Apricot Jam and Other Stories, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Canongate Books, RRP£16.99, 375 pages
There are two words for truth in Russian: pravda – as in the title of the Soviet newspaper – implies a contingent truth, derived from personal experience and reasoning; istina, however, suggests a more profound, eternal verity, unswayed by expediency and unchanged by circumstance.
The tensions between these two conceptions of truth have obsessed Russian writers for centuries but few more so than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the moral scourge of the Soviet regime and chronicler of the Gulag.
In his writings, Solzhenitsyn has always directed his fire against relative truths and stressed the urgency of striving for absolute understanding, no matter how painful the struggle. Whether savaging the Soviet Union, the capitalist west or post-Soviet Russia, Solzhenitsyn challenges the delusions of earthly truths and champions the quest for spiritual enlightenment.
Apricot Jam, a collection of short stories written by Solzhenitsyn between his return to Russia from exile in 1994 and his death in 2008, is a haunting meditation on his lifetime’s dominant theme. Whether it is a woman forced to trade sexual favours for material comfort, or a rebel in the Tambov uprising against the Bolsheviks compelled to betray his fellow fighters for his family, or a communist whose idealism is corroded by the corruption of the regime, Solzhenitsyn’s characters live in a world of ugly moral compromises. And although most stories are set in the early Soviet era and the second world war, his few forays into post-Soviet Russia suggest there has been no change for the better in his homeland.
As ever, Solzhenitsyn writes in bracing prose, eschewing artifice. But he would not be Russian if he were not on occasion capable of crafting an arresting simile. “The Critic shrank like a mushroom near a flame,” is one that could have been lifted from the pages of Chekhov.
Some of the stories, collected by his son, read more like fragments than self-contained creations but they still provide a glimpse into the genius of one of Russia’s greatest writers and serve as an introduction to some of his more sweeping works.
The opening story, which gives its name to the collection, tells the tale of an ill-educated son of a kulak who becomes a victim of the totalitarian regime. After reading a book on collectivised agriculture, he writes to the author explaining how his experience differs from this idealised vision.
The cosseted, cynical writer, who enjoys much comfort and acclaim in Moscow, has sold his talent to the service of the regime. But even he is humbled by the power of his correspondent’s experiences and the authenticity of his literary voice. With apparent envy, the writer concludes: “Things like that you can’t invent, even if you swallow your pen, as Nekrasov said.”
Conflicting truths also dominate the most intriguing story in the collection, “Times of Crisis”, which recounts the history of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the victor of Stalingrad. But in the remorseless eye of Solzhenitsyn even the heroic Zhukov was an amoral monster. The author compares him to Stalin’s “personal fire brigade”, who could always be called upon to deal with emergencies, bolstering a regime that was every bit as tyrannous as Hitler’s Germany.
Yet when in old age Zhukov confronts his own mortality and writes his memoirs, he is depicted by Solzhenitsyn as a coward, too afraid to tell the truth as it really was – even about himself. “The problem was that the truth itself somehow steadily and irreversibly altered with the passage of time: under Stalin the truth was one thing; under Khrushchev it was another. And there were many things that it was still premature to mention.”
Zhukov’s memoirs could only be published after he includes a flattering reference to the wartime record of Leonid Brezhnev, the Communist party’s then general secretary, even though the two never met during the war. When the proofs are sent to the publisher, the 72-year-old Zhukov broods in his magnificent dacha with “pain in his heart” about the actions he never took during his lifetime. “Can it be that I was really such a fool …?” he concludes.
So, in Solzhenitsyn’s world, even the greatest of men are stripped bare before their maker.
John Thornhill is the FT’s news editor and a former Moscow correspondent