Friday, September 11, 2009

An Incident at Krechetovka Station

With birthday money from my family I recently purchased a copy of Stories and Prose Poems, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent decades in the Soviet prison system in the years between the end of World War II and the fall of the Soviet Union.

The prose poem that prompted me to buy the book—I hadn’t seen it in years—is of a puppy taken off his leash line to enjoy a bone. He ignores the bone, though, and runs around the yard, checking out everything outside the range of his leash line. Solzhenitsyn’s point: freedom is more valuable than any benefits captors can deliver.

I also had time on Saturday to read one of the stories I’d totally forgotten, and I chose “The Incident at Krechetovka Station.” It is set during the German invasion of Russia and concerns a certain Lieutenant Zotov, an unattractive man who is nonetheless the object of sexual advances by women at work and in his boarding house; while he nearly yields to this temptation, he perseveres and remains faithful to his wife. As a true believer in the Communist revolution, he had longed to fight the Fascists in Spain and the Germans on the western front, but was not allowed to go. Instead, he blooms where he has been planted, taking pains to see that everything under his purview is done as well as possible.

The incident referred to in the title concerns Zotov’s treatment of Tveritinov, a “returnee”—or was he? we’re never sure—a Soviet soldier captured by the Germans and then retaken by Soviet forces. These soldiers, far from being rewarded for risking their lives to defend their homeland, once back with their countrymen were sent to detention camps.

Returnees on the trains were given scant rations, and before the story begins, the occupants of one train who had been particularly long without rations broke out of their cars and began looting a supply train headed for the front, cramming their mouths full of uncooked flour. One was shot, ending the uprising. Zotov’s sympathies lie clearly with the shooters: hunger or no hunger, order needs to be maintained to avoid chaos. Other incidents in the story, however, show that his desire for order as defined by the government is his way of fulfilling his true desire to help others: he makes special effort to provide for travelers in need, especially those headed for the front.

Zotov doesn’t know what to make of Tveritinov when the latter appears, but he genuinely likes the guy and wants to help him. The story turns, however, on a chance remark by Tveritinov that convinces Zotov that he is a spy, so he has him arrested. Days later Zotov has second thoughts, and he takes no assurance when told that Tveritinov has been taken care of according to regulations: “After that, Zotov was never able to forget the man for the rest of his life….” We are to infer that whatever atrocities Tveritinov suffered were nothing to be compared to those suffered by Zotov.

The system of omnipotent government we are headed for, and which US evangelicals have fervently supported for twenty of the last thirty years, devours the innocent, but it also destroys its friends. This is why Moses told us not to join the crowds in doing evil (Ex 23:2) and Jesus told us not to lord it over others (Lk 22:24–26. Power over others short-circuits our restraint over our own corruption and allows us to destroy others—and ourselves in the process. Far better to “be mistreated along with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin…the treasures of Egypt” (Heb 11:22–23).


  1. Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in the Soviet gulag system before being exiled for three, not decades as maintained above.

    1. The Quill Pig regrets the error. I'm sure it felt like decades, but I was in error. Thank you for reading and commenting.