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On the Western Front

Prussian Nights: A Poem

by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, translated by Robert Conquest
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 113 pp., $2.95 (paper)

To Be Preserved Forever

by Lev Kopelev, translated and edited by Anthony Austin
Lippincott, 268 pp., $12.50

In 1941, directly after his graduation from the University of Rostov, Solzhenitsyn entered the army and spent four years at the front. He was awarded two decorations and the rank of captain. In January 1945 he commanded an “observation battery” in the East Prussian campaign, at the end of which, in early February, he was arrested as a political criminal on the evidence of unflattering remarks he had made about Stalin and Soviet literature in letters to a friend. During the next twelve years, he endured interrogations, prisons, labor camp, and exile, and was “rehabilitated” in 1951. He was “discovered” as a literary artist in 1962 with the publication in Novy mir of his momentous One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

What would he have written, he has asked himself,1 had it not been for the experience of arrest and imprisonment? That he would have written, there is no question. He was already writing (and receiving rejections) in the Thirties, but he was working in an aimless way without understanding why he needed literature or whether literature had anything to gain from him, and was mostly concerned about finding fresh themes for his stories. Now he was overwhelmed with themes. And the purpose of writing had become clear to him: to make what he had lived through unforgettable and to transmit its meaning to posterity. But writing materials were not permitted in captivity, and so he “wrote” without setting anything down on paper, learning to compose any time, anywhere—on forced marches over the frigid steppe, in thundering foundries, in crowded barracks. “As a soldier falls asleep as soon as he sits down on the ground, as a dog’s own fur is the stove that keeps him warm in the cold, so I, instinctively, became adjusted to writing everywhere.” He memorized his compositions, and since verse lent itself more easily than prose to memorizing, he composed in verse.

This is how Prussian Nights came into being. It is now published in a bilingual edition with the English version facing the original page by page. It is called “A Poem” but “A Verse Narrative” would be more appropriate, for Solzhenitsyn, a great writer in prose—those who read his novels in translation cannot realize that, in addition to his other merits, he is a stylist and an innovator in his use of language2—is not, and does not claim to be, a poet. Nevertheless, Prussian Nights is not the doggerel to which Mr. Conquest’s lamentably poor translation has reduced it, not the limping, creaking, tiresome chronicle he has made of it, but, for all its shortcomings, a powerful and moving work. Mr. Conquest has not succeeded in giving “a true and fair echo of the original” as, in a sensitive and appreciative “Translator’s Note,” he says he hoped to do.

In this, although admittedly inferior, piece, Solzhenitsyn is, just the same, the historian, moralist, and realist he is in his prose works, the contemplative student who is, as always, conscious of each moment’s place in the process of history, who holds every man accountable for what he does, and is himself deeply involved in the events he observes and the actions he judges. But there is this difference: Prussian Nights reveals its meaning by implication, in the rhythm and tempo of the verse rather than explicitly, in what is said and done, as happens in the novels. Its incidents are graphic and harrowingly real, but their significance is sensed in the sound of the narrative.

The story is told in the first person by an officer, Solzhenitsyn himself, in command of some sixty soldiers who after years of fighting now enter the enemy’s land as conquerors. The narrator appears to be at one with them: in the language he uses and, at the outset, even in what he feels and thinks. All are entangled in the giddy nightmare of their unopposed advance. They proceed through deserted villages in the eerily unfamiliar territory, their initial exultation giving way to uneasy fear. And envy too. The straight road, the tall brick houses with tiled, gabled roofs, the spires, the towers, the barns that look like mansions—one could use some of this at home! To disperse anxiety, as well as to wreak vengeance on a foe whose atrocities in their own land are not forgotten, they set fire to the houses. The tempo of the verse quickens as village after village goes up in flames:

Shouting, whistling, blazing head- lights…

To the right and to the left,
The serpents wreathe and writhe and dance.3

The wild glee swells to irrational, uncontrollable chaos; and the commander’s thoughts, though still colloquial in form and still running on in a kind of hypnotic sing-song, become different from his men’s. The men come to him, as before, with questions and requests; he answers them and issues an order now and then, but he is no longer in control. “What’s one to do with the soldiery?” he thinks. And in his eyes the tragic scene unrolls in a sequence of grotesque contrasts. The soldiers get drunk. Their pillaging becomes a crazy orgy. One man mounts a filly and gallops aimlessly around the village square, another chases hens; some grab armfuls of dinner jackets to dispatch to their hovels at home; one man bangs with a shovel the keys of a grand piano he cannot manage to get through the door, another pumps out tunes on an accordion in counterpoint to the bellowing of frenzied cattle, locked in a burning shed. And above, serenely, a chapel lifts its Gothic lace.

