Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Lifeby D. M. Thomas, Anita Karl (Contribution by), Maureen Troy (Designed by), D.M. Thomas
A rare combination of exhaustive research and novelistic style, Alexander Solzhenitsyn is the type of literary biography that appears rarely in a generation. D. M. Thomas depicts/i>
One of the most important literary biographies of recent times, this is not only the story of one of the century's greatest writers, but the history of Russia itself.
A rare combination of exhaustive research and novelistic style, Alexander Solzhenitsyn is the type of literary biography that appears rarely in a generation. D. M. Thomas depicts Solzhenitsyn's struggles, which led to years of imprisonment and subsequent exile, and paints a deeply affecting portrait of the intricate relationship between Solzhenitsyn's life and his art, always framing this masterpiece in the context of the historical times.
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Happy is the writer who remembers drawing in the devoted love of a woman and, through her, the riches of his native traditions. For Pushkin, at the start of the nineteenth century, that woman was his nurse, Arina Rodionovna, whose simple peasant love consoled him for the coldness of his mother. The fairy tales and folk stories she told him in Russian broke through the genteel French of polite society. He paid tribute to her in a tender poem that imagines her sighing like a sentry on guard, at an upstairs window, her gnarled hands knitting more slowly now, as she gazes at the forgotten gate, the distant blackened road; he is late, and she fearfully imagines ...
The lyrical fragment breaks off at that point. But their two imaginings have touched for a moment again in his adulthood and his adulteries.
Solzhenitsyn's Arina was Irina, an aunt. She had married into his maternal grandfather's family, the Shcherbaks, and she conjured up almost a biblical story of a patriarch coming dressed in rags out of a foreign land....
Zakhar Shcherbak was his name.
Zakhar had been born to a peasant family in 1858 in the Tauria, in southern Ukraine. This was a year when Tsar Alexander II was receiving universal homage for setting in motion the emancipation of the serfs. The great, though inevitably flawed, liberation was enacted in 1861, by which time the chorus of praise had become shouts for the complete liberalization of society. Nothing of this would presumably have touched the lives of Zakhar's family. They lived, or they subsisted, in peace; it cost the United States a bloody civil war to achieve a similar emancipation.
After a year of schooling, Zakhar became a shepherd boy. When he was twelve, his father moved his family southeastward to the North Caucasus region in search of work as hired labor. Somehow Zakhar impressed their employer with his intelligence and resourcefulness, and the unusually thoughtful farmer gave the youth a dozen sheep, some piglets, and a cow, urging him to make an independent life for himself.
Slowly he began to prosper, and took a wife, a village blacksmith's daughter, Yevdokia Ilyinichna. In photographs she is stately, stout, square-faced, her hair pulled primly back. She was pious and obedient, and eventually bore Zakhar nine children, Doubtless by the time the first babies arrived, her husband was able to provide a somewhat more comfortable home than that of most peasants, who lived in extreme squalor. In a log-built izba, measuring about twenty-foot square of dirt floor, a whole family would be crowded, with a stove in one corner and icons in another. Few izbas had chimneys. In winter, the humans shared their smoke-filled hovel with pigs, lambs, and calves. Beetles and cockroaches swarmed. Human and animal excrement was piled in the yard, for sometimes a whole village did not have a single privy.
Zakhar Shcherbak dragged himself and Yevdokia out of that. Both pious believers, they must have thanked God and his Mother constantly for the way their lives throve. And if the blacksmith's daughter was thrashed sometimes by her lively, virile, irascible husband--that too, she felt, was what providence had ordained. She admired his cleverness: he could read the Lives of the Saints, and write after a fashion. As for his eye for business, no one could match him. He invested shrewdly, built up capital. Sometime in the 1880s he moved his family 150 miles northwest to the Armavir region in the Kuban and bought the land, between river and new railroad, built in 1875, where he founded his estate. Around him were many fellow Ukrainians, and also German settlers from whom he learned good economy. The soil was rich: "In the steppe there was a splendid black soil, so heavy and firm that the herd left no traces where they passed over it. On it grew a strong-scented grass standing as high as a horse's belly," as Mikhail Sholokhov observes in And Quiet Flows the Don.
