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Richard Tempest. “War is Existence Itself”: Representations of the Authorial Self in Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s Story “Zhelyabuga Village”

As a textual construct, “Zhelyabuga Village” (1996) may be the most heterogeneous of Solzhenitsyn’s post-exilic binary tales. Part One is a fictionalized account of the writer’s wartime experiences in and around the eponymous hamlet in the summer of 1943, Part Two is a polemical memoir of his visit to the same place some fifty years later. The element of formal binarism is stark, for this work relies on a double fictive transformation. Real-life people, including the empirical author, appear first as literary characters but subsequently, after half an hour of discourse time and half a century of story time, assume a new status as defictionalized material witnesses in the here-and-now of the 1990s. Both sections are narrated in the first person, which provides a degree of diegetic continuity across these two generically dissimilar, conjoined pieces of prose. The conjunction in question turns on a patriotic homily delivered at the end of Part One by a Red Army commissar to a group of peasants: “…All our things that the Germans destroyed, we’ll rebuild. Our land will sparkle even more than before. There’ll be a fine life for us after the war, comrades, the like of which we’ve never seen” [1. P. 213]. Alas, it was not to be, for in Part Two we find a few ragged villagers who have survived the intervening decades engaged in dolorous discourse with the historical Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 76, amid the accumulated poverty of Soviet and post-Soviet misrule.


The autobiographical hero of Part One, Sasha, is a young lieutenant with a reconnaissance artillery unit who after four days of hard fighting is in a state of “joyous exhaustion” [1. P. 172], thrilled to be a part of the Red Army’s victorious advance following the Battle of Kursk. For much of the text, however, the narrative focus lies elsewhere, on the manner in which the officers and men in the sound-ranging unit, a specialized branch of the artillery, go about their martial business. There are numbers of “how-it-is-done” passages in which the military details, some of them highly technical, are carefully correlated with the mental and physical demands that these reconnaissance gunners must face. “Each listening post has four or five men, and they have a lot of heavy equipment to carry. A single storage battery is enough to throw off your entire shoulder; they usually need eight reels of cable, and sometimes more than ten…” [1. P. 177]. Moreover, this is a Russian army, with a “Russian way” [1. P. 190, 199] of fighting that is familiar to us from War and Peace and The Red Wheel, even if corrected for the realities of mechanized warfare. A truck drives at speed over a minefield, with Sasha holding on for dear life, because “switching to any of the side roads meant a long detour” [1. P. 190].

We are told little of the hero’s past and nothing about his appearance, though we learn that he is a chain smoker. Nevertheless, Sasha’s personality and physical self play a central part in the fictive proceedings: unlike, say, the equally autobiographical Ignatich in “Matryona’s Home,” he is a protagonist in the true sense of the word. If war is 99% boredom and 1% terror, Sasha’s day at the front is 99% hard slog, though he also experiences his 1% of bone-chilling dread when a Nazi bomber bears down on him out of “spite or revenge” [1. P. 196]. He also witnesses one of his men suffer a mortal wound and twice feels the (undeserved) wrath of superior officers who threaten him, respectively, with being sent to a punishment battalion and summary frontline justice (“I can do whatever I like with you” [1. P. 200]).

Young Sasha is a mixture of things. A veteran soldier, in some ways he is still very callow. He is a committed communist, though perhaps not a card-carrying one. His bookish politics recall young Gleb Nerzhin’s Marxist conceits in Love the Revolution, as we discover when the hero informs his best friend, Ovsyannikov, in suitably fervent tones, “…We’ll keep on blasting them, and then — into Europe like a spring uncoiling. After a war like this, there’s bound to be a revolution, don’t you think? It’s straight out of Lenin” [1. P. 188]. And yet, Sasha’s love of country is unmediated by the dialectic: “…You could die without regrets for this Russian heartland” [1. P. 174]. Above all else, he is a warrior. Though a trained mathematician, he does not always go by the numbers when directing his guns: “It’s best not to make corrections, just give it a volley and scare the shit out of them!” [1. P. 199].

As for Sasha’s unit, it is a collection of lightly sketched bodies, personalities, and relationships. In army friendships, rank tells: the two men he is closest to are both officers, “open hearted” Lieutenant Ovsyannikov, who is “like a brother” [1. P. 186], and platoon commander Lieutenant Kuklin, “a sweet-tempered young fellow with the face and the stature of a boy” [1. P. 179], whom he mentors. Major Boyev, a much-decorated battalion commander, and Lieutenant Proshchenkov, Sasha’s counterpart in Four Battery, possess an “unyielding solidity” in their jaws and shoulders that reflects “a masculine strength” [1. P. 208]. These indicators of martial physiology complement the protagonist’s own body-centric sensations that day.

