Short stories by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Many readers might be required to recalibrate their sense of the man before sitting down to Apricot Jam and Other Stories (Counterpoint, 352 pages), a posthumous collection published last August in English. To use the term that, for better or worse, of late has come to describe this country’s relations with Solzhenitsyn’s motherland, a self-administered “reset” might be in order. Two resets, in fact.
The need for the first is illustrated by the endorsements on the cover of Apricot Jam, extolling “the effect [Solzhenitsyn] has had on history,” “a difference that one man makes,” and describing The Gulag Archipelago as “the best nonfiction work of the century.” These words indicate the degree to which Solzhenitsyn the Hero has overshadowed Solzhenitsyn the Writer.
And what a writer! The very first paragraph of his first published work, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, is brimming with immense talent (and never fails to send shivers down my spine):
At five in the morning, as always, they beat reveille—with a hammer on a rail next to the administration barrack. The intermittent peal seeped through the barracks’ windows, frosted over two-fingers thick, and soon died out: It was cold and a warden was not in the mood to wave his hand for long.
(Throughout the text, all unattributed translations are mine.)
It always seemed to me that by its very rhythm the hopeless, relentless, murderously bleak monotone of these lines would be capable of stirring instantly recognizable memories in camp survivors from China or Cuba, Vietnam or Hungary, North Korea or Bulgaria. These two sentences ushered in the “camp theme”—as the Soviet critics called it during the two years one could write about such things in Soviet newspapers and magazines, between November 1962, when Ivan Denisovich was published, and the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev, whose de-Stalinizing zeal forced the publication through the party Presidium, in October 1964.
Along with Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales as yet unpublished at the time, Solzhenitsyn introduced nothing short of a new artistic sensibility capable of handling what, along with the Holocaust, was the 20th century’s unique exercise in the unimaginable: the routinized hell into which Communist rulers hurtled millions of their innocent compatriots.
And Ivan Denisovich was just the miraculously surfaced tip of the iceberg. By the time it was published, Solzhenitsyn already had finished a complete draft of one of the three greatest Russian novels of the 20th century, In the First Circle (the other two are Grossman’s Life and Fate and Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita). Five years later, the still hidden manuscript of Gulag Archipelago would contain passages of immense beauty and power.
The second reset is necessitated by the fact that this master of the epic is working on a miniature scale here. Can the builder of huge literary monuments work in the filigree of a short story? Can the wielder of an ass’s jawbone, the smiter of Philistines, Soviet and Western, operate with a scalpel? The answer, of which this volume is a proof, is a resounding yes. (It also may help the wary to remember that Ivan Denisovich is a novella, as was the even shorter Matryona’s House, which followed Ivan Denisovich in print and was pure gold as well.)
Indeed, it is in the stories, far more than in larger works, that Solzhenitsyn indulges his singular lexical and syntactic virtuosity. He relishes—nay, cavorts in—the vast, permeable, and utterly moldable confines of Russian, a paradigmatically synthetic language in which word order is entirely up to the writer and shades of meaning are conveyed by prefixes and suffixes. (By contrast, English is a model analytic tongue, with its rigid syntax, shorter words, and precious little change at the end of words.)
Solzhenitsyn literally invents words, by the dozen, by attaching suffixes to the roots of verbs and changing them into new, but instantly recognizable and understood, nouns. In much the same fashion, he recasts nouns as verbs, and verbs and nouns as adjectives. The Russian reader is bound to the page tighter still by the fascination and joy of watching the newly minted words fall, still warm, off the wordsmith’s lathe.
Which, of course, is a translator’s nightmare. “Mathematical impossibility” was Vladimir Nabokov’s verdict on the attempts to try and translate a poem “perfectly,” that is, preserving, at once, the meter, the rhyme, and the sense. This is prose, but in Solzhenitsyn’s case the probability of a perfect translation is not much higher. His texts are like the trunks of living, thick trees: gnarled, barked, overflowing with sap, and bristling with twigs and sharp knobs, intended to prick and draw blood. Just to have a chance to approach the original—to disassemble, rebuild, and reanimate in a different tongue while resisting the temptation to plane it down, make it more familiar, safer, smoother, easier to the touch and on the eye (not to mention resist the temptation to save on time and labor)—such a translation would have to be a labor of love by a truly gifted professional English writer who is fluent in Russian.
