R Weerakoon 1972

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Soldier, Prisoner, Writer

Source: Book published in May 1972 by International Publishers, 457 Union Place, Colombo 2, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers. Spelling and punctuation errors have been corrected without indication.


Chapter I: His Life
Chapter II: One Day...
Chapter III: The First Circle
Chapter IV: Cancer Ward
Chapter V: Statement of Positives
Chapter VI: A Struggle of Interests and Forces
Appendix: ‘A Sad Day for Soviet Arts’ by V Karalasingham.


Even for so slim a book as this I remain indebted to so many. For the passages from Solzhenitsyn extensively reproduced here I had to depend on the Penguin edition of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the Fontana edition of The First Circle, the Bantam edition of Cancer Ward, the Sphere Books edition of For the Good of the Cause and the collection of short stories and nouvelles brought out by the Bodley Head. [1] The excellent documentary record on Solzhenitsyn edited by Leopold Labedz [2] was unfailing for my chapters I and VI. To the works of Trotsky and Deutscher I owe not only the lines quoted in this book but an entire outlook. To my friend and comrade V Karalasingham of the Lanka Samasamaja Party I am beholden as to a pathfinder on my subject. (The nature and tone of his article included here as an appendix and reproduced from the left weekly the Samasamajaya of November 1969 shows the pioneering quality of his work.)

To my wife I am thankful for rescuing me from the several pitfalls that can endanger a Ceylonese writing in the English language. The obstinacy of a husband will, however, show itself in the persistence in error.

R Weerakoon
17/2 Kuruppu Road, Colombo 8, Ceylon
4 May 1972


1. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Stories and Prose Poems (Bodley Head, London, 1971) – MIA.

2. Leopold Labedz, Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record (Allen Lane, London, 1970; revised edition, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1974) – MIA.

Chapter I: His Life

Born a year after the October Revolution, Solzhenitsyn belongs to a generation which could not have become aware of its socio-political environment before the year 1930. Even then he would have been no more than a lad of twelve years living in Rostov-on-Don in the Caucasus, far removed from the main centres of political activity. By the time he was fifteen, Stalinism had consolidated itself in the Soviet Union and the Bolshevik Old Guard had been liquidated.

In 1936, Trotsky summed up the intellectual achievement of the immediately preceding ten or twelve years:

In spite of the fact that Marxism is formally a state doctrine in the Soviet Union, there has not appeared during the last twelve years one Marxian investigation – in economics, sociology, history or philosophy – which deserves attention and translation into foreign languages. The Marxian works do not transcend the limits of scholastic compilations which say over the same old ideas, endorsed in advance, and shuffle over the same old quotations according to the demands of the current administrative conjuncture. Millions of copies are distributed through the state channels of books and brochures that are of no use to anybody, put together by the help of mucilage, flattery and other sticky substances. Marxists who might say something valuable and independent are sitting in prison, or forced into silence, and this in spite of the fact that the evolution of social forms is raising gigantic scientific problems at every step! Befouled and trampled underfoot is the one thing without which theoretical work is impossible: scrupulousness. Even the explanatory notes to the complete works of Lenin are radically worked over in every new edition from the point of view of the ruling staff: the names of ‘leaders’ magnified, those of opponents vilified; tracks covered up. The same is true of textbooks on the history of the party and the revolution. Facts are distorted, documents concealed or fabricated, reputations created or destroyed.

No less ruinous is the effect of the ‘totalitarian’ regime upon artistic literature. The struggle of tendencies and schools have been replaced by interpretation of the will of the leaders. There has been created for all groups a general compulsory organisation, a kind of concentration camp of artistic literature. Mediocre but ‘right thinking’ story-tellers like Serafimovich or Gladkov are inaugurated as classics. Gifted writers who cannot do sufficient violence to themselves are pursued by a pack of instructors armed with shamelessness and dozens of quotations. The most eminent artists either commit suicide, or find their material in the remote past or become silent. Honest and talented books appear as though accidentally bursting out from somewhere under the counter, and have the character of artistic contraband. (Revolution Betrayed (Pioneer), p 183) [1]

These were also the formative years of Solzhenitsyn’s generation. Yet this was also a generation that was being educated to meet the new challenges in the field of science and industry, and Solzhenitsyn himself entered the University of Moscow for graduation in physics and mathematics. It is with these disciplines that he turned to another field – history, philosophy and literature – in which he engaged himself at an institute in Moscow.

In 1941, as a young man of twenty-three, he joined the Soviet army. After graduating from the artillery school he was promoted to the rank of captain and took part in the battles of Leningrad and Kursk, and then marched from Ord through White Russia and Poland to Berlin. In an interview he gave to Pavel Licko – a Czechoslovak journalist – Solzhenitsyn recounted his political attitudes at this time:

For a long time I had been sending a friend letters clearly criticising Stalin though without mentioning his name. I thought he had betrayed Leninism and was responsible for the defeats of the first phase of the war, that he was a weak theoretician and that his language was primitive. In my youthful recklessness I put all these thoughts down on paper.

The more intelligent and the honest among the new generation were on their own becoming politically conscious of what was happening around them, and in the situation in which they were they had to start with a groping for first principles.

These letters of Solzhenitsyn had apparently fallen into the hands of the secret police, and in January 1945 during the battle of Königsberg he was arrested and held in the Lubianka prison in Moscow. After interrogation and without trial he was sentenced by special decision to eight years’ imprisonment. As a prisoner he was first employed in forced labour in and around Moscow and when it was later discovered that he was a mathematician and physicist he was transferred to a prison research institute where, according to him, ‘the standard was so high that any scientist would have been proud to work there’. Four years of his sentence were spent in this institute. The last three years of his term were spent in a special camp in a mining region in Kazakhstan. The prisoner’s number that was stamped on his forehead, chest, knees and back was Щ (Shch) 232. It was there that he conceived the idea of writing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The material for The First Circle would have undoubtedly come from the prison research institute.

In February 1953 – a month after his prison sentence should have ended – Solzhenitsyn was released and sent into exile on the edge of a desert to the south-east of Balkharsh. It was whilst in exile that he, in a dying state, entered a cancer hospital in Tashkent, where after prolonged treatment he recovered. In 1956 he returned from exile – after Stalin’s death – and in 1957 the Supreme Court of the USSR fully rehabilitated him as a person who had not committed an offence. The Court gave its reasons for the rehabilitation:

It is clear from the evidence in this case that Solzhenitsyn, in his diary and letters to a friend, ND Vitkevich, although speaking of the correctness of Marxism-Leninism, the progressiveness of the socialist revolution in our country and the inevitability of its victory throughout the world, also spoke out against the personality of Stalin and wrote of the ideological and artistic shortcomings of the works of many Soviet artists and the air of unreality that pervades many of them. He also wrote that our works of art fail to give readers of the bourgeois world a sufficiently comprehensive and versatile explanation of the inevitability of the victory of the Soviet army and people, and that our literary works are no match for the adroitly-fashioned slanders of the bourgeois world against our country.

These statements by Solzhenitsyn do not constitute proof of a crime.

In the process of verifying Solzhenitsyn’s petition the following people were questioned: Reshetovskaya, Simonyan and Simonyants – to whom Solzhenitsyn is said to have made anti-Soviet allegations. These people characterised Solzhenitsyn as a Soviet patriot and denied that he had conducted anti-Soviet conversations.

From Solzhenitsyn’s military record and a report by Captain Melmikov, who served with him, it is clear that from 1942 until the time of his arrest Solzhenitsyn served on several fronts of the Great Fatherland War, fought courageously for his homeland, more than once displayed personal heroism and inspired the devotion of the section he commanded. Solzhenitsyn’s section was the best in the unit for discipline and battle effectiveness.

In 1962, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in Novi Mir, of which Alexander Tvardovsky (also a rehabilitated prisoner) was editor. Among those who greeted it was LF Ilichev, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who in a speech to the Control Committee’s Ideological Commission said in December 1962:

As for the story One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich... As you know, it deals with a bitter subject, but it is not written from a decadent viewpoint. Works like this inspire respect for the labouring man, and the Party supports them.

To excoriate, to cauterise everything bad, everything negative in people’s souls, and to inspire in them a readiness for great exploits, to summon them to the fight, to creative labour, that’s the way, keep at it! (Literaturnaya Gazeta, 10 January 1963)

This was the period of the thaw marked by Nikita Khrushchev’s attempts at limited de-Stalinisation. It was during this period of ‘excessive eulogisation’ of himself – as Solzhenitsyn described it – that the Ryazan organisation of the Union of Writers hurried to admit Solzhenitsyn to its membership.

Khrushchev, who personally intervened to secure the publication of One Day..., was even in March 1963 appreciative of Solzhenitsyn:

In their creative work in recent years, writers and artists have been paying great attention to that chapter in the life of Soviet society which is bound up with the Stalin personality cult. And there is every reason for it. Works in which Soviet reality during those years is truthfully reflected from party positions have appeared. One could give as illustrations, among other works, Alexander Tvardovsky’s Distant Horizons, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, some of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poems, and Grigory Chukhrai’s picture Clear Skies.

This was, however, the end of a period. By August 1963, Literaturnaya Gazeta had cautiously started to spearhead the attack on Solzhenitsyn. The occasion was the publication in Novy Mir of Solzhenitsyn’s For the Good of the Cause. Literaturnaya Gazeta commenced its attack with an article by Yuri Barabash – a conservative critic – who furnished the formula for the attack:

And yet we are undoubtedly in the presence of a writer of great and honest quality who is uniquely sensitive to any manifestation of evil or untruth or injustice. This is a great force, but only when it is combined with a knowledge and deep understanding of the laws governing the movement of the real world and an ability to see clearly the direction of that movement.

The implication was that Solzhenitsyn had neither of these two latter qualities. The establishment ganged up against him, and by 1964 it was able to deny him the Lenin Prize for Literature for which he was proposed by the editorial board of Novy Mir and the Central State Archives of Literature and Art.

The post-Khrushchev era saw a leadership in the Arts which was relentless in its attitude to Solzhenitsyn. The leadership of the Writers Union was utilised for the purpose of denying him sanction to publish his works, and the secret police was employed to do what it could. In 1965, The First Circle could not be published because the leadership of the Writers Union did not permit Novy Mir to do so. The manuscript was seized by the secret police, together with certain other unpublished manuscripts, from the home of a friend of Solzhenitsyn. In 1966, Novy Mir was prevented from publishing the first part of Solzhenitsyn’s new novel – Cancer Ward.

The persecution of the writer at another level too had started. Zhores Medvedev, geneticist and gerontologist, disclosed how Reshetovskaya – Solzhenitsyn’s wife, physical chemist and bio-chemist, a candidate of chemical sciences – was selected for the post of senior research worker in the laboratory of chemical dosimetry in the Obninsk Institute of Medical Radiology, but was prevented from receiving this appointment for fear that Solzhenitsyn would move along with her from Ryazan to Obninsk. In Ryazan, Solzhenitsyn was almost isolated, but it would not have been so in Obninsk with its restive scientific community and its proximity to Moscow.

In November 1966, the prose section of the Moscow Writers Union had met and decided, after a discussion of the novel Cancer Ward, that it should actively support Solzhenitsyn’s efforts to have it published. The Writers Union worked through its specialised sections and one would have thought that this decision of the prose section was adequate to persuade the Union itself to sanction the publication of the book. Yet six months passed and nothing was done about it, and in May 1967 Solzhenitsyn addressed his now well-known open letter to the Fourth Soviet Writers Congress. In it he took up the question of censorship and the slander and unjust persecution Soviet writers were subjected to. In it he also dealt with the ‘interdictions and persecutions’ he himself was going through. His conclusion about the plight of himself was that his work has been ‘finally smothered, gagged and slandered’. Eighty members of the Writers Union called for an open discussion of this letter. Others too sent letters and telegrams both supporting Solzhenitsyn’s positions and calling for a discussion of the document. But no open discussion took place.

On 12 September 1967, Solzhenitsyn drew the attention of the Secretariat of the Board of the Writers Union to his document. In this letter he pointed out that:

1. Although in June 1967 some of the Secretaries of the Board of the Writers Union – G Markov, K Voronkov, S Saratakov and L Soboliev – had declared that the Board deemed it a duty to refute publicly the slander that has been spread about him and his military record, such refutation has not only failed to materialise but the establishment is disseminating a ‘new batch of fantastic nonsense’ about him.

2. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is being secretly withdrawn from public libraries.

3. For over a year since the summer of 1966 Novy Mir was seeking to publish Cancer Ward but has failed to obtain the necessary permission.

4. The unauthorised appearance of Cancer Ward in the West cannot be prevented unless its publication in Russia is expedited because hundreds of type-written copies of the manuscript are in circulation.

Ten days later the Secretariat of the Writers Union met Solzhenitsyn. At this meeting those like Tvardovsky stood up for the publication of Cancer Ward, but the establishment did not relax its hardened attitude. It insisted on discussing the tone of his letters and bringing into the discussion the play Feast of the Victors. Solzhenitsyn pointed out at the commencement itself that he had not read this play for the last ten years and that it was written at a time when he was a nameless prisoner with no hope whatsoever of regaining his freedom: ‘This play bears no relationship whatsoever to my present works, and the critique of it is a deliberate departure from a business-like discussion of the novel Cancer Ward.’

The discussion of Cancer Ward was very perfunctory and the consensus of opinion in the establishment was that before the publication of the book can be considered its author should dissociate himself from the ‘licentious bourgeois propaganda that his [first] letter evoked in the West’. This, however, was a letter that had not been seen by the Soviet reader and Solzhenitsyn expressed his unwillingness to make such a statement ‘since the Soviet reader would have no idea what it is all about’.

The gathering storm was on the verge of breaking. On 5 October 1967, the Editor-in-Chief of Pravda lashed out at Solzhenitsyn in an unpublished speech in the House of the Press in Leningrad. He saw in Solzhenitsyn a ‘psychologically unbalanced person, a schizophrenic’. He appeared as though given to second thoughts on Solzhenitsyn’s rehabilitation too: ‘Formerly he was a prisoner and justly or unjustly was subsequently subjected to repression.’ The course of action that was to be adopted in respect of the recalcitrant writer was also indicated: ‘He will not be deprived of his bread and butter. Solzhenitsyn is a teacher of physics; let him teach.’ What was contemplated was clearly the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn from the Writers Union and this was to mean that he will not be able to earn his bread and butter from his writings.

On 4 November 1969, the Ryazan organisation of the Writers Union met and adopted a resolution to expel Solzhenitsyn from the organisation. Eight days later Literaturnaya Gazeta published this decision along with the statement that the Secretariat of the Board of the Soviet Writers Union has endorsed the resolution adopted by the Ryazan Writers organisation. On the same day Solzhenitsyn protested:

Shamelessly trampling underfoot your own statutes you have expelled me in my absence as at the sound of a fire-alarm without even sending me a summons by telegram, without even giving me the four hours I needed to come from Ryazan and be present at the meeting. You have shown openly that the resolution preceded the ‘discussion’. Was it less awkward for you to invent new charges in my absence? Were you afraid of being obliged to grant me ten minutes for my answer? I am compelled to substitute this letter for those ten minutes.

Blow the dust off the clock! Your watches are behind the times! Throw open the heavy curtains that are so dear to you – you do not even suspect that the day has already dawned outside. It is no longer that stifling, that sombre, irrevocable time when you expelled Akhmatova in the same servile manner. It is not even that timid, frosty period when you expelled Pasternak, whining abuse at him! Was this shame not enough for you? Do you want to make it greater? But the time is near when each of you will seek to erase his signature from today’s resolution.

Blind leading the blind! You do not even notice that you are wandering in the opposite direction from the one you yourselves announced. At this time of crisis you are incapable of suggesting anything constructive, anything good for our society, which is gravely sick – only hatred, your vigilance, your ‘hold on and don’t let go’.

On 19 December 1969, thirty-nine writers of the Soviet Union addressed a letter to the Writers Union and characterised the expulsion as ‘yet another blatant manifestation of Stalinism’.

The persecution was now started in earnest even against the friends of Solzhenitsyn. Zhores Medvedev was among those who protested at the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn from the Writers Union:

The expulsion of Solzhenitsyn is a unique event. It came about as the logical result of the new line of cautious repression directed against the intelligentsia with the aim of instilling into them the inertia of fear, the same fear that Stalin and his obedient minions created, who did not shrink from the destruction of millions of innocent citizens.

Medvedev was arrested and taken to an asylum on 29 May 1970. A few days later Solzhenitsyn himself protested:

Without any arrest warrant or any medical justification four policemen and two doctors come to a healthy man’s house. The doctors declare that he is crazy, the police major shouts ‘We are an organ of force!’ Get up! They twist his arms and drive him off to the madhouse.

This can happen tomorrow to any one of us. It has just happened to Zhores Medvedev, a geneticist and publicist, a man of subtle, precise and brilliant intellect and of warm heart...

Medvedev’s release that same month was as a result of an outcry of protest of scientists and intellectuals both of the Soviet Union and abroad.

The Soviet bureaucracy could not, however, by its actions relegate Solzhenitsyn to a limbo of oblivion. On 8 October 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in the field of literature for ‘the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature’. The official Soviet press howled with indignation. Izvestia commented that ‘the Nobel committee has allowed itself to be drawn into an unseemly game, undertaken by no means in the interests of the development of spiritual values and literary traditions, but dictated by speculative political considerations’. Sovietskaya Rossiya said that this action ‘has purely political aims and is, in its essence, a provocation’. Literaturnaya Gazeta made out that in this instance the Nobel Committee had been guided by the ‘anti-Soviet trends’ of Solzhenitsyn’s works. The Soviet Weekly took the opportunity to assess the recipient of the prize as a run-of-the-mill writer.

The attitude of the two largest European Communist Parties outside the Soviet Union was different. L'Humanité hailed the award as one that has gone to ‘a real writer, faithful to his vocation to speak the truth as he sees it, which is an essential part of his responsibility to society’. Les Lettres Français recognised ‘the universal quality of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s art’ and noted that the attempt to ‘write off the Stockholm jury’s choice as an act of partisan politics scarcely corresponds to the facts’. L'Unità saw the Solzhenitsyn affair in even a wider context: ‘It is a question of freedom of expression and of dissent in a socialist society, of its legitimacy, and even of its value.’

