work as usual." Shukhov realizes that it is useless to argue about the punishment with this particular "bastard." So without any protest, he instantly pulls on his patched pants and boots, dons his jacket, puts on his cap, and goes out with the official.
Outside Shukhov faces a chilling cold and a heavy fog. As he trudges along in the snow beside the warder, he observes the spot lights that are crisscrossing the fenced compound, as well as other lights that are on, in and around the camp. As he passes a thermometer, tracked in a protected position on a post, he casts a hurried glance at its red liquid contents and learns that the temperature is about twenty degrees below zero, much too high to his way of thinking because if it plunged to forty-two degrees below zero, he and the other inmates were not supposed to be marched outside to work. By the time that he has consoled himself that his hopes of remaining in the barracks are not to be realized that day, he finds himself at headquarters, or, more exactly, in the warder's room. There the official informs him that he is not putting Shukhov in solitary confinement this time, but that, instead, he is to mop the floor. Having "a hunch" all along that this might be his punishment, Shukhov nonetheless manages to show a sense of surprise and expresses to the warder a feigned gratitude for his benevolence; then, indifferently, to the point of not caring, he goes through the motions of washing the official's quarters while a group of other guards, dense minded and filled with greed and hate and malice, look on, offering all kinds of unfavorable comments ("They're not worth the bread we give them. They should get sh—instead.") and calling him all kinds of names—idiot, bastard, and so on.
Following the completion of this task, Shukhov heads for the mess hall, where he discovers that one member of his gang has protected his breakfast from the hungry designs of the other inmates. Upon sitting down at the makeshift bench that serves as a table, Shukhov, unlike the other prisoners, removes his cap, takes a handmade spoon from his boot, and begins polishing off his food, consisting of a bowl of watery soup with rotten fish in it and a side dish called magara or simply grass. Even though the meal is repulsive to him, Shukhov knows how important food is to a prisoner. Thus, he eats slowly everything that is placed before him, sucking and crunching the bones of the fish, although, unlike the other prisoners, he does not spit them on the floor. Following breakfast, after attempting unsuccessfully to go to the infirmary, Shukhov submits himself for inspection and then marches out to work.
By this time in the story, we realize that Shukhov is a real-in-the-life person. He turns out to be middle-aged, independent in his actions, and still an observer of polite conventions. He is relatively bright, skilled in deception, and busies himself constantly with the problem of outsmarting the system that is bent upon crushing him. He is not suffering physically, nor is he spiritually broken. And because the state has relieved him of all ordinary responsibilities, like caring for a family and finding and keeping a job, he has no worries. Moreover, because he has learned from years of suffering in prison, he has no fears. In other words, although his body is imprisoned, Shukhov's mind is free and can ponder such meaningful things as why he is on this earth.
So it does not really matter to the reader that he learns eventually that Shukhov and his associates, as a result of placing a bribe in the right hands, are never forced to toil on the "Socialist Community Development" center. What is important is that we recognize Shukhov and have willingly, thanks largely to the author's establishing of this impending event, gone along with his character and have shared some of his early experiences; now we can sit back in our chairs and turn the pages and rejoice at the change for the better that is slowly taking place in Shukhov's outlook on life.
Probably the best example of Solzhenitsyn's employing of the second type of impending event in his fiction (that is, where the reader and the characters have an inkling that an incident may occur but are not absolutely certain that it will happen) is found in the short story "Matryona's Home." At the beginning of this work, we are told that 184 kilometers from Moscow trains were still slowing down "to a crawl a good six months after it happened" and that their passengers still continued to glue themselves "to the windows . . . or to stand by the doors" when the locomotives came to this particular spot on the railway line. Thus, from this brief note, we immediately anticipate an unfortunate incident and are eager to learn more about it. But the narrator of the story, a mathematics teacher, obviously thinks it is better for us to learn of the catastrophe gradually.
Hence, he first beckons us to accompany him on the trip that he had earlier taken from Moscow to Talnovo, the village where the "whole thing" had occurred. He apparently wants us, as he had done earlier, to become fully conscious of the beauty of the Russian countryside. In any case, as we journey with him, we breathe deeply its fresh air, peer at the Soviet Union's vast grain fields, majestic streams, and trackless forests, stop at a number of obviously Russian towns (Chaslitsy, Ovinsty) and meet some of their eternal inhabitants—peasants who are unlearned, unclean, but who are unselfish, possessing literally hearts of gold.
Arriving at Talnovo, we are introduced to Matryona and learn how the narrator came to be a lodger at her home. Then, calmly, he furnishes us with a few details about his landlord: Matryona is an elderly woman who lives alone, except for a lame cat, a horde of mice, and hundreds of cockroaches. Her cottage, shabby and long neglected, is poorly furnished, containing, among other things, a Russian stove (which Matryona sleeps upon), a number of rubber plants, a chest of drawers with a dim mirror, and an assortment of cheap chairs and tables. Because of numerous illnesses, she appears to be worn out, although she still possesses a warm, sincere smile. She is extremely generous, working for everyone but herself—for her thoughtless neighbors, for her greedy relatives, and for a collective farm where she receives no compensation. By her conversations with the narrator, she obviously possesses little formal schooling, although she is apparently intelligent. Above all, she is a worker. Apart from pilfering peat from the state's store (it allots fuel only to the party officials and other dignitaries), she picks cranberries and places them in jars, plants and digs potatoes, cuts and stores hay for her only dirty-white goat, and helps the members of the kolkhoz to clear their feed lots of manure. What is more, she journeys to the local soviet for papers and pleads with it to secure a small pension for her husband who did not return from World War II.
It is at this time that the storyteller pauses, allowing us to catch up on our past emotions and to prepare for those to come. After we have taken a breath or two, he continues his tale. This time he shifts the story to relate to the Matryona of forty years ago. Suddenly, we see her face, freed of wrinkles, her bright, blue eyes, and her virginal body, sought by many admirers. And then we learn of her countless disappointments. Aside from always living in poverty, during World War I her fiance, Faddei, serving in the Russian army on the Eastern Front was reportedly killed in action; accordingly, Matryona had married his brother Yefim, only to discover that her true love was alive and that he had sworn to have some sweet revenge on her. Following the war, she had brought six children into the world, but they had all died in infancy. Then World War II had broken out; this her husband was called to the colors. But during the conflict, Yefim had disappeared, leaving her to shed a widow's tears and to spend the days and nights alone.
Evidently, Matryona had learned to live well with such slices of meaninglessness. For there is something unprotesting, soul-shaking about her response to them. And for that matter she does not allow any agony to be a cause for despair. On the contrary, she retains her confidence in life. She believes that reality exists, that time is purposive, and that man has a higher destiny to fulfill on this earth than merely grabbing everything he can for himself; he is meant to live for others; and by so doing, hopefully, his actions will give rise to more compassion on everyone's part.
Now that the narrator realizes that we know Matryona and her deepest convictions, he brings us to the tragic event itself. At this time, Faddei again appears on the scene. He is still as handsome and as suave as ever; but he has become extremely greedy. What he wants now is part of Matryona's home (the upper bedroom), to be used by his daughter Kyra and son-in-law in the village of Cherusty. Matryona had already promised the cottage to the young woman (whom she had reared as her own), but it was to be delivered following her death. So for several days, she ponders about the matter. Then, because of her regard for Kyra's happiness, Matryona relents; a few days later Faddei and his sons and sons-in-law begin the task of disassembling the bed-chamber. At this point, however, nature intervenes on Matryona's behalf. A huge snowstorm strikes Talnovo, blocking the roads and preventing the timbers for several days from being hauled away. But when the snow starts to melt Faddei and his relatives decide to tie the lumber on two sleds (to be pulled by a tractor that had been illegally borrowed from a local Machine Tractor Station) and to start on their way. At the nearby railway crossing, one of the vehicles, however, becomes hopelessly stuck on the train's tracks; and it is while Matryona is working feverishly to free the sled that she, along with one of Faddei's sons-in-law is run down and killed by an approaching locomotive.
Matryona's death constitutes Solzhenitsyn's impending event in this story. We had long anticipated a tragic happening, although we did not know what form it would take; now that we learn that the catastrophe concerned Matryona, the only person in the work whom we could identify with, could pull for, we are greatly grieved. In other words, this calamity, which really was a result of Faddei's greed, has a saddening effect on us. The rest of the story is anti-climactic. We are only a little aroused emotionally when we learn of its contents: that Yefim had never loved Matryona, had constantly cheated on her, and had definitely abandoned her during the war; that Matryona's neighbors had never understood the old woman's unselfish ways; and that Faddei and Matryona's sisters had hardly waited until the last spade of dirt had been tossed on Matryona's coffin before they started to battle for the remainder of her meager property. By this time, we have read Solzhenitsyn's story; and Matryona, like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, stands out in our minds as a real personality.
Probably the best example of Solzhenitsyn's employing of the third type of impending event (that is, where the reader is aware that something is going to occur but the characters are completely unaware of what is in store for them) is found in his novel The Cancer Ward. In this work, Solzhenitsyn concerns himself mainly with the matter of finding truth. And to discover it, he uses cancer as a device to strip his characters of their inhibitions. Only when a person has nothing to lose, only when he realizes that he soon may not be among the living will he, Solzhenitsyn says, toss aside those false things that have paraded as the truth; only then will he fathom reality. But even at this momentous time, some people will not see the truth and will continue to pursue the gods of power and prestige and pecuniary gain.
With these different kinds of people in mind, Solzhenitsyn sets out to give them flesh and blood. Thus, he creates several sets of characters who are at the opposite ends of the human pole. One of these includes Oleg Kostoglotov and Pavel Rusanov. They are strikingly different, although both have a common disease—cancer. The former is self-reliant, straightforward, something of a sage (because of his prison experiences, he already has the impression that making sacrifices for others is the reason why he is on this earth; his suffering in the cancer ward merely strengthens his view on this matter), while the latter is a conformist, a cheater, though extremely cunning. They are subtly pitted against each other; and on their ideological debates hangs largely the success of the story itself.
Yet, these discussions, though interesting and informative, do not contribute much overt action or suspense to the novel. To add dimension to his story, Solzhenitsyn first draws a vivid picture of the tornado-like swirl of events that Russia is caught up in following the death of Stalin: the liquidation of Beria and his henchmen in the secret police; the removal of all the members of the Supreme Court; and the release from prison of thousands of political prisoners, their places now being taken by their false accusers. Then he creates an impending event—Rusanov's approaching death, which the reader comes to know of but which the character himself remains ignorant of until the very end.
What makes Rusanov's impending doom more memorable to us than the demise of any other character (aside from the fact that he is the second most important figure in the book) is that he is the one person in the novel who thinks that he knows everything, including how to dislodge the lump of death that is crouching between his shoulder and head. It is, for example, Rusanov who always tries to be the first patient to scan the pages of Pravda, indicating that he thinks that he is the only person in the ward who can understand its weighty contents. Also, it is Rusanov who knows that Lenin had "once and for all written about the moral perfectionism of Count Tolstoy and Co." and that there are "some questions" that one cannot argue about. Moreover, it is Rusanov, the admirer of success, who understands that to have a communist society, one must "not be squeamish about using the hoe" to weed out its defilers. Lastly, it is Rusanov who knows the value of keeping up appearances in public. Hence, he is greatly perturbed when he learns that he must share the bathroom with the other inmates of the ward. "If only I had a private toilet," he agonizes. "It's terrible. What a lavatory! Open toilets, without doors; no privacy at all."
By planting this type of information about Rusanov in his story, and by giving skillful flashbacks on his character's past, Solzhenitsyn allows us finally to recognize Rusanov. He is a materialist, seeing only the surface part of things; hence, he is filled with delusions. Rusanov, for instance, believes that he is an important communist official, although he is actually an insignificant bureaucrat. What is more, he thinks himself a moral man, but he had informed to the secret police about many innocent people (on one occasion to secure his neighbor's apartment). Also, he believes that he is a friend of the proletariat, though he always thought himself better than the workers and had been most guilty of oppressing them. Finally, he believes, as a result of the x-ray treatments in the hospital, that he is cured of cancer, though, in reality, the dreaded disease has spread from his neck to the rest of his body. Thus, we know as we see Rusanov leaving the hospital and starting for home what is going to happen to him; and although he is a contemptible character (his one saving grace is that he loves his family), his approaching death hits at our emotions—which is what Solzhenitsyn had been working toward all along.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4772
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 thoughts—and 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." Cohn defines "narrated monologue" as "the rendering of a character's thoughts in his own idiom, while maintaining the third-person form of narration"; the use of "narrated monologue" enables the author "to recount the character's silent thoughts without a break in the narrative thread."2
The choice of the term "narrated monologue" as against Otto Jespersen's "represented speech" is motivated by the intention of avoiding "an undesirable association with 'stream of consciousness'," yet it is determined by the construction's potential transformation into "direct interior monologue." "Indirect interior monologue," a term introduced by Robert Humphrey for the same concept, is preferred by G. Schaarschmidt over "quasi-direct discourse," the latter considered by L. Matejka as one of several variants in between direct and indirect discourse. Professor Roman Jakobson's and Sister A. G. Laudry's "represented discourse" seems a more appropriate term, since it includes the rendering of a character's speech ("represented speech") as well as of his unspoken thoughts ("represented thoughts").
In Slavic literary criticism the concept under consideration has long been established under the terms "nesobstvenno-pryamaya rech" (Russian), "polo-prima rech" (Czech), "mowa pozornie zalezna" (Polish), etc. In Russian fiction (as in other Slavic literatures) this type of discourse has been used frequently throughout the nineteenth century and is still effectively used. This paper will attempt to present the use made of "represented discourse" in A. I. Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (One Day) as the determining factor of the point of view in the work itself.
The enthusiasm with which Solzhenitsyn's One Day was initially received in the West was mainly due to the work's political implications. Opinions were divided with respect to the artistic value of One Day: some saw in it "little stylistic interest to distinguish it from the usual run of socialist-realist fiction, no experimentation of any kind save in the constant use of very vulgar language,"9 while others considered it a literary masterpiece. More recently, referring to One Day, Max Hayward remarked that "paradoxically, the first Soviet prose work which can be profitably discussed exclusively in terms of its aesthetic accomplishments is one which was published in Moscow for avowedly political reasons and received abroad mainly as a political sensation."10
Solzhenitsyn's short novel is by now considered a work of high artistic value by most critics, both Soviet and Western. Yet only a few have pointed out the interesting fact that Solzhenitsyn has made very extensive and sustained use of "represented discourse," which conveys indirectly the characters' interior monologue. This represents a rather revolutionary innovation within the Soviet literary context in which interior monologue was practically banned from socialist-realist fiction.11
While most critics agree that the basic narrative structure of the work is that of a skaz, the relationship between the skaz structure, the sustained use of "represented discourse" and the resultant interior monologue nature of the work has yet to be established.
Some quotes will illustrate the lack of agreement on the point of a view in One Day:
The narratives of a Tendryakov or a Nekrasov or a Solzhenitsyn are deployed in an orderly manner through time, do not 'distort' experience in order to see it freshly, do not shift point of view in any radical manner or divert the steady gaze of the observer-narrator. Language does not attempt to reproduce the actual flutterings and oscillations of consciousness but is 'logical' in the sense that it is rational, ordered description of event, scene or feeling.12
In keeping with Shukov's village speech, it [prose style] is frequently ungrammatical, composed in rich variety of colloquialisms of the uneducated folk and the semi-obscene, harsh argot of the camp. It has a jagged texture, frequent ellipsis and the staccato brevity of thoughts and observations reported on the run, broken down into the most simple primitive statements.13
Max Hayward gives credit to Solzhenitsyn for reviving the skaz in Soviet literature:
Solshenitsyn employs a device which is not new in Russian literature, but whose use was unthinkable during the long years of the dominance of the emasculated style imposed by socialist realism. This device is known as the skaz in which the language of the narrative is the same as that of the main characters and of the particular milieu in which they live. In this instance it is the speech of a semi-literate peasant from Central Russia larded with concentration camp slang. The literary effect of this is extraordinary in that, as is the author's intention, the whole experience related in the novel is seen through the eyes of the bewildered simple man who is the central figure.14
Leonid D. Rzhevsky points to "represented discourse" along with the skaz:
The very structural principles on which this skaz is built are remarkable and out of the ordinary. It combines in a strange and productive, that is, striking, amalgam, ordinary first-person narrative with a peculiar form of indirect speech in which the personality of the narrator intrudes, speaking of himself as if in the third person (and sometimes in the first person as well) . . . 15
T. G. Vinokur states that in his novel Solzhenitsyn has merged into one entity the author and the hero and therefore had to give this unified personality a clearly defined ideolect; yet at times Vinokur observes a doubling, a transition of the narrative from the speech of the "author-Shukhov" to the speech of the "author-Solzhenitsyn."16
The lack of agreement on the point of view of One Day is due to the insufficient consideration given to "represented discourse," its nature and function. One Day does not fit into any of the eight possibilities of point of view listed by Norman Friedman.17 His third category, the "'I' as a Witness," would be the closest, were it not for the qualification that the narrator be a first-person one. Bertil Romberg states: "By a first-person novel is meant a novel that is narrated all the way along in the first person by a person who appears in the novel, the narrator."18 Furthermore, in the first-person novel the fictitious narrator "is given the authority for the whole story."19
One Day is not a first-person narrative. There appears to be a division of labor between the fictitious narrator, who is never identified but whose presence is felt, and the main character, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. The narrator's task is limited mostly to description of setting, nature, action and to the reporting of dialogues as he follows Ivan through one day of camp life. Ivan, on the other hand, intrudes continuously into the narrator's third-person narrative by means of the "represented discourse." In this way Ivan bares his own thoughts and feelings and his preoccupations with the conditions of camp life; Ivan's subjective views emerge within the narrator's text. Thus there are two, not opposing but converging and complementary points of view in One Day. Ivan becomes a subjective narrator along with the objective third-person narrator-observer; One Day falls within the area of the "Subjective Third Person" point of view type as developed in L. Dole el's "Typology of the Narrator."20
The skaz is a "traditional Russian literary form of narrative based on folk speech and coloured by the personality of the narrator."21 According to V. V. Vinogradov the skaz is "an original literary-artistic orientation to oral monologue of the narrative type; it is an artistic imitation of monologic speech which, containing the narrative plot, seems to be developing in the very process of speaking."22 Irwin R. Titunik distinguishes in a typical skaz two types of texts: Text A (author) and Text P (personage-character). Text A is basically the reporting text while Text P is the reported one, but at the same time it is also a reporting text. The skaz is thus defined by Titunik as
. . . a mode of narration in fiction brought about by the interpolation into the narrative structure of a reported-reporting text which is oriented toward the perceptibility of its speech event or, inasmuch as the interpolated text is a text A in function, oriented toward the perceptibility of the speech event of narration itself.23
The narrative is a skaz is usually done by a narrator other than the author; the point of view should be the narrator's own. It is the narrator's way of seeing, feeling, and thinking, not only his speech peculiarities, that should transpire in the narrative. According to M. M. Bakhtin, of primary importance to N. S. Leskov (a master of the Russian skaz) was the narrator's socially different world-outlook, while in I. S. Turgenev's skaz the narrator belonged to the same socio-cultural level as the author.24
One Day appears as a combination of the Leskov and Turgenev types of skaz resulting in a "multiple skaz" form. However, Ivan's world-outlook is the dominant one, not the narrator's. That is the reason why critics maintain that we see everything in the novel as if through Ivan's eyes. Yet the narrator is also characterized through his own speech and rendering of events and commentaries. Thus there are two points of view with a resultant "multiple splitting" of authority and responsibility. The author is not responsible for the narrator's view nor is he responsible for Ivan's opinions. In the same manner the narrator cannot be held accountable for Ivan's views because the narrator does not really mediate Ivan's inner life. Ivan's consciousness is, rather, directly represented to the reader through the sustained use of the "represented discourse." The anonymous narrator and Ivan reinforce each other and the combined effect of this complex narrative structure is to lend even more credibility to the narrative as an authoritative statement about the life in a Stalinist concentration camp. The inextricable unity of narrative achieved by Solzhenitsyn creates a perfect illusion of reality.
Since the signals of "represented discourse" and of skaz are identical,25 a skaz text can hardly be distinguished from a text P (character's) rendered in the form of "represented discourse."26 A further complication is present in One Day: the narrator's language itself shares some features with Ivan's own language (text P). Therefore, at certain points it is quite difficult to distinguish the text belonging to Ivan from the narrator's text. This fact also presents problems for translators, as evidenced in the English translations of One Day where the opposition between text P and text A is sometimes obliterated and the "represented discourse" aspect is therefore lost to the reader with consequent loss of the immediacy and intimacy conveyed through the means of "represented discourse."
The narrator of One Day follows Ivan closely and observes events and people along with Ivan. However, Ivan's inner life, thoughts, preoccupations, anxieties are revealed through interior monologues independent of the narrator, although they are embedded in the narrator's third-person narrative. Solzhenitsyn consistently uses throughout his novel the "represented discourse" technique in such a way that the end result is the optical and aural illusion that Ivan is the only narrator and the novel a first-person one. This illusion is a triumph of Solzhenitsyn's art that makes the reader "see" through Ivan's eyes although Ivan is not actually doing the narration.
The "represented discourse," different from direct and indirect discourse, is a type of speech containing and revealing at the same time two dynamics, two directions, two sources: the narrator's and the hero's. Within the texture of the narrator's discourse can be perceived the active, dynamic direct "voice" of the hero without any formal syntactic subordination, as it would be in indirect discourse. The voice of the hero thus preserves its own personality, although what "the hero tells in the first person . . . the listener (reader) experiences in the third"27 on the printed page.
The "represented discourse" does not at all express a passive impression of someone else's reported utterance, but expresses the active orientation, which is not at all limited to the shift from first to the third person, but introduces its own accents into the reported utterance, which clash here and interfere with the accents of the reported speech.28
In this manner the directness, freshness, originality, intonation, and peculiarities of the hero's speech and thought are maintained, while at the same time a great economy is attained, since "represented discourse" does away with the burdensome reporting clauses of direct and indirect discourse constructions and has no obligation for a formal full, complete transmission of the conveyed messages.
For I. I. Kovtunova "represented discourse" stands at the borderline between direct discourse and authorial speech (not between direct and indirect discourse). Within the text of the narrator, characterized by past tense indicative and the use of the third person, are embedded the elements of the character's direct discourse. The traits identifying the latter are the second person verbs in the present or future tense (first and third person may also be used) and the sudden, unpredictable appearance of the imperative and conditional moods, of modal words, particles, interjections, etc., revealing the oral speech nature of the character's text.29
To substantiate the assertion that the "represented discourse" carries a voice of its own, namely the hero's voice, the entire text of One Day was broken into numbered passages of varying length on the basis of three categories: the voice of the narrator, the voice of Ivan in his first-person monologues, and the passages containing the "represented discourse" of Ivan. A total of 225 passages was extracted with 113 of them belonging to Ivan's "represented discourse." The latter were analyzed for their language traits with the following results:
- Verbs in the second person sing.—present/future tense 114
- Verbs in the second sing.—plur. of the imperative and infinitives in imperative function 132
- Verbs in the first person sing.—plur., present/future 26
- Colloquial lexicon, non-grammatical expressions, prisoners' jargon, aphorisms, proverbs, and sayings 143
- Pronouns/adjectives of the second person 47
- Pronouns/adjectives of the first person 32
- Interjections, exclamations, onomatopoeic expressions 46
- Use of utterances within parentheses 59
- Interrogative expressions 61
- Syntactical peculiarities (ellipsis, "staccato") and particularly clear intonational features 33
- Repetition 45
- Use of mol, deskat' (introducing reported speech) 20
The above listed features, found within the narrator's third-person narrative and considered all together, reveal the oral speech nature of the character's language and conform to the traits of the "represented discourse" as analyzed by I. I. Kovtunova.
The language of the narrator, on the other hand, is a mixture of two levels: to the basic standard literary language traits of an educated Russian is admixed a level similar to Ivan's own language in its colloquialisms, aphorisms, sayings, proverbs, prisoners' jargon, etc. There is thus a common area of linguistic overlap between the narrator and Ivan. These common layers of speech appear in various combinations within the structure of a sentence, a passage, a paragraph and consequently make the identification of the point of view a complex task. At the same time such structure heightens the degree of ambiguity which is already present in a typical skaz.30
The narrator seems to be a person with a remarkable gift for observation. His language indicates that he is an educated person living inside the concentration camp: he has much freedom of movement, is very familiar with all the details of camp life and organization and is completely conversant with the prisoners' jargon. One would be justified to identify the narrator with the author himself; however, the author does not intrude into the narrative and there is no authorial "I" to be found anywhere in the novel. To distinguish the authorial text from the skaz-narrator's text and the first two from Ivan's own text31 amounts to introducing a further complication into the analysis of an already complex structure. We cannot separate any authorial point of view that would differ from the narrator's; they are one and the same. For a point of view analysis such distinction is not necessary.
The technique so consistently used by Solzhenitsyn may be compared to the motion of a pendulum. Throughout the novel a rhythmical oscillation of the narrative between the voices of the narrator and of the hero is noticeable. The swinging of this pendulum is a symbol of the slow, deceiving passing of time and of the importance of each moment in the life of the zek (prisoner). The "represented discourse" technique conveys very effectively the converging of two different voices toward a common final aim—the expression of the theme of the novel.
The motion of the pendulum obtains its impetus from Ivan's side—Ivan intrudes into the narrator's third-person text through the "represented discourse" and this continous rhythmic motion impregnates the atmosphere of the novel with Ivan's "color." The technique of two shifting points of view suggests two levels of final meaning for the novel as such. The total characterization of Ivan results from the constant intersecting of the two points of view.
The immediately apparent theme of the novel is the struggle for survival incessantly waged by the zek. He lives facing the possibility and probability of extreme pain and death at any moment. One false step while marching to work and he can be shot. At any moment the mass of zeks can turn and crush anyone of them who is endangering the group. The zek's throat can be cut "by mistake" as punishment for "squealing," etc. He hangs continuously between life and death, as the pendulum motion symbolizes, and this makes time seem motionless. Therefore, all his power at every moment is concentrated on the effort to survive the moment, because every moment is a life-time. Consequently every little bit of relaxation of such tension is felt as "happiness" and a day when nothing "horrible" occurs to him is felt by the zek as a fortunate and happy day. Human nature is really bared as grasping desperately to life to the last possible moment. There is such intense concentration on existence in each minimal time-unit of life that one cannot avoid feeling an existentialist appreciation of life in One Day. No matter how terrible the present is and hopeless the future may appear, life is still worth living. Survive the moment, ignore the future!—is the motto of the experienced zek. This is the immediate level of meaning to which all critics can subscribe.
One interpretation of a more universal level of meaning is given by Max Hayward:
The political setting and implications, as well as the time and place in which the action of the novel is set, are incidental to its artistic purposes. It is as symbolic of human existence as is Kafka's Trial. The one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is a day in anybody's life. The majority of the human race are trapped in a monotonous daily routine which differs from that of a concentration camp only in the degree of its unpleasantness and hopelessness.32
A great work of art lends itself to various interpretations, but Max Hayward's interpretation requires some comment. Certainly a work of art has universal value because it is independent of its peculiar original location in time and space. But that does not make the time/space factor totally irrelevant. The universality is still bound to a similarity in kind to the original time/space location. Max Hayward compares two terms that are different in kind, not simply in degree. There is a difference in kind between the limitations, cruelties, and horrors imposed by brute violence and the limitations accepted in an open-type society by common agreement, no matter how unpleasant to the individual may be the limitations deriving from the complexities of an advanced technological society.
The universal level of meaning with which Solzhenitsyn is really concerned is brought forth clearly by the analysis of the content of the "represented discourse." In ninety percent of the "represented discourse" passages Ivan is relentlessly concerned with survival. The broader problems of freedom and religion are dealt with in the dialogues of Ivan with Alyosha the Baptist and are reported by the narrator. They do not come directly from Ivan; their discussion is due mainly to the initiative of Alyosha. Ivan has no time to think about such problems and even when challenged he does not cope very successfully with them, because in his inner life the preoccupation with the immediate problem of survival is absolutely supreme. The relentless pressures imposed on him have narrowed the area of his perception and consciousness to what is of immediate relevance to survival. This is his mechanism of self-defense; only those who can develop such mechanism will survive. Ivan's consciousness is a limited consciousness.
Victor Erlich has stated that One Day "does not purport to take the reader too far into anybody's 'mind,' to probe too deeply any individual consciousness,"33 and this is taken by Erlich to be a weakness of Solzhenitsyn's work which makes it fall short of being a literary masterpiece. However, this same quality reflects the reality of camp life, its influence on Ivan; it is therefore a very realistic limitation, but one of a temporary nature with respect to Ivan Denisovich and to any man in his situation. Ivan's consciousness is still potentially capable of breaking away, of freeing itself, given more favourable conditions. In other words, it is still fully human, and this is the universal level of meaning and the optimistic note in an otherwise depressing work.
Another very interesting facet of Solzhenitsyn's art is revealed by the analysis of Ivan's language in the "represented discourse." One can readily agree with Burton Rubin's opinion34 on the syntactical peculiarities of the language of One Day; that is, of that part contained in Ivan's interior monologues, particularly in those rendered through the "represented discourse." Such language, with its free-flowing, but elliptic and brusque traits at the same time, reveals the workings of Ivan's mind, the flow of his thoughts which are subconsciously connected not by free psychological associations (as they would be in a free individual within a free environment) but by inevitable associations imposed upon Ivan's consciousness by the terrific pressure for survival. These inevitable, imposed associations are the reason why in ninety percent of the "represented discourse" text Ivan is concerned with survival and everything else is merely incidental.
Solzhenitsyn's novel is an innovation not only in its theme of camp life and survival, but also in the representation of its higher theme—the flow of Ivan's limited consciousness. However, Ivan is not the individual type of the "outsider" in the sense of Yuri Kazakov's Egor.35 Ivan is not an outsider: he represents a large majority of people both inside and outside his camp. He represents all those people who cannot enjoy any of the privileges granted by the regime either inside or outside; privileges that, paradoxically, give more freedom to create, for instance, to the poet-medic inside the camp than he would have outside of it.
Only Solzhenitsyn has made full use of the outsider. His modest convict, an accomplished but fastidious scrounger and a good comrade, calls a whole civilization into question (whether or not Khrushchev realizes it) precisely because he is too simple to see the political dimensions of his problem.36
Exactly because of the "political dimensions of his problem," which are the politically imposed and brutally maintained limitations on him, Ivan is a universal symbol of the restricted, dulled consciousness that develops in a man anywhere such conditions prevail. This applies especially to the immediate "outside" of Ivan's camp, where there still persist imposed limitations and the threat of violent repression of any human flight attempting to break out of such apathy generating environmental limitations.
Erlich expects a great work of literature to have "elements of transcendent moral illumination, of formal brilliance, or of an aesthetic breakthrough which we tend to associate with great moments in literary history."37 While Erlich denies any of these qualities to One Day, it seems reasonable to claim that Solzhenitsyn's work does offer Ivan's intrinsic and unshakeable goodness, independent of any outside authority, as a "moral illumination." One Day also contains the element of "formal brilliance" in its peculiar point of view achieved through the use of "represented discourse," beside Solzhenitsyn's masterful handling of Russian itself. T. G. Vinokur stated that the language of One Day is complex in appearance only:
The novel's language is simple. But it is of such perfected and controlled simplicity which really can be only the result of complexity—the inevitable complexity of the writer's labor, if such labor is honest, daring, and free.38
Solzhenitsyn, therefore, appears to have embodied in his work Zhivago's dream:
It had been the dream of his life to write with an originality so discreet, so well concealed, as to be unnoticeable in its disguise of current and customary forms; all his life he had struggled for a style so restrained, so unpretentious that the reader or the hearer would fully understand the meaning without realizing how he assimilated it.39
Another thought of Doctor Zhivago seems appropriate to conclude these comments:
. . . he made a note reaffirming his belief that art always serves beauty, and beauty is delight in form, and form is the key to organic life, since no living thing can exist without it, so that every work of art, including tragedy, expresses the joy of existence. And his own ideas and notes also brought him joy, a tragic joy, a joy full of tears . . . 40
Solzhenitsyn has given the world a moving picture of such "tragic joy, a joy full of tears . . . ," still a genuine joy in one's own existence, even when so limited in time, space, and one's own consciousness.
1 Dorrit Cohn, "Narrated Monologue: Definition of a Fictional Style," Comparative Literature, XVIII, No. 2 (1966), 97-112.
2Ibid., p. 98.
10 Max Hayward and Edward L. Crowley, ed., Soviet Literature in the Sixties (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964), p. 205.
11 G. Schaarschmidt, "Interior Monologue and Soviet Literary Criticism," Canadian Slavonic Papers, VIII (1966), 143-152. Deming Brown, "The Present Condition of Soviet Criticism," Comparative Literature Studies, I, No. 3 (1964), 167-173.
12 R. Mathewson, "The Novel in Russia and the West," Soviet Literature in the Sixties, op. cit.,p. 12 (Italics added).
13 Burton Rubin, "Highlights of the 1962-1963 Thaw," Soviet Literature in the Sixties, op. cit., p. 90.
14 Max Hayward, "Epilogue," Soviet Literature in the Sixties, op. cit.,p. 206.
15 Leonid D. Rzhevsky, "The New Idiom," Soviet Literature in the Sixties, op. cit., p. 76 (Italics added).
16 T. G. Vinokur, "O yazyke i stile povesti A. I. Solzhenitsyna 'Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha'" (On the Language and Style of A. I. Solzhenitsyn's Short Novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), Voprosy Kul'tury Rechi, VI (Moscow: "Nauka," 1965), p. 16-17.
17 Norman Friedman, "Point of View in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept," PMLA (1955), 1160-1184.
18 Bertil Romberg, Studies in the Narrative Technique of the First-person Novel (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1962), p. 4.
19Ibid., p. 9.
20 Lubomir Dole el, "The Typology of the Narrator: Point of View in Fiction," To Honor Roman Jakobson, Essays on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, Vol. I (The Hague-Paris: Mouton, 1967), 541-552.
21 Anthony M. Mlikotin, A Dictionary of Russian Literary Terminology (Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 1968), p. 136.
22 V. V. Vinogradov, "Problema skaza v stilistike," Poetika, I (Leningrad: Academia, 1925), p. 33.
23 Irwin Robert Titunik, The Problem of "Skaz" in Russian Literature, (Dissertation: University of California, Berkeley, 1963), p. 45.
24 M. M. Bakhtin, "Tipy prozaicheskogo slova," Michigan Slavic Materials, ed. L. Matejka (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, 1962), pp. 53-55.
25 I. R. Titunik, op. cit., p. 123.
26Ibid., p. 126.
27 V. N. Voloshinov, Marksizm i filosofiya yazyka (Leningrad: Priboi, 1930), p. 145.
28Ibid., p. 153.
29 I. I. Kovtunova, "Nesobstvenno-pryamaya rech' v sovremennom russkom literaturnom yazyke," Russkii yazyk v shkole, No. 2 (1953), pp. 18-27.
30 I. R. Titunik, op. cit., p. 128.
31 L. Rzhevsky, "Obraz rasskazchika v povesti Solzhenitsyna 'Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha',"Studies in Slavic Linguistics and Poetics,in Honor of Boris O. Unbegaun, ed. Robert Magidoff (New York-London: New York University Press, 1968), p. 171.
32 Max Hayward, "Epilogue," Soviet Literature in the Sixties, op. cit.,p. 206.
33 Victor Erlich, "Reply," Slavic Review, XXIII, No. 3 (1964), p. 439.
34 See B. Rubin's statement on p. 167.
35 Yuri Kazakov, "The Outsider," Dissonant Voices in Soviet Literature, eds. Patricia Blake and Max Hayward (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1964), pp. 188-203.
36 Rufus Mathewson, op. cit., p. 14.
37 Victor Erlich, op. cit., p. 440.
38 T. G. Vinokur, op. cit., p. 31.
39 Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (New York: The New American Library, 1960), p. 366.
40Ibid., p. 378.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591
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.
Clément, Olivier. The Spirit of Solzhenitsyn. London: Search Press, 1976, 234 p.
Analysis of Christian spirituality in Solzhenitsyn's collected works.
Cukierman, Walenty. "Platonov's 'The Cow' and Solženicyn's 'Matrena's Home': The Tolstojan Connection." Slavic and East European Journal 23, No. 1 (Spring 1979): 163-66.
Links "Matryona's Home" with another twentieth-century story, Andrej Platonov's "The Cow," seeing both Matryona and the cow as symbolic of the Russian peasantry and of Mother Russia herself.
Kern, Gary. "Solženicyn's Self-Censorship: The Canonical Text of Odin den' Ivana Denisovi a." Slavic and East European Journal 20, No. 4 (Winter 1976): 421-36.
Surveys changes Solzhenitsyn made in his novella "in the hopes of passing the Soviet censorship."
——. "Ivan the Worker." Modern Fiction Studies 23, No. 1 (Spring 1977): 5-30.
Probes the structure of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich "to reveal how the structure imparts meaning," particularly in terms of the novella's theme of alienation.
Mihajlov, Mihajlo. "Dostoevsky's and Solzhenitsyn's House of the Dead." In Russian Themes, translated by Marija Mihajlov, pp. 78-118. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.
Compares One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich with the nineteenth-century Russian prison camp narrative The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Moody, Christopher. "Stories and Plays." In Solzhenitsyn, pp. 69-97. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1973.
Evaluates theme and plot in Solzhenitsyn's short fiction and plays of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Pike, David. "A Camp through the Eyes of a Peasant: Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." California Slavic Studies X (1977): 193-223.
Focuses on multiple perspectives, descriptive technique, and character delineation in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Rossbacher, Peter. "Solzhenitsyn's Matrena's Home." Slavic and East European Studies XII, Nos. 2-3 (1967): 114-21.
Relates the theme of "Matryona's Home"—"the suffering of the innocent and the struggle between good and evil"—to similar themes in nineteenth-century Russian literature.
Rothberg, Abraham. "Solzhenitsyn's Short Stories." Kansas Quarterly 9, No. 2 (Spring 1977): 31-50.
Examines six of Solzhenitsyn's short works, concluding: "Where Solzhenitsyn can manage to unify the passion of his moral concerns with the anguish of his personal experience while maintaining the detachment and impersonality called for by creative imagination—as he does in Matryona's House—he transcends his biography and moves into the highest reaches of his art."
Springer, Mary Doyle. "The Apologue That Preaches by Example: Atypicality in the Making of a Typical 'Day.'" In Forms of the Modern Novella, pp. 65-72. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.
Studies consciousness and narrative in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novella Springer characterizes as an apologue, or moral fable.
Yarup, Robert L. "Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." The Explicator 45, No. 1 (Fall 1986): 53-55.
Observes the strong spiritual component of Shukhov's will to survive in the Soviet labor camp.
Additional coverage of Solzhenitsyn's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 40; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, 9, 10, 18, 26, 34, 78; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian; Discovering Authors: Most-studied Authors Module; Discovering Authors: Novelists Module; Major 20th-century Writers; and World Literature Criticism.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1593
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 Kochetov, for example, was his use of the four-letter words and the "mother-oath" words for which Russian is notorious. Yet his use of colloquial speech is both apt and powerful, and he never uses vulgar language for show or pointlessly.
Ivan Denisovich is a peasant and mixes mostly with peasants, but in the camp there are also officers, soldiers and criminals. Moreover, the world they live in is cut off from the world outside. It is not surprising, therefore, if the language they speak has grown wild, so to speak, and primitive; what is noteworthy is that is has managed to preserve its traditional expressiveness, its power of inventing new words and images, and its popular humor—now become macabre.
The use of such language is an element in Solzhenitsyn's desire for greater naturalness and sincerity in telling his story and in characterizing his people; "Solzhenitsyn had to deal with the language of a kolkhoznik which had become mixed with the vocabulary of citydwellers and pungent expressions derived from thieves' cant."15 The style, the subject matter, and the characterization are perfectly suited to one another, and only when Solzhenitsyn wishes to incorporate into the story more complex and abstract material—such as Tsezar's discussion of Eisenstein's cinematography with Prisoner X 123—does the combination of the three reveal some shortcomings.
The sober, documentary tone, the swift brush-stroke characterization, shrewd but not—with the exception of Ivan Denisovich—profound, the fleeting descriptions and functional dialogue are all elements of an endeavor to maintain a quiet voice. There is a deliberate refusal of sensationalism, of the desire to shock; Solzhenitsyn never stoops to melodrama; he never exaggerates; he never pushes the horrors of the camps to their bitter end. In fact, he deliberately chooses a relatively good day in Ivan Denisovich's life in the camp, "a day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day." Precisely in that refusal to go beyond the daily mundane facts is the novel's great power; by carefully sticking to those facts, by his macabre humor, by his irony and understated sense of horror, Solzhenitsyn gives an even greater reality to the cruelty of the camps, to the systematic criminality of the Soviet penal system, than a shriller voice would, than emphasis on the killing, the suicides, the self-mutilation, the torture would.
