The Dabbler Book Club Review: Apricot Jam by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Gaw ruminates on the significance of Solzhenitsyn’s final work in a world where even disaffected and idealistic Occupiers no longer really seem very sure of anything…

In a little less than a month we mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. I haven’t seen a single mention of this fact. Perhaps there will be a flurry of documentaries noting the occasion closer to the date. However, one can’t imagine there being any sort of ceremony or thanksgiving. The twenty-sixth of December 1991 is clearly no VE Day.

On finishing Apricot Jam, Solzhenitsyn’s final collection of short stories written largely in the ’90s, I wondered whether there might be anything new to say about the Soviet experience. I suspect not, for the immediate future at least: historians have made excellent use of the relatively brief period when the Soviet archives opened and, before them, the odd historian and a rather greater number of memoirists and novelists laid bare the violent and mendacious nature of Soviet Communism. But now I’m rather wondering whether, even if there were something new to say, anyone would be listening.

Why is this? Despite Soviet communism’s existential threat to the West, I suspect any feelings of celebration, or even relief, at the anniversary of its demise are mitigated by guilt. What have we done with our victory? Right now it feels as if we’ve squandered it on dodgy mortgages, bank bonuses and wide-screen TVs (it may well be that people in the BRICs and CIVETs have a different view).

I also suspect that for many a progressive leftist intellectual the end of the Soviet experiment was not an unalloyed joy. After all, the event should mark the end of about two hundred years of abstract philosophical speculation on how we might break through to an earthly paradise. The project still provides an end-of-the-pier show for the odd intellectual clown, such as Žižek. But, on the whole, the futures we are presented with by the idealistic and disaffected today are either rather dark environmental visions, which deliberately reject Enlightenment optimism, or whatever can be meant by the demand to ‘replace capitalism with something nicer’. Not so much fun for an intellectual in that thin gruel.

This is as it should be. Our ‘capitalist system’, as we persist in thinking of it, doesn’t exist as one of a number of radically different options. As Kenneth Minogue put it (much more pithily than I did): ‘capitalism is what people do if you leave them alone’. The lack of specifics in the programmes of the Occupy movements – indeed, their lack of programmes – is a result of the exhaustion of credible alternatives. Post-’91, radical economics, as a galvanising, potentially popular basis for change, is mined out. As far as I can see, what we’re left with to fuel criticism and reform is old-time morality, but cut-off from much of the religious underpinning that gave it general meaning and applicability.

Apricot Jam, like the work of other honest and genuine writers marked by the Soviet experience, isn’t political polemic. It relates the experiences of individuals. As such it blows away the abstractions to reveal the lies and the violence that underpinned them. What’s more the stories come from all perspectives: my favourite is a potted memoir told as interior monologue by the epically effective Soviet general, Georgi Zhukov. One doesn’t just learn why people hated Soviet communism, one comes to understand why some felt huge loyalty to it.

However, Solzhenitsyn’s work doesn’t seem simply a warning from history, a sort of literary inoculation that will help stop such political experiments happening again (though it certainly may be this: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, read as a schoolboy, haunts me still). What I find really interesting about it from today’s vantage point, is that it sets up the question of where we might go next. Once you’ve told all these individual stories, and once the story of the country they inhabited has been told, and for Solzhenitsyn, once your own story is coming to an end… the question that hovers at the end of the book is ‘what’s next?’. You won’t find Apricot Jam spoon-feeding you an answer – Solzhenitsyn is too much the artist for that.

For Solzhenitsyn, post-Soviet Russia is a moral wilderness, where people struggle to make coherent and decent choices. But the hope lies in individuals continuing to struggle: his characters may be repeatedly compromised but they’re simply not capable of escaping a sense of morality.

Apricot Jam, then, has special interest for us right now. Whether we choose to mark it or not, we in the West live in a post-Soviet world, one in which we are assailed by problems but surrounded by doubts. Apricot Jam contains a subtle, profound and damning critique of Soviet communism. However, whilst we can hardly help interpreting it as an implicit justification of liberal democracy, this certainly wasn’t the conclusion Solzhenitsyn himself came to. The truth of his observation, made in 1978*, has only become more pertinent:

I have spent all my life under a Communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either.

* Commencement address at Harvard University.
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17 thoughts on “The Dabbler Book Club Review: Apricot Jam by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

    November 28, 2011 at 14:03

    Looking forward to reading this when I get the time; I recall attempting ‘Cancer Ward’ as a teenager but found it boring at the time, I’m sure I’d find it better now.

    November 28, 2011 at 14:12

    But, on the whole, the futures we are presented with by the idealistic and disaffected today are either rather dark environmental visions, which deliberately reject Enlightenment optimism, or whatever can be meant by the demand to ‘replace capitalism with something nicer’.

    Too true, that. It strikes me that opportunities for creative left wing
    thinking are better than they have been in years. Not all leftist analysis can be dismissed as rote or dated, and the right could do with some serious thinking on just who the hell these financial/investment bankers are (job creators my butt!) and how come they have seem to have acquired so much political power. But if you track leftist blogs as I do, even good ones, it’s all bile, anger and gloom. They seem to think is they just keep telling one another how enraged and disgusted they are, that will be enough to bring the average voter on board.