The work of centuries goes up in flames at the hands of these barbarians—a sinister, majestic retribution. Solzhenitsyn was fatefully bound to this land, where “in the dust of years” lay buried “the secret archive he could not forget.” His father, who died six months before he was born, had fought here in 1914; and he himself, a youth “in the templed shadows of a reading room,” bent over “pages of yellowed maps and plans,” ferreted out the details of General Samsonov’s disastrous campaign. (It was the subject of his university thesis and, years later, the theme of August 1914.) Now he thought bitterly how once, along these very roads, “for the sake of Paris, for the wonder of the Marne, they drove…Russian soldiers to the feet of Ludendorff and, under a blue sky, drowned them in black peat.” In the library, “stifling the shame and pain of this campaign,” he pictured the event as it had taken place:

And the circlets, dots and arrows
Came alive for me,
Now as shooting in the marshes,
Now as panic in the night.
Thirst. Hunger. August. Heat.
The wildly tossing muzzles
Of horses tearing at the rein,
And not units—hordes and hordes
Of human beings gone insane.

This is why, three decades later, he does not try to stop the destruction around him:

Well, keep burning, smoking, flam- ing,
Proud and industrious land.
In the raging of the crowd,
I myself feel no revenge.
Not a sliver will I burn.
Nor a palace will I save.

He will pass by, he says, “And like Pilate wash my hands.”

These memories and thoughts occur on the conscious level, but beneath the threshold of consciousness, “the slinking scherzo” of a popular old love song, a devilish, cloying, tempting, wanton tune breaks in upon the monotonous rhythm of the captain’s musings. There is something in the song about “a black fan, a precious fan” and there is a refrain that asks, “Is there a heart that could resist it?” The unwanted, annoying intrusion seems irrelevant. But, in effect, it is the judgment of conscience, echoing, in sleazy parody, the listless drift into evil that is the narrative’s main theme; the realistic sketches of the tale add up to a monstrous hallucination, a vision of ordinarily decent people reduced, through a kind of inertia of inhumanity, to gross indecency and sordid crime.

Beyond the deserted villages, there are others where helpless creatures huddle together in terror. Here the soldiers wound, rape, murder indiscriminately. Their lust for violence is sanctioned as a duty in an order of the High Command demanding “blood for blood.” The episodes are pitiful and appalling. A German Communist who welcomes them with bread and salt, a girl whose rifled handbag yields a picture of her bridegroom in SS uniform, a little boy, a disabled old woman—all are judged to be potential spies and treated accordingly.

And the captain? He seems to move through a penumbra of impressions and emotions that he cannot sort out, and is but half aware of what is going on. But his sympathy with the victims, unspoken but evident in the tone of his reflections, is very poignant, as, for example, when he comes upon a detachment of Russian prisoners of war who, excluded from the feast of victory, unwanted and unneeded, are being driven back to their unforgiving land. (No distinction, as a rule, was made between POWs and deserters or collaborators. All were sent to labor camps.) At this point, the well-marked, jingly beat of the verse changes abruptly to a long, melancholy rhythm; and although Solzhenitsyn may not have had in mind the poem in which Alexander Blok once used it to describe the poet’s loneliness and the mystery of his inspiration, he has made one feel again, in a very different context, the infinite sadness of unappreciated grandeur, the failure of selfless effort in the eyes of men. The change of pace is as revealing here as in that of the sentimental song with its apparently incongruous, but deeply pertinent, reminiscence of erotic passion. Both are subtle reverberations of the despair that underlies the entire work.