Solzhenitsyn's art does not lie in any external embellishments tacked on to the idea and the content for effect. No, it lies precisely in the flesh and blood of the work, its soul. It may seem to the unsophisticated reader that he has before him a piece of life torn straight from its depths and left just as it is—alive, quivering, with tattered edges, dripping.16
But just as there is power in so defining and confining his indignation, so too there is limitation. In restricting himself to a documentary tone, to a first-person account given by a kolkhoz peasant who has great guile but little knowledge and sophistication, Solzhenitsyn deliberately narrows the scope of the novel. In confining himself within the bounds of Ivan Denisovich's sensibility, the novelist willingly sacrifices a more profound point of view in order to create symbolically an innocent Ivan. Shukhov is perhaps the Russian peasant at his best: the epitome of the simple and decent countryman, hard-working and skillful with his hands, shrewd and sensible, ignorant but cunning when necessary; neither vicious nor violent, he is responsible and compassionate; he automatically detests the Soviet method of "one man works, one man watches," and would, as he remarks of Alyosha and the Baptists, help another man if that man asked him for help. If there is in Solzhenitsyn's portrait of Shukhov some of the old Populist hope for the peasant as the regenerating factor in Russian life, there is none of that Narodnaya volya (People's Will) sentimentality about the peasant; he knows peasants too well, and Denisovich is therefore neither a paragon nor what the Soviet orthodox critics like to call a "positive hero." There is in Shukhov peasant deference, peasant superstition, peasant ignorance, peasant passive resistance. For him, as perhaps for most of Russia's citizens, the problem is how to get through a single day, each day, one day—hence the aptness of the title. To Ivan Denisovich, life neither in the camp nor outside it makes much sense; the failures of the Soviet leadership to prepare for World War II, his own unjust imprisonment as well as that of millions of others, and the crass success of the moneymaking carpet painters of his home kolkhoz are all incomprehensible. What is necessary for Ivan Denisovich and all the innocent Ivans is simply to endure it all and survive. For more intelligent and complex personalities, such as Tsezar or Buinovsky or Prisoner X 123, it is not enough merely to survive the day, or even to seize it; they must make sense of their experiences, understand the relationships between ends and means, cause and effect; they must integrate the one day with the many, with the years and the "current of history," must see some pattern or meaning in what is happening to them, to their country, and to the world. In all these things they must seek an answer to the most important of the "accursed questions" that have plagued Russian writers: How is one to live? How is life to be organized? What are good and evil?
In confining himself to Ivan Denisovich's consciousness, in carefully hewing to fact in dealing with the holocaust of Stalinist terror, purge, and concentration camp, Solzhenitsyn opposes the tendency to falsify, inflate, and distort reality either by "lacquering" or by using the over blown rhetoric so endemic in officially approved Soviet writing. In speaking of the unspeakable, Solzhenitsyn is saying, one must show an ascetic restraint in choosing one's words. Yet the strengths are also weaknesses, for they prevent the book from transcending the boundaries of the specifically Soviet experience to a general experience; in brief, the camp is a metaphor for Russian life but not for most of human life elsewhere. Some critics have nonetheless tried to see the book as more than it is in this respect.
It is as symbolic of human existence as is Kafka's Trial. The one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is a day in anybody's life. The majority of the human race are trapped in a monstrous daily routine which differs from that of a concentration camp only in the degree of its unpleasantness and hopelessness. Solzhenitsyn exhibits a peculiarly Russian genius for transmuting the monotonous and sordid into a parable about human existence in general.17
Such overstatement asks more of the book than it is able to provide, and in some measure therefore denigrates what it can and does provide. However unpleasant and tragic the lives of the largest part of mankind may be, they are not trapped in the gruesome ways in which Gulag traps its zeks; and it is precisely in terms of the degree of difficulty that men encounter in life that their lives and societies must be measured.
In creating Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, Solzhenitsyn seems to be aiming at "a kind of radical moral therapy, by treating national traumas in terms that cut through all the usual abstractions, sophistries and silences in order to reassert the primacy of intimate, individual human experience."18 In that portrait, Solzhenitsyn may seem to show a lack of sophistication and of a sense of complexity and ambiguity, but perhaps he sees beyond those to an organic wholeness and goodness that "sophistication," especially the Western variety, finds embarrassing in their apparent simplicity. The banality of evil has been accepted widely; so, too, perhaps the banality of good is agreed upon, but goodness is not at all banal but altogether extraordinary, however banal it may appear. If the novel succeeds, as in great measure it does, it is perhaps because it renders that insight; and if it fails, as in some measure it also does, it may be because the experiences Solzhenitsyn chose to deal with cannot be contained in the vessel he used. It may be that literary realism in characterization and language is insufficient to encompass the monstrosities, absurdities, and grotesqueries that Stalinism and Hitlerism have brought to modern life.
15 V. Zavalishin, "Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, and Leshenkov-Klychkov," Bulletin, Nov. 1963, p. 41.
16 Lakshin, "Ivan Denisovich, His Friends and Foes."
17 Max Hayward, "Epilogue," in Soviet Literature in the Sixties, ed. Max Hayward and Edward L. Crowley (London: Methuen, 1965), p. 206. This is one of the rare instances in which Hayward's levelheadedness deserts him and leads him into critical hyperbole: Ivan Denisovich cannot, I believe, lay claim to the kind of universality of The Trial or The Castle; nor do I think there is a peculiarly Russian genius for transmuting the monotonous and sordid into literary parable. Many significant literatures contain writers who do that with their own "peculiar" national and individual genius.
18 Donald Fanger, "Solzhenitsyn: Ring of Truth," The Nation, Oct. 7, 1968.
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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: "Barely had I given them [i.e. the stories] to people to read when they quickly reached various cities in the Soviet Union. And then the editors of Novyi mir received a letter from the West that these stories had already been published there."2
At present it is unclear when exactly Solzhenitsyn committed his stories or "sketches" to paper.3 What appears to be clear is that he was unable to find a Soviet publisher for them4 and that he began distributing them in 1964.5
The "sketches" are prose poems6 of a powerful lyric intensity. Language and, in particular, the rhythm of speech play a significant role in them, rendering all attempts at translation necessarily inadequate. Of the three extant English translations of which I am aware,7 I would generally opt for the Harry Willetts version which appeared in Encounter. It is this translation which I shall be employing, with a few necessary alterations, in my quotations.
What are the "sketches" about? As I see it, they are primarily concerned with the spiritual inadequacy of modern life. The seedy, secular and arrogantly Promethean present is firmly and almost totally rejected by Solzhenitsyn. This rejection does not, however, lead him to nihilism because he espies two alternatives to the Soviet "now" which are capable of providing sustenance for the soul.
The first of these alternatives is Nature. In the initial sketch, entitled "Breathing" ["Dykhanie"], the narrator stands under an apple tree which is wet from a recent rain and in process of shedding its blossom. Transported by the tree's heady fragrance, he is spiritually detached from the modern world and announces joyfully, "I no longer hear the backfiring motorcycles, the howling radios, the crackling loudspeakers."8
Solzhenitsyn's attitude toward Nature appears to be both romantic and religious. He sees the quiet perfection of the Russian woods as a gateway leading from finitude to infinity. Thus, in the sketch "A Reflection in the Water" ["Otrazhenie v vode"] the narrator observes:
On the surface of swift-running water you cannot make out the reflection of objects near or distant. Only when . . . the current has reached a placid estuary, or in small backwaters, or in small lakes with never a tremulous wave, can we see in the mirror-smooth surface of the water the smallest leaf of a tree on the bank, every fiber of a fine combed cloud, and the intense blue depths of the sky. So it is with you and me. If, try as we may, we never have and never shall be able to see and to reflect the truth in all its eternal, fresh-minted clarity, is it not simply because we are also still in motion, still living?9
Like the Russian poet Tiutchev, Solzhenitsyn passes from a short description of nature to a philosophical aphorism. His message in the "sketches" is quite close to that articulated by several of the protagonists of his novels—Agniia and the painter Kondrashev-Ivanov in The First Circle or Shulubin in Cancer Ward. Modern man, Solzhenitsyn seems to hold, is unable to penetrate to the essence of things because he, like a swift-moving stream, is in frantic motion.
In the sketch "A Storm in the Mountains" ["Groza v gorakh"] the narrator describes the awe he experiences upon viewing a wild thunderstorm from a campsite on a mountain side:
There was nothing in the world but darkness—no above, no beneath, no horizon. Then there was a rending flash of lightning (and) the darkness was divided from the light . . . Just for a moment we half-believed that the land existed, when once again all was darkness and abyss . . . Like the arrows of the Lord of Hosts the lightning flashes fell from on high upon the Ridge and split into wriggles and dribbles of light . . . And we forgot our fear of the lightning, the thunder and the downpour. We became insignificant and grateful particles of the world. A world created today, from nothing, right before our eyes.10
Man, an "insignificant particle" in the immensity of Nature, looks with amazement on the lightning storm, a new creation ex nihilo. But his awed realization of his own limitation leads him not into despair or rebellion but, rather, to a humble "gratitude."
The modern Promethean refusal to accept the role of "particle" in the universe is touched upon in the sketch entitled "The Duckling" ["Utenok"]. The narrator picks up a "comical yellow duckling, wobbling on its thin yellow legs" and queries, "Who keeps body and soul together in this tiny creature? He weighs nothing at all, his little black eyes are like beads, his feet are like a sparrow's, just one little squeeze and there would be nothing."11 The narrator marvels at the duckling's perfect formation, notes how different it is in character from its brothers and concludes: "We are the ones who will shortly be flying to Venus . . . But with all our atomic might, never, never shall we be able to synthesize in our test-tubes, nor even to assemble from bones and feathers ready-made—a weightless, puny and pathetic little yellow duckling."12
The first alternative to the cacophony and dissonance of modern life is, as we have seen, Nature. Unfortunately, it is no longer easy to take refuge in this alternative. In the sketch "Lake Segden" ["Ozero Segden"] the narrator discovers that the unearthly beauty of the lake has been taken captive by a "wicked prince"—the "new class" or bureaucratic elite—which rules the Soviet Union. All roads to the lake have been blocked off; no-trespassing signs and armed guards serve as additional deterrents. "The fishing and game," we are informed, "is kept up for them alone."13 Having nevertheless somehow penetrated to the lake, the narrator thinks to himself, "There may be other things on earth, but who knows—nothing can be seen over the trees. And if there is anything else, it isn't wanted and will never be missed here. Here is a place to settle down for good . . . Your soul would flow, like the quivering air, between water and sky, and your thoughts would run pure and deep."14 "Dear deserted lake," the narrator sorrowfully concludes, "Home [rodina]." The captive beauty of the lake symbolizes a captive people.
Fortunately, we are informed, Russia has not always been so grim and vulgar. "The Old Bucket" ["Staroe vedro"] presents World War II as a time when comradeship and selflessness were able to thrive, at least on the front lines. Further back in history there is the "alien magnificence" of Petersburg, the "window to the West" built by Peter the Great on the northern swamps. The narrator of the sketch "City on the Neva" ["Gorod na Neve"] is moved by the aesthetic harmony of the architecture of Petersburg and exclaims, "How fortunate that nothing else can be built here! No wedding-cake sky-scraper can elbow its way on to the Nevskii Prospekt, no five-storey box can ruin the Griboedev Canal."15 Yet, though Petersburg exerts a powerful aesthetic attraction upon him, the narrator finds the city—as did Pushkin, Gogol' and Dostoevsky before him—morally ambiguous. "How delightful it is now to stroll along these avenues! But other Russians, clenching their teeth and cursing, rotted in sunless bogs to build all this beauty."16 Was, he asks, this beauty worth the suffering which produced it?
The simpler and older beauties of rural Russia draw more unequivocal praise from the narrator. In the religious and aesthetic world-view of old Russia Solzhenitsyn finds a second alternative to the formlessness of modern life. The sketch "Travelling along the Oka" ["Puteshestvuia vdol' Oki"], which is perhaps the best known of all the prose poems, hymns the churches of Central Russia which are seen as representing the "secret of the pacifying Russian countryside." They "lift their belltowers—graceful, shapely, each one different" and "nod to each other from afar" as they "soar to the same heaven."17 In another sketch, "A Poet's Ashes" ["Prakh poeta"], the narrator speaks of a monastery built along the river Oka by an ancient Russian prince:
Ingvar' Igorevich, who was delivered miraculously from the knives of his brothers, built here, for his soul's sake, the monastery of the Assumption. On a clear day you can see a long way from here, over the rolling water-meadows, and more than twenty miles away on a hill . . . stands the tall bell-tower of the monastery of St. John the Divine. Batu Khan was superstitious and spared them both.18
If Khan Batu, the grandson of Ghengis Khan who led the Mongol invasion of Russia in the thirteenth century, spared the churches and monasteries, the Soviets have acted otherwise. The Monastery of the Assumption, we are told, now stands virtually destroyed. The bricks of its two former churches have been carted off to construct a cow-shed at a nearby collective farm.
"Along the Oka" informs us that such is the normal plight of the Russian country churches. "When you actually get to the village, you find that not the living but the dead greeted you from afar. The crosses have been knocked off the roof or twisted out of place long ago . . . The murals over the altar have been washed by the rains of decades and obscene inscriptions have been scrawled over them."19 Many of the churches have been put to menial use. Some serve as tractor garages, others, as workshops and others, as clubs which boast signs such as "Let Us Aim at High Milk Yields" on their walls. Solzhenitsyn views with subdued horror the mindless desecration of churches and other monuments of the past. He is not alone in his sentiments. One could also mention such talented contemporaries as Vladimir Soloukhin, author of the sketches "Black Boards" ["Chernye doski"] and "Letters from a Russian Museum," and Andrei Siniavskii, recently released from a camp. In Siniavskii's novel Liubimov a semi-ruined monastery, which the central protagonist wants to tear down in order to make room for a stadium, overshadows the entire plot.
The attachment of the narrator of the "sketches" to the religio-aesthetic world-view of old Russia is pronounced, as is his distaste for secularized and desacralized modern Soviet man. "People," he observes:
were always selfish and often unkind. But the evening chimes used to ring out, floating over villages, fields and woods. Reminding men that they must abandon the trivial concerns of this world, and give time and thought to eternity. These chimes . . . raised people up and prevented them from sinking down on all fours. Our forefathers put all that was finest in themselves, all their understanding of life into these stones, into these bell-towers.20
Solzhenitsyn clearly subscribes to the Dostoevskian dictum that without God and eternity man becomes an animal for whom "all is permitted."
The traditional Russian, who lived close to Nature and joyfully accepted eternity, is in full contrast to modern Soviet man who is in terror of death. In the sketch "We Shall Never Die" ["My-to ne umrem"] the narrator muses, "Above all things we have begun to fear death and the dead."21 Who would dare say, for example, that he was going to visit the graves of his family on a Sunday? "What sort of nonsense is that," Solzhenitsyn has modern man retort, "Visiting people who can't share a meal?"22 In old Russia, on the other hand, death was not feared. "Once they used to go round our cemeteries on Sundays singing joyously and swinging sweet-smelling censers. The heart was at peace, and the scar which inevitable death had left on it throbbed less painfully . . ."23 Now, if a cemetery has not gone completely to ruin, it bears signs like, "Grave Owners! You are liable to a fine if you fail to remove last year's litter." More often than not, according to the narrator, the cemeteries are leveled with bulldozers to make room for stadiums and parks of culture.
Modern man will hear nothing of death. He shouts at the dead, "Get lost, you pests, under your painted wooden obelisks . . . let us get on with the living. Because we are never going to die [My-to, my-to ved' ne umrem]."24 This boastful and foolish claim is ironically defined by the narrator as "the summit of twentieth century philosophy."
Having lost the spirit, modern man has become hopelessly body-centered—this is the point of the bitterly humorous sketch "Starting the Day" ["Pristupaia ko dniu"]:
At sunrise thirty young people ran out into a clearing, lined up facing the sun, and started bending, squatting, bowing, lying face downwards, stretching their arms outwards, raising their arms above their heads, and rocking backwards and forwards on their knees. This went on for a quarter of an hour. From a distance you might imagine they were praying . . . No, they weren't saying their prayers. They were doing their morning exercises.25
The narrator's conclusion: "No one in our time finds it surprising if a man gives careful and patient daily attention to his body. But people would be outraged if he gave the same attention to his soul."26
Solzhenitsyn, thus, rejects the Prometheanism and coarse materialism of Soviet man for the winds of eternity which he perceives in Nature and in the religious-based world-view of old Russia. Both Nature and Old Russia are in fact one for Solzhenitsyn—they both bear witness to the Divine Artist of the world.
The picture which Solzhenitsyn gives of contemporary Soviet life and mores is scarcely an optimistic one. Ineluctably the din of "back-firing motorcycles, howling radios and crackling loud-speakers" grows ever more audible. To escape for a moment to the forests and lakes of Russia is increasingly difficult; the "new class" has portioned off much of nature for itself. Churches have become tractor garages and clubs. Yet, despite all this, Solzhenitsyn feels powerfully drawn to his suffering, captive homeland. This would seem to be the point of the sketch "The Ants and the Fire" ["Koster i murav'i"].
I tossed a rotten log on the fire without noticing that it housed a dense colony of ants. As the wood began to crackle, the ants poured out and ran around in despair. They ran about the surface of the log, shrivelling and burning to death in the blaze. I took a grip on the log and rolled it to one side. Many of the ants escaped now . . . But, strangely enough, they did not run right away from the fire. As soon as they had mastered their dread, they turned back, ran around in circles, as though some force was drawing them back to their abandoned homeland—and there were many who even swarmed back on to the burning log and scurried about on it until they perished.27
Solzhenitsyn too is irresistibly drawn to the burning log. Few lands, the narrator of the "sketches" tells us, have suffered as Russia has in this century. "In three wars we have lost so many husbands, sons and sweethearts . . ."28 "More men have died for us Russians than for any other people . . ."29 Has the suffering Russia has endured been for nothing? "It is awesome to think," observes the narrator in "City on the Neva," "that perhaps our own shapeless and wretched lives, our explosive disagreements, the groans of the executed and the tears of their wives, will all be clean forgotten."30 Or will purification and spiritual beauty emerge from the flames, just as the suffering of men in northern bogs once produced the physical harmony of Petersburg? "Can this too [i.e. the hell of the Stalin experience]," the narrator asks, "give rise to perfect everlasting beauty?"31 One could plausibly contend that Solzhenitsyn's "Sketches"—written by one who has endured the Stalin camps—are among the first fruits of such "everlasting beauty."
1 Pavel Licko, "Jedného Dna u Alexandra Isajevica Solzenicyna" ["A Day with Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn"], Kulturny zivot (Bratislava), 13 (1967), 1-10. A French translation of this interview appeared in Georges Nivat and Michel Aucouturier, eds., Soljénitsyne (Paris: L'Herne, 1971), pp. 113-18. Licko's integrity has recently been called into question (Time, 28 December 1970, p. 18). There is, however, as yet no reason to doubt that most of the information provided by him is reliable. Where his information can be checked by other sources, it is usually proven accurate.
2 From the "Proceedings" of a September 22, 1967 meeting of the Secretariat of the Union of Soviet Writers at which Solzhenitsyn was present. The Russian test is in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Sobranie sochinenii (Frankfurt/Main: Possev Verlag, 1969-70), VI, 38. The English translation is from Leopold Labedz, ed. Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record(London: Allen Lane, 1970), p. 86.
3 Licko, op. cit., states that Solzhenitsyn composed the sketches while in prison and committed them to memory. Only much later did he write them down. My suspicion is that some of the sketches were composed in prison and others, afterward, but this is only conjecture. Nivat and Aucouturier, op. cit., p. 15, maintain that the sketches were written in 1961 but, unfortunately, adduce no evidence to support their date.
4 Statement by Solzhenitsyn in his letter of May 16, 1967 to the Fourth Congress of Soviet Writers. In Sobr. soch., VI, 12 and Labedz, p. 68. In his just-published study >Desiai' let posle "Odnogo dnia Ivana Denisovicha" [Ten Years After Ivan Denisovich] Zhores A. Medvedev reveals that the "sketches" were actually accepted for publication by the obscure Soviet journal Sem 'ia i shkola [Family and School]. The unexpected publication of the sketches by the émigré journal Grani in 1965, however, caused Sem 'ia i shkola to abandon its plans. Medvedev is also of the interesting opinion that only one of the sketches, "Lake Segden," would have failed to pass the Soviet censorship (pp. 45-46).
5 At the September, 1967 meeting of the Secretariat of the Writers' Union Solzhenitsyn stated that he began distributing the sketches "three years ago," i.e. in 1964. See Sobr. soch., VI, 38 and Labedz, p. 86.
6 The term is Solzhenitsyn's: "moi 'krokhotnye rasskazy' ili stikhotvoreniia v proze." See Sobr. soch., VI, 38.
7 The translations are by Harry Willetts in the March, 1965 Encounter, pp. 3-9, by Michael Glenny in Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Stories and Prose Poems (London: Bodley Head, 1970), pp. 225-42 and by anonymous in the January 18, 1965 New Leader, pp. 5-7. The New Leader contains a translation of only four sketches. Encounter contains fifteen sketches and the Glenny edition, sixteen. The sketch "The Old Bucket" [Staroe vedro] is missing from the Encounter edition. Fifteen of the sketches (minus "The Old Bucket") appeared in Sobr. soch., V, 221-32. The 1971, No. 80 issue of Grani contains the Russian version of "The Old Bucket" and a seventeenth sketch entitled "The Means to Move" [Sposob dvigat' sia]. The Posev publishing house in Frankfurt has also issued a record with Solzhenitsyn reading from his own "sketches." The record is made from a tape-recording which is unfortunately of poor quality. The record contains sixteen of the sketches, lacking only "Starting the Day" [Pristupaia ko dniu].
8 Translation from Willetts, op. cit., p. 3.
9 Willetts, p. 5. My italics.
10 Willetts, p. 6. My italics.
11Ibid., p. 5. My italics.
13 Willetts, p. 4.
15Ibid., p. 5 and Glenny, p. 233.
16 Willetts, pp. 5-6.
17Ibid., p. 8.
18Ibid., p. 4.
19 Willetts, pp. 8-9. My italics.
20Ibid., p. 9. My italics.
21 Willetts, p. 8.
24Ibid, p. 8.
25 Willetts, p. 6.
27 Willetts, p. 6.
28Ibid., p. 8.
30Ibid., p. 6.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5571
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,
Day after day, there's never an end to it.
—A. Solzhenitsyn (6: 307)
"It is hard to imagine that only one year ago we did not know the name Solzhenitsyn. It seems that he has been alive in our literature for a long time, and without him it would decidedly be incomplete."
The quotation is taken from V. Lakshin's article "Ivan Denisovich—His Friends and Enemies," the best among the numerous critical responses to this work, at least in the Russian language.1
In his analysis Lakshin managed to find and to name the crux of the author's art, that which helped Solzhenitsyn's narrative become a literary event. "Solzhenitsyn," said Lakshin, "writes so that we see and learn about the life of a convict not from the sidelines but from within, 'from him.'"
This "from within" is splendid! It is a pity that polemical themes diverted the author of the article from an investigation of this "from within." It must be pursued.
The contrast between "from the sidelines" and "from within" is seen clearly if we compare One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich with Solzhenitsyn's play The Deer and Shalashovka. Both concern life behind barbed wire. But what a disparity in aspects of artistry!
The four acts (eleven scenes) of the play are full of the speeches and actions of fifty-seven characters. Besides these the following walk-on characters are listed in the author's stage directions: "Workers, Brigade Leaders, Goofoffs, Overseers, Miners, Escort Guards, Tower Guards." Of the fifty-seven speaking parts, twelve belong to guards and free laborers; forty-five are "zeks" (prisoners). The first group is mostly "furniture," the second forty-five are human destinies.
These destinies, however, are not revealed in depth. They flow past the reader-spectator like the sequences of a film. Even the two title destinies—Rodion Nemov, recently from the front, and Lyuba Negnevitzkaya—are drawn with very scanty strokes.
This is the climax: Nemov does not want to share his love with any of the extortionists. This unwillingness signifies the loss of a loved one, signifies a halting place.
Lyuba: . . . We can survive! We can love each other very very secretly. Only promise . . . only agree . . . to share me. With Timofey. I will bring you food to eat!
Nemov: And you could do this? . . .
Lyuba: I could! My brother—can you? Well, reconcile yourself. Why do you have to leave? At least I will see you from a distance.
Nemov (hugs her): Not a bit of you will I share with anybody, my darling Lyuba.
The subtext makes up for the conciseness of the dialogue by completing the unsaid. Here is a reference to the same extortion of love.
Third Woman: The supervisor took Lyuba away to the office.
Granya: What can she do?
Second Woman: Don't you understand? . . .
The old overseer Kolodey shakes out the books from the old Belgian, Gontuar's suitcase.
Gontuar: Who do my books bother? Books are not forbidden.
Kolodey: Wha-at, this is not forbidden? Who told you that books are not forbidden!
This entire eerie mosaic of prison life and wickedness is viewed as if through binoculars. The author's presence is not felt according to the nature of the genre. But we sense his gaze—also from the sidelines—in the choice and distribution of characters, colors, and in the arrangement of accents. For example, in this telling contrast in the author's stage directions that open the final scene of the play: "Twilight. The prisoners crowd around the workers' area behind the barbed wire. Motionless, they look this way into the living area. About thirty persons already questioned sit on the ground in the middle of the yard in a group with their things. A stream of light from a projector shines on a newly hung poster: 'People are the most valuable capital. J. Stalin.'"
Now, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: here there is no distance between the eye and the stage; there is no angle of vision, no author-director somewhere on the sidelines.
Suddenly someone takes the reader firmly by the hand, leads him behind the barbed wire and into a day of prison life. And, without releasing the reader's hand, he comments upon this day in a confidential manner that charms the reader. For in this manner there is neither fear, nor insecurity, nor twaddle.
This is exposing "from within."
To understand the nature of this means to clarify the image of this "someone"—the narrator, with whose eyes the reader watches the events of the day—the zeks, the friskings, the conflicts, the squads. This image is revealed first of all in the language of the work.
The presence of the narrator and the spoken quality of the narrative constitute the features of skaz. In Solzhenitsyn's narrative the spoken style is interspersed with information in a formal literary style. It is of course the author himself who sits at a desk and describes, for example, the naval captain Buinovsky. "A guilty smile parted the chapped lips of the captain who had sailed around Europe and the Great Northern Route. And he bent down, happy over the half scoop of thin oatmeal—no grease, just oats and water."
Also, many of the novel's dialogues are given not in the spoken style common for skaz, but with precise verbal characteristics peculiar to the speaker. For example, Tzesar and Buinovsky argue about the film The Battleship Potemkin.
"Yes. . . . But navy life is a little bit doll-like there."
"You see, we have been spoiled by modern screen techniques. . . ."
However, the principal element that prevails in the narrative is oral speech—the language of skaz, the roots of which are found in an oral vennost' in daily, historical, and dialect layers of folk speech—primarily in ordinary conversation.
The words are from common speech. Here the common speech belongs to a particular locale; it includes prison camp jargon: oper ("operations worker"), popki ("guards in the watchtowers"), polkany ("workers in the messhall"), pridurki ("those who manage to get themselves easy assignments"), šmon ("search or frisk").
Here is some more generally used slang: zagnut' ("to say the improbable"), vkalyvat' ("to work zealously"), maternut' ("to curse"), gvozdanut' ("to nail", in the sense of hit), nedotyka ("a dope"), ituxa (from žizn '—"life"), etc. Here are Solzhenitsyn's "restorations" for the literary language from Dahl's dictionary: ežeden ("everyday"), zakalelyj ("frozen"), ljut' ("fierceness"), etc. Finally, the language overheard or created by the author himself in the spirit of common usage, such as: prigrebat' sja ("to find fault with"), podsosat' sja ("to get a place")—"Tut že i Fetjukov, šakal, podsosalsja" (Immediately then Fetiukov, the jackal, found a place); razmorčivyj ("relaxed"), etc.
Colloquial prison camp speech is plentiful: kačat' prava ("to demand what is laid down by the law"), xodit' stučat' k kumu ("to denounce"). There are many proverbial expressions, composing three different groups: (a) borrowings from Dahl, (b) parallels to those already existing, (c) the original ones, such as: "Two hundred grams [of bread] governs life" and "We'll manage to drag ourselves through the day, but the night is ours."2
Various conversational colloquialisms deviate from the usual phrase constructions—"Kotoryj brigadir umnyj—tot na procentovku nalegaet. S ej kormimsja" (That brigade leader is smart who presses upon the percentage norm. With it we feed ourselves). The features of the folklore style are present in descriptions—"Dolgo li, korotko li—vot vse tri okna tolem zašili" (Whether for long or for only a while, we mend all three windows with roofing felt). "Solnce vzošlo krasnoe, mglistoe nad pustoj zonoj: gde ščity sbornyx domov snegom zaneseny, gde kladka kamennaja načataja! . . ." (The sun rose red, hazy above the empty zone: where the snow-screens of prefabricated homes were covered with snow, where the beginnings of a stone wall . . . ). A folkish type of comparison—"They surrounded the stove, as if it were a woman; they all crept up to hug it."
Intonations, rhythms, and interruptions typical of skaz spring up as if to reflect the very breathing of the narrator:
Tak on i ždal, i vse ždali tak: esli pjat' voskresenij v mesjace, to tri dajut, a dva na rabotu gonjat. Tak on i ždal, a uslyšal—povelo vsju dušu, perekrivilo: voskresen'ice-to krovnoe komu ne žalko?
(It was just as he expected, and everyone else expected it too. If there were five Sundays in the month, they gave you three and sent you to work on the other two. It was just as he expected, but when he heard it his soul became cramped and distorted. Who is not sorry about the loss of a sweet Sunday?)
In summary, the vocal image of a storyteller is merged with the traits of a simple worker with a hard life. The reader readily identifies this storyteller with Ivan Denisovich himself.
This dual image of the narrator is nowhere split by the grammatical "I. " On the contrary, in certain places the concept of "we" (understood in Russian) is emphasized.
. . . The number spells nothing but trouble for us.3
The thirty-eighth, of course, wouldn't let any stranger near their stove. . . . Never mind, we'll sit here in the corner. It's not so bad.
"Mo-ortar," echoes Shukov. . . . We have to pull the string to a higher row. Forget it, we'll lay one row without a string.
Who is included in this "we" along with Ivan Denisovich? Of course, the author himself is reincarnated in the hardworking narrator. The last quote, which deals with stone masonry is, moreover, an autobiographical confirmation of this—Solzhenitsyn worked as a stone mason in the prison camp at Karanda.
This reincarnation creates a mode of exceptional vocal richness. Who indeed would attribute this knowledge of Dahl's dictionary, this aphoristic judgment, this generous speech imagery, to a kolkhoz storyteller? In this mode two "carriers of the author's appraisal"4 seem to merge, and the language of both is based on the folk idiom.
The process of reincarnation—the transition from a literary or written style to a spoken, colloquial one—is easy to trace. Here is a segment; the skaz style is set off from the "written" by italics.
Brigady sideli za stolami ili tolkalis' v proxodax, ždali, kogda mesta osvobodjatsja. Prolikajas' čerez tesnotu, ot každoj brigady rabotjagi po dva, po tri nosili na derevjannyx podnosax miski s balandoj i kašej i iskali dlja nix mesta na stolax. I vse ravno, ne slyšit, obalduj, spina elovaja, na tebe, tolknul podnos. Ples' ples'! Rukoj ego svobodnoj—po šee, po šee! Pravil' no! Ne stoj na dorogo, ne vysmatrivaj, gde podlizat'.
(The squads sat at the table or pressed closely together in the aisles, they were waiting for seats to become available. Shouting above the crush, two or three men from each squad were carrying bowls of stew and oatmeal on wooden trays and trying to find room for them on the tables. And anyway, he doesn't hear, this stiff necked idiot! There, he bumped the tray! Splash, splash! You have a hand free—hit him on the neck, on the neck! That's it! Don't stand there blocking the way, looking for something to swipe.)
The author's immersion in the spoken manner of a prison camp worker is the very basis for the illustration of Ivan Denisovich's "one day" from within, about which Lakshin wrote. It is the nature of the emotion and expressiveness contained in the illustration.
Turning to an oral počvennost' style established the story's tonal directness and sincerity, which charms the reader. This tonality proves to be, at the same time, both an aesthetic element because it precludes verbosity, and with the absolute compactness of its literary expression it imparts to a cursory observation or to the minutest details an almost symbolic depth and significance.
The simplicity and confidentiality of the story give a visual quality, a luminescence, to the scenes—in the barracks, the mess hall, the search areas, in the construction of TEC (Technical Electric Stations),5 in the plasticity and colorings of Buinovsky, Tzesar, Fetiukov, and others from Shukov's environment.
And most of all, the character of Ivan Denisovich himself. Perhaps only a line—"Then Shukhov took his hat from his shaved head, no matter how cold it was he could not allow himself to eat with his hat on . . ."—conveys to the reader Ivan Denisovich's inner comeliness, which has inspired critics to associate him with Tolstoy's Platon Karataev.
The simplicity and sincerity of the narrative style, found in the folk quality of language, is extended by Solzhenitsyn to other of his structurally more complicated works.
Well, there's vigilance now. What can you do? . . .
—"An Incident at Krechetovka Station"
It is pouring rain.
". . . since yesterday the cold rain has been pouring down without stopping, so that one wonders where so much water comes from in the sky."
Flooded with streams of water, which make the rails glisten even at dusk, the Krechetovka station was an almost allegorical picture of the nervousness at the rear guard with all its bustle and disturbances.
And no less suggestive are the figures attending to its feverish life: The record keeper of Aunt Frosya's train car—she has the firm belief that one should exchange potato cakes for soap and silk stockings with those "snouty" evacuees passing through the station ("The DP's are just the ones you should take things from. They've got material. They've got suits"). Then there is the very picturesque old man Kordubailo, a line foreman, about whom critics could write pages. The počvennost' of his personality and of the sly wisdom in his lines is presented so strongly. The "komsomolka" on military duty, Valya, with her fresh, pale pink lips is a little in love with Zotov, an assistant to the military commander at the station. And there is Vasya Zotov himself, the main character of the story.
Zotov's character is sketched in very telling details: He "straightened his glasses, giving a stern expression to his not so stern face." "Taking off his glasses, his head became somewhat childish. . . . " And in another place Valya looks at his "comically set-off ears, his snub nose, and his pale blue eyes, flecked with gray." He has, we discover, a chubby palm with short fat fingers, which he often rubs.
Zotov is pedantic, almost childishly so. And as he himself observes, his is "a character with inclinations to systematize." His wife has remained in the area occupied by the Germans, but his notion of morality is high—he is even slightly afraid of women, even of his young dispatcher.
Still greater is Zotov's feeling of duty. To the party: his only reading in the evening now is a volume of Marx's Das Kapital, which according to his calculations should make him "invincible, invulnerable, and irrefutable in any battle of ideas." Civic duty: he finds it troublesome that instead of being needed at the front, he is needed at home; he worries about the unlucky course of the war. However, he regards even the incipience of critical thoughts as criminal ("It would be an insult to the almighty, all-knowing Father and Teacher, who is always in his place and foresees all," etc.).
Gradually the reader is filled with a speechless sympathy for Zotov and agrees with Valya, who thought that "at work he was caustic, this Vasil Vasilich, but not mean. And what especially pleased her—he was a man who was not unduly familiar, but polite."
And now, when we have gone through half of the story, the incident itself occurs. Tveritinov, who has been separated from his unit, appears at the commandant's office.
Well, this old, poorly dressed, unshaven actor, with a greasy old Red Army sack in hand, also instantly wins over the reader. Above all, this occurs through Zotov's perception of him. Zotov likes his voice—"rich, low, aristocratically restrained, so as not to boast." His manner of speaking is pleasant, and his smile—"This eccentric man had a very likeable, open-hearted smile," he thinks.
Both, sympathetic toward each other, sit facing each other; one with the firm desire to help a man who is in trouble, the other worn out by the warmth of the room and by inhaling the cigarettes he has borrowed from Zotov.
The reader is so anxiously awaiting a satisfactory conclusion to the story that he perhaps does not notice the dissonance, delicately woven into the placidity of the scene by the author. The conversation turns to the year 1937—how contrasting are the attitudes of each of them! For one this is the year of the madness of Stalin's terror; for the other it is the year of civil war in Spain and the Soviets' secret intervention in it.
". . . Yes, in general it is dangerous for us to raise questions," said Tveritinov.
"During wartime, of course."
"But it was true even before the war."
"Is that so? I didn't notice it."
"It was," Tveritinov squinted a little. "After '37."
"And what about '37?" Zotov was surprised. "What happened in '37? The war in Spain?"
"Oh no. . . ." Tveritinov said, again with the same guilty smile and downcast eyes. "No. . . ."
So far both of them do not notice the dissonance, and almost lyrical pauses spring up in their conversation. Tveritinov shows Zotov a photograph of his daughter ("Zotov liked the girl very much, his expression relaxed"). Something in the nature of an interior monologue accompanies Zotov's examination of the photograph; even the style of the monologue betrays how touched he is (1: 179)—"at this point he did not hold back his sympathy for this even-tempered fellow. He had been right in taking an instant liking to him."
And suddenly. . . . Suddenly Tveritinov cannot remember what Stalingrad had been called before its renaming. And we read: "everything burst and suddenly froze in Zotov. Is it possible? A Soviet man—and he doesn't know Stalingrad? That means he is not ours. He is a plant! An agent! . . . This is vigilance. What should I do now? What now?"
And Zotov turns in this fellow, to whom he had taken a liking, to the local unit of the NKVD.
"What are you doing? What are you doing?" screamed Tveritinov in a voice as resonant as a bell. "Why, this cannot be corrected!"
"Don't worry, don't worry," Zotov tried to soothe him, as he groped for the threshold of the passageway with his foot. "You will only have to explain one minor question. . . . "
And he went out.
The creative-experiential weight of Solzhenitsyn's works lies not only in the fact that he chooses such tragic events from the recent past as subject matter but that he extends these events into our times as if testing their life stability, their contemporary vitality.
Vigilance! How did this fetish of vigilance—the springboard for denunciation and treachery—take shape in the consciousness of a people?
In a dictionary published in the thirties by the USSR Academy of Sciences under the editorship of Ushakov, the word nedonositel' stvo ("noninformation") is included with the definition "A misdemeanor, a crime, involving the non-informing of something; nedonositel' (noninformer)—an individual guilty of noninforming."
The poem "Pavlik Morozov" by Stepan Shchipachev, published in the journal Znamya (no. 6, 1950), must be considered the apotheosis of the vigilance theme in postrevolutionary literature. It is a poem which, as the saying goes, "you cannot toss one word out of no matter how vile it sounds; otherwise we cannot judge the whole.
Pavlik, a village teenager, is depressed by the fact that his father, Trifon, shields village kulaks, who do not want to give their grain to the government, and he refuses to inform the authorities about them:
Pavlik i slyšlat' ne možet
Teper' o svoem otce,
Brovej ne sdvinuv strože,
Ne izmenivšis' v lice.
(Pavlik cannot hear of his father now without knitting his brows and changing the look on his face.)
So Pavlik informs on his father. As an example of high consciousness, the voice of filial love is drowned out by the greatness of another, much more significant fatherhood:
V nem nežnost', v nem i surovost'.
Vsej žizni svoej povorot,
Ljubov' svoju vyražaet
Etim slovom narod. . . .
(Father is a dear word! In it is tenderness, in it sternness. To Stalin, who achieved the transformation of his entire life, the people express their love with this word. . . . )
How firm is this reflex of absolute distrust and voluntary watchfulness in people?
Solzhenitsyn believes in man. His Zotov, having informed the authorities "I am herewith sending you the prisoner Tveritinov, Igor Dementyevich, who alleges . . . " etc., can no longer find complete spiritual peace,
Several days passed. The holiday came and went.
But Zotov could not erase the memory of the man with such a remarkable smile and the snapshot of his daughter in a little striped dress.
Surely he had done everything as he should have.
Yes, but. . . .
This "Yes, but . . ." is remarkable. This is the substance of the past that Solzhenitsyn brings into the actual conditions of our modern life. This "criterion," the application of which is much broader than the basic conflict in the plot of the story, constitutes its inner, so significantly human theme.
The people who are at peace with their consciences always have good faces.
The image of Matryona is so much in the center of Solzhenitsyn's story that our analysis should begin directly with it.
An émigré observer of Russian literature once said in a private conversation: "For me Matryona is the most brilliant image of the peasant woman in all of the Russian literature I have read."
Instead of objecting to this, I would like to consider the matter more carefully. Wherein lies the impressive power of this character? Of the story itself?
After several sentences designed to alert the reader (a railroad accident is hinted at—it is the one in which Matryona dies) the narrator describes his return from a great distance away, where he "delayed his return for ten years or so," and his search for asylum—"I just wanted to crawl away and lose myself in the very heartland of Russia—if there were such a place."
