Ileana Alexandra Orlich, “Communist Totalitarianism in Solzhenitsyn’s Fiction”, Caietele Echinox, vol. 19, 2010, pp. 243-249.
Although Soviet fiction of the Stalinist era demands foremost from the writer a scrupulous and courageous recognition of all the irreconcilable antagonisms that made the lives of the people in communism so burdensome, so desperate, and at the same time so full of hope, the writers in that generation failed to meet such a challenge. According to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,
From the thirties on, everything that is called our prose is merely the foam from a lake which has vanished underground. It is foam and not prose because it detached itself from everything that was fundamental in those decades. The best of the writers suppressed the best within themselves and turned their back on truth and only that way did they and their books survive.1
In sharp contrast with his contemporaries, Solzhenitsyn writes as a way of capturing the history of Stalinist Russia before it is obscured by the death of the generations who lived it. From The First Circle and Cancer Ward to A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s writing offers the most compelling panorama of Soviet life struggling to transcend Stalin’s paranoid stock of autocracy which naturally rejected and systematically punished even the faintest expression of what Joseph Conrad called any “practical form of liberty known to the western world (Under Western Eyes).” He introduced to literary Russian the language of the Gulag and the zek (prisoner) by expanding the circle of official discourse to include the real world of Stalinist terror and the author’s growing challenge to the Marxist orthodoxy. Most importantly, while presenting the protagonists’ personal calamities, devastating traumas, and barren struggles against ideological oppression and an overpowering fear and helplessness, Solzhenitsyn’s works also illustrate the dignity of moral choices inside an endless cycle of repression and imprisonment.
In all his polyphonic2 narratives that reveal a complex relationship between the author’s fictional and autobiographical selves Solzhenitsyn redefines the Russian horizon in a way that was beyond the reach of most historians in the free world. It is easy to think of Solzhenitsyn as he is now, the “only living classic” of Russian literature, as Yevtushenko wrote. Yet in the darker days before Khrushchev openly denounced Stalin at the Twenty-Second Party Congress (1961), no one in the civilized world seemed to know about men like Ivan Denisovich, or about concentration camps systematically created as a mode of genocide. And although the modem theorist is skeptical about the ability of words to recapture the horizon of another historical age, Solzhenitsyn managed to develop a liveliness and concision that shocked and revivified the Russian world of his contemporaries. His fiction interrogates political possibilities based on ingenious notions, such as the ethical socialism of Shulubin in Cancer Ward, subjects the quotidian to questions and analyses that are nearly always socially-oriented, and aims to make a full and detailed disclosure about Soviet life and to examine its moral essence. Above all, these works are a series of assents or refusals to participate in the lies that support the Soviet system. So thoroughly does Solzhenitsyn believe in the power of truth that he told one BBC interviewer that if all three books of The Gulag Archipelago were available in Russia, “in a very short space of time no Communist ideology would be left. For people who had read and understood all this would simply have no more room in their minds for Communist ideology.”3
For a more comprehensive understanding of Solzhenitsyn’s mind as a conservative thinker with a full appreciation of Western culture and a deep respect for Russia’s spiritual traditions, as well as of his pivotal role in defeating the communist behemoth, the reader needs to relate to what the writer himself has termed “anthropocentric humanism.” Toward the end of the chapter entitled “Dante’s Conception” in The First Circle one of the new arrivals at the sharashka (the Mavrino Institute) has the blissful feeling that he must be in Paradise. The imprisoned philologist Rubin corrects him by pointing out self-mockingly that they are still in Hell, as before, but have ascended to its highest circle, the first circle thought up by Dante, who had to find a place for the sages of antiquity. Since the duty of a Christian was to cast all heathens down into hell, and because the conscience of a Renaissance man could not be reconciled to confining them with the rest of the sinners, Dante devised such a place apart for them. In Canto IV, as Rubin explains, Dante is led by Virgil into the first circle of Hell or Limbo, the uppermost verge of the huge funnel of Hell, where the unbaptized souls of infants and virtuous pagans and especially the poets, philosophers and heroes of antiquity dwell suspended.