On two occasions, the captain himself succumbs to the prevailing mood. In one town, in the post office that the conflagration has not yet reached, he is enticed by stores of stationery—paper, pencils, ink of excellent quality, so different from the flimsy, wretched materials that he has known since boyhood—and, overcoming shame, he orders heaps of it to be hauled off to his car. The second time, thinking

All are happy, all are feasting,
Why do I need more than all?

he asks himself why not behave as everyone behaves and, since one’s days may be numbered, why not drink down the goblet that life has proffered? To the accompaniment of the irksome tune, he seizes what life proffers, a timid girl among the refugees in the house where he is billeted. Apathetically, squeamishly, he comes to her in a squalid room, and as he prepares to take her, “Don’t kill me, please,” she begs. So the story ends. She need not fear, he thinks. There is another soul already on his conscience, the soul, one understands, not of one he has killed but of one whose murder he has not prevented.

He too, then, has raped and looted. But if his work is, in part, a remorseful confession of callousness, torpor, baseness, and indifference, it is primarily a record of his truth about war, not the heroic drama that journalists and propagandists make of it—he lists half a dozen whom he refuses to imitate—but a hideous and sordid outrage. “The head of war,” he says, “is tousled like Medusa’s hair.” And whose the fault? he asks. Will even future centuries find answers to explain this moral numbness, this sleep of reason, this unheroic nightmare of barbarity?

Another battery in the same campaign, but operating under a different department from Solzhenitsyn’s, was headed by Major Lev Kopelev. Solzhenitsyn’s assignment was to detect enemy emplacements by means of mathematical calculations, Kopelev’s was to subvert and indoctrinate the enemy. Both officers were chosen for their special skills. Solzhenitsyn, though a writer by inclination, was trained as a mathematician; Kopelev, who had studied at the Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, was a linguist. He spoke German like a native and was an eloquent orator. His propagandist broadcasts were so convincing that he achieved the feat of persuading a German garrison to mutiny, “the first mutiny, as far as we knew, in any unit of the Wehrmacht!” He was recommended for a decoration, “the Order of the Great Patriotic War, First Class.” Instead, he was arrested.

He and Solzhenitsyn must have brushed shoulders on several occasions, were probably, for example, near Hohenstein “on the very same day,” at the monument of the German victory over General Samsonov; and they must certainly have witnessed the same, or very similar, incidents of the operation. But they were to meet only two years later as prisoners (zeks in prison slang) in one of the special institutions (sharashkas), where incarcerated intellectuals were exploited on government projects. They became good friends. Years later, Kopelev was instrumental in the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In The Calf Butted the Oak, Solzhenitsyn tells how Kopelev persuaded him to show his story to Alexander Tvardovsky, the liberal editor of Novy mir, and of how, discarding its original, unacceptable title, they worked out jointly the now famous one. Still later, their sharashka became the setting of The First Circle and Kopelev its brilliant, complex, endearing, and maddening Lev Rubin, one of Solzhenitsyn’s most memorable creations.

Kopelev was arrested on April 4, 1945, two months after Solzhenitsyn, and indicted, like him, under Article 58 of the Criminal Code, which deals with “Crimes against the State.” But the specific accusations against them were not the same. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, Kopelev was an ardent Communist, a member of the Party, a fervent advocate of Stalin. He believed that the unprecedented greatness of his country’s ends justified all means for achieving them. He did not presume to dispute the wisdom of the Party’s judgments; when they seemed puzzling, he held himself at fault. The Party was his conscience. It commanded him entirely. At one time, in his youth, he became an informer for its sake, giving away an older cousin to whom he was devoted. At another time, he served it obediently in its program of collectivization, mercilessly depriving peasants of the grain on which their lives depended. In 1937, although he knew that men like Trotsky and Bukharin could not be traitors, he explained the purges as necessary to some “farsighted policy” that escaped him. He was in the habit of comforting himself with such formulas as “when you chop down a forest, the chips fly,” “barbaric means to overcome barbarism,” and so on. When he was expelled from the Party, he pleaded to be reinstated because, he wrote, “I cannot live without the Party.”