First-person narrative is a usual thing, but there is something special in the "I" of this story that wins the reader over. Perhaps it is the easily discernible autobiographical quality of this "I" that summons our sympathy. Perhaps it is the narrative manner itself, very plain and sincere, in which everything is told.
Perhaps, finally, it is the warmth with which the narrator looks upon the destitute village of Talnovo, Matryona's poor utensils, Matryona herself, sick and ordered around by everyone; the warmth with which, after having settled down in her house, he describes her unchanging goodwill, openheartedness, and the radiant smile on her kind face. The reader feels that this is no hunter with a gun, no essayist with a notebook in his pocket—observers of the lives of others "along one's path" or "on the run." No, the narrator has familiarized himself with this life; he is at home in this half-lit room with fig plants on the benches and mice behind the walls. "At night when Matryona was already asleep and I was working at my table, the quick rustle of mice behind the wallpaper was muffled by the uniform, monotonous, ceaseless rustle of cockroaches behind the partition, like the distant roar of the ocean. But I grew accustomed to it, for there was nothing false or deceptive about it. Their rustling was their life."
The narrator sometimes speaks with the vocabulary and intonations characteristic of Matryona's speech:
Tak, odnoj utel'noj koze sobrat' bylo sena dlja Matreny—trud velikij. Brala ona s utra mešok i serp i uxodila v mesta, kotorye pomnila, gde trava rosla po obmežkam, po zadoroge, po ostrovkam sredi bolota. . . . S meška travy polučalos' podsoxšego sena—navil'nik.
(So collecting hay for one skinny little goat was a lot of work for Matryona. She took her sickle and a sack and early in the morning would set off for the places where she remembered grass was growing—along the edges of the fields on the roadside, on the hummocks in the bog. . . . From a sackload of grass she got one forkload of dry hay.)
Unhappy in her family life and constantly in need ("at the kolkhoz she worked not for money, but for credit"), Matryona delights the narrator with her limitless unselfishness, her sacrificial readiness to labor not for herself but for others.
Her good qualities especially stand out when contrasted with her kolkhoz surroundings—the pitiless, embittered, even predatory battle with poverty.
There is something fatal in the character of the predatory Faddei, Matryona's brother-in-law (in the way that character is inserted into the structure of the story). At one time Faddei had been Matryona's fiance; he had been taken prisoner and upon his return found her married to his brother—"he stood on the doorstep," Matryona tells her boarder. "I cried out! . . . 'If he weren't my own brother,' he said, 'I'd chop up the pair of you.'"
Now Faddei insists that Matryona give up a part of her cottage—the top room—to his daughter. The top room is dismantled, and while transporting the sledge with logs, in her constant readiness to help, Matryona perishes in the catastrophe at the railroad crossing.
The scene of the burial follows: the amazing "laments" for the deceased, and a bit earlier the no less amazing description of the narrator's first night in an empty cottage.
I lay down leaving the light on. The mice squeaked, almost groaned, all the time racing up and down. My tired mind could not rid itself of an involuntary sense of horror. I had the feeling that Matryona herself was invisibly moving about and bidding farewell to her cottage.
Suddenly in the hallway by the front door I imagined the young black-bearded Faddei with his raised axe.
"If he weren't my own brother, I would chop up the pair of you."
His threat had lain for forty years like a broad-sword in a corner—and it finally struck. . . .
Finally the conclusion, where the sincere tone of the story reaches the lyrical heights of generalization:
We had all lived alongside her but we hadn't understood that she was the one righteous person without whom, as the saying goes, no village can stand.
Nor any city.
Nor our whole land.
The eerie počvennost' of the narrator's "I " is condensed into this conclusion. His painting of good and evil, his sense of discovery, are embodied for him in the character of the story's heroine.
In Dostoevsky's "Diary": "if a person's heart has throbbed even once for the suffering of the people, he will understand and pardon all the impenetrable, alluvial soil, in which our people are buried, and he will be able to discover diamonds in this soil."
But we can find Matryona's forerunner even closer to our times in Leskov—starting with Cathedral Folk, the theme of the righteous man became his main theme. "I gave the reader positive types of Russian people," he said. "My entire second volume under the title 'Righteous Individuals' portrays the gratifying circumstance of Russian life."
In his memoirs Leskov gives an account of his dispute with Pisemsky, the author of the novel A Thousand Souls and the play A Bitter Fate.
"According to you," Pisemsky said, "it is as if one should always write about the good, but brother, I write about what I see, and I see only muck."
"That is because you have a diseased vision."
"Maybe . . . but what should I do if I see nothing but abominations in my own and in your soul?"
"From his words," notes Leskov, "I was seized by a fierce uneasiness. I thought 'Can it be that neither in mine, nor in his, nor in any Russian soul there is nothing but rot to be seen?' . . . If without three righteous men, as an old saying goes, a city cannot stand, then how can the entire earth maintain its balance on only the rot that lives in your soul and mine, reader?"
In a sense there is a shade of Leskov in the very spoken structure of the story ("in a sense" because Solzhenitsyn's artistic use of popular linguistic elements is entirely his own, and one can note only several features of his muse that provide a continuity in this modality of his art) as with Leskov certain local or dialect words are italicized: kartov' ("potato"), sup kartonnyj ("potato soup"), nemogluxoj ("dumb and deaf), and others; also, the so-called words of folk etymology in Matryona's own language—razvedka for rozetka ("rosette"), porcija for porca ("spoilage"), duel' ("draft"), etc.; finally, the rhythm and melodiousness of oral narration, which are the ordinary elements of Leskov's skaz. For example: "I poprosila ona [Matrena] u toj vtoroj, zabitoj Matreny—čreva ee uryvoček (ili krovinočku Faddeja?)—mladšuju ix devo ku Kiru" (And she [Matryona] begged the other Matryona for a child of her womb (perhaps because it was Faddei's flesh and blood?)—their youngest daughter, Kira).
It is difficult to agree with Lukacs' conviction in his book on Solzhenitsyn that the depiction of village life in "Matryona's Home" is "very little influenced by Stalinism" and that "An Incident at Krechetovka Station" is more closely tied to this epoch.6 True, Solzhenitsyn's direct condemnation of the burdens and vulgarities of kolkhoz life is no greater than that of certain contemporaries (Abramov, Mozhaev, Tendryakov, and others). But the reflection of the epoch is profoundly revealed in the story by a significant polarization: the spiritual impoverishment of the enslaved village on the one hand, and on the other—that sought-for, lofty righteousness, which the rulers of that epoch could neither approve nor allow. It is this inner theme of the story which was given such a hostile reception by the official critics. Sergovantzev wrote in the journal October: "the social principles of our life, the call to serve the interests of the laboring class, appear as a hostile oppressive force but the Russian righteousness to which Solzhenitsyn alludes appears positive."7
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, "An Incident at Krechetovka Station," and "Matryona's Home" are the best of Solzhenitsyn's works before the appearance of his major books. Is it possible to establish an inner tie among these three works—a path along which the author advanced in his courageous choice of themes and in his aspiration to tell the truth about life? One can probably only guess this path.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—unparalleled in literary force, a picture of life behind barbed wire. The cannibalism of the Stalin years! One of its readers, P. R. Martiniuk, writes to the author: "Upon reading this story a question is suggested. How could this happen—the people are in power and yet the people allow such tyranny?"
How could it have happened?
Does not "An Incident at Krechetovka Station" give a partial answer to this question in the depiction of that indispensable "vigilance" that distorts man, that obligatory party evaluation of our neighbor and of the occurrences around us? And these notions are certainly not based on commonly accepted standards of spiritual values and morals.
In reflecting upon the battle between good and evil, there are the počvennicestvo interpretations of Matryona as a symbol of undying beauty in the folk spirit, scorned and persecuted by the years of a new "troubled times."
It is in this way that many Soviet readers understand this last story, judging by several letters to Novyj Mir. For example: "I read Matrona for the fifth time. . . . You [Solzhenitsyn] are yourself that person without whom our country cannot stand. And because of this I have a need to bow low from the waist, in the Russian fashion, to you for all the land, for all the Russian people . . .".
1Novyj Mir, no. 1 (1964). See also A. Solzhenitsyn, Sobranie Sočinenij, 6: 243.
2 For more details see my article "The Image of the Narrator in Solzhenitsyn's Story One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," L. Rzhevsky, The Language of Creative Writing (New York University Press, 1970). Also, in Studies in Slavic Linguistics and Poetics in Honor of Boris O. Unbegaun (New York-London, 1968).
3 Italics are mine. L. R.
4 If we use B. A. Uspensky's term "nositel' avtorskoj ocenki." See B. A. Uspensky, "Poetika Kompozicii," in Struktura Xudožestvennogo teksta i tipologija kompozicionnoj formy (Moscow: "Iskusstvo" 1970), pp. 20-21.
5 This portrayal of the bricklaying activity is artistically and ethically the best example of the construction theme in postrevolutionary literature. Of course one must look rather for the nature of its inspiration—in Dostoevsky's notes on prison labor in House of the Dead—since one can hardly attribute enthusiasm for socialist construction to the zeks of the Stalinist camps.
6 Georg Lukacs, Solzhenitsyn (London: Merlin Press, 1970), p. 24.
7Oktjabr, no. 4 (1963).
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4814
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 between Solzhenitsyn and Leskov is suggested most specifically by the conclusion of "Matryona's House":
We all lived close to her and we didn't understand that she was that very righteous person without whom, according to the proverb, no village stands.
Nor our whole land.2
The proverb mentioned here appears, in a slightly different form, as the epigraph to Leskov's well-known series of stories about righteous men (pravedniki).3 In Leskov, the proverb reads: "Without three righteous ones a city cannot stand." The use of this proverb in the works of the two writers suggests certain important similarities in the suthor's artistic intent.
Leskov's series of stories about righteous men is preceded by an introduction in which the author states his objection to the widespread notion that there is no good to be found in men, especially in Russians; and announces his intention to go and seek righteous men, and not to stop searching until he has found at least those three righteous men without whom no city can stand.4 The stories which follow this introduction are purportedly the fruit of his search.
Leskov, both in this introduction and in the stories themselves, stresses the need to seek out righteous men. In the work entitled "A Monastery for Cadets" (a series of character sketches of four righteous men), for example, Leskov begins:
There have been, and there will be, plenty of righteous men among us. It is just that people don't notice them, but if you start to take a good look, they are there.5
He then goes on to say that he will describe four righteous men who lived at a time when such men, it is thought, were rare, but of whom, in fact, there were many, just as there are now. One needs only to seek them out.
Similarly, in "Matryona's House" Solzhenitsyn emphasizes the fact that no one recognizes Matryona's righteousness. All her acquaintances and relatives think her a foolish and strange woman and even the narrator, who had lived in her hut for many months, comes to see her righteousness only after her death.
In a somewhat similar way Zahar, in "Zahar-Kalita," first appears to the narrator and his companions as a strange and partly ridiculous figure. It is only at the end of the story that they realize Zahar's thoughtfulness and self-sacrifice, and see him as a positive and impressive man.
Solzhenitsyn does not, of course, announce a Leskovian search through Soviet society for righteous men. But a call to recognize and value such figures as Matryona and Zahar is implicit in the two stories, and the fact that Solzhenitsyn presents as the heroes of these stories people from the backwaters of Russian society, whose virtue remains for the most part unnoticed and unappreciated, opens the possibility for a wider comparison between the righteous men of Leskov and Solzhenitsyn.6
Leskov's literary world, in regard to its heroes, was in a sense the opposite of Solzhenitsyn's. Nineteenth century Russian literature was noted for its unproductive or misguided heroes, and it was widely assumed that the predominance of such heroes reflected the lack of morally positive, productive figures in Russian society. Whether, in fact, the major protagonists of Russian fiction through the 1860s represented the superfluous men of Russian society or not is less important than the fact that Leskov and many of his contemporaries felt that they did. Partly in reaction to such protagonists the radical critics of the 1860s postulated their own active, positive hero, of whom Chernyshevsky's Rakhmetov is the prototype. Leskov, who consistently held that art should serve a moral purpose, rejected both the notion of Russian society without positive figures and the possibility of Rakhmetov's as an acceptable alternative. As a result he was impelled to conduct his own search for positive figures, whom he found for the most part in the lower levels and out-of-the-way areas of Russian society. In these everyday and often unnoticed (though often quite colorful) people Leskov found his righteous men, probably the largest group of real positive "heroes" in nineteenth century Russian fiction.
Solzhenitsyn, in contrast, is writing in a literary world in which, until quite recently at least, the Rakhmetovs have been canonized. In reaction to this official literary hero one may find the modernist, alienated anti-heroes of Tertz and Arzhak or of other underground writers. As was Leskov before him, Solzhenitsyn is unable to accept either the predominant, in this case official, hero or the negativistic, anti-heroic reaction to it. Like Leskov, Solzhenitsyn sees life and literature in moral terms. With his Leskovian knowledge of Russia's provinces and backwoods, Solzhenitsyn presents the reader, in the two stories under discussion, with real moral positive heroes, with pravedniki from among the unnoticed and everyday people of Russia.7
The connection between Leskov and Solzhenitsyn is based on a combination of elements, none of which, separately, is peculiar to either writer. Both artists have a strong sense of the moral purposes of literature, and both present positive figures from the backwaters of Russian society. In addition, both are concerned with the use of colloquial and otherwise "unliterary" language in their writing. In combination these traits comprise what might be called the Leskovian tradition in Russian literature. Although it is entirely likely that Solzhenitsyn has read Leskov's works, the question of influence is irrelevant here. What is important is that Solzhenitsyn's stories, especially "Matryona's House" and "Zahar-Kalita," may be understood in terms of the tradition of Leskov's writing and thus may be connected with one of the forceful currents in the main stream of Russian literature.8
Though "Matryona's House" and "Zahar-Kalita" have been dealt with together thus far, it is important to distinguish their very different protagonists, the more so since Matryona and Zahar take their ancestry in part from two different branches of Leskovian righteous men. Zahar is in the tradition of the numerous eccentric heroes of Leskov's writing. Beginning with Aleksashka Ryzhov, the hero of Leskov's first pravednik story, "One-Track Mind" (Odnodum), and including Golovan ("Deathless Golovan"), Ivan Flyagin ("The Enchanted Wanderer"), Lefty ("The Left-handed Craftsman of Tula and the Steel Flea"), to name but a few, Leskov's fiction is filled with men who combine some if not all of the following traits. They are modern-day epic figures, of heroic stature and strength, with an intense, simple patriotism. Like the legendary heroes of Russian epics they are guardians of their native land and faith. They are often simple, even foolish, and sometimes eccentric to the point of appearing ridiculous. They drink heavily. They have a strong sense of integrity though they are not always honest in the literal sense of the word, and they have a great capacity for self-sacrifice and compassionate thoughtfulness.
Zahar is described as an epic hero (bogatyr'), albeit a fallen one. He is of heroic stature, though a touch too thin for a real giant. He is described first as the guardian or keeper (smotritel') of Kulikovo Field, the battlefield where Russia claimed its first victory over the Mongols. Later he becomes the spirit, the very incarnation of the field and that Russian victory. (As the self-appointed caretaker of the monument he is, in a literal sense, the guardian of his nation's history.) For all that he is a bit ridiculous. He drinks not heroically, but steadily from a flask he carries. He is bedraggled and he complains a good deal. The narrator and his companions are at first inclined to see him as an officious slacker who is unwilling to work at a real job. They take his remarks about the hardship of his self-appointed job as attempts to gain pity and to justify his leaving his "post" to have, as they think, a good time in the village. It is only in the morning, when they discover that he did return and has spent the night in a nearby haystack rather than disturb them that they realize his thoughtfulness and the true degree of his dedication to his country and its history.
Zahar's parting, comforting cry to the narrator is "No-o-o-o! No-o-o-o, I won't leave it like this. I'll go all the way to Furtseva! All the way to Furtseva!" (p. 316) Just as the traditional Russian folk heroes might try to take their grievances all the way to the tsar, so Zahar, in this Soviet variant, threatens to take his complaint about the neglect of Russia's patriotic heritage all the way to the Minister of Culture. (Compare Leskov's left-handed craftsman, whose final message is a patriotic warning for the tsar.)
Of all the righteous giants of Leskov's fiction, Zahar probably bears closest resemblance to Aleksashka Ryzhov. Ryzhov is, as his name suggests, red haired. Zahar, too, is not only red haired, as the reader is told early on in the story; he becomes the "red-haired spirit" (ryzhyi dukh) of Kulikovo Field. Both men carry sacks around with them; both men have a book as their constant companion, Ryzhov the Bible (and later his own book of ideas and quotations) and Zahar his Visitor's Comments book. Each of them (though Ryzhov only at the beginning of his career) takes a job no one else wants and serves as a sort of semi-official. official. Most important, Zahar, like Ryzhov, is an odnodum, a man with a single thought in his head. Ryzhov, through his incessant reading of the Bible, has become something of an old-Testament prophet, obsessed with Christian Socialism. In a similar way Zahar is obsessed with the preservation of Kulikovo Field and its monument. Zahar's "single thought" may be somewhat more limited than Ryzhov's, but within the context of the story he emerges as a positive figure of considerable force.
Finally, both Ryzhov and Zahar live and do their jobs with honesty and dedication on ludicrously small salaries. Their frugality and material sacrifice increase their stature as positive figures.
Zahar also has much in common with one of Leskov's most famous heroes, Ivan Flyagin. Both men are described explicitly as epic heroes (bogatryi), but more important, Zahar's patriotic dedication to his country's history is strongly reminiscent of Flyagin's dedication to his people and his willingness to go and fight for his land.
Matryona Vasilievna, the central figure of "Matryona's House," is a rather different kind of righteous person from Zahar. She does not partake at all of the heroic, nor is she an official of any kind. She has a good deal in common with such self-sacrificing Leskovian heroines as Aza, in the story, "Beautiful Aza" or with Magda, in "Skomorokh Pamfalon," or perhaps with the heroine of Leskov's early novel, The Life of One Woman (Zhitie odnoi baby). The title of the last of these works may provide a key to understanding Matryona as a righteous person, although Leskov's heroine is not one of his pravedniki. The story of Matryona, like the story of Leskov's protagonist, is a zhitie, the story of a life, not in the standard hagiographical meaning of the story of a saint's life, and the miracles he performed, but rather in the more popular sense of the life of trials and loss endured by an innocent and righteous person.
Matryona's life is one of loss, disappointment and privation. Her fiance is apparently lost in the war; she marries his brother only to have her fiance return; she bears six children, all of whom die; her husband is unfaithful; her husband is lost in the next war; she lives alone in poverty; her neighbors and relations take advantage of her good nature and scorn her at the same time.
Despite such a difficult life Matryona does not lose her warmth, simplicity or unselfishness. She is not a saint; she does not perform miracles nor even provide an effective example for others by her devoutness. But she does live in simplicity and genuine warmth, and she helps others whenever they need or ask for it, without the least thought for profit to herself. In fact, her death is in part the result of her habit of helping others, for she did not need to accompany the sleighs full of lumber or try to help repair the coupling when it broke in the middle of the railroad track.
Matryona is far from being without faults. She is not sociable, she is messy, she can be vain about her strength. But her faults are all minor and, curiously, it is not for her faults that her relatives and neighbors criticize her so much as it is for her virtues—her failure to worry about material possessions, money and fashion, and even her simplicity and unselfishness on which they all rely. As for real sins, Solzhenitsyn tells the reader that she had fewer of them then her cat—the cat, after all, killed mice.
Christianity plays a role in "Matryona's House" much like its role in many of Leskov's stories. (From the point of view of Soviet literature, of course, it is in itself striking that Christianity is a natural and not insignificant part of village life.) Matryona is not a devout Christian. In fact, the narrator says that Matryona did not truly believe, and that she was more of a pagan whose faith was mainly superstitious. But in her life she lived the precepts of Christianity more genuinely and fully than the nominal Christians around her. In this she has much in common with Leskovian figures such as Golovan ("Deathless Golovan"), whose religion is essentially practical and not formal, or as Aleksashka Ryzhov (otherwise a very different character). Ryzhov is indifferent to the forms of religion and performs them only because they are expected of him. He dies, "in his faith neither this nor that nor the other," whose Orthodoxy is somehow "doubtful." But in spirit he is an honest and genuine Christain whose life in practice shows him to be a righteous man.
In fact, starting with the mid-1870s Leskov's favorite protagonist was the "spiritual" Christian, the person whose position or activity was equivocal in the eyes of the official Church but who practised in his life the virtues of simplicity and self-sacrifice and was therefore a truer Christian than many more acceptable members of the Church. Matryona is precisely such a person as those Leskovian heroes, and, while such spiritual Christians are not peculiar to Leskov's work—they also appear in Tolstoy's writing, for example—they are so characteristic of Leskov's work as to support the idea of the connection between Matryona and Leskov's pravedniki.
A similar, though more general, connection may be made between the moral choices in Solzhenitsyn's stories, For the Good of the Cause and "An Incident at Krechetovka Station" on the one hand and those in several of Leskov's pravedniki stories on the other. Leskov makes a point of presenting righteous men who serve either in the military or the civil service. In the first chapter of "A Monastery of Cadets," mentioned above, Leskov writes:
And notice that all [the pravedniki he is preparing to describe] are not from the common folk and not from the nobility, but from people in the service, dependent on their jobs, for whom it is more difficult to follow the right . . . 9
In many of Leskov's stories a man in the service, often in a lowly official position, is faced with a choice between following the regulations of the service or the demands of his conscience. In the story, "The Pygmy," for example, the hero, a certain Mr. S., is ordered to execute corporal punishment on a prisoner who has been convicted of a serious crime. Mr. S. becomes convinced that the prisoner is innocent, however, and risks his position and career to help him be freed. In one of Leskov's best known stories, "The Sentry," the hero, Postnikov, leaves his guard post at the Winter Palace in order to save a man who is drowning in the Neva, and by doing so risks being sent to Siberia or even being executed. In a similar way the characters in For the Good of the Cause, especially the director of the school, Fyodor Mikheich, and the town Party chairman, Grachikov, are faced with a choice between accepting injustice and being secure in their jobs, or fighting injustice and risking their jobs and security. And Zotov, in "An Incident at Krechetovka Station," faces the choice between keeping quiet about the arrested straggler, Tveritinov, and not arousing the suspicions of the Secret Police, or following his moral promptings and risking becoming suspect in the eyes of the Secret Police.
The last, and perhaps most important, connection to be proposed here between Leskov and Solzhenitsyn (based, again, primarily on "Matryona's House" and "Zahar-Kalita") lies in what might be called the voice of the storyteller.10 In a highly illuminating and suggestive essay entitled "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,"11 the German critic Walter Benjamin suggests several characteristic features of storytelling that are not only typical of Leskov but that may also enrich our reading of "Matryona's House" and "Zahar-Kalita." According to Benjamin, storytelling takes its material from experience that is passed by word of mouth. This experience comes from two sources—from the traveller who has experience of a distant and strange land, and from the man who has learned the traditional stories of his own land and people. At its best, storytelling combines these two possibilities, as it did among the artisan class in the European Middle Ages.
It may seem, at first glance, a long step from this notion to Solzhenitsyn. The narrators of Solzhenitsyn's two stories are, however, travellers. Ignatich, in "Matryona's House" has been in prison camps, has lived in the desert and in the Urals, and has now come back to rural Russia. The narrator of "Zahar-Kalita" is, in a more conventional way, a traveller, for he is a summer tourist and camper. In addition, for Solzhenitsyn's readers, as had been the case for Leskov's, rural Russia, its backwoods and little known places, is in a sense an exotic land, full of charm and strangeness, for all its native Russianness. (In any case, for the storyteller another place is not necessarily a foreign nation.) In this sense, Tal'novo and Kulikovo Field are distant lands figuratively if not literally.
But the rural Russia of Solzhenitsyn's and Leskov's stories also partakes of legendary, timeless Russia—the "legendary" history of the Mongol invasions; the way things have been in Tal'novo time out of mind. In this sense the world of these stories is part of the common heritage of the Russian people, part of their common, ancient experience. Seen in this light, the voice of Solzhenitsyn's stories is that of the ancient storyteller, combining the lore of distant places (even if primarily in the figurative sense) with the lore of the past. In using this voice Solzhenitsyn seems to echo and renew the Leskov of "The Enchanted Wanderer," "The Sealed Angel," "On the Edge of the World," "The Left-Handed Craftsman" and scores of other tales, in which one finds the "distant" world of hitherto undiscovered parts of Russia combined with the lore of the Russian past.
Given this dual basis of storytelling, Benjamin goes on to say that "an orientation toward practical interests is characteristic of many born storytellers." He says:
It [the story] contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In every case, the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers . . . Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom.12
Such an orientation toward usefulness characterizes much of Leskov's writing. Sometimes it is practical advice, as, for example, in the left-handed craftsman's message to the Tsar that the Russian army should stop cleaning their cannon with brick for it wears away the bore and, in the event of war, the cannon won't shoot straight. Sometimes it is a moral, as in "On the Edge of the World," in which the reader sees that conversion to Christianity by coercion does more harm than good. Finally it can be the usefulness of a proverb, such as that in the introduction to the stories about righteous men—"Without three righteous ones a city cannot stand." In this proverb is contained counsel for Leskov's readers—do not bewail the lack of good people; rather go and seek them out. And since this counsel is woven into the fabric of real life, both in Leskov's stories and in his life, it partakes of wisdom.
In Solzhenitsyn's short stories, too, the storyteller's orientation toward practical interests is clearly present. His use of the proverb about righteous ones to conclude the story "Matryona's House" clearly indicates Solzhenitsyn's intention that the story be morally useful to the reader. While this usefulness does not involve such clear counsel as it does in Leskov, it surely contains a moral—all of human society depends on people such as Matryona and we would do well not to overlook or scorn them.
Solzhenitsyn's short piece entitled "The Easter Procession," although it lacks many of the other elements of storytelling, also contains a moral in the form of a prophetic concluding statement. After depicting the desecration of the Easter procession by young hooligans, Solzhenitsyn concludes: "Verily, they will turn and trample us all! And those who urged them on to this—they will trample them, too!"13 This is less counsel than it is prophecy, but it contains implicit practical advice.
"Zahar-Kalita," too, concludes with counsel for the reader.
That was two years ago. Maybe it is tidier and better cared for there now. But anyway this isn't a piece written on assignment, but it is just that our eternal field, and on it its keeper and red-haired spirit, came to my mind.
And let it be said that it would not be wise for us Russians to neglect that place. (p. 316)
The counsel contained in this concluding warning is practical and patriotic. By bringing history alive in the story—the battle of Kulikovo Field is narrated intermittently throughout the first part of the story—the narrator weaves his counsel into the fabric of real, if historical, life and so imbues his conclusion with the force of wisdom.
Solzhenitsyn's other stories, though they deal with moral questions, have a less clearly practical moral orientation. In a very general way, by acting as a moral witness for his time Solzhenitsyn, in all his writing, shows a certain practical intent. But in terms of the similarity between Leskov and Solzhenitsyn seen as storytellers, "Matryona's House," and "Zahar-Kalita" are the most important Solzhenitsyn's works.
Benjamin goes on to say, in his essay on Leskov and the storyteller, that storytelling is becoming less and less important as a result of techniques of modern communication, which bring distant events and places to us immediately; as a result of the speed and variety of our lives, which do not leave time or inclination for the telling of or listening to stories; and as a result of the modern emphasis on the importance of information, of verifiable fact, rather than of truth or experience. But one of the curious features of Soviet life is that many of its most crucial and dramatic experiences are transmitted and kept alive by word of mouth. It is particularly appropriate, therefore, that the tradition of the storyteller, which connects him so closely with Russian literature's greatest, though by far not only, storyteller, Nikolai Leskov, should provide Solzhenitsyn with the voice in which he offers his counsel, born of his life experience, to his fellow countrymen.
1 "Matryona's House" and "Zahar-Kalita" share with the rest of Solzhenitsyn's stories a central concern with moral responsibility and courage. They have, however, several features in common, including their setting in rural Russia, that distinguish them from the other stories. Both are first person narratives in which the narrator is not the central figure. In them the central figure appears to be somewhat foolish or unattractive, and only at the end of the story does her or his positive moral force become fully clear. In these two stories the reader is presented with pictures of unnoticed virtue, while other of Solzhenitsyn's stories revolve around the more public contrast between individual conscience and bureaucratic necessity or callousness. The language in "Matryona's House" and "Zahar-Kalita", in comparison with that of the other stories, is rich and "difficult." In these two stories Solzhenitsyn makes wider use of the devices of skaz narrative than he does in his other stories. Finally, Solzhenitsyn's attraction toward a certain Slavophile and patriotic bias is to be found more clearly, perhaps, in these two stories than in his other short works. Many of these features provide a basis for comparison with Leskov's writing.
2 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Sochineniia, Posev-Verlag, Frankfurt, 1968, 231. Unless otherwise noted, quotations from Solzhenitsyn's works are from this edition. (Translations are mine—SSL).
3 This series, begun in 1879, is generally understood to include the stories "Odnodum," "Sheramur," "Pigmei," "Figura," "Kadetskii monastyr'," "Pilozhenie k rasskazu o kadetskom monastyre," "Russkii demokrat b Pol'she," "Inzhenery-bessrebrenniki," and "Nesmertel'nyi Golovan." Many other stories, such as "Chelovek na chasakh," "Prekrasnaia Aza," "Levsha," and "Ocharovannyi strannik," for example, are often considered part of this series, though they do not formally belong to it. The stories about righteous men (pravedniki) may be found in N. S. Leskov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, A. F. Marks (St. Petersburg, 1902-3), Vols. III-V and XIX. Several of these stories are also included in N. S. Leskov, Sobranie sochinenii (M. 1956-8), Vols. 6 and 8.
4 Leskov, Pol. sobr. soch., III, 74-5.
6 Leskov and Solzhenitsyn are not, of course, the only writers in Russian literature to find their heroes in the backwaters of Russian life. Many of Leskov's contemporaries, including Tolstoy, presented positive figures from rural, provincial Russia, while in Solzhenitsyn's time the post-Stalinist revival of the short story has been marked by a turn away from the city to rural Soviet Russia and, at the same time, by the use of relatively modest, unheroic protagonists. This emphasis has been, in fact, so striking in the stories of such writers as Kazakov and Nagibin that term villagers, or countrymen (derevenshchiki) has been applied to them. With the publication of "Matryona's House" Solzhenitsyn, too, was identified as belonging to this group. Solzhenitsyn's Matryona and Zahar, however, bear a striking resemblance to many of Leskov's righteous men, a resemblance that does not, for the most part, characterize the protagonists of Solzhenitsyn's fellow writers.
7 This is not to imply that Solzhenitsyn alone seeks such a middle course. Many Soviet writers, especially in the 1960s, have sought a middle course between the mechanical affirmation of socialist realism and the alienation of modern anti-heroes. Solzhenitsyn differs from his fellow writers primarily in his unwillingness to settle for a middle ground defined and "permitted" by official authority.
8 There are, besides the similarities between their stories, some basic differences. One of the most striking is Solzhenitsyn's lack of leisurely, subtle humorous play of many of Leskov's works, and the presence of a passionate moral intensity that is unmatched in most of Leskov's writing.
9 Leskov, Pol. sobr., soch., III, 122.
10 A connection might be made, in this regard, between the language of "Matryona's House" and "Zahar-Kalita" and the Russian skaz tradition, which owes much to Leskov's influence. (The language of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is even more strongly marked by skaz technique.) In both stories the illusion of an oral performance is given not only through the formal device of a first person narrator telling his story, but also through the frequency of words and expressions with a distinctly oral or colloquial past. In "Matryona's House" these words are, approriately, most often characteristic of rural Russia. The language of "Zahar-Kalita" is a blend of colloquial, technical and elevated language, a blend frequently to be found in Leskov's writing (for example, in "The Enchanted Wanderer" or "The Sealed Angel") and one particularly appropriate to the historical, patriotic, folk nature of the material in the story. In both Leskov and Solzhenitsyn the use of colloquial language and the juxtaposition of lexical level is combined with a strong sense of the moral purposes of literature, though verbal play is more fully subordinated to moral concerns in Solzhenitsyn's writing than in Leskov's, in which the language itself sometimes usurps the reader's full attention.
11 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, (New York, 1969), 83-110.
13 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Sobranie Sochinenii, (Posev-Verlag, 1969), V, 237.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8362
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 its emphasis on optimism and education, was beginning to give way to a more candid and exploratory approach to Soviet life. Writers were being admitted to those dark areas of social and political evil which they had hitherto been obliged to by-pass. They were acquiring the freedom to question the assumptions which they had been expected to affirm. They were gaining the right to express private thoughts and exercise their consciences on moral and ethical problems, independently of official ideology. In other words, Soviet literature was quietly repossessing the traditions of critical realism bequeathed to it by its nineteenth-century forebears.
Writers like Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov were expected, and largely accepted the obligation, to provide moral guidance and an authoritative commentary on the vital problems of their age. For Soviet writers the great task, presented to them by Khrushchev and eagerly taken up, was to come to grips with the Stalin years, with all their injustice, inhumanity and dishonesty. Yuri Bondarev's novel Silence and Victor Nekrasov's Kira Georgievna were revealing examples of the new trend. But writers attempting to correct the record of the past soon found themselves faced with the need to re-evaluate the present. Two stories, A. Yashin's Vologda Wedding and Around and About by Fyodor Abramov, which appeared in the winter of 1962-3, presented a depressing picture of contemporary life in the rural areas and described the complete failure of the collective farm system in both economic and human terms. They contrasted sharply with the image of the Russian countryside typical of the standard Soviet agricultural novel of the 1940s and 1950s. Solzhenitsyn's stories were, by common consent of those who liked them and those who did not, the most important contributions to this new literature of 'exposure'.
The difference between most of the new writers and the Stalin Prize novelists of the 1940s and 1950s was not as great as some Western critics imagined it to be. For one thing, they were still 'social command' writers, responding to, and ultimately controlled by, current Party dictates. They differed mainly in the degree of truthfulness with which they approached their subjects. And it was not only the critical stance and moral seriousness of the nineteenth-century novelists which inspired them. They also followed their manner of writing. They were still realists. The basic principles which governed the new wave of Soviet writing were still those of socialist realism, demanding a direct and rational treatment of surface reality. Cut off for nearly forty years from their own modernist movement and virtually unaffected by Western experimental developments, few Soviet writers knew anything different. They had been brought up on their own national classics and remained heavily in debt to them. As Mathewson has observed: 'I would consider Chekhov as the historical point of departure of the new writing.'1
Solzhenitsyn's artistic range is not as restricted as that of most of his contemporaries. Indeed, it is an indication of the breadth of his literary education that critics have been able to detect in his work the influence of nearly all the major nineteenth-century prose styles and writers. But he, too, has responded only to the realist traditions. Solzhenitsyn owes nothing at the Symbolists or later modernist trends. As he told the 1967 meeting of the Union of Writers, 'In the West they say the (Russian) novel is dead . . . but . . . we should publish novels—such novels as would make them blink as if from a brilliant light and then the "New Novel" would die down and then the "neo-avant-gardists" would disappear.'2 There is little arrierè-plan of meanings in his work, no distorted chronology, and sparing use of such figurative devices as metaphor and simile. Although he is said to be well read in foreign literatures, no critic has found this reflected in his own writing. On the contrary, Solzhenitsyn is intensely, even aggressively Russian in his outlook, and in some of his stories it is possible to detect Slavophile overtones. He frequently exhibits an almost mystical reverence for old Russian customs; his ideas reveal the inspiration of such nineteenth-century Russian thinkers as Solovyov and Dostoevsky; and in the language of his books as well as in his own speech, he deliberately eschews the numerous foreign borrowings which have, he considers, disfigured the Russian language during the last two and a half centuries. He has said: 'I have always felt that to write about the fate of Russia was the most fascinating and important task to be performed.'3 And elsewhere: 'For my entire life I have had the soil of my homeland beneath my feet. Only its pain do I hear, only about it do I write.'4 He seems to care little for the outside world except in so far as it can help him realise his aims at home.
Solzhenitsyn may be regarded as an old-fashioned writer in the sense that nearly all contemporary Soviet writers are old-fashioned. He has made no contribution to the advancement of the novel or the short story as a genre. Nor does he display the influence of those who have been advancing it in the West. That he is a significant figure in world literature, worthy of a Nobel Prize, is due to the fact that, besides being acutely sensitive to the issues confronting his native land, his themes and his treatment of them transcend local conditions and have a universal relevance in the latter half of the twentieth century. Perhaps most important of all, he is a remarkable artist with words and, at his best, an impeccable stylist.
Solzhenitsyn has recalled Tolstoy's remark that a novel can deal with either centuries of European history or a day in a man's life. While still in the camps, he made up his mind to describe one day in prison life. From his statement that he 'wanted to expose the false image of the prison camps',5 it is clear that his immediate purpose in writing One Day was a plea for social justice. Solzhenitsyn composed his story over a period of several years and it went through at least four drafts, each one paring down the last, before the final version was reached. One Day was published exactly one hundred years after Dostoevsky's Notes from the House of the Dead, in which he described his own experience during a four-year term in a Siberian penal colony. The coincidence is fortuitous, but a comparison is instructive on both literary and historical grounds. The similarities between the two works are in fact superficial, but both writers had the avowed aim of exposing, as never before, the camps to the Russian public. Dostoevsky chose to present a broad view of the camps, through the eyes of an aristocrat, an intellectual who could rationalise his experience and philosophise about crime. Solzhenitsyn's hero Shukhov, however, is a simple peasant, innocent of any crime and able to comprehend little beyond the day-to-day problems of survival. Although, unlike Dostoevsky's story, One Day is not a first person narration, the point of view and even the language are consistently Shukhov's. Solzhenitsyn himself does not interpose extended comment, and thus the deeper thoughts of the more sophisticated prisoners are left unexpressed. Such questions as how communists and other thinking people explain to themselves the injustice which has condemned them to the camps, or how they have become reconciled to a twenty-five-year sentence, are left unanswered. There is no explicit generalisation in One Day. There are no politically motivated characters and Solzhenitsyn refrains from any overt political statement on the burning issues raised by the very existence of the camps.
The most striking conclusion to be drawn from Dostoevsky's and Solzhenitsyn's accounts of Russian penal colonies, is the extent to which conditions have worsened and inhumanity increased during the last one hundred years.
Dostoevsky's prisoners enjoyed adequate food and spare time. They could indulge in private activities and make contact with the neighbouring population. Above all, they were sustained by the certain knowledge of freedom at the end of their terms. Shukhov and his comrades know in their hearts that they are doomed for life:
Shukhov . . . didn't know whether he wanted freedom or not. At first he had longed for it. Every day he'd counted the days of his stretch—how many had passed, how many were coming. And then he'd grown bored with counting. And then it became clear that men of his like wouldn't ever be allowed to return home, and they'd be exiled. And whether his life would be any better there than here—who could tell?
Freedom meant one thing to him—home.
But they wouldn't let him go home. (pp. 186-7)
Unlike Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn does not build up his characters or the episodes in their lives from an accumulation of minute detail. The reader gains only a vague idea of Shukhov's appearance. Solzhenitsyn's technique of evoking a whole impression by means of a few carefully selected, emotionally neutral, facts, is Chekhovian. And the artistry with which he accomplishes his effects is comparable with Chekhov's. He needs no more than two laconic sentences to convey fully the sensation of the cold and the early morning at the beginning of the story: 'The intermittent sounds barely penetrated the window panes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they had begun. It was cold outside, and the campguard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long.' (p. 9) And the simple remark 'the snow creaked under their boots' conjures up the entire image of the freezing snow-covered camp.
As Solzhenitsyn takes his little hero through every stage of an ordinary camp day, he builds up a comprehensive account of all the essential activities in a zek's life and a picture of the camp itself and of its inmates, both prisoners and guards. Without distorting the simple central thread of the action he employs, though sparingly, the common devices of realistic narrative to give breadth and perspective to his picture. From time to time, Shukhov and his comrades reminisce. Shukhov's recollection of his previous camp at Ust-Izhma enables Solzhenitsyn to emphasise that the regime in this camp is relatively mild. At different points during the day, Shukhov, Tiurin and Buinovsky have occasion to remember how each came to be arrested. Shukhov's punishment in the guard-house, his short visit to the medical wing and Buinovsky's imminent spell in the cells, provide an opportunity to describe other facets of the camp.
On several occasions, Shukhov gives information which he has only acquired himself through hearsay. He describes, for example, the procedure when parcels arrive for the zeks. He mentions the episode when knives were smuggled into the camp in vaulting poles, about which he had only heard. Solzhenitsyn never indulges in descriptions or digressions for their own sake. Comment is generally confined to Shukhov's own frequently interposed remarks, which although reflecting a limited point of view, nevertheless impart a personal eye-witness quality to the story. Solzhenitsyn, in fact, rarely intrudes at all in the capacity of omniscient author. From time to time, he takes over from Shukhov to speak about the Soviet intelligentsia among the prisoners, the Captain and Tsezar, whose experience was beyond the range of Shukhov's comprehension.