Not surprisingly, this book is not a product of so improbable a confluence of talents. In one of its most important sentences, Solzhenitsyn writes of the life “under the iron sole of Bolshevism” right after the end of the civil war in 1920: a “normal, rational flow of life no longer existed” and, instead, “hid, deformed into secret, by-passing, or cunningly-inventive rivulets.” This is translated as “moved in mysterious, roundabout ways by cunning and ingenuity.” But “deformed into” and “cunningly-inventive” is Solzhenitsyn. In the same vein, a story’s title, Vsyo ravno, which as the text makes clear ought to be “What’s the Point?”, “It’s All the Same,” or even “Why Bother?” is translated as “No Matter What.”
Still, the translation is competent enough to convey the gravitational pull of Solzhenitsyn’s prose, and its most compelling narratives stem from the territory that had drawn him all his long life: the lives of the “simple people” mauled and crushed by totalitarian Communism long before the “Great Terror” of 1937 struck the intelligentsia and the Communist nobility. He gives us the forgotten, the unsung: a priest’s granddaughter, a professor in a provincial engineering college, a kulak’s son. Our mourning for them is so much deeper and bitterer for the confidence and intimacy into which we are drawn.
Yet Solzhenitsyn would not be a great artist had he merely unearthed these tormented lives. Like every great storyteller, he places the sting on the scorpion’s tail. In this case, it is the moral morbidity with which a totalitarian regime infects those who are permitted to live; the killing (or, even worse, suicide) of the souls as the price of conducting these “deformed,” “cunningly-inventive” lives in fear and indignity; the heavy, corroding toll of the daily betrayals of their better selves, as they seek to stay—for just another day, month, a year—Damocles’ sword over their heads.
Only one of the characters is untouched by the rot. Not surprisingly, given Solzhenitsyn’s reverence for the pre-collectivization Russian peasantry, that character is a village boy. In the superbly stylized tale, which is rightly the title story of the collection, the boy recounts his torments in a letter to a famous Soviet writer. There are echoes in “Apricot Jam” of Anton Chekhov’s canonic “Vanka Zhukov,” the story of another boy, sent to the city to be an apprentice to a drunken cobbler, who writes a letter (addressed only “to my Granddaddy, dedushka, in the village,” meaning it will never be received) in which he begs to be taken back. Yet Chekhov’s is a tale of misfortune, laughter through tears; Solzhenitsyn’s is an unalleviated tragedy.
The Soviet Vanka (his name is not given—Solzhenitsyn clearly intends him to stand for millions of peasant children) managed to slip through the GPU cordon as his family, with millions of other kulaks, was herded into cattle cars in the early 1930s and was never heard from again. He becomes a vagabond, yet refuses to steal. Arrested, “investigated,” and finally “uncovered” as a “kulak’s son,” he is drafted, despite being underage, into a “labor army”—a precursor of the Gulag. In the Russian winter he works in what the clothes he had run away in: tattered pants, a jacket that is falling apart, and shoes whose soles are held by a wire wrapped around the boy’s feet.
The opening lines of the letter are an epitaph to the Russian peasant family doomed by the collectivization:
As long as anyone remembers we lived in the village of Lebyazhiy Usad in the Kursk province. But they axed off our understanding of life: We were called kulaks because we had a roof of galvanized iron, four horses, three cows, and a good orchard next to the house. And that orchard began with a thick-branched apricot tree—and loads of apricots on it every year. And I and my younger brothers climbed all over it all the time—we so loved apricots, better than any other fruit—and never again will I eat such apricots. In the open summer kitchen mother boiled them into jam and I with the brothers ate the sweet foam to our hearts’ content. And when they came to dispossess us they demanded to know where we hid what or we would cut down the tree, they said…. And they cut it down.
