To understand the moral foundations of a good democracy, a decade in jail can be an education…
Solzhenitsyn’s account of his return to civilian life from his “tenner” in the Gulag, given in the story “Matryona’s House,” contains a detailed account of how Matryona and he cohabited with mice and cockroaches, an apparent aside that with seeming inexplicability examines the lifestyle of these roommates. But with Solzhenitsyn everything has its purpose.
в нем не было ничего злого, в нем не было лжи
Other things lived in the izba [house] besides Matryona and myself, such as a cat, mice, and cockroaches….
The mice were in the hut but not because the lame cat couldn’t cope with them. On the contrary, she sprang at them like lightning from the corner and carried them out in her teeth. But the mice were inaccessible for the cat, because someone in better days had papered the izba for Matryona with a figured greenish wallpaper, and not with just one, but with five layers. When these layers stuck together the paper worked fine, but they had peeled from the walls in many places, and formed a sort of internal skin for the hut. Between the wood frame of the izba and the skin of the paper the mice had made themselves passages, and rustled about brazenly, as they ran through them even under the ceiling. The cat angrily followed their rustling with her eyes, but was unable to reach them….
…the cockroaches swarmed over the kitchen at night. Whenever I went there for a drink of water late in the evening and turned on the light, the entire floor, the big bench and even the wall were almost solid brown and astir with them. I brought home some borax from the school laboratory and by mixing it with dough, we almost got rid of them. The number of cockroaches decreased, but Matryona was afraid of poisoning the cat along with them. We stopped pouring the poison and the cockroaches multiplied again.
At night when Matryona was already asleep, but I was busy working at the table, the thin, quick pattering of mice under the wallpaper merged with and drowned out the rustle of the cockroaches behind the partition, like the distant sound of the ocean. But I grew accustomed to them. There was nothing evil about either the nice or the cockroaches, and they told no lies. [We Never Make Mistakes, tr. Paul W. Blackstock (New York: Norton, 1963, 95-96.)]
For some context with which to interpret this seemingly curious little fable (to a scientist of the human condition such as Solzhenitsyn, what most of us find either curious or simply uninteresting becomes a revealing microscope), consider the following:
…we have gotten used to regarding as valor only valor in war (or the kind that’s needed for flying in outer space), the kind which jingle-jangles with medals. We have forgotten another concept of valor—civil valor. And that’s all our society needs, just that, just that, just that! That’s all we need and that’s exactly what we haven’t got. [The Gulag Archipelago 461-2.]