Composed and committed to memory during Solzhenitsyn’s time as a zek, Prussian Nights is a narrative poem about the Red Army’s vengeful advance into Germany in 1945. The Russian text was first published by the YMCA Press, Paris, in 1974. In the present volume we get the Russian text again, with a skilful verse translation by Robert Conquest on the facing pages. A brief— too brief— preface and a useful technical appendix, both by the translator, complete a little book which will probably not make much of a splash, if the reviews it has so far received are anything to go by.
Incidental works by or about Solzhenitsyn seem to be coming out all the time; if people still want books from him at all, they would rather have big ones than small ones; and anyway, perhaps the whole thing is becoming a bit trite, when even Margaret Thatcher gets something of his drift and can make a pretty good shot at pronouncing his name. People think they know Solzhenitsyn’s message all too well. Yet this poem, while scarcely being the key to his total achievement, can certainly be said to stand near the beginning of his development as a writer, and would deserve close attention for that reason if for no other. To pay close attention, though, you need to have absorbed what he has been saying, in his subsequent writings, about his country’s post-revolutionary history. There are aspects of this poem which are clear only in the light of its author’s prose. When reviewers miss those aspects, you start to wonder if they are as familiar with Solzhenitsyn’s writings as they make out.
For example, doubts have been expressed about where the author stands in relation to the character — a young officer — narrating the poem. Yet there can be no real doubt. The narrator might suspect that there is something outrageous about the way the Russian troops are encouraged to behave, but the author knows there is. Solzhenitsyn has always regarded Stalin’s vindictive policy against Germany as a stroke of pure cynicism. In his view, the Nazis proved themselves not just evil but stupid when they threw away the moral initiative in the course of their advance: the Soviet government deserved to lose the loyalty of its people. When it was Stalin’s turn to advance, his pose of ethical superiority was a grotesque sham. It was one monster calling for revenge on another. Ehrenburg, the writer who was given the task of crying havoc, holds a permanent place among Solzhenitsyn’s literary bêtes noires.
Sure enough, Ehrenburg turns up in this poem, conveying the author’s whole ethical position at a blow. He is called contemptuously by his first name, Ilya, and described as the ‘senior ham of the lot’. Nadezhda Mandelstam, in her great book Hope Against Hope, thought of him in the same light. Ehrenburg, to all the writers who fell foul of the regime, was perennially the supreme example of what stood to be gained and lost by keeping well in with the authorities. His presence in the poem is a clear token of what Solzhenitsyn thought about the official line on the Great Patriotic War.
But even without such obvious emblems, it should be apparent that this account of the Red Army on the vengeance trail is the opposite of noncommittal. Every line declares its author’s conviction that a crime is being perpetrated. Here lies the main difference between Solzhenitsyn’s poem and another narrative poem on the same topic, Tvardovsky’s Vassili Tyorkin. Both poems are written in the same metre — trochaic tetrameters, the measure made familiar to us by Hiawatha — and in some ways strike the same note. But they have had, and will continue to have, completely different histories.
For the Russians, Tvardovsky’s poem was the most famous to come out of the war. It is still a best-seller: my own copy, printed in 1976, is equipped with explanatory notes in English, on the sound assumption that it is a book any beginner at Russian would be glad to read. Vassili Tyorkin is not a work to be despised. But the view it transmits is the view of the common soldier: if you look at the last section, ‘The Road to Berlin’, you find that it covers the same shattered ground as Prussian Nights, but with none of the same misgivings about the sanctity of the task. Apart from a general feeling of war-is-hell, there is not an unsettling idea in evidence. There is no suggestion that the Russian people are in as much danger from their own rulers as from the enemy.
Although Tvardovsky purveyed the official view, he was no smooth operator like Ehrenburg. Indeed it was Tvardovsky who went on to edit Novy Mir and thus publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the only book by Solzhenitsyn ever to appear in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn, within the limits set by his irascibility, admired Tvardovsky and wrote a resounding eulogy at his death, which was undoubtedly hastened by a broken heart, the editorship of Novy Mir having been taken away from him when the thaw refroze. The two men were eventually united in a common trouble. But the two poems of their youth remain fundamentally separate. There were no conceivable circumstances in which Prussian Nights could have been popular, or even unpopular. It just could not have existed as a Soviet publication. Even now, it tells too much of the truth. At the time, merely to have been caught in possession of the manuscript would have been enough to ensure Solzhenitsyn’s arrest — except, of course, that he had been arrested already.
But from the official standpoint, the truly subversive elements in the poem would not necessarily have been the hideous accounts of rape and murder — it is just possible that those might have been thought of as rather well put. The passages which would have doomed the author are concerned with the quality of goods which the rampaging troops find lying around waiting to be plundered. The narrator marvels at barns built like mansions. German things are so well made. Their military cars run so sweetly. Most amazing of all, there are reams of paper and boxes of Faber-Castell pencils. Our hero has never seen paper so smooth, or pencils that can draw so finely. He has come to an unknown planet.
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