"Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in his Life"
By D. M. Thomas
St. Martin's Press
(C) 1998 D. M. Thomas
All rights reserved.
In telling the story of one of Russia's greatest writers -- Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- D.M. Thomas has written a history of Russia as well. In his books Solzhenitsyn lay bare the details of the Stalinist labor camps that killed millions. He won the 1970 Nobel Prize, but was forced into exile in 1974.
I saw it fifty years ago
Before the thunderbolt had riven it,
Green leaves, ripe leaves, leaves thick as butter,
Fat, greasy life....
--W. B. YEATS, Purgatory
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
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?...
Oh, here comes a peasant, with two women behind him:
Bareheaded, a child's coffin under his arm;
From afar he shouts out to the priest's lazy son
To call his father and open up the church.
"Hurry up! We haven't got all day!"
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
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
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
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
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
But the dream of it never left him; he was to do his best to re-create it, more
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
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
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
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.
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