At the end of August, Alexander Solzhenitsyn invited correspondents of the AP and Le Monde to his wife’s apartment in Moscow and gave them the text of a long interview. Most of the text had been written in advance and most of the questions were suggested by Solzhenitsyn himself. What follows is the interview as cut and edited by Alain Jacob of Le Monde.
Q. Is it true that you’ve been receiving letters containing threats or warnings from gangsters?
A. Alexander Solzhenitsyn showed us three anonymous letters that he’d received and explained that he saw them as a “masquerade” by police agents.
But here,” he said, “we have a peculiarity, I might even say a privilege, of our regime: not a hair will fall from my head or from the heads of my family without the knowledge or assent of the security police, so carefully are we observed, spied on, followed, and listened to. And if the gangsters were authentic, they would have come under total control of the state security apparatus immediately after their first letter…. If I am declared dead or suddenly and inexplicably am dying, you can without risk of error conclude that I was killed with the approval of the security police or by them.”
Solzhenitsyn added that his death would nevertheless give no satisfaction to those trying to stop his literary work. “Immediately after I die or disappear or am deprived of liberty, under whatever pretext, my literary testament will automatically take effect…. Then will begin the publication of the main part of my work, which I’ve refrained from publishing all these years. If the security police sought out and seized, in all provincial cities, copies of the inoffensive Cancer Ward,…what will they do when my posthumous books—the most important—spread throughout Russia?”1
Q. In an Interview one and a half years ago, you spoke of the difficulties and persecutions you’ve been subject to in your literary work as well as in your daily life. Has there been any improvement?
A. Solzhenitsyn cited the measures taken against those who have helped him—for example, the young literary historian, Gabriel Souperfine, who was arrested last July 3. He recalled the pressures on the cellist M. Rostropovich after he took refuge at Rostropovich’s house, as well as the bugging of his conversations, the damage done to his car, and the way he was forced to accept his Nobel Prize payment as a “personal gift,” thus authorizing the Soviet government to confiscate a third of the money. “An eminent general of the KGB sent through a third person a direct ultimatum that if I didn’t go abroad I would be left to rot in a camp, the camp at Kolyma, under an ordinary article of law. If necessary this third person will sooner or later reveal more of the details of that episode.”
Q. Since you’ve not been given official authorization to live in Moscow with your family, where do you live?
A. I no longer live anywhere. In fact I have no other place to live except my family’s apartment…. I will live here whether or not I’m given authorization. Should they come and shamelessly throw me out, this would be a worthy advertisement for our avantgarde regime.
Q. How is your situation and that of other writers affected by the USSR’s signing the World Copyright Convention? It’s been said semi-officially that henceforth simply exporting literary works will be considered as a common-law crime, a violation of the state’s monopoly of foreign trade.
A. When, under the leading socialist regime, base commercial minds conclude that creative work, as soon as it comes from the heart and head of the author, automatically becomes a piece of merchandise, the property of the minister of foreign trade—then such a scheme can only inspire scorn.
So long as publication is denied me in my own country, I will continue to publish my books abroad, entirely ignoring this financial and police enterprise in mediocrity. I proclaim in advance that any legal tribunal is incompetent to deal with our Russian literature or any of its books or any Russian writer.
(Solzhenitsyn then added ironically that the adherence of the USSR to the copyright convention gives new protection for Soviet writers, including the authors of Samizdat publications, against pirated editions.)
Q. When do you expect them to publish the second volume of your series?
A. To tell the truth, I won’t bring out October 16 before the third book, March 17, is ready. The two problems are very closely linked, and the course of events can only be explained, as the author understands them, when they are considered together.
Q. What do you think of contemporary Soviet literature?
A. I can talk about Russian prose today. It exists and it is very serious. If one takes account of the unbelievable hatchet work of the censors to whom writers must submit their work, one must marvel at the growth of their art. By using small artistic details, they are still able to preserve and convey to us large aspects of life whose description is prohibited. I give some names, although with difficulty and no doubt with omissions: some writers like Yuri Kazakov suddenly and inexplicably abandon important work and deprive us of the chance to appreciate their writing. About others, such as Zalyguine,2 whose story of Stepan Tchaouzov is one of the best things in Soviet literature in the last fifty years, I risk not seeming objective; because I have a different idea of the ways literature can serve society today, I feel somewhat estranged.
A third group of writers are undoubtedly gifted, but their work bears obliquely and superficially on the main themes of our life. With these reservations, here are the writers I see at the core of contemporary Russian prose: Abramov, Astafiev, Bielov, Bykov, Maximov, Mojaiev, Nossov, Okudjava, Shukchine, Solukhine, Tendriakov, Tritonov, Vladimov, Voinovitch.3
Q. What do you think of the exclusion of V. Maximov from the Writers Union?
A. Solzhenitsyn refused to “speak seriously” of the Writers Union, which in his view is run by “guarantors of state security”; he said ironically that the exclusion from the Writers Union of the “honest and courageous writer” Maximov is “perfectly logical.”
