First published in Russia after the author returned from his 20-year exile in 1994, Solzhenitsyn's "Apricot Jam and Other Stories" is now available as a collection in English for the first time. With a strong military focus, the stories illustrate an assortment of Russians' personal experiences with communism from its rocky beginnings to its disorienting end.
All but one of the eight stories in "Apricot" consist of a pair of sub-stories that contrast or complement each other, depicting either the same person from different perspectives or different people in similar circumstances. In the title story, Fedya is exiled from his family farm and sent to a labor camp because his family was perceived to be kulaks (wealthy farmers). He writes to an author famous for vigorously espousing party ideals and asks him for help, describing in detail how the author's visions of a happy, heroic peasant life don't line up with Fedya's actual experiences. The second sub-story, featuring the author himself, confirms this disconnect.
Disconnect crops up throughout "Apricot," as people try to reconcile what they are told communism is supposed to be like with its reality, or what they intuitively believe to be right with what authorities tell them is right. A young schoolteacher in "Nastenka" desperately wants to skip over the disturbingly lifeless propaganda she's required to teach, and instead teach her students the Russian classics she loves. At the same time, she wonders, "How could she take the responsibility for shutting off these little children from the era in which they were living?" Eventually, the mandate to stifle the range of her teaching makes her feel as though her thoughts themselves are stifled.
Yorka Zhukov, in "Times of Crisis," is similarly torn. Zhukov spent a lifetime devoted to soldiering and loved his job. But when he tries to start writing his memoirs, things seem to splinter; he describes his frustrations with working with Stalin. He very much wants to believe Stalin is a great leader, but his firsthand observations seemed to prove otherwise. What, he wonders, should he include in his memoirs? The whole truth? Some of the truth? Even more poignantly unfortunate is what happens to his sprawling manuscript once it reaches the hands of editors.
In "Apricot," that characters often ask questions (mostly of themselves) is itself significant, as they think out loud and try to figure out how to adjust to a frustratingly slippery reality. Some may find the more heavily military stretches in "Apricot" to be a bit opaque. Nonetheless, one of the book's most defining features is the openness and honesty of its characters -- in an epoch of Russian history not known for either quality.
- Kim Hedges is an editor and book reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area.