Time moves on and cultural memory fades quickly. In the Sixties the name Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was widely known, and I suspect the majority of people in the West saw him as a heroic figure. In 1970 Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature but the Soviet regime refused to allow him to travel to Sweden to accept it. A few years later he was expelled from his homeland and stripped of his citizenship. In 1994, after the fall of Communism, he was able to return to Russia but by then he was seen as something of a relic, a man whose solemn pronouncements were no longer welcomed by a younger, newly free generation. Several years before he had offended many Americans by being less than impressed by the culture our democratic freedoms had spawned. I suppose only a fraction of Americans that knew his name actually read his books—after all, it does take an effort to read Russian novelists—but, still, he was recognized as a courageous man and extraordinary writer.
Today however, Solzhenitsyn is largely forgotten, and that is a shame. It is a shame because the role his writing and moral stature played in staring down the cruel inhumanity and injustice of Soviet tyranny should never be forgotten. Such principled courage is rare in human history and when the memory of it fades somehow the plausibility and significance of such personal courage tends to ebb as well. It is particularly a shame that the name and memory of Solzhenitsyn has faded among Christians because the primary animating power at the heart of his life and work was a mind, heart, and imagination that had been shaped by his deeply held Christian convictions and values.
I am not a disinterested observer in these events. I lived through them and wondered as I did so, but more importantly can witness personally to the power of Solzhenitsyn’s writing. In 1962, because of some changes at the top of the Soviet power structure, Solzhenitsyn’s novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in Russia. The next year it appeared in English translation in the United States. Since it was much in the news, I read it, and though this will sound like a cliché, it changed my life.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a simple, short novel, following the life of a prisoner through the 24 hours of a single day in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia. The prose is tight and compelling, the dialogue briskly direct, and the brutal setting is brought sharply into focus. The harsh winter weather appears almost as a character in the story, and the mind numbing camp routine deepens the suffering of the inmates whose long sentences are designed to make hope a hopeless impossibility. Minimal food, unpalatable and thin, maximum labor in the bitter cold, the camp is a place where unwanted people are sent to be forgotten and die. The extreme isolation, near starvation, and bitter weather means the camp was surrounded by frozen wilderness, so that to escape is to choose to die in the endless forest, one’s corpse picked clean by ravens.
Solzhenitsyn’s novel did not change my view of politics as much as it changed my view of reality. As I read I was astounded at the sheer power of words. At how a well-told story could command such moral authority, and how fiction could make the truth about life so compelling. And I saw how Solzhenitsyn’s Orthodox Christian beliefs were woven into the fabric of the story providing a moral foundation without ever becoming preachy or propagandistic. It was Francis Schaeffer who showed me how my Christian faith, rooted in ancient documents could make sense in the modern world; and it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who showed me how the truth was not merely powerful in the face of injustice but shot through with more beauty than I had ever dared to imagine.
If you have not read any of Solzhenitsyn’s works, I urge you to do so. Begin with shorter works, such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, before you go on to tackle his longer, richly textured novels such as Cancer Ward (1968). Or begin with Apricot Jam, a collection of nine short stories by Solzhenitsyn, newly translated into English. These are short stories carefully shaped by a master wordsmith, small slices of life that become windows into deeper questions. All but one tells two interrelated tales carefully interwoven, and a glossary is appended to the book to define Russian terms and identify historical characters unfamiliar to Western readers. Some are set in wartime, some in the ordinariness of village life, all involve individuals wondering what to make of life and death and the meaning of existence. The stories are all set in the past, in a setting that is foreign to me, in a society quite unlike anything I have experienced. Yet they are deeply moving because they are deeply human, with an urgency that is born of clear moral vision.
Walker Percy, another Christian novelist, once said that bad books, bad stories always lie about the human condition. Apricot Jam provides us with good stories, very good stories, well-crafted literature that speaks eloquently, elegantly and truthfully about the human condition in a badly broken world yearning for grace.
A note: if you decide to read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I recommend you choose the 1991 translation by H. T. Willetts. It is based on the original, unedited version penned by Solzhenitsyn and is the only translation authorized by the author. The differences between this edition and the earlier edited versions released in English are significant.
Source: the title of this essay is a line taken from “Times of Crisis,” the seventh short story in Apricot Jam and Other Stories p. 280.
Book recommended: Apricot Jam and Other Stories by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint; 2011) 365 pages + glossary.