The former shepherd boy was now the owner of a grand two-story house, with a wrought-iron balcony running all round it at second-floor level. The ample rooms had imitation-walnut paneling, and were furnished in the best, dark-polished Victorian way. There was electricity from a generator, piped water from four sources. The surrounding park had avenues of balsam and pyramid poplars, a pond for swimming, orchard, Moorish garden, herb and rose gardens, vineyard. Lawn mowers cut the lawn of fresh green English ryegrass alongside the driveway.
The vast steppe land of more than five thousand acres held twenty thousand sheep. The cultivated land was split up into rectangular sectors by windbreaks of acacia plantations; the six-field crop rotation system was in use: wheat and maize alternating with horsebeans, sunflowers, lucerne, and esparto grass, yielding heavier, lusher crops year by year. The whole great "economy" bristled with scores of servants, cooks, butlers, chauffeur coachman, bailiff, accountant, clerks, grooms, gardeners, mechanics ... all working with Germanic industriousness and efficiency. A marriage of work and beauty.
The swift and vast increase in Zakhar's wealth, from herdsboy to millionaire in a generation, seems a miracle. He must have been as remarkable a mas as his famous grandson was to be. For Yevdokia, the transformation from poverty to unbelievable wealth must have been bewildering. But her feet were firmly on the fertile black earth; her religious faith was not weakened when, in the space of a week, scarlet fever scythed through six of their children.
I imagine Zakhar, that terrible week, continuing to order his estate, poring over accounts, discussing with his chief clerk whether he could afford a Mercedes, or should he stick to the phaeton? Holding firm against the cry of women. Deaths of children were commonplace; and not only in Russia, of course. Did the burials echo one that Pushkin observed at his family's run-down estate?...
Very likely; for Zakhar never stopped being a peasant at heart. What the great Lev Tolstoy at his Yasnaya Polyana estate dreamed of turning into--yet never could, however slovenly his smock, however hard he scythed at harvest--Zakhar Shcherbak would never cease to be. For all the featherbeds available, Zakhar always preferred to sleep on the warm stove, in the traditional peasant way. His grandson, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, would also, metaphorically, sleep on the stove, preferring a spartan way of life. (Though it was quite nice to be spartan within a substantial property that you owned.... Here too Solzhenitsyn would show he was Zakhar Shcherbak's grandson.)
In the pre-First World War epoch, when the distant Tsar Nicholas II was vacillating between holding the line against change and yielding to constitutional reform, the three surviving offspring of Zakhar and Yevdokia were living a cosseted existence on the Kuban estate. By far the oldest of the three was Roman Shcherbak. Something of a liberal in politics, an admirer of the proletarian writer Maxim Gorky's socialism, Roman nevertheless enjoyed playing the English-style young country gent, wearing tweeds, knee breeches, and patent-leather boots. Mustached and sometimes donning a raffish naval-style peaked cap, he lorded it, with a cool English haughtiness, in a white Rolls-Royce--one of only nine in Russia.
Much of his wealth he owed to his wife, Solzhenitsyn's aunt Irina. Irina's father had a ruthless streak that probably appealed to Zakhar Shcherbak. When already old and ailing, this extremely rich ex-soldier bribed his bishop with forty thousand rubles to let him divorce his elderly childless wife and marry a girl with whom he had fallen in love. Irina became their only child. She had only just left school when her father, knowing he was dying, betrothed her to thirty-year-old Roman Shcherbak.
In Solzhenitsyn's novel August 1914, Roman and Irina appear under their real names. Solzhenitsyn has made it clear, in interviews, that the "family saga" episodes, interwoven with the far more extensive war scenes, are not merely "based on" his own family but depict them as they were; or rather, as he imagined them to have been, before his lifetime. Solzhenitsyn never strays far from real life. So we can be sure that Roman did, in fact, take Irina home from parties, before the drunken landowners tossed their women into the air, indiscriminately, so that several male hands could grab their naked thighs under their flying-up skirts. Where such a custom was observed openly, one can be sure manners could be even coarser on the quiet.