Rinascita had a shot at Sholokhov too for his complete identity with the establishment on this issue:

The Soviet literary organisations would be consistent if they were repudiating the Nobel Prize altogether. But it is not consistent to accept this prize with pleasure when it is conferred on a Soviet writer who is officially in favour but to reject it when the same prize is conferred on another, not less important Soviet writer who happens to be in disfavour. Why did not Sholokhov make a grand gesture of rejecting the prize which had already been previously ‘provocatively’ conferred on Pasternak and instead hurried off to Stockholm to collect it?

Inside Russia, Gershuni, Pyotr Yakir and thirty-five other Soviet intellectuals were among those who wrote to Solzhenitsyn congratulating him: ‘We are proud of our literature, which, in spite of all obstacles, produces such first-class masters.’


1. L D Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going?.

Chapter II: One Day...

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which was published in Russia only after the personal intervention of Khrushchev, was greeted by the Russian public in terms which leave no doubt of its realistic portrayal of the forced labour camps which house ‘political’ prisoners. One former prisoner, a Voichenko, commented:

Solzhenitsyn has not even changed Tiurin’s name. I knew him, and worked in the 104th brigade... I remember equally well the senior guard, Ivan Poltor, from the Western Ukraine, always on the make. He was a big fellow with black eyes that bulged frighteningly. His real name was Burdenyuk... I shall never forget the disciplinary officer, Sorodov, introduced in the story as Volkovi. He did not walk round the compound, be strode majestically in a short leather coat, in smart new felt boots (made by a prisoner) – quite a picture! ... I also knew Shukhov under another name. There was one like him in every brigade. (Solzhenitsyn, ‘How People Read One Day...’)

This, however, is no mere slice of life. A whole mass of people, ill-clad, exposed to the extremes of Siberian winter, subjected to forced labour, and reduced to struggling over a morsel of bread, a bowl of masala porridge or thin soup – that is the human condition with which the book deals. Shukhov, the chief character, is the ordinary man one finds in any society and it is through his consciousness that we perceive what these conditions do to the human being. What most strikes the reader from these perceptions is the utter meaninglessness of this plight to men like Shukhov. At the end of the day, from his bunk he tells the Baptist Alyosha, who looked happy in prison, ‘somehow it works all right for you: Jesus Christ wanted to sit in prison and so you are sitting here for His sake. But for whose sake am I here? Because we weren’t ready for war in ‘forty-one? For that? But was that my fault?’ Most of these prisoners were men like Shukhov, who were either caught by the Germans or who were forced to surrender to the Germans purely because Russia had not been ready for the war. They did not understand the phenomenon of Stalinism or its workings and hence were all the more perplexed by what had happened to them. Buinovsky, the Naval Captain, who is a newcomer to the camp, is one of these political innocents who is just starting his education:

‘You've no right to strip men in the cold. You don’t know Article Nine of the Criminal Code.’

But they did have the right. They knew the code. You, chum, are the one who doesn’t know it.

‘You're not behaving like Soviet people’, Buinovsky went on saying. ‘You're not behaving like communists.’

Volkovi had put up with the references to the criminal code but this made him wince and like black lightning he flashed:

‘Ten days in the cells.’

This is the record through Shukhov’s eyes and it is indicative of the official cynicism about Soviet legality or the qualities of a communist. The conditions that reflect this cynicism are part of the routine that Shukhov has accepted and is reconciled to, just as a man forced to live by the law of the taiga has first and foremost to accept the fact of the taiga itself. His first team-leader had told Shukhov and his companions:

‘Here, lad, we live by the law of the taiga. But even here people manage to live. D'you know who are the ones the camps finish off? Those who like other men’s left-overs, those who set store by the doctors, and those who peach on their mates.’

Reconciliation allows Shukhov to survive, but how can one reconcile the laws of the taiga with socialism except by accepting the additional fact that what is here is no socialism but tyranny? Or, how again can a people build the ‘Socialist Way of Life’ settlement through forced labour except as the Egyptian despots built the pyramids, leaving in that process no socialist way of life? The tragedy is that men like Shukhov can be brought to this point of reconciliation; that they might under their breath curse a guard whilst the political man within them is dead. Perhaps it is in contrast to them that there is presented the old man whose very bearing signifies an idealistic defiance of the regime. He had spent years without number in camps and prisons, and had not benefited from a single amnesty:

Now Shukhov looked closely at the man. He held himself straight – the other zeks sat all hunched up – and looked as if he'd put something extra on the bench to sit on. There was nothing left to crop on his head: his hair had dropped out long since – the result of high living, no doubt. His eyes didn’t dart after everything going on in the mess-hall. He kept them fixed in an unseeing gaze at some spot over Shukhov’s head. His worn wooden spoon dipped rhythmically into the thin skilly, but instead of lowering his head to the bowl like everybody else, he raised the spoon high to his lips. He'd lost all his teeth and chewed his bread with iron gums. All life had drained out of his face but it had been left, not sickly or feeble, but hard and dark like carved stone. And by his hands, big and cracked and blackened, you could see that he'd had little opportunity of doing cushy jobs. But he wasn’t going to give in, oh no! He wasn’t going to put his three hundred grams on the dirty, bespattered table – he put it on a well-washed bit of rag.

As to what relevance such idealism can have in conditions as these is another question. But Shukhov’s response to what the old man embodies and his appreciation of it – though perhaps unformulated – also shows what has been suppressed in the Shukhovs. Bred as they are with the political self subtracted, they are also incapable of surviving in the way the old man survives.

Shukhov has something of the ‘Soviet hero’ in him: casually he remembers the hospital on the banks of the river Lovat where he'd been taken with a smashed jaw: ‘and then – what a chump he was! – volunteered for the front again, though he could have lain there in bed for five days’. In his devotion to his work he is in a sense a Stakhanovite too. Yet the positive hero of Soviet fiction cannot survive in these conditions. Shukhov has to look for the fag-end, the extra helping and what little morsel of food that might be thrown his way. He has to resort to bluff, humbug and an enormous resourcefulness in cunning. But though under the most trying and difficult circumstances he remains the honest workman, even deriving inspiration from his work. Urged by his wife to be a carpet-painter on his release, he reflects:

There was easy money to be made, you see, and made fast. And somehow it seemed a pity to lag behind his fellow-villagers... But, candidly, he didn’t want to turn carpet-painter. For that a man needed to be free-and-easy with people, to be brash, to know how to grease a palm or two. And although Shukhov had trodden the earth for forty years, though he'd lost half his teeth and his head was growing bald, he'd never either given or taken a bribe, nor had he learned to do so in camp.

He decides on his release to find work as a stove-setter, a carpenter or a tinker. He would have a fling at carpet painting only if he was deprived of his civil rights and he could not be taken on anywhere, or if they wouldn’t let him go home.

It is precisely the material that will go into the making of the ‘positive hero’ of official literature that fails to cope with the elemental conditions of camp life. Fetiukov, who had been a ‘big shot in some office with a car at his disposal’, is reduced to the position of a scrounger and dish-licker, picking up fag-ends even from spittoons. His home life too has had no solid basis, unlike that of Shukhov. He had ‘three children at home but when he was sentenced they'd disclaimed him and his wife had married again. So he got no help from anywhere.’ Those others of his privileged caste who still continue to get food parcels with which they can bribe those in authority have got the soft jobs in the camp. The Muscovites among them are presented through the eyes of Shukhov even with a touch of satire:

A queer fellow with glasses was standing in the queue, his head buried in a newspaper. Tsezar at once made for him:

‘Aha, Pyotr Mikhailich.’

They blossomed like a couple of poppies. The queer fellow said:

‘Look what I've got! A fresh Vechorka. [2] They sent it by airmail.’

‘Really’, said Tsezar, sticking his nose into the newspaper. How on earth could they make out such tiny print in the glimmer of that miserable lamp?

‘There’s a most fascinating review of a Zavadsky premiere.’

Those Muscovites can smell one another at a distance, like dogs: they sniff and sniff when they meet, in a way of their own. They jabber so fast too, each trying to out-talk the other. When they're jabbering away like that you hear practically no Russian: they might be talking Latvian or Rumanian.

What emerges as the most sinister in this camp life is also a reflection, as in the mythology of a society, of what obtains in official society itself. Thugs and those with a criminal record have got the upper hand and have lodged themselves in the more comfortable places like those of orderlies, cooks and bread-cutters:

The post of mess-orderly was firmly held by ‘the Limper’. Because of his lameness he'd managed to get classed as disabled, but he was a hrefty son of a bitch. He'd got himself a cudgel of birch, and standing on the porch would clout anyone who came up without his say-so. No, not anyone. He was smart and could tell, even in the dark, when it was better to let a man be – anyone who might give him tit for tat. He hit the down-and-outs. Once he hit Shukhov.

He was called an orderly. But looking closer into it, he was a real prince: he hobnobbed with the cooks.

These are also prisoners, but by sitting on their fellows they have made the grade. This ‘bureaucracy’ functions on the same principles on which the other bureaucracy functions as a caste outside in ordinary civil society. Solzhenitsyn is in a way exploring a problem, having reduced it to its bare-bone structure. There is, for instance, the mess-chief, himself a prisoner:

He wore a white lambskin hat without a number on it, finer than any civilian’s. And his waistcoat was lambskin to match, with a number on, true, but hardly bigger than a postage stamp – a tribute to Volkovi. He bore no number at all on his back. He respected no one and all the zeks were afraid of him. He held the lives of thousands in his hands. Once they'd tried to beat him up but all the cooks – choice thugs they were – had leaped to his defence.

The zek is the political prisoner and the number referred to is what each prisoner has to carry on himself, painted in large figures.

Distinct from these toughs are those who assume leadership among the prisoners. These are the team-leaders and Tiurin is among them:

In camp the team-leader is everything: a good one will give you a second life, a bad one will put you in your coffin... Shukhov had no dealings with the camp commandant or the PPD, with foremen or engineers – that was the team-leader’s job: he'd protect him with his own chest of steel. In return, Tiurin had only to lift an eyebrow or beckon with a finger – and you ran and did what he wanted. You can cheat anyone you like in camp, but not your team-leader. Then you'll live.

Of kulak parentage, Tiurin can make almost a business estimate of both his men and his work. He can bribe the authorities and get for his team the less arduous work-sites; he can fudge the work-sheets and get to the credit of his team (because the food ration depends on this) more work than was actually performed. This, of course, involves a certain degree of moral compromise, but Tiurin can still maintain an astounding strength of character.

Even though Solzhenitsyn has to all apparent purposes limited the scope of significance of the material treated, it is difficult not to see the extensions of meaning. Konstantin Simonov in a carefully-worded review of the book in Izvestia of 18 November 1962 reported what would be the reaction of the ordinary reader to the several characters in the book. There was, he said, the realisation that ‘these people, taken together, are none other than purely and simply a part of our society... and they remain for the most part the same people that they were before the camp – real Soviet people...’. Simonov sees in the book Solzhenitsyn’s contribution to the struggle against the cult of personality. That struggle is not one limited to camp life, for the zek’s life in the labour camp is only an extreme example of the plight of the Soviet citizen in a regime of political tyranny.


2. A Moscow evening paper – Author’s note.

Chapter III: The First Circle

The First Circle is no mere indictment of the Soviet bureaucracy or its penal system. Delving into the very depths of a workers’ state that has gone through a process of degeneration, Solzhenitsyn surfaces with an understanding of the qualities which the human being as an individual must possess if he is in any manner to contribute to the redemption of that society. Solzhenitsyn’s strength is that he can, in this endeavour, explore both character and situation within a politically understood context. The political content derived in this process is not new and in attitudes reaches back to Lenin himself. What is new and remarkable is the dimension and depth the artist has given to this material.

The title of the book refers to the special prison, Mavrino, set up for the purpose of housing those intellectuals among the prisoners willing to execute projects for Stalin. Agreement to work for Stalin, and thereby to pander to his caprices, meant living in the relatively comfortable conditions of this prison; refusal meant a transfer back to the hell from which they came – the forced-labour camps. When Gleb Nerzhin, early in the book, is faced with this problem of choice, the alternatives involved in that choice are clear to him: ‘His reason bade him say, “Yes, I'll do as you wish,” but his heart said, “Get thee behind me Satan."’

After years of life in the forced-labour camps, the refusal of Stalin’s offer is immeasurably difficult:

‘You know’, a newcomer said to Rubin, ‘this sudden change makes my head spin. I have lived fifty-two years, I've survived fatal illnesses, I've been married to pretty women, I've fathered sons, I've won academic prizes – but I've never been so blissfully happy as I am today! Just think – they won’t be driving me to work in icy water tomorrow! Forty grams of butter! As much black bread as you like – out on the table! You can read books, you can shave and the guards don’t beat you. This is a great day! It’s like a mirage – or perhaps I've really died, and this is all a dream? I'm imagining I'm in heaven.’

‘No, my dear sir’, said Rubin, ‘you are in hell, just as before. But you have graduated to its best and highest circle – the first circle...’

Though it is through this image from Dante that the confusion of values is clearly brought home, the principle that operates comes from Faust. As Rubin states:

The second part of Faust is very heavy going, but the idea behind it is marvellous. You remember the pact between Faust and Mephistopheles – Mephistopheles will only get possession of his soul on the day Faust exclaims: ‘Oh moment stay – thou art so fair!’

In this sense the concept of hell applies not only to the prisons system in which Mavrino is at the zenith, but also to the life outside. Solzhenitsyn’s concern is with the first circle around Stalin too.

The journey through hell means a purgation too – a separation of good from evil. Nerzhin, on his way out of Mavrino, explains two lines from Yesenin to his repugnant jailor, Shikin: ‘"It’s very simple,” he replied. “It means that no one should ever try and reconcile the white rose of truth with the black toad of evil!"’

The toad is immediately identified in the person of the jailor – the grim-faced little policeman with his short arms and his big head seated in front of Nerzhin. The problem of locating this evil is not difficult especially because it stretches from Stalin through the bureaucracy and the prisons to this little jailor. The imaginative achievement of the book is that it has also located and brought out the ‘white rose of truth’ despite the all-pervading evil which smothers it, tramples it, and destroys it.

It is significant that in the book the first flowering of this truth takes place within the bureaucracy itself. Counsellor Innokenty Artemyevich Volodin of the Soviet Foreign Service is part of the upper echelons of the bureaucracy – the first circle. He is the type that might well utter the magic words: ‘Oh moment stay...’ In the diplomatic service he is in rank equal to that of an army colonel. For his faith in the system he is about to be rewarded with an important assignment in Paris. His father-in-law is Pyotr Makarygin and he has thus the necessary connections for a further take-off:

Pyotr Makarygin, a major-general by rank and a lawyer by training, had a long record of service as State Prosecuting Attorney in ‘special’ cases, that is to say cases whose subject matter made them unsuitable for public hearing and were therefore dealt with in camera. Although not exactly a famous prosecutor, he was very sound at his job and unwaveringly firm in the execution of his duties.

He had three daughters by his first wife. He had met her during the Civil War and she had died giving birth to Clara. The three girls had been brought up by their step-mother, who had succeeded in being what is known as a good mother to them. His daughters’ names were Danera, Datoma and Clara. As was the fashion in those days, Danera stood for daughter of the New Era and Datoma stood for daughter of the Toiling Masses. Clara was just Clara, and no one in the family could remember whether her name was supposed to mean anything. The girls had been born at two-year intervals. The middle one, Datoma, finished school in 1940 and breasted the tape just ahead of Danera by getting married a month before her in the spring of 1941. She was a slim girl with blonde curls down to her shoulders and loved it when her fiancé took her dancing at the Metropole. Her father disapproved of her marrying so young, but he had to give his consent. His son-in-law was an extremely eligible young man – a brilliant graduate of the Diplomatic School with powerful connections, the son of a famous father who had been killed in the Civil War.

The reference to the New Era and the Toiling Masses should not be misconstrued. It has no sting directed at either of these two concepts. It merely shows the state of mind of the bureaucrat – his zealous protestation of loyalty to the regime and equally zealous pursuit of personal advancement.

The bureaucracy is also the recipient of privileges:

The Prosecutor’s flat was the envy of the whole of Block No 2, although the Makarygins themselves found it on the small side. It consisted of two flats knocked into one, had two front doors (one boarded up), two lavatories, two corridors, two kitchens and five rooms, in the largest of these dinner had been served.

Whatever connections these people had to the Revolution and the Civil War were now severed. Volodin’s own father – a Civil War hero – is dead. Makarygin’s first wife, also a participant in the Civil War is dead. Indeed she is mercifully dead:

His first wife – who had been with him through the Civil War, had been good with a machine-gun, wore a leather jacket and lived by the latest Party directive – could never have achieved the comfort and luxury of his present establishment; indeed, if she hadn’t died when Clara was born, it is difficult to imagine how she would have coped with today’s world at all.

By contrast, his present wife, Alevtina, knew that a family needs to be well fed, that carpets and table linen are important status symbols and that cut glass is a fitting ornament for a dinner party. She had accumulated hers over the years – not for her the shoddy stuff you get nowadays, mass produced by dozens of careless hands, but the kind into which a master craftsman has put something of his soul. Hers was the antique crystal confiscated from convicted persons during the ‘twenties and ‘thirties and occasionally to be found in the special shops for members of the legal profession. Later, in Latvia, she had added lavishly to her collection: for two years after the war the Prosecutor had worked in Riga, and there at the second-hand shops and straight from the flea market, she had picked up a good deal in the way of furniture, glass, china and even some silver spoons.

Makarygin has just been decorated and what we see described is the party at the Makarygin flat to honour the occasion. Toasts are duly proposed and drunk to comrade Stalin, to members of the legal profession and to Makarygin himself wishing that his latest decoration should not be his last. Food is served in abundance and in all their variety. But the guests were there merely like actors. They ‘made it their business not to eat but to talk amusingly and showed a studied contempt for the food’.