Thus the title, The First Circle, dictates the very structure of Solzhenitsyn’s novel: the inmates of the sharashka, a special project camp not unlike Dante’s Limbo, are at the top level of Stalin’s Hell, with Stalin himself as a devilish presence felt through an indirect but constant refrain of adulatory phrases like “Nearest and Dearest,” “Father of Western and Eastern Peoples,” and even a fictional portrait. In the chapter called ”The Birthday Hero” he is “only a little old man with a desiccated double chin which was never shown in his portraits … whose name filled the world’s newspapers, was uttered by thousands of announcers in hundreds of languages… It had been given to a multitude of cities and squares, streets and boulevards… and a group of Moscow journalists had proposed that it be given also to the Volga and to the moon.” This monstrous creation of the propaganda machine featured in The First Circle sits alone at night reading his official biography, convincing himself of the identity which was invented for him: ”From 1918 on he had for all practical purposes become Lenin’s deputy (Yes, yes, that was the way it had been)… He watches the propaganda films of Virta and Vishnevsky and, although bored, is pleased.”
Caught in an information loop, Stalin is receiving back the image he has ordered presented. It moves him, profoundly, sentimentally. But in the midst of the artificial sentiment Stalin grows bored and goes out to seek new victims. The degree to which the portrayal of Stalin and the state organs’ actions in The First Circle anticipates Michel Foucault’s description of state power is remarkable. Speaking of the minute details involved in the creation of a prison system Foucault writes of “Small acts of cunning endowed with a great power of diffusion; the attentive ‘malevolence’ that turns everything to account. Discipline is a political anatomy of detail.”4 The portrait of Stalin in The First Circle depicts a man who is obsessed with bringing everything under his control, no matter how small or apparently insignificant. Yet it is precisely this attitude, Solzhenitsyn argues, which has destroyed Russia. By creating an apparatus of terror and control which could include any thought, any opinion, any deed done or undone, Stalin had destroyed the will of his own nation to act, lest it act incorrectly. Both Solzhenitsyn and Foucault agree that force applied with attention to the minute particulars can make a prison house of the whole society.5
Corrupted and perverted by the political conditions and the panoptical surveillance of a totalitarian society, everyday life in USSR is a quintessential experience on Russia’s bright red communist horizon, kept alive in the camp of the povest’ One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the Moscow upper-class world and the sharashka in its various forms like the Mavrino Institute, the Lefortovo interrogation office and Lubianka in The First Circle, and the cancer pavilion in The Cancer Ward.
The differences among the camp, the sharashka, and the ward are largely illusory. In fact, when Cancer Ward was published, Pravda’s editor N. Zimyanin accused Solzhenitsyn, among other things, of ”an obsessive preoccupation with a single theme – the camp theme.” Compressed and crowded, these spaces of confinement that embody the spirit of evil produce the effect of a microcosm which replaces the artificial hierarchies of the outside world with a fundamental scale of values and suggests that everyone is essentially in the same trap. The close interaction of characters with diverse social, political, cultural, and even ethnic backgrounds brings ironic contrasts and reveals communism’s all-pervasive lies and the anxiety and terror that covered the whole country. In Cancer Ward, most of the conflicts derive from the clashes of ideas between central characters. Rusanov, the communist bureaucrat and abominable party hack in Cancer Ward, whose chief occupation in the past seems to have been cooperation with the secret police and denunciations, with dire consequences for both his friends and enemies, dismisses the conscience by stating that immoral acts are merely “bourgeois vestiges” and Leninism has taken care of the problem of conscience “once and for all.” Rusanov’s counter, Kostoglotov, Solzhenitsyn’s best developed fictional character and, to a certain extent, the author’s alter ego,7 whose erosion of sexual power is made subtly analogous to his political persecution, insists that the human spirit demands an ideal of individual moral perfection and that the conscience is its touchstone. In The First Circle, the painter Kondrashev-Ivanov pursues in the sharashka this ideal of moral sustenance in his painting of the Holy Grail, the object of ultimate quest derived from religious institutions and ritual, while the Stalin Prize writer Galakhov lives outside prison walls but in fear of watchdog critics whose sole mission is to protect communist ideology and toe the party line. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich features a world of physical pain, endless surveillance, tormenting pain, hunger and exhaustion that turn man into a beast of burden suffering at the hands of other wild beasts, the guards of the camp. Survival is conditioned by resignation and calculated submission, both of which grant the zeks the modicum of volition that gives life its meaning. Solzhenitsyn’s own experience in the camps gave him too much first-hand evidence not only about the brutality of the guards but also about the peasant personality, enough to allow him not to be content with saintly simple heroes. Such characters as Ivan Denisovich or Spiridon (the sharashka janitor in The First Circle) are mixtures of the sly, the stubborn, the self-interested, and the ruthless as well as of the common-sensical, the enduring, the generous, and the heroic. Of Spiridon, the narrator says: “Not one of the eternal questions about the validity of our sensory perceptions and the inadequacy of our knowledge of our inner lives tormented Spiridon. He knew unshakably what he saw, heard, smelled, and understood.”