Q. How do you regard the trial of Yakir and Krassine?
A. Solzhenitsyn mentioned by way of comparison the Stalinist trials of the Thirties and he severely judged Yakir and Krassine, whose statements since their arrest have compromised many of their friends.
“They conducted themselves faint-heartedly, knowingly, and even absurdly, repeating forty years later and in quite inappropriate conditions the inglorious experience of a lost generation—of those hollow men of history who capitulated during the Thirties.”
Q. What of the recent attacks against Sakharov in the Soviet press?
A. Solzhenitsyn described Sakharov as a friend, although he disagreed “with a large part of what he concretely proposes for our country.” Still, he thought that Sakharov’s arguments were “constructive” ones and that the Soviet authorities as usual were unwilling to engage in any serious discussion of them whatever.
“In Sakharov’s behavior there lies a deep meaning, a lofty symbol, and the logic of a personal destiny: the inventor of the most powerful destructive weapon of the century submitting himself, under the weight of sins which are common to us all, the force of universal conscience and Russian conscience, abandoning the superfluous comforts guaranteed him—comforts that are a moral loss to so many others—in order to throw himself into the jaws of all-powerful violence.”
Q. How do you regard the current situation of Soviet society?
A. For a long time the true history of our country has been neither recorded, written, nor openly discussed; and then out of the entire army of historians—whether they be honored, venerable, mature, or young—there emerges a man like Amalrik who refuses to regurgitate the same fodder, or to pile up citations from authorities and from progressive doctrine, and has the courage to make an independent analysis of the existing social structure and to look into the future and say what might in fact happen. Instead of analyzing his work and finding what is true and useful in it, they simply throw him into prison.
And when from the ranks of our brilliantly decorated generals there emerges a unique man such as Grigorenko4 who has the courage to give his own nonconformist opinions on the last war and on Soviet society today—fully Marxist-Leninist opinions more-over—he is declared mentally ill.
For several years the Chronicle of current Events quenched the thirst all men feel: to know what is happening. The Chronicle made known, although very incompletely, names, dates places, prison sentences, the prosecutions that were taking place; from the abyss of ignorance, the Chronicle brought to the surface only a tiny part of our dreadful history. And for that it was methodically crushed, trampled on.
From now on without the Chronicle we may no longer get news about the new victims of the system of prisons and camps, which slowly kills people by its cruelty, as it killed Galanskov,5 who was sick, and such older men as Talantof and Yakov Odobesko (who went on a hunger strike against the persecutions in the camp). Nor will we know about the second and third sentences imposed on people already condemned, as happened to Sviatolav Karavasky, who was sent back to serve out a twenty-five year sentence for which he had been “pardoned”; and to Stepan. Surok, who was sentenced to twenty-five years for having stood up in his high school class and read some nationalist brochures; and the Lett pastor Icnas Shtagers.
We may no longer know how someone like Yuri Shukevitch was given a second ten-year sentence in the same place where he was released, on the evidence of someone he had known less than twenty-four hours—and now, for the third time, they have just imposed on him another sentence of ten years. Nor how Boris Zdoroviets was sentenced for third time for his religion….
We will no longer know how such people as Sinoviev, Krassivsky, or Yuri Belov were transferred at the end of their sentences from the Vladimir prison to the psychiatric asylum at Smolensk for an indefinite period. We will no longer know the fate of such prisoners as Svetlitchny, Sverstiuk, Ogurtsov, Boris Bykov (of the young workers group of Alma-Ata), Oleg Vorobiev (of the Samizdt in Perm), Guershouni, Viacheslav Platonov, Eugenyi Vagine, Nina Strokataia, Stephania Shabatoura, Irina Stassiv, and many, many, many others about whom nothing more is known by their own families, their fellow workers, and their neighbors.
Because of the total secrecy which surrounds everything that happens here such accounts as those by Martchenko seem “exaggerated” when they appear in the West. Very few people seriously consider, for example, the fact reported in these accounts that merely so far as the lighting is concerned the conditions in the Vladimir prison are four times worse under the Soviet regime than they were under the Tsars (three quarters of the windows having been blocked up); and the prison itself is more than four times colder and more cruel.
