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The Solzhenitsyn That Nobody Knows

ISSUE:  Autumn 1995

For the second time Alexander Solzhenitsyn last year returned home from exile. He has had a house built in the environs of Moscow, where he plans to take up residence. He foreswears politics, yet he publicly condemns revolutions—both French and Russian—and declares that Russia should be a unified state rather than a “false confederation.” He himself has said that the presence of a great writer at home is tantamount to an alternative government in the country. A recent poll in Petersburg found far more sympathy for him than for anyone in Russia’s present leadership.

In the past few years, Solzhenitsyn’s once remarkably strident views have undergone a kind of lapidary furbishing; the sharper edges have been removed. He has made a sort of accommodation with electoral democracy. More important, he has praised the state of Israel for its stubborn resistance to American popular culture, and he has thus explicitly distanced himself from the anti-Semitism of which he has been suspected, a feature so characteristic of his school of literature. We cannot say of him—as of the Bourbons returned from exile—that he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Still, for a poignant synopsis of his thought—and his potential intentions?—the best guide, his most important piece of work, is one of his first, a short story that remains almost unknown in the land of his former refuge.

“Matryona’s Home” (“Matryonin dvor,” 1963) is in its way as simple and direct as Hemingway and Pushkin, and yet its modesty is deceptive. It is a composite of different elements. It is most obviously the story of the author’s return from his first exile in the Gulag. It is, in addition, a statement of the code of values of the Slavophile creed. Perhaps most provocatively, it is an allegorical history of Russia in fictional form.

Released by the amnesty of 1953 from the Gulag, Ignatich, a mathematics teacher, sought work in a remote vista of rural Russia, “some place far beyond the railroad,” some place that would undoubtedly represent to him an asylum from that monster of modernization, the Five-Year Plans and the purges needed to guarantee their appearance of success. Yet even in a region bearing the beautiful name Vysokoe pole(High Field), an area once deep and trackless forest, the intrusions of progress had established an ugly little village by the name of Torfoprodukt (Peat Product). Farther out and offering perhaps a slightly more sylvan prospect, was Talnyi(Hostage). The local school needed a math teacher. Even here, however, the trains ran right through the village, ran right recklessly, as did the whole modern Moloch, the revolutionary monster of devouring materialism.

Travelers and newcomers here were few, and lodging was rarely needed or provided. Someone suggested that Matryona Vasilievna might have room. Matryona’s place, Ignatich was warned, would be far from neat. It was old and needed repair. Still the house was large. There was plenty of room for a boarder. Matryona herself was sickly. She did not encourage him. “We are not clever, we don’t cook, how shall we suit?. . .” There was a cat and mice and cockroaches, but there was little other choice, and Ignatich was not choosy. He stayed. It was, after all, a microcosm of the kind of refuge that he sought.

Matryona was no modern Soviet woman, “new Soviet person,” no Calvinist Communist of the forest. Rather she was an awkwardly proto-Orthodox embodiment of the Biblical beatitudes. An elderly countrywoman, humble and homely Matryona had a lot of worries. Her husband had not returned from the war, and after eight years it was not likely that he ever would. Matryona had only recently received the pension to which she had so long been entitled. Nearing 60 years of age now, when she grew ill, she had been dismissed from the local collective farm. Matryona lived by working her petty garden plot and—like everybody else in the region—by poaching fuel from the state peat trust. A single day’s supply for her stove weighed 70 or 80 pounds, and she had to fetch it from a distance of two miles. During the 200 days of winter, she had to do it every day. She fed herself on a few meager potatoes and the milk that her goat gave.

In spite of her expulsion from the collective, the farm management was not embarrassed to call on her for help when the harvest was taken in. She grumbled and complained of ill health, but she always went. When her neighbors called on her, she went without hesitation, and she refused their offers of pay. Blessed are the meek, blessed are the pure in heart.

Matryona had typical folk fears. She was afraid of fire, afraid of lightning, and afraid of trains—there was something ominous here about trains. She was religious in the curious half-pagan, fully superstitious fashion of the Russian countryside, more generically religious than specifically Christian. Matryona would not go into the garden on St. John’s day for fear of spoiling the harvest. In the weather she found signs of doom or foreboding. She was never seen to cross herself, but she called on God’s blessing whenever she undertook any job. She lit an oil lamp before the icons on feast days.