The world of the eponymous “Nastenka” was also “cut down,” but she did not die with it. An orphan, she was brought up by a grandfather, who was the village priest. Branded “socially alien” as a result, and barred not only from higher education but from any non-menial job, she was sent away from home at 16 in the hope of escaping her fate. She joins the Young Communists League (the Komsomol), whose vulgar and violent atheism nauseates her. She is repeatedly raped by a chairman of the village Soviet, then submits to the abuses of other men just to get a job, any job, and, with it, the beggar’s salary, the filthy corner in a rented room, and, most of all, the ration coupons to feed the baby she now has.
Succeeding well enough in covering her tracks, she is admitted into a “College of Social Upbringing” and feeds herself and the baby by part-time prostitution in a provincial brothel sponsored by the GPU, always keen to have something, just in case, on the local mandarins. By a stroke of unimaginable luck, toward the story’s end, Nastenka appears to be safe, at least for the time being. She leaves behind the starving city of Kharkov in 1932, crawling, literally, with dying peasants from the neighboring collectivized provinces.
And her grandfather? Sent to the first “official” Soviet concentration camp in Solovki, where he died. She is too fearful not only to inquire after him but even to mourn: “Afraid to leave tracks, we have all abandoned him. Betrayed.”
Betrayal wounds another thoroughly decent and innocent soul, that of an engineer and professor in a provincial college, in the story “The New Generation.” The story takes place during the increasingly elaborate show trials of “wreckers” among the technical intelligentsia: first, mining engineers of the “Mines Affairs,” then agronomists, then, in 1930, of the mythical “Industrial Party” (Prompartia). As tens of thousands march in the four-hour demonstrations in his city of Rostov (where Solzhenitsyn, too, grew up) to demand that all accused “be shot without mercy,” Anatoly Pavlovich Vozdvizhensky continues to believe that he will never be among the colleagues slated for extermination. Not he, no! Hasn’t he “worked for the Soviet power with enthusiasm, inventively?” But his heart “tightened defenselessly” and “day after day, he felt compressed darkness in the chest and growing sense of doom.” Two weeks after the Prompartia trial, he, too, is arrested.
I know of course that you have not done anything, his seemingly kindly investigator-interrogator tells him. (Kindly, because he does not beat Vozdvizhensky right away. He turns out to be the student whom Vozdvizhensky, once, out of sheer pity, spared from a failing grade.) But, the official continues, you must understand: The GPU does not make mistakes. Nobody walks out of here acquitted. Don’t force me to resort to the special measures (in addition to beatings, solitary confinement on a freezing cement floor without a bunk and with a 1,000-watt electric bulb in the ceiling 24 hours). So tell me about your wrecking activity. Antaloly protests, vehemently: He is an engineer, a builder. What an absurdity for him to wreck! How could he “spit on the twenty years of good, conscientious, enthusiastic work? How could he spit in his soul?” The initial rejection of treachery is so intensely uncompromising that to the very end we believe that honor and dignity will somehow prevail.
Yet even when true heroism replaces torment—as when Solzhenitsyn turns to armed resistance to the Bolshevik tyranny in the story “Ego”—the regime’s complete subjugation of morality to the cause proves as effective against valor and physical courage as it did against innocent victimhood. The setting, which Solzhenitsyn rightly finds fascinating and inspiring and to which he returns again and again throughout his writing career, is what he calls the “Soviet Vendée”: history’s first authentic, large-scale peasant anti-Communist rebellion in the Tambov province in 1920–1921. First outlined in Gulag Archipelago, one of the darkest and strictest taboos of the official Soviet historiography is broken here again.