Protest there is such as is shown in the feelings of Shchagov, the returned Second World War veteran now making up for his lost years in the University. He is preparing himself for this world. He finds his way into this charmed circle through his fiancée, and is innocent enough to try to impress it with his medals won in the war. But his war medals are of no relevance here. The closest this world gets to the experience of that war is through the war correspondents – Makarygin’s son-in-law Galakhov and intended son-in-law Lansky. In relation to the soldier in the front, these were men who lived a protected, an almost parasitic, existence:

Shchagov too had been put at the young people’s table and was sitting next to his Lisa. He spoke to her, piled food on to her plate and filled her glass attentively, but did so almost mechanically – he was thinking only of what he saw around him. A polite smile fixed on his face, he was taking in his surroundings, all these lavish furnishings and the people who took them so much for granted. From the generals’ epaulettes and the diplomatic gold braid at the far end of the room to the Order of Lenin stuck carelessly into the lapel of the young man next to him (and this was the crowd Shchagov had hoped to impress with his wretched medals), he could see no one who could have been a fellow soldier of his at the front, no one who had crossed a mine-field, or sprinted desperately across a ploughed field in what was pompously described as an attack. At the start of the evening he had conjured up the faces of his comrades – killed in a field or at the foot of a barn wall, or on assault craft. He had felt like jerking the tablecloth and shouting: ‘... and you, you bastard, where were you then?’

Yet you cannot enter this world and be a non-conformist. It has its own laws which demand conformity, and Shchagov’s burial in this world is already indicated:

He alone among all these people knew what comfort and security really meant and he alone truly deserved them. He had made only his first step into this world, but he had come to stay. Looking around him, Shchagov thought: ‘This is my future.’

Here is a man who sees something of the truth, but seeks reconciliation with the evil that is represented by the toad. Makarygin’s youngest daughter, Clara, who most reminds him of her mother, also burns for a short while with the spirit of revolt. When, for instance, Makarygin speaks of the Party of the working class, treating the concepts involved as a blanket that would cover all, she hits back:

‘Oh come off it, father! You don’t belong to the working class. You were a worker once for two years and you've been a prosecutor for thirty. You – a worker! You live off the fat of the land. You even have a chauffeur to drive your own car! Environment determines consciousness – isn’t that what your generation taught us?’

Social environment, you idiot. And social consciousness.’

‘What is that? Some people have mansions and others sheds, some have cars and others have holes in their shoes. What’s social about it?’

Her father was choking with the sheer impossibility of conveying the wisdom of the older generation simply and briefly to a silly young fool like her.

She – a free worker at the Mavrino prison – compares the prisoner Ruska Doronin with other young men she has met:

The young men Clara met outside prison were already well launched on their careers, and their whole demeanour, as well as their dress and conversation, was calculated to make them look dignified. But in Ruska’s company she felt young and wanted to let herself go.

She responds to Ruska:

Clara felt like a goddess who had appeared before a prisoner languishing in a dungeon. This was no ordinary commonplace kiss. Ruska pulled her to himself and kissed violently. She responded in kind...

But this is short-lived. Amidst the triviality and the glitter of Makarygin’s dinner she consents to become Lansky’s wife:

Clara, a little breathless, looked down on his bowed head. It was not her fault that the two of them – he and the other – were not one but two. It was not her fault that the time had come when she was compelled by nature’s inexorable law to fall to the one who had caught her like a ripe September apple falling from a tree.

Ruska, who has the same symbolic function as, for instance, the tramp in Charlie Chaplin, is to Clara the white flower of truth. But this society, with the same inexorable quality as in a law of nature, compels her to a different choice. To Ruska too she is the symbol of truth to which he could reconcile his rebellious self – the goddess to a prisoner in a dungeon – but that same inexorable law of nature makes her the food, as revealed in the imagery used, for the black toad.

This is not the first time Clara had felt the effect of this inexorable law. When during the war she lived in Tashkent, in the little world the Makarygins had set up safely away from the front, she had ‘an uncontrollable feeling of being awash in a foul sewer’:

Inexorably that law took its effect which decrees that although no one goes to fight of his own free will, all the best and warmest-hearted men found their way to the battle-front and there, by the same process of selection, most of them perished. Three thousand miles to the west all was devotion, heroism and courage, while here it seemed to Clara that all of life’s more unattractive aspects predominated.

In this world which finally claimed Clara as its food there is no place for devotion, courage or heroism. And the creatures of this world are not meant for such feelings. When these do dawn within them even flickeringly they fumble and get destroyed – destroyed not as tragic heroes but as hunted animals. Innokenty Volodin was part of this world. Clara sees him as ‘normally a rather dandified, supercilious creature’. He and the Prosecutor’s daughter Datoma whom he married were ‘so blissfully happy that they were known as a perfect couple to all their friends’:

They started their married life in exceptionally favourable circumstances. They belonged to that circle of society where such a thing as walking or taking the Metro is unknown, where even before the war, a journey was made by air in preference to a sleeping car, where there is never any worry even about furnishing a flat – in each new post, whether in the country near Moscow or in Teheran, on the Syrian sea coast or in Switzerland, there was a furnished house or villa or flat waiting for the newly-weds. Their outlook on life was identical. They held that ‘you only live once’. You can therefore take from life everything it can give you though not, perhaps, children, because children are tyrants – they feed on you, they suck you dry, without making any sacrifice in return, without even being grateful.

They typify the life of the privileged bureaucracy. Work does not seem to intrude on their happy pursuits. They live not by labour but on accumulated labour, as Makarygin sharply points out to Clara:

Accumulated labour, you fool! Read Marx! Education, special training – that’s accumulated labour, you're paid more for it. Why did you think they pay you eighteen hundred at your research institute?’

The day to day life and suffering did not touch them. They lived, as it were, within a charmed circle from which all honesty and decency in human relations have been evacuated:

For six of the best years of their lives, each gave the other all that he or she wanted. Most of them were the years when humanity was torn apart, men and women died fighting or buried under the ruins of cities, when grown-up people, driven out of their minds, stole bread rations as small as communion wafers from children. Not a breath of the sorrow of the world fanned the cheeks of Innokenty and Datoma.

The change that now comes over Innokenty is completely in keeping with his character. In the world of the bureaucrats – Stalin’s first circle – there remains nothing of the revolutionary tradition to effect any change in him. What has happened to this society is shown symbolically in Makarygin’s study, into which the host leads his friend Major-General Slovuta, the State Prosecutor:

A large photo of Stalin in Generalissimo’s uniform stood on the desk, and a small bust of Lenin on a shelf.

Pot-bellied, bursting out of his dress uniform, his neck overflowing its high collar, Slovuta looked round him with approval.

The small bust of Lenin is a mere pacifier of conscience. The Leninism there was had been wiped off completely by the jackboot. Makarygin’s old-time friend Radovich – now treated as a poor relative – points this out with an unconscious symbolism:

There is a nice young fellow who lives next door to me – a demobilised officer. He was telling me one day he always used to share a dug-out with his men. But the colonel and the commissar were always at him: why didn’t he have a dug-out made for himself, and why didn’t his batman cook his special food? No self-respect. What did he think he had officer’s rations for? This boy had been brought up a Leninist like us – he didn’t think it right. But, in the end, the colonel gave him a direct order – ‘Stop being a disgrace to your rank.’ So the next place they came to after marching all day he said to the men: ‘Make me a special dug-out. Get me some furniture.’ And his commanders praised him. ‘High time’, they said.

People with Radovich’s beliefs had already been destroyed. Radovich himself had saved his head by living the ‘colourless life of an invalid’:

Radovich had been a complete failure for a very long time. Since the early ‘thirties he had been banned as a lecturer and a writer and his health was bad: a splinter of shell had remained embedded in his chest since the Civil War, he had suffered from ulcers for fifteen years, and every morning for several years past he had had to wash out his stomach by letting a tube down through his gullet – a painful procedure but without it he could not have digested his food and stayed alive.

However, no cloud being without its silver lining, his very illness had saved his life. Prominent in Comintern circles in the ‘twenties, he had survived the purges only because during the most critical time he was never out of hospital.

Conviction he had, but he did not fight it out. He remained an invalid and his daily routine of stomach washing was symbolic of the painful process he had to go through in order to live in this society. But despite his talk about Leninism he remains a Stalinist at heart:

Even if he had ‘flown off the handle’, Radovich would have said nothing very terrible: Marxism was in his flesh and blood and he was orthodox in all his reasoning. But the hard-core Stalinists, more intolerant of variations of nuance than of contrasts of colour, would have chopped his head off for the little which divided him from them.

With only this slight variation of nuance still Makarygin sees him as a ‘prehistoric dinosaur’.

It is only men like this who have been left among the survivors who even occasionally throw the word ‘Leninism’ in the face of these hard-core Stalinists. But they are the defeated and they can carry no message to the Innokentys. Innokenty thus sees the light only when he stumbles into the world of his mother:

The diaries told him more and more about his mother’s mind. There were even pages headed ‘Ethical Considerations’.

‘Compassion is the spontaneous movement of the virtuous heart.’

He could almost hear his mother’s brittle voice as he read:

‘What is the most precious thing in the world? It seems to be the consciousness of not participating in injustice. Injustice is stronger than you are, it always was and it always will be, but let it not be committed through you.’

It is from this world of his mother and her girlfriends that he for the first time discovered that something had been missing in his life.

This – Innokenty’s reaction to the world of his mother – is an instance which the Writers Union of the USSR could hold up as Solzhenitsyn’s regression to a bourgeois world. But this is to miss the point of it all and also to miss the controlled objectivity with which Solzhenitsyn is portraying both his characters and the world in which they live. The very point of Radovich is to show that there is no inspiring revolutionary spirit left any more in this world of the bureaucrats – they have not even any access to it. It is in these circumstances that realisation comes to Innokenty from the world of his mother, who is present to him only as somebody sick and surrounded by books and hot-water bottles. This is a telling indictment of a society in which Lenin had triumphed through the force of revolutionary courage and the sweep of imagination. Innokenty’s mother, after all, had not the courage even to live as she pleased – ‘He learned, too, that all her life she had loved another man but never succeeded in being with him.’ It is to this world that the young man walks as a child and learns anew. The episode has also the significance of a going back to the mother – a new awakening, a rebirth.

The consequent disenchantment comes over Innokenty without his being aware of even the reasons for it:

This feeling alarmed him and he fought it like a disease, waiting for it to pass, but it remained. Worst of all – he couldn’t make out what was wrong with him. He had everything, yet he lacked something. Even the amusing people who were his staunchest friends unaccountably failed to please him – one was not too bright, another a bit coarse, a third could think of nothing but himself.

There is the turning away from the wife too:

And had she only now developed – or had he merely never noticed it before? – this way of chewing noisily, almost chomping, especially when she was eating fruit?

The impetus of the discovery of his mother’s ideas carries him further:

He went to Paris, attached to UNESCO, where he read a great deal more in such leisure as his job left him, and there came a moment when he felt at last that he more or less knew where he stood.

It was not that he had made a great many new discoveries for himself – but he had made a few.

His philosophy of life had been that we only live once.

Now there had matured in him the sense of another truth about himself and the world: that we have only one conscience – and that a crippled conscience is as irretrievable as a lost life.

But it is this conviction that proves fatal to Innokenty, for the goodness it embodies cannot be reconciled with the prevailing system. There is already a trap laid for the trusting Dr Dobrumov, now famous as a scientist but best known to Innokenty as the kind doctor whom his mother always called in when she was sick. He decides to telephone the doctor and warn him, although he is aware that the doctor’s telephone is tapped. On his way to make the anonymous telephone call, warning the doctor, Innokenty wonders whether the authorities could recognise a muffled voice over the telephone. ‘Surely they couldn’t’, he reassures himself, ‘there was no such technique.’ Not that this would have mattered, for in that moment of goodness he had no choice – ‘Dangerous or not he had to do it.’

‘If you always look over your shoulder, how can you still remain a human being’, he asks himself.

He is already a doomed man. On his way to make the telephone call the Greater Lubianka prison looms large before him:

Passing the monument to Vorovsky in the half-enclosed courtyard of the Ministry, he looked up at the building of the Greater Lubianka and shivered. It held a new meaning for him. Its nine-storey grey-black hull was a battleship and the eighteen pilasters on its starboard side were eighteen gun turrets. Solitary and frail, Innokenty was drawn to it, across the small square, like a dinghy under the bows of a huge swift ship.

The Greater Lubianka is only the starting point in the Stalinist prison system. From here to other prisons, transit camps, Siberian work-camps and special prisons like Mavrino is a tortuous, dehumanising journey. And within this prison system the method has been slowly and erratically perfected by which the human voice over the telephone can be identified. Distraught, Innokenty proceeds to perform the good act, and once it is performed he is a broken man. The system has not left him man enough to stand up to this challenge. Symbolically he goes back to his wife’s room and sleeps with her after the Makarygin dinner – something he had not done for the last four months after he discovered that during his UNESCO assignment in Paris she had been committing adultery with a certain staff officer in Moscow. But this reintegration does not save him. He is damned.

The MGB man who comes in the guise of a chauffeur to take him away to the Lubianka suggests the devil:

He just had time to put on his coat before the chauffeur rang at the door. It was not Victor who usually drove him, nor Kostya. This one was lanky, with quick movements and a pleasant intelligent face. Gaily twirling the keys of the car, he walked down the stairs almost shoulder to shoulder with Innokenty.

‘I don’t seem to remember you’, said Innokenty, buttoning up his coat as they went down.

‘Don’t you? I even remembered your staircase – I've been to your house twice.’

He had a cheerful yet slightly crafty smile. Innokenty thought it would be good to have a smart young fellow like this to drive his own car.

Innokenty is under the impression that he is being taken to meet his boss before being posted to Paris – a job he was longing for. In fact it was the boss – a General – who had just telephoned him and sent him the car. On their way another, introduced to Innokenty by the chauffeur as the ‘mechanic from our garage’, joins them:

A long cigarette between his teeth, the mechanic bent down, stepped into the car and, with a casual ‘You don’t mind?’ dumped himself next to Volodin.

The car drove on.

Innokenty gave him a fastidious glance (what a lout!) but immediately forgot him; lost in his thoughts he didn’t notice the route they were taking.

Smoke from the mechanic’s cigarette filled the back of the car.

‘You might open the window.’ Raising one eyebrow Innokenty tried to put him in his place.

Impervious to irony and not opening the window, the mechanic sprawled back on the seat, took a piece of paper from an inside pocket and held it out to Innokenty:

‘Would you mind reading this to me, comrade? I'll give you a light.’

The car turned into a dimly-lit street: it looked like Pushechnaya. The mechanic shone a pocket torch on to the green sheet. Innokenty took it with a shrug and read without taking in the sense:

‘... Deputy Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of the USSR...’

His head still in the clouds, he could not come out of them to wonder why he was being asked to read out something – was the mechanic illiterate, or couldn’t understand what the paper was about, or was he drunk and trying to be familiar...?

‘Warrant for the arrest of’, he read, still absent-mindedly, ‘Volodin Innokenty Artemyevich b 1919’ – only now did the meaning pierce him from head to foot and his whole body seemed to fill with a searing heat – he opened his mouth but before he could utter a sound, before the hand with the paper dropped to his knee, the ‘mechanic’ dug his fingers into his shoulder at the base of the neck and threatened:

‘Quiet, keep still, or I'll choke you.’

Dazzling Innokenty with his torch, he continued to puff cigarette smoke in his face.

The exploitation of Innokenty’s trusting nature, the complete cynicism as far as human relations are concerned, the degradation of the human personality which can be effected only by the degraded – these are features which give to the Faustian unreality of what is taking place an added dimension.

A small red flag, flood-lit from below, fluttered on the pillared turret of the Greater Lubianka. Two reclining stone mermaids looked down unfeelingly on the tiny citizens scurrying in the square.

The car followed the façade of the world-famous building and turned into Greater Lubianka Street.

‘Let go, will you’, Innokenty was still trying to shake off the mechanic’s grip on the base of his neck.

The black iron gates swung open as soon as the car pointed its radiator towards them, and swung shut the moment it had passed.

Gliding through a dark stone passage, the car stopped in the yard.

The ‘mechanic’ loosened his grip as they went through, and released it when they stopped. Getting out of his side of the car, he said in a business-like voice:

‘Out with you.’

It was now clear that he was perfectly sober.

The driver got out through the door – it wasn’t jammed – and ordered: ‘Get out. Hands behind your back.’

No one could have recognised the icy voice as that of the cheeky chauffeur of ten minutes ago.

This cynical play-acting of the General inviting Innokenty to discuss his posting to Paris, and of the chauffeur and the mechanic is far preferable to the deadened brutality that follows. Men and women move about in the depths of the Lubianka as automatons put in there to divest men of their personality, dehumanise them and break their will in preparation for the interrogation that is to follow. But strangely enough it is this very system that gives Innokenty a new set of values. His epicureanism – hardly understood – which made the selfish life of the bureaucracy meaningful to him now leaves him:

The highest criteria of good and evil are our own feelings of pleasure or displeasure!

In other words, according to Epicurus, only what I like is good and what I do not like is evil. This was the philosophy of a savage. Because Stalin liked killing people did this mean that he regarded killing as good? And if someone found displeasure in being imprisoned for having tried to save another man, was his action therefore evil? No – for Innokenty good and evil were now absolute and distinct, and visibly separated by the pale-grey door in front of him, by those whitewashed walls, by the experience of his first night in prison. Seen from the pinnacle of struggle and pain to which he was now ascending, the wisdom of Epicurus seemed no more than the babbling of a child.

It is as though the disenchantment and the consequent re-education that began outside is now being completed.

Innokenty has thus been eliminated from Stalin’s first circle – the world of the bureaucratic élite. To live in that circle of the materially privileged one has to pay a price – the total identification with the forces of evil and the total abjection to the man who runs it – Stalin. And Stalin himself is something gone rotten – something from which no good can proceed. To him each day it is a question of still further tightening a lifeless machine of evil.

In Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of Stalin there is a bitterness that is never concealed. It borders on caricature but is in keeping with his total vision – a vision which reduces men and events to their starkest realities:

Lying on the couch was the man whose image, more than any other human likeness in history, had been graven in stone, painted in oils, in water-colour, in gouache and in sepia, drawn in charcoal, chalk and brick-dust, patterned in gravel, seashells, glazed tiles, grains of wheat and soya beans, carved in ivory, grown in grass, woven in carpets, registered in celluloid and outlined in the sky by aircraft.