Since everyone has become so accustomed to knowing nothing about us they neglect the most obvious piece of information: in this astonishing country with its advanced social system, there has not been a single amnesty for political prisoners for half a century. When our prison sentences were for twenty-five or ten years—when a sentence of eight years was said, without a smile, to be a “child’s punishment”—the famous amnesty of Stalin of April 7, 1945, freed all political prisoners with sentences of up to three years, i.e., nobody. The “Vorochilov” amnesty of March, 1952, was a little more generous. It applied to sentences of up to five years and succeeded only in inundating the country with people convicted for ordinary crimes. In September, 1955, when Khrushchev freed for Adenauer the Germans serving sentences in the USSR he also had to give amnesty to those who had collaborated with the Germans. But for half a century there has never been an amnesty for dissidents. Where else on the planet can one find a regime so confident of its stability? Let those who like to make comparisons with Greece make this one.
At the end of the Forties, when we were overwhelmed by twenty-five year sentences, we read in the papers only about persecution in Greece; and today in many of the statements in the Western Press and by Western leaders even those who are most sensitive to oppression and persecution in the East, we find that in order to create a fictional balance agreeable to “the left” they must still claim that “it’s the same in Greece, in Spain, and in Turkey….” When this artificial reservation that “it’s the same” is made, then the consideration shown us loses its meaning, its depth. It even offends us.
I dare to say that “it is not the same,” that in none of those countries does the level of violence reach the level of that in today’s gas chambers, the Soviet psychiatric prisons. I dare to say that Greece is not surrounded with concrete walls, that it has no deadly electronic devices on its frontiers and that hundreds of Greeks don’t try to cross murderous barriers in the faint hope of reaching freedom. And no-where in the East could an exiled minister publish his antigovernment program in the papers as Karamanlis has done in Greece. In my Nobel Prize lecture last year I tried in vain to discreetly draw attention to these two unequal scales for evaluating the importance and the moral significance of events, and to call attention as well to the practice of considering events in countries that decide the world’s fate merely as “internal affairs.”
Also in vain I pointed out that jamming of Western broadcasts to the Eastern countries creates a situation resembling the eve of catastrophe when international guarantees and treaties are reduced to nothing, and thus don’t exist in the conscience of half of mankind. I thought then that the position, indeed the threatened position, of the author of such a lecture, given from such a prestigious rostrum, from the rocks from which the world’s glaciers flow, might have called the attention of a distracted world to its warnings. But it is as if what I said had never been said; and perhaps it is unless to repeat it today.
It’s impossible to convey what the jamming of radio broadcasts means to those who haven’t experienced it, lived through it for years. It means spit in our ears and eyes every day; it degrades the self to the condition of a robot;…it means trimming down adults to the level of infants: one must eat only mother’s baby food.
Moscow and Leningrad have paradoxically become the least informed great cities in the world. The inhabitants seek information from those who come from the countryside. There, because of the costs—these jamming “services” are very expensive for our population—the jamming is weaker. But according to various reports, the jamming has been extended to new regions and has become more intense. (One recalls what happened to Sergei Khanjankov, who has now spent seven years in prison for having tried—or for having intended—to blow up the jamming station in Minsk; however, if one shares natural human concerns one can only understand this “crime” as part of a struggle for peace.)
The general aim of the current stifling of thought in our country could be defined as a Chinafication, the realization of the Chinese ideal, if that ideal had not already been realized here in the 1930s. This is what has now been forgotten. How many people during the Thirties heard of Mikhail Bulgakov, of Platonov, of Florenski?—just as in China today there are thousands of dissidents, of secret writers and philosophers. But the world learns of the existence of such people only after an entire epoch has passed, fifty or a hundred years later, and then only about those rare men who managed to preserve their creative work under inexorable crushing pressures. This is the sort of ideal condition to which they would now like to return here.
Nevertheless I can say with conviction that a return to such a regime is impossible in our country. The most important reason for this lies in the flow of international information, the infiltration and influence, in spite of everything, of ideas, facts, and human protest. It must be understood that the East is not at all indifferent to protests from Western society. On the contrary it mortally fears them—and only them; but only when such protest is expressed by the strong and unified voices of hundreds of eminent people, by the opinions of an entire continent. Only then can an “advanced” regime be shaken. But when protests are timid and isolated, made without faith in their success and accompanied by the inevitable reservation that it is “also the same in Greece, Turkey, and Spain,” they provoke only laughter from our oppressors. When the racial composition of a basketball team becomes a world event more important than the daily hypodermic injections in the brains of prisoners in psychiatric institutions, what can one feel except scorn for an egoistic, short-sighted, and defenseless civilization?
Under the glare of world publicity our prison system retreats and hides. To Amalrik, for whom a long-term sentence was already planned in 1970, they could give only three years in prison under an “ordinary” article of law. They had to send him to the prison at Kolyma in order to avoid the political camps at Mordovia. Today because of more world publicity, they again had to “limit” themselves to a sentence of three years. Without this publicity it would have been much longer.
