Sunday, August 10, 2008

The death of Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn died last week at the age of 89. His reputation in the West had experienced meteoric rises and falls since the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich during the Khrushchev thaw of the early 1960s. Several of his novels became best sellers in the West during the 1970s, but after his exile from the Soviet Union in 1975, he rapidly emerged as a critic of western society as well. He developed an increasingly authoritarian streak and fell out with some of his oldest friends, and devoted the late 20th century to the conclusion of a massive cycle of novels about the Russian revolution, The Red Wheel. Returning to Russia after the collapse of Communism, he had a brief career as a television personality and eventually supported Vladimir Putin’s restoration of governmental authority. He had in short lost much of the stature that he had earlier achieved by the time of his death, but to me, he will always remain one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists, chiefly by virtue of his initial masterpiece, The First Circle, which he wrote in the years after his return from exile in the mid-1950s, and which I taught for many years both at Carnegie Mellon and in an elective at the War College. (I also enormously enjoyed August 1914 and Cancer Ward, but I never read The Gulag Archipelago.)

When I first picked up The First Circle in 1972, while on my way to the Soviet Union for the first and last time, I was astonished by the series of miracles that had enabled the book to appear. Superficially it tells the story of a December weekend in 1949 at Mavrino, a special prison near Moscow where the inmates are working on sophisticated communications equipment, including a “scrambler” telephone for Stalin himself. Solzhenitsyn, renamed Gleb Nerzhin, is one of the three main characters, the other two being Lev Rubin—really Lev Kopelev, a Soviet intellectual whom I later got to know myself—and Dimitri Sologdin, a talented engineer. Merely as a dramatic construction the book is quite extraordinary, cramming 700 pages and 87 chapters into a single Christmas weekend, and featuring about 100 characters, all caught in the catastrophe of Stalinist life. Obviously inspired by Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn drew many intricate links among his characters (some of whom are still living outside the prison system) and tried to include something about nearly every stage and every aspect of human life. I was most fortunate to begin reading it in Britain, where the published translation, done in the main by the late Michael Glenny, brilliantly captured the humor, sarcasm, and drama of the original far better than the version published in the United States, and when I began teaching the book I made every effort to get copies of that version for my students. I also made up my own table of contents, allowing me to get the sequence of events straight and to understand how so much action could have been packed into three days. (I cannot offhand think of another novel that achieves a comparable feat.) The real value of the book, however, lay in the themes that the author had developed as a result of his prison experiences.

The characters in The First Circle, the author shows us again and again in dozens of ways, are the only free people left in the Soviet Union. Having been deprived of their liberty for either 10 or 25 years (and indeed, no one, at the time the book was taking place, foresaw the thaw that would follow the death of Stalin and lead to the liberation of most of them), they had to live purely for the moment and, as they frequently tell one another, had developed a true appreciation of life. Only starving men (and most of them had been near starvation in Siberian camps) appreciated food; only men working 12 hour days for bread rations appreciated the value of leisure. Because they had already lost everything, they could afford to be themselves. Solzhenitsyn drives this point home effectively early in the book, when the Minister of State Security, Abakumov (a real person) calls in three prisoners to find out when Stalin’s own special telephone—which he has promised the dictator within a couple of months—will actually be ready. Without a shred of hesitation, and with considerable bemusement and anger, they tell him bluntly that at least another year will be needed, leaving him to face his own boss almost paralyzed with terror. (Abakumov survives his meeting with Stalin thanks to the dictator’s failing memory, but as the preface informs us, he was eventually executed about a year after Stalin’s own death.)