Now, however, he was simply lying with feet slightly drawn up; they were shod in Caucasian knee-boots so soft and tight that they looked like gaiters. He wore a military tunic with four large pockets, two on the breast and two at the sides – a comfortable old one from the collection of grey, khaki, black and white tunics which he had been accustomed to wear since Civil War days and which he had only changed for a Marshall’s uniform after Stalingrad.

The name of this man was for ever headlined in the world’s newspapers, intoned by thousands of announcers in hundreds of languages, declaimed by orators, piped by childish voices, chanted in benediction by priests; the name of this man was frozen on the dying lips of prisoners of war, and on the swollen, toothless gums of men in labour camps and jails. His name had been lent to countless cities and squares, streets and avenues, schools, hospitals, mountain ranges, ship canals, factories, mines, state farms, collective farms, battleships, icebreakers, fishing boats, cobbler’s shops and crèches, to which would have been added, if a certain group of Moscow journalists had their way, the Volga and the moon.

But he was just a little old man with a wizened fold of skin on his neck (which was never shown on portraits): breath that smelled of Turkish pipe-tobacco, and thick clammy fingers which left their mark on books. He had felt unwell today and the day before. Although the air was warm he felt a chill on his back and shoulders and had covered them with a brown camel-hair shawl.

Here is the colossus straddling the world and the man in reality. Three days after the celebration of his seventieth birthday he lies there ‘with nothing but a feeling of emptiness’. He turns to self-adulation in order to fill this void and looks for scapegoats to bear his own failings:

It was true that people loved him, but they were still riddled with faults. How was he to put them right? Communism would have come about so much sooner if it had not been for... if it had not been for all those soulless bureaucrats. If it had not been for all those swollen-headed Party bigwigs. If it had not been for weaknesses in organising and enlightening the masses. The failure to educate Party members properly. The slow pace of construction. The bottlenecks in industry. The output of shoddy goods. The bad planning. The resistance to technical change. The unwillingness of youth to go out and work in the backwoods. The wastage of grain during harvest. The embezzlement. The pilfering. The swindling. Sabotage in the labour camps. Leniency by the police. Corruption in housing. The rampant black market. The hoarding. The young people getting out of hand. The grumblers. Snide insinuations from the writers, the pernicious influence of certain films.

No, there was still a lot wrong with the people.

Whose fault was the retreat in ‘forty-one? The people were told to stand and die – why didn’t they? Who had retreated? The people had retreated!

As he recalled 1941 Stalin was inevitably reminded of his own lapse – his hasty and needless departure from Moscow in October. Of course, nobody could call it running away; Stalin had left behind responsible men and had given them firm instructions to defend the capital to the last drop of blood. But unfortunately these very men had wavered – so he had had to come back himself and take over.

Here is a man who even for a moment would not look inwardly. Even in his most private moments he would look at his own image created on his own orderings. Leafing through his short biography he enjoys himself:

The plain, straightforward phrases had an irresistible and soothing effect on the human heart. Strategist of genius... wise foresight... mighty will... iron determination... Lenin’s virtual deputy from 1918 onwards. (Well, wasn’t he?) The revolution’s greatest military leader found the front in chaos and confusion... Frunze’s operational plan was based on Stalin’s orders... (So was it...) It was our good fortune that in the difficult years of the War for the Fatherland we were led by a wise and tested leader – The Great Stalin. (Yes, they were lucky.) Everybody knows the devastating force of Stalin’s logic, the crystal clarity of his mind... (without false modesty he had to admit it was true)... his love for the people... his great concern for human beings... his dislike of pomp... his astounding modesty (very true, that bit about modesty).

Leninism has been destroyed. The thought of the men who led the Revolution and fought the Civil War has been erased from living memory, history has been rewritten. The one man who remained to guide the destinies of the Revolution was Stalin. Aptly did his foremost opponent Trotsky call him the gravedigger of the Revolution. Having smothered all revolutionary impulse and creativity, he can now guide the destinies of a people only with what little life is left for the tightening of a machine, the pulling of a lever. His state of health on this seventieth birthday is symbolic of the state of the processes of his thought and the guidance he is able to give:

Although he was afraid to admit it, he had noticed that his health was getting worse every month. He was suffering from lapses of memory and attacks of nausea. There was no real pain, but for hours on end he felt horribly weak and had to keep to his couch. Even sleep was no relief; he woke up as stale, jaded and sluggish as when he had gone to bed and he found movement difficult. In the Caucasus at seventy a man was in his prime – he could climb mountains, ride horses and chase women. And he had once been so healthy! He so much wanted to live to be ninety, but something was going wrong. For a year now he had not enjoyed his one great pleasure in life – good food. Orange juice made his tongue smart, caviar tasted like putty, and even the fiery Georgian harcho, which his doctors forbade him to eat, had lost its savour. Gone too was his keen palate for wine; drink only gave him a dull headache. And the thought of a woman had become repulsive.

Nor was there any initiative among the abject around him. Alexander Poskrebyshev, the head of Stalin’s personal secretariat, typifies these people of the first circle closest to Stalin:

There came four gentle knocks at the door – if knock was the right word: it was rather as though the person outside had softly pawed the door like a dog. Stalin turned a switch by the couch and a safety-catch clicked as the door was opened by remote control. There was no curtain over the doorway (Stalin hated curtains or anything behind which people might hide) and the bare door opened just enough to admit a dog; but the head that appeared was in the upper half of the doorway and belonged to the still young-looking but already balding Poskrebyshev with his permanent expression of total fidelity and devotion.

This is the new breed of men leading the Revolution! What has happened is that Stalin has killed even the slightest flicker of revolutionism because of his mortal fear of it:

It happened in 1937 on the twentieth anniversary of the revolution, when so much, as he saw it, had changed in the interpretation of the history of the revolution, he decided to make a personal visit to the museum to see whether they had made any blunders. Standing in the doorway of one of the rooms – the one which now contained the huge television set – with eyes that were as though suddenly opened, he had seen, high up on the opposite wall, two large portraits of Zhelyabov and Sofia Perovskaya, the two Populist terrorists who had assassinated Alexander II. Their expressions were open and fearless, their looks indomitable and they seemed to shout to each person entering the room: ‘Kill the tyrant!’

As though transfixed by two arrows, his vocal chords paralysed by the glance of these two revolutionary idealists, Stalin had turned away, made a hoarse sound, coughed and pointed a shaking finger at the two portraits.

They had immediately been taken down, and at the same time the shattered remains of the carriage in which Alexander II had been riding at the moment of his assassination – this was the earliest revolutionary relic – were removed from the Kshesinskaya Palace in Leningrad.

It was then Stalin had started having apartments and retreats built for himself in different places. It was then that he had lost his taste for life in the crowded city and had moved out, ending up in this villa near Moscow, this cramped study next to the quarters of his bodyguard.

Stalin had built himself his prison. What he has sealed himself against is the revolutionary spirit which he knows will destroy him. His fear is socialism itself – socialism built in a different way. Tito, who had escaped all Stalin’s purges, had now come up as the challenge to Stalin:

The fact that Kerensky was still alive somewhere had never worried Stalin. He would not have cared if Nicholas II or Kolchak had come back from the grave – he had nothing against them personally: they had been avowed enemies, they had never had the impertinence to offer their own brand of a new and better socialism.

Better socialism! ... In other words, different from Stalin’s. The little guttersnipe! How could you have socialism without Stalin?

It wasn’t as if Tito would succeed – nothing would come of it. Stalin looked on Tito in the way that an old country doctor with a lifetimes’ experience of rough and ready kitchen-table surgery regards a young girl just out of medical school.

Three times now they had had to produce new editions of Lenin’s collected works and twice re-edit Marx and Engels. Everybody who had argued, all those people mentioned in the notes to their earlier editions who had wanted to build socialism differently, were long since dead. And now when even from the wastes of Siberia there was not a murmur of doubt or criticism to be heard – out crawls this creature Tito and his clever stooge Kardelj, telling you that you should have done it differently!

Throughout the book Solzhenitsyn carefully refrains from explicitly asserting his own positives vis-à-vis Stalinism. He allows these to emerge from the clash of personalities as the story unfolds. Thus it is from the conflict within Stalin himself that the positives against him are asserted. The way ahead is not through the Kerenskys and the Kolchaks, who had been defeated and overthrown by the revolutionary upsurge itself. The way lies in the direction which Stalin himself blocked by liquidating the entire old guard of Bolshevism, suppressing all revolutionary spirit and revising both Lenin and Marx. To Stalin’s mind, Tito represents what he had tried to suppress throughout his period of rule:

How could they have been so mistaken about this snake in the grass? Those were great days in ‘thirty-six and ‘thirty-seven, when they had chopped off so many heads – yet they had let Tito go!

With a groan Stalin let his legs down from the couch, sat up and clutched his head, its slightly reddish hair already turning grey and thinning. He smarted with the utter humiliation of it. Like the hero of legend, Stalin had spent his life cutting off the heads of the Hydra. If the bodies of all his victims had been piled up they would have made more than one Mount Elbruz, yet he had stumbled on a mole-hill – Tito!

Joseph Stalin had met his match in Joseph Broz-Tito...

There is a look beyond Stalin and his repressive machinery. And significantly enough this comes from inside the Mavrino prison through the vision of the caged artist Kondrashov-Ivanov – the eternal idealist to his friends. Gleb Nerzhin, on a visit to the artist’s improvised studio, gets on to discuss with Kondrashov his landscapes which baffled so many because they found them ‘not so much Russian as Caucasian – too grand, too majestic to be Russian’:

‘You could certainly find places like that in Russia’, Nerzhin said with growing certainty. He stood up from the log and walked around examining Strange Morning and other landscapes.

‘Of course you could!’, said the artist excitedly. ‘Not only could you find them in Russia (if we weren’t in prison I could take you to places just like this near Moscow) but you could not find them in the Caucasus. The trouble is that everyone has been taken in by Levitan. Thanks to him we've come to think of our Russian countryside as poor, humble and pleasant in a modest sort of way. But if Russia were really like that, how would you explain our religious fanatics who burnt themselves alive? How would you explain the revolt of the streltsy against Peter the Great? How would you explain Peter himself, the Decembrists, the terrorists like those who assassinated Alexander II?’

‘Or Zhelyabov, or Lenin!’, Nerzhin took him up enthusiastically. ‘Yes, you're right!’

Kondrashov had no need of urging; he was in full flood. His spectacles flashed as he jerked his head round.

‘This Russia of ours is not as tame as it looks! It will not submit! It has never meekly accepted the Tartar yoke! It fights back!’

Nerzhin attempts to relate this to the everyday realities of prison life:

‘I see what you mean’, Nerzhin nodded. ‘Take this ravaged oak of yours – how can people say it’s Caucasian? But think what they can do to us, every one of us, even here in the most enlightened of the prisons...’ He gestured helplessly. ‘Not to mention the camps – why, there they don’t just undermine our dignity: they make us give up the last remnants of our conscience in exchange for 200 grams of black bread.’

Kondrashov-Ivanov appeared to straighten up further, to stretch himself to his full, considerable height.

‘Never! Never!’, he cried, looking onwards and upwards like Egmont as he was being led to the block. ‘No prison camp should ever destroy a man’s dignity!’

‘Perhaps it shouldn’t – but it does. You haven’t been in a prison camp, so you can’t judge. You don’t know the way they grind our bones to powder in those camps. People go there as themselves but when they come out again – if they come out again – they are so different that they are unrecognisable. Environment determines consciousness, as we all know.’

Kondrashov-Ivanov does not agree. Nerzhin was ‘calmly convinced that his own hard-won experience was superior to the fantastic imaginings of this eternal idealist, but he could not help admiring the strength of his conviction’. Yet if Nerzhin was right there cannot be hope. Can environment reduce the pure white rose to wedlock with the black toad? And there is Kondrashov’s question – ‘And why are people different, even though they are thrown together in identical conditions – in the same prison camp, for instance?’ It is this question that Solzhenitsyn closely probes through the characters in Mavrino. Nerzhin himself is the proof that all hope is not lost. The question cannot be simply answered in Kondrashov’s idealistic terms:

‘Man is invested from birth with a certain... essence. It is, as it were, the nucleus of his personality, his ego. The only question is – which determines which? Is man formed by life or does he, if he has a strong enough personality, shape life around him?’

He suddenly lowered his voice and bent down towards Nerzhin who had settled down again on the log: ‘... because he has something against which to measure himself. Because he can look at an image of perfection, which at rare moments manifests itself to his inward ego.’

But the truth is somewhere close to this, for if it were not so there could not have been a Lenin and his achievement. And this can be the starting point for innumerable other questions too arising from the Russian Revolution. Why did Stalin take a particular turn and why did the rest of the Old Bolsheviks not go with him? Why did Leon Trotsky fight Stalin uncompromisingly and why did Zinoviev and Kamenev compromise with Stalin? If it were the circumstances of the Russian Revolution that brought forth a Stalin, what made Stalin succumb to these circumstances? These are not questions directly posed by Solzhenitsyn, but with the new type of student of Russian history there cannot be an acceptance of the falsification of history. Nerzhin, himself a mathematician, says:

‘Don’t tell me that the people who could discover the neutrino and weigh Sirius Beta, without being able to see them, can’t take an intelligent view of simple human problems. What are we mathematicians and scientists to do if you historians don’t study history any longer? I know who the people are who win prizes and get fat academic salaries. They don’t write history, they just lick a certain part of a certain person’s anatomy. So we scientists have to study history for ourselves.’

Yet when Nerzhin refuses to collaborate with the Stalinist system and chooses an inevitable return to the labour camps, does he have the satisfaction of being able to ‘shape life around him’, however strong his personality? No Russian intellectual with a knowledge of history can accept this position of Kondrashov’s with equanimity. The history of men who led the Revolution is too vivid for that. Trotsky, the leader of the Petrograd insurrection – in the course of the whole Revolution a leader second only to Lenin – the Commissar of War and both builder of the Red Army and architect of victory in the Civil War, fought Stalin uncompromisingly, but to what extent was he able to exert the force of his personality thereafter?

Thus what might appear to be merely a question of academic interest takes major significance in the Russian context and even gets tied most vitally to the future of the Revolution itself. It is the exploration of this theme that forms the core of the book and it can well be the subject of ‘socialist realism’ itself, if this term can include within it Kondrashov’s concept of art:

‘But, good God’, Rubin protested, ‘where will you end up if you paint things as they ought to be? That way you can turn people into angels or devils, or stand them on pedestals. Surely, if you paint a portrait of Potapov here, you should show him as he is.’

‘What does this mean: show him as he is?’, Kondrashov came back at him. ‘Of course there must be some external resemblance in the features, the shape of the eyes, the colour of the hair and so forth. But isn’t it rash to believe that we can see and know reality exactly as it is – particularly when it is a question of the spirit? Who can perceive the spirit? But if I look at the person whose portrait I am painting and discern potential qualities of mind or character which he hasn’t so far shown in life, why shouldn’t I depict them? What’s wrong in helping a man to find his higher self?’

‘That’s pure socialist realism!’, said Nerzhin, clapping his hands. ‘The Deputy Minister doesn’t realise how lucky he is to have you here.’

A moment later Kondrashov adds:

‘And I'll tell you something else. Perhaps the most important thing about painting portraits, or about communicating with people in any other way, is that you can actually bring out the best in a person by seeing it in him and identifying it.’

In a sense this is what is achieved by Solzhenitsyn in The First Circle. What matters is not the immediate result of Nerzhin’s action in refusing to collaborate. As an isolated act it can effect no material change. But without the moral fibre displayed in that act, nothing can change for the better. This is an approach to what is displayed in a picture painted by Kondrashov:

... above and to the left a pale grey horse was coming out of the forest, ridden by a man in helmet and cape. Unafraid of the abyss the horse had raised its foreleg before taking the final step, prepared at its rider’s command to gather itself and jump over a leap that was well within its power. But the rider was not looking at the chasm that faced the horse. Dazed, wondering, he was looking into the middle distance, where the upper reaches of the sky were suffused with an orange-gold radiance which might have been from the sun or from something else even more brilliant hidden from view by a castle. Its walls and turrets growing out of the ledges of the mountainside, visible also from below through the gap between the crags, between the ferns and trees, rising to a needle-point at the top of the picture – indistinct in outline, as though woven from gently shimmering clouds, yet still vaguely discernible in all the details of its unearthly perfection, enveloped in a shining and lilac-coloured aureole – stood the castle of the Holy Grail.

Holy Grail has associations both Christian and pre-Christian. The failure of Perceval to ask, for fear of asking questions, the necessary question from the Fisher King who lies wounded through his thighs (a negation of fertility) and the consequent dooming of that land to widowhood and waste; the quest thereafter for the opportunity that was lost – these all have relevance to Solzhenitsyn’s theme. But unlike in the chronicles of old, neither the themes nor the acts are to be in terms of knight-errantry. The absence of heroics is also significant. In political perspective Solzhenitsyn does not appear to go beyond what was implicit in the Khrushchev ethos – the break with the more obvious aspects of Stalinism. His concern is with the qualities of character that can achieve this reverence. To this extent the book is no mere indictment of Stalinist society. Through the conflicts of personality within this society he shows the qualities that have led society to succumb to Stalinism, and those qualities which lead to the regeneration of that society. In effect this is ‘helping a man to find his higher self’.

Even in the depressed world of the women-students there is the flickering of a certain goodness which cannot easily be overcome. Musa, a graduate student of the Moscow University, reflects when invited to be a police informer:

How could she write about the elements of Hamlet and Don Quixote in the human character, knowing all the time that she was an informer, that she had an agent’s cover-name – some carefully nondescript pseudonyms like ‘Sweetheart’ or ‘Rover’, a name suitable for a dog – and that she had to supply information on these girls, or on her professor...

Evil first enters her world in gangster fashion:

That Friday evening, back from the library and planning to go to bed early, she had been called into the hostel office and told to go into an adjoining room. Sitting there were two men in plain-clothes who began by being very polite, introducing themselves as Nikolai Ivanovich and Sergei Ivanovich. Unconcerned by the lateness of the time of day, they had kept her for an hour, then two, then three. At first they questioned her on the people she lived with, then on those she worked with (although they naturally knew all this as well as she did). They talked to her at length about patriotism, about how it was the duty of a member of a learned profession not to shut himself up in an ivory tower but to put all his abilities at the service of society. All this was true enough and Musa could find nothing objectionable in it. Then the two men had suggested that she should ‘help’ them, by meeting one of them at certain agreed times in this office, or at the Party reading-room, or in one or the University club-rooms, where she would have to answer various questions or tell them what she had been able to observe.