The arrest, understandably, was a great shock. Kopelev’s story is a detailed explanation of how and why it happened, and a history of what followed. It is, as he defines it in an “Author’s Note,” an account of the prosecution “during the years 1945-47,” of one case under Article 58. “It is also an essay in confession.” The campaign in East Prussia is but a fragment of the entire book, of which the English translation is an abridgment. (The original runs to over 700 pages.)4 But it is the heart of the story.

He was charged with the crime of “bourgeois humanism,” of showing pity for the enemy and impeding the destruction and revenge to which the soldiers were entitled. Kopelev did not deny that he tried to prevent rape and the murder of children, wounded prisoners, and harmless old women, and that he objected to the unnecessary wrecking of houses and laying waste of land. But his opposition came not from pity but out of patriotism. To the argument that “the Fritzes…burned everything in our country, and now we’re doing the same to theirs. We don’t have to feel sorry for them,” he replied, “No, not for them. …For ourselves. Senseless destruction does more harm to us than to them.” “Not bourgeois humanism!” he cried out to his judges in court, “Socialist humanism. It wasn’t the Germans I defended, but the Socialist morality of our army.”

At his first trial he was acquitted, but on review was sentenced to “three years’ detention in corrective-labor camps, followed by two years’ loss of civil rights,” and at the second trial, on October 15, 1947, with which his narrative concludes, the figures in his sentence were changed to ten and five.5 His book is the lively saga of his imprisonment, his jails and their inmates, his interrogations and trials, a circumstantial narrative that, episode by episode, in telling descriptions and vividly re-created conversations, adds further data to the ever-growing mountain of evidence on the ways of justice in the Soviet Union. It is also a tale of the difficult relinquishment, by a generous, honest, and highly intelligent believer, of a faith that led him to inhumanity and falsehood. The adventure in East Prussia was the beginning of a spiritual rehabilitation that took place gradually in the course of seven years.

The last few pages of Kopelev’s book are his confession and a summary of his regeneration. It is a confession of intellectual error, the condemnation of a false doctrine and of himself for his prolonged devotion to it. When the outrageously harsh sentence was read to him in court, “Defendant, do you understand?” the chairman asked. “No,” said Kopelev, “I do not understand…. I don’t understand where justice comes into it.” But after “many more years” he came, at length, to understand. “I came to understand that my fate, which had seemed so senselessly, so undeservedly, cruel, was actually fortunate and just. It was just because I did deserve to be punished—for the many years I had zealously participated in plundering the peasants, worshiping Stalin, lying and deceiving myself in the name of ‘historical necessity,’ and teaching others to believe in lies and to bow before scoundrels…. Gradually I lost my awe for those ideas which, in ‘capturing the masses,’ can become ruinous to whole peoples.”

It is a twentieth-century version of a Defender of the Faith in medieval times who, disillusioned with the abstract divinity of the Church, is driven to renounce it in the name of human justice.

Letters

A Matter of Taste February 23, 1978

  1. 1

    In a memoir about his career, Bodalsya telënok s dubom (Paris, YMCA Press, 1975). A translation, The Calf Butted the Oak, is in progress.

  2. 2

    A dictionary of his language, which includes an analysis of his linguistic methods, has been compiled by Vera V. Carpovich, Solzhenitsyn’s Peculiar Vocabulary: Russian-English Glossary (New York, Technical Dictionaries Co., 1976).

  3. 3

    These jingles and those that follow are my own or modifications of Mr. Conquest’s. They are not good, but I prefer them to his.

  4. 4

    Khranit’ vechno, Ardis, 729 pp.

  5. 5

    From an “Afterword” by his friend Robert G. Kaiser, we learn that he was released in 1954, that he “spent years clearing his name,” was finally readmitted to the Party but expelled again in 1968, and that “because he is unable to hold his tongue in the presence of self-evident injustice, no official journal or publishing house will publish his work.” This “Afterword” and a “Foreword” by another friend, Lillian Hellman, give a very attractive picture of Kopelev and his wife in their small apartment in Moscow, which is “one of the centers of literary life in the Soviet capital.”

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