Getting Solzhenitsyn Straight

Zhores A. Medvedev, translated from the Russian by Peter B. Reddaway

Solzhenitsyn: A Biography

by David Burg and George Feifer
Stein and Day, 371 pp., $10.00

Long before its appearance in October, 1972, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography by David Burg and George Feifer had provoked a polemical debate. The debate derived from a protest by Solzhenitsyn, published in December, 1971, and from his subsequent sharp remarks about the methods used to collect information for the biography. These remarks were made in an interview with correspondents of two American newspapers, published in early April, 1972.

David Burg and George Feifer were quite right to provide the texts of these protests in their introductory chapter, and thus allow their readers to judge how justified were the reactions of the book’s central figure. They quote, for example, these words:

The authors [Solzhenitsyn meant Burg and Feifer.—Zh.M.] gather such information without my knowledge and my agreement, often in dark and roundabout ways by interviewing people who knew me at one time or another but are often not informed at all. The material collected in this manner is supplemented with imaginary facts and explanations of motives which must be invented simply because the true circumstances and motives of my work cannot be known to anyone, due to the isolation in which I live. Such “information” is in no way different from ordinary shadowing.

Burg and Feifer do not, however, agree that this view of Solzhenitsyn’s is in any way justified:

Biographers cannot ignore this statement, but it should be said here that none of its points applies to this book in particular, the preparation of which was never kept secret in Moscow, nor is it based on interviews with anyone not in relatively regular personal contact with Solzhenitsyn at the time of the writing. [P. 10]

Moreover, in a review of the book which appeared on November 2, 1972, in the London Times, the translator of Solzhenitsyn’s novel August 1914, Michael Glenny, explained the origin of the author’s protest in this way:

During Feifer’s trips to gather material, one of his principal informants was Veronika Turkina, cousin of Solzhenitsyn’s first wife. At some stage she was given a rough draft ms. of one chapter of the projected biography, which included mention of another distinguished Soviet dissident intellectual. This man (who, unlike Solzhenitsyn, can read English) objected to certain passages about himself and because of this informed Solzhenitsyn that the whole book must be worthless. The disputed statements in the chapter concerned were subsequently reexamined, checked, corrected or deleted by the authors; but the damage was done, and Solzhenitsyn, who has an understandable aversion to the spreading of any material about himself which might be false or inaccurate, condemned the whole book and called its two authors “shysters.”

Here Glenny is referring to me, but unfortunately his information, obtained from David Burg, is not quite accurate. I did indeed, quite by chance, become a reader of the first draft of the “biography,” which was given to me by Veronika Turkina in February, 1972, i.e., two months after Solzhenitsyn’s protest. I did not like the chapter which…

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