Although some critics see in all these works only static collages with characters that seem to blend into an amorphous mass8, the personages are carefully differentiated and personal responsibility takes a variety of shadings. In The First Circle Volodin, a decent Soviet diplomat who has opted for the perks of Stalinism, performs a compassionate deed that sends him to Lubianka and to torturous death; Rubin, a convinced Leninist, has persuaded himself of the good of Marxist ideology expounded in interminable quarrels with the fiery skeptic Sologdin; the prosecutor Makarygin, uneasy with his own daughter’s accounts of social injustice, concludes that the stories are “un-typical.” In this novel in particular each character that makes a moral or humane choice faces a worsening of his or her situation. This is not an irony of fate; the source of the evil is the Stalinist system, with its poisonous ideology, its perpetration and deification of the lie, and its compulsion to waste and destroy human life.
In Cancer Ward, Rusanov, the servile informer who justifies his actions by such meaningless phrases as “it is my civic obligation” and “in the common interest of the general public,” is also a good husband and a doting father. Kostoglotov, Solzhenitsyn’s occasional mouth-piece, is anything but meek and saintly. The only meek and saintly character is Aunt Stefa, who listens sympathetically to young Demka, teaches him resignation and submission to God’s will and provides the hungry boy with homemade meat pies. There is also character growth. One patient, Efim Podduev, is presented at the outset as an opportunist without any moral convictions. But Solzhenitsyn convincingly shows his gradual spiritual regeneration under the double impact of impending death and the spiritual teachings of Tolstoy.
Ultimately, Stalinism provides the glue that cements all these three works, and fuels their Inferno-like narrative tension. As Rusanov sees his world crumble before his eyes and feels distressed about the absence of his boss, Beria, he declares in his defense: “I didn’t pass sentences. I didn’t conduct investigations. I only voiced my suspicions. If in a communal toilet I find a scrap of newspaper with a torn picture of the Leader – it is my duty to introduce this scrap in evidence. And the investigating authority is there to check on it.” But while good men are crushed, battered and hemmed in narratives of cruelty, frustration, and suffering, the courage of despair of Bobynin, another autobiographical self Solzhenitsyn features in The First Circle, seems to guarantee the only modality of survival by preserving one’s moral integrity.
For even though the three works include a meticulous portrait gallery of characters with their central experiences and entangled personal relationships, they invite interpretation from Solzhenitsyn’s contemporaries who must find the courage to probe deeply into the complicated and frequently paradoxical relationship between fiction and one’s own autobiography. In this context, there is an even more ancient tradition of the first circle found in Plato’s Ion. There the mere rhapsode is confronted with the fact that his art is the imitation of the practical man’s imitation of an eternal Form. Plato issues his challenge to the legitimacy of the poet’s role by invoking the famous image of successive rings. The Muse’s power, like a form of magnetism, passes through the first ring to successively lower ones which suspend the poet who takes inspiration from her divinity. If the poet is inspired by this divine contact, others are drawn irresistibly to him through the soul-magnetism which he has received from the Muse. Solzhenitsyn understands perfectly the nature of Plato’s challenge as he centers the search for a man’s soul on his relation to the first circle, which is the act of narration preoccupied with truth and honesty. His works are about the search for that first, magnetic love, the form or essence of a man’s soul through the hermeneutic circle of culture and language. From that perspective too, all these works transform Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in Stalinism and encounters with communism into a universal story of a mental and moral wasteland.