Then began the most protracted and terrible part of the whole interview. Their manner became more and more rude and they shouted at her things like: ‘Stop being so obstinate! We're not a foreign intelligence agency trying to recruit you!’ ‘She'd be as much use to a foreign spy-ring as a fifth leg on a horse!’ At this point they threatened quite openly that if she did not do as they said she would not be allowed to present her thesis (she was in the final stage of her work, which had to be finished by June, and her thesis was almost ready) and her career would be ruined, because the country had no need of people who refused to behave like responsible citizens. This frightened her very much; she quite believed that they might easily have her expelled from the university. It was then that one of them took out a pistol and as they passed it back and forth between them it was aimed, as though casually, at Musa. The effect on her of the pistol was, however, the exact opposite of what was intended. She ceased being frightened because the thought of being shot alarmed her less than the prospect of being dismissed from the university with an adverse report. At one o'clock in the morning they had let her go, giving her till Tuesday to think it over – till this coming Tuesday, 27 December – and had made her promise to keep the subject of her interview strictly secret. They had assured her that they knew about everything that went on and if she discussed this talk with anyone, her signature on this document meant that she would be arrested and sent for trial.

Musa knows that she has no hope ‘because these men never gave up and never left you alone’. But she decides that she cannot give in either. Within the brief recollection by Musa of this episode are all the strands of Solzhenitsyn’s central theme. Hers is still the private world of a child:

Her father and mother still loved each other like two newlyweds and every morning on his way to work her father would continually look round until he turned the corner and wave to her mother who would wave back to him through the open window. Their daughter loved them with equal devotion and there was no one in the world closer to her than her ageing parents.

It is from this world that she derives the honesty and thereby the strength to resist the world of these gangsters. Her values are clear and though not sophisticated are unerringly right. She accepts her duties to society but instinctively refuses to accept a perverted interpretation of such duties. And all around her is a world that departs from her own basic honesty. There is, for instance, Ludmilla, who by her chatter reveals another world just at the time Musa is immersed in her own thoughts:

Ludmilla finished her story about her poet by saying that if he did marry her, she had no alternative but to give a physically convincing performance of being a virgin and she started to describe how she proposed to do this on her wedding night.

And against Musa there is also the world of the Soviet writer with his own intellectually dishonest brand of ‘socialist realism’:

Meanwhile the slender Erica was reading the Selected Works of Galakhov. This book opened up for her a world of high-minded people, a bright and beautiful world where all troubles were overcome with ease. Galakhov’s heroes never thought twice about their country or sacrificing their lives. Erica was amazed by their strength of character and single-mindedness. She had to admit that when she had belonged to the underground of Admiral Horthy’s Hungary she could never have experienced such remorse over not paying her Komsomol membership dues as did Galakhov’s young Communist while he was blowing up trains behind the enemy lines.

What the Galakhovs have done is to have conditioned the world for the Ivanovichs of the secret service. And in spite of all the pumped-in idealism of the Galakhovs, the secret service which they serve regards people in the cynical manner of Yakanov, the head of research at Mavrino – as swine.

To the hardened world of Mavrino the testing comes not as to the child’s world of Musa making her feel as though she has been smeared with something dirty and obscene. Musa can resist whilst she has still an apparent freedom of choice. But what will be her choice if she has to choose between the return to a labour camp and being allowed to stay in Mavrino at the price of giving in? Isaac Kagan, who outside prison had been in charge of stores in a factory, kept on putting off the MGB when they pestered him to become an informer. Finally, when the MGB got him into prison on trumped-up charges, they had also succeeded in exploiting the conditions there to get him to be a paid informer. And this, to his bunk neighbour’s astonishment: ‘Isaac, Isaac, what a swine you are. You once refused thousands to do this sort of thing and now a couple of hundred is enough to buy you.’

It is in these test-tube conditions that the rest of them in Mavrino are also tested. To a man like Bobynin it is perhaps not so difficult to withstand the test, as he unflinchingly tells the Minister of State Security, Abakumov:

Abakumov could put thunder in his voice and knew how to frighten people with it, but in this case he felt it would be ineffectual and undignified. He could see that this prisoner was a tough nut, so he merely said:

‘Listen, don’t go too far just because I choose to be polite to you...’

‘If you were rude to me I wouldn’t talk to you at all. You can shout at your colonels and your generals as much as you like because they've got plenty to lose.’

‘We can deal with your sort too if we have to.’

‘No you can’t.’ Bobynin’s piercing eyes flashed with hatred. ‘I've got nothing see? Nothing! You can’t touch my wife and child – they were killed by a bomb. My parents are dead. I own nothing in the world except a handkerchief. These denims and this underwear – which hasn’t even got any buttons’ – he bared his chest to show what he meant – ‘is government issue. You took my freedom away a long time ago and you can’t give it back to me because you haven’t got it yourself. I'm forty-two years old. You gave me twenty-five years. I've done hard labour, I know what it is to have a number instead of a name, to be handcuffed, to be guarded by dogs, to work in a punitive brigade – what more can you do to me? Take me off this special project? You'd be the loser. I need a smoke.’

Abamukov opened a box of special ‘Troika’ cigarettes and pushed it towards Bobynin:

‘Have some of these.’

‘Thanks, I prefer my own. Anything else makes me cough.’ He took a ‘Belomar’ from his home-made case. ‘You can tell old You-know-who – up there – that you only have power over people so long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you've robbed a man of everything he’s no longer in your power – he’s free again.’

Bobynin said no more, absorbed in smoking. He was enjoying baiting the Minister and lounging in this comfortable armchair. He only regretted having refused those luxury cigarettes just to produce an effect.

Yet, as Bobynin realises, so long as he is willing to immerse himself in his work he is needed in Mavrino, to save Abakumov from Stalin; he can therefore afford to sit on Abakumov and even to lecture him. Besides, as he says, he hasn’t on him the pressures that are on some of the other prisoners. The physicist Gerasimovich, for instance, has just heard from his wife the misery in which she is and the urgency with which she wants him to work for a reduction of the three years he still has to spend in prison. In the half-hour visit that had been allowed she asks him whether by his work he can get his period reduced:

He shook his head:

‘Not a hope! They've never done it here, as you well know. If you invent something big – then they free you sooner. But the trouble is that the research we're doing here’, and he glanced at the warder’s back, ‘is, well, very objectionable.’

He tells her that he has only three more years to go:

‘Only three...’

‘Only three!’ She stopped him angrily, feeling her voice tremble, and losing control of it. ‘Only three? Only, you say! You could get out straight away, but the research is ‘very objectionable’ is it? You're among friends and you're doing the work you like. Nobody pushes you around, but I've been sacked, I've got nothing to live on. I won’t get a job anywhere. I can’t go on! I'm at the end of my tether. I won’t last another month! I might as well die. The neighbours treat me like dirt – they've thrown my trunk out of the hall and pulled down a shelf I've put on the wall. They know I daren’t say a word, because they can have me thrown out of Moscow! I've stopped going to see my sisters and my aunt Zheniya – they all jeer at me and they say they've never heard of such a fool. They keep on telling me to divorce you and remarry. When is all this going to end? Just look at me! I'm thirty-seven years old. In three years I'll be an old woman. I come home and I don’t make myself dinner; I don’t clean the room – I haven’t the heart. I just flop down on the couch and lie there like a log. I beg you, my darling, please do something to get out earlier. You're clever, invent something for them. You must save me.’

This is the extreme pain of a woman who was so much part of him. The very next day there comes the answer to his wife’s prayer. Oskolupov, a Major-General and senior official of the Ministry of State Security, wants to take him away from his television work and put him on to perfecting a camera for use at night, working on infrared rays, and a tiny camera to be fitted into a door jamb so that every time the door opens it photographs the person going through.

He had only to do like Bobr: invent a device that would put a couple of hundred unsuspecting fools behind bars in his place. But Gerasimovich, after a few moments of anguish, refuses:

He could keep quiet. He could cover himself. He could accept the job like any other prisoner, and then drag it out, not do it. But Gerasimovich rose and looked with scorn at the bloated belly, fat cheeks, blunt snout and general’s hat.

‘No, it’s not in my line!’ His voice rose to a shrill squeak. ‘Putting people in prison is not my line! I'm not a fisher of men. There are more than enough of us in prison as it is...’

Here too, like in Nerzhin’s decision, there is no apparent heroism about it. Nor is he drawn on an heroic scale. He is the short little man with the pince-nez on his nose. Nor does the mean thought escape his own mind that his wife was no longer pretty. What distinguishes him is that in that very moment he can have more ennobling thoughts too:

No other woman in the world was so much part of him, or so closely intertwined with all his memories. No young girl, however pretty and fresh, but whose brief experience of life was a closed book to him, could ever mean more to him than his wife.

His decision, although one which resolves a major crisis in his life, is a simple one which a normal human being should be able to make if he is conscious of the difference between good and evil, not merely at an intellectual level but as part of his very being. An easy way out – to take on the job and not do it – is open to him but he does not choose to tread that path. ‘I am no fisher of men’ is not mere biblical rhetoric; it is indicative of his complete spiritual understanding of the situation. What Bobynin realises is the strength of his position in the Mavrino set-up – hence his heroics and even the slight touch of bombast. Gerasimovich’s is spiritual realisation; the simplicity is one which issues from a complete clarity of vision.

What is lacking in Rubin, the avowed Communist, and Sologdin, the non-Marxist, is this clarity of vision. Rubin’s plight is the worse because his allegiance not only to the social order but even to the ruling system imposed on it is total and acknowledged. Yet it is to this man that the rest of the prisoners turn when they want someone to jibe at those persons who have reduced them to the fantastic situation in which they are. And it is he who by his play-acting shows the sardonic monstrousness of a Stalinist purge trial. The accused chosen to be tried is Prince Igor, who, as Sologdin resentfully recounts to himself, was ‘one of the glorious figures of Russian history, the very flower of the great age of chivalry’. The mock trial starts with Rubin setting the stage:

‘You will learn who we are going to try in the course of the proceedings themselves’, explained Rubin, who had not yet decided who it should be. ‘If you don’t mind, I will be the prosecutor, inasmuch as this is an office which has always aroused very special feelings in me.’ (Everyone at Mavrino knew that Rubin had been dealt with by prosecutors who had seemed to have a personal grudge against him and that for the past five years he had vainly been trying to appeal to the Military Prosecutor-General.) ‘Gleb! You be the judge and pick three jurymen – impartial, objective and all that – in other words, ready to obey your slightest whim.’

In the Prosecutor’s opening speech is made the charge of betrayal – a charge made without the slightest basis of fact against most of these prisoners who had fought in the Second World War and had been captured by or had surrendered to the Germans during the worst episodes of the war:

‘An investigation has shown that the said Igor, son of Svyastoslav, holding high command in the glorious Russian army with the rank of prince, has proved to be a base traitor to his country, his treason consisting in the fact that he did voluntarily surrender to the sworn enemy of our people, the Polovtsian Khan Konchak; and furthermore did cause to surrender his son Vladimir as well as his brother and his nephew and the whole of his army with all the weapons and equipment in his charge.’

The charge of foreign agent is also made against the Prince: and this is a charge that had been made, through a diabolical process of reasoning, against these prisoners too:

‘Here, in fact, we have the ultimate in cynicism which reveals the irrefutable guilt of the accused – I refer to his so-called escape from captivity and his “voluntary” return to his country! Who would believe that a man who has been offered “gold and any horse thou wilt” would abandon all that and voluntarily return home? How could he possibly do a thing like that?’

It was just this sort of question that had been put to returning Russian prisoners of war. Spiridon, for instance, had been asked: ‘Why should you want to come home if you hadn’t been recruited as a foreign spy?’

‘There can, surely be only one explanation: Prince Igor was recruited by the Polovtsian intelligence service and sent back to undermine the Kievan state...!’

And ironically enough it is this same Rubin who is already collaborating with the prosecutors for an equally fantastic spy trial – the trial of Professor Dobrumov, who was warned by Volodin. Rubin had just completed the preliminary work in identifying, through a new process, Volodin’s voice along with that of another as the voice which could have given the warning to the Professor over the telephone.

After this identification Rubin could even admire the new apparatus he has made for Stalin:

The job in hand was ideal for testing the efficiency of the apparatus. Filled with triumph as its creators, Roitman and Rubin leaned back and surveyed the future. Already they could see the day when an elaborate organisation, similar to that for finger-printing, would exist: a central register, with the recorded voices of all who had ever been suspected. Every criminal’s talk would be filed and the villain caught as surely as the burglar whose prints are on the safe.

This is the particular blindness of Rubin. As is shown in the mock-trial he can very objectively assess the grim forces that brought himself and his fellow prisoners to their present plight; but he fails to see that in his work he is only perpetuating and strengthening these very forces.

This weakness is not because Rubin remains a communist. Sologdin, who would like to question the validity of the fundamental laws of Marxist thinking, himself collaborates with Stalin in making the blueprint for the secret service apparatus known as the ‘scrambler’. Rubin does his share as part of his duty and Sologdin does his in the very process of fighting the system to which he owes no allegiance. In spite of their apparent differences there is the same fatal weakness in both. Their relationship to each other brings to the surface this weakness. Each of them believed that he ‘already had his own ultimate truth’ and in their intellectual antagonism this truth goes to pieces but each survives on the rubble that is left. To the communist and ex-Komsomol man society is, at least at an intellectual level, supermost. He identifies Stalinism itself as part of the collectivism and selflessness of the proletariat as a class, and to that society he owes his allegiance. Sologdin rejects society and the fate of it does not concern him:

‘Society?’ Sologdin looked quite astonished. ‘For as long as I can remember I have been in prison, not in society! I have always had nothing but barbed wire and warders round me. As a matter of plain fact, I'm cut off from the world outside, and shall be for ever, so why should I prepare myself to become part of society?’

To him only ‘outstanding individuals, shining forth like lonely stars in the dark firmament of our existence, could embody the higher meaning of life’.

Rubin’s emersion of himself in his own concept of society and Sologdin’s anti-society attitude are both intellectualised ways of evading the truth about themselves. Once the two get away from the well-laid rules of argument they each in his emotional involvement flings to the other at least something of the truth about him. Referring to the jailers, Sologdin tells Rubin that Shikin and Mishin are his soul-mates and goes on to explain:

‘At any rate’, he continued, ‘it would be quite logical for you to be on their side. If our jailors are working for a just cause, then it’s your duty to help them as much as you can...’

Rubin in turn tells Sologdin that if he had a chance of working and distinguishing himself he would crawl on his belly and earn its reward.

What Rubin does is in keeping with the characterisation of himself by Sologdin. And Sologdin too, although he does not crawl on his belly, comes to terms with the system. Both Rubin and Sologdin try to live by rules externally imposed on them. Rubin’s rules are those of the system, whilst Sologdin’s are self-imposed – such as his language rules by which he studiously avoids foreign words and his ‘self-discipline’ by which he tries to suppress his physical need for the free worker Larisa. In the same way that the mock trial momentarily releases Rubin from the Stalinist system, Larisa’s closeness to Sologdin on the first day that they are alone in the cubicle catches the latter with his pants down.

It is in the Rubin – Nerzhin counter-position that Solzhenitsyn probes the intellectual’s attitude to the degeneration of the Revolution. Rubin sees Stalin as the Robespierre and the Napoleon of the Revolution – terms precisely understood in a Russia which debated the pros and cons of its achievement in terms of the French Revolution. He is the dogmatist who sees that ‘everything is conditioned by immutable laws and goes exactly the way it should’ to the extent that he can defend Stalin’s repressive measures of which he himself is a victim:

‘Dogma? Don’t be such a fool! How could I be a dogmatist?’ Rubin’s big warm eyes glared at him reproachfully. ‘I'm a prisoner like you – we were both picked up in ‘forty-five. I had four years at the front – as the piece of shrapnel in my side reminds me. I've done five years in prison. So I can see just as clearly as you. What must be, must be. The state can’t exist without an elaborate penal system.’

Nerzhin recognises this dogmatism of Rubin’s and has his own method of fighting intellectually the degenerative process rather than accept it. To the charge of Rubin that his is a corrupting scepticism, Nerzhin says:

‘Don’t think for a minute, Lev, that scepticism comes easily to me. For me it is like a roadside shelter where I can sit out the bad weather. It’s a long way of ridding the mind of dogma – that’s its value.’

To dogma he opposes his own observation:

‘Better to trust your own eyes. Listen, when I was still only a kid I started to read his [Stalin’s] books after I'd read Lenin’s, and I just couldn’t get through them. Lenin is to the point, so full of feeling and so precise, and then I came on to this mush. Everything Stalin says is so crude and stupid – he always misses the most important point.’

‘You made this discovery when you were still a kid?’

‘When I was in the last year at school. You don’t believe me? Neither did my interrogator... but I'm driven crazy by his oracular style – and the condescending way he has of laying down the law. He really seems to believe that he is the cleverest man in the country...’

‘But he is!’

‘... and that he makes us happy just by allowing us to admire him.’

Rubin spent his childhood and youth believing all the Stalinist propaganda and being motivated by it even though in the process he had to denounce his cousin as a collaborator with the Workers Opposition, at a time when such denunciation had no relevance. Nerzhin’s attitudes from childhood were different:

Gleb had managed to grow up without reading any of the usual boys’ books, but he had been twelve when he had opened the huge pages of Izvestiya, with which he could have covered himself from head to foot, and had read about a trial of some engineers who had been accused of sabotage. The young Gleb did not believe a word of it: he did not know why, he could not give a rational explanation for it, but he saw quite clearly that it was all a pack of lies. Several of his friends’ fathers were engineers and he simply could not imagine people like that sabotaging things; their job was building things.

At thirteen and fourteen Gleb did not run out to play when he had done his homework but sat down to read the newspapers. He knew the names and positions of all the Party leaders, all the commanders of the Red Army, all the Soviet ambassadors abroad and all the foreign ambassadors in Moscow. He read all the speeches at Party congresses, all the memoirs of old Bolsheviks and the successive histories of the Party – of which there had been several, all different. In the fourth class in school they were already being told about the rudiments of political economy, and in the fifth grade they had a civics lesson nearly every day. Somebody gave him Lenin’s To the Memory of Herzen and he read it avidly.

