Ease My Sorrows: A Memoir
Each of these books tells the story of disillusionment with communism. The authors are very different—the one an intellectual, the other a distinguished soldier who only late in life was confronted with problems of abstract politics, which he felt compelled to resolve. Yet in each case the motives for the break of allegiance to the communist regime were the same: its brutality and injustice which so outraged feelings of morality and decency that they could no longer be papered over or justified with theoretical formulas. Solzhenitsyn is probably right in his contention that the Soviet regime would collapse if those who are subject to it ceased to live by the lie and insisted on calling things by their right names, and not by the hypocritical disguises in which ideology envelops them. But will this happen?
Solzhenitsyn is, in fact, much in evidence in Lev Kopelev’s book, the third volume of his memoirs to appear. He is a fellow inmate in the sharashka within which the events described take place, and it is on this institution that Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle is based. A sharashka is a strange device invented by the NKVD to use some of the talent which would otherwise go to waste in the deeper circles of hell, the gulag empire. Scientists and other experts are housed in conditions of relative comfort in a building run by the NKVD. They are given tolerable food and accommodation, but are otherwise subject to very similar humiliations to those suffered by ordinary zeks, or camp prisoners. Their task is to carry out scientific assignments—the aircraft designer Tupolev, for example, spent some years working in a sharashka. The one to which Kopelev, as a distinguished expert on linguistics, was assigned consisted of a converted church on the outskirts of Moscow called “Ease My Sorrows,” from which the title of his book derives. Solzhenitsyn, who was a fellow inmate in his capacity as a mathematician, became a close friend. Kopelev features in the person of Rubin in The First Circle.
The Solzhenitsyn portrayed here with great sympathy and admiration is not yet the devout Christian that he has now become or, of course, since we are dealing with the immediate postwar years, as yet a writer. But it is interesting to recognize in him the Slavophile, or more accurately “native soil” ideas which have come to characterize him. (The members of the “native soil” movement, dating from 1850, who included Dostoevsky, advocated, as distinct from the Slavophiles, a nationality based on the whole nation, not just the peasants, and believed that the Russians were destined to achieve a universal, cultural synthesis with the national ideas of Western Europe.) In contrast to Kopelev, the assimilated Jew, Solzhenitsyn does not believe that a Jew can ever be a true Russian.
“Sure, you know the Russian language, literature, and history very well. But you know German very well, too…. If you were to live ten or fifteen years in Germany, you could absolutely…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.