Irina brought great wealth to the already well-off Shcherbaks. Roman wasn't educated, but he enjoyed taking her to Petersburg and Moscow for two months every year, and to Europe for another two months. In the Louvre, in the purple room of the Venus de Milo, where no one was supposed to sit down, he would bribe the attendant with a ten-franc note to fetch "la chaise," so he could rest and have a smoke while Irina admired bits of broken crockery. Then, moving to the next room "Now put the chair there, please, my good man: right there!" He became an early jet-setter. In the Moscow-St. Petersburg rally, he burned up the miles in the Daimler sports car he had bought in Stuttgart.
It doesn't seem to have been a happy marriage, judging by Irina's comment, in old age, that the Shcherbak men did nothing but drink, play cards, and fornicate. She remained childless, and Roman--apparently--coldhearted. Her frustrated emotions were poured into religion--Orthodoxy, tinged with an exotic belief in reincarnation. She loved literature, was very traditional and conservative, though with a theatrical streak, since, loving the hunt, she carried a Browning revolver in her purse and hung a shotgun on her bedroom wall. Perhaps she would have liked to shoot her husband. The revolver in her purse reminds one of Hedda Gabler; there was a similar secret rage in her, beneath her piety.
Roman had two much younger sisters, Maria and Taissia. Taissia, the youngest child, was eleven when she found herself with a seventeen-year-old sister-in-law, who became attached to her. Taissia, the darling of her father, was headstrong, lively and intelligent. Much later, photographs show her as grim-faced--life was hard on her; yet in August 1914, where Taissia is called Ksenia, her son tells us she "shook with laughter" when recalling the women being thrown up into the air at parties. She was clearly no puritan.
Solzhenitsyn evokes the great house and thriving, humming estate as a lost paradise, dominated by two girls, his mother and his aunt. Successive chapters open with delicious and, for Solzhenitsyn, rare scenes of feminine "leisure" and languor. First Irina awakes. She is not quite happy since she remembers she has quarreled with Roman, and he is not with her. There is a distinct echo of the opening of Anna Karenina, where Oblonsky has the same recollection of a quarrel with his spouse over his infidelity. Just as Oblonsky can't help smiling despite his marital troubles, so the marvelous morning and her overbrimming nature counteract Irina's sadness: "She threw open the shutters giving on to the park. It was a wonderful morning, with just a touch of coolness in the air from the shade of the Himalayan silver firs, whose branches spread to the window ledges of the first-floor rooms. "
Next, Ksenia (Taissia) awakes in another room, to luxuriate in the comfort of her bed, her "sweet little blue room, still dark although the sunlight was already beating against the shutters. And all the time in the world to laze about--a day, a week, even a month!" She gives a "delicious yawn, a stretch, then another stretch," her fists clenched above her head.
She hears her brother, Roman, knock and ask her if she is awake, he needs to fetch something from the safe. Shouting out "All right!" Ksenia "jumped out of bed without using her hands, with one bound of her strong legs." The opening of the novel, so redolent of old Russia, of the great estates, is infused with an innocent eroticism, in a melange of girlish self-indulgence and the ordered, beautiful life of a grand house. The close association of the two sisters-in-law is significant; they were the erotic archetypes in Solzhenitsyn's imagination. Ksenia's laughter, when relating the bawdy party "game," evokes a free spirit that tragically had to be suppressed later in life: just as her son suppressed the same element in himself.
Irina "gave" him the great house in early, Leninist childhood, telling him--in a suitably selective form--stories that the little boy, later to be a great author, stored behind his wide-open blue eyes. She did not tell him that she thought the Shcherbaks were boors, living like pigs; that old Zakhar whipped his wife and threatened to knife Roman. These impressions she left for her embittered old age, with the KGB as prompters. She told little Sanya (Alexander) about the spacious rooms, whose furnishings she helped to plan, and the tree-lined avenues; the orchard, the rose garden, the herb garden.
