Sunday, March 8, 2020

Dying of Natural Causes in Stalin's Russia

Cancer Ward, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


It was, by any measure, a remarkable life, a struggle most of us cannot comprehend. 

Solzhenitsyn's great novels--from Ivan Denisovich through Cancer Ward and First Circle--tell the story: four years of fighting the Nazis, witnessing atrocities committed both by German troops and his own comrades; eight years in the Gulag for referring to Stalin as "the man with mustache" in a private letter to a friend, the result was "perpetual exile." He was moved, in 1947, to "Special Prison 16," a sharashka, a prison for those with skills in science and mathematics. Three years among those in a kind of limbo that became the basis of his greatest novel The First Circle.

Another slip of the tongue--he couldn't help himself from speaking up, nor could he contain his impatience with the cruelty of the Stalinist system--as a result he was exiled to Ekibastuz where he "wrote" One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by memorizing it, line by line.  (I remember reading this unsurprising fact in Michael Scammell's biography).

In 1953 Stalin died and Solzhenitsyn was sent to Kok-Terek, in the Far East, sent to "perpetual exile." There he was a schoolteacher, divorced from a wife who had no prospect of ever seeing him again, with a constant pain in his abdomen. Almost too late, on the point of death, he was admitted to the cancer clinic at Tashkent where doctors removed a large tumor from his abdomen.  But recovery was hardly cheering for a man in exile--

“I was like the sick people all around me, and yet I was different,” he wrote. “I had fewer rights than they had and was forced to be more silent. People came to visit them, and their one concern, their one aim in life, was to get well again. But if I recovered, it would be almost pointless: I was 35 years of age, and yet in that spring I had no one I could call my own in the whole world. I did not even own a passport, and if I were to recover, I should have to leave this green, abundant land and go back to my desert, where I had been exiled ‘in perpetuity. ‘ There I was under open surveillance, reported on every fortnight, and for a long time the local police had not even allowed me, a dying man, to go away for treatment.”

In 1956 Solzhenitsyn's sentence was lifted and he was permitted to return to the agricultural college at  Ryazan where he remarried his wife, taught mathematics, and wrote out, at last, One Day. Between 1957 and 1963 three of his short novels were published in the Soviet Union, but in May 1967 the climate of relative tolerance shifted under Leonid Brezhnev.  He was expelled from the Soviet Writers' Union in 1969 and later detained and sent into exile, first to Germany, and then, accepting an invitation from Stanford University's Hoover Institute, to the United States.  He lived in Vermont, in Cavendish, where, in 1977, I sought him out hoping for, I have no idea what, but, in any case, he was no where to be found in that tiny hill town in the center of the Green Mountain State.  

***

Cancer Ward is to Stalinism what Mann's Magic Mountain was to the nationalism and militarism that plunged Europe into the Great War, though Solzhenitsyn avoids the intellectual high ground of Mann's great study of world-weariness for a story more deeply steeped in cultural despair.  Mann wrote within a modernist framework committed to lamenting the passing of what he thought to have been the pinnacle of European civilization (though Mann's irony makes it difficult to know precisely what he thought of the world that had committed suicide).  Solzhenitsyn had nothing to lament. For him, Stalinism was nothing less than the murderous continuation of a political history that dated back to the Tsars.  There was nothing in Russian history worthy of lament apart from the courage and suffering of ordinary Russians--in this respect, and in others, Solzhenitsyn is much closer in spirit to Tolstoy than to Dostoevsky, with whom he is most often compared. 

There are countries whose history can only be read as the history of the lives of ordinary people. In those countries, and Russia is one of them, politics has not offered solace from the rigors of the human condition.  Thus Cancer Ward, like the First Circle, consists of a collection of small stories of "ordinary" people who were, for Solzhenitsyn, the soul of Mother Russia. 

As in his monumental histories of the Gulag and of the First World War, these earlier novels delve with loving attention into the psychological condition of the victims of history.  Kostoglotov, who is Solzhenitsyn's alter ego in the novel, yearns for a plot of land, a wife and family, peace and security--for ordinary life.  Yet everything--war and famine, the oppressive state and, a final indignity, his own body--conspire against his enjoying any of the solace of a normal human life.  Kostoglotov's yearning for these things in the face of his own disease, and his compassion for those who partake of the same dreams, are what gives the novel its beauty and profundity. 

There is, to be sure, a current of cynicism and considerable anger in the book--the Stalinist toady Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, for example, represents for Kostoglotov all that is rotten within the Soviet system, and Solzhenitsyn is unsparing in his criticism of the hypocrisy and cruelty of the politics that has condemned so many innocents to death.  But the novel as a whole is remarkably free of bitterness.  The final chapters, in particular, are memorable for their depiction of yearning for a better life.  When Kostoglotove is released from the Cancer Ward--in remission, but, we understand, not cured, he reacts as a child might to the ordinary pleasures of life.  An ice cream, a treat not experienced in the War or the Gulag or the Ward, evokes in Kostoglotov an almost mystical sense of the beauty of life.  This was Solzhenitsyn himself speaking: his own life must have led him to conclude that nothing was sweeter than simply living. 

In Vermont, hiding out, writing furiously, he became cantankerous.  The West, he felt, was decadent--who could disagree--self-indulgent, naive.  He "warned" us repeatedly of the dangers of totalitarian states.  He said that our immersion in materialism and shallow culture would be our undoing. The wise men who tell us what to think accused him of being a "crank" and "out of touch." We knew better than he did, even though none of us had survived the horrors that for him were the ordinary stuff of memory. 

***

As the life around me deteriorates--as politics becomes folly, as indignities multiply--I can't help but think of how fortunate I have been, how my life has been blessed from beginning to (near) ending with peace and relative prosperity.  If I compare my own circumstances to those of Solzhenitsyn, I can hardly believe that we resided, for some time, in the same world.  His angry outbursts at the West during his exile seemed to many, and, I must confess, to me as well, as overwrought, the product of a view of the world I couldn't understand, let alone share.

What did I know?





George Ovitt (March 7, 2020)





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