Many Russians would agree with Solzhenitsyn that 'of all the drama that Russia lived through, the fate of Ivan Denisovich was the greatest tragedy.'6 Certainly there is no issue, except perhaps the Second World War, which touches the emotions of Russians more deeply than the memory of the labour camps. It was a tragedy in which Solzhenitsyn shared and 'it is difficult to imagine how one can remain simple, calm, natural, almost commonplace when dealing with such a harsh and tragic theme'7 as he manages to do in One Day. Dostoevsky did not hesitate to convey the full horror of life in his penal colony and give vent to his polemic indignation: 'How much youth has perished between these walls for nothing, what tremendous forces have perished here in vain . . . Mighty forces have died here for nothing, died abnormally, illegally, irretrievably. And who is to blame?'8 This passage could stand as an epigraph to Solzhenitsyn's story but it is a far cry from his own approach. As Lakshin wrote:
Were Solzhenitsyn an artist of smaller scale and less sensitivity, he would probably have selected the worst day in the most arduous period of Ivan Denisovich's camp life. But he took a different road, one possible only for a writer who is certain of his own strength, who realises that the subject of his story is of such importance and gravity that it excludes empty sensationalism and the desire to shock with descriptions of suffering and physical pain. Thus, by placing himself in apparently the most difficult and disadvantageous circumstances before the reader, who in no way expects to encounter a 'happy' day in the convicts' life, the author thereby ensured the full objectivity of his artistic testimony, and all the more mercilessly and sharply struck a blow at the crimes of the recent past.9
In The First Circle there is a passage in which Nerzhin, obviously speaking for Solzhenitsyn himself, describes his reactions to prison camp life in a manner which is entirely appropriate to the situation in One Day, but beyond the artistic range of that story.
Descriptions of prison life tend to overdo the horror of it. Surely it is more frightening when there are no actual horrors; what is terrifying is the unchanging routine year after year. The horror is in forgetting that your life—the only one you have—is destroyed; in your willingness to forgive some ugly swine of a warder, in being obsessed with grabbing a big hunk of bread in the prison mess or getting a decent set of underwear when they take you to the bath-house.
This is something that cannot be imagined; it has to be experienced. All the poems and ballads about prison are sheer romanticism; no one need have been in prison to write that sort of stuff. The feel of prison only comes from having been inside for long, long years on end . . . (p. 200)
There is not a trace of romanticism in Solzhenitsyn's description of Ivan Denisovich's day. He had himself been inside for 'long, long years on end'.
It is unlikely that had Solzhenitsyn tried to emulate Dostoevsky, and elaborated his own opinions, One Day would have been published. But it was an artistic choice which led him to describe the undramatic experience of such an ordinary hero (he has even been called an anti-hero) as Shukhov. Shukhov is a simple, even naïve, man whose perception of the world is purely physical. He does not search for meanings or draw conclusions. He doesn't possess the mental equipment to do so. He happily accepts the folklore explanation of the behaviour of the moon and stars. His one cry of protest is very muted by comparison with Dostoevsky's: 'You see, Alesha,' Shukhov explained to him, 'somehow it works out all right for you: Jesus Christ wanted you to sit in prison and so you are—sitting there for His sake. But for whose sake am I here? Because we weren't ready for war in forty-one? For that? But was it my fault?' (p. 187)
The choice of detail in Solzhenitsyn's picture of the labour camp is effectively Shukhov's. Things are presented as they appear to him. The language is colourful and rhythmical because it reflects the cadences of Shukhov's peasant speech, with frequent use of aphorism. But there is no sentimentality in the descriptions, no lyricism such as Turgenev might have brought even to this harsh scene. The narrative is confined to the unembellished facts, conveyed dispassionately in spare prose with an elliptical economy of words. Lukács has called this method 'non interpretative description'. It is a measure of Solzhenitsyn's self-discipline and control over his medium that he is able to maintain a consistent tone and pace from the first page of his story until the last.
Soviet critics complained at the apparent absence of indignation and civic protest in One Day. They were unable to appreciate that Solzhenitsyn's restraint, his unpretentious and even artless simplicity, were a more eloquent protest than emotionally charged rhetoric, that his artistic detachment disguised a passionate engagement.
Another Soviet critic, Lidia Fomenko, wrote that Solzhenitsyn's story 'for all its artistic mastery and harsh bitter truth . . . does not rise to the philosophy of the times, to a broad generalisation capable of encompassing the antagonistic phenomena of that era.'10 Lakshin disputed this assertion, asking: 'Is it not an axiom, that an artist, if he is a true artist, is able to reflect the entire world in a small drop?' Solzhenitsyn's two big novels The First Circle and Cancer Ward, do contain material for a broad historical generalisation and it is remarkable the extent to which One Day, so narrow in time and space, also depicts as in a microcosm Soviet life 'in that era' and after. Solzhenitsyn's method rarely involves deliberate symbolism. But his stories as a whole, and also separate episodes within them, do nevertheless exert a strong symbolic effect. He could scarcely be unaware of the implications in this passage: 'they wanted to shift the 104th from the building shops to a new site, the "Socialist Way of Life" settlement. It lay in open country covered with snow-drifts, and before anything else could be done there, they would have to dig pits and put up posts and attach barbed wire to them. Wire themselves in, so that they wouldn't run away. Only then could they start building.' (pp. 11-12) One Day appeared just a year after the erection of the Berlin Wall.
Georg Lukács has written a paragraph which sums up succinctly the social and political significance of One Day:
Solzhenitsyn's achievement consists in the literary transformations of the uneventful day in a typical camp into a symbol of a past which has not yet been overcome, nor has it been portrayed artistically. Although the camps epitomise one extreme of the Stalin era, the author has made his skilful grey monochrome of camp life into a symbol of everyday life under Stalin. He was successful in this precisely because he posed the artistic question: What demands has this era made on man? Who has proved himself a human being? Who has salvaged his human dignity and integrity? Who has held his own—and how? Who has retained his essential humanity? Where was his humanity twisted and destroyed? His rigorous limitation to the immediate camp life permits Solzhenitsyn to pose the question simultaneously in quite general and quite concrete terms.11
As in the big novels, though to a lesser extent, the camp inmates represent something of a cross-section of Soviet people, the workers, peasants, intellectuals and nationalities. They are a roll-call of the successive waves of prisoners who were sent to the camps throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Kirov wave in 1935, the families of the Kulaks, deported religious believers and nationalities, the former prisoners of war and alleged spies, like Shukhov himself, and finally those after 1949 with a uniform sentence of twenty-five years. Only the victims of the purges of 1937-8 are noticeably absent. Since One Day is fictionalised autobiography, many of the characters are based upon real life. Former camp inmates who wrote to Solzhenitsyn have claimed to be able positively to identify the camp and the characters in the book. 'Ivan Denisovich? That's me, SZ-209. I can give all the characters real names, not invented ones.' 'We were the 104th brigade with you, lived in the same hut.' 'Solzhenitsyn has not even changed Tiurin's name. I knew him and worked in the 104th brigade.'12 Captain Buinovsky's story follows closely that of Commander B. V. Burkovsky who lived in the camp with him for three years. By 1964 Burkovsky had been released from the camps and had taken up an appointment as chief of the naval museum on the cruiser Aurora, on the river Neva in Leningrad. In an interview which he gave to the correspondent of Izuestia he also testified that the general picture of camp life, as well as many details, corresponded exactly with the reality. Some of the characters, he said,—Tiurin, himself, Tsezar Markovich and the Baptist Alesha—bear a close resemblance to actual persons. Most, however, were composites. And as for Shukhov, 'there was one like him in every brigade.'13
In February 1964 a meeting called to discuss the Lenin Prize nominations brought to light the real-life prototype for Tsezar Markovich. He was the poet Lev Kopelov who spoke out strongly in favour of One Day being awarded the Lenin Prize.14
A Soviet reader of One Day might identify many practices familiar in Soviet life—the callous attitude of authority and the need to outwit it (the worksheets), the self-seeking, scrounging and working on the side. A comparison between human behaviour in the camps and in "Matryona's Home," which depicts life beyond the wire, is revealing. Solzhenitsyn shows how many of the negative features of camp life have their exact counterparts among the inhabitants of an ordinary Russian village. There one finds a heartless collective-farm management, the authorities confiscating the peasants' fuel, falsified school records, unsympathetic medical services and a general lust for private gain. This comparison of a place of confinement with the outside world is a favourite source of irony with Solzhenitsyn. Shukhov wonders whether life will be any better if he is released and several times in One Day, Solzhenitsyn underlines the paradox that in general, it will not be. The central theme of The First Circle is built on such a paradox. When Shukhov goes to the medical wing he finds the former student of literature, Vdovushkin, 'writing in prison what he'd been given no opportunity to write in freedom.' (p. 30) Things can be said in the camps, as in the cancer ward and at Mavrino, which would be inadmissible outside. More good humour and comradeship is displayed in camp than in Matryona's village, where she herself is the only exception to the overall scene of vice. And the prisoners can at least rely on their rations if they fulfil their quotas, while the collective farmers in Shukhov's village and Matryona's cannot be certain of receiving theirs.
The area of Soviet life beyond the camp which receives the most detailed attention in One Day is the collective farm. Solzhenitsyn uses the letters from Shukhov's wife as a pretext for marshalling the depressing facts about another subject which exercised him personally. The picture of a depopulated countryside incompetently administered and riddled with graft is really only a preliminary sketch for his next story "Matryona's Home." Matryona's village is Shukhov's village. There is the same undermanned collective farm with its reduced individual plots where Matryona is obliged to help out, the same peat-processing works which had attracted the younger workers. "Matryona's Home" is an indictment of life in the Russian village in the tradition of Chekhov and Bunin. Solzhenitsyn shares Chekhov's horror at the peasants' animal-like behaviour, drinking and knifing each other. And critics also rightly saw the story as an unfavourable comment on the Soviet agricultural achievement. The labour camps could be explained as a temporary aberration, monstrous, but capable, along with other direct consequences of what was euphemistcially called the 'cult of (Stalin's) personality', of being speedily rectified. But "Matryona's Home" was set in 1956, five years after One Day, and exposed a fundamental weakness in the Soviet system and in the mentality of a section of the Soviet people.
"Matryona's Home" is narrated in the first person by a returning prisoner and teacher of mathematics, a character close to Solzhenitsyn himself. Like Solzhenitsyn, his narrator has a Slavophile longing to return to the true legendary Russia and settle deep in the Russian provinces. He is fascinated by the vestiges of old Russia, the village names, the funeral rituals and the scene, which he wants to photograph, of Matryona at the spinning wheel. But besides these romantic survivals, he discovers other less attractive ones. He finds that the attitude of the collective farm to the workers is little different from the attitude of the prerevolutionary landlords to their serfs. The chairman has simply replaced the barin and his wife continues to put on airs and order her inferiors about. As the peasants used to steal the landlord's wood, now they steal peat from the Trust. If anything, they now have less claim to the land than formerly. Their individual plots are uneconomical and they are forbidden to collect hay from the woods and railway side. There are shortages, the village is run down and there are no horses with which to plough. A Soviet critic complained: 'When you read this story you get the impression that the peasants' psychology has remained the same as it was sixty years ago. This is not true!' Solzhenitsyn is convinced that it is true.
By choosing peasants as the central protagonists of his first two stories, Solzhenitsyn was upholding one of the enduring traditions of Russian literature. For the aristocrats of the nineteenth century, the peasant held an almost mystical fascination. He was idealised by Tolstoy, Turgenev and Nekrasov in their search for truth, as the repository of natural wisdom and simplicity. It was this wishful image which Chekhov and Bunin attempted to correct with their ruthlessly objective glimpses of peasant life at the end of the century. Soviet critics were quick to see both these views reflected in Solzhenitsyn's stories. 'Reading the story,' wrote one about One Day, ' 'I involuntarily compared it with Lev Tolstoy's folk tales, with their admiration of passive saintliness and the meekness of the "simple folk". Solzhenitsyn even selected his hero on the principle that holy simplicity is higher than any wisdom.' Another, however, complained that Shukhov's way of life was little better than that of an animal, 'a total egoist, living only for his belly.' Similar views were expressed about the righteous and suffering Matryona on the one hand and the coarse peasants on the other.15
There is a superficial resemblance between Shukhov and Tolstoy's Platon Karataev, skilfully sewing a shirt for the French corporal. Karataev 'knew how to do everything, he was always busy', while Shukhov 'knew how to manage everything.' But the parallel between the two is confined to their external characteristics. In Shukhov there is nothing of 'the unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth' which Pierre thought he had found in Karataev. Nor is Shukhov in any meaningful sense a religious believer. Solzhenitsyn does not idealise Shukhov or hold him up as the embodiment of some abstract principle. It happens to be Shukhov's nature that he is simple and submissive. Such qualities were cultivated as the essential prerequisites for survival even by more assertive characters like Tiurin. It is the lesson of the camps which Buinovsky must learn. And Shukhov's practical wisdom and adroitness are no more than refinements in a man accustomed to earn his living by the use of his hands.
During the early discussions between the 'friends and foes of Ivan Denisovich' opinions were divided as to whether Shukhov had managed to retain his pride and personal integrity or whether 'in reconciling himself to the camps he (had) surrendered his human traits entirely to his basic instincts.' One critic concluded that 'the regime of the special camps destroyed the souls of all the inmates and left them only a single goal—to stay alive by any means at all.' It was true that as Lakshin described it, 'the entire system of imprisonment in the camps through which Ivan Denisovich passed was calculated to suppress mercilessly, to kill all feelings of right and legality in man, to demonstrate in matters large and small an impunity for arbitrariness against which any outburst of noble indignation was powerless. The camp administration did not allow the convicts to forget even for a moment that they were deprived of rights, and that arbitrariness was the only judge.' In such a situation, there must have been many who gave in and succumbed to the degradation inflicted upon them. This is not true of Shukhov and his fellow prisoners who, with the exception perhaps of the informers and Fetiukov, are shown not only adapting well enough to survive, but also maintaining their self respect. But for prisoners who had been in so long that they had forgotten their past and with so little hope of release that they could conceive of no future, it was inevitable that they should lose the habit of planning ahead: 'scrape through today and hope for tomorrow.' All the happenings which make Shukhov's day 'almost a happy one' refer to that day alone. Tomorrow he must begin all over again. The moments Shukhov lives for, on which he focuses his whole being, are the meagre sensual pleasures a prisoner can enjoy. Meals, those sacred moments for which a zek lives, are eaten with slow concentration, 'you had to eat with your whole mind on your food.' When he manages to scrounge a cigarette 'the smoke crept and flowed through his whole hungry body, making his head and feet respond to it. ' Keeping warm is a primary concern of all the prisoners but the horizons of many no doubt extend beyond Shukhov's preoccupation with food. The narrator in "Matryona's Home," an exprisoner and an intellectual, has learned from experience 'not to regard eating as the main object in life.'
By nature a timid man, it is easier for Shukhov 'who knew of no way of standing up for his rights' to learn the necessary degree of servility, than for some others: 'better to growl and submit, if you were stubborn they broke you.' The Captain, the only one who tries to hit back at his persecutors, has only been in camp a few weeks. But he too will learn to survive by emulating the other zeks, 'inert but wary.'
Shukhov is ready to run errands for his fellow prisoners and perform services which will bring him some small advantage, but not at the sacrifice of his own sense of personal worth. 'He wouldn't take on any old job.' He keeps himself tidy and clean. He is prepared to scrounge a smoke but 'he would never lower himself like that Fetiukov, he would never look at another man's mouth.' He retains his dignity, 'he couldn't eat with his hat on', and certain little personal fads such as, for instance, not eating fish eyes.
On several occasions throughout his 'happy day' Shukhov exhibits a compassion and humanity which a murderously inhumane environment has not crushed out of him. In spite of his longing to receive a parcel, he has selflessly forbidden his wife to send one so that his children may be better fed. He feels genuine sorrow for the Captain, and for Tsezar when he risks having his parcel stolen. He shares his cigarettes with the deaf Senka and his biscuits with Alesha, two characters who are even less equipped than he to stand up for themselves. Shukhov's integrity and ingrained sense of right and wrong have also survived in camp. He deplores the idea of saving his own skin at the expense of someone else's blood, like the squealers. And he'd never take a bribe, 'even eight years as a convict hadn't turned him into a jackal.' On the contrary, he has even acquired an inner strength, 'the longer he stayed in the camp, the stronger he made himself.'
The portrait which emerges of Ivan Shukhov, is of an unexceptional little man, wielding the practical guile native to the Russian peasant, simple but not innocent, sly but not dishonest, insulted but not a weakling, and submissive but not degraded. A man with sufficient force of character not only to preserve his primitive moral sense and feelings of common decency but even to benefit in some small way from his ordeal. Shukhov commands pity but also respect. Those who complained that his behaviour in camp was unworthy of a Soviet man were doing him less than justice. But if they meant that none of the qualities exhibited by Shukhov and the other prisoners were particularly attributable to their Soviet or socialist upbringing they were right. A year after One Day, at the height of the controversy it generated, a short novel entitled They Endured, by Boris Dyakov, was published. It was an undisguised polemic against One Day. 'The figures of the communists are central in the story,' wrote a sympathetic critic, 'unbending faith in communist ideals, in the durability of Soviet power, in the triumph of justice, and a warm love for the homeland—that is what enabled them not only to survive physically, but to preserve their ideological staunchness and their human qualities.'16 In One Day, there is no suggestion that the virtues which enabled the prisoners to endure came from anywhere but their own inner being. As in The First Circle and Cancer Ward each prisoner is ultimately thrown back on his own personal resources. Rubin and Rusanov, the communists in the big novels, do not cope better than the rest. In One Day, the only character to invoke the name of communism is the Captain, a camp novice. And he must learn to sublimate his ideals, not parade them. If there is a doctrine which fortifies the prisoners in the camp, it is the camp itself. It is the camp which has toughened Shukhov just as it made Kostoglotov in Cancer Ward 'sharp as an axe.' The hardy Tiurin is also 'a true son of Gulag'. It was this lack of clear ideological orientation which finally disqualified One Day from official favour when a more orthodox interpretation of socialist realism began to be applied after Khrushchev's departure.
Solzhenitsyn has observed that 'Russian literature has always been sensitive to human suffering.'17 In a sense all his own works are studies in human suffering and of differing responses to it. Shukhov's submissiveness is partly a cultivated quality, but in other ways he is a positive character who actively resists suffering by the exercise of certain sturdy, down to earth virtues. In Matryona, on the other hand, the righteousness and meekness of 'the insulted and the injured' are elevated to a moral plane. Her meekness is not an expedient, like Shukhov's, but is a part of her nature. Her lack of interest in personal property, in contrast to the grasping lust of the village peasants, recalls Tolstoy's teaching that private possessions are the chief cause of human isolation and are an obstacle to brotherhood. Matryona is a kind of holy innocent, a Christ-like figure reminiscent of Dostoevsky's Myshkin. She labours for others for no reward and helps even those who are robbing her. Everything in her life has gone wrong. Yet she retains her saintliness and serenity and feels neither envy nor bitterness. She has fewer sins to answer for than her lame cat. Even though her sister-in-law acknowledges Matryona's kindness and simplicity, she does so with scorn and pity. Matryona brings to mind also a character from a story by Leskov, a nineteenth-century writer with whom Solzhenitsyn has many affinities. Leskov's Golova Baraninya 'was so called because she was considered a fool, and a fool she was deemed because she was more mindful of others than herself.'18
In most of her essential characteristics, Matryona is the opposite of Shukhov. She is dirty, a bad housekeeper, and has never practised thrift. She has no skills and is foolish. Shukhov would never allow himself to be put upon by others as Matryona does. She is too lazy even to keep a pig. Matryona's lack of the virtues considered admirable in Shukhov, however, is of no consequence. Her worth does not lie in her capacity for physical adaptation, but in certain ideal qualities, traditionally loved by Russians, with which Solzhenitsyn endows her. Matryona is a unique figure in Solzhenitsyn's literary creation. Although movingly human, she seems also to be an embodiment of that mystical feeling for Russia which occasionally intrudes itself into the specifically Soviet experience in most of his writing. In the story she is a point of moral reference, represented in orthodox socialist realist literature by the communist hero whose virtues throw into relief the shortcomings of those around them. But Soviet critics, not unexpectedly, could find nothing in common between Matryona's 'uncomplaining patience and humility' and an ideology which demands 'protest, if not struggle' in such a situation as hers. They disliked, in particular, Solzhenitsyn's concluding comment on Matryona, that none of those who were close to her had realised that she was the one righteous person without whom no city can stand, nor the whole world. This is, in effect, a restatement of the moral of the story. Although probably no general analogy was intended by Solzhenitsyn, Matryona, like Christ, is despised and finally brought to her death by those too blinded by their own vices to perceive her true worth. Matryona unconsciously and instinctively embodies those values central to the ethical socialism preached by Shulubin in Cancer Ward. Despite material accomplishments, and these are modest enough in "Matryona's Home," neither Russia, nor the world can hope to prosper without their Matryonas. The problem which Solzhenitsyn's stories set for Soviet critics was noted by an American writer, Priscilla Johnson:
It was odd, in a country so haunted by its classics, to see Solzhenitsyn accused of being at once too Tolstoyan and too Dostoevskian: told that Ivan Denisovich and Matryona are two sides of a single character, Platon Karataev and Sonya Marmeladova, alike a celebration of 'holy' passivity. At one level the question was: Should literature dedicate itself to the 'positive' hero who will show man how he ought to live, or should art be democratised, should it describe 'little', broken men as well as big, not merely leaders but the led?19
Soviet defenders of Ivan Denisovich and Matryona were able to quote one feature of the characters' personalities which coincides entirely with the requirements of socialist ideology, namely their attitude to work. The work ethic in Soviet literature has been much emphasised, but that it was also a nineteenth-century tradition may be seen in such writers as Chekhov and Tolstoy. One of the features of Karataev admired by Pierre was his love of work. Both Shukhov and Matryona, like the peasant Spiridon and his wife in The First Circle, feel and are seen at their best while working. For both work is a liberating force.
Dostoevsky discussed the nature of work in considerable detail in Notes from the House of the Dead. He pointed out that the same work may be either slavery or freedom, depending on the circumstances. 'The prisoner sometimes even gets carried away by his work and tries to do it as skilfully, rapidly and efficiently as possible', as did Shukhov. But forced labour is deadening 'not so much in its difficulty or continuity, as in the fact that it is forced, obligatory, performed under the lash.'20 Solzhenitsyn himself elaborates on this theme in The First Circle. When the engineer Bobynin is summoned in the middle of the night by Abakumov to explain why the secret telephone they are making is behind schedule he retorts boldly:
'You and your schedule! It never occurs to you, does it, that it's no use issuing orders unless the men on the job have peace of mind, enough to eat and freedom? . . .
Ever thought about the poor devils who have to do all the work? They slave away for twelve or sixteen hours a day—yet only the senior engineers get a proper meat ration and the rest are lucky if they find a bone in their soup. Why don't you let the fifty-eighters have visits from their relatives? By right it should be once a month—but you only allow it once a year! What do you think that does to people's morale? . . . Rules and regulations, that's all you can think about. We used to be allowed out into the grounds all day on Sundays—now it's been stopped. What's the point—to get more work out of us? Like hell you will. You won't improve results by keeping us cooped up. Come to that, why did you have to drag me here at this time of night? What's wrong with the daytime. I've got to work tomorrow. I need sleep.' (pp. 88-9)
In another scene in The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn underlines the contrast between forced and voluntary labour. Nerzhin and Sologdin have asked to be allowed to cut wood for the exercise and spiritual satisfaction the work gives them:
Nerzhin picked up the saw and handed one end to Sologdin. They had cooled off and set about their task with a will. The saw spat brown powdered bark and cut into wood—not as easily as when Spiridon held it, but smoothly all the same. The two men were used to working together and tolerated each other's mistakes. They worked in silence and with that special zest and enjoyment that go with a job unforced by compulsion or need. (p. 129)
The prisoners in Stalin's special camps were subjected to a refinement in torture, by having to perform forced labour for their very food, and hence their very lives were made to depend on the work of each individual. In such circumstances, work became a backbreaking chore, to be avoided whenever possible. 'Work was like a stick. It had two ends. When you worked for the knowing, you have quality, when you worked for the fool, you gave him eyewash. Otherwise you croaked, they all knew that.' (pp. 20-1) They also knew that you worked to keep warm and pass the time. But Solzhenitsyn does not idealise creative labour in One Day. Only Shukhov among the prisoners adopts a genuinely conscientious attitude to work. When reading of the idleness prevailing in his native village, he reflects that 'easy money weighs light in the hand and doesn't give you the feeling you've earned it. There was truth in the old saw: pay short money and you get short value. He still had a good pair of hands, capable hands. Surely, when he was out, he'd find work as a stone-setter or carpenter, or tinker?' (p. 52) Dostoevsky makes a further discrimination between constructive work and pointless, humiliating work. When he is ordered to mop out the guardroom, Shukhov does as shoddy a job as he can get away with. When doing something meaningful, however, as on the building site, he is ready to make an effort and enjoys his work. But of all his team only he can muster real enthusiasm and pride in what he is doing. For Shukhov alone does work offer a liberation. Before the war he had been a builder and so the opportunity to exercise his skill even under the machine-guns of the guards is an act of freedom. It increases his sense of personal worth: 'after working like that he felt equal to the team leaders.' For most of the others, especially the intellectuals, physical labour was the most burdensome part of their bondage. And even for Shukhov his enthusiasm is the euphoria of the moment. In camp he thinks to himself of the doctor who recommended work as the antidote for illness: 'you can overwork a horse to death. The doctor ought to understand. If he'd been sweating blood laying blocks he'd quieten down, you could be sure of that.' (p. 29)
For Matryona, work is an activity free from compulsion. She works without pay or reward, but she works willingly. For her, too, creative work is not demoralizing, but liberating. Work is an infallible way of restoring her spirits. As in One Day, Solzhenitsyn draws a pointed comparison between Matryona's attitude to work and the collective farmers'. But also, like Shukhov's, Matryona's creative labour is not the application of a moral principle. By nature, she is lazy. It is not so much her conscience as her inherent good nature which prompts her to work for others. She works for herself because it is her only means of escape.
Solzhenitsyn has made his attitude to those who confine themselves to narrow topical interpretations of his work clear:
It is not the task of the writer to defend or criticise one or another mode of distributing the social product or to defend one or another form of government organisation. The task of the writer is to select more universal, eternal questions (such as) the secrets of the human heart, the triumph over spiritual sorrow, the laws of the history of mankind that were born in the depths of time immemorial and that will cease to exist only when the sun ceases to shine.21
The intense experiences of Solzhenitsyn's own life have given him ample material for reflection on such problems as these, and at their most serious level, his writings embody the conclusions he has drawn. They receive their fullest treatment in the novels, but the main themes are found in embryo in One Day and "Matryona's Home." Like Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn depicts his characters in extremis, but the situations in which they find themselves are all such as Solzhenitsyn has himself experienced or witnessed. The dilemmas they face are the fundamental problems of human existence, in One Day how to live, and in Cancer Ward how to die. But Solzhenitsyn's characters are also social beings and he identifies and examines the values which govern human relationships. Political values are ultimately irrelevant and Solzhenitsyn would surely agree with Yuri Zhivago that 'those who wield power are so anxious to establish the myth of their own infallibility that they turn back on truth as squarely as they can. Politics mean nothing to me. I don't like people who are indifferent to the truth.'22 Nor is it possible to discover a metaphysical dimension to Solzhenitsyn's thinking, beyond the occasional glimpses of mystical intuition. Christianity, although it attracts Solzhenitsyn's sympathy, is practically irrelevant too. The saintly Alesha in One Day has found his own peace of mind and earns the respect of Shukhov but it is Shukhov himself and the hardy Tiurin who, at this stage, come closer to Solzhenitsyn's own ideals. Even the righteous Matryona, whose virtues Solzhenitsyn expressly extols, pays only lip-service to religious practice: her real beliefs are as pagan as Shukhov's. Solzhenitsyn shows that the ethical forces at stake in his books—justice, truth and the powers of good and evil—are socially based. In 1967 he wrote a letter to three students which is of vital importance to an understanding of his ethical standpoint.23 This, along with the ideas expressed by Shulubin in Cancer Ward, is the fullest and most explicit exposition of the ethical convictions which motivate all Solzhenitsyn's writings. Like his literary manner, they are intrinsically Russian, deriving from deeply ingrained Russian literary and philosophical traditions.
The destinies of all Solzhenitsyn's characters are in their different ways subject to the interplay of good and evil, which are in turn the product of the presence or the absence of conscience and justice; conscience at a personal level and justice as the expression of the communal conscience. The all-pervading theme of Solzhenitsyn's work at every level is the quest for justice.
Together One Day and "Matryona's Home" provide a picture of goodness and truth at the mercy of evil and falsehood. In One Day the innocent are inexorably crushed by the evil of the camp regime, to which the icy grip of winter adds symbolic reinforcement. The story becomes a parable of everyday life in Russia. And it is also, as Max Hayward has suggested, 'a moving statement of universal application about the human lot . . . It is symbolic of human existence as is Kafka's Trial The day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is a day in anybody's life. The majority of the human race are trapped in a monotonous daily routine which differs from the concentration camp only in the degree of its unpleasantness and hopelessness.'24
1Studies in the Soviet Union, Vol. 3, no. 2 (Munich), 1963, p. 18.
2 Labedz, op. cit., p. 99.
3Ibid., p. 7.
4Ibid., p. 84.
5Ibid., p 7.
7 V. Lakshin, Novy Mir, January 1964.
8F. M. Dostoevsky: Sobrante Sochinenii, Vol. 3 (Moscow), 1956, p. 701.
9 Lakshin, op. cit.
10 L. Fomenko, Literaturnaya Rossia, 11 January 1963.
11 Georg Lukács, Solzhenitsyn (London), 1969, pp. 13-14.
12 Labedz, op. cit., pp. 14-28.
13Izvestia, 15 January 1964.
14 Priscilla Johnson, op. cit., p. 75. In his open letter of 12 November 1969 Solzhenitsyn supported Kopelev when he was again in difficulties. 'They are also threatening to expel Lev Kopelev, the front line veteran, who has already served ten years in prison although he was completely innocent . . .' Labedz, op. cit., p. 160.
15 For a detailed study of the Soviet response to Solzhenitsyn's earlier works see N. Tarasova, 'Vkhozhdenie Solzhenitsyna v sovietskuyu literaturu' in Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Sobrante sochinenii, Tom 6 (Frankfurt-am-Main), 1970, pp. 197-242.
16 N. Sergovantsev, Oktyabr', no. 10 (Moscow), 1963.
17 Labedz, op. cit., p. 8.
18 See Ludmila Koehler, 'Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Russian Literary Tradition', The Russian Review, no. 2 (New York), 1967, p. 177.
19 Priscilla Johnson, op. cit., p. 77.
20 Dostoevsky, op. cit., p. 409.
21 Labedz, op. cit., pp. 97-8.
22 Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harari (London), 1958, p. 235.
23 Labedz, op. cit., p. 101.
24 Max Hayward and Edward L. Crowley, Soviet Literature in the Sixties (London), 1965, p. 206.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4666
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 something."
Solzhenitsyn, "Matryona's Home"
The years pass, and what is not recalled grows ever dimmer in our memory.
Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago
Alexander Solzhenitsyn's tale, "Matryona's Home"1 (1963), consisting of three little chapters, begins with a prologue that is brief, factual, yet tense with significant drama.
One hundred and eighty-four kilometers from Moscow, and a good half year after it happened, all trains slowed down their course almost to a crawl. The passengers pressed to the windows, went out into the vestibule: were they repairing the tracks, or what? Was there a change in schedule?
No. Past the crossing, the train again picked up speed and the passengers settled back.
Only the engineers knew and remembered what it was all about.
These lines have a dramatic impact upon the reader: his curiosity instantly aroused, he peers ahead in order to learn what has happened, what will happen—what in fact will turn out to be the dramatic and ideological core of the story. The mystery is deepened by the narrator's cryptic and somewhat unconventional way of alluding to the cause of the slow-down: "esche s dobrykh polgoda POSLE TOGO vse poezda zamedljali svoj khod," literally, "a good half year AFTER THAT all trains slowed down their course . . . " (My capitalization—RLJ). What is "that"? As the reader learns in chapter 2 of the tale, "that" is the accident which occurs when "two locomotives coupled together, without lights and moving backwards—why without lights nobody knows"—crash into a tractor, two sledges loaded with lumber and sundry people at a railroad crossing, creating a havoc of organic and inorganic matter. Matryona, too, the central figure in the tale, is crushed. A terrible accident. On the story's deeper symbolic plane of meaning, however, the accident is no accident; it is more than a chance error in the moving of railroad stock, more than a "mistake." The accident is the fated expression—in the story the central metaphor—of vast social and national catastrophe. The accident emerges out of Russian life and history, most immediately out of the years of revolutionary upheaval and change—for Solzhenitsyn profoundly tragic years involving the disfiguration and dislocation of Russian life. The narrator himself, though a marginal actor in this tale, in his own destiny is a bearer of this theme of disfiguration and dislocation: one of the "distant ones" who has spent a good ten years in prison, he "came back at random from the dusty, hot desertlands—simply to Russia."2 This "random" movement of the narrator is philosophically of the same order as the strange movement of the "two locomotives coupled together without lights, and moving backwards": both movements, seemingly unmotivated and senseless, are in fact symbolic expressions of one violent historical explosion. But the random movement of the locomotives embodies the terrifying amoral force of history; the haphazard movement of the narrator—the reaction of one of those unfortunates to whom such history happens.
The accident is history. Matryona is the focal point of the historical action.
"I wanted to work my way into, and lose myself in, the very core of Russia—if ever there was such a place," observes the narrator in the opening lines of chapter 1. These words signal the pilot effort of Solzhenitsyn's "Matryona's Home": an effort to make a fundamental statement about Russian man and reality. Solzhenitsyn's story is socialist realism turned on its head: it seeks to depict man not in the perspective of the future, but of the past, its myth and reality; it is a look at the old Adam and at the same time an attempt to restore in men's minds the lost outlines of the iconographic image, the concept of a viable ideal, one that is accessible and humane. Matryona's "home" is at the mythic core of Solzhenitsyn's Russia; Matryona herself—the heroine of this fabled, but ailing land, is ill; doomed to perish she is nonetheless its restorative force, the bearer of the theme of its moral reformation. But the "core" of Russia is above all problematic, ominously complex in the contemporary and historical perspective of Solzhenitsyn; its ideal incarnation, its mythopoetic figura Matryona is not only challenged, symbolically, by a "second" and "substitute" Matryona (the wife of Faddei) but by the old peasant Faddei himself—an incarnation of darker forces in the core of Russian life; it is challenged, finally, by the metallic era of socialist primary accumulation. The theme of disfiguration in "Matryona's Home" runs from past to present—from the ancient Russian peasant with an axe to the modern "excavators snarling about in the bogs."
The narrator's predilection for the pastoral ideal is prefigured in a scene curiously reminiscent of Turgenev in A Sportsman's Notebook (1852): the narrator sitting on a stump in the gentle rolling hills and woods of Vysokoe Pole (High Meadow), surrounded by "an unbroken ring of forest;" he wishes that he could live and die in such a place, do nothing but commune with nature "with the whole world silent." But Solzhenitsyn's Russia provides no such total immunity for man from man. "Torfoprodukt [Peat Product]?" ponders the narrator a little later as he scans his official orders directing him to a community of that name where he could find work. "Ah, Turgenev never knew that one could put together such a thing in Russian."3 The modern place name "Torfoprodukt" and all it connotes signals the end of the Russian idyll. It abruptly announces the theme of disfiguration in the heart of Russian culture: its language. "Torfoprodukt." A terrible accident. Language here anticipates the author's picture of social catastrophe. This "thematic" use of language is characteristic of "Matryona's Home," as it is in other works of Solzhenitsyn, where the typically rich, colloquial speech of Russian life enters into a veritable war with the mutilating jargon of bureaucracy and propaganda.
A growing rumble of imagery announces a curse of disfiguration on this land: the very "stump" upon which the narrator first sits in Vysokoe Pole; the jarring name "Torfoprodukt"; the strange signs at its railroad station, "scratched with a nail," and "carved with a knife"; the once dense and impenetrable prerevolutionary forests "cut down by the peat exploiters and the neighboring collective farm"; acres of timber razed and sold at a profit in Odessa. And in the midst of these peaty lowlands a scene of urban-industrial blight: "a settlement sprawled out in disorder" (barracks of the 1930s and the little houses with glass verandas of the 1950s), yet oddly skewed by a narrow gauge railroad which "here and there" ranged through it. Factory chimneys. Thick smoke. Piercing whistles. And in this typical industrial settlement the narrator could assume "without fear of error" that in the evening the "loud speaker" over the doors of the club would "screech forth in lacerating tones" (budet nadryvat'sya radiola), that on the streets the drunkards would brawl, "not without thrusting at each other with knives." This imagery of social disfiguration foreshadows the impending tragedy.
Torfoprodukt: this was where the narrator's dream of a "quiet little corner in Russia" brought him. Torfoprodukt with its mutilated landscape is a last stop. "It was easy to arrive at Torfoprodukt, but not to leave." But Torfoprodukt is not all of Russia, at least not yet. The landscape of disfiguration is immediately offset by an atmosphere or setting such as that encountered in Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" or "Rip Van Winkle." At daybreak, after his night at the railroad station, the narrator wanders to the market place and encounters a peasant woman selling milk. He takes a bottle and starts drinking it right away. . . . A new world unfolds. "I was struck by her speech. She did not speak, but sang in a sing-song way and her words were the very ones I was longing to hear when I left Asia." And from this peasant the narrator learned that not everything was peat production, that beyond the railroad "was a hill, and behind the hill—a village, and this village was Talnovo, which had been here from time immemorial, even when the 'gypsy woman' lived there and the enchanted forest stood all round." And beyond Talnovo, "deeper into the hinterland, and farther from the railroad toward the lakes," follow a whole region of villages with "soothing" names that "promised me age-old Russia." Thus do the magically mellifluous words and drink of a Russian peasant woman in a "tiny market place" open the broad way, as in a fairy tale, to Matryona's little homestead with its "two or three willows, a lopsided house" and a pond with ducks and geese—a place that is close to the narrator's heart. And out of age-old Russia, out of the enchanted forest, out of Talnovo, out of her house emerges Matryona—a figure whom the narrator himself compares with one of the "grandmothers in fairy tales"; she emerges to survive and die in a world "turned upside down."
Matryona's strange little lopsided world with its quaint, almost grotesque interior might seem disfigured in the way of Torfoprodukt; yet it is in every respect its antithesis. Outwardly battered by use and nature it has the warmth and humanity of its mistress, the simple rhythms and shapes of a workaday life. The dirty white goat with the twisted horn, the lame cat, the mice that run rampant behind the five loose layers of wallpaper, the tubs full of odd rubber plants, the food with its occasional litter of peat and cockroach legs—everything is touched by the benign and tangible presence of Matryona. Everything is manifestly what it is; of the noisome cockroaches and mice the narrator observes significantly that "there is nothing evil in them, no lie in them." It is here that the narrator "hermit" finds his cot, his refuge; it is here that he begins to discover his ideal.
The "lustreless mirror," like a Gogolian artifact, reflects the "bleary" eye of Matryona; it was plain, notes the narrator, that illness had exhausted her (her illness is almost a motif in the tale). Yet her much emphasized "roundish face" with its quixotic expression points to an almost legendary spiritual health and goodness.
There is more than a touch of Gogol in Matryona's immediate surroundings, in her life and in her person;4 yet this is no "vegetable life," no tedious world of physical satiety and slumber, no world in which the vitality of things parodies the slumber of man. Food is conspicuous by its absence or meagreness. And the narrator reconciles himself with his diet because "life had taught me not to find the meaning of everyday life in food" (an outlook, of course, quite distinct from that of the hero of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). In this, of course, the narrator mirrors the life view of Matryona. In an existence that is marginal to the engulfing life of the new social and economic forms of the collective farm and state enterprise (she had worked for the collective farm for twenty-five years, but was dismissed when she fell ill), Matryona scours about for food and fuel, potatoes, peat and stumps; yet her essence is not in the Gogolian accumulation of things, in drawing everything towards herself, but in what might be called a proliferation of selfless activity. With wondrous energy she aids others, individuals and enterprises, who invariably call on her in their moments of need. This goodness that is neither humble nor dumb, this simple nature that also feels pain and injustice, seems powered by an organic earthly force. In Matryona (her name is etymologically connected with the Russian word "mat '," or "mother"), in this peasant possessed of incredible physical strength, one recognizes those indefatigable laborers of Russian life: Russian women. Plain and simple in her half-pagan, half-Christian religiosity and ethic, Matryona is also a type that finds persistent embodiment in Russian literature, one of that class of simple and unpretentious people who do not preach but live their values. Such are the Mironovs in Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter, or Samson Vyrin in "The Station Master"; such, too, are Maksim Maksimych in Lermontov's Hero of our Time, Devushkin in Dostoevsky's Poor Folk, Captain Tushin in Tolstoy's War and Peace, or even Chekhov's Samoylenko in The Duel—people whom everybody takes for granted, but upon whom everybody depends; people whose reliability rests on their complete freedom from any kind of self-interest or opportunism.