Either because his young mind was still fresh or because he read other things besides newspapers, he could clearly detect the falsity in all the inordinate gushing praise of one man, always that one man. If he was so perfect, did that mean that everybody else was no good? This seemed so unlikely to Gleb that he could not bring himself to share in the general enthusiasm. Gleb had been only in the tenth class at school when he pushed his way to the newspaper kiosk one December morning and read that Kirov had been murdered, and he suddenly felt, in a flash, that the murderer was none other than Stalin – because only Stalin stood to gain by it. In the midst of the jostling crowd of grown-ups, who did not understand this simple truth, he felt desperately lonely. Soon dozens, then hundreds of old Bolsheviks, the men who had made the Revolution and whose lives were identified with it, began disappearing into oblivion: some of them, without waiting to be arrested, took poison in their city apartments, others hanged themselves in their country villas; but most of them just let themselves be arrested and inexplicably confessed in courts, heaping abuse on themselves at inordinate length and saying they had worked for every intelligence service in the world. It was so excessive, so crude, so farfetched that you had to be stone-deaf not to hear the sound of the lies. Surely people could hear them? Yet Russian writers, who dared to speak of themselves as the heirs of Pushkin and Tolstoy, lauded the tyrant with cloying panegyrics, and the Russian composers, trained at the great Moscow Conservatoire, vied with each other to lay their sycophantic hymns of praise at his feet.

The traumatic nature of the Kirov assassination and the use Stalin made of it is not surprising. Isaac Deutscher in his life of Trotsky, The Prophet Outcast, gives the effect of the Kirov affair as:

On 1 December, Sergei Kirov, who had nine years earlier replaced Zinoviev as the head of the Leningrad organisation and in the Politbureau, was assassinated. The first official version claimed that a body of White Guard conspirators stood behind Nikolaev, the assassin; and that a Latvian consul had pulled the wires – there was no question of any inner-party opposition being involved. A second version, however, described the assassin as a follower of Zinoviev and Kamenev and made no mention of White Guards. Nikolaev and fourteen other young men, all Komsomoltsy, were executed. Zinoviev and Kamenev were expelled from the Party for the third time; they were imprisoned, and awaited trial by a court martial. Press and radio linked Trotsky with Zinoviev and Kamenev and assailed him as the real instigator. A mass terror was let loose against ‘Kirov’s Assassinators’, Trotskyists, Zinovievists and disgruntled Stalinists; many thousands were deported to concentration camps. Finally several high officers of the Leningrad GPU were charged with ‘neglect of duty’ and sentenced, with surprising mildness, to two or three years.

This is the anti-Stalinist intellectual background of Nerzhin, He was too young to remember the anti-Stalinist struggle in the ‘twenties – the period when the struggle was conducted on clear political perspectives. The tragedy of the Nerzhins is that. Denied the benefit of these revolutionary traditions which would have proved an adequate theoretical base from which to fight Stalinism, they have to start from first principles. Hence the inward turn and all the soul-searching.

His development is in fact the only possible line of development, in these circumstances, open to the honest Russian intellectual. Solzhenitsyn calls it the evolution of Nerzhin’s ideas:

With its anguished concern for the peasants, Russian nineteenth-century literature had created for him, as for its other readers, the image of a venerable, grey-haired People which embodies wisdom, moral purity and greatness.

But this had been something remote, existing in books, somewhere in the villages, fields and by-ways of the nineteenth century. When the heavens unfolded on the twentieth century, these places had long ago ceased to exist in Russia.

There was no old Russia, but something called the Soviet Union, in which there was a great city, where Gleb had grown up, enjoying all the benefits which flowed from the cornucopia of science. He had been blessed with a quick intelligence, but he soon found that there were others even more intelligent and depressingly more learned than he was. The People at that time still only existed in books, and, as he then saw it, nobody mattered unless he was highly educated and had an all-round knowledge of history, science and art. It seemed obvious to him that unless you were numbered among that élite, you were a miserable failure.

The next phase is a recoiling from this élite and a turning to the People:

Then Nerzhin had been arrested, and very soon, numbed by this first deadly experience of prisons and camps, he was horrified to discover a very different side to the ‘élite’. In conditions where only courage, strength of character and loyalty to friends made a man and could decide the fate of a comrade, these delicate, sensitive, highly-educated persons, with their love of the beautiful, often proved to be craven cowards, very good at finding excuses for their own despicable behaviour and turning into wheedling, two-faced traitors. Nerzhin could only barely see himself as not being like them, and he recoiled from these people among whom he had not long ago thought it honourable to be numbered. He now had nothing but scorn and hatred for those he had once venerated, and he had determined to rid himself of his intellectual’s sophistication, his genteel and simpering mannerisms. At this time of abysmal defeat, with his life in ruins, Nerzhin came to feel that the only people who mattered were those who ploughed the land and forged the steel, or worked wood and metal with their own hands. He wanted to learn the wisdom of their skilled hands and make their philosophy of life his own. And so he came back full circle to the fashionable idea of the previous century about ‘going among the people’.

Prison has its privileges too. A development which can be spread over several years can in the severe conditions of prison life be effected in a comparatively short time. Made to do his work quota side by side with these very People, he gained the closest understanding of them too:

The brutal education of camp life had destroyed yet another of his illusions: he understood that he had reached rock bottom – beyond this there was nothing and nobody – and that the People possessed no advantage, no great home-spun wisdom. Sitting in the snow with them, on orders from the guards, hiding with them from the foreman in some corner of a building site, carrying bricks in the bitter cold, and drying footcloths with them in the prison huts, Nerzhin saw clearly enough that these people were in no way superior to him. They did not stand up to hunger and thirst any better than he, and they were not less daunted by the grim prospect of ten years in prison. They were no more resourceful in the face of such crises as transfers to another prison or inspections – though they were, if anything, more apt to be taken in by informers. They were also more liable to fall for the blatant lies told by the authorities and they naively waited for the amnesty which Stalin never gave them – he would sooner have died. If some brute of a camp officer happened to be in a good mood and smiled at them, they smiled back, and they were much more eager for small material things: for instance, the sour millet cake, occasionally given as an ‘extra’, or a pair of unsightly prison trousers if they looked a little newer or brighter. Few of them had the sort of beliefs for which they would have willingly sacrificed their lives.

It is not that a person like the prisoner Spiridon, who comes from the People, has nothing to offer. He, for instance, has an inner being that is not corrupted – but it is a being that is untouched by the significance of the things happening around him. Attached to his land and his family, his homely wisdom is rooted in these and he cannot see beyond them. Yet he supports the final solution Nerzhin comes to – simply to be oneself. Spiridon is a man whose actions are guided by his inner being – although that being has all the limitations of its environment. He marches under the red flag in the workers’ demonstrations of 1917, rushes back to the village to get his share of the land when land was being distributed, fights during the time of the Civil War on the side both of the White Guards and the Red Guards – depending on which set of guards is in control of the area in which his land and family are – strives to become a kulak during the NEP and Stalin’s right incline, and exerts himself under Government orders in herding the kulaks into the new collectives during Stalin’s sharp turn to the left. The same interests guide him during the Second World War – complacently looking after his own interests even when he is forced to collaborate with the Germans behind their lines. In prison too he lives true to character.

When Nerzhin in his retrospective moments recalls his avid boyhood reading of Lenin’s In Memory of Herzen the direction of his ideas is clear. Preoccupied as he is with the hour’s need of men of character, this passage of Lenin could not have got erased from his own memory:

Herzen belonged to the generation of revolutionaries among the nobility and landlords of the first half of the last century. The nobility gave Russia the Birons and Arakcheyevs, innumerable ‘drunken officers, bullies, gamblers, heroes of fairs, masters of hounds, roisterers, floggers, pimps’, as well as amiable Manilovs. ‘But’, wrote Herzen, ‘among them developed the men of 14 December, a phalanx of heroes reared, like Romulus and Remus, on the milk of a wild beast... They were veritable titans, hammered out of pure steel from head to foot, comrades-in-arms who deliberately went to certain death in order to awaken the young generation to a new life and to purify the children born in an environment of tyranny and servility. [3]

Nerzhin’s final sacrifice is for the purpose of awakening the young generation to a new life.

Men like Adamson, also a prisoner in Mavrino, sees Nerzhin’s generation in a different light:

Thus it seemed to Adamson that none of these people in the room was remotely comparable to those giants like himself who at the end of the ‘twenties had chosen deportation to Siberia rather than retract what they had said at Party meetings – this was all they had to do to continue leading a life of relative comfort – and it was up to each of them to decide for himself. They had all refused to accept anything that distorted or dishonoured the Revolution and were ready to sacrifice their lives to make it pure again. But now there was this young generation, who, thirty years after the October Revolution, came to prison swearing obscenely like peasants, and saying things for which, during the Civil War, they would have been shot.

Nerzhin shares with these giants, even though in his own little way, the conscious decision to be sent to a Siberian camp rather than compromise himself. Hope for the Revolution lies here. Adamson’s own generation had gone through too much and had been crushed so completely by the juggernaut of Stalinist reaction to retain any more its idealism:

And though somewhere deep inside him he maintained a lively and indeed acutely sensitive interest in the world and in the fate of the doctrine on the altar of which he had offered up his life, outwardly he had trained himself to be totally contemptuous of everything around him. This was why Adamson, who had managed to survive all these years without being shot or otherwise done to death, now read from preference not books which might give inspiration but only books which amused him and helped make his endless sentence seem a little shorter.

Adamson too, even though in prison, had paid the price for his survival. Those who kept on their protest paid for it with their lives.

The Adamsons and the Nerzhins, though separated by a generation, have still an historical perspective, backed by living experience that has some proximity to the Revolution. But with the Stalinist falsification of history the new generation to which Ruska (Doronin) and Clara belong has to view the problems which are both the cause and the result of Stalinism, outside their proper historical context. In this context the initial matter on which Ruska was picked up by the secret police – fishing with the Americans – is perhaps a piece of unconscious symbolism on the part of Solzhenitsyn. What they see is the corruption all round with no way out. This, for instance, is what Ruska sees as a kid:

‘Very well, then. In that case, why are people still so keen on privilege? And how can you talk about me? I was just a kid – I could only go by what I saw grown-ups doing – and it was really something, believe me! In the small town in Kazakhstan where I worked for a while do you think the wives of the local bigwigs ever went to the ordinary shops? Never! I remember once being sent to the house of the local Party Secretary to deliver a crate of macaroni. A whole crate – it had never been opened. You can bet this wasn’t the first time – or the last!’

Clara shows an equally innocent awakening to the life around her:

Trying not to be too indiscreet (it was a state secret after all) nor to reveal the extent of her sympathy with them, Clara told him she was working with political prisoners, who had been described to her as hirelings of imperialism, but who on closer acquaintance had turned out to be quite different. What really worried her and what she wanted Alyosha to tell her was: could some of them be innocent?

He listened carefully and replied calmly:

‘Yes, of course. That’s inevitable under any penal system.’

‘But Alyosha! That means “they” can do what they want! How terrible!’

Alyosha placed his pink, long-fingered hand caressingly on Clara’s clenched fist, which was resting on the red plush of the edge of the box.

‘No!’, he said in a mild but emphatic voice. ‘Who do you mean by they?’ Nobody can do just what they want. Only history does what it wants. That sometimes seems appalling to people like you and me, but Clara, you have to face the fact that there is a law of big numbers. The bigger the scope of some historical development, the greater the probability of particular errors, whether in tactics, or in the field of law, ideology, economics and so forth. We can grasp the overall process, the general trend of events, but the vital thing is to see that it’s both inevitable and necessary...’

As Alyosha’s rationalisation proceeds it sounds increasingly like so much humbug that has no relevance to the human element involved in Clara’s question. It is a mode of reasoning that brings in both complacency and accommodation – a system of apologetics. It inevitably leads to that attitude of mind which Nerzhin detects in Ruska:

Nerzhin himself had put these ideas into Ruska’s head, but now when Ruska threw them back at him, he felt he should protest. With his older friends Gleb talked as though nothing were holy, but he felt some responsibility for this youngster.

‘Let me tell you one thing’, he said very softly, leaning closer to Ruska’s ear. ‘This kind of scepticism, agnosticism, pessimism – whatever you call it – it all sounds very clever and ruthless, but you must understand that by its very nature it dooms us to futility. It’s not a guide to action, and people can’t just stand off, so they must have a set of positive beliefs to show them the way.’

‘Even if they land in a swamp? Anything just to keep going, you mean?’, Ruska asked angrily.

‘Well, yes... damn it all!’, said Gleb, a little unsure of himself. ‘Look, I think scepticism is very important – it’s a way of getting at people with one-track minds. But it can never give man the feeling that he’s got firm ground under his feet. And perhaps it’s what we need – firm ground under our feet.’

When Nerzhin makes his choice it is apparent that there has been on his part a groping towards such firm ground. It rests not so much on the soundness of any theoretical approach to the problems involved as on human character, and this too is not necessarily the character that goes into the making of a hero. Nerzhin’s attitude to the invitation to work for Stalin is the same as his attitude to Simochka. In the recesses of the laboratory he wants to have her and with his feelings roused is only prevented by Simochka herself from having his will. But when the day promised by Simochka comes and when Simochka herself comes ready for the event Nerzhin is a changed man, unable to deceive either Simochka or his wife; a brief contact with his wife having in the meantime aroused in the sexually-deprived prisoner a new man to whom it is morally repugnant to seek the easy gratification with Simochka. His other choice too is one at the same level, although its significance can be different.


3. VI Lenin, ‘In Memory of Herzen’, Collected Works, Volume 18.

Chapter IV: Cancer Ward

In Cancer Ward meaning becomes more elusive than in either of the earlier books and this is understandably so. Both One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The First Circle dealt with a period of Stalinism about which there was official reprobation. Cancer Ward deals with the period of the post-Stalin thaw, the hopes raised thereby and the consequent disappointments. Whereas in The First Circle the carefully wrought symbolism is deliberately pointed out, here symbols emerge as a hidden language from situations which would normally pass as single-plane narrative. Kostoglotov, the main character is, for instance, the discharged political prisoner now serving his period of ‘exile in perpetuity’. Gravely ill, he enters a provincial cancer hospital where during his cure there occurs the possibility of intimate relations with two women, each of whom offers him something different. Disappointed, he returns to his exile with his cancerous tumour only partially cured. This is the bare framework of the story, but even as framework it has another level of meaning. Kostoglotov represents what has been exiled from Soviet society and to this there can be no return unless this society makes an honest attempt to come to terms with itself. At this level of meaning Cancer Ward is the exploration of the possibilities of the ‘thaw’ and an expression of disappointment over present achievement.

As straightforward symbolism – the method of The First Circle and One Day... – the obvious parallel is drawn by Kostoglotov himself:

For heaven’s sake it was about time! It was long overdue. How could it be otherwise? A man dies from a tumour, so how can a country survive with growths like labour camps and exile?

The treatment that this sick society demands is about the same as is demanded by cancer itself. Radiation therapy is the first that is tried on a patient in this hospital:

The most important, dangerous and little-researched part of it was to check that the radiation doses were correct. There was no formula for calculating the right intensity of a dose, for knowing how much was most lethal for an individual tumour yet least harmful for the rest of the body...

And again:

The sacrum cannot be removed or sawn out. It is the corner-stone of the body. The only thing left was X-ray therapy, which had had to be immediate and in large doses. Small ones would not be any good. And Sibgatov got better! The sacrum strengthened. He recovered, but the doses he'd been given were large enough for a horse, and the surrounding tissue became excessively sensitive, developing a tendency to form new malignant tumours. Now his blood and tissue were refusing to respond to radiotherapy, a new tumour was raging and nothing could be done to defeat it. It could only be contained.

To Solzhenitsyn there is no simple solution to the social malady. Its treatment is as difficult, as complicated and as unforeseeable in its results as the treatment of cancer itself. The success of the treatment can depend on the men and women administrating it and they are persons of differing perceptiveness and sensibility. Nizamutdin Bahramovich, the senior doctor, had his interest only in the statistics. He represents the bureaucracy with vested interests, and with unerring instinct he has gone for administration rather than healing:

The senior doctor viewed his job not as an unremitting, exhausting job, but as a constant opportunity to parade himself, to gain rewards and a whole range of special privileges.

He is both the result of the system as well as its perpetuator. Those who are devoted to the job of healing – the Lev Leonodovichs, the Dontsovas and the Vera Gangarts – open themselves out too much even to the point of neglecting themselves. Cancer will finally destroy them too. Dontsova shows the one limitation of these people – they have given themselves so much to their work that they have failed to see the world outside their work. They don’t know, for instance, the conditions in which the art of healing is practised in labour camps, and are surprised by Kostoglotov’s revelations of it. Lev Leonodovich, who had been working as a doctor in a labour camp, is too much of a machine devoted to his work and has no heart to reach out to the men and women in these camps.

From the hospital context within which these questions are discussed other questions too emerge. The patient’s right to know the treatment, to be consulted, are principles that will apply to Russian society too if it is being put through a course of therapy. As a patient Kostoglotov is not prepared to pay any price for his life, especially when the price will be the after-effects of radiotherapy. In Kostoglotov’s single-handed struggle against this system of treatment in the ward what is implicit is that a greater preparedness to enter into the necessary dialogue with the patient can not only quicken the treatment but can even make it more effective. The Russian political therapists will need to have this specially borne in mind. The cancer of Stalinism cannot be cured by the methods of Stalinism. The patient has a right to be consulted, a right to know the treatment administered.

The patients in the cancer ward get an opportunity of knowing from Kostoglotov that the peasant in Central Russia does not fall a victim to cancer because he takes as his tea the cancer of the birch tree – the birch fungus. It has the effect of a prophylactic. Here too the meaning is clear. There would have been potent within Russian society itself adequate safeguards against Stalinism, but these were not given a chance. Shulibin harks back to one of the points in Lenin’s April Thesis which is that no official should receive a salary higher than the average pay of a good worker, and earlier Kostoglotov bellows at the idea that socialism provides for differentiation in the wage structure:

‘To hell with your differentiation’, Kostoglotov raged, as pig-headed as ever. ‘You think that while we're working towards communism the privileges some have over others ought to be increased, do you? You mean that to become equal we must first become unequal, is that right? You call that dialectics, do you...?’