He would see it for himself one day, she told him; even get to own it.... He did get to see it, but only by pressing his face between wrought-iron railings. It was The Cherry Orchard after Lopakhin had had the trees cut down; commissars strutted about.
But the dream of it never left him; he was to do his best to re-create it, more than once.
That was one side of his family. And at the end of the brief--too brief--scenes involving Irina and Ksenia in August 1914, there is a glimpse of the other side. For he describes how a young man by the name of Isaaki (Sanya) Lazhenitsyn was traveling in a train alongside a rich estate. He is about to enlist and go to war. Through the trees he sees "clearly on a wrought-iron corner balcony the figure of a woman wearing a white dress--the gay white dress of a woman of leisure."
The poplars hide her from view.
The name of the author's father was Isaaki (Sanya) Solzhenitsyn.
The name Solzhenitsyn, unusual in Russia, may derive from solod, malt. There may indeed have been a headstrong, intemperate element in the blood, for there were family legends of early rebelliousness. A Fillip Solzhenitsyn from Voronezh province was said to have displeased Peter the Great for having illegally changed his place of abode. Peter burned down the entire village in his wrath. A century later, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's great-great-grandfather joined in an act of rebellion, and the rebels suffered banishment to the virgin lands of the Caucasus. Such punishments were a traditional way of opening up new territory; like the pioneers moving west across America, the migrants could take what land they wanted. According to Solzhenitsyn, the banished rebels were not fettered in irons, nor sent to a remote garrison or gulag, but let loose in the wild steppe country beyond the Kuma River. Here they lived in harmony, with land in such abundance that they didn't have to divide it up in strips. They sowed where they plowed, sheared sheep with no one to hinder them, and put down roots.
Poised between the Cossack tribes of the Kuban and Terek rivers, the settlers were known contemptuously to the Cossacks as inogorodniye, outsiders. They wore the title with pride: Russians within Russia, yet alien. The rebellious writer, in his time, would not be too bothered about conforming or "belonging."
The Solzhenitsyn farm was six miles east of Sablia (now commonly marked on maps as Sablinskoye), a posting stage on the road between Stavropol, the provincial capital, and Georgievsk, in the foothills of the Caucasus. Only the mountains glimpsed in the distance distinguished the village, which by the 1880s had a church and a parish school. A shallow many-forked stream flowed through the village in winter. A single street of adobe houses yielded at the back to kitchen gardens and sheds. The Solzhenitsyn farm, out in the country, consisted of a low clay farmhouse and some outbuildings in the midst of open steppe. Alexander's great-grandfather Yefim gazes into the lens of an early camera, tall and erect in a field of corn, a bearded and mustached Victorian yeoman farmer. Family legend has it that two brothers came, in soldiers' uniforms; one brother wasted his money, the other--Yefim--was careful, and throve.
Yefim begat Semyon, Alexander's grandfather. His wife Pelageya gave him the ideal progeny of two sturdy sons first, Konstantin and Vasili, then two daughters, Yevdokia and Anastasia. During her fifth pregnancy, she probably felt it was time for another son; and God was good: on 6 June 1891 (Old Style)--more than twenty years after the first--a third son was born, and named Isaaki.
The aged Irina would please the KGB by claiming the Solzhenitsyns were rich, like the Shcherbaks ("Money found money"), but Solzhenitsyns denies this. Semyon Solzhenitsyn owned, his grandson has claimed, a dozen or so cows, a few pairs of oxen and horses for plowing, a couple of hundred sheep. There were, it appears, no hired hands, suggesting the farm was not extensive in size. Semyon ran it with the help of his older sons. It is helpful again to think of the American pioneers. The Solzhenitsyns were isolated and no doubt quite self-sufficient; the villagers would see them when they drove the wagon in to load up provisions or for churchgoing.