    The environment is a huge millstone around their necks, as are other doomsday beliefs that make them sound more like the medieval Church fighting off those new-fangled banks from Lombardy with zero-sum economics. They seem to have forgotten that their glory days weren’t just built on hatred of the evil bosses, they were also based on the promise of a better world and increased material prosperity. Didn’t work out particularly well in most places, but the promise was there. Today it’s all about cutting back—purchases, travel, cars, food, energy, etc. Between the thirties and the fifties, socialists all over the world celebrated electrification, and great ceremony was often attached to throwing the switch that lit everything up. Today they march gloomily with candles and turn the lights off to save the planet. Good times, good times.

    • Gaw
      November 29, 2011 at 08:23

      I find it very interesting that over here it’s the thoughtful trad Tories that have been the most acute mainstream critics of the financial oligarchy (e.g. Peter Oborne, Charles Moore). They stand in a very long tradition, one which actually predates the left (in some ways this is how Toryism began, opposing the Whigs).

      • Gaw
        November 29, 2011 at 22:24

        Further to this point, I found this quote from Peter Viereck, an American poet and philosopher:

        A mere conservatism of the pocketbook deserves that bad name; far from being a bulwark against revolution, its irresponsibility often provokes revolution. More responsible conservatives, like Disraeli or John Adams, defend property, their material base, only when linked with a moral base: service to the community. They distinguish sharply between a traditional, rooted property of service and a grasping, rootless property, not yet mellowed by time. It is only the loose journalistic use of “conservative,” not the use by serious philosophical conservatives like Burke, Maistre, or Coleridge, that identifies conservatism with economic commercialism…

        (From here).

    November 28, 2011 at 15:23

    I’m sure if there were tory blogs at the time of the labour landslide in 97, they would have been full of “bile, anger and gloom” too. And to be fair if I had Ed Milliband as my ideological figurehead, I’d be feeling suicidal. Always interesting how socialism, the politics of ‘the people’ is also the one that attracts the most puritans who hate ‘the people’

    November 28, 2011 at 16:28

    worm, conservative blogs are full of anger, bile and gloom too, but at least we hold out the promise of more candy and toys.

  5. Brit
    November 28, 2011 at 19:23

    Great review.

    Much as I agree with the general consensus that Ed Miliband is unelectable, it seemed to me that his good/bad business speech was a legitimate attempt (admittedly a meaningless one) to find a new, relevant place for centre-leftism.

    • Gaw
      November 29, 2011 at 08:26

      Interesting how his commitment to capitalism was immediately at issue. It’s very difficult for a Labour leader to escape the shadow of the anti-capitalist left; this really hobbles Labour’s response to business malpractice.

    November 28, 2011 at 20:00

    Gaw – very interesting point about the unmarked anniversary. Do you think this correlates to Martin Amis’s point about it being alright to joke about Stalin’s mass murders, but not Hitler’s?

    Brit – all Ed needs is an army…

    • Gaw
      November 29, 2011 at 08:26

      I’m sure that’s part of it Jon. But I suspect there’s a few other factors. Let’s see what does happen – there might be a post in it later.

      • Worm
        November 29, 2011 at 21:34

        on this very subject – did you see that Stalin’s daughter just died, after having been living in the USA?

        • Gaw
          November 29, 2011 at 21:52

          I caught a bit of a report about it on Today. I must have a look at the obits as it sounded a fascinating story. I gather she defected in ’65.

            November 29, 2011 at 23:08

            I was reading “SNOB” the other month, which is a magazine funded by the Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov. There was a long piece in it on why the events of ’91 had barely been addressed by any novelist, film maker or historian even in Russia.

            The journalist then went on to interview various members of Russia’s cultural elite for their thoughts on the matter, before concluding that it had something to do with “shame”- if I recall correctly he meant shame at what Russia had become, whereas I think it might be shame that so many Russian intellectuals were wrong about so much, and would rather not talk about it thank you very much.

            I also think there’s not a clear break as there was in Eastern Europe in ’89. Some of the successor states to the USSR are worse than anything that existed post-Stalin, while in Russia some aspects of the era have been repudiated while others are mourned. It’s difficult to find a “narrative” as people like to say.

            Like you, as I as reading the book I thought- this is all very good, important even- but will anybody care?

    November 29, 2011 at 20:46

    What struck me about the underlying mood in this collection of stories was Solzhenisyn’s feeling that opportunities had been missed…which fits in nicely with your comments on the “moral wilderness”. His stories are set at pivotal moments, whether the story shows them or not, in the past century for Soviet / Russian history and, as you nicely put it, reflect the struggle (or lack of one) in choices made.

    • Gaw
      November 29, 2011 at 21:55

      Yes, I hadn’t appreciated that each story was told around a pivotal moment in history. Despite his alleged and all-too-probable anti-semitism, it must have been fascinating to hear his what-might-have-been speculations. I should read his massive history one day.

    Carol Peace
    December 6, 2011 at 14:11

    I was lucky enough to get a copy of this and have been reading it avidly. Sorry I am late but have been ill. I have not really read much about the Russia of the past but I found some of this book fascinating. I do think that the point about pivotal moments is very much how I found myself thinking. I must admit to reading Apricot Jam in bite sized pieces as it felt quite hard going. I thoroughly enjoyed reading of the personal experiences especially the ones on the ‘front line’I found it fascinating how the differences were portrayed.

    • Worm
      December 6, 2011 at 14:27

      thanks for the review Carol, and glad you enjoyed the book!

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