Real freedom, Solzehnitsyn tells us, comes from renunciation. The system occasionally tempts prisoners with privileges or even a promise of release, but to accept is usually to surrender one’s independence and one’s soul. Nerzhin (Solzehnitsyn) himself turns down an offer of a better job in the opening pages of the book because it will give him no time to meditate on the future of Communism (Solzehnitsyn at that time was, apparently, still a socialist), and is rewarded at the end with a transfer to Siberia. The internal freedom enjoyed by the prisoners gives them a vitality which, paradoxically, the “free” citizens of the Soviet Union have had to stifle. The free workers at the special prison have all received the direst warnings about the characters of the convicts, but they are repeatedly astonished by their good humor, wide-ranging minds, and capacity to cope with circumstances. At least three of the free women, indeed, find these qualities so seductive as to fall in love with prisoners (Solzhenitsyn was a devout believer in the power of both love and sex.)

One after another, in chapter after chapter, we learn the life histories of dozens of characters, and in almost every case they face some climactic choice that will determine both their external and internal fate. Two—which by the genius of the plot become closely connected—deserve particular attention. The first is Rubin—Kopelev, who later described the same camp in a memoir—who had been imprisoned in early 1945 because he tried to stop atrocities against Germans during the advance through East Prussia, but who in 1949 remained a committed Communist and a supporter of Stalin. Like Faust, whom Rubin discusses in a revealing fashion, Rubin has been seduced by the Communist dream of eternal human happiness, and even his own fate—which he certainly feels to be unjust—has not yet shaken his faith. And thus, in the midst of the book, he is initially delighted to be given a special assignment—an order to try to identify the voice of a Soviet diplopmat who, he is told, has tried to stop a doctor from betraying a state secret.

The diplomat, whose own personal drama begins the book, is Innokenty Volodin, a successful though somewhat skeptical young man, the son-in-law of an old Bolshevik and public prosecutor, who has accidentally heard that his old family doctor is about to travel to France for an international conference and provide a French colleague with a new drug. Under Stalinism this could only be construed as a treasonous act, and Innokenty, after a long struggle with himself, decides to call the doctor to warn him off from a pay phone. (He is moved, not coincidentally, by primal feelings from his childhood—a visit from this doctor had always calmed his household in any moment of crisis.) Unfortunately for him, the doctor’s phone is already being tapped, and he is one of only five diplomats who knew what was going to happen. The State Security office immediately passes the task of identifying the culprit to Mavrino, where Rubin, a purported authority on the identification of individual speech, is given the original recording and recordings of all five and set to work. (Ironically, Kopelev revealed in his own memoir that when he was given a similar assignment, it actually involved a genuine case of treason—an apparent attempt by a security officer to tip off the American embassy about the Rosenberg spy ring, in fact. The change, however, works brilliantly from a dramatic point of view.)

Chapter 33, in which Rubin receives this assignment, is one of the most dramatic of the book. Going inside Rubin’s head, as great novelists always do, it brilliantly portrays the struggle between one’s feelings and powers of thought that plays such a huge role in people’s submission to an ideal. Expecting to hear a vile traitor giving away state secrets, Rubin instead immediately realizes that no sane person can regard medical information in this light—“and on purely human grounds, Rubin couldn’t help liking this man who had been brave enough to telephone a flat under surveillance, probably without realizing what a risk he was taking.
“But objectively, although this man had imagined he was doing good, he was in fact working against the forces of progress. If it was considered part of the vital interests of the state to claim that all scientific discoveries had been pioneered in Russia, then anyone who thought differently was objectively standing in the way of progress and must be swept aside.” He takes the assignment.

Meanwhile, Innokenty gradually emerges as the most important character in the last third of the book. Obviously recalling his own experience, Solzhenitsyn traces his steps during his last 48 hours of freedom and describes in great detail the experience of his arrest and initial confinement. We learn the long chain of events that has brought Innokenty to his present pass, including the discovery of some of his mother’s papers, including the extraordinary remark, “Injustice is stronger than you—it always has been and always will be. But never let it be done through you.” At a dinner party, too, Innokenty discusses the philosophy of Epicurus, who believed that simple pleasures made a happy life and that man’s insatiable appetites were his worst enemy. (Epicurus also discouraged his followers from taking part in public life.) Yet by the time Innokenty leaves the scene—on the way to his interrogation—we cannot help but feel that all is for the best. His name was obviously carefully chosen—he is innocent, as the book begins, because he has never before obeyed a spontaneous impulse at the risk of his status and freedom. His innocence is now lost, but he, like the other prisoners, is now on the path to wisdom and self-respect.

