Struggles of a "True Believer" - An Incident at Krechetovka Station - Part I/II - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
An Incident at Krechetovka Station
An Incident at Krechtovka Station is a short story by Solzhenitsyn set during the beginning of World War II, in the early Autumn of 1941. This first half of the story introduces a mid-level Lieutenant Zotov, who is in charge of helping to run the station and keeping the various train cars which pass through on the correct time and track. What's interesting about Zotov is that Solzhenitsyn presents him as someone truly swept up in the belief in the Communist Soviet Union. We see him long to fight for the ideals of his country. Yet one cannot help notice all around him the horrible conditions in which the station is in, though he doesn't seem to notice. It's all sacrifices that are needed to be made for their father and teacher, Stalin. There's barely any food, groups of stragglers from the area of the Soviet/German front are being shipped back behind the lines and often act as a band of wild roaming menaces, family structures have broken down as husband and wives have been separated from one another due to the war. Some remain faithful, while others engage in pure debauchery. And, ironically, as much as Zotov desires to learn and read Marx's work, he is so busy and his conditions so lousy, that he rarely gets to actually read.
"As Zotov later found out, in exchange for one ruble she covered the bottom of a clay bowl with hot, gray, greaseless, water in which a few boodles were swimming. For a deposit of another ruble, those who didn't want to drink all this out of the bowl could use a cracked wooden spoon." (pg. 41)
The story opens at Krechetovka station in the Soviet Union at a train depot during World War II. Lieutenant Zotov is assigned there to manage the station, but there has been a bit of chaos happening in the past days. Many civilians, whose town ended up being on the front in the battle between the Soviets and the Nazis during the War, had been put on trains and shipped behind the lines to safety. Zotov was there far behind the front lines doing his duty to his comrades. His wife, who was with child, was left in a portion of Russia now under German control. Yet, given all of this, his true concerns lay elsewhere ... with the success of the Revolution in Russia and around the world.
A "True Believer" of the Communist State
Zotov is what one might call, a "true believer" in the Communist state. He places his trust in their "all-knowing and all powerful father and teacher," Stalin, yet is concerned with the German advances. Worst of all, he is stuck here at the train station when he would rather give his life at the front. 1 Please excuse the long quote here, but I think it paints the picture well.
"Depression gripped Zotov. It stemmed from the need to complain to someone about the course of the war, which was wildly inconceivable to him. From the reports of the information Bureau he couldn't make out where the front lines were. One could argue about who had taken Kharkhov or who held Kaluga, but among the railroad men it was well known that no trains were being sent through from the Uzlov railroad junction at Tula, and at Eletz they were backed up as far as Berhova. Bombers had penetrated to the Ryazan-Voronezh line, dropping a few bombs here and there, and sometimes hitting even Krechetovka. Ten days ago, from out of no where two stray Germans on motorcycles came through Krechetovka, shooting wildly with their machine guns. One of them was killed and the other one got away, and at the station everything was in confusion and disorder.
The leader of the special detachment in charge of explosives in case of evacuation, succeeded in pulling away the water-tank car which had been loaded with TNT. He had called in the reconstruction train which had been working there for three days. What really was bothering Zotov was not the situation at Krechetovka, but why the war was going the way it was. Not only had there not been revolution all over Europe, and not only were we not invading Europe against any combination of aggressors with little loss of life, but look what had happened! How long would this go on? Whatever he did during the day and no matter when he lay down to sleep, Zotov kept thinking: "how long?" Every morning when he was not on duty, but lay sleeping in his apartment, he was awakened by the radio at six o'clock. He woke up hoping that today would come news of victory. But out of the black loudspeaker came forth only hopeless news of the Vyazma and Volokolamsk fronts and his heart pounded, "Would they even
give up Moscow?" he would ask. (Not out loud, it was dangerous to ask this aloud even to himself.) Zotov was afraid to ask this question which he thought about all the time, yet tried hard not to. But this one dark question was not the last. To give up Moscow would still not end all their misfortunes. Moscow had been given up to Napoleon. It could be burned again, but then what? What if the enemy reached the Urals? Vasya?
Zotov felt guilty about even allowing himself to think such shattering thoughts. They were an insult to the all-knowing and all-powerful Father and Teacher- who was always there, who foresaw everything, who took all necessary measures, and who wouldn't permit it. Some railroad men arrived from Moscow. They had been there in the middle of October, and told of monstrous, unthinkable things - of the flight of factory directors, of the destruction of banks and stores - and silent pain again gripped the heart of Lieutenant Zotov. Not long ago, on his way here, Zotov had spent two days at the headquarters of the reserve unit. They had thrown a little party, and one very thin and pale young lieutenant with bushy hair had read some of his own poems, which were uncensored and openhearted. At the time Zotov never thought that he would remember any of the lines, but they kept running through his mind. And now, whether he was walking in Krechetovka, traveling by train to the headquarters of the Commander or by peasant cart to the fortified village Soviet where he had been appointed to give military training to young boys and invalids, Zotov picked out these words and repeated them as his own: "Our villages are on fire, and our cities all in smoke! One thought only tortures: When? When? When can we stop their attack?"
