The division of the retelling into chapters is conventional; in the original there are three untitled chapters. In the narrator one can guess Solzhenitsyn himself, who after eight years of correctional labor camps was exiled to perpetual settlement in a deserted Kazakh aul, but the exile was removed, he returned to the RSFSR and settled in the village.
Arrival in the village
In the summer of 1956 Ignatich was returning to Soviet Russia.
After living in the dusty hot desert, he wanted to settle in the midst of cool deciduous forests, "to get lost and lost in the gut of Russia itself."
In the regional center, he asked for a position as a teacher of mathematics somewhere far away from the city, and he was sent to a place with the strange name of Peat Product.
Torfoprodukt turned out to be a train station from which it was impossible to leave: there were never any tickets. The settlement stood between the peat lowlands, and in the evenings there was loud music playing in the club, and the local drunks were stabbing each other with knives. Ignatich had already begun to regret the silence of the Asian wilderness when he met a woman at the local market and learned from her that there were a number of small villages beyond the settlement.
A new acquaintance took Ignatich to the village of Talnovo, where he rented a corner in the house of the elderly Matryona Vasilievna.
The house consisted of a spacious hut with a stove and a separate upper room.
Apart from Matrona and me, there also lived in the hut: a cat, mice and cockroaches. The cat was not old, and most importantly, she was a stiff. Out of pity, Matryona picked it up and took it in.
The woman warned that she could not cook. There was almost no food brought to Torfoprodukt, and people ate mostly potatoes flavored with combined fat.
But Ignatich stayed at Matryonya's hut anyway: it was the very "conditional Russia" he was looking for.
Health and Faith
At this time Matryona was ill: this sickness came upon her unexpectedly and put her to bed for several days. When Matryona's life was "broken into at times by severe infirmity," her close friend Masha cared for her.
The paramedic was summoned only once. She made Matryona take tests, sent them to the district hospital, but the case stalled.
Matryona told of the heavy sacks she had carried in her youth, and how she had once stopped a frightened horse in its tracks. But she was not fearless - she was afraid of fire, lightning and trains.
On Epiphany Matrona went to church for holy water, but she was not particularly religious, rather even a superstitious pagan.
Only her sins were less than those of her cranky cat. That one strangled mice...
Only this year she didn't get holy water: Someone took her kettle.
Work at the collective farm and attitude to money
She did not receive money for many years: she was not paid a pension and her relatives hardly helped her.
And at the collective farm she worked not for money, but for sticks. For the sticks of labor days in her obscured account book.
All autumn Matryona tried to get a pension and walked many kilometers away from home. Many injustices came to light: the woman was ill but not considered disabled; she had worked on the collective farm all her life, not in a factory, so she was entitled to a pension only for the loss of her breadwinner. Matrona had not had a husband for fifteen years, and it was not easy to obtain a certificate of his length of service.
The rest of the time she worked on the farm, digging potatoes, procuring hay for her only goat, stealing peat from the trust to keep warm in winter.
The new chairman cut down Matryona's vegetable garden, leaving her fifteen acres of unfertile sandy land, and for these acres he forced her to work for the collective farm for free.
Matryona did not refuse to help her neighbors either - she was called to dig potatoes, to plow the garden. She did not take money for her help.
By the winter Matryona's life had improved: she began to receive a pension and a payment from her tenant. She made herself felt boots and an overcoat which she sewed into the lining with two hundred rubles for her funeral.
Youth, Thaddeus, and Marriage
She did not question her lodger about his past, who told her himself that he had spent many years in prison. Ignatich also "did not care for her past" and did not even suppose that Matryona had had anything important in her life.
One day Ignatich was visited by Faddei Grigoriev and asked to give his son, the worst loser in his class, a good grade.
Struggling for a high percentage of grades, the district schools transferred from class to class even the worst losers, but Ignatich did not want to give undeserved grades and refused.
Late at night, Matryona confessed that she had almost married Thaddeus once, but he had not returned from World War I. After waiting for three years, Matryona married his younger brother Efim and moved into the house where she lived all her life - it used to belong to the Grigoryevs.
In the summer, they played a wedding, and in the fall, Thaddeus returned from Hungarian captivity. Out of spite, he nearly hacked off Matryona and his brother with an axe.
He stood on the doorstep. I'm going to scream! I would have thrown myself into his lap! You can't... Well, he says, if it weren't for my brother, I'd have hacked you both up!
Thaddeus did not marry the local girl, but found a bride named Matryona in a neighboring village, built a separate house, and had children. Matryona herself gave birth six times, and none of the children survived. Then Yefim went off to World War II and disappeared. Left alone in a huge hut, Matryona took in Faddei's daughter, Kira, and recently married her off to a young machinist.
Now only Kira was helping the lonely old woman.
Tragedy at the railway crossing
Matryona bequeathed part of her house, the upper room, to Kira. A few days later Kira's husband was allocated a plot of land. In order to hold it, something had to be built urgently, but the forest on the peat bogs had been cut down long ago. Faddei came to Matryona with a request to give her the upper room, and she agreed.
One February morning, Faddeus and his sons dismantled the structure in no time, but they could not remove the logs straight away: a snowstorm broke out and then the thaw began. The tractor with a big sledge trailer arrived only two weeks later. The whole logs could not fit on the sledge, so sons of Thaddeus quickly made one more sledge. The tractor driver did not want to make two trips, so they tied both trailers to the tractor.
We left late in the evening after drinking moonshine. Matrona followed behind. At night four men in overcoats came to see the narrator. They began to ask if the tractor had left from this yard, and if the tractor driver had been drinking before he left. Ignatich kept silent about the drinking, and after the uninvited guests left, he rushed to clean up the remains of the drinking. Railwaymen did not explain anything - the trouble was told by Masha who came running soon.
The self-made sledge got stuck on the crossing of the rails and began to fall apart - Matryona rushed to help the men. At that time two coupled steam locomotives with their lights off were coming from the station, and they ran into the sledge and crushed the people who were fussing near it, including Matryona.
Funeral and division of property
Matrona was buried and mourned the next day. Her three sisters, never heard of before, immediately took over the household. Kirin's husband, the machinist, was put on trial because he should have warned her about transporting timbers across the tracks, but did not do so.
The mangled rails on the crossing were repaired for three days. The repairmen basked by the fires made from the remains of the stove, and the first surviving sledges remained standing at the crossing, and this tormented the soul of the greedy Thaddeus. When at last he received permission, he took the remains of the upper room to his yard, and the next day he buried his son and the woman he had once loved. Of Matroña's inheritance, the insatiable old man took the barn where the goat lived, and the fence - the rest was taken apart by the sisters. Only Kira grieved for Matryona sincerely.
Matryona's house was boarded up and Ignatich moved in with one of her relatives. She told many new things about the deceased. Her husband did not love Matryona and had a mistress; she was a bad mistress, untidy, not after her wealth, and helped other people free of charge.
Ignatich listened to these disapproving speeches and remembered a wonderful woman who thought more about people than things, worked for others for free, and, abandoned by her husband and buried six children, remained open and sociable.
All of us lived near her and did not realize that she was the righteous person without whom, according to the proverb, no village is worthwhile. Neither the city. Neither our whole land.
The retelling is based on a revision of the story from the Collected Works in 30 Volumes, 2006.