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 described certain events in my own life; however, I reported my views on this not to Solzhenitsyn but to George Feifer. At the same time I sent him a long list of various mistakes and inaccuracies in other chapters of the book. Many (but not all) of my corrections were accepted, and Feifer replied and thanked me.
When, however, I compared Solzhenitsyn’s protest with the first draft of the biography, I could not fail to notice that his anxiety was in fact justified. Although Solzhenitsyn had not read the manuscript, it was obvious to him that many of Feifer’s informants did not belong in the category of his friends. Moreover, he realized that on the question of judging which episodes in Solzhenitsyn’s works were autobiographical and which had been introduced to dramatize the subject, fill out the images, or turn the books into novels, only he could know the truth.
I never discussed the first draft of the biography with Solzhenitsyn, but as he knew of my correspondence with Feifer he asked me, before my departure for London in January, 1973, to read carefully the published text and, if I felt I could, to publish my views on it. On my arrival in England, David Burg and George Feifer made a similar request. Although I do not feel well enough informed about many of the events described in the book, nonetheless I can make various points which may help to correct certain serious distortions which remain in the biography, despite the considerable revisions made to it by Burg and Feifer in early 1972.
It is clearly evident from the book that different types of sources have been used and as a result events are described with varying degrees of reliability. First there are the numerous documents which have appeared earlier in most of the various collections about Solzhenitsyn. These documents concern mainly the period 1965-1971, and their use in the writing of a biography gives rise to no objection.
Another main source of biographical information was Solzhenitsyn’s own works. Now quite clearly much in his works was written on the basis of personal experience, and several of the episodes in, e.g., Cancer Ward, The First Circle, and other writings derive from events in the author’s own life. Also, quite a few of the characters have real prototypes. However, as many literary critics have long pointed out, Solzhenitsyn has written fictional works, not memoirs, and therefore had the right to create episodes and situations which did not in fact occur in his own life. Burg and Feifer very often forget this, confusing artistic devices with Solzhenitsyn’s personal life.
The numerous mistakes produced by such a simplistic method could best be listed by Solzhenitsyn himself. But I will give just a few examples. The sequence about Solzhenitsyn’s transfer from a secret research institute to an ordinary camp, which Burg and Feifer have taken in full from the novel The First Circle, in fact occurred differently. Many of the manuscripts written by Solzhenitsyn from 1946 to 1949 were not destroyed, but have survived. Solzhenitsyn’s close friend Lev Kopelev differs greatly from the character Rubin in The First Circle. The life of Solzhenitsyn’s wife Reshetovskaya was different, at the relevant period, from the life of Nerzhin’s wife, notwithstanding several similarities. And when, in the chapter “Survival,” Burg and Feifer describe the history of Solzhenitsyn’s illness (“one of the most malignant forms of cancer”) directly on the model of Kostoglotov in Cancer Ward, and even add a series of extra details which have clearly been invented, they create a picture—medically very dubious—of an almost supernatural recovery.
More serious distortions of the truth are produced when the biography relies on accounts from anonymous “friends,” whose real competence is a matter of great doubt. In the press debate which has already taken place about the reliability of this information, both Burg and Feifer have said that they received the greater part of all such information from Veronika Turkina. However, Turkina could not have told the biographers anything really accurate about the details of Solzhenitsyn’s arrest in East Prussia in February, 1945, which served as the basis for the chapter “Arrest.” Although Feifer did, as far as I know, talk to a former sergeant in the battery commanded in 1945 by Captain Solzhenitsyn, the whole description of the arrest has an air of fantasy, as will be obvious to anyone familiar with the situation in the army and in the rear in early 1945. At that time the war was being fought on German territory and thousands of people were being arrested and deported every day. For this reason the arrest of Solzhenitsyn, an ordinary officer, and his friend on another front, in connection with the letters they had been writing each other, could not have been planned in Moscow as an important punitive operation. Yet:
In Smersh’s Moscow headquarters, a not inconsiderable operation was plotted with some of the thoroughness and caution due the war itself. The plan was to seize the malefactors simultaneously, thus precluding any possibility of their warning one another. In February 1945, orders were given to dispatch two teams of Smersh agents to the two fronts to execute the arrests. X’s went according to plan. [Page 55]
It is exceedingly unlikely that the NKVD group which arrived with an order for Solzhenitsyn’s arrest waited for days at the command post because the brigade commander would not agree for military reasons to recall a battery commander from the front and permit his arrest. The NKVD might have sought sanction for the arrest from the military command before the order for arrest was made out, but the picture of the NKVD officials waiting impatiently for days on end, until the moment at last came when the captain arrived at the command point, is completely unreal. On the contrary, all the well-known cases of commanders being arrested were planned by the NKVD as unexpected, high-speed operations.
It is also not clear why a scene has been invented in which,
…Having heard, in Solzhenitsyn’s absence at headquarters, that Smersh had come for his officer and old friend, the sergeant hurried to hide some of his personal belongings that might have been incriminating, including some literature of great world importance.
Solzhenitsyn was reading it to understand whom and what he was fighting.