The theme of disfiguration which is heard so emphatically at the opening of chapter 1 rises to a crescendo in chapter 2 with the dismemberment, first, of Matryona's house, and then of Matryona herself in the accident. These two events—which form the structural and ideological center of the story—are part of the tangled skein of past and present. From Matryona herself the narrator learns her tragic personal history: the disappearance of her betrothed, Faddei, in the First World War; her subsequent marriage to Faddei's brother, Yefim, and then the sudden reappearance of Faddei, axe in hand: "If it weren't my very own brother I'd cut you both down with this axe." And then the sequel: her luckless family life with Yefim (six children born and buried, the unfaithfulness and, finally, disappearance of Yefim in the Second World War). Under pressure from Faddei and his daughter and son-in-law (the young couple need a building in order to buy and keep a plot of land), Matryona agrees to yield in her lifetime what she had willed to her niece: the top room of her house. The house must be torn apart. "It was an agony for her to start about smashing that roof under which she had spent forty years," the narrator observes. "Even I as a tenant felt sick at the thought that they would tear out the boards and yank out the beams of the house. But for Matryona this was the end of her whole life. Yet those who were insisting on it knew that her house could be broken up even while she was alive."
The mutilation of Matryona's house and the events leading up to the accident are described in detail. The mood is apocalyptic. Faddei with his sons and son-in-law turned up one February morning and began hacking away with their "five axes," setting up a screeching and creaking as they ripped off the boards. They worked feverishly, left chinks in the walls, and "everything indicated they were wreckers—not builders." Old Faddei came to life in this work of destruction, his eyes "gleamed." Two weeks later the dismembered room is piled onto two sledges. "All were working like madmen." But before leaving the mutilated house they celebrate with drink and leave behind them a scene of "desolate carnage."
The railroad accident itself, the final episode in this drama of destruction, is a terrible mauling of men and material. "It chewed 'em all up. Can't even pick up the pieces," remarks one observer. The locomotives "came flying up and crushed to a pulp the three people who were between the tractor and sledges." Tractor, sledge, tracks, and locomotives are churned into a chaos. The remains of Matryona, covered with a dirty sack on a sled, are "jumbled together. The feet, half of the trunk and the left hand were missing." "The Lord has left her her right hand," observes one peasant woman. "She will say her prayers there." This motif of the reformation of the spiritual image of Matryona—at the opening of chapter 3—follows directly upon the last lines of chapter 2 which speak of the fatality of the tragedy: "For forty years [Faddei's] threat had idled in a corner like an idle broadsword—and then struck at last . . . "
Solzhenitsyn's use of the railroad and of the railroad accident in the ideological design of "Matryona's Home" follows in the rich tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. For these two great novelists the railroad symbolizes the commercial and capitalist disfiguration of Russian life. The railroad is part of the apocalyptic imagery in Dostoevsky's The Idiot. The apocalyptic note is struck in the very first lines of the novel—in the ominous image of the train rushing through the fog, bearing Myshkin and Rogozhin into the chaos of Russian life. The theme of the railroad is used with consummate artistry in Anna Karenina. The railroad accident at the opening of the novel—a guard is crushed by one of the trains—is not an "accident" on the deepest level of the novel's meaning: both the death of the guard and the subsequent suicide of Anna on the tracks emerge as ultimate expressions of profound dislocations in a life in which "everything is topsy turvy" (Levin's words), in which new and destructive social and economic forces, spearheaded by the railroad, are overtaking traditional Russian life, tearing up what for Tolstoy is its rich communal and patriarchal fabric. Anna's suicide, in the last analysis, is inseparable from the general social tragedy in Russian life.5 The same may be said of Solzhenitsyn's conception of the death of Matryona. Her fear of railroads points not simply to her superstitious nature, but to an elemental sense of alienation from all that this railroad and its creation, Torfoprodukt, represent.6
The railroad crossing in "Matryona's Home," then, is the tragic junction between all forces in Russian life: those fated to destroy, those fated to perish and those fated to bear witness to the disaster and, perhaps, record it. The accident is but the focal point of a tragic action which embraces all society. The remorseless realism of Solzhenitsyn in developing the theme of disfiguration in "Matryona's Home" prefigures his Gulag Archipelago. What dominates the consciousness in a reading of "Matryona's Home," however, is not only the mutilated house and body of Matryona—obvious symbols of a much larger edifice—but the elemental and irrational character of the mutilating forces, senselessness and moral anarchy reaching deeply into men and history. The tragic destiny of Matryona is not alone the product of a "new" upheaval in Russian life. Woven into that destiny is the record of men driven by crude impulses of need and greed, men who have accepted the rituals of Christianity but who have remained alien to its ethic of love and self-sacrifice. The tragedy of botched life in "Matryona's Home" is the more overwhelming because of the disparity between the real and the ideal that it exposes not only in society at large, but in man himself. In this connection the figure of Faddei occupies a central place in Solzhenitsyn's tableau. The dark counterpart of Matryona on the mythic as well as the real plane of the story, Faddei is the legendary Russian peasant with an axe. How does he use that axe: as a "builder or destroyer"? Faddei, too, emerges out of the "core" of Russia; he threatens Matryona with his axe, seeks out another woman with the name of Matryona to marry, as though, in malice, to scratch out the very existence of the "first" Matryona; finally, eyes gleaming, he lays an axe to Matryona's house and, in effect, to Matryona herself. This strange figure carries the motif of demonism in the story—not without reason is the epithet "dark," chernyj, applied seven times in the opening two lines of the description of Faddei; yet he is not without a deceptive potential. The narrator outlines the sad state of affairs in Faddei's life after the accident: his daughter's sanity has been shaken, his son-in-law faces a criminal charge in connection with the accident, and his son, as well as his first betrothed, Matryona, are dead. Faddei stands by the coffins only briefly, then leaves. "His lofty brow was clouded by painful thoughts, but what he was thinking about was—how to save the timbers of the top room from the flames and from Matryona's scheming sisters." Faddei's "lofty brow," struggling with thought, seems to promise something more worthy of the destiny of man than acquisitiveness. But the promise is a lie.
"Going over the people of Talnovo in my mind," the narrator continues, "I realized that Faddei was not the only one like that."
Faddei's choice of evil arouses in the narrator the following speculation: "The [Russian] language strangely calls property our good, [dobro] whether it be the people's property or personal. And yet losing any of it is considered disgraceful and stupid by the people." (The Russian word "dobro" signifies both "goods," property, and ethical "good.") The line of thought here is tragic: the only "good" that man understands is property, material goods, whatever is good for him, whatever serves his self-interest; his feeling of "shame" in giving up property, therefore, parodies that feeling of shame man is supposed to feel when he deviates from ethical good, from his supposed inner sense of what is right or just. In like manner Faddei's "painful thoughts," in their inner essence and genealogy, sharply parody and contradict the lofty spiritual attribute arbitrarily assigned to the "lofty brow" by the indulgent observer. The demonism of Faddei, then, consists in the fact that he, like so many others around him, stands at the fringe of moral evolution, a troubled and uncertain realm where—as Dostoevsky repeatedly demonstrates—acquisitiveness, violence and sensuality constitute an entangling syndrome.7
Even the religious conventions and rituals would seem only to mask man's moral and spiritual immaturity. "I observed in the weeping a coldly thought-out time-worn pattern," the narrator observes of the lamentations over the body of Matryona. The striving for goods set the tone of these "political" lamentations. "At her burial all sang, 'Worthy is She.' Then again thrice over: eternal memory! eternal memory! eternal memory! But the voices were hoarse, discordant, their faces drunk and nobody put any feelings into the eternal memory." And after the special guests left, the remaining relatives "took out their cigarettes, smoked, exchanged jokes and laughter." In such a world Matryona, who "never tried to acquire things for herself," who "never struggled to buy things and then treasure them more than life," who "never tried to dress smartly," was inevitably considered a "ridiculous creature"; in such a world Matryona, who would work for others without pay, who even accompanied her dismembered house to the railroad crossing (as though to her crucifixion), was inevitably pitied and scorned; in such a world, as the narrator concludes, Matryona was the only true "righteous" one. "All of us lived alongside her and did not understand that she was that very righteous one without whom, according to the proverb, no village can stand. Nor city. Nor our whole earth."
Matryona, clearly, was the only true Christian; in the language of her time—the only true communist.
The Russian word for image or form is obraz, and it carries the implication of the highest beauty; it also stands for "icon"; its antithesis in the Russian language is bezobrazie—disfiguration, the monstrous, literally, that which is "without form or image." These two moral-aesthetic opposites structure Solzhenitsyn's story and invest much of its imagery with their deeper symbolic meaning. Matryona is mother Russia. Her death, in the symbolism of Solzhenitsyn, signifies Russia's martyrdom.
Matryona is no more. Somebody precious had been killed [ubit rodnoj chelovek]. And I had reproached her the day before for wearing my jerkin. The ornately drawn red and yellow peasant woman in the bookstore advertising poster smiled joyfully.8
Matryona, real and tangible, nonetheless has a mythic aura; but she is infinitely more real in all her moral and spiritual health, than the "joyfully smiling" woman who looks down at the narrator from the poster on the wall of the hut, that Soviet madonna who knows no home in the real world as she knows no suffering. Matryona, horribly disfigured in the accident, yet emerges a symbol of transcendent spiritual beauty. Solzhenitsyn's final description of Matryona in death suggests precisely the triumph of image (obraz) over disfiguration (bezobrazie). "Matryona lay in her coffin. Her lifeless, mangled body was neatly and simply covered with a clean sheet. Her head was enveloped in a white kerchief, but her face, undamaged and peaceful, seemed more alive than dead." Matryona's death completes the making of a Russian icon.
A premonition of catastrophe pervades the prologue to this story. "Only the engineers knew and remembered what it was all about. And I." The author Solzhenitsyn here merges with the narrator, memory with conscience, history with art. Of course: precisely on this level of art, in the creation of moral-aesthetic form, the aching disparity of the real and ideal is bridged, the disfiguration of history is overcome, suffering is redeemed, and the possibility of moral progress in society restored. Such is the action of all significant art.
1 The Russian title is "Matrenin dvor." The word "dvor," in this context, has the more inclusive meaning of "homestead," or "farmstead," that is, it suggests the house, yard, and the whole domain.
2 The time of the narrator's return to Russia is given as 1953: the date of the dictator Stalin's death. After Stalin's death, masses of amnestied convicts were released from Soviet concentration camps.
3 "Torfoprodukt"—a compound of two words brought into the Russian language, "Torf " (German-Austrian dialect for "peat") and "produkt" (product). Turgenev, perhaps, is the greatest prose stylist in Russian literature. The reference to Turgenev, however—the only Russian writer mentioned in "Matryona's Home"—has deeper significance. "Matryona's Home" in certain features—its open form, its use of a narrator-observer, and its oblique critique of the social order—recalls Turgenev's sketches in A Sportsman's Notebook [Zapiski okhotnika].
4 We may note, as another example, the fleeting, but touching mention of how Matryona, on receiving her pension money at last, orders from the "hunchbacked tailor" a "wonderful coat."
5 See my discussion, "Chance and Design in Anna Karenina," in The Disciplines of Criticism, edited by Peter Demetz et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), pp. 315-29.
6 The narrator, clearly, is very close to Matryona in his basic outlook on contemporary industrial soceity. His purely social perspectives would seem to turn backwards into Russian history, rather than forwards. In his respect, his interest in photographing "somebody at an old-fashioned handloom" is indicative.
7 The ambiguity of the word "dobro," we may note here, is brought out by Dostoevsky in Raskolnikov's dream about the beating of the mare. "My property!" (moyo dobro!) screams the peasant Mikolka repeatedly as he beats his horse. Mikolka's crude "ethic" is plain: what I covet and own releases me from all obligations because it is my good (property). See my discussion of this problem in "Philosophical Pro and Contra in Part One of Crime and Punishment," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Crime and Punishment, " ed. Robert Louis Jackson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974), pp. 34-35.
8 The word "rodnoj" has several related meanings: one's own (a close, blood relationship); close in spirit or way of life; native; dear; precious. The phrase, then "ubit rodnoj chelovek" (literally, "a dear or closely related person has been killed") suggests an intimate family relationship between the narrator and Matryona, and between a mother and son. It may be noted here that the intimate and chaste relationship between the narrator and Matryona is suggested symbolically in the last lines of section 2 of the story, after Matryona's death. The narrator imagines Faddei on the threshold declaring: "If it weren't my very own brother I'd cut you both down with this axe." He is alone in the hut, but at that moment Matryona is "invisibly fluttering about in the hut and bidding all farewell."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6825
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 part this is due to the multiple nuances of language and event employed by the author. These nuances are difficult to disentangle in the space of the few paragraphs usually assigned to the story in literary surveys, and it is an acknowledged fact that in the linguistic struggle known as translation, the original language is often the loser. This can be seen in the various renditions of the very title of the work. "Matrenin dvor" is translated as "Matryona's House" (Paul Blackstock; Michael Glenny) or "Matryona's Home" (H. T. Willetts; Robert Jackson). Yet the term dvor is broader than either "house" or "home." It might best be translated as "homestead" with all the flavor of the American West that the word connotes. In fact, the flavor of the American West is probably most analogous to the atmosphere of the Russian interior that Solzhenitsyn is attempting to convey. For Americans, the West is the "real country"; it is the locus of the American myth. The depths of the forest and the peasant dvor, the house and surrounding land, play a similar role in the Russian cultural myth. In addition, dvor translated as "house" lacks the thematic irony of the original term. Matryona possesses a ramshackle house which she shares with a crippled cat, bugs, and the narrator-lodger. But she does not possess anything like a dvor or homestead. Her "courtyard" is nothing more than a patch of grass, freely accessible to the neighbors, just as Matryona herself is always open and available to her neighbors' demands. This irony is underscored by the fact that in the kolkholz, the dvor is an essential legal and economic entity yet among the neighbors, Matryona and her dvor are social and spiritual anomalies. In the kolkhoz, Matryona's dvor possesses little status.
Even in the title of the story, linguistic nuance contributes greatly to thematic impact. Possessiveness, whether of material objects or of people when they are viewed as objects, is an important motif in this work and one which motivates much of the action of the plot.
This paper will discuss the various levels of language and event in "Matryona's Home" as they contribute to the theme of the story. It will attempt to do this by presenting an analysis of the work's structure.1
Matryona has been viewed as a symbol of ancient pristine Russia mutilated by modern culture, an icon whose spiritual beauty transcends the disruption and dislocations of modern history.2 My own view of the story is less static. I see "Matryona's Home" as the story of one individual's moral maturation. Matryona herself is an image that lies dormant in the narrator's mind until catastrophe becomes the impetus for its development. Solzhenitsyn's metaphor for this process—the narrator's realization of the true significance of the old peasant woman—is the narrator's hobby, photography. A photographer captures an image on a piece of film by exposing the film to light for a fraction of a second. The narrator's life with Matryona is a series of such exposures. Once the image has been imprinted it remains latent in the film, for it is only by passing through the darkroom that the image may develop and emerge from the film. Matryona's sudden death plunges the narrator into the darkness of despair, but it is in this darkness that the true image of Matryona develops and emerges at last in the final pages of the story. Solzhenitsyn's story traces the processes by which latent images are brought to consciousness. He accomplishes this by so structuring the story as to evoke the widest range of nuance and allusion in the mind of the reader.
In any literary work, the opening section or paragraph is often the most essential. It can present at a glance all of the major motifs and themes as well as background details that characterize the work, while attempting to capture the reader's interest. For this reason, a well-designed opening section or first paragraph can determine the impact of the entire work on the reader. "Matryona's Home" begins with just such a well-constructed opening section. It is brief enough to quote in full.
Na sto vosem'desiat chetvertom kilometre ot Moskvy eshche s dobrykh polgoda posle togo vse poezda zamedliali svoi khod pochti kak by do oshchupi. Passazhiry l'nuli k steklam, vykhodili v tambur: chiniat putì, chto li? Iz grafika vyshel?
Net. Proidia pereezd, poezd opiat' nabiral skorost', passazhiry usazhivalis'.
Tol'ko mashinisty znali i pomnili, otchego eto vse.
The section is set off typographically from the remaining text on the page. The remaining text is labeled "1" . This opening section thus forms a kind of prologue to the body of the tale. We can analyze the elements that compose this prologue as well as the tone in which it is presented.
A literal translation of the opening section would run as follows:
At the one hundred and eighty-fourth kilometer from Moscow for at least a good half year after that all trains would slow down as if groping their way. The passengers would cling to the windows, go out into the corridor: are they fixing the tracks or what? Has the train gone off schedule?
No. After passing the crossing, the train would again pick up speed and the passengers would return to their seats.
Only the engineers knew and remembered what it was all about.
The prologue is composed of four short paragraphs scarcely more than one or two sentences apiece. These sentences decrease in length as the text progresses. The last paragraph contains only two words. Each sentence thus receives the maximum attention of the reader. The structural effect is that of an inverted pyramid, with the point toward the "I" of the narrator.
The prologue also locates the action of the story in space and time. The scene is a definite distance from the capital—184 kilometers—at a definite spot—on the railway line—within a distinct time period—at least six months after "that." The narrator is introduced as an important character, since only he and the engineers know why certain events described in this opening section are taking place. The tone is conversational, colloquial, with idiomatic expressions (do oshchupi), parataxis (passazhiry l'nuli k steklam, vykhodili . . . ) and use of direct discourse to present the astonishment of the passengers (chiniat putì, chto li? Iz grafika vyshel?). Solzhenitsyn manipulates rhythm in the second paragraph by introducing variations on the Russian verbs of motion idti and ezdit': "proidia pereezd, poezd . . ." (after passing the crossing, the train . . ."). The accumulation of these three verb forms—a gerund and two nouns based on the verb ezdit' (to travel)—in consecutive order, combined with repetition of the labial "p" ("proidia pereezd, poezd opiat' . . .") articulates the train's slow accumulation of speed as it chugs past the crucial spot.
The collective effect of all these elements is to place the reader directly into the center of action. In fact, the reader shares with the passengers on the train a sense of bewilderment: why do the trains slow down at this particular point? And what is it that the narrator knows and remembers? The reader's interest is piqued especially by the strategically placed, enigmatic "that." Evidently the speaker is referring to some event, but for the moment he gives no details. The reader is thus forced to attempt to reconstruct the incident referred to by piecing together details that are provided: the trains slow down, the engineers know and remember something, the narrator (is he a trainman too?) shares their knowledge and their memory, the event occurred about 120 miles from Moscow.
This reconstruction of the event is a device familiar to writers of detective fiction and, in fact, "Matryona's Home" contains many of the elements of a good detective story. There is a mysterious protagonist who is searching for something and who accidentally becomes involved in the crime of murder, although as an observer rather than as a participant. The story itself is a long meditation on the part of this protagonist, a reconstruction in his own mind of the events that led up to the crime in an attempt to uncover the motives for it. And in the tradition of the best detective fiction, the character of the victim, the murderer and the teller of the tale are all examined for the psychological clues that uncover the hidden motives for human behavior. Moreover, "Matryona's Home" is not the only instance in which Solzhenitsyn exploits the apparatus of the detective novel in order to rivet the attention of his reader. His novel The First Circle opens with a furtive telephone call, a warning, and a sense of impending doom, while the entire plot of the novel involves the search for the mysterious caller.
The opening section of "Matryona's Home" reveals another important motif, that of memory. Memory is closely connected with the image of the train. The engineers not only know why all this is happening, they also remember why it is happening (". . . mashinisty znali i pomnili"). Trains slow down in memory of the mysterious event. With subtle literary irony, the passengers leap to their feet as the train slows down; they rise in unknowing homage to the memory of that which took place. The narrator's tale, his epitaph to the memory of the incident at the railway crossing, begins with the train that brought him to Matryona's village and ends with the fate of the other trains that pass that way. Yet this "ending" is actually the beginning of the story; it is the information contained in the prologue. The image of the train is also directly associated in the reader's mind with a complex of literary memories, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina probably foremost among them. In late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russian literature the train is a familiar phenomenon. It is frequently described by local peasants as an iron horse or fire-breathing dragon—the folk memory of a mythical past. Matryona herself describes the train to the narrator in these terms. Here, the train functions as a symbol of civilization intruding violently into the backwaters of the native culture, displacing animals and persons.
We have seen how an incident involving a train appears at the beginning of Solzhenitsyn's story. Similar incidents occur in the middle and at the end of the tale, forming a framework for the plot. Aside from the incident described in the prologue, the narrator's introduction to the village of Torfoprodukt at the beginning of the story is a sign at the train station which reads: NO TICKETS. In the incident which occurs in the middle of the tale, Matryona recalls how she and her relatives were nearly killed as they struggled to board a train without tickets—the Stationmaster had refused to sell them tickets in their price range—only to discover that the train was empty. The narrator discovers that "for some reason" Matryona fears trains more than anything else. Her fear turns out to be prophetic. At the end of the story, she and her relatives are killed by two engines linked together groping their way down the track backwards in the dark.
Thematically, the train serves as a symbol of arbitrary cruelty. It proceeds blindly along its designated track, oblivious to anything that might stand in its way. This blind cruelty is compounded by the vicious cruelty of those who serve the monster: the Stationmaster, for example, who refuses to sell tickets. The train is also the unwitting instrument of vengeance of Faddei, the villain of the piece.
Solzhenitsyn's technique of anchoring memory in some concrete object is repeated toward the end of the story with great effect in the episode of the narrator's jacket. On the day of her death, Matryona borrows her lodger's jacket without telling him, thus incurring his wrath. This jacket was the narrator's constant companion through the years of his imprisonment and exile and represents for him his past. In a sense, it is his past. His anger at Matryona's breach of courtesy stems in part from his sense that Matryona has been tampering with a part of himself. Yet the depth of the narrator's emotion, his anger at Matryona's thoughtlessness and his subsequent regret for having scolded the old woman for her act, reinforces his memory of the events that took place on the fatal day of Matryona's death. From then on, the jacket is irrevocably bound to the memory of Matryona and the special qualities that distinguished her from everyone else: her lack of possessiveness, her casual attitude toward material acquisitions.
These objects, the train, the jacket, anchor memory in the sense that they bring latent memory to consciousness. Similarly, through his reminiscences the narrator hopes to impart his memory to the passengers on the train, so that by the end of his tale, they will not stumble blindly to their feet, but will rise in conscious recognition of Matryona's qualities.
The arrangement of elements in the first sentence of the prologue to "Matryona's Home" is essential to convey a motif which, along with the motif of memory, Solzhenitsyn has chosen to introduce to the reader immediately at the beginning of the story. In the Russian, the first sentence builds slowly to the key phrase do oshchupi (blindly, fumblingly, gropingly) by piling up the elements of place, time, event and manner. The major emphasis is on the first and last elements in the series. On the strictly literary level, place is a more crucial element than time in the story. Time locates the tale historically; place locates it thematically. In Part 1 of the narrative we discover that the events to be described took place during the summer of 1953 through February of 1954. The incident with the trains described in the prologue would then have taken place in about August of 1954 or almost a full year after the narrator first returned to Russia from the "dusty desert" of Asia. The summer of 1953 is, of course, about five months after the death of Stalin. Stalin's name explains the narrator's long exile from Russia ("a little matter of ten years" as he tells us in Part 1), his hunger for the Russian interior, a dark, cool, leafy contrast to the "wasteland" of his exile; the hint of Stalin's death suggests the possibility of the narrator satisfying his hunger.
Place contributes in an essential way to the theme of Solzhenitsyn's story. As we noted at the beginning of this essay, the Russian interior represents the "genuine" Russia, the heartland of the culture. In Part 1, the narrator expresses his desire to "lose himself in the very depths of Russia" (zateriat'sia v samoi nutrianoi Rossii) as if returning to the womb. His journey into the Russian interior is thus a voyage into the very core of his being as a Russian. And at the heart of this core stands Matryona.
The question is, how does the narrator proceed on this journey toward his goal? The answer is—he gropes toward it, just as the train gropes its way along the tracks toward its ultimate destination.
The notion of groping one's way is intrinsically connected with both the structure and the theme of "Matryona's Home." Although the narrator lives with the old peasant woman for many months, it is not until the very end of the story that he grasps the full significance of her life and death. Before that, he is fumbling for the truth, blinded by superficial images. He sees Matryona only as a picturesque remnant of the Russian past. Her ramshackle hut, her crippled cat and mangy goat, the bugs and her ancient loom: all these are quaint reminders of Old Russia, props in a theater set. The narrator attempts to preserve these quaint remnants by photographing Matryona in her natural habitat. But the old woman invariably freezes up before a camera and becomes unnaturally severe. Clearly, the static image on the glossy surface is not the real Matryona. The image of the true Matryona remains undeveloped in the narrator's mind until the fatal accident.
Manner also implies a motive for the narrator's return to his homeland. He is depicted in the very process of groping for his psychological and spiritual roots, for the manner of how best to live in conformity with his nature as a Russian. He believes that this process requires leaping backwards over the disjuncture of Stalin's regime and of the whole Soviet experiment. It involves digging below the surface of Soviet culture to the base soil of the ancient Russian culture and below that, to the ideal of that culture.
"Matryona's Home" is a relatively brief work of thirty-odd pages. Its impact on the reader, however, is disproportionate with its brevity. One of the reasons for the story's tremendous impact is the author's skillful use of language. Subtle differences in wording and phrasing go far toward clarifying major motifs and themes in the story, as we have seen in our discussion of the prologue. Another reason for the story's impact on the reader is the variety of structural devices employed by the author. These devices may be grouped under at least four major headings: fairy tale, ballad, cinema, and symbolic image. The fairy tale and ballad belong among the genres of oral literature, the cinema is a nonliterary form, while the device of symbolic imagery, common enough in belles lettres, incorporates overtones of the myth or religious legend in Solzhenitsyn's story. Each of these forms is familiar to the reader in other contexts. In "Matryona's Home" they mold the plot and atmosphere of the story, uniting allusions scattered throughout the story into a thematic whole. These forms act subliminally on the reader throughout the story as reminders of familiar territory just as they influence the narrator of the tale in his search for the heart of Russia.
The fairy tale technique particularly concerns the character and role of the narrator. In the opening scenes in which the narrator is introduced, the story follows quite closely the plot outline of a traditional fairy tale. Like the traditional fairy tale hero, the narrator comes from a far distant land (in this case, the steppes of Asia) in search of something. The phrases he chooses to explain his quest to the reader echo the lulling tone of the traditional Russian fairy tale: "Mne khotelos' zatesat'sia i zateriat'sia v samoi nutrianoi Rossii—esli takaia gde-to byla, zhila." ("I wanted to crawl away and hide myself in the very depths of Russia—if such a place existed somewhere"). The twofold repetition of the verb is a traditional skazka (fairy tale) technique (compare, "V nekotorom tsarstve, v nekotorom gosudarstve, zhil-byl tsar'. . ."; "In a certain kingdom, in a certain land, there once lived a tsar . . ."). The object of the narrator's quest, like that of the fairy tale hero, is a woman, but not the beautiful and nobly-born princess of the traditional tales. Rather, the woman of the narrator's quest is Russia herself, the authentic Russia hidden behind the veil of Soviet culture.
Like the traditional hero, the narrator meets with hindrances in the course of his quest. The first of these is Soviet red tape. Officials go through his documents with a fine comb before they assign him, in his capacity as a teacher, to what turns out to be a false idyll, the land of Vysokoe Pole, the High Field. Vysokoe Pole is for the narrator what the land of the Phaiacians was for Odysseus: a spot of incredible beauty and total detachment from reality. The village of Vysokoe Pole is not self-sufficient, however. It depends for its existence on Soviet reality in the form of the regional town, from which it imports its food supplies. And so the narrator plunges back into the conflict, going from an extreme of beauty to an extreme of ugliness. This is Torfoprodukt, a dreary workers' settlement, located, as its name suggests, in the peat bogs. Yet the logic of the fairy tale often has it that the brightest treasure is concealed in the least beautiful spot. So it is that through this settlement, the hero is led to penetrate through the gloom to Matryona, the true object of his search.
On his journey into the depths of Russian reality, the narrator encounters the guideposts and guidepersons typical of the traditional fairy tale. At the very entrance to Torfoprodukt he comes upon the sign that traditionally greets heroes at the crossroads of their quest. But instead of the usual "To the left—a horse awaits you," "To the right—death awaits you," this sign reads: BOARD TRAINS ONLY FROM THE PASSENGERS' HALL! Affixed to the first injunction are two other notices: AND WITHOUT TICKETS. NO TICKETS. These last two are unofficial additions by local wits. The guidepost at the station is succeeded by the traditional fairy tale guideperson who appears at the entrance to the forest to direct the hero to his destination.
In "Matryona's Home" this guide takes the form of a peasant woman possessed of mellifluous speech and a bottle of milk which she sells to the narrator. (I have deliberately avoided the Freudian level of psychological interpretation in the story, but it is surely significant that the narrator-hero, about to "lose" himself in the depths of Mother Russia, begins his adventure by swallowing a bottle of milk.) The woman's peasant speech rings like an incantation in the narrator's ears. He submits to the magic of village names that roll off the woman's tongue for they promise him that he is nearing the object of his search—kondovaia Rossiia, "solid" Russia. Having drunk down the woman's potion, the narrator-hero is led by his guide, by a round-about route, to the good witch, Matryona.
Matryona's hut and its strange inhabitants remind one of Baba Iaga's home in the forest. Matryona's establishment, however, bears none of the sinister overtones of the evil witch and the narrator is soon comfortably settled there. Matryona's voice, too, has an enchantingly soothing effect on him, particularly when she is about to feed him.
Matryona got up at four or five o'clock in the morning. . . . I scarcely heard her at her morning chores. I slept late, awoke in the wintry daylight, stretched a bit and poked my head out from under my blanket and my sheepskin. . . . When I heard discreet noises on the other side of the screen, I spoke to her, slowly and deliberately.
"Good morning, Matryona Vasilievna."
And every time the same goodnatured words came to me from behind the screen. They began with that low, warm murmer that grandmothers make in fairy tales [kakim-to nizkim teplym murchaniem, kak u babushek v skazkakh]:
"Mmmmm . . . and the same to you."
And after a little while, "Your breakfast is ready for you now."
It would seem that the narrator has reached the goal of his quest. He has come home. But the idyll is soon shattered and the narrator discovers that, in fact, the true object of his search, the "genuine Russia" has been hidden from him all the time. Kondovaia Rossiiia—solid Russia—turns out to be an illusion, while the frail Matryona is seen to be more solid and genuine than all her surroundings.
The narrator's word kondovaia in the context of the story is filled with thematic nuances. It is variously translated as "backwoods," "the very core," and "true, legendary," but none of these convey the full flavor of the Russian. Literally, the word means "well built, solid" and is usually associated with wood. The significance of this literal definition for the entire story is self-evident. The narrator is journeying from the dusty Asian steppes into the forests of Russia. In the forest he hopes to find the heart of Russia. The narrator observes that before the Revolution, Torfoprodukt had been covered with deep, impenetrable forests, but afterwards peat diggers and the local kolkhoz had collaborated in cutting them down. The kolkhoz chairman had even sold vast tracts of forest for personal gain. Beneath the faded, sagging wallpaper that covers the inner walls of Matryona's home stands genuine, solid wood, but it is rarely seen in its full beauty. Papered on the inside and weather-beaten on the outside, its true nature is disguised and ignored.
Matryona's house is solidly built, but it is wrenched and hacked apart by the axes of Faddei and his sons, just as Matryona is hacked apart by the train as she helps Faddei cart away the planks on a sledge poorly constructed of rotten wood. In "Matryona's Home" wood indicates the state of people's souls.
While the structure and motifs of the fairy tale predominate in the first part of the story and are particularly associated with the narrator's view of surroundings and events, the motifs of the ballad dominate the latter parts of the story and are most closely associated with Matryona. The ballad traditionally recounts a story of love, betrayal, and revenge. The chorus of a popular American ballad runs: "And only say that you'll be mine / And in no other's arms entwine." In this ballad, the heroine's unfaithfulness causes her erstwhile lover to "plunge a knife into her breast" in the midst of an embrace. A Russian variant of this scene has: "Ty voz'mi, voz'mi sabliu vostruiu, / Ty razrezh', razrezh' moiu belu grud'," where the heroine invites her own punishment. Yet another variant of this same Russian ballad has equal significance for the story of Matryona's unhappy marriage: "Ty zhenis', zhenis', razbessovestnyi, / Ty voz'mi, voz'mi u soseda dochku." ("Marry, oh marry, unscrupulous one, / Take, oh take the neighbor's daughter.") This is exactly what Faddei does when he returns from the war to discover that Matryona, his own betrothed, has married his brother. Since Faddei cannot have the original Matryona, he appropriates a second Matryona from a nearby village. But before leaving his brother's house, he curses and threatens the couple, claiming that only ties of kinship prevent him from taking an ax to them both. Forty years later, Faddei takes an ax to Matryona's house and that very night, Matryona is hacked to death by a train as she helps her relatives cart away the wood.
The Doppelgänger who sucks his original dry is a familiar figure both in folk literature and in belles lettres. Faddei's wife, the "second Matryona," true to form, seems to sap the vitality from the Matryona who is the narrator's host. The narrator watches as her endless complaints exhaust his Matryona's resources of goodnatured sympathy. Even before the narrator's arrival, the second Matryona seems to have been mysteriously influencing her original's existence for evil. In the course of forty years, both Matryonas bear six children apiece. Yet all six of the original Matryona's children die, while those of her double live. The author employs this ominous coincidence to draw attention once again to Matryona's unique virtue, her utter selflessness. Lacking a natural child to carry on her existence and memory in the world, she adopts the youngest daughter of the second Matryona and brings her up in her own house. Ironically, she thereby invites her own destruction, for this child furnishes Faddei with the excuse he needs for repossessing Matryona's house—the house which should have come to him as the eldest son. Matryona's house is dismantled and hauled to the railroad tracks in order to secure some property for the daughter and her husband in a distant village.
Solzhenitsyn uses the structure and motifs of the ballad to point up an important moral theme in the story. This is the theme of possessiveness, of which Faddei is the primary example. Faddei is determined to have what he believes to be his, whether it is a house or a woman, at any price. His mania for possession causes him ultimately to commit murder. But if Faddei is the most spectacular culprit, he is not alone in the petty greed that Solzhenitsyn views as an eternal death of the spirit. After Matryona's death, her relatives descend upon her small "estate" with vulturous rapacity. Even Matryona's only real friend in the village is anxious to claim her small share of the legacy—an old grey shawl—before it is borne off by someone else. The narrator himself is guilty of some cupidity in the incident of the jacket. Yet this incident capsulizes an ironic reversal of roles, for Matryona's lodger, the village teacher, completes his moral education under the tutelage of his landlady. And, as is often the case, he only begins to grasp the point of the lesson after it is over. With Matryona gone and her possessions dispersed, the message of Matryona's life and death reveals itself to him with greater clarity.
We have already discussed the way in which photography serves as a metaphor, describing the process by which the narrator's accumulated memories of his life with Matryona develop and, suddenly, cohere in his mind. History preserved in pictures is a common enough phenomenon. But when these are moving pictures, they assume an even greater authenticity. Several scenes in "Matryona's Home" feature the art of the cinema as a means of recreating the past. But here the narrator uses his talents in this direction to recreate Matryona's memories of her past, which, for the narrator, is synonymous with the authentic Russian past.
Much of "Matryona's Home" is highly photogenic, dramatic and colorful. Scenes of backwoods Soviet Russian life have an immediate appeal to the eye: the train station at Torfoprodukt, Matryona's house, the wake held in her memory. Capsule scenes such as the conversation between Matryona and the kolkhoz chairwoman in which Matryona is ordered to go to work for the kolkhoz with her own tools are also well suited to film. But most significant of all is the scene in which Matryona tells the narrator her life story. In this scene, the narrator's eyes act as camera lenses, scouring the walls of the house for visible signs of Matryona's tale.
"He was the first one who came courting me, before Efim did . . . he was his brother . . . the older one . . . I was nineteen and Faddei was twenty-three. . . . They lived in this very same house. It was their house. Their father built it."
I looked round the room automatically. Instead of the old grey house rotting under the faded green skin of wallpaper where the mice played, I suddenly saw new timbers, freshly trimmed and not yet discolored, and caught the cheerful smell of pine tar.
The narrator's mind transforms the scene he is viewing. The rotted planks of Matryona's house fade out. A scene of earlier days fades in. Matryona continues to speak and again, the narrator transforms the scene in his imagination and projects it to the reader-viewer.
"That summer we went to sit in the grove together," she whispered. "There used to be a grove where the stableyard is now. They chopped it down . . . I was just about to marry him, Ignatich. Then the German war began. They took Faddei into the army."
She let these words fall and suddenly the blue and white and yellow July of the year 1914 burst into flower before my eyes: the sky still peaceful, floating clouds, the people sweating to get the ripe corn in. I imagined them side by side, the black-haired Hercules with a scythe over his shoulder, and the red-faced girl, clutching a sheaf. And there was singing under the open sky, such songs as nobody can sing these days with all the machines in the field.
Evidently, the narrator's imagination has been not a little influenced by Soviet posters and grade C films. One can almost hear the voices of a full-fledged Russian chorus swelling in the background as peasant-bogatyrs are shown bringing in the harvest. Yet sentimental as the scene is, it is still the narrator's lyric paean to the Russia of the past recreated in Matryona's memories and projected by the narrator's imagination.
Photography is a science of light. But Solzhenitsyn uses light imagery in other ways throughout his story. Light as knowledge, as spiritual illumination, appears in that early scene in which the narrator meets the peasant woman selling milk in a market near Torfoprodukt. The narrator's first impression of Torfoprodukt is one of gloom: he arrives in the town toward evening; clouds of grey smoke rising from factories connected with the peat works greet him. He spends an uncomfortable night on a bench in the grey station. When it is "scarcely light" (chut' svet) he wanders out to have another look at his surroundings. In the half-light of dawn, he comes upon the peasant woman, is struck by her speech and asks where she is from: " 'A vy otkuda? ' prosvetlel ia. I ia uznal, chto ne vse vokrug torforazrabotki, chto est' za polotnom zheleznoi dorogi—bugor, a za bugrom—derevnia, i derevnia eta—Tal'novo. . . ." ("'Where are you from?' I brightened up. And I learned that not everything around was peatworks, that beyond the railroad embankment was a hill, and beyond the hill, a village, and this village was Tal'novo.") Just as the narrator "lights up" on hearing the peasant woman's speech one can imagine the sun simultaneously rising over the hills as day replaces dawn. The woman illuminates the narrator as to the landscape that extends beyond the hills, far from the grey factory town. This bright vista is Matryona's territory and it is there that the narrator gains his ultimate insight into true righteousness. The single verbprosvetlet' thus neatly fuses emotional, physical, geographical and spiritual illumination on the narrator's part.
In the struggle between Matryona, the force of Light, and the rest of the villagers, children of Darkness, that takes place like an undertow throughout the story, Faddei is the chief representative of spiritual gloom. With his huge black beard and tenebrous mien, he is a dark patch in every scene. The narrator depicts him standing in a murky spot when he threatens his brother and Matryona, his brother's new bride: "Suddenly, I imagined Faddei standing there, young and black haired, in the dark patch by the door, with his ax raised." The only time Faddei's eyes are seen to gleam with light is when he is dismantling Matryona's house and then it is the yellow light of greed and vengeance that illumines them, not the white light of knowledge or truth. When old Masha, Matryona's only friend, comes to request Matryona's shawl as her rightful share of the legacy, the narrator concedes her right to the shawl, but he recognizes the dark corner of the soul from which the request comes. "'Ignatich, . . . do you remember the lovely grey shawl that Matryona had. . . . Didn't she promise it, after her death, to my little Tania?' And she looked at me hopefully in the gloom (I s nadezhdoi smotrela na menia v polut'me . . .) . . . ."
The most obviously symbolic use of light, of course, occurs in the description of the accident. Matryona's relatives, gathered at the railroad tracks to haul their sledges full of wood over the crossing, watch out for the lights of an oncoming train. But they peer for this ominous sign in the wrong direction and are hit by two engines, unlighted and coupled together, careening backwards down the track. Moral blindness is here embodied in physical blindness. Moreover, the identity of modern Soviet history, proceeding purposefully toward the wrong goal in the wrong direction and Russian peasant culture, proceeding at cross purposes but in a similar manner, is symbolized by the fact that two engines, locked together, plough into two sledges, roped together. Matryona had advised hiring two tractors, one for each sledge, but Faddei's avarice precluded paying a second driver.