Matryona and her boarder treated each other with respectful reserve. They inquired little into their respective pasts. Ignatich eventually mentioned that he had served time; it was a kind of hurdle crossed. Matryona nodded as if she had apprehended it. How else to explain the sudden appearance of a newcomer in 1953? Slowly in the course of long evenings and snatches of conversation the life of Matryona—and of Russia itself—was sketched out.

Married at 19, she moved into her husband’s home, the one in which she now lived. The war came—World War I—and Faddei went to the front. He didn’t come back, he disappeared. For years she waited for him. In the meantime, his brother Yefim came courting and proposed marriage. Matryona hesitated and accepted. Within months, Faddei returned. He had been released from a P. O. W. camp in Hungary. Shock engulfed them all. Faddei declared that he would look for another Matryona. Eventually he found one in a neighboring village, and he married her. Two brothers, Yefim and Faddei, and two wives, Matryona Vasilievna and the other Matryona, Matryona II.

Faddei’s Matryona, Matryona II, suffered her husband’s constant beatings, but she bore him six children. Yefim was a gentler husband. He did not beat his wife, Matryona Vasilievna. He did scorn her country ways. He liked to dress up, and he made fun of her village fashions. He took a mistress in the nearby town, too.

Matryona Vasilievna had a blighted fecundity. She, too, gave birth to six children, but all of them died. Eventually she begged of her sister-in-law, Matryona II, the youngest daughter, Kira. Kira was raised by Yefim and Matryona Vasilievna. Before Ignatich’s coming, Kira had married and moved away. In the meantime, the next war had come, World War II. Faddei was exempted this time for poor vision, but Yefim, Matryona Vasilievna’s husband, was drafted, and what had happened to Faddei in the first war happened to Yefim in the second—except that he never came back.

This is the story of Russia itself. I have long thought of the relationship of government and people in Russia as that of parent and child. A friend of mine insists that it is rather the relationship of abusing husband and abused wife, and she knows Russia, too. Russian husbands are, in any event, as sovereign as the Russian government.

Matryona is the colloquial variant of the Russian name Matrona, a Latin borrowing meaning wife or matron. In another variation, it is Matryoshka, the name of the nesting dolls that everywhere symbolize Russian folk handicraft. In pure Russian, however, the first syllable of the name, mat, is the Russian word for mother. An author whose opening remarks in this story demonstrate his close attention to the phonology of Russian proper names cannot be suspected of choosing the name of his heroine carelessly. Matryona is Mother Russia.

As there were two Matryonas, so have there been two Russias. Yefim treated Matryona Vasilievna as Peter I treated his Russia. He was not so deliberately abusive as his Soviet successors, but he scorned native culture and went a-whoring after the fashions of Europe. The fate of Faddei’s Matryona II was like that of Soviet Russia, more abused and more productive. “Love your wife like your soul, shake her like your pear tree.”

The fate of Yefim, the husband who never returned, can only be imagined, but the numbers of graphic possibilities exemplify the tortured history of the nation during his generation. He may have become an MIA. He may have died in a German camp. If he survived captivity, maybe he chose, as so many Soviet “displaced persons” did, not to risk the implacable mercies of Stalin and went West. Or maybe he suffered forced return by Anglo-American repatriation teams and died in the Soviet camps.

In any event his widow, feeling the approach of illness and death, had made out a will. It bequeathed the upper room of her house to her foster daughter, Kira. The rest of the house would be disposed of by the quarrels of the relatives. This process began, however, sooner than anticipated. Kira and her husband discovered that they could acquire a plot of land in their nearby village if they could establish a dwelling on it, and they seized on the idea of persuading Matryona at once to part with her upper room to satisfy their need.

Just as in the case of the trains, there was something foreboding about this particular part of the house. It was not called the upstairs (naverkh), the upper storey (verkhnii etazh), or second floor (vtoroi etazh). Rather it was always called the gornitsa, a somewhat antiquated word formerly meaning upper room. This is the word which in the Russian Gospel of Luke is used for that upper room in which the first Holy Eucharist took place. Does the ravishing of it suggest the poor quality of the Russian people’s commitment to their Orthodox Christianity? Does it suggest the Soviet decapitation of the Orthodox Church? Had the Church, like the upper room, been disposed of so readily because it had come to be regarded by the people as dispensable? In any event, the role of the upper room is heavy with premonition. And even without religious reference, here was a regular witches’ brew of greed, materialism, and the civilization of modern mechanical technology that both Matryona and Ignatich so dreaded.