The rank-and-file soldiers depicted include “stocky little Burlov” [1. P. 177], “the imperturbable Siberian, Yermolaev” [1. P. 178], “Shukhov, a quick and capable fellow” [1. P. 178], “dark, sullen Volkov” [1. P. 178], “gloomy, freckle-faced Yemelyanov” [1. P. 178], “thin, agile Dugin” [1. P. 180], “saucy Yenko” [1. P. 181], “plump little Pashanin” [1. P. 182], “tall, stolid Lyakhov” [1. P. 182], “fine-looking,” bright-eyed” [1. P. 186] Ptashinsky, “sharp-eyed” [1. P. 198] Konchits. The laconic descriptions are the narrative equivalent of name, rank, and serial number. Others in this unit of 60 men are mere names. Here and there the narration, which constantly shifts between the modes of descriptiveness and discontinuity, includes snippets of dialogue or glimpses of (living) body parts such as Pashanin’s “hairy chest and back” [1. P. 182] or Lipsky’s “soft white hands… on the ribbon of paper spread out across the table” [1. P. 198].


As the story unfolds some of the secondary characters come into focus, among them “short and swarthy” Andreyashin [1. P. 184], a newly minted conscript with family in still-occupied Oryol a few miles away, whom he hopes to look up once the city is liberated. Another soldier, Shmakov, is a deserter from an anti-tank unit who “couldn’t take the close combat” [1. P. 178] but has performed well since joining the battery: a mini-biography that throws an unexpected light on wartime practices in the Red Army. The battery’s political officer, Kochegarov, he of that uplifting lecture to the Zhelyabuga peasants, got his appointment because he was a driver for the regional party committee before the war. As this detail suggests, the ideological ex‑chauffeur is surplus to military requirements. Then there are those staples of war fiction, the tough sergeant who is “a capable manager” [1. P. 175] and the “regimental mascot,” Mitka Petrykin, a boy adopted by the battery when it passed through the town of Novosil, which had been “completely flattened by the war” [1. P. 173]. Another figure familiar from countless novels and movies is Private Pugach. A lawyer in civilian life, he “can always find some loophole to get him the easier jobs” [1. P. 181].

The disconnect between the in‑the‑trenches experiences of the men doing the fighting and the generals in their HQ is nicely delineated, as when the narrator remarks that nighttime offers the optimal conditions for sound reconnaissance. “The people higher up have never taken this rule into account, though. If they had any sense, they’d have us move by day, not by night” [1. P. 180]. Another effective element is the attention paid not just to what veteran troops do, but what they don’t do. When sighting a Focke-Wulf 189 reconnaissance plane, nicknamed “the picture frame” because of its distinctive twin-boom design, the Russian flak holds its fire because “they always manage to dodge the shrapnel” [1. P. 177], and Sasha’s gunners have “long since stopped wearing gas masks and just toss them all in the back of the truck” [1. P. 177].

Unlike the World War I campaigns in East Prussia (August 1914) or Poland (November 1916), this is fully mechanized warfare that is fought in all three dimensions. Iconic Russian and German war machines such as the IL‑2 Stormovik, the Katyusha rocket launcher, and the Ju‑87 Stuka sow death on the battlefield. The latter is vividly animated: “As always, you can see his front wheels that seem to be reaching out for you like talons; he lets loose the bomb that falls like a droplet from his beak” [1. P. 196]. Another Stuka swoops down on the hero himself (“a huge crash,” “scorching heat,” “a terrible noise in my head” [1. P. 196]), and then the two aircraft fly away: “…They have their own lives to lead, up there in the sky, one racing after the other, and the sky now is no longer concerned with the earth below it” [1. P. 197]. The tone, but not the reality, is recognizably Tolstoyan.

Soon after Sasha has that near-death encounter, Andreyashin is mortally wounded by a German shell:

Cherneykin… is carrying something… He’s holding it well away from himself so as not to soil his clothes.

Is that a leg he’s carrying?

It is a leg, from the knee down, still in a boot, with a tattered puttee flapping [1. P. 201–02].