In his essay, Jackson argues that the accident that caused Matryona's death "emerges out of Russian life and history, most immediately out of the years of revolutionary upheaval and change—for Solzhenitsyn profoundly tragic years involving the disfiguration and dislocation of Russian life."3 But the accident cannot be blamed solely on the Stalin years nor yet on the Soviet experience. Rather, it is the result of deep-rooted vices inherent in human nature and fostered by culture, whether Soviet culture or Russian peasant culture. One of the chief ironies of "Matryona's Home" is the similarity between Soviet life, the so-called new order, and peasant life, the old order. Both have their prescribed rituals; the word poriadok (order) occurs in connection with peasant custom as well as with Soviet red tape. At Matryona's funeral, the narrator observes in the traditional "wailing" over the body, a "coldly preconceived order established from all time (kholodno-produmannyi, iskoni-zavedennyi poriadok)." The ancient peasant ritual of mourning is a "politicized" event, and not because of any intervention by Soviet officialdom. It is the politics inherent in human relations that cause the mourners to shift the blame from themselves to the dead and to state indirectly their present position with regard to the possessions of the deceased.
The narrator had fled from Soviet culture seeking the pure air of the Russian peasantry. But all that he discovered in the peasant village was greed, superstition, spite, envy and a desire for self-advancement. Even Matryona conforms to some extent to false values. She takes her turn feeding the village herdsmen on delicacies in order to maintain her position in the community. ("'You have to be careful with tailors and herdsmen,' Matryona explained. 'They'll spread your name all around the village if something doesn't please them.'") She refuses to call in a doctor to tend her in her illness for fear of the neighbors' gossip (". . . they would say she was putting on airs." ". . . mol—barynia"). She is superstitious, more pagan than Christian, as the narrator remarks, and she fears thunderstorms, fire, and trains. Yet in all the village, Matryona is the one righteous one.
One of the greatest ironies in the story is the narrator's discovery at the very end of the tale that the charming incarnation of Russian peasantry with whom he has been living for months is not a typical peasant at all. She is a saint. The narrator concludes his tale with the proclamation that Matryona was "that one righteous person without whom, as the proverb says, no village can stand. Nor any city. Nor our whole country." His declaration reminds one of the Eastern European Jewish legend of the lamed-vovniks, the thirty-six "hidden righteous" who go unnoticed in the world but without whom the world cannot exist. In her superstitious ignorance and conformity to peasant ritual, Matryona is indeed the archetypical peasant. But she is distinguished from her neighbors by her utter selflessness. This quality is carried by the old woman to such a degree that it outshines all else. The miracle is that by effacing herself, Matryona shines all the more brightly. She is never so much herself as when she is gone. And she burns most brightly in the memory of the narrator. At Matryona's wake, her relatives sing the traditional Vechnaia Pamiat', Eternal Memory, dischordantly and indifferently. But for the narrator, the memory of Matryona is essential to his view of how best to live.
By means of a variety of linguistic and structural devices, Solzhenitsyn points to his themes and his moral ideal and the ironies that underlie them. His devices are signposts for any reader who, like the narrator, journeys with a good will toward the discovery of an ideal image and of a place for the self.
1 Shortly after this paper was written, Professor Robert L. Jackson's excellent article "'Matryona's Home': The Making of a Russian Icon" came to my attention. While Professor Jackson's analyses and conclusions often coincide with my own (and this is scarcely surprising considering the polemical nature of the story), our emphasis on the literary elements that produce these conclusion differs. Professor Jackson's essay concentrates on the theme of "figuration and disfiguration" (obraz and bezobrazie). He sees Matryona as an icon, an obraz, whereas I tend to see the character of Matryona as an imprint in the mind of the narrator. It is the narrator of the story who helps to create Matryona's meaning as much as Matryona herself. Throughout this paper I have referred to the story as "Matryona's Home" because this is the title more familiar to the Western reader.
2 Robert Louis Jackson, '"Matryona's Home': The Making of a Russian Icon," in Kathryn Feuer (ed.), Solzhenitsyn: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1976).
3 Ibid., p. 61.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7168
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 attempting to break out of the context of forced confinement in order to project his ideas and philosophy in a more familiar setting. And yet even Solzhenitsyn's short stories do not omit the experience of the zek altogether. "Matryonin Dvor" ("Matryona's House") and "Pravaya Kist'" ("The Right Hand"), both highly autobiographical, contain veiled references to the convict's world. The narrators of these stories are better able than the average man to evaluate the injustices of the social structure and life in general, presumably because of their experience in the labor camps. In Solzhenitsyn's short stories, prison life is thus no longer a major topic in itself, but an experience which engenders in his characters a more profound view of the world.
I "Matryona's House"
"Matryona's House," or, more literally translated, "Matryona's Homestead," is a story about the drab life of a remote village which has long been a kolkhoz, or collective farm. The simple plot can be summarized in one sentence: a former prisoner, now a schoolteacher, moves into the village, rents a room in Matryona's log cabin, becomes acquainted with her and her brother-in-law (her first fiancé), and later learns of her death in a train accident.
Because it is set in a kolkhoz, "Matryona's Homestead" has usually been interpreted as a reflection of that dismal rural life resulting from Stalin's collectivization of the countryside. Such an interpretation, however, ignores most of the text. The story is rather about Matryona herself and offers a profound portrait of her personality. One of Solzhenitsyn's most striking achievements in this story is his artistic economy in depicting an apparently insignificant human being who finally attains such spiritual heights that she emerges as the only righteous member of her community. Matryona certainly does not attract anyone's attention, and only one whose perception has been sharpened by suffering would recognize any appealing or remarkable traits in this elderly woman.
To this end Solzhenitsyn draws on his own experience to create the narrator, Ignatich, who stands apart from the people around Matryona. He holds a university degree and teaches mathematics in high school. Though we know little about him, his point of view is clear. He was apparently an army officer arrested during World War II, sent to a concentration camp for several years, and later exiled to the edge of a desert near the periphery of the USSR. Weary, he now seeks silence, simplicity, and the beauty of nature. He has not returned from exile in the wilderness to enjoy the excitement of a big city but rather to lose himself in the forests of central Russia, where the uncorrupted language and the traditional way of life are untouched by modern civilization and are still closely linked with the past. This is why in the market place he quickly arrives at an understanding with a simple woman, whose local dialect flavored with melodic intonations attracts him.
Ignatich does not wallow in self-pity, but is content to lead a spartan life provided he is not disturbed by the tasteless instruments of modern urban civilization, such as the village loudspeaker. What allows Ignatich to look beyond the trivialities and vanities so important to the average person is his extraordinary perceptiveness acquired in passing through the most horrible experiences known to man—war and concentration camps. This is essential to the story's development. Ignatich's prior experience enables him not only to adjust quite readily to the extremely primitive life on Matryona's homestead, but also to appreciate her simple, peaceful, and harmonious personality, her spiritual strength, and her genuine, unshakable love for everyone and everything.
Matryona stands apart from the other rural people in the story, who are basically possessed by overwhelming greed. The ancient, ubiquitous, and hopelessly primitive instinct to acquire, to protect, and finally slavishly to augment their own property is the villagers' dominant drive. Matryona is an icon of dignified poverty, unique in her community. She is a spiritual outsider, perhaps not even aware of her uniqueness, having never contrasted her own philosophy with that of her neighbors and relatives.
If we compare Matryona to the usual positive hero portrayed in the works of socialist realism, we may discern an interesting twist in Solzhenitsyn's choice of a protagonist lacking the basic drive to acquire private property. The new, socialist man as presented in the Party-controlled literature is also emancipated from the acquisitive impulse, but not because of its obvious senselessness. Rather he struggles fanatically for technological progress, and is dedicated to collective acquisition. The accumulation of property remains the common denominator of the old and the new man, except that the owner of that property changes. It could not be otherwise, given the fact that the old capitalist and the new socialist ideologies both place their faith in technological progress, with its ability continually to increase the production of material goods.
Matryona, however, does not acquire material goods because she does not believe in their value, and this very lack of belief enables her to transcend all political systems and governments. The question that she raises by her way of life is universal, relevant to all centuries and all nations: should an individual devote his life to material acquisition, or is there not something more important worthy of human attention and sacrifice?
Matryona shares with socialist man an indifference to private property, but she rejects his almost religious faith in technological progress and collective ownership. She ridicules such progress in her reaction to an announcement about the invention of new agricultural machinery, as she unconsciously questions the ecological wisdom of endless technological improvement by asking where the old machines will be stored.
Ignatich's understanding of Matryona evolves gradually. Despite the fact that he is adequately prepared to appreciate her rare qualities, he still does not immediately grasp her spiritual significance. At the beginning of the story, Ignatich perceives Matryona merely as a lonely, quiet, elderly woman who is periodically ill and who is isolated from the community. Soon, however, her more essential qualities—her inner peace and her benevolent attitude toward all her surroundings—emerge through her radiant smile and naturally friendly, always polite replies. Ignatich notices that Matryona is at peace with herself and possesses the highest degree of inner freedom, since she never acts contrary to her principles. The price she pays for her freedom is extreme poverty, for she earns no money at all but derives her livelihood solely from nature. A single goat provides her with milk; she warms her house by collecting peat in the forest, which amounts to stealing from the government; she prepares preserves from bilberries that she gathers in the forest; and she cultivates her small potato garden, which supplies the main nourishment for her goat, Ignatich, and herself. During her first winter with Ignatich, Matryona's financial situation improves because she collects rent from him and receives her late husband's state pension. Her illness attacks her less frequently. She makes a winter coat for herself and puts some money aside for her funeral. She is perfectly self-contained and happy, and these very modest improvements may partly account for her improved health.
As Ignatich observes, Matryona has a rather refined esthetic sense. She likes plants and grows many in her home. She also displays good taste in music. Listening to Shaliapin's rendition of Russian folksongs on a radio program, she protests, "No. He hasn't got it right. That's not the way we sing. And he plays tricks with his voice."1 Another time she surprises Ignatich with a genuine appreciation of a recital of Glinka's songs:
Suddenly, after half a dozen of his concert arias, Matryona appeared excitedly from the kitchen, clutching her apron, with a film of tears misting her eyes.
"Now that's . . . our sort of singing," she whispered.2
At the end of the story, Ignatich remembers Matryona—her enjoyment of the beauty of art and nature, of work for its own sake without any selfish calculation of profits, and her childlike, unquestioning acceptance of the people around her. She is dead and buried, and her relatives have carefully divided her meager belongings among them before Ignatich realizes how exceptional Matryona was:
None of us who lived close to her perceived that she was that one righteous person without whom, as the saying goes, no city can stand.
Neither can the whole world.3
Vladimir Dal's Tolkovyi slovar' russkogo yazyka (Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language) contains a similar Russian saying, the obvious source of which is Genesis 18:20-33. The adjective "righteous" which Solzhenitsyn applies to his protagonist is applicable as well to Shukhov and Alyoshka the Baptist, from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. These three characters resist the brutalization of man's interactions with his fellow man, reject the generally accepted way of life, and question the value of that normal life which one should supposedly preserve at any cost. They suggest that there is a limit to the price one ought to pay merely to exist. All three characters are linked by their common character to the better educated and more eloquent Nerzhin in The First Circle. Matryona, however, is the most vulnerable and only post-humously stands out from her dehumanizing environment. She is also the only character in Solzhenitsyn's works who endures life-long hardship outside the confines of a concentration camp or prison. For these reasons her righteousness is difficult to recognize. Even Ignatich comes to recognize Matryona's true worth only after her death and after listening to her sister-in-law criticize her. At the end of the story the reader learns that the philistine villagers had ostracized Matryona because she did not share their way of life. The righteous person is an outcast in the world Solzhenitsyn depicts. This is why it takes another outcast, an ex-convict only recently returned from exile, to recognize Matryona for what she really was.
A similar view of the world is at the core both of Matryona's philosophy and Kuzyomin's code in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Matryona did not make the improvement of her material situation her chief priority. She did not raise a pig, nor did she accumulate possessions as did the other villagers, who place more value on them than on their own lives. It is as if someone like Kuzyomin had once told her something along the following lines: The kolkhoz dehumanizes people, but one can still retain one's dignity. The ones who become animals are those who care too much for their earthly treasures, those who forget the beauty of the world and the pure joy of being alive.
II "An Incident at Krechetovka Station"
"An Incident at Krechetovka Station" is a war story, although the war itself is not depicted. The plot revolves about an incident which in itself is rather ridiculous. An utterly unmilitary-looking soldier, Tveritinov, an actor prior to his mobilization, has become separated from his unit after breaking out of German encirclement and now, alone, is trying to overtake his original transport. He approaches Lieutenant Zotov, the commander of the railroad station at Krechetovka, for further directions.
Zotov, the protagonist of the story, is a young idealist, a patriot, and a devoted Marxist. His administrative zeal and his willingness to help wherever he can are remarkable, and in this instance he tries to aid Tveritinov. Zotov also admires literature and the theater, and this interest leads him into a warm discussion with the ex-actor.
Relaxing after their friendly conversation, Tveritinov makes a tragic blunder by admitting that he does not know the city of Tsaritsyn has been renamed Stalingrad. This causes Zotov to suspect that the odd-looking soldier is a German spy, a Russian emigré who has been dropped behind the front lines and is now roaming around in a Red Army uniform collecting military data for the Germans. On the basis of this suspicion, Zotov delivers Tveritinov to the MGB. Although Zotov later makes some inquiries, he learns nothing more of Tveritinov, and presumably fears the authorities may never release him after his arrest. Zotov cannot forget Tveritinov—"the man with the delightful smile and the snapshot of his daughter in her little striped dress. Surely he had done everything he should have done. Yes, but. . . ."4
One may, of course, argue that Zotov only did his duty in reporting a suspicious man to the authorities. After all, the MGB had the resources to determine whether the man really was a spy or was simply a mobilized Russian actor who never read the newspapers, was uninterested in politics, and consequently was ignorant of a particular city's change of name. The argument is plausible, however, only if one chooses to ignore entirely the political climate in the USSR at that time. Even a man like Tveritinov, removed from the mainstream of life, knows that an arrest by the MGB is almost always fatal, that one rarely returns from behind barbed wire. At the moment of his arrest he shouts at Zotov: "What are you doing, what are you doing?" . . . in a voice that rang like a bell. "You're making a mistake that can never be put right!"5 This is why Zotov remains morally responsible for turning Tveritinov over to the secret police. The question that remains is how Zotov, with his patriotic zeal and devotion to the Party during the first unsuccessful months of war, might have found another, more flexible, and thus more human approach to the dilemma Tveritinov presents? Could Zotov have risked letting a suspicious man remain free to continue his journey through the country?
The narrator offers the key to this solution at the beginning of the story, in the course of an argument among some railroad workers about another incident at Krechetovka Station. Though only mentioned in passing, this incident is closely related to Tveritinov's case. Two trains—one carrying sacks of flour, some of which is in open cars, and the other bearing evacuated soldiers who have broken out of German encirclement and are being transported to the home front for retraining and recuperation—meet at the station. Demoralized after unusually heavy combat, the troops lack their usual discipline. During their transport they have doubtless been fed only irregularly because of conditions during the war and the bureaucratic inefficiency of the local authorities. As soon as the soldiers realize what the adjacent train at the station is carrying, they begin to steal the flour despite the warnings of a lone, young guard. In despair he fires a shot and unfortunately kills one of the soldiers—clearly unintentionally. The other soldiers on the transport are prepared to kill the guard, who is saved when an officer pretends to arrest him.
Later, in a room at the station, a retired railway worker, Kordubailo, discusses the unfortunate incident. He has voluntarily returned to work during the war, obviously out of patriotism. Two women railroad employees, Valya and Frosya, try to justify the young guard's action, but the old man, while outwardly agreeing with them, actually interprets the incident very differently:
"What else could he have done?" Valya argued, tapping her little pencil. "He was on duty, he was the guard!"
"Well, yes"—the old man nodded agreement, dropping large bits of red ash on the floor and the lid of his lantern. "Yes, that's right. Still, everybody wants to eat."6
The juxtaposition of two incontrovertible laws—that of the state or army, and that of the empty stomach, so cleverly introduced by the old man—creates a difficult and irritating dilemma for Valya:
"What are you on about?" The girl frowned. "What do you mean 'everybody'?"
"I mean you and me, for instance." And Kordubailo sighed.
"You don't know what you're talking about, grandad! They're not hungry, you know. They get their rations. You don't think they travel without rations, do you?"
"Well, I suppose not," agreed the old man. . . .7
The contradiction is clear. These presumably well-fed soldiers are stealing not delicacies or vodka but a staple, flour, which they obviously cannot transform into edible food:
"Have you girls ever tried eating raw flour mixed with water?"
"Why should I eat it raw?" Frosya was shocked. "I'd mix it up, knead it, and bake it."
The old man smacked his thick, pale lips and said after a pause—he always talked like this; his words came out lamely and awkwardly as though on crutches: "Then you've never seen hunger, my dears."8
Thus does the old man by indirection lay bare the fallacy of Valya's argument. The soldiers must have been ravenous: this is the only possible explanation for their interest in the flour.
At this moment Zotov, who has overheard the conversation from his room, rushes in to uphold the Party viewpoint: "Lieutenant Zotov stepped over the threshold and broke into the conversation. 'Listen, old man, you know what taking the oath means, don't you?'"9 Zotov injects the oath into the argument with the obvious intention of silencing the stubborn old man. However, it is precisely Kordubailo's age which negates Zotov's tactic:
The old man gave the lieutenant a bleary-eyed look. He was not a very big man, but his boots were big and heavy, soaking wet, and smeared in places with mud.
'"Course," he muttered. "I took it five times."
"Well, who did you swear the oath to? Tsar Nicky?"
The old man shook his head. "Before that."
"What? Alexander III?"
The old man smacked his lips regretfully and went on smoking.
"There you are. Nowadays they take the oath to the people. Isn't there a difference?"10
Clearly Zotov's argument is pure rhetoric, for many meaningless oaths have been sworn in twentieth-century Russia, which has seen several regimes come and go. Valya readily perceives the fallacy in Zotov's argument, and she quickly shifts to the seemingly more persuasive ground of so-called "people's property" in her effort to defend the young guard:
"And whose flour is it? It belongs to the people, doesn't it?" Valya said angrily, tossing back her tumbling curls. "That flour wasn't going to the Germans, was it?"
"That's right." The old man quite agreed. "But those boys weren't Germans either, they're our people too."11
In peacetime Valya's argument would be difficult to refute. A very simple, clear logic would operate. The country is ruled by the people; all property is the people's property; anyone who damages the people's property is the people's enemy; the people's government and its special institution, the MGB, should rid the country of the people's enemies.
In wartime, however, an additional factor distorts this line of logic. The real enemy now is Germany. That fact makes it virtually impossible to label a Russian soldier who is fighting the Germans an enemy of the people. The rhetoric of peacetime turns out to be nearly invalid in time of war. This is why Zotov, who is essentially a dogmatist, feels threatened by the old man's remark and loses his temper:
"You stupid old man." Zotov was roused. "Don't you know about law and order? Suppose we all just help ourselves—I take a bit, you take a bit—do you think we'll ever win the war?"12
Valya and Frosya try to help Zotov enlighten the old man.
"And why did they slice the sacks open?" Valya said indignantly. "That's no way to act. Is that what we expect from our boys?"
"But why waste it? Why let it spill out onto the track?" Frosya too was indignant. "All that flour bursting out and pouring away, comrade lieutenant! Think how many children could have been fed on it!"13
In any argument, the mention of "hungry children" is usually the last resort of hypocrites and demagogues. The old man, however, is too clever to be trapped by this move. He places all the blame on the authorities, who are obviously mismanaging the "people's property" just as they are mismanaging the entire war effort: "That's right,' said the old man. 'But in this rain all the flour in those open [cars] would get wet anyway.'"14
The old man's remark is the last sensible comment in the argument. Zotov is deaf to the excellent lecture which Kordubailo gives him, can think only in terms of propagandistic Party clichés, and cannot learn from an old man who has taken oaths to five different governments in his lifetime and who is immune to official Party rhetoric. Zotov continues to torment himself with painful and dangerous questions:
The point was, why was the war going like this? Where was the revolution all over Europe, why weren't our troops advancing virtually unscathed against every possible coalition of aggressors? Instead, there was this mess. And how much longer would it last? . . . Anguish gripped his heart at the thought that Moscow might be surrendered. Zotov never spoke his thoughts aloud—to do so would be dangerous—and he was afraid even to say them to himself. Trying not to think about it, he thought about it all the time.15
The narrator explains Zotov's terrifying shortsightedness, his inability to perceive reality correctly, to think for himself, and to comprehend the independent thoughts of others. His deification of Stalin has robbed Zotov of his intellectual independence, his ability to analyze life and historical events:
Vasya Zotov considered it a crime that such cowardly thoughts should even run through his head. It was blasphemy, it was an insult to the omniscient, omnipotent Father and Teacher who was always there, who foresaw everything, who would do all that had to be done and would never let it happen.16
Such a man as Zotov—and there were millions like him—must eventually become cruel. His fanatical faith in the official lie must ultimately bring him to a bitter conflict with someone who in one way or another would force him to face reality. Actually, Kordubailo is a good candidate for arrest, but he cleverly veils his beliefs behind a seeming imbecility. The second incident—with the odd-looking, cultured, and not-so-shrewd Tveritinov—ends tragically.
Zotov is something of a tragic figure himself. Basically a man of fine character—a patriot, a faithful husband, a diligent officer, and a student who tries to educate himself in his spare moments—he would seem nearly flawless had not the narrator purposely omitted from his description the two essential traits of common sense and humor. Frosya's naive but cheerful declaration that nothing can harm her now that she has enough coal for the winter prompts Zotov to think: "Stupid woman—got her coal and now she's got nothing to worry about—not even Guderian's tanks?"17 His is the shortsightedness typical of a fanatic—the inability to comprehend how people can live their simple lives and not commit themselves solely to the ideas and concerns he feels are so important.
The theme of this story recalls that of The First Circle. In both works Solzhenitsyn exposes the inflexible fanaticism of Party members with their deification of Stalin, who in reality is the sole source of the incredible stupidity and cruelty incarnated in the bureaucratic machine. No one is particularly to blame. Zotov acts as he is expected to act in Stalin's system; the MGB functions as it must according to Stalin's philosophy. Everything operates as it should. Yes, but. . . .
III For the Good of the Cause
Solzhenitsyn's For the Good of the Cause may appear to deal with the Soviet educational system, teacher-student relations, and the struggle among various administrations. It would be inaccurate however, to interpret it this simplistically, for certain passages would then become superfluous. Only when the focus shifts away from the school itself, with its pupils and teachers, to the struggle between Grachikov and Knorozov does its real point become clear. It is divided into six chapters, three of which serve to introduce the conflict, and three of which develop the central theme: the perpetuation of Stalinist methods of governing in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. The first three chapters are also imbued with a cheerful, carefree, youthful spirit in contrast to subsequent events, which are hopelessly monotonous and depressing.
The story begins on the first day of the academic year at a technical school. The usual reunions between teachers and students, friendly greetings, and the sharing of news engender a special excitement this year, for the school is to move from its old building to a new one specially constructed to accommodate the students' needs. The new building has many features that the old one lacked: laboratories, spacious auditoriums, modern and well-equipped gymnasiums, a hall for cultural events and dancing parties, and finally—perhaps most essential for the students' everyday needs—dormitories. Until now the students from out of town have had to rent often inadequate rooms in private homes. The joy felt by all on this first day is due in large part to the fact that the students actually helped construct their new school and thus take a builder's pride in it.
Lidia Georgievna, the most popular teacher and the faculty representative in the school's Komsomol youth organization, had assumed a supervisory role in the students' building effort. As the students in the courtyard freely discuss the merits of various classical authors, it becomes evident that this teacher differs greatly from the one Asya describes in The Cancer Ward. Lidia Georgievna does not pressure her students; she merely tries to persuade them in the course of a free and spontaneous exchange of ideas. The refreshing intellectual freedom which permeates this conversation creates one of the most joyous scenes in all of Solzhenitsyn's works.
The description of the school, its teachers and students, is almost idyllic. The quality of the faculty and the student body is enviable. The students—enthusiastic, hardworking, intelligent, unselfish, well-disciplined though somewhat mischievous, completely natural and charming—by voluntarily donating their leisure time to construct their new schoolbuilding, follow one of the most admirable principles of Soviet society, that of helping oneself by working for the community. In administering the project themselves, the students have followed yet another important Soviet ideal, the self-government of the working people.
This idyllic scene soon fades, however. For all that the students clearly embody the most sacred principles of Soviet society, that same society in its official incarnation begins to work against their interests. Comrade Khabalygin, the head of a relay manufacturing plant, has persuaded the first secretary of the regional Party committee, Comrade Knorozov, that their city should have a scientific research institute in order to advance one step beyond the neighboring towns. Of course, this is also in the personal interest of Comrade Khabalygin, who intends to become the director of the institute. By praising the new school building, he persuades the right people in the right ministry in Moscow to locate the institute not only in the town, but in the new structure. The students are aghast at the shocking unfairness and lawlessness of the highest authorities in the town, who have cynically plotted against them.
At this point the protagonist of the story appears—Ivan Grachikov, the secretary of the town Party committee and an old friend of the school principal, Fyodor Mikheyich. When the principal realizes that his plans for moving into the new building have been thwarted, he calls on Grachikov, an unusual character in Solzhenitsyn's works, whose temperament makes him an excellent leader, a democratic and humane administrator. Of course, the democratic process moves more slowly than a dictatorship:
Knorozov, first secretary of the regional Party committee, soon noticed this weakness . . . and hurled at [Grachikov] in his irrefutably laconic manner: "You're too soft. You don't act the Soviet way." But Grachikov stood his ground: "Why do you say that? Quite the contrary. I work in a Soviet way—I consult the people."18
Grachikov uses the word "Soviet" in its pre-Stalinist sense, when the noun soviet had not yet lost its original meaning of 'council' or 'counsel'. Later the narrator underscores Grachikov's lexical perceptiveness by describing his objection to the use in everyday situations of military terminology that only arouses unnecessary hysteria:
At the factory he had tried to break other people of the habit and had himself avoided such expressions as "advancing on the technological front" . . . "we threw ourselves into the breach" . . . "we forced their lines" . . . "brought up reserves . . ."He thought that these expressions, instilling the ideas of war into peace itself, sickened people. The Russian language could manage very well without them.19
Perhaps the figure of Knorozov illustrates most eloquently how unique a man such as Grachikov was in Stalinist and post-Stalinist Russia:
Knorozov was in this region what Stalin had once been in Moscow: he never changed his mind or retracted a decision. And although Stalin had died long ago, Knorozov lived on. He was one of the leading examples of the "[strong-willed]" style of leadership and considered this his own greatest merit. He could not imagine that leadership could be exercised in any other way.20
Solzhenitsyn shows Knorozov in action just before Grachikov enters his office to defend the school's interests. As secretary of the regional Party committee, Knorozov must also deal with agricultural problems. At this point he has just finished giving instructions to a livestock specialist:
"Well, then," Knorozov said to the livestock expert, lowering five long, outspread fingers slowly and weightily in a semicircle onto the large sheet of paper, as if placing a huge seal on it. He was sitting up straight, without using the back of the armchair for support, and the contours of his figure, from both side and front, seemed drawn in harsh, straight lines. "Well, then—I've told you what you must do now. And what you must do is what I tell you."
"Of course, Victor Vavilich." The livestock expert bowed.21
Knorozov conducts his consultation in typical Stalinist style, and his orders are accepted as if they came from the dictator himself.
It is difficult to imagine a confrontation between this small replica of Stalin and the peaceful, reasonable, humble Grachikov; and yet Grachikov displays tremendous tenacity in his resistance to injustice. An uncontrollable rage wells up inside him in such situations. As he waits outside Knorozov's office, Grachikov recalls an incident which occurred during World War II. While he was directing trucks across a river a lieutenant-general tried to enter the column out of turn:
Until he was ordered to let them through, Grachikov had been prepared to explain everything calmly, without any shouting, and might even have let them through. But when right clashed head-on with wrong and the latter was backed up by greater force, Grachikov stuck to his guns and cared nothing for what might happen to him.22
Solzhenitsyn's works are populated with normally peaceful men such as Grachikov who confront willful, brutal authority with equally irrational resistance. Such persons remain the only hope for society and for the individual. In the struggle for the schoolbuilding Grachikov, rising to the occasion, brings the argument around to the most sensitive topics of administrative policy and Party ideology:
"Which means more to us in the end—stones or people?" Grachikov shouted. "Why are we arguing over a heap of stones? . . .
"Communism will not be built with stones but with people, Victor Vavilich!" he shouted, all restraint gone. "It's a harder and longer task, but if we were to finish the whole structure tomorrow and it was built of nothing but stones, we would never have Communism!"23
Finally Grachikov's resolution produces results. Knorozov yields, and the two reach a partial, modest compromise. The school principal is informed that the smallest and least valuable part of the property will remain under his control. The new four-million-ruble building will be assigned to the research institute, with alterations costing one and a half million rubles, obviously a senseless waste. At the end of the story, the school has still been deprived of part of the courtyard. The authorities persist in their autocratic methods, and the only force capable of resisting them is a man such as Grachikov.
The students, with their enthusiasm for socialism and progress, are cheated twice over: their aspirations for better learning and living conditions are not met, and the cynical older generation betrays their socialist ideals. Finally Knorozov, a man whom the school principal has always admired, betrays him. Yet, ironically, the authoritative style of administration still appeals to some, particularly to those of mediocre ability, such as Mikheyich, who fall as the first victims to the rule of the iron fist.
Mikeyich's admiration for Knorozov both sheds light on the former's weakness and exposes the causes of his own defeat:
Fyodor Mikheyich drew himself up and fixed his gaze on Knorozov. He liked him. He had always admired him. He was happy when he went to his meetings and could imbibe and charge himself with Knorozov's all-embracing will power and energy. Afterwards, he would cheerfully feel like carrying out his instructions in time for the next meeting, whether it involved raising the pass rate of his students, digging up potatoes, or collecting scrap metal. What Fyodor Mikheyich liked about Knorozov was that when he said yes he meant yes, and when he said no he meant no. Dialectics were all very well, but like many others, Fyodor Mikheyich preferred unambiguous decisions.24
Now, after losing the schoolbuilding and meeting the bureaucrat Khabalygin, the helpless and usually meek Fyodor Mikheyich begins to exhibit some signs of protest. The final scene pits the antagonists—the principal and Khabalygin—against each other in the courtyard. Khabalygin directs the workers as they illegally redraw the boundary between the school and the future research institute to the obvious advantage of the latter. Turning to Fyodor Mikheyich, he explains:
"It must be done like this, comrade."
"Why must it?" Fyodor Mikheyich lost his temper and his head started to shake. "You mean for the good of the cause? Just you wait!" He clenched his fists, but he had no more strength left to speak, so he turned away and strode quickly towards the street, muttering: "Just you wait, just you wait, you swine!"25
Might Solzhenitsyn here be parodying the helpless, mediocre Eugene's famous threat to the equestrian statue of Peter the Great in Pushkin's Mednyi vsadnik ("The Bronze Horseman")? On a cold, autumn night, Eugene stands before Peter's monument and, clenching his fist just as Fyodor Mikheyich does, whispers angrily, "You just wait, you architect-wondermaker, you just wait."26 Russian critics have often claimed that Pushkin justifies Peter's brutal Westernization of Russia and condemns Eugene's threat to the tsar and his creation. This interpretation is a total misreading of Pushkin's poem, and often stems from political rather than literary considerations. Apparently Solzhenitsyn rejects this interpretation of Pushkin's poem, if indeed this passage is a parody of it. In any case, there seems to be a clear link between these two works written more than a century apart. Both address themselves to the plight of the "little man" who must sacrifice his basic human aspirations for the putative well-being of the public or the nation, or, in other words, "for the good of the cause."
IV "The Right Hand"
Research on Solzhenitsyn's works is particularly difficult because of circumstances which limit our knowledge of his life and, more important, deprive us of any information about the history of his creative writing. We cannot review his notebooks or his early drafts of published works, as is customary in literary studies. The manuscripts of "The Right Hand," for example, would be most helpful in determining whether Solzhenitsyn originally intended to include it in The Cancer Ward, for one may easily imagine Oleg Kostoglotov as the "I" narrator of this story. Some interesting parallels between the two works support this assumption. Both are set in a Tashkent hospital and, more specifically, on the hospital grounds, where Kostoglotov frequently strolls while undergoing treatment and where the protagonist of the short story meets Bobrov. In both works an ex-convict living in forced exile confronts a representative of the power structure, a man closely associated with the Party. In "The Right Hand," Bobrov, a Red Army man during the Civil War, is a Party member suffering from terminal cancer.
The Kostoglotov-Rusanov relationship, however, does differ significantly from that between the narrator and Bobrov in this story. Although both Rusanov and Bobrov are loyal to the government, they are far from equally successful. Rusanov is a self-satisfied bureaucrat who has realized his highest aspirations, whereas Bobrov, homeless and shabbily dressed, is obviously unsuccessful. His hopes for treatment rest in an old, barely legible document which states:
WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE!
This certifícate is presented to Comrade Bobrov N.K. for active service in 1921 in the distinguished "World Revolution" Special Detachment of ——Province for personally eliminating large numbers of counter-revolutionary terrorists.
Kostoglotov's hatred of Rusanov becomes increasingly obvious in every word Oleg addresses to him, but it is not always entirely clear whether this is because of Rusanov's political convictions, or his privileged position, or both. In the case of the poorly dressed Bobrov, however, the origin of the narrator's antagonism is clear. Initially the narrator is exceptionally helpful to Bobrov. Only after reading Bobrov's thirty-year-old commendation for distinguished service does the narrator leave him in the waiting room of the hospital at the mercy of a young and arrogant nurse who obviously will not help him. The narrator departs without saying goodby, without even looking back although only a few moments before he has given Bobrov three rubles from his half-empty purse. The narrator does not argue with Bobrov, as Kostoglotov does with Rusanov; but neither does he pity this obviously dying man, who helped suppress counter-revolutionary movements so long ago. The fatal disease from which both the narrator and Bobrov suffer binds them for a while; but their philosophies, and especially their attitudes toward violence, alienate them from each other and terminate their short, friendly relationship.
The search for a national tradition is completely understandable in a man such as Solzhenitsyn, who stands in diametric opposition to the present social and political structure of his country. "Zakhar-the-Pouch" is imbued with such nostalgia. Narrated in the first person, with an archaic lexicon and phraseology, the story describes a two-day bicycle excursion to the site of the fourteenth-century battle of Kulikovo, where for the first time in 150 years of subjugation the Russians managed to defeat the Tatars. This battle, the first step toward liberation from the Tatar yoke, was a turning point in Russian history. Like many events in Russian history, the battle required almost more stamina than the country possessed. The casualties on the Russian side were so heavy that the Tatars, despite their defeat, maintained their control over the country for another century. Nevertheless, for every Russian the battle of Kulikovo is a powerful national symbol.
Solzhenitsyn builds his story by contrasting the significance of the battle with the inadequate measures taken to protect the battle site against theft and vandalism. The visiting narrator describes the present site in somewhat ironic tones, alternating with a romantic pathos as he recreates the past in his mind. The author's idyllic nostalgia, obviously rooted in his rejection of the present, naturally directs his sympathies to the romanticized past, where he hopes to find guidelines for solving contemporary problems.
VI "The Easter Procession"
At the beginning ["The Easter Procession"] appears to be built on an antithesis between the loyal members of the Russian Orthodox Church, who proclaim their faith despite governmental persecution, and the barbarous, atheistic, younger generation of contemporary Soviet society. The story is static, like a painting depicting the traditional procession around the church during the Easter midnight service. Arrogant teenagers jam the churchyard to observe what seems to them an anachronism. The contrast between the religious procession and the blasphemous spectators is simply but powerfully presented.
The story is complicated, however, by one brief paragraph which introduces a third element:
Among the believers I catch a glimpse of one or two Jewish faces. Perhaps they are converts, or perhaps they are just onlookers. Glancing around warily, they too are waiting for the Easter procession. We all curse the Jews, but it would be worthwhile having a look around us to see what kind of Russians we have bred at the same time.28
The Jewish observers in the churchyard apparently function as a mirror that Solzhenitsyn holds up to the nation so that Russians will see themselves and be ashamed. The few Jews in the churchyard respect this place of worship; they do not mock it. The ordinary Russian considers the Jew far removed from the Orthodox Church, and does not expect him to exhibit either interest in or respect for its services. The Jews Solzhenitsyn describes, however, are much more sympathetic to the church than the representatives of the younger Russian generation. They may even be converts. Thus cultural, ethnic, and religious differences may be less pronounced than the gap between generations in modern Russian society.
The second theme Solzhenitsyn sounds in this passage embraces one of the ugliest features of Russian life, anti-Semitism. Solzhenitsyn is not accusing all Russians of anti-Semitism, but nevertheless he emphasizes its constant pervasiveness in the USSR. At the same time, he questions the basis for the Russians' national pride in view of their contempt for the defenseless Jewish minority. He typically appeals to the conscience of the Russians as he asks what sort of younger generation they have reared in recent years. The description of the crowd of teenagers at the beginning of the story is his eloquent answer.
The didacticism of "The Easter Procession" is characteristic of Solzhenitsyn's so-called "prose poems," or miniatures. They unfailingly convey one rather simple idea and resemble Tolstoy's didactic stories written for the Russian peasant. In sharp contrast to Solzhenitsyn's short stories, however, his miniatures and prose' poems present little of artistic or intellectual interest.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Stories and Prose Poems, Michael Glenny, trans. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971), p. 24.
3Ibid., p. 52.
4Ibid., p. 239.
5Ibid., p. 238.
6Ibid., p. 181.
8Ibid., p. 182.
11Ibid., pp. 182-83.
12Ibid., p. 183.
15Ibid., pp. 172-73.
16Ibid., p. 173.
17Ibid., p. 176.
18Ibid., pp. 95-96.
19Ibid., p. 110.
20Ibid., p. 114. "Strong-willed" is mistranslated as "vuluntarist" in the English text.
21Ibid., p. 113.
22Ibid., p. 111.
23Ibid., p. 116.
24Ibid., pp. 117-18.
25Ibid., p. 123.
26 My translation. In Russian, Mikheyich and Eugene's threats are not so close lexically as they appear in the English translations. Nevertheless, their meaning and emotional impact are nearly identical.
27Ibid., p. 164.
28Ibid., p. 127.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8531
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 Prussian Nights is an example of a work originally composed early in his career. What we can be sure of is that shortly after the end of his years of incarceration he had penned a handful of stories and a series of brief vignettes, or meditations—prose poems, as they are called. In any case, we can safely take these sixteen prose poems and six stories, later gathered into a volume entitled Stories and Prose Poems, as the work of Solzhenitsyn's early apprenticeship.1
The importance of the delicate prose poems is twofold. First, they show us a side of Solzhenitsyn not readily guessed by readers of his more recent polemical pronouncements: the pensive, reflective, even gentle side. Second, they introduce many of the primary themes of his later, long works; and thus they help us to appreciate the exceptional continuity of perspective which marks the author's whole writing career. They provide a kind of microcosm of his central ideas; they show us Solzhenitsyn's genesis. Already he deals in concretions; he has escaped from ideological abstractions. He thirsts after what is true and good and beautiful. He knows that he is a creature under God's heaven. And all this, more than a decade before he is cerebral about these matters in the Nobel Lecture.
We may best understand these meditations as Solzhenitsyn's first halting efforts to rediscover that beloved Mother Russia from which he had been cut off for eleven years. There surfaces periodically a contrast between enduring Russia and the recent efforts by the Soviets to deface and to erase it. Already this early, Solzhenitsyn sees the Soviets as only temporary conquerors who cannot finally ruin the landscape and the abiding spirit of Russia.
And, when he lauds old Russia, prominent in his thinking always is the beneficent permeating presence of the Russian Orthodox Church. If his religious references are seldom overt in the prose poems, his later spiritual affirmations nevertheless provide the best context for a coherent reading of these early works.
We shall examine the prose poems according to the following schematic organization of themes:
- Joy in the beauty of nature and man's place in it.
- Respect for simple peasant ways.
- Appreciation of old Russian towns and their mystic harmony with nature.
- Despiritualization of modern man.
- Recognition of the life urge at all levels.
- Judgment of the scarring effects of the Soviet system.
The first prose poem, "Freedom to Breathe," expresses both joy in nature and the author's reveling in his return to "this air steeped in the fragrance of flowers, of moisture and freshness" (p. 197). This simple "freedom to breathe freely, as now I can," he finds "the single most precious freedom that prison takes away from us" (p. 197). He cannot savor too much the countryside, often on bicycle. When he visits the town and cottage of Sergei Yesenin, he marvels at the "thunderbolt of talent the Creator must have hurled . . . into the heart of that quick-tempered country boy" (p. 210) to enable him to write such moving nature poetry. The unaffected naturalness of this reference to God is typical of even the early Solzhenitsyn. And while much of his joy in nature has a Wordsworthian tone, he can also enter into Byron's pleasure in the grand, even harsh aspects of nature: thunder and lightning, for example, as in "A Storm in the Mountains." Here, too, however, his is a religious sensibility. As he participates in "a primal world in creation before our eyes" (p. 213), the power of nature reminds him of human finitude. And, again, biblical images are ready at hand: thunder is "like the arrows of Sabaoth" (p. 213).