In this way, the book continues, the sergeant ensured that the NKVD obtained no proof of Solzhenitsyn’s genuine guilt, because for the NKVD “an officer’s possession of German literature would have been clinching and overwhelming proof of betrayal of the Motherland” (p. 57). These hints that Solzhenitsyn was reading Nazi publications are false. In reality he began at that time to collect documentary photographs relating to the start of the First World War, in connection with his literary plans for the future. All these photographs and albums were confiscated during the search after his arrest and formed part of the materials of the investigation in 1945.
But even these mistakes by the biographers are not, in the final analysis, so very fundamental, and they can easily be corrected. A somewhat more serious criticism, perhaps, is that the book contains scenes and descriptions which have been completely invented. These could not have been recounted by any of the anonymous friends, and have, apparently, been inserted into the book completely gratuitously, so as to buttress the false notion that Solzhenitsyn stood, and still stands, at the center of a political opposition to the existing Soviet leadership, as the “Field Marshal” of an army of former prisoners (p. 238). This gross fabrication, recounted by the Slovak journalist Pavel Licko, is repeated in a different section of the book (p. 311), moreover in all seriousness, to explain why Solzhenitsyn does not want to leave his homeland and emigrate.
In the culminating chapter, “Publication,” the authors give a detailed description—yet again on the basis of pure invention—of how One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was discussed in the autumn of 1962 at meetings of the Presidium of the party Central Committee. When opposition to publication was expressed,
Khrushchev’s response was a tantrum on the pattern produced during the abortive summit conference with President Eisenhower two years before and, with the aid of his shoe, at the celebrated United Nations session in 1959. His face violently flushed, his fists clenched in real or mock anger, he raged in the Kremlin no less violently—and surely more profanely—than he had in Paris and New York. “There’s a Stalinist in each of you,” he shouted. “There’s even some Stalinism in me!”…
Despite this, none of the members could bring himself to a definite yes when the Presidium reconsidered the matter several days later. Khrushchev chaired the meeting as usual and repeatedly called upon the participants to speak up. No one now dared object; yet no one openly supported Khrushchev. The First Secretary then resorted to his bull-dozer tactics, which were second in reputation only to his tantrums. “There is an old Russian proverb,” he cited. “Silence means consent.” Although the Presidium’s cowardly, resentful muteness was virtually opposite to the proverb’s silence, the triumphant Khrushchev declared that an affirmative verdict had been registered. [Pp. 166-167]
This whole description is pure fabrication, based on unconfirmed rumors and the views of “Sovietologists.” Neither Alexander Tvardovsky nor his fellow editors of Novy mir, who presented the manuscript for discussion in the Central Committee, had any information of this sort. At that time the Central Committee was discussing an extremely complex draft project for restructuring the whole party system, while on the international scene the “Caribbean crisis” was blowing up.
In these circumstances the publication of a story in Novy mir could not have been such an important problem for the Central Committee Presidium that a formal vote was taken. The chairman would never have declared that “silence means consent,” since the absence of any objections—at the most varied party bureau meetings on all levels—leads to the passing in silence, without a vote, of the draft resolution which has been prepared before the meeting. “No objections? The draft is considered as passed”—that is the usual formula at such meetings, where in two or three hours dozens of different drafts and detailed documents are passed. I informed Feifer earlier about the unreal nature of this scene, but instead of removing it Burg and he have added to those officials mentioned in the first draft as opposed to Solzhenitsyn’s story (Politburo members Suslov and Kozlov) two more: Leonid Brezhnev and Andrei Kirilenko.
Leonid Brezhnev figures in the “biography” twice more, and both times in ways unconnected with any truthful biography. In late 1969 Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Writers’ Union, and in an article of November 26, the Literary Gazette hinted at the possibility of deporting the writer from the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn said then to his friends, referring to the article’s anonymous authors: “They’ll be the first ones to run away to China,” and these words of his were reported in various Western papers. In their “biography” Burg and Feifer refer to certain rumors and report Solzhenitsyn as saying, “Brezhnev will run first” (p. 295). This is a complete fabrication.
Brezhnev is also mentioned in the final chapter, but here in a historical perspective:
The relative importance of Solzhenitsyn and his persecutors was reflected in a current joke. In the twenty-first century, a history teacher asks one of her pupils to identify Brezhnev and Kosygin. After puzzled hesitation, the pupil ventures a reply. “Weren’t they politicians or something during the time of Solzhenitsyn?” [P. 343]
I never heard any such “joke” in the USSR. This primitive “joke” was apparently thought up by Anatoly Kuznetsov after his defection and published in West Germany in the émigré journal Possev. Burg and Feifer are rightly critical of the journals Possev and Grani, but for some reason they take this provocative “joke” seriously.
The literary and artistic significance of Solzhenitsyn’s works are under-estimated in the “biography.” His considerable contribution to Russian and world literature receives very little attention. At the same time the authors strive so hard to play up in an exaggerated way various statements (undoubtedly important ones) by the writer in his role as publicist that these take on the character of documents that have changed the whole course of contemporary history. The biography’s authors recount, for example, how Solzhenitsyn’s letter to the Fourth Congress of the Soviet Writers’ Union, condemning Russian censorship, got a highly enthusiastic reception from Czechoslovak writers in the summer of 1967 and, at their congress, provoked a debate which led to the demonstrative departure from the hall of Hendrych, one of the party leaders. This then led on, the authors believe, to the fall of Novotny’s government, the setting-up of the Dubcek regime, and the appearance of “socialism with a human face.”
