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 extricated himself, but it was a shocking reminder of the corrupting power of the state (and of his own gullibility), and he never forgot the feelings of helplessness and then shame he experienced at first hand.
It’s possible that the latter experience informed the writing of “Ego,” the second story in this collection, in which Solzhenitsyn traces the history of Pavel Ektov, “a natural-born activist in the rural cooperative movement” who gets caught up in the Tambov Rebellion of 1920—a large-scale uprising of peasants in the Tambov region southeast of Moscow—and decides to resist “the iron heel of the Bolshevik dictatorship.” Ektov is an upright man and knows that Aleksandr Antonov, the leader of the rebellion, once robbed banks for the Socialist Revolutionary Party, but reasons that Antonov is the lesser evil and that cooperation with him is necessary for the greater cause. After several months of working as a publicist and propagandist, he is betrayed by comrades and captured by Bolsheviks, but instead of being summarily shot, he is taken to the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow and blackmailed into becoming a traitor.
To save his wife and daughter from imprisonment, Ektov agrees to lead an elite Bolshevik detachment in disguise to the headquarters of his rebel comrades, where the Bolshevik soldiers open fire and slaughter his former colleagues. “Once he had taken his first steps across this shaky little bridge, there was no stopping,” writes Solzhenitsyn of Ektov’s initial decision to betray his comrades, and after the massacre: “Ektov did not move; he was frozen. If only they would finish him off quickly—a revolver, a saber, it made no difference.” In the story they don’t finish him off, and he is left to live with his betrayal for the rest of his life.
Another story, “Fracture Points,” is set much later in Soviet history and features two characters whose betrayals are less dramatic than Ektov’s, but also have far-reaching consequences. Mitya Yemtsov, an eager young Komsomol member at the end of World War II, is quick to realize that others regard him as exceptional. “Everyone notices that you’re energetic by nature…that your opinions prevail over others’. So, why don’t you preside over the meeting…make the report?” As Yemtsov rises through the ranks of the Party, privileges begin to pile up, but he retains a sense of proportion and even a conscience, so that when his working-class father expresses disapproval of his son’s comfortable style of life, Yemtsov thinks about resigning from the Party before it’s too late.
He consoles himself with the thought that “there was nothing dishonest in any of this: you never pushed for it yourself, you never plotted and schemed,” and rationalizes away the corruption that goes naturally with being a successful member of the Soviet nomenklatura. He eventually rises to dizzying heights as an aeronautical engineer and defense contractor under Soviet rule, and when the time comes effortlessly abandons his admiration of Stalin for Khrushchev, Khrushchev for Gorbachev, Gorbachev for Yeltsin, and presumably Yeltsin for Putin, ending up in post-Soviet Russia as a successful and prosperous private banker.
Yemtsov is paired in the same story with the much younger Aleksei Tolkovyanov, his post-Soviet counterpart, who is also an idealist and a member of the Komsomol, which, like Yemtsov, he readily abandons when the Soviet Union collapses, just as he abandons communism for capitalism. A brilliant physics student, Tolkovyanov also abandons science for business, and succeeds in becoming a prominent banker while still in his twenties. An attempt on his life (for which he blames a rival bank) forces him to change his way of life and he falls on hard times. He quarrels with his partners and ends up consulting none other than the much older Yemtsov for advice.
There the story ends, suggesting that the continuities between the two systems in Russia are greater than the differences, and also, perhaps, that the rigors of life under communism are a better preparation for the harsh world of capitalism (or capitalism in Russia, at least) than capitalism itself. The story ends with a glimmer of hope. “Perhaps he [Tolkovyanov] shouldn’t have given in to temptation. He could see a light, far off in the distance, and it was growing dimmer.” Presumably the light was also growing dimmer for Solzhenitsyn himself.
“Fracture Points” is an example of what Solzhenitsyn calls a “binary story,” a story in two contrasting parts that come together to provide a moment of insight. It’s not a terribly complex or sophisticated invention and the insights are rather obvious, but they do allow Solzhenitsyn to vary his themes and complicate his messages. In “No Matter What,” part one consists of a rather weak anecdote depicting a group of starving soldiers pilfering potatoes at the front during World War II, while the much longer part two describes an extended boat ride in the 1990s along the choked and ecologically despoiled lower reaches of the Angara River and the selfish indifference of newly capitalist bosses to the plight of the local fishermen, boat operators, and general populace. The message is that despite colossal incompetence and corruption, these bosses (and the government itself) will get their way, “no matter what.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about these stories is their retrospective character. There is nothing in the collection about Solzhenitsyn’s twenty years in the West, or the eighteen years he lived in Russia between his release from the Gulag and his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974, or even about his experiences in Russia after his return in 1994. Despite a few references to post-Soviet Russia, all but three of the stories are set completely in Soviet times and most of those before the end of World War II, while even the three exceptions begin in Soviet times. Another surprise is that well over half the book’s 375 pages are taken up with military subjects. Two of the longest stories, “Zhelyabuga Village” and “Adlig Schwenkitten,” are also the weakest, devoting most of their 120 pages to highly detailed and circumstantial descriptions of artillery battles during World War II. They are obviously autobiographical (Solzhenitsyn was the commander of a sound-ranging battery during the war), as is the second and better part of “Zhelyabuga Village,” in which the narrator (Solzhenitsyn) is invited to revisit the part of western Russia where his battle took place to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Victory Day in World War II.
Post-Soviet Russia is again depicted as no better a place to live than the Soviet Russia that preceded it. The village where his battery was dug in during the battle has been almost completely abandoned and its surviving inhabitants live in abject poverty. “Our country is still living in misery,” says the narrator’s former comrade and traveling companion toward the end of the story. “It’s been the same throughout our trip.”
The Tambov rebellion featuring Ektov in “Ego” is portrayed with equally close attention to the military realities of the battlefield, and “Times of Crisis,” to my mind the most interesting story in the collection—about the life of Marshal Zhukov of World War II fame—is also set in a military world. “Times of Crisis” returns us to the subject of the Tambov Rebellion, but seen this time from the other (Soviet) side and through the eyes of young Yorka (“Georgie”) Zhukov, the son of a peasant, who rose quickly through the ranks during the Civil War to become one of the Red Army’s most efficient commanders. Tambov is where Zhukov first earned his spurs and became aware of his military vocation:
Just fighting a war—well, that was something any fool could do. But now—to be a soldier with every bone in your body, with every breath you took, and do it so that everyone around you could sense it—now that was something great! Zhukov loved soldiering more than anything else.
Like Tolstoy, one of his literary models, Solzhenitsyn has considerable sympathy for professional soldiers and a fascination with military campaigns, interests that enable him to animate Zhukov’s career from the inside. But as he moves in and out of Zhukov’s thoughts, he presents a revisionist account of his career that is anything but sympathetic. Imagining his thoughts stripped of all public decorum and pretense, Solzhenitsyn emphasizes how thoroughly the young Zhukov had absorbed the lesson that “no great commander can manage without harsh measures.” Far from shrinking from the cruelty of war (especially civil war), Zhukov revels in its ruthlessness, and ruthlessness remains his watchword as he climbs the ladder of command until he emerges as one of the most celebrated generals of World War II.
1 This letter is unpublished; see Michael Scammell, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography (Norton, 1986). ↩
This letter is unpublished; see Michael Scammell, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography (Norton, 1986). ↩