Solzhenitsyn's respect for peasant ways is epitomized in "The Kolkhoz Rucksack," with its praise of a "tough, roomy and cheap" woman's basket (p. 211). A similar eye for detail is seen in "Matryona's House" and "Zakhar-the-Pouch." Especially with Zakhar, we see Solzhenitsyn's awareness that the peasants, though often only with partial comprehension, yet have a natural piety which reveres the spirituality of old Russia. Zakhar knows that the Kulikovo Field, which he guards, marked the place where "Holy Russia" fought off a heathen invasion. Solzhenitsyn, the historical scholar, yearns for deeper historical meaning, seeking to trace, as he will in August 1914, the buried meaning of Russian history which lies beyond simple Zakhar's ken. Nevertheless, the peasants' instincts are almost always good ones, and Solzhenitsyn values that folk wisdom.
For instance, peasants share the author's valuing of the old Russian towns, on sites selected first for "good, drinkable running water" and next for "beauty" (p. 201). But what mainly gives these towns their "soothing effect" (p. 214), as they and he know, is those old domed churches. They link mystically the old Russia and the new, so that "you are never alone" (p. 214). And, as though by Providential dispensation, the Byzantine dome of St. Isaac's, in "The City on the Neva," is situated so that no "wedding-cake skyscraper" or "five-story shoebox" can mar the effect (p. 205).
This effect was not merely architectural or aesthetic; it was always deeply spiritual: ". . . the Angelus [bell] . . . reminded man that he must abandon his trivial earthly cares and give up one hour of his thoughts to life eternal" (p. 215). This simple tolling of the bell, surviving now only in a popular song, "raised man above the level of a beast" (p. 215). The "middle state" of man, between angel and beast, a staple of Christian reflection through the ages, is a familiar theme in Solzhenitsyn. His repeated criticism of Soviet society is that it treats men and women like animals.
Similarly, the despiritualization of modern man is an important theme in these early prose poems. This process of despiritualization, readily evident all about him, Solzhenitsyn must, for himself, resist. Already at this stage he seemed to sense some mystical objective for his life and work. In the finely wrought "Reflections" he sees himself in transit, on a spiritual Odyssey, moving toward some as yet unknown end—the kind of thought which, as we have seen, recurred in his Nobel Lecture and public prayer. It is in the nature of life that we see through a glass darkly, or as if through "the restless kaleidoscope of water" (p. 204). How, even when writing these lines, could Solzhenitsyn have predicted the strange peregrinations of his life still to come? Yet "if so far we have been unable to see clearly or to reflect the eternal lineaments of truth, is it not because we too are still moving towards some end—because we are still alive?" (p. 204).
For life is of the soul as well as of the body. Yet our materially oriented age, one in which "no one is surprised if people cherish their bodies patiently and attentively every day of their lives" (p. 216), is an age in which people "would be jeered at if they paid the same regard to their souls" (p. 216). The striking "At the Start of the Day" depicts thirty young people outdoors and moving in such a way that from a distance one might think that they were saying morning prayers. But no, the piece concludes curtly, "these people are not praying. They are doing their morning exercises" (p. 216).
The story "Easter Procession" also shows the despiritualization of modern man. The contrast is between the outnumbered faithful in procession at the patriarchal church of Peredelkino and the rabble who interfere with the rite—a majority, it is wryly observed, whose "right not to believe in God is safeguarded by the constitution" (p. 103). The harassment of the believers is bad enough; but, worse, the mob's jeering "amounts to an insult to the Passion of Christ" (pp. 103-04). What will come to a people who have raised a godless generation? "The truth is that one day they will turn and trample on us all. And as for those who urged them on to this, they will trample on them too" (p. 106).
The simple joy of living and the urge to live are also important matters to this ex-prisoner. Cancer Ward explicates this theme. So does "The Duckling." Solzhenitsyn stands in awe before even God's simple creatures. The achievements of modern technology do not begin to compare. We may soon fly to Venus, he says; and we could plough up the whole world in twenty minutes if we pooled our efforts. "Yet, with all our atomic might, we shall never—never!—be able to make this feeble speck of a yellow duckling in a test tube; even if we were given the feathers and the bones, we could never put such a creature together" (p. 200). Another animal, "The Puppy," shows us the most important thing about being alive. He shuns the offer of chicken bones for the simple joy of running loose, unrestrained. We are back to the "Freedom to Breathe." Even the plant kingdom displays the urge to life. "The Elm Log" tells of a tree which had been sawn down and cut up. But a year later the stump had sprouted the beginnings of a new branch, even a whole new tree. With reverence, we must leave it alone; "its urge to live was even stronger than ours" (p. 203).
Even modern man shares in this urge to live. But his materialistic ideology distorts this natural matter. For one thing, he neglects the proper, respectful honoring of the dead; death is part of the natural process. For another, he cannot accept the inevitability of his own death; his materialistic world-view has no place for it: "We Will Never Die." This prose poem, which demonstrates how at odds are the Marxist ideology and those rhythms of life and death which the religious man is able to accept, is one of Solzhenitsyn's best.
The prose poems do not provide a definitive catalogue of the themes of Solzhenitsyn's later works. His thinking has been enriched and deepened along the way. Yet even a cursory examination of these literary miniatures shows the direction in which he is headed. His essential view of life is, at this early date, already firmly in place.
The three stories next to be discussed—"Matryona's House," "An Incident at Krechetovka Station," and For the Good of the Cause—saw the light of published day in 1963, following hard on the heels of the spectacular public success in late 1962 of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The first two of these three stories are superb; the third, which is long enough to have been published separately as a short novel,2 is aesthetically mediocre though thematically interesting. All three stories are set, as usual, in the Soviet Union, from World War II on. All three concentrate on moral, not political, themes, though political machinations lurk, ever present, as the background for the moral actions and judgments of the foreground. All three have discernible religious references but, like the prose poems, few directly Christian statements.
At this point, one may wonder how much during this period Solzhenitsyn was influenced by his passionate desire to be published in the U.S.S.R. Certainly, he never wrote anything to suit the literary (socialist-realist) or religious (atheist) tastes of the Kremlin masters. His praise for the spiritual traditions of old Russia, as contrasted with the sterility of the Soviet system, is never camouflaged. Yet even in the Khrushchev era he had to know that the authorities would allow him to be published only if they (who, he had to presume, did not always have eyes to see or ears to hear) considered his work to be anti-Stalinist (which it was), rather than anti-Soviet (which it also was). As a result, these early stories suggest that Solzhenitsyn was playing a clever, if dangerous, cat-and-mouse game with officialdom. The fact that Solzhenitsyn's Christian convictions were settled well before this period and have become pronounced in some of his recent statements is ample warrant for watching for covert, or semi-covert, intimations of them already at this stage of his career.
"Matryona's House" is narrated by a character, Ignatich, strikingly similar in life story to Solzhenitsyn himself.3 After a "delay" of ten years (eight for Solzhenitsyn), the ex-soldier wishes just "to creep away and vanish in the very heartland of Russia" (p. 1)—to find peace and, if possible, to teach mathematics. He finds lodging with an old woman, a person whom he early likes but later comes to revere as almost a saint—and as a kind of personification of that spirit of old Mother Russia for which he has been yearning.
Actually, we learn very little of Ignatich's life. Unlike other Solzhenitsyn alter egos, he does not figure prominently in the action. He is mainly an observer. But it is his moral judgment which permeates the story, and the reader finds himself ineluctably drawn into sharing his viewpoint. The story turns, as all do, on conflict—primarily between the saintly Matryona and her selfish relatives and neighbors, secondarily between the heroine and the heartless Soviet bureaucracy.
The plot—never Solzhenitsyn's strong point and never complex—is a simple one, admirably suited to this brief work. Greedy relatives, too impatient to wait for her to die, persuade the guileless but reluctant Matryona to let them tear down the small structure adjacent to her very modest house (the "outhouse," as the translator would have it) and move the boards to a new building site. And the kindly lady finally consents, against her better judgment. In the newly fallen snow the rickety sledge drops its load on the railroad tracks. As part of the clean-up crew, Matryona, though always deathly afraid of trains, is struck and killed by two unlighted engines. And few genuinely mourn; most, scavenger-like, simply want to pick up the remaining pieces of her meager belongings.
How are we to judge the characters in this story? Matryona's husband had been dead twelve years, but garbled book-keeping on the collective farm obstructs the deciphering of the pension to which she was entitled. Although she herself had worked on the farm for a quarter of a century, she was listed as her husband's dependent, and it was his records which were not in order. So she got nothing. And although she was not deemed ill enough to be certified as disabled, she was clearly too infirm to work on the farm. Even so, at peak working times she was forced to labor on the collective farm—for nothing. Good Russian folk are clearly ill served by the new Marxist system. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need? Both ability and need are ignored. The already hard lot of the Russian peasant is only exacerbated by the new overloards.
However, the chief antagonists in the story are not the cold, bumbling bureaucrats but Matryona's fellow peasants. They are, in the main, a grubbing, heartless lot. Whereas Ignatich may have hoped to find a kind of folk wisdom among the Russian peasants—and does in Matryona—Solzhenitsyn in no way idealizes the rural peasantry.
Matryona's own relatives are the worst. With no sense of her quality of person, they want from her only something material. To validate their claim to a parcel of land, they must build on it. But wood is scarce. So they coerce Matryona into letting them dismantle part of her humble shack, even before she is dead, to get the needed wood. The women distill moonshine vodka. The men drink up. And off they go, through the snow, to the climactic crash on the railroad tracks.
The mourning for Matryona is insincere and perfunctory. Not only do the relatives absolve themselves of any guilt for her death, but they actually place the blame on Matryona herself. Even the closest of her acquaintances thinks only of acquiring her shawl. The cold-blooded plunderers which are her family will soon pick over the few pitiful pieces she has left behind. Food, clothing, and shelter circumscribe their vision of life; there is no room for spiritual matters. The moral judgment made against them is set in terms of their attitude toward Matryona.
Matryona herself is a poor, sick, lonely sixty-year-old woman, long widowed, who has had to rely on herself to eke out a mere subsistence. Though simple and unimaginative, she "had an infallible means of restoring her good spirits: work" (p. 10). She would drop her own work to help a neighbor dig potatoes and then exclaim to Ignatich: "It was a pleasure to dig them up. I didn't want to stop, honest" (p. 14). A perfect candidate, it would seem, for honor in a "worker's paradise"!
But Matryona's virtue extends far beyond her joy in work. She exudes an unthinking natural piety which for Solzhenitsyn exemplifies old Russia at its best. She is at one with nature, respecting the life-giving earth and loving animals, especially her lame cat. She accepts injustices with equanimity; rancor never touches her; and, equally important, she does no one harm.
Ignatich looks for a connection between her moral actions and some religious belief, but he is not sure that he finds it.
I never once saw her say her prayers or cross herself. Yet she always asked for God's blessing before doing anything and she invariably said "God bless you" to me whenever I set off for school in the morning. Perhaps she did say her prayers, but not ostentatiously. . . . There were ikons in the cottage, (p. 18)
Her righteousness, which Ignatich readily grants, grows not from observing external religious forms but from an easy and natural intimacy with the created order.
The story concludes with a paean of praise for Matryona in which Solzhenitsyn's mind runs readily to biblical allusion.
Misunderstood and rejected by her husband, a stranger to her own family despite her happy, amiable temperament, comical, so foolish that she worked for others for no reward, this woman, who had buried all her six children, had stored up no earthly goods. Nothing but a dirty white goat, a lame cat, and a row of fig plants.
None of us who lived close to her perceived that she was that one righteous person without whom, as the saying goes, no city can stand.
Neither can the whole world, (p. 42)
Values, whether spiritual or material, dominate the story. Solzhenitsyn pictures here what he has stated directly in later statements: that evil is innate in human nature. Persons who give in to human depravity have no room in their outlooks for spiritual values, thus limiting themselves to material ones. We might expect to see this limitation in Soviet figures formally committed to a materialistic philosophy of life, and we do. But the same materialistic myopia is seen in those who could have been heirs to the spiritual heritage of Holy Russia, the peasants. Through each human heart runs a line dividing evil and good, and sometimes it presses toward one side and sometimes toward the other. When it presses toward the other, we get a Matryona. If Russia's spirituality is now stunted, it is not extinct. And it is that spirituality which must be cultivated.
"An Incident at Krechetovka Station" is slighter than "Matryona's House" but is likewise based on the author's first-hand knowledge. It is the only Solzhenitsyn story set in World War II (autumn of 1941). In this case, there is no authorial alter ego; instead, the author takes us directly inside the mind of the main character, Lieutenant Vasya Zotov. The time span is only a few hours.
The pivotal incident takes the last third of the narrative; the first two-thirds give the flavor of wartime behind the front, in a slice-of-life style almost Chekhovian. Throughout, the delineation of Zotov's character is paramount; it is always character, not plot, language, or even theme, which fascinates Solzhenitsyn the fictionist.
Zotov, second in military command at the railroad station at Krechetovka, is depicted as a responsible and serious soldier and citizen, the very flower of Soviet manhood, the best of humanity Soviet ideology can spawn. He seeks in all ways to help his nation's war cause, and he is ashamed that he is not at the front ready to take the ultimate risk for the cause in which he believes. Although his wife is behind enemy lines, he turns down two offers of sex, instead spending his nights reading Das Kapital and memorizing it in order to become "invincible, invulnerable, irrefutable in any ideological combat" (p. 156).
Still, the war was going so badly that "he wanted to howl out loud" (pp. 137-38). Why? And "where was the revolution all over Europe?" (p. 138). Yet surely the cause was right and his thoughts cowardly. They constituted "blasphemy," an "insult to the omniscient, omnipotent Father and Teacher [Stalin] who was always there, who foresaw everything" (p. 139). Solzhenitsyn finds the religious phraseology appropriate, since Communism espouses a world-view which claims to explain man's ultimate concerns and demands of its adherents the same kind of faith demanded by traditional religions. Zotov keeps the faith, even when shaken.
For his sense of commitment, Solzhenitsyn gives him credit; he draws him sympathetically. Nevertheless, no strength of commitment can undo the life-debasing nature of ideology to which he pledges allegiance. And this means that Zotov's values are inevitably warped. So, when a young sentry shoots a hungry returnee from the war front for trying to pilfer some flour, Zotov approves; anything for the good of the cause.
The climactic incident highlights the morally corrupting effect of Zotov of his ideology. An actor, Tveritinov, who is passing through, delights Zotov by his refined bearing. But when he asks Zotov what the name of Stalingrad was before it was changed, the suspicion which the system has ingrained in the devotee resurfaces, and Zotov arrests the actor as a possible spy, perhaps a White émigré.
At first, Zotov is sure of his decision. Then his humane impulses cause him to doubt. When he tries to find out what ever became of Tveritinov, all that he can pry out of the security officer is, "Your Tverikin's been sorted out all right. We don't make mistakes" (p. 193). This penultimate sentence of the story is most effectively ironic, since the officer has gotten the name wrong.
The story's last line is, "After that, Zotov was never able to forget the man for the rest of his life" (p. 193). The security officer presumably forgets immediately. Zotov's basic decency will not allow him to do so. Still, this gross violation of human dignity does not cause him to doubt the ideology which precipitated it; the light does not penetrate that far. The simplistic ethic on which he has been reared leaves no room for the moral ambiguity which he has confronted. It enforces a subordination of humaneness in even the best of men.
For the Good of the Cause has a contemporary setting—in Khrushchev's time, not Stalin's. Solzhenitsyn's contribution to the debate of that time about the remaining influence of Stalin, the story presents his view that many "little Stalins" perpetuate Stalinism. Even here the conflict is not between competing political philosophies; ". . . it was a clash of right and wrong" (p. 85), of creative, humane instincts and destructive, dehumanizing ones. And when right and wrong collide "head-on," "wrong is more brazen by its very nature" (p. 79). Still, the topicality of this subject makes this Solzhenitsyn's most overtly political work. And while it is not an unsuccessful effort, it is aesthetically less pleasing than most of his work. It is difficult to say if there is a connection between these two points. The subject matter does seem to allow for less play of his spiritual imagination.
As in most of his long works, Solzhenitsyn here draws a large gallery of characters, giving a rough cross section of Soviet life. In relatively short works—The Love Girl and the Innocent is another example—the large cast is not strategically effective; it swamps the work. In this case, the many students named early are necessarily left undeveloped.
Solzhenitsyn also employs characters as spokesmen for conflicting points of view. But in this short novel, characterization is somewhat sacrificed to direct thematic interests. For instance, the teacher Lidia, the most interesting person, is prominent early in the story but reappears only sporadically and all too briefly as the story approaches its climax. The most interesting scenes are those early ones between Lidia and her students. The second half features bureaucrats; this arrangement may be vital to the theme but is a narrative letdown. Also, characters are more clearly lined up as good or bad than is typical in Solzhenitsyn's novels. Instead of dramatizing that line which runs through every human heart dividing good and evil, this work tends to draw the line between good people and evil people. That life is not that simple is a point Solzhenitsyn himself has frequently made.
The plot, straightforward as usual, is about a technical school housed in cramped quarters. The nine hundred teenaged students and their teachers work a whole year without pay to construct a new building for their school. Then some purblind bureaucrats decide whimsically to take their building away from them and turn it into a research center. Economically, this decision is stupid; the four-million-dollar structure will cost almost half that much more for remodeling. But worse, this is a morally unconscionable treatment of the school's students and staff. The school principal's compelling arguments are met with obstinate deafness on the part of the state and party authorities.
The title states the central thematic issue. In a state governed in the name of the people, what action, in a concrete case, is "for the good of the cause"? The voluntary work of the students embodies the highest ideals of Communist theory. Yet the self-serving response of those who rule in the name of the people perverts these proclaimed ideals into their very opposite.
The chief protagonist, the young teacher Lidia Georgievna, is not yet thirty. She works on the new building, never bossing her students around, never asking them to do something that she herself is unwilling to do. Students readily acknowledge her moral authority; this natural hierarchy is at a far remove from the arbitrary hierarchy of the official system. Her students, "being young . . . responded to everything genuine. You only had to take one look at her to know that she meant what she said" and that "she never lied" (pp. 17, 25). Her chastising of the Party Secretary for not being staightforward with the students about the decision to take their building away from them represents Solzhenitsyn's own passion for truth: "They'll think we're afraid to tell them the truth—and they'll be right! How will they ever respect us again?" (p. 74).
Lidia, who teaches Russian language and literature at this technical school, promotes those humanistic principles which are the heartbeat of Solzhenitsyn's outlook. (She is in some ways a prototype of Professor Andozerskaya of August 1914.) With her philosophy of liberal education she denigrates television, which lasts "just for a day," and advocates books, which "last for centuries" (p. 22). She is critical of those state-approved productions which pass for literature. Fearing intellectual indifference among her students, she is pleased when she hears them arguing ideas: "People who argue are open to persuasion" (p. 26).
The school principal, Fyodor Mikheyevich, is similarly humane. As a leader, he has a goal of "bringing together people who trusted one another and could work together harmoniously" (p. 34). Even a technical education, he believes, should seek to build character. But his valiant efforts to save the new building for the school go for naught. One good man in a corrupt system is inevitably overwhelmed.
Ranged against Fyodor and Lidia are a host of party and government functionaries. The most odious is the "little Stalin," district committee supervisor Victor Vavilovich Knorozov. His boast is that he never goes back on his word: "As it had once been in Moscow with Stalin's word, so it was still today with Knorozov's word. . . . And though Stalin was long dead, Knorozov was still here" (p. 83). As his name implies, Victor inevitably wins the unequal contest between bureaucrats and mere human beings. While Solzhenitsyn later attacks Marxist-Leninist ideology head-on, in this early work the critique is that the likes of Knorozov do not begin to approximate in their deeds those ideals which they profess.
Solzhenitsyn was to draw many portraits of intransigent, obstructive officeholders, not sparing even Stalin and Lenin. This one of Knorozov is less memorable and less effective than most. There are no moral shadings in his character; he is unrelievedly evil. An instructive contrast is with Rusanov, who is the spokesman of the official line in Cancer Ward, yet who has his personal doubts at times. Although Solzhenitsyn's basic viewpoint does not change, his art does ripen.
The only official who shows vestiges of a moral sensibility is Grachikov. But he is ineffectual, and his strivings toward justice are feeble and occasional. The mindless grinding of the system is too much for the likes of him.
The story ends with little room for hope. The school principal dreams of starting all over to erect a new building. But will the defeated young students share his steadfastness? The decency and integrity resident within the Russian citizenry must, the principal believes, prevail. In this story they do not. It ends with rage and frustration at a state of affairs which violates the proper moral order.
Although Prussian Nights is not a part of Stories and Prose Poems and did not appear in print until more than a decade after the other pieces treated in this chapter, it belongs to a very early period of Solzhenitsyn's writing career, having been composed in the author's head during his years of imprisonment. It is a narrative poem set during the Russian incursion into Germany in World War II. While translation of poetry makes aesthetic judgments problematic, this poem seems more important as a human document than as a piece of art.
The poem, with its tense, highly charged rhythm, sticks close to narrative throughout; nevertheless, the work abounds with implicit moral judgments. The Russian soldiers, proud in their conquering, still are in awe of the foreignness they find: steep-pitched roofs, cleanliness throughout. It is the same territory which swallowed up Samsonov and his troops a war earlier (see ). Yet those bestial passions which war inevitably lets loose get a grip on the soldiers. So they loot, pillage, and kill, sublimating all pangs of conscience.
The narrator, an officer who is a reflective soul plagued by "the worm of self-analysis,"4 tries for a while to resist the animal urges which he sees swirling about him. But a set of high-quality pencils, such as he has never known at home, first seduces him. It is not long before this captain, who had shortly earlier been shocked at the incivility of some of his troops, finds himself, albeit furtively and guiltily, raping a young German woman. As soon as he is finished with her, she pleads that he just not shoot her. But he, stricken with remorse, can only think, "Another's soul is on my soul . . ." (p. 105). And so the poem ends.
This war poem assiduously avoids any attention to the political or military rights and wrongs. Even this early, Solzhenitsyn's focus is squarely on the basic moral issues of human nature in action. All of the episodes, but chiefly the climactic one, show that good and evil struggle against each other in every truly human heart. It is a perennial Solzhenitsyn theme.
Lenin in Zurich is an oddity among Solzhenitsyn's publications—in a real way a non-book. It is composed of a series of chapters about Lenin gathered from the three novels which were to constitute the author's intended masterpiece, the last two of which are not yet published—and will not be, Solzhenitsyn says, "in the very near future."15 There are eleven chapters: one from. August 1914, seven from October 1916, and three from March 1917.16
When August 1914 was published, its single chapter on Lenin was omitted. Now we can understand why: Solzhenitsyn envisioned a unified portrait of Lenin and did not want the first small part of it presented alone. The chapter might have seemed tendentious and unconnected to the rest of the novel. In addition, the author's decision suggests something of the unified design of the three novels as a whole, of which the publication of Lenin in Zurich gives us our first concrete suggestion. As we see the character of Lenin carried over from August 1914 into the succeeding volumes, we wonder what lies ahead for such characters as Colonel Vorotyntsev, Sasha Lenartovich, Isaaki Lazhenitsyn, and others. For instance, in March 1917 Lenin is at center stage in only the opening three chapters. Which characters will be at center stage as that novel unfolds, dealing as it must with the crucial period of the overthrow of the Tsar? Incidentally, those three chapters from March 1917 are fast-paced, almost breathless, much different from the slow-moving opening chapters of August 1914. So, without knowing in what ways, we can be sure that when the whole trilogy appears our interpretation of the aesthetic worth of August 1914 will be affected, for we shall then be able to read that fascicle in context. Finally, we can be confident, from the publication of Lenin in Zurich, that the overall design of the trilogy is quite clear in the mind of the author and that he is far along in the writing of it.
Whereas Lenin in Zurich is not quite a book, it is at the same time unified, since all of its chapters investigate the character of Lenin. Nevertheless, one may still ask why Solzhenitsyn rushed them into print well before he was ready to send forth the whole trilogy. Here we can only speculate. The answer may have to do with political maneuvering; it undoubtedly is a matter of timing.
The publication came rather shortly after Solzhenitsyn's forced exile in 1974 and shortly after the appearance of the first two third of The Gulag Archipelago. One of the most significant pieces of the massive reconstruction of history in Gulag was Solzhenitsyn's powerful—and original—case that Lenin, not Stalin, fathered the system of Soviet prison camps. The crime against humanity which is Gulag is so massive that one cannot but wonder about the mind of the person who set it in motion. It is the psyche which is explored in this volume. Lenin in Zurich presents vital evidence for Solzhenitsyn's case against Lenin. Solzhenitsyn must have known that many readers would find it difficult to believe his revelations in Gulag, and it was obviously important to him that they be accepted as beyond refutation. A psychological exploration of the mastermind behind the Gulag, he must have thought, could only lend additional credibility to his historical reconstruction of it.
Perhaps Solzhenitsyn also thought that, whereas the whole trilogy was intended primarily to serve the long-term purpose of restoring to the Russian people the truth of a crucial "moment" in their history, the chapters in it about Lenin could meet an urgent and more immediate need, namely, the demythologizing of Lenin. As is by now well known, Solzhenitsyn fears for the immediate future of the world, a future over which Lenin casts a long shadow. Soviet hagiographers have enshrined him, and he is revered through wide parts of the world. Lenin lives. Any reconsideration of his character and beliefs would lead naturally to a reconsideration of beliefs about the nature of the social realities of the modern world. It is quite possible, then, that Solzhenitsyn had a polemical purpose in mind in publishing Lenin in Zurich.
Critical judgments of Lenin in Zurich have differed widely. Simon Karlinsky vouches for the scholarly accuracy of the depiction of Lenin.17 Thomas Molnar asserts, "Solzhenitsyn's Lenin is one of the richest creations of historical and fictional literature."18 Robert Conquest has a similarly high view: Lenin's "personality has been grasped with subtle skill. . . ."19 After affirming the authenticity of Solzhenitsyn's handling of the history involved, he declares, "From apparently unpromising materials Solzhenitsyn has once again shown that history may be vividly subsumed into literature."20 In terms which comport well with general themes of this current study as a whole, he concludes,
The richness, the variety, the unpredictability, of the real world is available to Solzhenitsyn as it is not to the schematists of revolution. It has taken a giant human being to come to grips with this giant alien, and to demonstrate without unfairness or tendentiousness that humanity is superior. Solzhenitsyn can understand and include Lenin: Leninism cannot understand or include Solzhenitsyn.21
By contrast, George Feifer finds that Lenin in Zurich "rarely grips the senses."22 The fault, he thinks, is that "it is simply not well enough written."23 Feifer even goes so far as to suggest the possibility that "parts of Lenin in Zurich are a self-portrait by the author," in that both Solzhenitsyn and Lenin shared the "distinctly un-Russian" traits of orderliness, ascetic tendencies, and compulsive working habits and that both were provincial Russians "with messianism in place of cosmopolitan tolerance and an urge to criticize everyone about everything. . . ."24
Actually, such sharp differences of opinion have marked all recent comment on Solzhenitsyn. Leaving aside questions about the effect of the ideological predilections of the commentators on their commentaries, we may safely say that one of the crucial issues to be resolved by future critics of Solzhenitsyn's writing is how successful he is in giving literary expression to historical material.
Solzhenitsyn has said that he has spent forty years, all of his adult life, thinking about the character of Lenin.25 Stalin also was a major figure in the twentieth century, and Solzhenitsyn drew his portrait in The First Circle. In both cases, the approach is the same: to try to get inside the mind and show us, largely by means of interior monologue, the essence of the man. Stalin, however, receives four brief chapters, or a total of some thirty-six pages; Lenin receives eleven long chapters, or a total of some three hundred pages. Also, Stalin is seen during one evening, while Lenin is seen in process over a period of some three years.
As with his depiction of Stalin, so in his depiction of Lenin, Solzhenitsyn bent every effort to be accurate—not to paint a picture of unrelieved evil but to shade in the nuances of moral being. "In a curious way," says Conquest on this point, "Stalin appeared the more human of the two. His faults of character, frightful though they were, were those of a really bloody human being. Lenin, on the contrary, seemed an alien monster centered on a single cold obsessive drive."26 Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn has sought to show him as a human being, even if perhaps less human than Stalin, and to show him as a monster only to the extent that he really was one.
The portraits of Lenin and Stalin underline an important principle in Solzhenitsyn's view of history: the primacy of the individual. Whereas Tolstoy saw the motive power of history in terms of huge, impersonal forces which drive men, Solzhenitsyn always emphasizes that it is individuals who make history what it is. That is, he emphasizes personal responsibility for one's deeds and for their consequences. What happened to his beloved nation after the success of the Bloshevik Revolution grows, in large part, directly out of Lenin's soul and acts. The quest to fathom Lenin's soul is an effort to go back to the roots of Soviet reality. That is not to say that Lenin always knew what his decisions would lead to; indeed, the inability to imagine what would be the long-range outcomes of a given course of action is an important ingredient in the story of Lenin and his comrades. But actions carry within themselves the seeds of their inevitable consequences; and since actions grow out of the soul, it is the soul which must be understood.
Solzhenitsyn's Lenin does, as Conquest notes, have many of the marks of the monster—and other marks which, while not monstrous, are hardly endearing. He is willing to do anything for the cause, to commit any crime: fraud, robbery, counterfeiting, extortion. He thrills to violence. Like Stalin after him, he considers himself the only "infallible interpreter" (p. 19) of revolutionary principles. We read that "all opposition exasperated him—especially on theoretical questions where it implied a claim to leadership" (p. 94). In a passage which echoes one on Stalin's megalomania, Lenin muses on "all his incomparable abilities (appreciated now by everyone in the party, but he set a truer and still higher value on them) . . ." (p. 108). And as Stalin trusted Hitler, only to be betrayed, so Lenin felt that Plekhanov had betrayed him, and he vowed therefore that "he would never believe anyone again . . ." (p. 77). Even among his co-conspirators, "he never forgave a mistake. No matter who made it, he would remember as long as he lived" (p. 24). His view of leadership is monolithic: "Split, split, and split again! . . . Go on splitting until you find yourselves a tiny clique—but nonetheless the Central Committee. Those left in it may be the most mediocre, the most insignificant people, but if they are united in a common obedience you can achieve anything!" (p. 55). His view of others is thoroughly impersonal and utilitarian: "All the men and women Lenin had ever met in his life he valued only if, and as long as, they were useful to the cause" (p. 80). In him the hater and the ideologue combine: "In every country, stir up hatred of your own government! That is the only work worthy of a socialist" (p. 43). Without an iota of regard for the suffering that war inflicts on human beings, he cheers the outbreak of the Great War: "Such a war is a gift from history!" (p. 37). Even Parvus, a fellow revolutionary who values Lenin highly, thinks, "All that Lenin lacked was breadth"; he saw in Lenin "the savage, intolerant narrowness of the natural schismatic" (p. 143).
If these characteristics were all we knew of Solzhenitsyn's Lenin, we could properly view him as sharing very little in our common humanity. But the author takes great pains to show that Lenin is "one of us." He, too, is a morally responsible agent, though that line running through the heart dividing good and evil can be pushed very far toward one side.
The most noteworthy example of his humanity is his love for Inessa. Whereas usually "a single hour wasted made Lenin ill" (p. 69), this engine of revolution would drop his work for long stretches of time just to be with her. When she is away, he is jealous, afraid that she is practicing what he preaches about free love. Still, marriage to her is out of the question. She would distract him from his mission, and her five children would slow him down. He chooses to stay with his wife, Nadya. "Living with her made no excessive demands on his nerves" (p. 84), and her loyalty, which extends even to accepting Inessa's frequent presence, has its uses.
Dostoevsky has taught us that every human being is a mass of contradictions. Lenin is no exception, though here again on an extraordinary, gargantuan scale. Examples abound. This intense, single-minded man, who "generated energy almost without eating" (p. 100), was also "ultracautious" (p. 114), even irresolute; when in March 1917 the Tsar abdicated and a Provisional Government was established in Russia, Lenin could not decide when or even whether to return to his homeland. While always calling men to action, he had "never set his hand to anything practicar (p. 163). Of this theorist of revolution, we read, "There was only one thing he was incapable of—action. The one thing he could not do was—blow up a battleship" (p. 181). What, instead, was he, and what did he do? "Lenin was—a writer of articles. And pamphlets. He gave lectures. He made speeches" (p. 180). He thinks, "One good leaflet and all Europe would rise in revolt. What about that?!" (p. 199). So Solzhenitsyn calls him "a typical armchair philosopher, a dreamer" (p. 155), a bookish man like Marx.
Evident too is the disparity between Lenin's ideology and his personal style. While many who are egalitarian in principle are dictatorial in practice, the conflict in Lenin's case is extreme. He never shared authority, preferring the blind discipleship of those he condescendingly labeled mediocre to fraternity with fellow ideologues of personal strength and integrity. In the name of democracy he established centralism. This ardent advocate of collectivism was himself an isolated, highly eccentric individual. Pursuing revolution in the name of the masses, he considered peasants "ignorant rabble" (p. 13).
Most surprising, perhaps, is the contradiction between Lenin's supreme self-confidence in interpreting the course of history and his repeated misunderstanding. The leader of the most prodigious of modern revolutions is shown to be obtuse, miscalculating, bungling. The onset of the war in Europe took him completely by surprise. After war did come, he again misjudged: ". . . Germany was not winning . . ." (p. 100). Also, he never anticipated the momentous events in Russia in March 1917; quite the opposite. "You could know your Marxism inside out and still not find an answer when a real crisis burst upon you . . ." (p. 44).
Nevertheless, the miscalculations of the ideologue did not deflect him from his dream. "What mattered was not who was to blame [for the war] but how to turn the war to the best advantage" (p. 22). If the war caught him off guard, he still chose to see it as "the event you have lived to interpret and complete!" (p. 32).
If it seems to us now that Lenin was prescient here, since the chaos brought about by the war did culminate in the Bolshevik Revolution, such is not exactly the case. For his goal was world revolution, not the Russian Revolution. Following Marx, he expected revolution to come first in advanced, industrialized countries. So, with the myopia of locality, he challenges his "numbskull" cohorts: "Don't you realize that Switzerland is the most revolutionary country in the world??!" (p. 58). As late as October 1916, he insists: ". . . SWITZERLAND IS THE CENTER OF WORLD REVOLUTION TODAY!!!" (p. 61). Further—partly because Switzerland is made up of three language groups but probably partly just because he is located there—". . . from Switzerland the flame of revolution will be kindled throughout Europe" (p. 185). Yet, in a moment of despair, he speaks of moving to America after the war. Then, with but the slightest encouragement, he decides that he will "bring about revolution not in Switzerland but in Sweden," will "begin it all from there!" (p. 200). His might be called an ad hoc approach to revolution.
Lenin's contradictoriness is also seen in his attitude toward Russia itself. And here we must recall that Solzhenitsyn is writing to Russians about Russia. He wants them to understand what their now sainted hero really thought of them. Far from loving his homeland, Lenin was a deracinated intellectual who flatly called himself an anti-patriot. We would expect that he would find the Russian peasants "corrupted and emasculated by Orthodoxy" (pp. 101-102). But would we expect him to lament that "he had been born in accursed Russia" (p. 108)? His sense of alienation from Russianness was profound:
Why had he been born in that uncouth country? Just because a quarter of his blood was Russian, fate had hitched him to the ramshackle Russian rattletrap. A quarter of his blood, but nothing in his character, his will, his inclinations made him kin to that slovenly, slapdash, eternally drunken country. . . . He was tied, you say, to Russia by twenty years as a practicing revolutionary? Yes, but by nothing else. (pp. 103-104)
And so perhaps his hatred for Russia bore on his wanting the Germans to win the war. He was delighted by Russian casualties: "The bigger the figures, the happier they made him. . . . But at the same time these figures drove him to despair: no people on earth were so long-suffering and so devoid of sense as the Russians. Their patience knew no bounds" (p. 101). Of course, his fervor for revolution was also a factor: "On the simple calculation that my worst enemy's worst enemy is my friend, the Kaiser's government was the best ally in the world" (p. 157).
For all that, when the newspaper accounts of March 1917 reach Lenin, his thoughts zigzag once again. With thorough inconsistency, he burbles to himself, "It is only natural that revolution has broken out in Russia first. That was to be expected. We did expect it. Our proletariat is the most revolutionary in the world . . ." (p. 235).
Lenin is, for Solzhenitsyn, the classic case of the ideologue's self-imposed dehumanization. For all of his energy, for all of his gifts, he has torn himself loose from humanity's social fabric. Lenin, we read, has concluded that "there can be no such relationship between human beings as simple friendship transcending political, class, and material ties" (p. 19). Here lies the difference between a genuine humanism and an analysis of human beings merely as members of a class. Lenin is not without humanity, but it is a humanity stunted and deformed under the pressure of ideology.
1Stories and Prose Poems (New York: Bantam, 1971). Page references will be cited in the text of this chapter.
2For the Good of the Cause (New York: Praeger, 1964). References to this work will be from the Praeger edition.
3 For a gloss on some pertinent autobiographical details, see Gulag Archipelago, III (New York: Harper, 1978), 406-444.
4Prussian Nights (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), p. 89.
15 "Author's Preface," Lenin in Zurich (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976). All further references to this volume are cited in the text.
16 From August 1914, chapter 22, from October 1916, chapters 38, 44, 45, 47, 48, 49, 50, from March 1917, chapters 1, 2, 3.
17 ". . . the book is neither a caricature nor a political broadside. Solzhenitsyn's Lenin is solidly researched. After reading serverai volumes of Lenin's letters dating from the period, I can testify to the care with which Solzhenitsyn has reproduced Lenin's speech and thought patterns" (review of Lenin in Zurich in New York Times Book Review, April 25, 1976, p. 7).
18 "Pursuit in Zurich," Worldview, 19 (July-August 1976), 50.
19 Review of Lenin in Zurich in New Republic, April 10, 1976, p. 23.
20 Conquest, p. 24.
21 Conquest, p. 24.
22 "Nearing the Finland Station," Saturday Review, April 3, 1976, p. 22.
23 Feifer, p. 22. I must acknowledge here my awareness that Solzhenitsyn denounced an early biography about him of which Feifer was a coauthor, a work which—I am now guessing—was considered by its authors to be a labor of love and respect.
24 Feifer, p. 23.
25 Interview conducted by Michael Charlton for the British Broadcasting Company, in Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Warning to the West (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), p. 113. Solzhenitsyn adds that, for purposes of his trilogy, he "thought of Lenin as one of the central characters—if not the central character."
26 Conquest, p. 24.
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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 sound stopped and it was pitch black on the other side of the window, just like in the middle of the night when Shukhov had to get up to go to the latrine, only now three yellow beams fell on the window—from two lights on the perimeter and one inside the camp.
He didn't know why but nobody'd come to open up the barracks. And you couldn't hear the orderlies hoisting the latrine tank on the poles to carry it out.
Much in the manner of Macbeth's offstage murder of his kinsman, sound or the lack of it in the opening section of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich1 forces attention on the meaning of the hammering and the significance it has for Denisovich as it beckons his consciousness to awaken to the fact of Soviet domination and oppression. In fact the five basic sense perceptions play a distinct part in the opening section to dramatize the novel's underlying theme and to underscore the omnipresent conflict between body and spirit that manifests itself at every turn of Denisovich's day. The parallel is clear: primitive sense perception dramatizes man's instinct for freedom. Indeed, the agonizing cry of man's unquenchable need for freedom is antithetically heard in the emblematic and "ringing" Soviet hammer.
The Soviet dissection of the human personality, however, is the dominant motif as each sense registers a negative sensation. Sound or the lack of it is reiterated in all three paragraphs. In the first it becomes fused with feeling, both physical and mental. The sound of repression, "The ringing noise" of "a hammer pounding on a rail," comes "through the windowpanes covered with ice" and thus is immediately associated with the "cold," a burden from which Denisovich is never released. Contrarily, while the effect has infinitesimal ramifications for Shukhov, the anonymous bellman of oppression, who "didn't feel like going on banging," can nonchalantly rid himself of the "seventeen and a half below" (p. 10) temperature.
In the second paragraph, "the sound stopped and it was pitch black." The effect of the blackness increases the awareness of bondage. The ears strain without accompanying sight. The intensity of the shrill sound of "ringing" in an atmosphere of ice is replaced with a psychological chain. The idea pervades. Nothing breaks its terrifying grip. Within this vacuum, the blackness is given analogous meaning: "just like in the middle of the night when Shukhov had to get up to go to the latrine." Shukhov is compelled biologically to relieve himself, and, as if to reinforce this meaning of compulsion, Solzhenitsyn then focuses on the "three yellow beams [which] fell on the window" from the compound lights. The image of prison bars, Shukhov's biological compulsion, and the blackness thus fills the vacuum with realization which the hammering sounds.