As it happened, not the writers but Hendrych lost absolutely everything. His exit from the congress marked the first organizational rupture between the Czechoslovak regime and an important social institution. A chain of events following from this break led to the collapse of the old government, Hendrych and all, in January 1968. Solzhenitsyn’s manifesto—the force of his words and inspiring clarity of his moral position—pushed the Czechoslovak writers over the brink and contributed to the emergence, by way of a conflict between the party’s Old Guard and society, of Dubcek’s Socialism with a Human Face. [P. 252]
No historian of Czechoslovak events of 1967 and 1968 could agree with such an exaggerated interpretation.
To me personally it is clear that Solzhenitsyn’s really close friends were not among the people who assisted Burg and Feifer in writing the biography in question—and yet the authors constantly refer to certain “intimate friends.” During his stays in Moscow, Feifer appears never to have met any of the collaborators of the journal Novy mir, in which Solzhenitsyn’s works were published between 1962 and 1966. This explains the numerous mistakes about the publishing history of Solzhenitsyn’s stories in those years. For example, all the members of the Novy mir board know that the author himself took the initiative in offering One Day to the journal in December, 1961, and not (p. 157) Lev Kopelev, who in fact was highly skeptical about the chances of the story being published. Khrushchev’s son-in-law Alexey Adzhubei and his wife Rada did not play the role in the publication of One Day which is ascribed to them in the “biography” (pp. 163-164), and Tvardovsky did not show them the manuscript.
Tvardovsky’s attitude to Cancer Ward in the summer of 1966, when he supposedly “turned down the novel,” is also got wrong (p. 229). Rightly noting about the journal’s decision to reject the novel that “neither the circumstances nor the reasons are known,” Burg and Feifer nonetheless analyze in detail Tvardovsky’s supposedly negative attitude to Solzhenitsyn at this time, and use precisely this to explain Solzhenitsyn’s decision to present Cancer Ward for discussion by the Moscow section of the Writers’ Union.
In reality Tvardovsky was always a supporter of Cancer Ward. He kept urging Solzhenitsyn to finish it quickly, he drew up an official contract with him, and even paid him some royalties in advance. But by the time of the discussion of November, 1966, in the Writers’ Union, only the first part of Cancer Ward was ready. Therefore, as the question of whether or not to publish such a work in the USSR can only be seriously discussed after its completion, Cancer Ward could not then be approved. Later, when it was ready, Tvardovsky did not “change his position.” He simply began to take action.
The book’s treatment of Solzhenitsyn’s religious beliefs is very unsuccessful. These are shown as appearing suddenly at a government reception of 1962 at a residence of Khrushchev’s: “Solzhenitsyn had become a believer” (p. 189). In the opinion of Burg and Feifer, although Solzhenitsyn went to church in his youth,
there is no evidence that religion played any part in his university or army years. On the contrary, it appears that he left Marfino in 1949 a philosophical skeptic, and that he was unreligious at least up to his release from the camps. Perhaps he disguised his feelings as he and his mother had buried his father’s tsarist medals.
Here again is an arbitrary judgment based purely on extrapolations from fictional characters in Solzhenitsyn’s works: his attitude is “deduced” from the fact that neither Nerzhin in The First Circle nor Kostoglotov in Cancer Ward reveals any attachment to religion. I will not take it on myself to guess when religious feelings in fact appeared in Solzhenitsyn, but if he went to church in his youth, in the Twenties and Thirties, then clearly this could not have resulted from idle curiosity. No one but believers went to church in those years. Only today are many churches being opened for, mainly, foreign tourists.
Inaccuracies and exaggerations abound in Burg and Feifer’s estimate of the ability of rank-and-file writers and intellectuals to oppose the persecution of Solzhenitsyn. The writer is seen by the authors as surrounded by some kind of strongly built wall. Chapter 33 describes numerous protests by leading members of the Writers’ Union about Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the Union, and their demands for an immediate special congress of writers. All this is invention. As for the authors’ view that legal prosecution of Solzhenitsyn might spark off “street demonstrations and strikes” (p. 268), and that it is this fact that deters the authorities from arresting him, this too seems extremely doubtful.
Solzhenitsyn possesses strength and relative independence not because he is a “superman” or the “Field Marshal” of an army of former prisoners. His enemies do not worry that strikes will be declared in his defense or that taxi drivers will stop work (it was an unknown taxi driver who told Licko that Solzhenitsyn was his “Field Marshal”). But they do know that Solzhenitsyn is Solzhenitsyn, and that his main strength is his talent, his truth. If there were today in Russian literature someone to match the great Belinsky, that person would be able to explain to the world the real strength even of individual talent.
—Translated from the Russian by Peter B. Reddaway
May 17, 1973