We Never Make Mistakes by Alexander Solzhenitsyn10 August 2008
When I read about Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s death a few days ago, I decided to take the opportunity to rummage through my bookshelves to select a few of his works to revisit. I left A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and both volumes of The Gulag Archipelago on the shelf, not because I didn’t want to read them but because I thought it would be better to read ones that I’m less familiar with. So I took my copies of Cancer Ward and the book below, and I intend to pick up a copy of The First Circle if it’s available from my local library.
We Never Make Mistakes by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
We Never Make Mistakes is a pair of short stories written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and published in the Russian literary magazine Novy Mir in 1963. Solzhenitsyn had made his publishing debut in Novy Mir earlier in the previous year with his groundbreaking story A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the first major work to thoroughly describe the Soviet prison camp system known as the gulag. Although the gulag never fully appears in either of the short stories in this book, its shadow hangs over both of them, as it did over much of Solzhenitsyn’s work. That undercurrent of uneasiness, of horrors left unspoken and worries and fears that cannot be mentioned, provides much of the mood for both stories and constantly reminds the reader that these stories were written in a time when the fundamental beliefs that had supported the structure of the Soviet Union for several decades were first beginning to come into question.
The first story, ‘An Incident at Krechetovka Station’, is set during the early weeks of the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II. The plot focuses on an upright, vigilant, and devotedly Marxist army officer named Zotov, the station commander at Krechetovka railway station. Zotov carries out his duties as best he can in the chaos and confusion of wartime, and when a lost young soldier appears at his station, Zotov considers it his task to reunite the young man with his unit. Yet after a seemingly casual remark made by the soldier gives Zotov cause to think that the young straggler might be a German spy, his faith in the infallibility of the Soviet system is shaken by the thought that doing his duty might mean condemning an innocent man to prison — or, more likely, to a bullet in the back of the head. The second story, ‘Matryona’s House’, is told from the point of view of a man who has been released from the gulag and has found a job teaching mathematics at a tiny school in one of the backwater villages dotted throughout Russia’s interior. (Solzhenitsyn himself found similar employment as a secondary school teacher after his release from the gulag.) Upon his arrival, the narrator takes up residence in the home of Matryona, an elderly peasant woman who lives in desperate poverty in a dilapidated, vermin-infested hut with only a scrawy goat and a lame cat for company. Matryona’s long-suffering patience in the face of hunger, cold, and chronic illness, and her exploitation by greedy relatives and unsympathetic local officials, gradually makes an impression on the unemotional narrator, but only when a serious accident befalls Matryona does he realise exactly what she has come to mean to him as a symbol of his country and his people.
Both stories are rather pessimistic in tone, something which did not go over very well with the Soviet authorities at the time of their publication. Solzhenitsyn’s careful attention to storytelling detail shows through best in his account of the day-to-day miseries and deprivation of the average Soviet citizen, doing for rural farmworkers and harried military officers and worn-out old women what his Ivan Denisovich did for inmates of the Soviet penal camp system. The translation in my particular edition is the original English translation drafted by Paul Blackstock — it includes a short glossary of terms for a handful of words that need further explanation in English or are otherwise left untranslated in the text, but otherwise attempts to keep the translation as simple and literal as possible. So even though they are not as well known as some of Solzhenitysn’s other fiction and nonfiction works, the two short stories in We Never Make Mistakes provide an calm, unflinching, and at times semi-autobiographical perspective on life in the Soviet Union, shining a harsh light on the flaws and failings of a country that was still recovering from the ravages of Stalinism.