The stress of command and the tension of battle, compounded by a lack of sleep, put the protagonist into a fugue state.

The hours flow by, and from all the racket, the confusion, and the trying to do three things at once, the extreme strain under which you’ve been working begins to sink you into torpor. Your whole being seems to be in fog; your head feels swollen, both from the lack of sleep and the effects of the shell bursts that haven’t yet passed; your head droops, your eyes are red. It’s as if the various parts of your brain and your soul have been torn to pieces and will simply not move back to their proper places” [1. P. 205].


The text abounds in place names and topographic references: the protagonist is a gunner with a gunner’s eye for the lie of the land. The Soviet side of the frontline has been cleared of the local inhabitants “out of fear of treachery” and is “without a living soul, no crops planted, and the fields overgrown with weeds as in the time of the Polovtsians” [1. P. 174] (an oblique expansion of the text into the historical past), but the fields around Zhelyabuga, which until recently was held by the Germans, are cultivated and a few of the locals have stayed put. This gladdens Sasha’s patriotic heart: “It’s very odd and very cheering for us to see living Russian peasants…” [1. P. 174].

Like most of Solzhenitsyn’s fictions, Part One features at its center an open space/closed space dichotomy, the field of battle vs. a cellar in Zhelyabuga. In that subterranean locus, where the local villagers have sought refuge from the fighting, Sasha establishes his forward post. Here the vectors of military operations and civilian survival intersect. Clustered in this dark, dank place are a few women, an old man, a couple of children. Such are the wartime demographics of the Russian countryside. In the cellar Sasha meets a peasant girl with an unusual name, Iskiteya, whom the other villagers call Iskorka (Little Sparkle). This rustic beauty is blonde, curly-haired, voluptuous: “Her dress is tightly belted at the waist but is quite full above and below” [1. P. 194]. Pert and saucy, Iskorka fends off a soldier’s gruff advances as well as Sasha’s elaborate officer-and-gentleman attentions. Also hiding in the cellar is a ten-year old boy who buried his schoolbooks because he refused to study while the Germans occupied the village: a child’s act of sacrifice that stands in cross-textual contrast to little Nastenka’s inhumation of the paper icon in the eponymous story.

Sasha’s day of “madness and stupefaction” [1. P. 209] ends with a few rounds of drinks in the battalion staff truck. The occasion is Major Boyev’s 29th birthday. A toast is offered: “…For you, war is existence itself, as if you have no existence outside of war. So, may you live through all this…” [1. P. 210] Boyev is “astonished” [1. P. 210] by this unconventional salutation, the author of which is, of course, Sasha, for whom the tough major is the embodiment of martial masculinity, down to his last name which means, serendipitously, “fighting man” [1. P. 208]. In Solzhenitsyn, we know, nomen est omen, a name is an omen. Like that other unconventional birthday party in The First Circle, the celebratory minutiae are a function of the celebrants’ life situation: a pair of towels that serve as a tablecloth, an unlabeled bottle of vodka, cans of American sausages and Russian fish, a mixture of glasses and tin mugs. The set piece in the back of the truck includes one of those beautifully modulated dialogues at which Solzhenitsyn excels. After the toasts, the tired officers talk about the enemy “with passion, though not with hatred. That’s just for the newspapers” [1. P. 210]. They discuss the likelihood of a Second Front and go over the day’s fighting. But soon the party is over and Sasha repairs to the cellar, where he overhears the battery commissar issue his promise of a radiant future to the Zhelyabuga peasants.


As a factual rather than fictional production, Part Two resists a philological explication de texte. That said, it is a discrete component of a literary whole, a polemical piece of writing that centers on the themes of lost youth, memory, poverty, and environmental degradation, and is pervaded by a sense of entropy. This section of the story is built round the familiar twentieth-century topos of a return visit by a war veteran to the battlefields of his youth. The opening lines connect this discrete unit of current-affairs reportage to the literary prose of Part One on the plane of authorial and character identity, and national history:

And so fifty-two years later, in May 1995, I was invited to Oryol for the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Victory Day. Vitya Ovsyannikov and I (Vitya was now a retired lieutenant colonel) were fortunate enough to drive and walk over the routes of the 1943 offensive, from the Neruch, from Novosil, and from out station at elevation 259.0 to Oryol [1. P. 213].


