Native Son

'Kak nam obustroit' Rossiya?' ('How Shall We Organize Russia?') 1990, and Literaturnaya Gazeta, September 19, 1990.

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


On a summer afternoon in 1988, Elena Chukovskaya was leading a tour through the small museum in Peredelkino dedicated to the life and work of her grandfather, the children’s book writer and literary scholar, Kornei Chukovsky. One of the tourists fixed on a small photograph of Solzhenitsyn. “Why doesn’t Solzhenitsyn just come home?” he asked. “What is he waiting for?”

She was stunned: “I could not believe how naive, how unknowing the question was. And the younger people, they just had no idea who Solzhenitsyn was. A generation had already gone by since his exile, and he’d become little more than a legend to them, almost forgotten in his own country.”

By that summer, Gorbachev’s glasnost had already opened the door to publication of many of the classic texts of antitotalitarian literature: Akhmatova’s Requiem, Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Grossman’s Life and Fate. But nothing of Solzhenitsyn. In an interview recently, Yegor Ligachev, Gorbachev’s most conservative rival in the Politburo for more than five years, made it plain that the leadership felt it could not tolerate a writer—especially a living, exiled writer—who considered the entire seventy-three-year reign of the Communist party an unmitigated catastrophe.

Ligachev, the former chief of ideology, portrayed himself as the put-upon Party apparatchik up night after night at home reading through the works of Solzhenitsyn, from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to The Red Wheel. “You know, that adds up to a lot of pages,” he confided. It was Solzhenitsyn’s merciless portrait of Lenin as the originator of a system based on state terror that most disturbed Ligachev and, for a time, Gorbachev himself.

“After all, Lenin is ours!” Ligachev said. “We adhere to this viewpoint, to Leninism, and we must defend him.”

But why should the Politburo, instead of the reader, decide? I asked him. Ligachev grimaced and waved the question away in disgust. After all it had always been so. It was Khrushchev himself, after a long day’s reading, who gave the word in 1962 that One Day could be published in Novy Mir.

“We have sacred things, just as you do,” Ligachev said.

But why use censorship to enforce it?

“OK, pardon me, but we have a different psychology, a different world view,” he said. “I respect you and you should respect me. For me, Lenin is sacred.”

A few days after the incident at the museum, Elena Chukovskaya wrote a brief article for the weekly magazine Book Review, outlining the facts of Solzhenitsyn’s biography and appealing to the government to return his citizenship. Just hours after receiving the piece, the editor, Yevgeni Overin, took an enormous risk. He accepted it for the August 5 issue on “editor’s responsibility”—meaning that he did not wait for a decision from the censors.

The article was a sensation. Thousands of letters and telegrams of support arrived at Chukovskaya’s door and at Book Review’s ramshackle offices. The article was a signal, a hint of what was politically possible and…

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