Miniatures (or “Prose Poems”)
- Miniatures (1958-63)
- Miniatures (1996-99)
Solzhenitsyn’s miniatures provide the strongest reminder that his literary output is not restricted to the long works on which his acclaim primarily rests. And the label of prophet is too one-sided to capture the range of his genres. Although initially known in English as prose poems, these Krokhotki (the Russian title) are literally “tinies,” or miniatures. Solzhenitsyn composed a series of them in 1958-1960. A couple of years later, he penned “A Prayer,” which he views as belonging to the same genre. Then, as he has remarked, he simply could not write in this genre again until after he returned to his native soil in the mid-1990s.
These miniatures take their inspiration from Russia, but they invite universal application. Typically, they begin with a single observation or experience and end in thematic elucidation. In contrast to Solzhenitsyn’s fiction, the miniatures have mood and tone as their controlling and unifying literary elements. Their mood is pensive, often melancholy, sometimes nostalgic; their tone is usually gentle, with affirmations outweighing reproaches. Setting, especially rural landscape, also is prominent. Solzhenitsyn contrasts, as dark background and bright foreground, the soulless sterility of modern, particularly Soviet, life and the spiritual sustenance available from nature and the past. Human beings once lived in respectful harmony with nature, accepting with equanimity the all-encompassing rhythms of life and death. The affirming attitudes that modernity has mutilated can be renovated.
Of the various recurring themes, the most basic is the embrace of the life force as such. Ex-prisoners feel revived in the sheer act of breathing freely. The mystery of life and the authority of nature are on display in the freely frolicking puppy, the insubstantial duckling that scientists are powerless to recreate, the felled elm tree that sends out a new shoot, the lightning bolt that cleaves a tree down to its roots. Contemplative observations of nature disclose parallels to human traits; ants return home to a burning log as patriots are drawn to their suffering homeland, and the personified larch tree symbolizes the human virtues of solidarity, soft-heartedness, and inner toughness. By contrast, the Soviets show no respect for the fittingness between man and nature; they expropriate the lovely Lake Segden for the ruling class’s private indulgence. Even more vehemently they attack the past as a source of spiritual support. They desecrate the old churches that punctuated the countryside and the church bells that kept time and souls in tune. Churches, when not destroyed, are converted into cowsheds, tractor garages, clubhouses. A dammed river destroys a cathedral and part of the town that had survived marauding foreigners over eight centuries, though the partially submerged bell tower with a cross on top juts straight up toward heaven as a sign, despite all, of enduring hope. Shorn of belief, modern man can act only as if “we” will never die and starts the day not with spiritual devotions but with bodily exercises.
Although the two cycles of miniatures are bound together in continuity, the second set inclines toward greater explicitness in stating moral themes. In one new subset Solzhenitsyn searchingly addresses Russia’s third—and current—“Time of Troubles” as it emerges from Communism. Another subset introduces reflections on death and dying, as befits the author in old age. All these exquisite gems reward unhurried, meditative reading.
– by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney, The Solzhenitsyn Reader
A Selection of Miniatures
"Reflection in Water"
On the surface of swift-running water you cannot make out the reflections of objects near or distant. Even if it is not muddy, even if it is free of foam, reflections in the ceaselessly wavering ripples, the boisterously shifting race are deceptive, vague, incomprehensible.
Only when, from stream to stream, the current has reached a placid estuary, or in still backwaters, or in small lakes with never a tremulous wave, can we see in the mirror-smooth surface the smallest leaf of a tree on the bank, every fiber of a fine-combed cloud, and the intense blue depths of the sky.
So it is with you and me. If, try as we may, we never have been and never shall be able to see, to reflect the truth in all its eternal fresh-minted clarity, is it not because we are still in motion, still living?…
Translation by H.T. Willetts
"Means of Locomotion"
Take, say, the horse—prancing with arched back, stomping with hooves, with its sprawling mane and lucid warm eye. Or, take the camel—that two-humped swan, that languid sage with a smirk of cognition on its round lips. Take, even, the homely donkey—with its patient fortitude and lively, caressive ears.
And we chose?…—this most unsightly of the Earth’s creatures, on fast rubber paws, with dead, glassy eyes and a blunt, ribbed snout, with an iron box for a hump. It will never neigh of the joy of the steppe, of the smells of the pastures, of its love for the mare or the master. Incessantly it grates its iron and spits, spits its violet fetid fume.
Well, as we are—such also is our means of locomotion.
Translation by Ignat Solzhenitsyn
There are two prayers that Solzhenitsyn placed among his miniatures. In “A Prayer,” composed shortly after One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich made him famous, he serenely acknowledges that God’s gracious providence governs his ongoing career; thus, it shows better than anything else his personal relationship with God. The behind-the-scenes story is fascinating. One of his helpers, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, released this text without permission. Although he scolded her at the time, the widely reproduced prayer elicited many grateful reactions. Moreover, it was a key factor in his being awarded the Templeton Prize, and he recounts that composing the Templeton address deepened his understanding of himself. Voronyanskaya played a similar role in the appearance of The Gulag Archipelago by disregarding Solzhenitsyn’s instruction to destroy her copy, which the KGB then located. With his hand forced, Solzhenitsyn ordered the work published, and it went on to exert its world-historical influence. About Voronyanskaya, he concludes, “For both willful acts I can only be grateful to her—she had served as an instrument of God’s will.”
After Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994, he wrote “A Prayer for Russia”; he felt a need for such a prayer, and he prayed it every day.
How easy for me to live with you, Lord!
How easy to believe in you!
When my mind casts about
or flags in bewilderment,
when the cleverest among us
cannot see past the present evening,
not knowing what to do tomorrow –
you send me the clarity to know
that you exist
and will take care
that not all paths of goodness should be barred.
At the crest of earthly fame
I look back in wonderment
at the journey beyond hope — to this place,
from which I was able to send mankind
a reflection of your rays.
And however long the time
that I must yet reflect them
you will give it me.
And whatever I fail to accomplish
you surely have allotted unto others.
Translation by Ignat Solzhenitsyn
"A Prayer for Russia"
Our Father All-Merciful!
Don’t abandon Your own long-suffering Russia
In her present daze,
In her woundedness,
And confusion of spirit.
Don’t let, don’t let her be cut short,
To no longer be.
So many forthrights hearts
And so many talents
You have lodged among Russians.
Do not let them perish or sink into darkness
Without having serviced in Your name.
Out of the depths of Calamity
Save Your disordered people.