Using layered metaphors and a narrator modeled on himself to such an extent that this novella brushes up against the autobiographical, Solzhenitsyn explores post-World War II Russia, the communist system, and the greed and selfishness he perceived in his fellow citizens. The end result is a tragic story filled with unnecessary cruelties and a stark description of the Soviet Union in mid-century. Written in 1959 and published in 1963, the story is set in 1956 and takes many details from Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences in the gulag system and as a teacher in rural Russia after the war. It is one of Solzhenitsyn’s most-read works.
The story begins with the narrator, Ignatich, seeking work as a teacher of mathematics in a rural area of the Soviet Union. Ignatich seeks to escape the heat and crowding of the cities and longs for a life where he can be at peace. He is assigned a job at a school on a collective farm, which was common in postwar Russia under the communist system. The farm lies in an area that was once heavily wooded, but the trees have all been cut down by the inefficient logging efforts. Ignatich has trouble locating a room to rent, and he discovers that his dream of a quiet, wooded place in which to teach and think is actually peopled by loud, violent drunks in a blasted industrialized town where factory smokestacks rise up into the air.
Ignatich meets a woman selling milk at the train station and discovers she lives in a small village nearby, a village nestled in the woods that seems to promise the sort of life he’d hoped for. The woman takes him to Matryona’s place, which is a series of small structures. The house where Matryona, an old woman of about sixty, lives was once fine but has fallen into disrepair. Matryona is sickly and lonely, her physical condition reflected in the state of her home. Despite showing no enthusiasm for taking on a lodger and the rent he might pay, she accepts Ignatich.
Matryona’s house is a hovel; aside from the rotting roof and the loose caulking, there are mice and roaches. Ignatich is kind to the old woman despite the squalor of her home and her meek personality. Ignatich observes the sadness of Matryona’s life: Her two husbands are both dead, as are her six natural children. She is ill and cannot get a pension from the government. Matryona remains a hard worker, however, and cheers herself up with labor although she is paid very little by the farm, and sometimes nothing at all. Matryona never complains. Ignatich observes the hard life of the village, noting that things haven’t changed much since before the communist revolution.
Matryona is revealed to have an adopted daughter named Kira, who is engaged to be married. Matryona has promised Kira part of her home when she passes away so that the girl and her husband can have timber to build their own home. No mention of any other source of timber is made. An old man named Ilya, whose father originally built the house where Matryona lives and for whom the building promised to Kira was originally constructed, urges Kira to claim the structure immediately so that she may begin building her home.
One evening a group of farmers, drunk and riding a stolen tractor, arrive to begin the deconstruction of the building. Despite not having given her permission and being unhappy about it, Matryona does nothing to stop them and even helps as they tear the building apart and load up two trailers with the timber. Here Solzhenitsyn explicitly criticizes what he sees as the fatal flaw of the communist system; since communism flattens individuality and shares everything between the community, the worst aspects of that community become predominant. The farmers are selfish and drunken, and so the collective is selfish and drunken, tearing down Matryona’s home, the one asset she has that has protected her and kept her safe through the years. The truck driver has been hired for a flat fee and insists on hooking both trailers to his truck so that he can make one trip instead of two. Matryona offers to help transport the timber and rides in the second of the trailers, which is disconnected from the truck as it tries to negotiate the train tracks, and Matryona is killed when a train comes rumbling through.
Solzhenitsyn paints Matryona’s selflessness as an irreplaceable resource that the selfish villagers exploit without thought as to the future, and makes her a symbol of Russia as a whole at the time, which Solzhenitsyn saw as suffering under communist rule. Ignatich’s attempt to return to an earlier, more peaceful Russia is revealed to be a fool’s errand—that Russia no longer exists, having been torn down and logged into a modern waste.