And then there were the lines: "If in these days Lenin's work falls. What is there left to live for?" Since the beginning of the war Zotov had not wanted himself to be spared. His own little life meant only one thing to him: how much he could help the Revolution. How he had begged to be sent to the front lines! And here he was, stagnating in a railroad command. To be spared for his own sake would be senseless. To be spared for that of his wife and future children - that wouldn't be meaningful either. But if the Germans should reach Lake Baikal and Zotov were still alive - he knew that he would escape, by foot, if necessary, through Kyakhta into China or India, or even across the ocean! He would get away only in order to gather together strong reinforcements and return with arms to Russia and Europe." 2
Zotov's Struggles and Consolations as a "True Believer"
Zotov lives in a room connected to two lower helping hands, a young woman who counts train cars, and an older middle aged woman who helps her. Zotov looks down on them a bit because they are not as concerned with the war and the "news from the front," as he is. "The people around him seemed to live with something besides the news from the front. Some dug the potatoes, some milked the cows, some sawed firewood, and others insulated their windows. And at times these people talked more about these things and busied themselves with them than with the news from the front." 3
He overhears the two women tells a story of a recent incident at the station to a repair man. Apparently, a group of stragglers from the front was sent back and when they reached this station they realized that an adjacent train car was filled with sacks of flour. They immediately ransacked it, ripping open the bags of flour and stuffing their pockets with it. There was only a young guard on duty, and despite his shouting, no one listened. So he took his rifle and shot one of the stragglers, killing him. The people turned on him and rushed him, beating him and about to kill him when one of the higher up officials stopped the whole situation. Aunt Frosia, the older of the two women, asked why the stragglers would bother with uncooked flour, especially since the state provided them rations. The repair man responds, "It is obvious, my dear ones, that you have never known hunger." Zotov, again being a true believer, buds in saying that such things are not how society should function. The government knows how much to provide each person. "Do you understand a government order? If everyone takes whatever he wants, if I take - you take - Can we possibly win the war that way?"
At a certain point Zotov is solicited by the assistant girl, Podshebyakina, to take up his lodgings with her. Zotov resists her, and chooses what he knows to be right. He had met a true friend there at the station, and she helped Zotov to be true to his morals even in these times of extreme chaos and war. "Pauline was the person closest to him in Krechetovka - no, on this side of the entire front! She represented the eyes of his conscience and his truth." 5
"Pauline, a dark, short-haired woman from Kiev, with a dull, lusterless face, was the one who lived with Aunt Frosia and worked at the post office. Whenever he had time, Vasili would go to the post office and read the latest newspapers (the bundles were always a few days late). He would frequently read the news in all the papers, not in just one or two. Certainly the post office was not a library and nobody was obliged to allow him to read, but Pauline understood how he felt and always brought the newspapers to the end of the counter where he stood in the cold and read. As with Zotov, so also with Pauline, the war was not an insensate swing of an ever-moving wheel; rather it touched the vital center of her life now and for all future time. In order to guess what the future might hold, Pauline would open the newspaper anxiously and with trembling hands and would search for bits of news that would tell her how the war was progressing. They often read together and showed each other the most important places in the news. For both of them these newspapers replaced the letters which neither ever received. Pauline read carefully through all the reports of military episodes, trying to guess if her husband had been involved. On advice from Zotov she even read the articles about machine-gun and tank tactics in Red Star [the Army newspaper], wrinkling her smooth forehead over them. Vasili read aloud to her, excitedly, articles by Ilya Ehrenberg. Sometimes he asked Pauline if he could clip some articles for himself from papers that were not delivered. He fell in love with Pauline, her child, and her mother, in a way that people who have never known misfortune cannot understand. He always brought some sugar from his own rations for her little son. During all the times that they read the newspapers together, he never once dared touch her pale hands, not because of her husband nor because of his wife, but because of the sacred grief that united them." 6
Another consolation that Zotov had was his copy of Marx's Capital. He desired to read it so much, yet ironically, he never had time to. "During all the five years of his student days, he had dreamed of reading this most desirable book. More than once he got it out of the Institute library and had tried to make a synopsis of it. He kept the book out by the semester - by the year - but there was never any time." Finally, during this assignment at the train station he was able to dig into the book and begin to learn. "Vasili thought that if he could assimilate everything in just this one volume and memorize all of it in an orderly fashion, he would be invincible, invulnerable, and could not be overcome in any ideological skirmish." Yet, even here, there always seemed to be interruptions for him. He was forced to move residences because of an undesirable woman who had moved in to his original lodging. 7
It is here in the story that the drama rises, and will be continued in post number two...
1 - Solzhenitsyn, Alexsandr. We Never Make Mistakes. An Incident at Krechetovka Station. (New York. Norton and Norton, 1996). Pg. 13 - 20.
2 - 17 - 20
3 - 21
4 - 22 - 32
5 - 32 - 39
6 - 38, 39
7 - 39 - 43