Matryona was troubled. The idea of breaking up the house in which she had lived for 40 years disturbed her. Her relatives knew that in the end she would give in to their entreaties. Their eager solicitation was overwhelming. So the wrecking crew arrived—Kira, her husband, her father Faddei, and a couple of Faddei’s sons. They took the room apart board by board, stacking them all beside the house until transport could be arranged.

Ignatich came home from school one day to find the grand enterprise under way. A tractor was there and a large sledge. The sledge fully loaded would not accommodate all the lumber, so Faddei and company were knocking together an improvised home-made duplicate. They disagreed whether the two sledges should be hauled together or separately. The tractor driver insisted that he could take them both at once. His motive was obvious: he was being paid for one trip, and one trip he would make. He had sneaked the tractor out of the motor pool at no little risk. It had to be back in place by morning as if it had never been away, and two round trips of 30 miles in a single night were out of the question. They would take the two sledges at once.

The excitement of the undertaking, the fear of having the heist of the tractor discovered, and the urgency of the timetable all made them nervous. The smell of vodka was in the air. It fortified their resolve and expedited their labors.

Eventually they pulled off. The approach to the rail crossing was up a steep hill. The tractor pulled the first sledge over, but the tow-rope then broke and the second sledge stuck on the tracks. The driver brought the tractor back to get it. Faddei’s son and—for some reason—Matryona Vasilievna lent their assistance.

Meantime, two coupled locomotives were backing along the track in their direction. The tractor engine made the approach of the train inaudible. There were no lights on the rear of the nearer locomotive, and the smoke was blowing in the driver’s face. Shades of the Five-Year Plan—technology blind, reckless, and backwards! The repair party did not anticipate a train without lights, and the driver of the locomotive could not see through the smoke. Matryona and her companions were crushed between the locomotive on one side and the tractor and crippled sledge on the other. “It smashed them to pieces. Can’t find all the parts.” The tractor was destroyed, and the locomotives were overturned.

In the midst of all the physical and emotional wreckage, Faddei managed to organize a rescue operation to maintain possession of the dismantled room, and three days later he brought it successfully to his own home. The same day, the priest of the local church officiated at the burial of Matryona and the other victims.

Here is not only a striking piece of fiction. Here is also the Slavophile protest against urbanism, technology, alcohol, against the neglect of old folk values. Solzhenitsyn and his more academic counterpart, Dmitrii Likhachev, the great historian of medieval Russian literature, have said over and over again that without a moral and spiritual regeneration of Russia, no economic and political perestroika is possible. “We had all lived cheek by jowl with Matryona and not understood that she was that upright person without whom, according to the proverb, no village can endure. Nor any city. Nor our whole land.” Blessed are the poor in spirit.

The writers of the Slavophile school—otherwise known as the derevenshchiki, “ village prose” writers—are romantic conservatives who share a great deal with the old Southern agrarians of the United States, the contemporary Greens of Germany, and the fundamentalists of the Islamic renaissance of the Middle East. They comprise that camp in the confrontation of “the world and the West” that Arnold Toynbee denominated the Zealots, the super-nativists. They loathe the popular culture of the modern West and all the moral and cultural flotsam that it gurgitates.

The assertion of their cultural values faces a Sisyphean struggle. The Soviets moved mightily to impel Russia along a fantastic route to progress and power. Post-Soviet Russia now joins the international rush to multiply ever more sources —and indices—of wealth and power, in the main without success thus far. Both the Stalinist and the Gorbachev/ Yeltsin/Gaidar/Chernomyrdin crash courses in the economy of instant transformation have numbed the sensitivity of the nation to traditional values more intrinsically human, and the suffering that they have produced generates monsters of hyper-nationalistic pseudo-humanism too nearly like those from which Russia is allegedly fleeing.

Solzhenitsyn asks us to consider whether the Russians’ folk ethos—or is it a more elemental Christian ethos?—is compatible with the material hype either of Soviet socialism or of Western capitalism. Are they, in the sense of Livy’s Romans—damned if they do, damned if they don’t—unable alike to endure their former vices or their present remedies?


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