The West by its publicity has already done much to help and save many of our oppressed but it has not drawn the full lesson; it has not had the strength of feeling to realize that our persecuted are not only grateful to be defended, but also provide a high example of spiritual strength and self-sacrifice at the very moment of death and under the syringe of psychiatric murderers.
And here we have the second reason why the Chinese ideal is by now inconceivable for our country. The unyielding General Grigorenko had to show incomparably more courage than was every required on the battlefield in order to survive for four years in the hell of a psychiatric prison hospital, refusing the temptation to buy freedom from torment at the price of his convictions, at the price of accepting injustice as just.
Vladimir Bukovsky,6 who has spent his entire young life being hacked away at in psychiatric prisons, ordinary prisons, and camps, has refused to be broken, to settle for a free peaceable life, and chooses to suffer in order to help others. This year he was brought to Moscow and offered a proposition: he could go free if he agreed to leave the country and cease all political activity. That was all! He could, if he had wanted, go abroad and recover his health.
By current Western standards of courage one can pay high prices for freedom, for release from torment: certain American prisoners of war have been willing to sign statements against their country, naturally valuing their precious lives more than their convictions. Well, Bukovsky felt that convictions were more precious than life. His lesson should be clear to those of his generation in the West, although his situation is very probably more acute. Bukovsky, when the offer was made him, posed a condition: that everyone he’d written about in the psychiatric prisons be freed along with him. He could not accept that his liberty be bought with any cowardice. He refused to leave while abandoning others to misery. So he was sent back to serve out his twelve years.
A similar deal was offered to Amalrik last spring: if he confirmed the confession of Krassine and Yakir, he could go free. He refused and was sentenced to a second term at Kolyma. And in other cases we don’t know about in detail, where torture and torment are hidden “state secrets,” the simple fact that a prisoner is not release and his prison regimen not eased allows us to draw a confident conclusion: that man continues to have an unshakeable faith in his convictions.
This spirit of sacrifice shared by isolated men is a light for our future. One psychological tendency of man is always astonishing. When happy and carefree he fears even the slightest shadow of trouble on the edges of his existence; he tries to ignore the sufferings of others (as well as those lying in store for him); he gives way in many matters, including those that are truly important and morally essential—all in order to prolong his happiness. Yet suddenly, when he finds himself in great extremity, miserable, naked, stripped of everything that enhances life, he summons up the firmness to carry on to the final step, giving up his life but not his principles.
Because of the first of these tendencies, humanity has not been able to maintain itself on any of the heights it has reached; thanks to the second, it has been able to bring itself out of the depths. Obviously it is better that men foresee the downfall that awaits them, the price they will have to pay, while they still occupy the heights, mustering up the endurance and courage they will need somewhat before the critical moment arrives, thus sacrificing less but earlier.
We cannot accept that the murderous course of history is irremediable and that the human spirit that believes in itself cannot influence the most powerful force in the world. The experience of recent generations convinces me that only the unbending human spirit taking its stand on the front line against the violence that threatens it, ready to sacrifice itself and to die proclaiming, “Not one step further“—only this inflexibility of the spirit can be the real defender of personal peace, universal peace, and of all humanity.
October 4, 1973
These statements of Solzhenitsyn’s must now be read in the light of a subsequent statement he gave to Western newsmen during the first week of September: ↩
Serge Zalyguine, born 1913, was taken up by Alexander Tvardovski, the late editor of Novy Mir, who converted him from a hydraulic engineer into a professional writer. His work has been especially concerned with the moral effects of collectivization. ↩
Most of the writers mentioned here are, or were, published legally in the USSR. The most dissident is Maximov, who was recently excluded from the Writers Union. The best known are Solukhine and Tendriakov, who draw on peasant life in their work. For a book published in 1958, Tendriakov had to engage in “self-criticism,” as did Abramov, who was accused of being too realistic is one of his works. Boulat Okudjava is more a chansonnier than a writer: his songs circulate privately in the USSR. Voinovitch is a young novelist, the author of what could be called a Russian Good Soldier schweik, in which the hero’s adventures are used to criticize the Stalinist period. This book was not published in Russia but in Frankfort, by the Russian emigré group Possev. ↩
General Piotr Grigorenko, born in 1906, was dismissed from the army in 1964, and arrested in May 1969, when he tried, at Tashkent, to intervene in behalf of the disposed Crimean Tartars. ↩
Galanskov, born in 1939, died in November, 1972, in the work camp at Patima where he had been sent in 1967, condemned along with Guinzburg, author of a white paper on the Sinyavsky-Daniel case. ↩
Bukovsky was born in 1942 and sentenced in 1972 to 12 years of confinement and exile for having written about his experience in the psychiatric prisons; his manuscript was published in France as Une Nouvelle Maladie mentale en URSS: l’opposition. ↩