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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 morally necessary. The editors of The Worker’s Word, a newsletter for Ukrainian railway workers, acted first, becoming the first above-ground publication to print Solzhenitsyn here for nearly three decades. On October 18, the paper’s 45,500 subscribers heard the old vatic voice, Solzhenitsyn’s appeal to the young from 1974, the year he was exiled, to “Live Not By Lies”:

Let us admit it: we have not matured enough to march into the squares and shout the truth out loud, or to express openly what we think. It is not necessary. It is dangerous. But let us refuse to say what we do not think. This is our path, the easiest and most accessible one, which allows for our inherent, deep-rooted cowardice.

From Vermont, Solzhenitsyn tried to manage the terms of his return. In negotiations with the editors of Novy Mir, he insisted they publish Gulag Archipelago before any other of his works. The demand was a means of contradicting the latest official version of the Soviet past; Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume “literary investigation” argues that the forced labor camp system was not an aberration of Stalinism, but began instead with Lenin in 1918 at places like Solovetski in the White Sea.

The editors agreed. On the back cover of Novy Mir‘s October 1988 issue, they printed a cryptic announcement, saying merely that Solzhenitsyn had given them permission to publish “some of his works” beginning in 1989. But the Central Committee’s ideology department, which certainly had its informers at the printing plant, quickly suppressed the plan. A “stop work” order from the censors forced Novy Mir to pulp a million covers and print new ones without the announcement. Not long after, the chief ideologist, Vadim Medvedev, attacked Solzhenitsyn for his “disdain” of Lenin and the Soviet system. The Gulag and Lenin in Zurich, he told reporters, “undermine the foundations on which our present life rests.”

That foundation, of course, was crumbling fast. The momentum of glasnost, fueled now by the publications in Book Review and The Worker’s Word, as well as by rumors of the Novy Mir incident, could not be contained or ignored.

Novy Mir‘s editor in chief, Sergei Zalygin, adopted a strategy of defiant persistence. For six months running, he kept including Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Lecture in the galleys for the next issue—and for six months the censors kept removing it. A veteran of decades of literary and political battles, Zalygin sensed the growing division within the leadership. Gorbachev was in an extremely difficult political position. Many members of his earliest constituency, the middle class and the intelligentsia, were growing impatient, disillusioned. Any further resistance to publishing Solzhenitsyn could only damage his popularity further. But as an avowed Leninist, a “committed Communist” dependent on the support of the Party apparatus, Gorbachev had to find a way at once to change the policy and keep his distance.

A day or two after the phone call to Zalygin, the Politburo gathered. Gorbachev decided to let the Soviet Writer’s Union meet and decide the Solzhenitsyn issue for themselves. The Novy Mir group did not know what to expect of the union, an organization famous for its cowardice. Many of the leaders who still run the union headed the smear campaign against Solzhenitsyn in the early 1970s which led to his exile.

The first speaker at the session was Vladimir Karpov, the union’s first secretary. A veteran sycophant, Karpov would surely do the Kremlin’s bidding. But what would that be?

Comrades,” Karpov began, “we used to think one way about Alexander Isaevich, but now things have changed….”

The long exile was over.


Celebrated as a victory of principle, of memory over forgetting, Solzhenitsyn’s literary return to the cultural life of the Soviet Union also provoked a great deal of dark worry in various corners. Would Solzhenitsyn, with his profound spiritual commitment to Russian Orthodoxy and his controversial view of reforms under the last monarchs and his approval of such authoritarian ministers as Pyotr Stolypin, who is presented in The Red Wheel as a model of political thinking, call for a state run by the Church or a return of the tsars? Would he allow himself to be used by the anti-Semitic Pamyat?

Some members of the official intellectual elite in Moscow—many of them still getting used to their conversion from coddled toadies to coddled heroes of reform—squirmed in anticipation of what might come next from Vermont. The worries were extreme and, at times, ugly. Even Vitali Korotich, the editor of the liberal weekly Ogonyok, said there was a chance that Solzhenitsyn could “become another Ayatollah Khomeini.” The young leader of the new Socialist party, Boris Kagarlitsky, wrote of Solzhenitsyn’s “fanatical intolerance.” Some pointed to the increasingly anti-Semitic ravings of one of Solzhenitsyn’s old allies, the mathematician Igor Shafarevich, and wondered if Solzhenitsyn’s own views were not so very different. (They forgot that Shafarevich, whose politics degenerated into an ugly xenophobia about ten years ago, had once also been an ally of the westernizing dissidents, including Sakharov.)

Solzhenitsyn remains one of the most poorly understood, intimidating personalities of our time. By comparison, Andrei Sakharov was easy to comprehend, not only for the familiarity of his ideas, his Western liberalism, but also for the example of his extraordinary personality, his patience, his saintliness. He represented an ideal of kindness and courage readily apparent to the ordinary people who showed up at his funeral last year with placards reading, “Andrei Dmitrieyevich, please forgive us.”

Solzhenitsyn is, in his way, equally heroic, but more…difficult. While Sakharov for years welcomed nearly anyone to his apartment for a patient hearing, Solzhenitsyn lives in near seclusion in Vermont, turning away journalists, supplicants, and even old friends. Sakharov’s accessibility was part of his work in human rights; Solzhenitsyn’s distance a requirement for his ambitious literary projects. Solemn, imperious, even righteous beyond measure, Solzhenitsyn has the nerve to make much of the contemporary literary scene look vaguely frivolous. He writes gigantically (if not always well), as if from another age. He lacks the modernist leveler of irony. Instead he can be chillingly sarcastic. Rarely does he show much more than disdain in political argument. He thunders against the “cowardice” of the West and the “liquid manure” of pop culture in the fierce voice of another era. Jeremiah is heroic, no doubt, but hard to love.

Solzhenitsyn is also disturbing to our modern sense of decorum because he is immodest in an unmodern way. He is convinced that what he says matters greatly. This aspect of him has not faded over the years. As his work steadily appeared in the Soviet Union over the past year in a range of literary journals—from the liberal Novy Mir to the Russian nationalist Nash Sovremenik—he held back from making any new political pronouncements. In preparation for an interview with Time magazine, he insisted that the reporter agree not to ask any detailed questions on Gorbachev or the current reforms. Solzhenitsyn, his wife Natalya told me, was “determined that his literary work return to Russia without the interference of politics.”

In August, the government commission working on citizenship and rehabilitation returned the right of citizenship to a number of dissidents and artists who left, or were forced to leave, the country during the Brezhnev era. Solzhenitsyn headed the list. But he refused to accept the offers, at least not until the courts lifted the charges of treason against him and the legal expulsion orders. For the first time since the early 1960s Solzhenitsyn was in nearly complete command of the situation. The Russian prime minister, Ivan Silyev, even published an open letter in Komsomolskaya Pravda practically begging him to return home in “the interests of the state and its future destiny.”

Your words about Russia have rung out the world over, invoking its fate in the cruel and ruthless twentieth century,” Silayev wrote. “Your coming to Russia is, in my view, one of those moves that our homeland needs as much as air.”

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