The American Scholar has published an English translation of “The New Generation,” a short story by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that is part of a new collection of the author’s works, Apricot Jam, and Other Stories (Counterpoint, 2011). Set in the 1920s and early 30s, the story recounts the parallel experiences of Anatoly Pavlovich Vozdvizhensky, an engineer and professor at Rostov State University, and Lyoshka Konoplyov, his working-class student who can’t make the grade. Vozdvizhensky decides to pass him anyway because the state has a policy of affirmative action toward working-class students. Konoplyov is grateful to Vozdvizhensky but refuses to admit that his deficiency is his own fault. He attends a rally of the communist party youth organization, the Komsomol, where a speaker tells the audience that they’re privileged to be part of “the new generation”: Soviet Russia’s best and brightest who will one day lead the world communist revolution. Some years later, the state starts to purge society of all “undesirables” and Vozdvizhensky is arrested. In prison, he is shocked to discover that his interrogator is none other than Konoplyov, who had abandoned his ill-fated career as an engineer to join the secret police (the GPU). Konoplyov tries to “save” his former teacher by telling him to confess something, anything, because “the GPU doesn’t make mistakes” and doesn’t ever release anyone scot-free. The story ends ambiguously.
The chief tropes of this story also appear in Solzhenitsyn’s more famous books, like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago: individual alienation, a feeling of impotence before absurd state power, the hypocrisy of communist policy, and a general sense of frustration and injustice. His tone is one of bitter disillusionment, and given his own experience as a prisoner in Stalin’s gulags, that tone is justified. But the historian should be wary of accepting his works as balanced accounts of life in the Soviet Union. As Stephen Kotkin writes in his book Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as Civilization (1995), “[the] widely remarked disappointment in Soviet socialism reveals what had once been a powerful faith: to become disillusioned one had to have believed in the first place. And the greater the belief, the greater the disillusionment” (360).
Perhaps Vozdvizhensky (and Solzhenitsyn) had reasons for disbelief in communism, but what about Konoplyov? Coming from a working-class background, he enjoyed a privileged place in Soviet society. He was at the vanguard of “the new generation.” Kotkin explains why the Soviet Union inspired so many well-intentioned people:
Despite the long, vicious political struggle for power, rampant opportunism and careerism, and the violence and hatred that were unleashed, the USSR under Stalin meant something hopeful. It stood for a new world power, founded on laudatory ideals, and backed up by tangible programs and institutions: full employment, subsidized prices, paid vacations for workers, child care, health care, retirement pensions, education, and the promise of advancement for oneself and one’s children. (358)
Too often anti-totalitarian writers like Solzhenitsyn, Arthur Koestler, Varlam Shalamov, and others, give us the impression that the Soviet Union was a monolithic society bent on evil and repression. Faced with the democratic freedoms of the West, such a society was bound to fail. But to many within and without that society, communism was an ideal worth fighting for. Understanding why people of the past acted the way they did doesn’t necessarily excuse their morally questionable actions, but it can relativize our self-understanding. We should hope at least that historians of the future will likewise counterbalance the picture painted by the Solzhenitsyns of Western democracy — perhaps former inmates at Guantánamo Bay.