Rubin, meanwhile, has been hard at work identifying the culprit, and has managed to narrow the field from five to two—Innokenty and the innocent Shchevronok. Having gotten that far, he becomes involved in a long argument with his boss on the subject, arguing that while Innokenty certainly sounds guilty, the characteristics of the voiceprints point to Shchevronok. When they present their dilemma to the security service, however, the solution is swiftly applied—both of them are arrested, plunging Rubin into new fits of despair. I can never read this passage without believing that Rubin’s subconscious is at work—that it has not forgotten that in this case, the words “innocent” and “guilty” actually mean their own opposites, and that Innokenty is innocent precisely because he did indeed make the call. Shchevronok winds up in the cell next to Innokenty, and Rubin has to console himself that, without his investigation, all five might have been arrested and, of course, convicted, since no one arrested under Stalinism was ever released.

The novel is indeed on of the last great artifacts of the Russian/Western literary tradition that gave us Dickens and Balzac, Zola and Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and all the rest. References to literature, painting and music abound throughout—the author is writing as a citizen of the world. Both its completion and its publication were nothing short of miraculous, all the more so since Solzhenitsyn had a bout with cancer not long after his release, when he must have been first working on it. I doubt however that very many American college courses are using it any more—some years ago it had actually gone out of print here. Anyone who takes the trouble to go to and secure a copy of the British edition, however, will feel amply rewarded.

I have only scratched the surface of the enormous resonance the book has always had for me. The choices Solzhenitsyn describes in such an extreme form between integrity and compromise are, of course, always present in life, and some of us seem capable of only one choice. Meanwhile, this blog has now been running weekly for almost four years and amounts to a rather large book--though not yet, I do not think, as long as The First Circle. (I am actually thinking about self-publishing excerpts after the November election.) Early in the book there occurs an interesting conversation between Sologdin, the other protagonist and the most brilliant engineer, and the elderly Professor Chelnov, a brilliant scientist who has spent the last few days of his life solving difficult technical problems in special prisons. Hoping to win his release, Sologdin has been working secretly on a design for the scrambler for Stalin, and he has visited the professor to get his opinion. Impressed by the design, Chelnov asks whether it is not time to show it to their boss.

“How shall I put it?” Sologdin replies. “Isn’t there perhaps a certain moral ambiguity? . . . . .It’s not as if it were a bridge, or a crane or a lathe. Our assignment is not for something of great importance to industry—it’s more like making a gadget for the boss. And wen I think of this particular ‘customer’ picking up the receiver we’ll make for him. . . .Well, anyway, so far I’ve been working on it just . . .to test my strength. For myself.”

He looked up.

“For myself.” Chelnov knew all about this kind of work. As a rule it was research of the highest order.”


1 comment:

Shelterdog said...

Except for The First Circle, I was not a big admirer of the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I always thought that his major works were not noteworthy for the subject matter--writing about survival in a totalitarian state, while still in a totalitarian state--than for his literary craftsmanship. The writing itself was rarely exceptional, although your comments make me wish I had read the translation you obtained rather than the American ones.
In part, my disappointment with his writing also stemmed from the fact that his writing was frequently derivative of some of Dostoevsky's earlier works, such as House of the Dead (1962), which describes Dostoevsky's experiences as a political prisoner under the Czar, and whose writing is far more powerful.
This is not to trivialize the great courage it must have taken to write these books when and where Solzhenitsyn was living. But I've always struggled to appreciate them as first-rate literature.