Tr. from Russian by Kenneth Lanz and Stephan Solzhenitsyn
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has always been a writer concerned with systems of power and the webs that they catch people in. He writes novels as much from the perspective of a creative historian as that of a novelist — nearly all of his fiction is engaged in mapping out the organs of history and understanding the people that created or fell victim to them.
This latest collection of short stories, Apricot Jam, written in the late 1990s when the dissident writer returned to Russia after 20 years of exile, is no exception. Published in literary magazines in Russia upon their completion, they appear here in English for the first time. This final, posthumous collection finds Solzhenitsyn reflecting on decades passed, and attempting to understand the great behemoth of Soviet Power, all through simple, precise prose and characters that feel as real as the historical events they are caught in.
In earlier works, such as the 1962 novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, detailing the minutiae of life in a Siberian prison camp, or his classic three volume history-ethnography of Stalin’s Gulag system, The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn was engaged in uncovering the hidden reality of a still-existing system, bringing it into public consciousness with an almost activist urgency.
But this later work is engaged rather in the act of processing the past, and it is a fascinating dive into the tragedy and absurdity of the most recent century of Russian history. The nine stories in this collection take on the first lurches of Stalinism, World War II, and post-Soviet Russia. They are fiercely detailed looks at both the structure and nature of a system’s spectacular rise and fall, as well as the human follies and emotions that drew the country through so many strange decades.
Many of the stories in Apricot Jam employ a distinctive “binary” structure, which was apparently Solzhenitsyn’s newest experiment in his later life. The stories are divided into two vaguely connected parts, often focusing on at least two primary protagonists whose stories may or may not intertwine, but nonetheless inform each other. It becomes a kind of formalization of one of the most striking characteristics often used in Solzhenitsyn’s writing: a polyphonic narration that allows for a story to be told through a multitude of intimate perspectives.
The binary structure works particularly well in “Fracture Points,” which begins in the post-war industrial push and skips forward in time through the dissolution of the Soviet Union and tells the stories of two characters’ attempts to succeed in Post-Soviet Russia. Yemtsov, an enterprising factory manager who became a leader of Soviet industry, manages to transform his enormous, state-owned factory into a smaller, semi-successful private company. Tolkovyanov, a young man who came of age in the transition years, has made himself into a bank magnate, but in lawless 1990s Russia his life is under severe threat from organized crime.
Yemtsov’s and Tolkovyanov’s stories are told separately, overlapping only tangentially, but together highlighting the practical and emotional challenges of doing business in 1990s Russia. While both are successful, both see the world as not quite fit for a man of his age. Yemtsov thinks to himself: “It is not difficult for a young man to rebuild his career and change his views and his plans. But a man of sixty-five?” Later, Tolkovyanov thinks of his friend Yemtsov while worrying over threats on his life, and wishes he had the other’s age and experience, lamenting his own state of fearful youth: “But what if you’re not yet thirty? And they can kill you any day? And your friends are deserting you? And how many more mental convolutions will it take to find your way through this ever-changing labyrinth?”
Like Tolkovyanov and Yemtsov, almost none of the characters Solzhenitsyn writes feel equipped to cope with the changes they find themselves in the midst of, not even the most powerful. One of the most engrossing stories of the collection, “Times of Crisis,” tells the story of the Marshall of the Soviet Union, Georgy Zhukov, a central figure of the Red Army commandment during World War II. (A monument of Zhukov astride an imposing bronze horse stands guard today outside the gates of Red Square in Moscow.)
In “Times of Crisis,” a retired Zhukov looks over his experiences, attempting to write a memoir. He wants to write a story of his glorious successes as a leader of the Red Army, but is caught remembering the many ways he was humiliated and undermined by Stalin and other political leaders: “To describe in his memoirs, in his own hand, how after all his famous victories and his three Heroes of the Soviet Union (the only person in the country who could claim that!) he was cast aside to command a military district—no, that he could not do.”
Zhukov’s story is fascinating, and delves deep into the internal dynamics of Soviet power during and after the war, highlighting the human fallibility at the center of it all. But it also reveals the occasional simplicity of Solzhenitsyn’s politics. His soldiers are unfailingly good and fall victim to political officers, just as he depicts Communism as an unstoppable force that fell mercilessly upon what was a great country. Still, it is one of Solzhenitsyn’s strengths that he endows all of his characters with an unfailing, if corruptible, humanity, no matter how powerful or how integral a part of the system they were.
There are stories in Apricot Jam that rise above the rest (“Times of Crisis”, “The New Generation”, “Apricot Jam”), and others that tread an overly moralistic line, or simply fade in comparison to their companions (“No Matter What”, “Zhelyabuga Village”). But the best stories in this collection stand among Solzhenitsyn’s best work, and present a depth seldom found in the short story form. Solzhenitsyn is one of few late-20th Century writers who have earned themselves a place in conversation with the giants of Russian Literature. Though there was no need to reaffirm this position, these latest stories are a significant contribution to his work available in English.