Solzhenitsyn’s memory circuit begins with a visit to Novosil where he meets Mitka, the teenage adopted by his unit. He is now Dmitry Fyodorovich Petrykin, a grizzled paterfamilias who brings his children and grandchildren to pose for photographs with the world-famous author. After that Ovsyannikov and Solzhenitsyn, accompanied by a couple of local officials, travel by jeep (another iconic machine — “jeeps hadn’t changed much over the last fifty years” [1. P. 216]) to Zhelyabuga.


The inter- /intra‑textual relationship between the story’s two sections is complex. In the opening pages of Part Two, as well as some subsequent passages, the author goes back in time to the events of July 1943, thereby adding to the fictionalized war record in Part One and confirming its basis in fact. We learn, for example, that one of Solzhenitsyn’s men was killed in the service area at Hill 259.0 when he went there to have a sore treated; that the German trenches were comfortably appointed and contained veritable rooms of earth and logs that had windows and planted flowers, though these underground chambers gave off a “doggy smell” [1. P. 215] from insect powder (smells very rarely feature in Solzhenitsyn’s fictions); that a dugout where Solzhenitsyn had been just 10 minutes earlier suffered a direct hit and two soldiers inside it lost their lives. On occasion these digressions into the author’s personal past extend to the months and years after the combat at Zhelyabuga, an instance of what one might term a diegetic past pluperfect. Ovsyannikov recalls “that Prussian night” [1. P. 222] in the winter of 1945 (the subject of the tale Adlig Schwenkitten; 1996) when Private Shmakov, the semi-deserter mentioned in Part One, was killed.

When the two friends reach the village, they discover that it is a ruin, the unrepaired devastation of war compounded by the effects of time: “The street was no longer a street but merely a few islands of houses; and it was no longer a road, either: its center was grown over with weeds…” [1. P. 216]. A rural slum much like the ones depicted in Chapter 44 of The First Circle (the immediate postwar period) and “Matryona’s Home” (the first year of the destalinization campaign), and another textual confirmation of the pre-modern poverty of the Russian countryside, damned to desuetude by twentieth-century history. Seeking out familiar landmarks, the author’s eye moves over the misshapen dwellings and broken agricultural equipment, though he sees no trace of the cellar: the spatial dichotomy of Part One is now broken. The two veterans pick up a cluster of lilies of the valley, walk past the spot where Andreyashin lost his leg, and eventually encounter two shabby old women basking in the spring sun. (For the careful reader, the flowers the men are holding, though unmentioned anywhere else in Part Two, add an element of incongruity to the scene that follows. Or is it that the two old soldiers left them at the place where Andreyashin suffered his mortal wound?) One of the “grannies” [1. P. 219] is dressed in a workman’s padded jacket and shoes of felt and rags, the other wears an odd garment of black velour. Solzhenitsyn inquires about her age; she is seventy. When the author, awkwardly making conversation, remarks that he is five years older, she replies, “’Somehow you don’t look it… Our folks don’t walk about much after seventy, they have to crawl’” [1. P. 220]. In modern Russia, ambulatory ability is a marker of social class.

It turns out that the woman in black is Iskiteya, but when the author excitedly recalls their meeting in the cellar all those years ago, she is unmoved: “Well, I forget what I need to forget” [1. P. 220]. There are no cries of recognition, no shared remembrances. But if on this occasion Solzhenitsyn’s wartime acquaintance displays indifference, a few minutes later things change. On their way back the author and his companion, now joined by the two administrators, once again come across Iskiteya and her friend, as well as four other women and a senile old man. The villagers, Iskiteya included, address the visiting group with a litany of complaints about food supplies, government benefits, and pensions. Although the officials make soothing noises and promise to help, the reader is left with the firm impression that nothing will get done, just as nothing was done for the Zhelyabuga residents in the five decades after the war. As the senior of the two functionaries puts it, Moscow should not be bothered “with things like this, absolutely not” [1. P. 230]. Part Two, and the story as a whole, ends on this note of administrative neglect and rural degradation. This reader, at least, was left to wonder what constitutes the baser act: a propagandist’s canned promise of future happiness, or the state’s unconcern for the most helpless and poor among its subjects.


1. Solzhenitsyn A. Apricot Jam and Other Stories. — Berkeley: Counter Point, 2011.


Richard Tempest is a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois. He is the author of books and articles on Russian literature and history, as well as a novel (writing as Roland Harrington), Golden Bone (Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2004). He is currently completing a study of Solzhenitsyn’s literary works.