The hero—a former manager in one of myriad peasant cooperatives that flourished throughout Russia before World War I and flooded Europe with grain and butter—cannot but follow his “conscience” at the sight of endless depredations visited by the Bolsheviks on the village. After countless robberies, arrests, killings, and rapes, Ektov joins the still uncoordinated detachments of peasant guerillas. Led by Alexander Antonov, with all but three years of education in a parochial school, the “army” desperately needs literate men to do staff work. “Ego” (a nom de guerre Ektov chooses to protect a wife and young daughter he left in Tambov) quickly rises to become a top staff officer of one of the rebels’ regiments.
Soon they battle the Red Army’s regular divisions, led by the Soviet Union’s most celebrated commander, the future Marshal (and one of the first victims of the Great Purge) Mikhail Tukhachevsky. Moscow deploys airplanes, tanks, armored trains, and, in the end, poison gases. The military campaign is accompanied by indiscriminate terror against the countryside. Houses are razed, “rebel families” are sent to concentration camps and Siberian exile, and hostages taken and shot. (In especially stubborn villages, all men were lined up on the main street and ordered to name the rebels. If there was no answer, every 10th was shot in front of his family. And again: “Name the rebels!”)
Solzhenitsyn unflinchingly takes us to the horrific finale—yet even that bloody denouement is more bearable than the relentless assault on the hero’s soul and honor, all the more painful to behold because of the rationalization Ektov attempts. Perhaps, he tries to convince himself, the Bolsheviks are a new breed, strong, Huns with socialist ideology. Perhaps we in the old intelligentsia do not understand something. It is not easy to see the future…
The regime cannot but perpetuate the perfidy well after the worst is over, when Stalin is dead and treachery is no longer a condition of physical survival. Even so formidable a man as the brilliant and ruthless Marshal Georgy Zhukov—who was at Stalin’s right hand in the first months of the German invasion, when all seemed lost; who vanquished three German Field Marshals (Guderian in the winter of 1941 near Moscow, Paulus in Stalingrad, Manstein at Kursk and Korsun); and whom Joseph Brodsky famously, and rightly, declared “Motherland’s savior, if truth be told out loud”?1—even he is powerless to resist the instinct of survival-by-betrayal. In a masterfully compact retelling of Zhukov’s autobiography (the latter published in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s), Solzhenitsyn records a gradual surrender of the truth to the Brezhnev censorship and “requests” from the small, vain men in the Kremlin.
Unlike the original Russian volume, the translated Apricot Jam and Other Stories does not include a dozen lyrical miniatures. Pity. A form pioneered by Ivan Turgenev’s “poems in prose” (stikhi v proze) in the last quarter of the 19th century, the genre of the miniature falls into a broader category of distilled mastery tempered by serenity that usually comes toward the end of a well-spent writerly life and brings forth amber-like translucent simplicity. Think Bellow’s Ravelstein or Hemingway’s A Movable Feast.
Solzhenitsyn, inevitably, coined his own name for these pearls, krokhotnyy, yet another neologism: a noun, in plural, of the adjective korkokhotnyy, or tiny.
Among the most beautiful of the krokhotnyy is a paean to a peaceful and self-aware mind in a fading body:
[It is] not at all a God’s punishment, for it has its own grace and its own warm hues. Warm is the sight of playing children, growing in strength and character. Warmth-giving might be even physical enfeeblement—for you remember what a work-horse you were before. Can’t pull off an entire workday? The interruption of conscience is sweet and, when restored, brings with it a gift of a second or third morning in one day…. And there is enjoyment in the limits to eating, the end to the overloading of taste—you are still alive yet rise above the material. And the thin voices of chickadees in the still snow-covered, still only barely vernal forest—twice lovelier, sweeter, and endearing because you know that soon you won’t hear them—so listen, spellbound. And what a treasure trove are remembrances; a young person is bereft of them, but you have them, at your beck and call, and their live fragments visit you daily—when a night slowly changes into day and day into night. A bright aging is a road not down but up.
Herculean labors and Promethean suffering behind him, Alexandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn seems to have died, four months short of 90, a happy man. A prophet with honor in his own country and his own house. How generous of Providence, how apposite, and how unusual.
1 Na smert’ Zhukova (On the death of Zhukov), 1974