Here perhaps was the prophylactic, but then Lenin’s lesson was missed.

What this society could not prevent it has now to cure or else it will kill the organism. The treatment within the cancer ward – the best available so far – helps to define Solzhenitsyn’s own political attitude. It is no revolutionary overturn that he is looking forward to because such a turn of events can even be dangerous. Kostoglotov sees the imprisoned animals in the zoo, but there is no desire on his part – even if he had the power – to break into the cages and liberate them. ‘This was because, deprived of their home surroundings, they had lost the idea of rational freedom. It would only make things harder for them, suddenly to see them free.’ Solzhenitsyn accepts the perspective of a long and arduous course of treatment, provided the treatment is honestly administered.

The symbolism develops in other ways too. Rusanov, for instance, is, like Bahramovich, part of the cancerous growth on society and at the same time the cancer has come on him as his punishment. Used to a life of comparative privilege, the Rusanovs believe, even in entering the cancer ward, that privilege must come to them as of right and where this is not forthcoming they do not mind even stooping to purchase it with a bribe. Rusanov believes in his honesty, but at the first opportunity falls victim to what is crooked within him. He starts his life of progress by denouncing fellow-workers, revealing thereby a complete lack of fellow-feeling and moral fibre. The daughter, Aviette, shows a greater refinement than either of the parents, but the vested interests are the same. There is gloomy foreboding when in Rusanov’s most depressed situations – when he fears a physical confrontation with the denounced – Aviette comes to him like a vision (the flash of lightning and all) and reassures him that everything will be alright. She represents the corrupted younger generation that reaffirms the positions of the generation to which the Rusanovs belong. The tragedy is that despite ‘her quivering nostrils and mobile eyebrows that tremble sensitively at every injustice’ she is blind to the massive acts of injustice that have destroyed the élan of her society. She asks:

‘Again, what does rehabilitation actually mean? It can’t mean the man was completely innocent! He must have done something, however trivial.’

A journalist with the ambition of becoming a writer, she has learnt from her literary milieu in Moscow the necessary political opportunism:

‘It’s a shame and a disgrace! Somebody whispered it in the wind, and now it’s blowing all over the place. But though they talk about the “cult of personality,” in the same breath they speak of the “great successor.” So one mustn’t go too far in either direction. Generally speaking, you have to be flexible, you have to be responsive to the demand of the times.’

This is the self-confident child of the Rusanovs. Yuri, the son, is different although the father’s effort was always to build him in his own image. Always condemned by his father as a weakling, Yuri is just back after his first round of official duties. He had suspended the sentence on a truck-driver who had lost a case of macaroni from a truck in a terrible snowstorm. Yuri does not think it was taken by the driver, but that a passer-by had taken it when the driver had gone away to take shelter from the storm. Rusanov thinks otherwise; he cannot escape the conclusion that the driver grabbed his chance to make a quick profit. In his lecture to his son Rusanov lays bare the bureaucratic methodology – the awe inspired by the unshakeable foundation on which the law is based, the application of this law to specific situations bearing in mind the ‘organic interrelationship of all levels and all branches of the state’s machinery’, which is another way of saying that the arbitrary action of the bureaucrat should be accommodated within the law. If the local authorities gave the truck-driver five years, it meant that that was the sentence necessary in the given situation. Yuri must not cross the paths of local officials.

Rusanov does not realise the hypocrisy that is behind this. Respect the law and at the same time be so accommodating as not to question the decisions of local officials. That is how the bureaucracy works and within that Rusanov is a devoted, loyal and hardworking official. Yuri realises that his father’s is a straightforward and one-track mind. But that realisation by itself does not help him. In his new position as a twenty-three-year-old official he finds life even more complicated than he had thought. In his round of inspection he comes across a case of stamps from official records being reused. He dates the two girls who can be held responsible for this in order to find out the real culprit from the display of comforts in each home. He sees that the home of neither girl shows the slightest affluence and that on the contrary they were living in conditions of direst need. Later the girls confess to having taken away the stamps and they are let off lightly. Yuri expects them to thank him and to be genuinely grateful to him, but the girls avoid him. Questioned as to whether she is not happy at the way things went, one girl says she sees no reason to be happy because now she will have to change her job because she will not be able to live by her wages alone. Yuri tries to date the other girl (the prettier of the two) and she replies, ‘No, I like to be honest when I go out with men. I can’t do it the way you do.’ This creates a problem for Yuri:

What should Yuri have done? Refused to spare them? Or said nothing and the fact that the stamps were being reused? But in that case was there any point in his work at all?

There cannot be a simple answer to this question, but it shows at least a quality of mind that is an improvement on Rusanov’s. Whereas Aviette is prepared to accept without question the opportunistic and hypocritical literary jargon of the official coteries, Yuri in his work refuses to do so.

Rusanov represents the cancer that cannot be cured. At the same time the cancer that has afflicted him is his nemesis:

His fate lay there, between his chin and collarbone.

There justice was being done.

And in answer to this justice he could summon no influential friend, no past services, no defence.

Imaginatively, the tumour itself is presented as having relation to one’s conscience:

‘So I wouldn’t be surprised’, Kostoglotov continued, ‘if in a hundred years’ time they discover that our organism excretes some kind of caesium salt when our conscience is clear, but not when it’s burdened, and depends on this caesium salt whether the cells grow into a tumour or whether the tumour resolves.’

To Rusanov stretched on his narrow iron bed, the cancer ward is a place of confrontation. Yefram is the demon and Kostoglotov the scourge. Yefram with his constant harping on death reduces the hardened bureaucrat into a plaintive weakling too frightened to look at the inevitable. Kostoglotov pricks the bubble of his self-esteem and vanity, showing him up for what he is – a spoilt child demanding that which has no basis in legal right or social obligation. His is the attitude of the petty bureaucrat who feels that even the doctors should consider themselves privileged to treat him. But that is an attitude that gets defeated with the slightest show of firmness from the opposing side. In his confrontation with Dontsova he surrenders to treatment that does not show any deference to his privileged position. Kostoglotov drives him to a corner and the very idea of confronting those whom he had denounced (now reportedly rehabilitated) makes him quake with fear. But these retreats induced by fear do not in any way mark a genuine change in attitude. He can see something poetic in the self-devised work he has arranged for himself in the secret service of the factory in which he is employed. The conscience he had lost comes to the surface in his sleep under treatment and presents his entire life as belly-crawling to save his own skin. The moment the nightmare leaves him his conscience too disappears, leaving no trace behind.

Men like Rusanov are those who went the whole length with Stalinism, showing not the slightest compunction either then or now. In the Stalinist purges of 1937 and 1938 he did his own quota of denunciations and was considered a hero for that. Others less guilty have also found their way to the cancer ward. The man who had lost his voice – cancer of the throat – first strikes Kostoglotov as a bank manager or the Premier of some South American country, but later he is revealed as a lecturer in philosophy:

But this philosophy lecturer struck Oleg as a foolish fellow. What did he churn out in his lectures anyway? Perhaps he was just clouding people’s brains? And what was the point of all his philosophy if he was so completely helpless in the face of his illness? But what a coincidence – in the throat, of all places!

Unlike these, Shulibin is one who understood early the part he had to play during these times. From Pushkin he quotes: ‘In our vile times... man was, whatever his element, either tyrant or traitor or prisoner!’, and he sees himself as traitor. Cancer has got him in the anus and he realises what it will reduce him to:

‘My disease is something specially humiliating, specially offensive. The consequences are terrible. If I live – and it is a very big if – simply standing or sitting near me, like you are now, for instance, will be unpleasant. Everyone will do his best to keep two steps away. Even if anyone comes closer I'll be thinking to myself: “You see he can hardly stand it, he’s cursing me.”

‘It means I'll lose the company of human beings.’

He realises what the times did to him. He was among those who were herded into meetings to expose those who were arrested in the purges, to applaud the verdicts against them and to demand ‘as one man’ the firing-squad for them. All these they did because they wanted to live. He dismisses the plea of Kostoglotov on behalf of those who believed in Stalinism and its methods because they did not understand:

‘What sort of man are we talking about’, he continued. ‘Suddenly all the professors and all the engineers turn to be wreckers, and he believes it! The best Civil War divisional commanders turn out to be German and Japanese spies, and he believes it! The whole of Lenin’s old guard are shown up as vile renegades, and he believes it! His own friends and acquaintances are unmasked as enemies of the people, and he believes it! Millions of Russian soldiers turn out to have betrayed their country, and he believes it all! Whole nations, old men, babies, are mown down, and he believes it! Then what sort of man is he, may I ask? He’s a fool. But can there really be a nation of fools? No, you'll have to forgive me. The people are intelligent enough, it’s simply that they wanted to live...’

His own history replete with self-denunciations and retreats – from University lectureship to the position of a ‘small man’ away from danger – is the history of a whole generation. What such a generation has fathered has to be a generation that is blighted. Proshka the young tractor driver has just been discharged from the hospital because he is a hopeless case of tumour of the heart. Dyomka the young turner is in to have his leg amputated. Vadim the student and intellectual has to have his leg cut off right above the groin, and Assia the young athlete is to have her breast cut off. Here then is a generation that can neither properly procreate nor nurture. The creative gift has been denied to it.

The discussion on literature in the ward, sparked off by Aviette’s visit to her father, is no mere discussion of the plight of literature. It symbolises creativity and it too is emasculated. In the mixed metaphor she chooses, Aviette has unconsciously expressed the true state of affairs:

‘What one should do, though, is plough deep to reveal the seedling which are the plants of the future. Otherwise they can’t be seen.’

Seedlings, as Dyomka interjects, have to sprout by themselves – if you plough them over they won’t grow.

With her conception of literature there cannot be creativity. ‘Our literature ought to be wholly festive’, she says. The inevitable path of triviality on which such a conception can take one is shown in the remark of the intellectual Vadim: ‘Literature is to divert us when we are in a bad mood.’

This is the more trenchant part of the book; the other is a sombre assessment of the hopes that arose from the ‘thaw’ and the ultimate disappointment. Kostoglotov, the political exile, drags himself to the cancer hospital an almost dead man. Unlike in the others the hospital has wrought a wonder in him. He tells his doctors: ‘My whole attitude to the world has changed. When I arrived I was a dead. man. Now I'm alive.’

The X-ray bombardment revives his sensual self too. Lying there under the X-ray machinery, with lead-weighted rubber mats covering the lower part of his body, he gets even physical proof of sensuous revival:

He was thinking about Vera Gangart but he was also thinking about Zoya. The strongest memory he had of last night (it had kept on cropping up all morning) was of her neatly supported breasts which formed, as it were, a little shelf, almost horizontal...

He also remembered, with gratitude, the particularly heavy lead-impregnated mat which they had lain on his body just below his stomach. That mat had pressed against him and reassured him cheerfully. ‘I'll protect you, don’t be afraid...’

During these last twelve days Kostoglotov had returned not simply to life – to food, movement and a cheerful disposition – but also to the liveliest feeling in life which in his agony of the last few months he had completely lost. It proved that the lead mat was holding the defences.

Zoya means life and she has the animal too in her – the teddy bear. What happens between her and Kostoglotov in the oxygen room is what might happen between any healthy man and woman:

As a diver snatches a quick breath and plunges back to find the pearl lurking on the ocean bed, they kissed again. But this time he noticed that he'd shut his eyes, and he opened them. Close, unbelievably close he saw two tawny eyes, almost predatory looking, and each of his eyes looked separately into hers. She was kissing with those confidently taut, experienced lips, never letting them go loose, rocking slightly on her feet and gazing at him steadily as though to judge from his eyes how eternity would sentence him.

He can seek his fulfilment with Zoya – but that will be at the casual level at which other young men too seek it both outside her door, and when permitted, inside her room. In that there will be no seeking of the ‘pearl lurking on the ocean bed’ – no assistance to how eternity would sentence him. It is like the oxygen balloon to the libido that is doomed to die within him under the hormone therapy.

Vega – Vera Gangart – to whom Kostoglotov finally and very definitively turns, represents another world. What this is is made clear from his experience in the zoo:

After all that carnivorous coarseness it was a miracle of spirituality: the Nilgai antelope, light brown, on fine, light legs, her head keen and alert but not in the least afraid. It stood close to the wire netting and looked at Oleg with its big trustful and... gentle eyes.

The likeness was so true it was unbearable. She kept her gentle reproachful eyes fixed on him. She was asking him: ‘Why aren’t you coming to see me? Half the day’s gone. Why aren’t you coming?’

The likeness is that of Vega in whose apartment he was due to spend the night before his departure to his place of exile. Just as he discovered in Zoya a certain animality that infatuated him, now it is in this animal that he discovers the spiritual quality that distinguishes Vega. There is a further significance too in this discovery in the zoo. He sees the Nilgai antelope whilst he is still under a feeling of revulsion at seeing the tiger with eyes so much like Stalin’s.

The day that started with such promise – the promise of being with Vega – ends in disappointment. What happens at Vega’s door – with himself standing there with the bunch of violets in his hand – sums up the situation:

He touched the door with the knuckle of his middle finger. But he didn’t have time to knock properly. The door was already beginning to open. (Could she have noticed him already through the window?) It opened and out came a great loutish, snout-faced young man with a flat, bashed-in nose, pushing a bright red motorcycle straight at Oleg. It looked enormous in that doorway. He did not even ask what Oleg was doing or whom he had come to see. He wheeled it straight as if Oleg wasn’t there (he wasn’t the sort to give way) and Oleg stepped to one side.

What issued from that doorway was no mere disappointment – it is a negation of hope; it is a comment on the hopes that sprang up from the ‘thaw’. After the image of this loutish young man there is a ring of unreality in what is being held out by the friendly Armenian who has replaced the commandant supervising the exiles:

Oleg walked across so he could see through the door. ‘Can I come in?’, he asked anxiously.

‘Certainly, certainly!’ A pleasant welcoming voice invited him in.

Unbelievable! Oleg had never heard an NKVD man use such a tone. He went in. There was no one in the room except the commandant, sitting at his desk. But it wasn’t the same one, not that enigmatic idiot with the wise-looking expression; it was an Armenian with the soft face of a well-educated man, not at all arrogant, wearing no uniform but a good suit that looked out of place in the barracks surroundings. The Armenian gave him a merry look, as if his job was selling theatre tickets and he was glad to see that Oleg had come with a big order.

The friendly Armenian holds out hope whilst filling the necessary forms – the exile’s forms all the same. He assures Kostoglotov that all this will end; there has been no ‘instruction’ to that end – he is merely reading the signs. But the unreality of the situation, the image of the theatre manager and the traditionally genial Armenian are all cryptic comment on the hopes so held out. The Armenian tells Kostoglotov that very soon he can come out of exile and get married, but when he for the second time turns to Vega – perhaps on the strength of these assurances – he finds that he has been cheated; marriage has now become meaningless to him. He falls back on the cunning of the prisoner and the exile – a cunning which he hated – and works his way back to his place of exile.

Right through the book it is the interaction of symbol with narrated situation that gives it its varied undercurrents of meaning. The life the Kadmins have organised for themselves in Ushterek is part of this symbolism, Kadmin the gynaecologist lives in exile with his wife. About their life there is a marvellous adequacy and a warmth and happiness that are manifest. Their tumble-down mud hut with kitchen garden is converted by a mere adjustment of attitude into a luxurious drawing room of two centuries ago. Kostoglotov cannot help commenting:

‘It is not our level of prosperity that makes for happiness but the kinship of heart to heart and the way we look at the world. Both attitudes lie within our power, so that a man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy, and no one can stop him.’

Solzhenitsyn does not offer the life of the Kadmins as an escape from the Russian reality. It is to this life that we must turn if we are to answer the question that is posed in the hospital ward – What do men live by? It symbolises the life that is exiled from official Russian society and it is also an indictment of that society. There cannot be a regeneration of this official society unless it takes to its heart the deeply felt humaneness that forms the basis of the life of the Kadmins.

To say that socialism cannot incorporate these values is to escape the problem. Shulibin warns Kostoglotov:

‘Don’t ever make this mistake. Don’t ever blame socialism for the sufferings and the cruel years you've lived through. However you think about it, history has rejected capitalism once and for all!’

It might be suggested that Dr Oreshchenkov’s views on what is good for medicine – the family doctor who can charge a fee – is a plea for private enterprise; but Shulibin’s definite view on private enterprise as a solution puts this in its proper context:

‘It’s true that private enterprise is extremely flexible, but it’s good only within very narrow limits. If private enterprise isn’t held in an iron grip it gives birth to people who are no better than beasts, those stock-exchange people with greedy appetites completely beyond restraint. Capitalism was doomed ethically before it was doomed economically a long time ago.’

Solzhenitsyn’s positives are not stated by any particular character; they emerge from the clash of views, from the discussion. Shulibin’s panacea – ethical socialism – is a counter to the official jargon on socialism. What is only a higher stage in the organisation of social production cannot be made an excuse for evacuating that society of those values which make it human. When Shulibin says that Soviet society has to show the world a society in which all relationships, fundamental principles and laws flow directly from ethics, and from them alone, Solzhenitsyn leaves us in no doubt that the matter is overstated. But this perhaps is what is necessary in the process of the dialectic for a proper synthesis.

Chapter V: Statement of Positives

Those who like ‘reading between the lines’ and ‘interpreting symbols’ have for some reason overlooked the courageous and optimistic symbolism of the end, where the hero leaves the ‘cancer ward’ on a wonderful spring day and his release into life coincides with changes for the better which were already taking place before the Twentieth Congress.

Thus Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir, wrote in a letter to Konstantine Fedin, the Secretary of the Soviet Writers Union, urging him to permit the publication of the novel Cancer Ward. In this letter to a ‘hard-liner’, attempting to persuade him to relent, Tvardovsky was no doubt glossing over the significance of the symbolism in the book, not because there was no such significance, but in order to dispute the meanings the intellectual bureaucracy in the Writers Union sought to give the work of Solzhenitsyn. The Fedins would have liked to read into this symbolism meanings that would be the basis for framing charges of anti-Soviet activity, but their difficulty was that the positives implicit in these books did not permit any such attempt. All that they succeeded in calling against Solzhenitsyn was that he failed to protest against the exploitation of his name and works for anti-Soviet purposes by the West.

