In 1967, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn sent a letter to his former labor camp comrade Lev Kopelev about the autobiographical hero of his novel The First Circle. Gleb Nerzhin, he wrote, was meant to be “an excellent man with ideal convictions [who] needs no practical criteria of good and evil, since he is sufficiently guided by his convictions.”1 A similar protagonist shows up in Cancer Ward as Oleg Kostoglotov, and we can find others: the first-person narrator of The Gulag Archipelago and The Oak and the Calf, Colonel Aleksandr (Sanya) Vorotyntsev in the Red Wheel series of novels, and, in peasant guise, Ivan Denisovich in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Matryona in Matryona’s Place. These protagonists are not only idealists but also activists and (with the exception of Matryona) practical men, with a zeal to put their ideals into practice. Like Zotov in “Incident at Krechetovka Station,” they are also perfectionists and sticklers for detail.
A version of Solzhenitsyn’s prototypical hero turns up yet again in the volume called Apricot Jam and Other Stories, which appeared originally in the Russian journal Novy Mir after his return to Russia from America in 1994. (Solzhenitsyn died in 2008; the stories will appear eventually in volume 29 of his ongoing Collected Works.) In most of these stories, however, the former hero is almost unrecognizable, for he (or she) has been transformed into a highly damaged individual, sometimes a victim of circumstances, sometimes a willing accomplice of them, and sometimes both. Now the “excellent” protagonist of the earlier works, guided to moral clarity and decisive action by instinct and conscience, has given way to a more flawed character who starts out in life with many of the same good intentions and idealistic hopes but, when confronted by obstacles or opposing forces, is blown off course by weakness, selfishness, and ambition, and ends up corrupted by an evil system that is usually Soviet, but in a few cases is represented by today’s Russia.
These stories might be regarded as experiments in self-examination in the vein of “what if?” or “there but for the grace of God.” What if a young person in the Solzhenitsyn mold fails to make his way morally unscathed through the social and political labyrinths of life in Russia and succumbs to the pressures and temptations of power, money, and influence? In volume 1 of The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn asserts that, given his youthful zeal for communism, he might easily have become an NKVD officer, and in volume 2, he describes how, in a state of shock and helplessness after arriving in the labor camps in 1945, he was manipulated by an experienced security officer and momentarily agreed to become an informer under the false name of “Vetrov.” Fortunately he…
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.