The truth may lie much closer to Irina's version. According to Vasili's daughter, Ksenia Kulikova, who still lives in Sablia, Semyon also owned the main, substantial house in the village, which is now its hospital. His eldest sons owned the houses on either side. Before the Revolution, Semyon was very rich, owning two thousand sheep, and did have workers. The family was so important that some people called the village Solzhenitsyn. Everyone loved Semyon; he was helpful and clever, always a source of good advice.
When Isaaki was still only a child, his mother, Pelageya, died. Semyon, well into middle life, might have considered settling into comfortable widowerhood; one of the girls could stay unmarried, cook and clean without protest; but presumably his eye could still rove. He remarried. His second wife, Marfa, gave him another son and daughter, Ilya and Maria.
And brought division into the home. According to Solzhenitsyn in August 1914, this second wife was a "bold, domineering, greedy woman who kept the whole household on a short rein, making sure that no one stood in the way of her own children." The older sons could not get on with her, no doubt resented their father for remarrying; having enough money to buy farms of their own, they left. The two older girls married and moved away to nearby villages. Anastasia, in the village of Nagutskoye, would have a neighbor who gave birth in 1914 to Yuri Andropov: KGB chief and persecutor of Anastasia's nephew, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
In both the Shcherbak and the Solzhenitsyn families, it was the younger children who were given the advantages of education. For a short time, indeed, Taissia Shcherbak and Isaaki Solzhenitsyn were being educated at lycees in the same Caucasian spa town of Pyatigorsk; though the two didn't meet and, even had they, Isaaki would not have noticed the immature timid schoolgirl. When Taissia reached thirteen, in 1908, Irina and Roman persuaded old Zakhar to send his daughter to Rostov. Alexandra Andreyeva, principal of the private Andreyeva Gymnasium, found herself stormed in her office by a knobbly-nosed, beetle-browed, bewhiskered old man in a rustic woolen suit who shouted his request that her school admit his daughter. Madame Andreyeva, recently widowed, was genteel in manner, gray haired and pince-nezed. Despite appearances, she was actually a thoroughgoing modern liberal and feminist; she readily admitted Jews, and paid scant respect to God or the Tsar. Stern but kindly, she rather took to the uncouth, loudly laughing farmer for whom money was clearly no object. Since her own eldest daughter was going to Moscow to be educated, she even let herself be persuaded to rent out her room to the new pupil.
Taissia Shcherbak was very happy in Madame Andreyeva's school and family, and flourished academically. She learned to speak fluently three languages; browsed at will among shelves well stocked with enlightened books; learned to dance better than any schoolgirl in Rostov--with a passion for the free-flowing style of Isadora Duncan. Taissia began to feel that her home, to which she returned on vacations, was very backward, with its boring icons and morning and evening prayers. She loved school so much she even turned down an offer from Roman and Irina to take her on a grand tour abroad. She graduated with the gold medal, as the school's star pupil.
But how--her "fictional" self wonders in August 1914--can she persuade people she is well educated and intelligent when she looks so countrified with her round, swarthy, healthy face! She must cultivate pallor; is too much the steppe-girl, the Ukrainian. All she wants to do is dance, dance, dance, like Isadora!
Her father had other ideas; he needed an agronomist, and in 1912 Taissia entered the Princess Golitsyn School of Agriculture, in Moscow. The yearning of so many provincial Chekhovian girls had become realized for her; even though she had had to compromise over her future career, at the point when the Great War started, life was good.
Isaaki Solzhenitsyn had a harder task to persuade his father to give him a good education; perhaps Semyon thought it would be unfair if any of his younger children were given opportunities that the older ones had not had. Sanya--as he was familiarly known--could work on the farm as his brothers had done. But the boy was stubborn and determined; after a year of argument he got his way, and entered the Gymnasium at Pyatigorsk, an excellent school. Four years later, he had to spend another wearisome year persuading his father to let him go on to university. At first he went to the University of Kharkov, to study literature and history. There may have been difficulty in gaining entry because of his name; Solzhenitsyn reports in the original August 1914, though he later doubted the story's truth and removed the reference, that the authorities thought Isaaki a Jewish name rather than an old-fashioned Orthodox one, and since their Jewish quota was filled they turned him away.
