Last Updated on June 23, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1401
Industrialization as Moral Decay
Set in 1953 after the death of Joseph Stalin, “Matryona’s House” reflects the consequences of his authoritarian regime. Descriptions of the Russian countryside—once lush and untouched, now razed and overdeveloped—evoke Stalin’s economic ethos. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he strove to create a perfect communist state fueled by an industrial proletariat, an effort that necessitated the destruction of the peasant class. Returning to Russia after a ten-year absence, Ignatich is shocked by this socioeconomic restructuring. It is only in Matryona that he finds solace: she is a foil to everything modern and Soviet. As a personification of traditionalism and righteousness, her character indicates the author’s anti-industrial position. Her opinions, offhandedly offered, speak to Solzhenitsyn’s own.
His distaste for rapid industrialization is most apparent in the context of the town of Peatproduce. The name alone is “violence. . . done to the Russian language,” and its barren, immoral environment is equally demoralizing. Tal’novo, a neighboring village, offers the pastoral images Ignatich seeks. Yet its location on the outskirts of this industrial hub means that its natural landscape and traditional lifestyle are at constant risk of encroachment. Peatproduce’s approach to peat production and distribution makes this threatening proximity painfully evident; peat is naturally occurring in the region, but the factory denies locals the right to harvest or purchase this resource. However, the factory and its bourgeois-coded “boss-class” have ample access.
Access to peat is essential to survival, and the necessities of life become contingent on a lifetime of theft and individual material acquisition. Amidst this exploitative system, surviving harsh Russian winters is necessarily a selfish effort. This phenomenon reveals the devastating effect of industrialization on the Russian populace: rather than creating a system that allocates resources and labor in a fair, equal manner, modern technology and the structure it supports have established a pattern of profit-driven exploitation, willing to withhold the fundamental necessities of life in the name of protecting profit margins. Where Matryona’s virtues reflect traditional morality, tokens of modernism like Peatproduce and the circumstances it creates indicate the immorality of Stalin’s efforts to mechanize Soviet life. Solzhenitsyn creates a jarring juxtaposition between the two to illustrate the moral degradation this new order has introduced, arguing that such decay will ruin the nation and its people.
Although the story is arguably defeatist, its post-Stalin context allows for some hope. Perhaps the righteous values espoused by the didactic protagonist can return, and perhaps the traditional virtues consumed by the exploitative and immoral industrial machine can find a foothold in the present. The story speaks to this potential, reminding readers of what was and instructing them on what can be.
Nostalgia and Tradition
The story opens with Ignatich’s long-awaited return to his home country. He dreams of “a quiet corner of Russia” and seeks to reprise the lost mores of prerevolution life. Arriving in Peatproduce, he describes a “struggling village” covered in factory smoke and littered with drunks “lurching about” where once had stood a vast, unending forest. These tokens of modernity and Soviet industrialism are soon juxtaposed with Matryona’s house. The run-down, graying cottage, its feeble owner, and the meager, potato-heavy fare she offers satisfy his desire for the “true, legendary Russia,” and Ignatich promptly moves in. Descriptions of the house mirror descriptions of Matryona herself; both the house and its owner occupy a didactic narrative role that reflects Ignatich’s nostalgic yearning, advocating for a return to the traditional life he abandoned.
Sparsely furnished, the cottage is home to a “tarnished mirror” no longer capable of revealing reflections (or pandering to vanities) and a stove that half-heartedly combats...
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the cold winter winds. Her home and its token “peasant-ness” speak to her values, traits Ignatich discusses quietly but at great length. He describes her passive acquiescence to adversity and uncomplaining acceptance of her circumstances. Despite the injustices done to her—the denial of her pension, her social ostracization, and the abject poverty she lives in—her work ethic is unwavering. She fills every day with necessary, laborious tasks, and her prolonged survival is attributable to this independence, self-sufficiency, and perpetual productivity.
This seemingly indefatigable spirit, Ignatich notes, is informed by her quiet, unostentatious religious faith and pious adherence to traditional practices. She sits for hours at her loom, listens tearfully to opera, and mutters angrily about the wastefulness of “new-fangled things” that make people not “want to go on working with the old machines.” In a discussion about Chaliapin’s rendition of Russian folk songs, she says: “He sings beautifully, but he doesn’t sing our way.” These traits are subtly littered throughout the narrative to describe the lost, lamented past and the venerated Russia that was.
The story ends as Ignatich details then reinterprets Matryona’s “faults.” He lists the traits that the villagers deride, focusing on her simple lifestyle, difficult life, and humble home to indicate the excess of modernity and the virtue of tradition. Matryona—and the way the villagers view her—reflects the disconnect between prerevolution Russia and the Stalin-era Soviet Union. Her death, regularly foreshadowed, is the result of this jarring disconnect; Matryona—and, therefore, prerevolution Russia—is a casualty of the present, murdered by the very technology and sociocultural realities that she rejects. Ultimately, modern life triumphs over tradition. The immorality of Stalinism and its reverberating impacts across the nation has prevailed, and the bastions of traditional life that Solzhenitsyn praises have been lost to time.
The Importance of Class Solidarity
As winter descends on Tal’novo, Ignatich learns of the village’s struggle for survival. Although Tal’novo is surrounded by peat bogs (organic material that is used as fuel for indoor fires and cooking) and neighbors the industrial town of Peatproduce, the villagers lack access to this vital resource. The collective farm does not distribute the peat it produces to the locals, nor is it available for purchase. Indeed, the farm restricts access to the “boss class.” By necessity, the villagers have learned how to circumnavigate this restriction, digging peat out from privately owned lands or stealing it. Ignatich tells readers that a “sixty pound” sack of peat “was enough to fire one stove for a day,” though “winter lasts two hundred days” and there are two stoves to stoke every single day. To acquire the necessary peat to survive the winter, villagers must perform intense physical labor and, in many cases, risk breaking the law.
Similarly, when Kira and her new husband learn that they must build a home to validate their ownership of the plot of land in Cherusti, such a task seems impossible. Matryona bequeaths Kira the materials of her outhouse; it is an incredibly generous offer, as “there was no hope of getting the timber anywhere else.” These examples indicate the socioeconomic situation in which the people of Tal’novo struggle to survive. Their actions must be framed within this bleak reality, and the selfishness that Ignatich focuses on is a direct result of their adverse circumstance. While this neither excuses nor accepts their actions, it helps to reframe the blatant immorality of certain actions. The villagers’ willful exploitation of Matryona, for example, clarifies that in Tal’novo, survival is an every-man-for-himself situation.
The powerful force of personal necessity is present throughout the story, a motivating factor that Matryona often rejects. While she certainly performs the mundane daily tasks necessary for her wellbeing, she also offers additional labor to her neighbors. Her willingness to lend a hand without reward reflects Solzhenitsyn’s advocacy for communism in its true form, and her neighbors’ lack of reciprocity reveals communism in its contemporary form: it is an exploitative structure that replicates the socioeconomic inequalities it once condemned. The ability to perform the physical labor necessary for survival is the sole resource remaining to her, and yet she offers it freely to all who ask.
Eventually, Matryona’s tireless helpfulness leads to her destruction. One woman alone cannot change the system and its complicit participants, nor can she carry a whole village on her back. The villagers are blind to the importance of her cheerful labor, and the lesson of her life is lost on them. To Ignatich, however, Matryona’s life is a revelation. Her death makes her a martyr and reveals the importance of collective action and class solidarity, validating the virtues of Revolution-era communism while decrying its modern form.