For the Good of the Cause brought out clearly the positives that were implicit in The First Circle and Cancer Ward. A nouvelle of six chapters, it portrays the effect of an unimaginative bureaucracy on the decent and spontaneous effort of the Soviet people – and this in the post-Stalin era. Teachers and pupils alike have put in their strenuous effort to complete the new building for their technical school. Alas! The building at the end of it all is not given to them because the bureaucrats have decided to house a new research institute in it. Ruthlessly Solzhenitsyn exposes the interests that motivated the bureaucrats involved. Although these bureaucrats take refuge behind the altruistic phrase ‘for the good of the cause’, what guides them really is their own selfish gain.

Vsevolod Khabalygin, manager of the relay factory and nominally responsible for the new building on behalf of the school, has been stalling the shift of the school to its new premises with the very clear intention of cheating both the teachers and the students. Although by no means suited for the job, he has wangled for himself the post of the head of the research institute. Victor Vavilovich Knurozov, the First Secretary of the Party District Committee – the all-important local official – acquiesces in this arrangement because he too sees in it his personal gain. He realises that the research institute will put this town in a different class, like Gorki or Sverdlovsk:

He half closed his eyes. Perhaps he was seeing the town transformed into a Sverdlovsk. Or perhaps in his mind’s eye he was seeing himself in a new, even more important job.

Ivan Grachikov, the Secretary of the town’s Party Committee, will not agree to this arrangement even though the attempt is made to bribe him with the idea of upgrading the town – and of course its officials:

‘Victor Vavilovich’, he said more harshly and more curtly than he had intended. ‘We are not medieval barons, vying with each other over the grandness of our coats-of-arms. What we should be proud of in this town is that these kids built something and took pleasure in doing it. And it’s our job to back them up. But if we take the building from them, they'll never forget what it means to be cheated. They'll think: if it can happen once, it can happen again!’

And in this argument he posits the central problem:

‘Communism has to be built with people, not with bricks, Victor Vavilovich!’, he shouted, quite carried away. ‘That’s the hard way, and it takes longer. And even if we finished building Communism tomorrow, but only in bricks, we'd still have a long way to go.’

Here then is no conflict between socialism (or communism) and any other form of the organisation of the forces of production – no nostalgia for the bourgeois ways of thought and being. What is in question is the Stalinist approach to the work that is in hand – the building of socialism.

Grachikov is the type to whom the process of decision-making is too democratic in form to be permitted by the Stalinist ways of thought:

Grachikov much preferred to decide things without rushing – giving himself time to think and letting others have a say. It went against his grain to bring discussions and conferences to an end by simply issuing orders. He tried to argue things out with the people he was dealing with, to get them to say ‘Yes, that’s right’ or else convince him that he was wrong...

He is Leninist in outlook not only in this. Faced by careerist Khabalygin he reiterates to himself the Leninist norms of party life too:

He believed that the Party should immediately expel anyone who exploited his job, his position, or his contacts to get something for himself – whether it was a new apartment, a house in the country, or anything at all, however trifling...

Careerism and privilege are the bases on which Stalinism built itself and here lies its inconsistency with forms of proletarian democracy. A privileged caste sees in the top-heavy bureaucratic system, with its inevitable Stalins, the mechanism for the preservation of its vested interests. The bureaucracy, if permitted, will continue the system even without Stalin. Grachikov sees Knorozov in this light:

And although Stalin was long dead, Knorozov was still here. He was a leading proponent of the ‘strong-willed school of leadership’ and he saw in this his greatest virtue. He could not imagine any other way of running things.

Getting away from this system is no simple process – it has entrenched itself in the social fabric and it spares the world of officialdom beneath the Knorozovs the effort of thought. The school’s head, good man as he is, is himself an admirer of Knorozov because when he said Yes he meant Yes, and when he said No he meant No. Yet this way of thinking does not confine itself to the firm yes or no. It leads to what Knorozov tells the livestock expert – ‘Look! I am telling you what you need. What you need is what I am telling you.’

Grachikov is not the only person with different ideas of leadership. Fyodor as the head of the school has his own ideas too about this question:

... his idea of a leader was the man who, instead of following his own whims, settled things fairly by bringing together people who trusted one another and could work together harmoniously.

This is part of proletarian democracy and this is how, as Grachikov reminds Knorozov, the Soviets were supposed to work. But this is also the system on which Stalinism first turned its back and thereafter ruthlessly eliminated.

It is the power the bureaucracy has of dispensing the material wealth of society that makes this system tick despite the abhorrence with which the ordinary man reacts to it. The students left to themselves can even think of keeping away from school in protest at the denial to them of their school building; but comes the question: ‘Will they stop our stipend?’ Yet here is a generation that will not be completely cowed down; they are the scientists and technicians of tomorrow and the discipline of their science cannot be confined to the acquisition of these skills alone. There is, for instance, their articulate reluctance to wade through all that stuff that is written in the name of literature:

‘To my way of thinking’, Anikin said impatiently, ‘authors who in this day and age write such long things really have a lot of nerve! We always have to find the most economical solutions when we design a circuit. When I sat in on the orals last year, the examiners kept on interrupting with questions like: “Could this be made shorter? Or simpler? Or cheaper?” Look at the sort of thing they write in the Literary Gazette. “The characters,” they say “are too stereotyped and the plot is disjointed but the ideas are just great!” That’s like someone here saying: “There’s no current, the whole thing doesn’t work; but the condensers are perfect.” Why don’t they just say: “This novel could have been one-tenth as long, and that one isn’t worth reading."’

These young have been forced to the extreme of being indifferent to what is written as literature. Those who succeeded to the legacy of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekov and Gorki have failed to enrich any more the continuing life of a nation and hence the turning away of this generation from literature to TV, sports, the film magazine and the multi-coloured – almost feminine – clothes. Because of the scientific work they are being trained to do their minds, however, are agile and will not easily be taken in by propaganda. Solzhenitsyn had said somewhere that the bureaucracy might learn to live without the writers but it cannot do without the scientists – and these scientists will ask the necessary questions.

Conscious as Solzhenitsyn is of the need for a change from the prevalent bureaucratism in the Soviet Union, there is yet, to him, no simple solution. The youth of For the Good of the Cause might appear to be sufficiently equipped to understand and even to participate in meaningful change, but this is not the whole picture. In The Easter Procession the occasion sketched is the Easter procession at the patriarchal church of Peredelinco ‘half a century after the Revolution’. The crowd that has come to watch the proceedings here is part of the working class. (Do they all come from the same factory?)

These are not the militant atheists of the ‘thirties, who snatched the consecrated Easter-cakes out of people’s hands, dancing and caterwauling and pretending to be devils. This generation is just idly inquisitive: the ice-hockey season on television is over, the football season has not started yet, and what brings them to church is sheer boredom. They push the churchgoers aside like so many sacks of straw; they curse the church for its commercialism, yet for some reason they buy candles.

With them it is not merely that they are too boorish to respect other people’s feelings and beliefs – in this case the religious beliefs of the small congregation that has gathered for the Easter morning service. How will they react even to those men who seeing the evils of Stalinism attempt to bring in the salutary measures? Will they understand even what Lenin stood for?

These millions we have bred and reared – what will become of them? Where have the enlightened efforts and the inspiring visions of great thinkers led us? What good can we expect of our future generations?

The truth is that one day they will turn and trample on us all. And as for those who urged them on to this, they will trample on them too.

Their upbringing has been such that they will not understand even the meaning of the Revolution.

The same theme emerges in The Right Hand in the confrontation of the veteran of the Revolution and the young nurse with her Komsomol badge reading a spy-comic at the reception desk of the Tashkent Cancer Institute. To her the old man’s association with the Revolution means nothing. She would have admitted this suffering man into a ward if he had been picked up in the street by an ambulance, but not when he had dragged himself to hospital. She takes the stand that she is no orderly to collect patients and that she would at that hour admit them only when they are brought. She would not even walk out of her cubicle to see how bad a patient seeking admission was. In contrast to her is the peasant woman in Matryona’s House. This woman was ‘so foolish that she worked for others for no reward’. She stored no earthly goods – not even a pig that can be easily fattened and slaughtered for lard and bacon. She refused to strain herself ‘to buy gadgets and possessions and then to guard them and care for them more than for her own life’. She cared not for smart clothes, ‘the garments that embellish the ugly and disguise the wicked’. Her qualities stood out as eccentricities among those with the grasping nature of small-time property owners:

None of us who lived close to her perceived that she was that one righteous person without whom, as the saying goes, no city can stand.

Nor the world.

This humaneness is essential to the man who runs or helps in the running of the new society. In An Incident at the Krechetovka Station, Lieutenant Zotov does a difficult job at the railway station at a time when Moscow is itself in danger of falling to Hitler’s troops. Human to the core, his heart goes for the stranger – Tverikan – who appears in the station as a person who missed his train. Gradually he discovers in this Tverikan a possible spy – perhaps a White Russian officer – operating behind the Russian lines. Uncertain of his suspicions he yet does what he thinks is his duty and hands over the suspect – even though he has to trick him in order to do that – to the Security Section. But his conscience keeps troubling him and the reason for such remorse any Soviet citizen who is aware of the methods of Stalinist investigation will understand. Zotov respects the human personality and his problem is his certainty that these investigators will not proceed in their work with that same respect, and in such circumstances what if the man is innocent? Cautiously he inquires about the arrested man when he next meets a Security Officer:

‘Do you happen to remember a man called Tverikan? I arrested him in the autumn.’

‘Why do you ask?’ The Security Officer frowned significantly.

‘Just wondered... what happened to him in the end.’

‘Your Tverikan’s being sorted out all right. We don’t make mistakes.’

But Zotov was unable to forget the man for the rest of his life.

How does one harness these youth even to the effort of building socialism? In a matter like the taking away of the school building from them are they to be told the truth, or are they, in the words of the Secretary of the Party group in the school, to be told that the research institute ‘is a State institute and the why’s and the wherefore’s of the matter are none of our business’. Lidia Georgievna, the teacher who is with the Komsomols from morning till night, disagrees and in her tear-ridden, helpless state counters the Party secretary with Lenin himself: ‘No! You can’t do this, especially not to young people! Lenin said that we should never be afraid to bring things into the open. Publicity is a healing sword, he said.’

What is wrong with the Party secretary is that his care and enthusiasm are misplaced: ‘He handled the papers in their folders as delicately as though they were living things, taking great care not to crease them, and he treated the documents written on thin paper with something akin to loving care.’ And that is precisely the love and care he failed to extend to these students. One would like even to ignore what suggests itself as symbolism in the book because, given the shortness of the story, it may be that the writer never intended to give anything more than the bare literal meaning. At the end of the story Khabalygin is shown like the peasant landlord of old erecting a fence between his research institute and what has just been given to be built for the school. He was getting the stakes driven in in a long sweeping curve ‘so as to take in as much of the land as possible for the institute and leave as little as possible for the school’. Fyodor protests:

‘Listen, Comrade Khabalygin! Be fair! What’s all this?’, the principal shouted upon seeing this swindle. ‘Kids of fifteen and sixteen need space to breathe and run around in! Where will they go?’

This taking away of the breathing space of the kids is symbolic – and the Khabalygins do all this for the good of the cause!

Chapter VI: A Struggle of Interests and Forces

In early January 1968 Tvardovsky wrote to Fedin, the Secretary of the Soviet Writers Union:

There is only one thing to do: act according to your own mind and conscience. I can hardly suppose that you are subject to pressure or compulsion from outside. The times are over, thank God, when the ‘finger pointed’ and specific problems in art and science were decided without reference to what people who knew them inside out, thought or said. Whatever we are like, good or bad, we and no one else have to decide on literary problems. We need not wait for ‘direct instructions’ – they will not come, which is a good thing we could hardly dream of in times past, and we must take advantage of it, putting aside our fears but not our responsibilities.

The debate on Solzhenitsyn proceeded on the basis of the understanding that the worst period of Stalinism was a phenomenon of the past; that the writers themselves, organised in the Writers Union, had to decide the question of publishing Solzhenitsyn’s works. But what the more progressive among these writers had to face was the complete bureaucratisation of their organisation itself. The expulsion of Solzhenitsyn from the Writers Union should have proved sufficient evidence for the belief that the struggle against the ‘personality cult’ was a calculated veering away of

attention from the real struggle which is the struggle against the bureaucracy itself.

Trotsky pointed out that before Stalin felt out his own course, the bureaucracy felt out Stalin himself; that the success which in the inner-Party struggle fell upon Stalin was ‘the friendly welcome of the new ruling group, trying to free itself from the old principles and from the control of the masses, and having need of a reliable arbiter in its inner affairs’. [4] The continued exercise of power by the bureaucracy even after the death of Stalin is ample evidence of the bureaucracy’s ability to carry on its affairs without a Stalin as arbiter – that it could replace the primitive approaches of Stalin with more sophisticated methods of ordering its own affairs. What the Tvardovskys were faced with was a struggle against this bureaucracy and such a struggle, being a political struggle, is ‘in its essence a struggle of interests and forces, not of arguments’. [5]

‘Socialist Realism’ was the accommodation of creative activity to the needs of a political regime that served the interests of the bureaucracy. A member of the Soviet Writers Union, D Dar, indicated in an open letter dated 19 May 1967 and addressed to the Presidium of the Fourth All-Union Soviet Writers Congress, the degeneration of this ‘Socialist Realism’ itself:

The present Congress must call by its true name the phenomenon of bureaucratic realism which in our country goes sheepishly and hypocritically by the name of socialist realism. Only that which is to the taste of officials and clerks in various departments (including that so bureaucratic department, the Writers Union) gets given the lifesaving label of socialist realism, and everything that does not suit these officials’ tastes and does not fit in with their bureaucratic interpretations, is declared to be in conflict with socialist realism.

Solzhenitsyn, in his open letter to the same Congress, described the plight to which the Soviet writer has been reduced in these circumstances:

Our writers are not supposed to have the right, are not endowed with the right, to express their cautionary judgements about the moral life of man and society, or to explain in their own way the social problems and historical experience that have been so deeply felt in our country. Works that might express the mature thinking of the people, that might have a timely and salutary influence on the realm of the spirit or on the development of the social conscience, are proscribed or distorted by censorship on the basis of the considerations that are petty, egotistical and – from the national point of view – short-sighted.

What Solzhenitsyn claims for literature – and rightly too – are not positions which the bureaucracy can grant for fear of the inevitable undermining of its own bases. A proletariat that has shed its backwardness, a massive technocracy that is amenable to change and a restless intellectual community – these are forces which can, if allowed the right to do so, effect radical changes almost overnight. In these conditions the task of the bureaucracy is to contain the intellectual ferment within the intellectual groupings and not permit it or its effects to spill over to the rest. Hence the refusal to permit the publication of Solzhenitsyn, although the authorities are well aware of the fact that in the underground press thousands of copies of unpublished manuscripts – type-written and cyclostyled – are being circulated; and that the ‘publication’ in such manner of each manuscript is both a reflection on the literature that is being officially published and a reminder to the reader of the conditions under which the creative artist is forced to work.

This containment is effected through the censorship with no attempt being made to defend such censorship on political grounds because, as against a writer like Solzhenitsyn, no valid political grounds can be invoked. Hence the sophistry through which spurious literary criteria are being invoked as a defence of the bureaucracy’s positions. Literaturnaya Gazeta, on the eve of Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the Writers Union, prefaced an attack on Solzhenitsyn with these words:

In the works produced by Soviet writers, one can trace the whole glorious and difficult path our country has traversed during half a century. Major works of prose, poetry and drama have been devoted to each stage in our history – the October Revolution and Civil War, the early Five-Year Plans and the socialist transformation of the countryside, the heroic struggle against the fascist invasion, and communist construction in the postwar years.

The strength of Soviet writers lies in wholehearted dedication to the ideas of communism and boundless loyalty to the cause of the Party. That is why the tie between Soviet literature and Communist Party politics evokes such fierce attacks by hostile propaganda...

In this concept a literary work is at best no more than a travelogue that records the direction of the Communist Party. This certainly is a far cry from the richer years of the Revolution when Trotsky, still at the helm of Soviet politics, was able to make the necessary definition of relationships:

The Marxian method affords an opportunity to estimate the development of the new art, to trace all its sources, to help the most progressive tendencies by a critical illumination of the road, but it does not do more than that. Art must make its own way and by its own means. The Marxian methods are not the same as the artistic. The Party leads the proletariat but not the historic process of history. There are domains in which the Party leads directly and imperatively. There are domains in which it only cooperates. There are, finally, domains in which it only orients itself. The domain of art is not one in which the Party is called upon to command. It can and must protect and help it, but it can only lead it indirectly... [6]

The leadership that is given indirectly comes from the encouragement it gives to those groups that make a sincere effort towards an ‘artistic formulation of the Revolution’. [7] It did not mean the imposition on the public of one group as the group that is acceptable to the Party, and least of all did it mean a tie-up of a literary group with the politics of the Communist Party. The transformation of this view to what has been euphemistically stated as the ‘tie between Soviet literature and Communist Party politics’ is merely the extension into the literary sphere of the totalitarianism that in other spheres began to replace the revolutionary spirit.

Solzhenitsyn represents the writer who will open the way towards the resuscitation of this revolutionary spirit. It is this representativeness that Tvardovsky pointed out in his letter to Fedin: ‘He [Solzhenitsyn] stands at the crossroads of two opposite trends in our literature – one backward-looking, the other forward and in keeping with the irreversible movement of history’. In this Solzhenitsyn is not alone. A writer, G Vladimov, in a letter to the Presidium of the Fourth Soviet Writers Congress, spoke authoritatively of the output in the underground press:

I have read many works in ‘Samizdat’ and can say of nine-tenths of them with full responsibility that they not only can be published – they must be... There is nothing anti-national in them – no artist in his right mind would ever think of it – but there is the breath of talent, brilliance, the radiance of unfettered artistic form, there is a love for man, an authentic knowledge of life, and at times echoes of pain and anger for the writer’s fatherland, or bitterness and hatred towards its enemies who pose as friends and protectors.


4. LD Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going?.

5. LD Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going?.

6. LD Trotsky, Literature and Revolution. Excerpt.

7. LD Trotsky, Literature and Revolution. Excerpt.