Certainly the Jewish-sounding name encouraged the KGB, in the Brezhnev era, to claim that the troublesome author's surname was Solzhenitser.
Isaaki did not feel comfortable in Kharkov, and the teaching was mediocre. After one year, in 1912, he transferred to Moscow University. He began to feel an emotional tie with the heart of Russia, which he was now seeing for the first time, that heartland from which his family had originally sprung. Also he was determined that his education would not separate him from the people. It was for them, for the narod, that he wished to be educated. In the 1870s, idealistic people, some twenty-five hundred of them, chose to go out into the villages to educate and care for the peasants, they believed they would stir up a desire for rebellion in them; but they returned to the cities sadly disillusioned. Isaaki, rather late in the day, took those young people as his inspiration. He would use his education to go back to the people with the book, the word, and with love.
In keeping with this idealism, he idolized Tolstoy, and tried to put the master's beliefs into effect. So, even though he craved meat, he tried to be vegetarian; even though he liked writing verses he tried not to, recalling that poetry led away from the simplicity of truth; and even though he loved sensual waltzes, he stopped himself indulging in such dancing, because Tolstoy said they evoked emotions that were false and dangerous.
In this respect he differed from Roman Shcherbak, who admired Tolstoy so much that he filled the Shcherbak house with portraits of him, but lived an idle, pampered life totally at odds with Tolstoyan asceticism and his own belief that society must change. But Roman was neither the first nor the last to combine a pampered life with egalitarian ideals.
Isaaki Solzhenitsyn loved coming home from Moscow on his university vacations to work on the farm; even though the villagers teased him for his city ways and clothes. Traveling home that summer of 1914 just before the war, seeing the insubstantial Caucasus range shimmer on the flat horizon he may have remembered how Tolstoy had taken this road south, at the same age, twenty-three, on his way to the Terek Cossacks. He may not have known how muddled Tolstoy's mind had been, and would always be: full of tortured idealism, wishing his mind were not filled with thoughts of lust, gambling, and vanity.
Moscow gave way in Isaaki's mind to the country tracks, turning from forgotten memory into reality before his eyes. "Every recollection of the place where one grew up brings a twinge of nostalgia. Others may be indifferent to it or think it a very ordinary place, but to each one of us it is the best on earth--the unique sadness evoked by the memory of a country cart-track as it twists and turns to avoid the boundary posts, the rickety lopsided coach-shed; the sundial in the middle of the yard, the bumpy neglected, unfenced tennis-court; the roofless summer-house made of birch shingles."
It was August 1914. At the onset of "the real twentieth century," in Akhmatova's phrase, as distinct from its meaningless calendar beginning, when the world still lived in an illusion.
As a believer in Tolstoyanism, Sanya should not have enlisted in the military; but something called him to do so. Maybe he felt sorry for Russia, as August 1914 would suggest. Maybe it seemed cowardly and uninteresting to accept his right as a student not to serve. So he boarded the familiar train, determined to enlist, and took what might be his last look at beloved Kuban meadows, vast fields ripe for harvest. And saw the upper story of a brick house, and the figure of a girl in a white dress on a wrought-iron corner balcony....
The peasant-student took an officer training course at the Sergiev School of Heavy Artillery, in Moscow, then was sent to the front to serve with an artillery Guards brigade. He fought bravely throughout the war, once being mentioned in dispatches for having rescued several boxes of ammunition from a fire started by enemy shells. He won the George and Anna crosses.
In February 1917 the Tsar was forced to abdicate. Isaaki was elected to the Brigade Soviet of Soldiers' Deputies--indicating that his men knew he sympathized with their cause. The following month the Soviet enacted a decree designed to liberalize the harsh discipline of the tsarist army and reduce the privileges of the career officer caste. In the same month Isaaki went to Moscow for a short leave; at some kind of student celebration or reunion, he met a student of agronomy from his own home region called Taissia Shcherbak, and for both of them it was love at first sight.
Meet the Author
D. M. Thomas, the author of numerous novels, including the bestselling The White Hotel, lives in England.
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