In the final paragraph silence continues as consciousness beyond awareness of bondage has not yet awakened: "He didn't know"; "nobody'd come"; "And you couldn't hear the orderlies hoisting the latrine tank." As the sound, sight, and feeling of enslavement is absorbed into the body, its stench is likewise registered by the residue of man's biological waste. The odor must be all encompassing, for there are two hundred men in the barracks, and the "twenty-gallon" (p. 3) tank is filled to capacity. The stench becomes as much a part of Denisovich as the air he breathes.
Of the five senses, taste is omitted. Does the absence of that sense which accompanies man's most essential physical need demand explication, or is it sufficient to note that "You couldn't help" (p. 2) licking the bowls in the morning?
Thus in the opening three paragraphs, Solzhenitsyn dramatizes how the most primitive, physical aspects of man are subjugated to Soviet domination. His body is dissected into parts, and there seems less than little difference between the labor camp inmate and his counterpart emerging from the Ice Age. And yet he does emerge with an instinct towards freedom. The "stars" (pp. 6, 18) are obscured by the compound lights, the words of Peter and Paul (pp. 28, 198) are hidden away in Alyoshka's notebook (p. 28); "It's the law of the jungle here, . . . But even here [man] can live" (p. 2). And if the reader steps back and sees the panoramic view of man emerging from darkness into the light of the "red sunrise" (p. 44) and understands the spiritual message of Peter and Paul which frames Denisovich's day, he will also perceive Solzhenitsyn hammering out his theme of man's irrepressible instinct for freedom.
1 Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Trans. Max Hayward and Ronald Hingley. New York: Bantam Books, 1963. The opening quotation appears on p. 12 of this edition.
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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 of widespread misconceptions concerning the Russian revolution, and in its unwitting revelations about its author.
While using the methods of the literary artist, which permit him to enter his characters' heads, Solzhenitsyn emphasizes in an author's note that his fictional Lenin's "choice of words" and "way of thinking and acting" are drawn from a study of Lenin's works.1 In a BBC interview he stated: "I gathered every grain of information I could, every detail, and my only aim was to re-create him alive, as he was."2 Solzhenitsyn's portrait of Lenin is, therefore, to be judged for its historical authenticity as well as its artistry. It is primarily with the former that this paper will be concerned.
In his portrait of Stalin in The First Circle Solzhenitsyn, in cutting the towering figure of the Stalin of Stalinist myth-making down to size, showed him to be a human being at ironic variance with the image, a human being whose traits of character, as Gary Kern stated in an excellent analysis, were historically documented in Roy Medvedev's Let History Judge.3 In his portrait of Lenin Solzhenitsyn is concerned with destroying the Stalinist myth of Lenin as an all-wise god-like person incapable of making mistakes like ordinary men, a myth Stalin manufactured in order that he might proclaim himself the equally infallible successor of this god. But in dealing with a man further away in time Solzhenitsyn permitted his hatred of Bolshevism to cause him to draw a portrait that flies in the face of the consensus of scholarly opinion, of the historical record, and of the testimony of those who knew him well, including his enemies.
Leonard Schapiro's statement of the three character traits of Lenin "so generally accepted" by scholars who have gone through the literature on Lenin "that it is unlikely that they will ever be seriously challenged"4 furnishes an excellent means of judging Solzhenitsyn's portrait, in which each of these traits is replaced by another opposed to it. Schapiro was a leading historian well-known for his hostility to Bolshevism; his essay appeared in a book published in association with the right-wing Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace; the publisher of the book was Praeger, which at that time was receiving secret subsidies from the CIA to publish scholarly anti-Communist books.5 His appraisal of Lenin is not, therefore, at all sympathetic, but, since Schapiro was a responsible scholar, in giving the irreducible minimum on Lenin on which scholars agree, he is accurate.
The first of these traits, says Schapiro, is "Lenin's complete dedication to revolution, and the consequent subordination by him of his personal life to the cause for which he was prepared to sacrifice everything or any one. . . . The second generally accepted characteristic follows from the first: his kindliness on many occasions to individuals, coupled with ruthlessness on other occasions, to the same or different individuals. It simply depended on whether the 'cause' was involved or not. . . . The third characteristic of Lenin which all scholars would now accept was his complete lack of personal vanity or ambition."6
This utter lack of vanity and ambition—attested to among others by Arthur Ransome, the Manchester Guardian correspondent who had ready access to Lenin, by Pavel Axelrod and Angelica Balabanoff, close associates who became antagonists of his, and by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Bolshevik leader whose Revolutionary Silhouettes objectively presented the strengths and weakness of the major figures of Bolshevism7—is at sharp variance with Solzhenitsyn's Lenin, with the constant preening of himself on his ability and the constant looking down with scorn upon others. When, for instance, he is in despair, he ruminates: "All his incomparable abilities (appreciated now by everyone in the party, but he set a truer and still higher value on them), all his quickwittedness, his penetration, his grasp, his uselessly clear understanding of world events, had failed to bring him not only political victory but even the position of a member of Parliament in toyland, like Grimm [a swiss Social-Democratic leader]. Or that of a successful lawyer (though he would hate to be a lawyer—he had lost every case in Samara). Or even that of a journalist. Just because he had been born in accursed Russia" (p. 108).8 The self-satisfaction over the recognition he has achieved but the hunger for a still greater recognition, the loving elaboration of his self-proclaimed "incomparable abilities," the secret envy of the bourgeois careerists he outwardly despises, the blaming of his own failures upon his country—this is effective self-revelation, but not the self-revelation of one bearing any semblance to the Lenin who scholars agree was lacking in vanity and ambition.
When Alexander Parvus, the Russo-German Social-Democrat who supported Germany during the war, whom Solzhenitsyn presents as the real leader of the 1905 revolution and a corrupt genius whose superiority to himself as a theoretician and a man of action Lenin enviously recognizes in the inner recesses of his being, proposes that they form an alliance to make a Russian revolution with German money,9 Lenin rejects the idea because he does not want to be superseded. "Oh yes," he thinks, "I understand your Plan! You will emerge as the unifier of all the party groups. Add to that your financial power and your theoretical talent, and there you are—leader of a unified party and of the Second Revolution? Not again?!" (p. 166). Thus the revolution to which Lenin has dedicated his life is seen to be really a projection of his own ego, something which he will not sacrifice his own leadership role to attain. This is not the Lenin who scholars agree would have sacrificed everything for the revolution.
Looking with scorn at those about him, not only at his opponents but at his associates, whom Solzhenitsyn portrays as rogues Lenin despises but cynically uses, Lenin gives loose in his speech and in his thoughts to a constant stream of vituperation. The historical Lenin, it is well known, did not adhere to the "my respected opponent" manner of parliamentary debate in his polemics and made use of invectives such as "philistine," "renegade," and "servant of the bourgeoisie" in demolishing his opponents. Solzhenitsyn, uses some of the epithets Lenin did and adds some choice ones of his own ("piss-poor slobbering pseudo-socialists," "little shit," "snot-nosed guttersnipes" [pp. 34, 94]). The unremitting flow of vituperation without a single kind word for anyone is indicative of both venomousness and coarseness. Although the correspondence of the real Lenin, as Schapiro observes, "shows his concern for the personal welfare of bolsheviks and their families even at his busiest time,"10 there is no hint of this in Solzhenitsyn.
Lenin, says Solzhenitsyn in an authorial comment, "never forgave a mistake. No matter who made it, he would remember as long as he lived" (p. 24). But Bukharin, in his letter "To a Future Generation of Party Leaders" which he had his wife memorize shortly before he was arrested by Stalin, spoke of Lenin's magnanimity toward those who had been mistaken: "If, more than once, I was mistaken about the methods of building socialism, let posterity judge me no more harshly than Vladimir Il'ich."11 Gorky, reminiscing on Lenin, exclaimed, "But how many times, in his judgment of people, whom he had yesterday criticized and 'pulled to bits,' did I clearly hear the note of genuine wonder before the talents and moral steadfastness of these people. . . ."12
The historical Lenin, moreover, continued to recognize and pay tribute to the past accomplishments of those who became and remained his greatest political enemies. He insisted that Plekhanov, toward whom Solzhenitsyn's Lenin is full of bitter hatred, and Kautsky, whose picture Solzhenitsyn's Lenin states he cannot look at without retching as though he were swallowing a frog, be published in full and studied. He wrote an obituary for the Left Social-Revolutionist P. P. Prosh'ian, who had participated in the S-R insurrection against the Soviet government, in which he said, "Comrade Prosh'ian did more before July, 1918, to strengthen the Soviet regime than he did in July, 1918, to damage it."13 Lenin's wife Krupskaya tells of how, after he broke with his intimate associate Martov, he eagerly welcomed every position Martov took which he considered worthy of a revolutionist, and of how when he was struggling with his fatal illness he remarked sadly, "They say Martov is dying too."14 None of this is compatible with the Lenin of Solzhenitsyn's portrait.
Solzhenitsyn's Lenin not only regards both his political enemies and his associates with hatred and contempt; he regards everyone with hatred and contempt: peasants ("as obtuse as peasants the world over" [p. 12]), workers ("the workers had swarmed like ants out of their holes and into legal bodies," disregarding the Bolsheviks [p. 21]), women ("silly bitches" [p. 66]), young people ("these little piglets . . . were . . . so very sure of themselves, so ready to take over the leadership at any moment" [p. 92]). Above all, he despises the Russian people. "Why was he born in that uncouth country?" he asks himself. "Just because a quarter of his blood was Russian [Solzhenitsyn refers to Lenin throughout as an 'Asiatic'], fate had hitched him to the ramshackle Russian rattletrap. A quarter of his blood, but nothing in his character, his will, his inclinations made him kin to that slovenly, slapdash, eternally drunken country" (p. 103).15
The real Lenin, however, was not at all contemptuous of ordinary people, talking easily with them and learning from what they had to say. This is attested to not only by Trotsky and Gorky,16 but by Balabanoff, who writes, "The desire to learn from others was characteristic of him. . . . He would ask peasants about agricultural matters. . . . He did not do it to attract attention or cause sensation, but rather unobtrusively."17 A number of accounts tell of Lenin visiting a Soviet art school, where he got into an animated exchange with two dozen students, who defended the futurist movement in art and literature against him. Lenin was delighted by the spirit of the youngsters and at the conclusion of the controversy good-naturedly joked that he would go home, read up on the subject, and then come back to defeat them in debate.18
The historical Lenin was opposed to the party leadership granting itself special favors. Solzhenitsyn, however, has him make cavalier use of party funds, disbursing them freely to his favorites and stingily to others. "Find somebody to look after the children, we'll pay the expenses out of party funds," he tells Inessa Armand,19 urging her to attend an international congress, and in the next moment (pp. 25, 26) he thinks of how his associate Hanecki is not going because of his demand for expenses at a time when "party funds must be used carefully." But the real Lenin did not have such control of the money for functionaries' living expenses, and he himself was at times in dire need in his exile. "Lenin's personal finances were stretched," says Robert H. McNeal in his biography of Krupskaya, "and he implored the editors of Pravda to pay for Nadezhda's [Krupskaya's] operation. . . . but they must have let him down, for the request was repeated soon afterwards. . . ."20
Tamara Deutscher in her Not by Politics Alone . . . The Other Lenin has a letter from Lenin to the office manager of the Council of People's Commissars officially reprimanding him for having raised Lenin's salary from 500 rubles a month to 800 rubles a month contrary to the decision of the Council, of which Lenin was chairperson. In a letter to the Library of the Rumyantsev Museum requesting permission to borrow certain books, Lenin wrote in 1920: "If, according to the rules, reference publications are not issued for home use, could not one get them for an evening, for the night, when the Library is closed. I will return them by the morning" (Lenin's emphasis).21
Lenin's unbending dedication to the revolution and to revolutionary principles was a source of strength to him as a leader. Another source of strength, says Schapiro, was the combination of his lack of vanity and his "unwavering conviction" that "in any matter in dispute, he alone had the right answer."22 Solzhenitsyn's Lenin, however, despite his overweening vanity, is haunted by inner doubts. "His self-confidence had failed him [in 1905], and Lenin had skulked through the revolution in a daze. . . . It took years for the ribs dented by Parvus to straighten out again, for Lenin to regain his assurance that he, too, was of some use to the world" (pp. 125-26). But the ribs dented by Parvus were not really straightened out. In 1916, when Parvus boasts to him of having sunk a battleship in 1905, Lenin thinks of himself that he can write, give lectures, influence young leftists, polemicize, but "there was only one thing he was incapable of—action."
His very insecurity makes Solzhenitsyn's Lenin incapable of admitting any error of judgment. "Yes, I made a mistake," he thinks to himself (p. 22). "I was shortsighted, I wasn't bold enough. (But you must not talk like that even to your closest supporter, or you may rob him of his faith in his leader.)" The real Lenin, however, who believed that theory can never keep pace with changing reality, not infrequently admitted in retrospect to having erred. Especially was this true at the end of his life when he saw the growth of bureaucracy and of indifference to the rights and needs of the national minorities, to which he felt he had not paid sufficient attention. "In his statements, speeches, and notes made in the last period of his activity expressions such as 'the fault is mine,' 'I must correct another mistake of mine,' 'I am to blame,' are repeated several times,"23 says Deutscher, quoting from documents in her book.
Beset by secret doubts he cannot voice, made irritable by people, exhausting himself in feverish activity, whose value he often questions to himself, Solzhenitsyn's Lenin is a jangle of nerves. Calmed for a moment as he walks along the bank of a Swiss lake, "he realized how hard-pressed and harassed he normally was" (p. 76). But Lunacharsky says of the Lenin he knew that, although at times he drove himself to exhaustion, he knew how to relax so that he emerged from his rest "freshened and ready for the fray again." "In the worst moments that he and I lived through together, Lenin was unshakeably calm and as ready as ever to break into cheerful laughter."24 The aged Boris Souvarine, one of the founders of the French Communist party, who knew Lenin well and came to be a strong anti-Bolshevik, is astounded at the feverishness of Solzhenitsyn's Lenin. "Day and night, even in response to the smallest thing, Lenin seems to be whirling. In all this we do not recognize the real Lenin and his habitual self-control."25
The readiness to break into cheerful laughter of which Lunacharsky speaks is alien to Solzhenitsyn's Lenin. "Lenin often wore a mocking look," says Solzhenitsyn, "but very rarely smiled" (p. 145). On the occasions he does smile it is a "crooked little grin—suspicious, shrewd, derisory" (p. 167). When it occurs to Hanecki that Lenin's appearance is such that he might readily be taken for a Russian spy, he "wanted to tease him about it, but he knew that Lenin couldn't take a joke, and refrained" (p. 17).
But one of the distinctive characteristics of the real-life Lenin was his gaiety of disposition, which did not permit him to stand on false dignity. Arthur Ransome said of him, "I tried to think of any other man of his caliber who had a similar joyous temperament. I could think of none."26 Gorky said, "I have never met a man who could laugh so infectiously as Lenin."27 Trotsky described Lenin as "always . . . even-tempered and gay" and spoke of his "famous laughter."28 He told of how Lenin, in presiding over small committees, conducted the meetings in an efficient manner but sometimes, especially towards the end of a long, hard session, would be provoked to laughter by something that had amused him. "He tried to control himself as long as he could, but finally he would burst out with a peal of laughter which infected all the others."29
Far from being unduly sensitive, he was ready to laugh at himself. N. Valentinov, an associate of Lenin's early in the century who later broke with him politically, related how on a picnic he observed that Lenin, instead of making a sandwich for himself, rapidly cut off pieces of bread, egg, and sausage and, with the nimble dexterity characteristic of him, popped them successively into his mouth. Valentinov commented on this, comparing Lenin's dexterity with the dexterity with which a character in Tolstoy's War and Peace put on his leggings. Instead of taking offense, Lenin found the comparison amusing. "His laughter was so infectious that Krupskaya also started to laugh at the sight of him; then I joined in too."30 There is no thin-skinned sensitivity here.
Solzhenitsyn's egocentric, dour Lenin, incapable of human warmth and geniality and hating every one, is utterly indifferent to others' suffering. He gleefully reads the figures on Russia's enormous war casualties, seeing them as evidence of the doom of the Tsarist regime. The climactic presentation of his indifference to suffering comes at the end of the first chapter of Lenin in Zurich, Chapter 22 in August 1914. Lenin is at a parapet in a railroad station when a hospital train comes in. The dying are fearfully regarded by a crowd of people come to see if their dear ones are on the train, and the wounded are joyfully embraced. As Lenin surveys the scene, he has no thought for the emotions of the crowd: in a kind of demonic frenzy, he has been seized by the inspiration for his slogan "Convert the war into civil war!" a civil war "without quarter" that "will bring all the governments of Europe down in ruins!!!" "Daily, hourly, wherever you may be—protest angrily and uncompromisingly against this war! But . . . ! (The dialectic essence of the situation.) But . . . will it to continue! See that it does not stop short! That it drags on and is transformed! A war like this one must not be fumbled, must not be wasted. Such a war is a gift from history!" (p. 37).
Remarkably, Lenin is made responsible for the continuation of the war. He will "will it to continue." How can he, however great his will power, achieve this extraordinary feat? Earlier he had thought to himself, "You must find channels for negotiations, covertly reassure yourself that if difficulties arise in Russia and she starts suing for peace, Germany will not agree to peace talks, will not abandon the Russian revolutionaries to the whim of fate" (p. 35). The unknown emigré will somehow influence the German government not to free itself from one front in a two-front war in order not to "abandon the Russian revolutionaries." This simply does not make sense.
Not only is the responsibility for the war foisted from the warring governments upon Lenin, but the bloodiness of the Russian civil war is attributed to the bloodthirstiness of Lenin. The White forces and the allied governments who supported them are absolved of all responsibility. Lenin's denunciations of the war are dismissed as mere verbiage to mask his sinister design. He is incapable of genuine moral indignation.
Lenin undoubtedly was, as Schapiro says, ruthless in the defense of the revolution. The question is, however, whether Lenin was like a humane surgeon who cuts off a limb to save a life or like the Nazi doctors who engaged in cruel experimentation without any regard for their concentration-camp victims. How one judges his acts will depend in good part upon one's own politics. Many who condemn such measures as holding hostages subject to execution to break the opposing side's will or executing the Tsar's children to deprive the monarchists of a rallying-point do not feel the same way about the firebombing of Dresden or the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, which killed innumerably more innocent people. But however one regards his actions, serious scholars do not find Lenin to have been the totally unfeeling person Solzhenitsyn makes him out to be.
Thus Bertram D. Wolfe, an ex-leader of the American Communist party who became Chief of the Ideological Advisory Staff of the Voice of America, said of Gorky's Lenin that it revealed his "faithfulness to himself as artist and observer of his subject."31 But Gorky, a long-time friend of Lenin's who attacked him sharply for the severity of his measures during the Civil War but who came to feel that they were necessary,32 depicted Lenin as keenly sympathetic toward the oppressed. "In a country where the inevitability of suffering is recommended as the universal road to the 'salvation of the soul,'" wrote the author of The Lower Depths, himself so sensitive to human misery, "I never met, I do not know a man who hated, loathed and despised human unhappiness, grief, and suffering as strongly and deeply as Lenin did."33
Thus too Peter Reddaway, co-editor with Leonard Schapiro of Lenin: The Man, The Theorist, The Leader, while speaking of the "fanaticism" of Lenin's "revolutionary morality," speaks also of "the human side of Lenin, which he had to keep so rigidly under control. This is the Lenin of whom Lepeshinsky said: 'He possesses a remarkably tender soul, not lacking, I would say, even a certain sentimentality'; who rebuked Bogdanov with the words: 'Marxism does not deny, but, on the contrary, affirms the healthy enjoyment of life given by nature, love and so on'; who, as a youth, suddenly saw he must not become a farmer because 'my relations with the peasants are becoming abnormal'; who could not shoot a fox because 'really she was so beautiful'; who told Gorky: 'It is high time for you to realize that politics are a dirty business'; and who said in E. Zozulya's presence: 'O happy time, when there will be less politics.'"34
The traits which Solzhenitsyn gives Lenin—vanity, ambition, envy, coarseness, unforgivingness, a sense of inferiority (at least, with regard to Parvus), readiness to use and dispense special privileges, readiness to take personal offense, unwillingness to admit mistakes, indifference to others' suffering—are, interestingly enough, those that he gives to Stalin in The First Circle and that were indeed part of Stalin's character. Solzhenitsyn regards Stalin as the legitimate political heir of Lenin, and this opinion is reflected in his projecting the personal traits of the heir upon his predecessor.
There is another person besides Stalin who, without Solzhenitsyn being aware of it, acted as a model for Solzhenitsyn's portrait of Lenin, a surprising one—Solzhenitsyn himself. Working in the very Zurich in which Lenin had worked, with the same object of undermining the Russian government, Solzhenitsyn unconsciously identified Lenin with himself. Just as his Lenin believes himself (p. 19) to be "the infallible interpreter" of a "compelling power which manifested itself through him," so Solzhenitsyn in his self-revelatory The Oak and the Calf marvels at his own ability to "hold out single-handed, yes, and fork over mountains of work" and exclaims: "Where do I get the strength? From what miraculous source?" He answers himself some pages later: "How wise and powerful is thy guiding hand, O Lord!"35 Even the style of Lenin's interior monologues is similar to that of Solzhenitsyn's memoir, making free use of parenthetical interjections, italics, and exclamation points to convey febrile excitement. Lenin's confrontation with Parvus, in which each of them seeks to penetrate the mask of the other, resembles Solzhenitsyn's confrontation with his former wife, who he is convinced is now a KGB agent.
Solzhenitsyn regards himself as alone in knowing how to combat the present Russian regime. Of the efforts of other dissidents he is scornful. He regards the "soft" Tvardovsky, the editor through whom he had been published, in much the same way that his Lenin regards the Mensheviks. He attacks the Medvedev brothers harshly as agents of the regime.
Just as Solzhenitsyn's Lenin is contemptuous of the Russian people, so Solzhenitsyn in one passage is contemptuous of them: "We spent ourselves in one unrestrained outburst in 1917, and then we hurried to submit. We submitted with pleasure! . . . We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward."36 Just as Lenin rejoices in World War I as an opportunity for revolution, so Solzhenitsyn relates how he longed in prison camp for the United States to use its monopoly of the atomic bomb to start a new war against the Soviet Union: "World war might bring us a speedier death . . . or it just might bring freedom. In either case, deliverance would be much nearer than the end of a twenty-five year sentence."37 Just as his Lenin was ready to serve the Kaiser against Russia, so Solzhenitsyn praises and justifies the Red Army soldiers who turned traitor and fought in the ranks of Hitler's army, himself making the explicit comparison: "Came the time when weapons were put in the hands of these people, should they have . . . allowed Bolshevism to outlive itself. . . ? . . . No, the natural thing was to copy the methods of Bolshevism itself: it had eaten into the body of a Russia sapped by the First World War, and it must be defeated at a similar moment in the Second."38
Solzhenitsyn's portrait of Lenin, then, has many of the traits of Stalin and is also in part an unconscious mirror image of Solzhenitsyn himself. It bears little resemblance to the historical Lenin.
Note: This essay is adapted from the author's essay in The Many Faces of Psychohistory, eds. J. Dorinson and J. Atlas (1984).
1 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lenin in Zurich, trans. H. T. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), 269. Subsequent references to this book are incorporated in the text.
2 Solzhenitsyn, Warning to the West (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), 113.
3 G. Kern, "Solzhenitsyn's Portrait of Stalin," Slavic Review 33 (1974): 12n.
4 Leonard Schapiro, "Lenin After Fifty Years," Lenin: The Man, The Theorist, The Leader: A Reappraisal, ed. Leonard Schapiro and Peter Reddaway (New York: Praeger, 1967), 6.
5 For CIA subsidies to Praeger, see David Wise, The American Police State (New York: Random House, 1976), 200.
6 Schapiro and Reddaway, 6-7.
7 Arthur Ransome in Albert Rhys Williams, Lenin: The Man and His Work (New York: Scott and Seltzer, 1919), 173; Angelica Balabanoff, Impressions of Lenin (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1965), 121; Anatoly Vasilievich Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 67. Axelrod is quoted in Bertram D. Wolfe, Three Who Made a Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), 122.
8 Solzhenitsyn here distorts by both omission and commission. In a year and a half, studying by himself, Lenin was able to pass the bar examination, which was normally taken after four years of law school study, coming in first among 134. In ten months he appeared as counsel for the defense ten times, seven of them by court appointment, in open-and-shut cases of petty crime in which the courts routinely delivered verdicts of guilt. The one case which he undertook as prosecutor he won. He gave up law not because he was a failure at it but because he had become a revolutionist. Cf. Leon Trotsky, The Young Lenin (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1972), 170, 178-79 and Wolfe, 86-87.
9 Although Solzhenitsyn shows Lenin here refusing German money, he indicates that the Bolsheviks subsequently received it, with it scarcely being possible that Lenin was unaware of this. Boris Souvarine cites ("Solzhenitsyn and Lenin," Dissent 24 : 324-36) the work of two American professors, Alfred Erich Senn and Alexander Dallin, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, which, he says, exploded the tendentious literature purporting to show that Lenin was a German agent. The editors of Dissent stated that they were sending a copy of Souvarine's article to Solzhenitsyn with an invitation to comment. No comment by him appeared.
10 Schapiro and Reddaway, 7. Cf. Maxim Gorky, Lenin (Edinburgh: University Texts: 1, Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), 45.
11 Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge (New York: Knopf, 1972), 483.
12 Gorky, 46.
13 Medvedev, 544.
14 N. K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959), 99.
15 M. Heller points out ("Lenin, Parvus, and Solzhenitsyn," Survey 21 : 191) that "Lenin's entourage includes no Russians—Jakub Genetsky, Karl Radek, Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Brilliant-Sokolnikov, Christian Rakovsky, Platten (the naive and credulous Swiss), and the feverish and determined German, Münzenberg." Izrail Helphand had changed his name to Alexander Parvus, but Solzhenitsyn calls him Izrail Lazarevich throughout, emphasizing his Jewishness. Socialism is thus seen as un-Russian.
16 Trotsky, 195 and Gorky, 20.
17 Balabanoff, 121.
18 For one account of this incident by a participant, see Tamara Deutscher, Not By Politics Alone . . . the other Lenin (London: Allen & Unwin, 1973), 188-91.
19 Solzhenitsyn makes Armand out to be Lenin's mistress and the one person in the world on whom he is dependent and who might conceivably have humanized the grimly puritanical fanatic if she had not left him. Whether or not Lenin had an affair with Armand (Robert H. McNeal, Bride of the Revolution: Krupskaya and Lenin [Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1972], 35, believes it is possible but not certain), it is clear from McNeal's biography of Krupskaya and from Bertram D. Wolfe's biographical essay on Armand (Strange Communists I Have Known [New York: Stein and Day, 1965], 138-64) that Solzhenitsyn's depiction of the psychological relationships is completely off. His contrast between the compliant slavey Krupskaya and the strong-willed independent Armand is false. Krupskaya was no mere drudge; she conducted a "remarkable one-woman operation as the center of a fairly complicated and effective network of agents" (McNeal, p. 101). Although she was not an independent political figure, she did not hesitate to disagree with Lenin on politics in public (McNeal, pp. 145, 173). Lenin did not merely put up with her, at times impatiently, as Solzhenitsyn has it; he behaved towards her solicitously and lovingly (cf. McNeal, p. 148). Armand was not, as Solzhenitsyn presents her, a diversion from Lenin's revolutionary activity. She was as devoted to the revolutionary cause as he and Krupskaya. Far from being his tutor, she was his devoted pupil.
20 McNeal, 148-49.
21 Deutscher, 188-91.
22 Schapiro and Reddaway, 7.
23 Deutscher, 43.
24 Lunacharsky, 43, 41.
25 Souvarine, 234.
26 Williams, 173.
27 Gorky, 23.
28 Trotsky, My Life (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1930), 470; Trotsky, Portraits: Political & Personal (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), 59.
29 Trotsky, Lenin: Notes for a Biographer (New York: Putnam, 1971), 172.
30 Nikolay Valentinov, Encounters with Lenin (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968), 82.
31 Bertram D. Wolfe, The Bridge and the Abyss: The Troubled Friendship of Maxim Gorky and V. L Lenin (New York: Praeger, 1967), p. 165. Gorky's book was used for hagiographical purposes by Stalin's regime, but it was not itself hagiographical. The consequence was that many passages such as Gorky's relating of a conversation in which Lenin praised Trotsky were censored.
32 "What do you want?" he quoted Lenin as having exclaimed. "Is it possible to act humanely in such an unusually ferocious fight?" (p. 39).
33 Gorky, 29.
34 Schapiro and Reddaway, 62.
35 Solzhenitsyn, The Oak and the Calf: Sketches of Literary Life in the Soviet Union (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 297.
36 Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), I:13n.
37 Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), III:47-48.
38 Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, III:27-28.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2660
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 a unified state rather than a "false confederation." He himself has said that the presence of a great writer at home is tantamount to an alternative government in the country. A recent poll in Petersburg found far more sympathy for him than for anyone in Russia's present leadership.
In the past few years, Solzhenitsyn's once remarkably strident views have undergone a kind of lapidary furbishing; the sharper edges have been removed. He has made a sort of accommodation with electoral democracy. More important, he has praised the state of Israel for its stubborn resistance to American popular culture, and he has thus explicitly distanced himself from the anti-Semitism of which he has been suspected, a feature so characteristic of his school of literature. We cannot say of him—as of the Bourbons returned from exile—that he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Still, for a poignant synopsis of his thought—and his potential intentious?—the best guide, his most important piece of work, is one of his first, a short story that remains almost unknown in the land of his former refuge.
"Matryona's Home" ("Matryonin dvor," 1963) is in its way as simple and direct as Hemingway and Pushkin, and yet its modesty is deceptive. It is a composite of different elements. It is most obviously the story of the author's return from his first exile in the Gulag. It is, in addition, a statement of the code of values of the Slavophile creed. Perhaps most provocatively, it is an allegorical history of Russia in fictional form.
Released by the amnesty of 1953 from the Gulag, Ignatich, a mathematics teacher, sought work in a remote vista of rural Russia, "some place far beyond the railroad," some place that would undoubtedly represent to him an asylum from that monster of modernization, the Five-Year Plans and the purges needed to guarantee their appearance of success. Yet even in a region bearing the beautiful name Vysokoe pole (High Field), an area once deep and trackless forest, the intrusions of progress had established an ugly little village by the name of Torfoprodukt (Peat Product). Farther out and offering perhaps a slightly more sylvan prospect, was Talnyi (Hostage). The local school needed a math teacher. Even here, however, the trains ran right through the village, ran right recklessly, as did the whole modern Moloch, the revolutionary monster of devouring materialism.
Travelers and newcomers here were few, and lodging was rarely needed or provided. Someone suggested that Matryona Vasilievna might have room. Matryona's place, Ignatich was warned, would be far from neat. It was old and needed repair. Still the house was large. There was plenty of room for a boarder. Matryona herself was sickly. She did not encourage him. "We are not clever, we don't cook, how shall we suit? . . ." There was a cat and mice and cockroaches, but there was little other choice, and Ignatich was not choosy. He stayed. It was, after all, a microcosm of the kind of refuge that he sought.
Matryona was no modern Soviet woman, "new Soviet person," no Calvinist Communist of the forest. Rather she was an awkwardly proto-Orthodox embodiment of the Biblical beatitudes. An elderly countrywoman, humble and homely Matryona had a lot of worries. Her husband had not returned from the war, and after eight years it was not likely that he ever would. Matryona had only recently received the pension to which she had so long been entitled. Nearing 60 years of age now, when she grew ill, she had been dismissed from the local collective farm. Matryona lived by working her petty garden plot and—like everybody else in the region—by poaching fuel from the state peat trust. A single day's supply for her stove weighed 70 or 80 pounds, and she had to fetch it from a distance of two miles. During the 200 days of winter, she had to do it every day. She fed herself on a few meager potatoes and the milk that her goat gave.
In spite of her expulsion from the collective, the farm management was not embarrassed to call on her for help when the harvest was taken in. She grumbled and complained of ill health, but she always went. When her neighbors called on her, she went without hesitation, and she refused their offers of pay. Blessed are the meek, blessed are the pure in heart.
Matryona had typical folk fears. She was afraid of fire, afraid of lightning, and afraid of trains—there was something ominous here about trains. She was religious in the curious half-pagan, fully superstitious fashion of the Russian countryside, more generically religious than specifically Christian. Matryona would not go into the garden on St. John's day for fear of spoiling the harvest. In the weather she found signs of doom or foreboding. She was never seen to cross herself, but she called on God's blessing whenever she undertook any job. She lit an oil lamp before the icons on feast days.
Matryona and her boarder treated each other with respectful reserve. They inquired little into their respective pasts. Ignatich eventually mentioned that he had served time; it was a kind of hurdle crossed. Matryona nodded as if she had apprehended it. How else to explain the sudden appearance of a newcomer in 1953? Slowly in the course of long evenings and snatches of conversation the life of Matryona—and of Russia itself—was sketched out.
Married at 19, she moved into her husband's home, the one in which she now lived. The war came—World War I—and Faddei went to the front. He didn't come back, he disappeared. For years she waited for him. In the meantime, his brother Yefim came courting and proposed marriage. Matryona hesitated and accepted. Within months, Faddei returned. He had been released from a P.O.W. camp in Hungary. Shock engulfed them all. Faddei declared that he would look for another Matryona. Eventually he found one in a neighboring village, and he married her. Two brothers, Yefim and Faddei, and two wives, Matryona Vasilievna and the other Matryona, Matryona II.
Faddei's Matryona, Matryona II, suffered her husband's constant beatings, but she bore him six children. Yefim was a gentler husband. He did not beat his wife, Matryona Vasilievna. He did scorn her country ways. He liked to dress up, and he made fun of her village fashions. He took a mistress in the nearby town, too.
Matryona Vasilievna had a blighted fecundity. She, too, gave birth to six children, but all of them died. Eventually she begged of her sister-in-law, Matryona II, the youngest daughter, Kira. Kira was raised by Yefim and Matryona Vasilievna. Before Ignatich's coming, Kira had married and moved away. In the meantime, the next war had come, World War II. Faddei was exempted this time for poor vision, but Yefim, Matryona Vasilievna's husband, was drafted, and what had happened to Faddei in the first war happened to Yefim in the second—except that he never came back.
This is the story of Russia itself. I have long thought of the relationship of government and people in Russia as that of parent and child. A friend of mine insists that it is rather the relationship of abusing husband and abused wife, and she knows Russia, too. Russian husbands are, in any event, as sovereign as the Russian government.
Matryona is the colloquial variant of the Russian name Matrona, a Latin borrowing meaning wife or matron. In another variation, it is Matryoshka, the name of the nesting dolls that everywhere symbolize Russian folk handicraft. In pure Russian, however, the first syllable of the name, mat, is the Russian word for mother. An author whose opening remarks in this story demonstrate his close attention to the phonology of Russian proper names cannot be suspected of choosing the name of his heroine carelessly. Matryona is Mother Russia.
As there were two Matryonas, so have there been two Russias. Yefim treated Matryona Vasilievna as Peter I treated his Russia. He was not so deliberately abusive as his Soviet successors, but he scorned native culture and went a-whoring after the fashions of Europe. The fate of Faddei's Matryona II was like that of Soviet Russia, more abused and more productive. "Love your wife like your soul, shake her like your pear tree."
The fate of Yefim, the husband who never returned, can only be imagined, but the numbers of graphic possibilities exemplify the tortured history of the nation during his generation. He may have become an MIA. He may have died in a German camp. If he survived captivity, maybe he chose, as so many Soviet "displaced persons" did, not to risk the implacable mercies of Stalin and went West. Or maybe he suffered forced return by Anglo-American repatriation teams and died in the Soviet camps.
In any event his widow, feeling the approach of illness and death, had made out a will. It bequeathed the upper room of her house to her foster daughter, Kira. The rest of the house would be disposed of by the quarrels of the relatives. This process began, however, sooner than anticipated. Kira and her husband discovered that they could acquire a plot of land in their nearby village if they could establish a dwelling on it, and they seized on the idea of persuading Matryona at once to part with her upper room to satisfy their need.
Just as in the case of the trains, there was something foreboding about this particular part of the house. It was not called the upstairs (naverkh), the upper storey (verkhnii etazh), or second floor (vtoroi etazh). Rather it was always called the gornitsa, a somewhat antiquated word formerly meaning upper room. This is the word which in the Russian Gospel of Luke is used for that upper room in which the first Holy Eucharist took place. Does the ravishing of it suggest the poor quality of the Russian people's commitment to their Orthodox Christianity? Does it suggest the Soviet decapitation of the Orthodox Church? Had the Church, like the upper room, been disposed of so readily because it had come to be regarded by the people as dispensable? In any event, the role of the upper room is heavy with premonition. And even without religious reference, here was a regular witches' brew of greed, materialism, and the civilization of modern mechanical technology that both Matryona and Ignatich so dreaded.
Matryona was troubled. The idea of breaking up the house in which she had lived for 40 years distrubed her. Her relatives knew that in the end she would give in to their entreaties. Their eager solicitation was overwhelming. So the wrecking crew arrived—Kira, her husband, her father Faddei, and a couple of Faddei's sons. They took the room apart board by board, stacking them all beside the house until transport could be arranged.
Ignatich came home from school one day to find the grand enterprise under way. A tractor was there and a large sledge. The sledge fully loaded would not accommodate all the lumber, so Faddei and company were knocking together an improvised home-made duplicate. They disagreed whether the two sledges should be hauled together or separately. The tractor driver insisted that he could take them both at once. His motive was obvious: he was being paid for one trip, and one trip he would make. He had sneaked the tractor out of the motor pool at no little risk. It had to be back in place by morning as if it had never been away, and two round trips of 30 miles in a single night were out of the question. They would take the two sledges at once.
The excitement of the undertaking, the fear of having the heist of the tractor discovered, and the urgency of the timetable all made them nervous. The smell of vodka was in the air. It fortified their resolve and expedited their labors.
Eventually they pulled off. The approach to the rail crossing was up a steep hill. The tractor pulled the first sledge over, but the two-rope then broke and the second sledge stuck on the tracks. The driver brought the tractor back to get it. Faddei's son and—for some reason—Matryona Vasilievna lent their assistance.
Meantime, two coupled locomotives were backing along the track in their direction. The tractor engine made the approach of the train inaudible. There were no lights on the rear of the nearer locomotive, and the smoke was blowing in the driver's face. Shades of the Five-Year Plan—technology blind, reckless, and backwards! The repair party did not anticipate a train without lights, and the driver of the locomotive could not see through the smoke. Matryona and her companions were crushed between the locomotive on one side and the tractor and crippled sledge on the other. "It smashed them to pieces. Can't find all the parts." The tractor was destroyed, and the locomotives were overturned.
In the midst of all the physical and emotional wreckage, Faddei managed to organize a rescue operation to maintain possession of the dismantled room, and three days later he brought it successfully to his own home. The same day, the priest of the local church officiated at the burial of Matryona and the other victims.
Here is not only a striking piece of fiction. Here is also the Slavophile protest against urbanism, technology, alcohol, against the neglect of old folk values. Solzhenitsyn and his more academic counterpart, Dmitrii Likhachev, the great historian of medieval Russian literature, have said over and over again that without a moral and spiritual regeneration of Russia, no economic and political perestroikda is possible. "We had all lived cheek by jowl with Matryona and not understood that she was that upright person without whom, according to the proverb, no village can endure. Nor any city. Nor our whole land." Blessed are the poor in spirit.
The writers of the Slavophile school—otherwise known as the derevenshchiki, "village prose" writers—are romantic conservatives who share a great deal with the old Southern agrarians of the United States, the contemporary Greens of Germany, and the fundamentalists of the Islamic renaissance of the Middle East. They comprise that camp in the confrontation of "the world and the West" that Arnold Toynbee denominated the Zealots, the super-nativists. They loathe the popular culture of the modern West and all the moral and cultural flotsam that it gurgitates.
The assertion of their cultural values faces a Sisyphean struggle. The Soviets moved mightily to impel Russia along a fantastic route to progress and power. Post-Soviet Russia now joins the international rush to multiply ever more sources—and indices—of wealth and power, in the main without success thus far. Both the Stalinist and the Gorbachev/Yeltsin/Gaidar/Chernomyrdin crash courses in the economy of instant transformation have numbed the sensitivity of the nation to traditional values more intrinsically human, and the suffering that they have produced generates monsters of hyper-nationalistic pseudo-humanism too nearly like those from which Russia is allegedly fleeing.
Solzhenitsyn asks us to consider whether the Russians' folk ethos—or is it a more elemental Christian ethos?—is compatible with the material hype either of Soviet socialism or of Western capitalism. Are they, in the sense of Livy's Romans—damned if they do, damned if they don't—unable alike to endure their former vices or their present remedies?