In June 1978, some twenty-two thousand people sat or stood in the rain at Harvard’s commencement ceremonies to listen to a keynote speaker denounce them as lacking in courage, morally adrift, and self-deluded. The speaker, whose identity had been kept secret until just two days beforehand, was the celebrated Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the title he chose for his impassioned lecture was “A World Split Apart.”
Solzhenitsyn’s themes were the decline of the West, the moral emptiness of modern society, the excesses of liberal democracy, and the mortal threat to the world of Communist domination. His target was not just modernism but the Enlightenment values that had spawned it, and behind those values the heritage of the Renaissance. Echoing Tocqueville’s misgivings at the birth of the American republic, Solzhenitsyn scorned the idea that a government’s first duty is to serve the people. “The pursuit of happiness,” he argued, had led only to a soulless materialism, a cold and mechanical reliance on the law, and unpardonable license on the part of the citizenry. “In today’s Western society, there has opened up a disequilibrium between the freedom to do good deeds and the freedom to do bad.”
The ruling classes of the West, according to Solzhenitsyn, had lost their moral bearings and were guilty of a collapse of courage. Eastern Europe was spiritually far in advance of the decadent West. The “complex and deadly pressures” there had developed characters that were “stronger, more profound, and more interesting” than those in the “prosperous, ordered life of the West.” For the East to become like the West, he argued, would be for it to lose more than it gained.
I watched Solzhenitsyn’s speech on television with a group of friends in a summer house in Connecticut. The people around me had all admired Solzhenitsyn’s novels and been immensely impressed by his courage in publishing The Gulag Archipelago. They had been outraged by his forcible expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974. They were also used to having their society excoriated by visitors from other parts of the world, and inclined to agree with them that Americans should be doing more to improve their society.
So they were not surprised when the Harvard audience honored Solzhenitsyn with a tumultuous ovation, acknowledging the Russian’s personal magnetism, his literary achievements, and his civic courage. The entire occasion was a kind of public apotheosis, covered extensively in the press and on television afterward. James Reston, George Will, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Archibald MacLeish were among those who commented immediately on Solzhenitsyn’s message, and a book of their responses was published later, with additional reflections by Sidney Hook, Richard Pipes, and Michael Novak, among others.1
From the immediate reaction Solzhenitsyn might have been forgiven for thinking that he had influenced American thinking. But most commentators held that although he was an inspiring figure who deserved a hearing, his judgments were too sweeping to bear close examination. His knowledge of American life seemed superficial at best. His claims for Russian spiritual superiority sounded preposterous in the light of what was actually happening in the Soviet Union; his claim of Soviet military superiority flatly contradicted what was known of American arms. As for reversing the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, what did Solzhenitsyn want—a return to the Middle Ages? His speech seemed to express superpatriotism in a new guise, born of the conviction that Russia had to be better than America at something.
The intellectual shortcomings of the speech were all too apparent, and Solzhenitsyn’s reputation in the US was badly damaged. He had given similar speeches before, but to less prestigious audiences and with less attention, and he had somehow been given the benefit of the doubt. No longer. Solzhenitsyn, who, despite his expressed contempt for the press and television, paid close attention to what they were saying about him, attributed the precipitous drop in his popularity to American (and Western) resentment of his criticisms. Concluding that their very accuracy had made him unpopular, he withdrew to his Vermont retreat and into silence.
Public silence, that is, for he was heavily engaged in working on his sequence of historical novels collectively entitled The Red Wheel. Planned as an epic chronicle of the events leading from World War I to the October Revolution, the series had been inaugurated by August 1914, published while Solzhenitsyn was still in the Soviet Union. Since his exile he had returned to the series with renewed energy. The historical archives of the West were now open to him and contained a wealth of material inaccessible inside the Soviet Union. His notebooks were bursting with his research, and he set out to incorporate the new material into his grand scheme.
The work went very slowly. Ten years after the appearance of the original August 1914, he brought out an enlarged and revised edition twice the length. A year later he published October 1916, also in two volumes. Between 1986 and 1988 he brought out March 1917, in four volumes, and then in 1991, April 1917 in two volumes. His original intention had been to complete the series in twenty volumes covering the period from 1914 to 1922, but after finishing half this number, each running to between 500 and 750 pages, he was on the brink of exhaustion. In an epilogue to April 1917 he stated that he was stopping the series six months short of the October Revolution, partly because of lack of time, but also because it was now clear to him that after the February Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks were the “only decisive force” left in the country. But even then he couldn’t resist summarizing the remaining volumes planned to take the story to the spring of 1922, and adding the titles of five epilogues continuing to 1945.
One reason for Solzhenitsyn’s reluctance to continue The Red Wheel must have been his realization that the Russian present was rapidly becoming more interesting than the Russian past. The ill-fated experiment whose beginnings Solzhenitsyn was exploring in such detail was about to disintegrate. Gorbachev had tried to stave off collapse with the reform policies of perestroika and glasnost, but after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 it was all over. The attempted coup by Soviet generals in 1991 was the last gasp of a dying regime. Yeltsin rode to power on the back of the tanks that shelled the Russian parliament; but he also stepped into a political vacuum, much as Lenin had done in 1917. The vaunted Soviet system collapsed without a whimper.
The parallel with Lenin was probably not lost on Solzhenitsyn. More to the point, for all his laborious study of Russian history, his political prophesies had been proven wrong. The “decadent West” had triumphed over the “evil empire,” and neither Soviet military might nor Russian spirituality seemed much in evidence in his country’s defeat. On the other hand, Solzhenitsyn could justly claim credit for having shaken up the Soviet system himself, and in the aftermath of communism’s demise, nobody was disposed to remind him of his recent speeches. He now had enormous authority inside Russia, and when his books began to be published there in 1989 and 1990 (while Gorbachev was still in power), some seven million copies were sold.
Friends and admirers pleaded with him to come back and take his rightful place in the life of the country. His enormous reputation would give him considerable influence. But Solzhenitsyn hesitated. Technically there was still a charge of treason against him, and The Red Wheel was unfinished. While Gorbachev was in power Solzhenitsyn published a long political essay, “Rebuilding Russia,” in response to perestroika (which also means “rebuilding”), in which he again attacked America’s “cultural imperialism” and warned that “the more energetic the political activity in a country, the greater is the loss to spiritual life.”
This was not what most Russians wanted to hear, especially after 1991, when they were given their first chance in seventy years to take an active part in politics. Far from abhorring the West, they were dazzled by it and couldn’t get enough of its consumer economy. Yet Solzhenitsyn’s reputation remained high. On a state visit to Washington, Yeltsin called him in Vermont to invite him to return to Russia, but still the great man dawdled. In 1992 he dispatched his wife, Natalya, to prepare the way for his return, but it was another two years before he finally went back himself, choosing to do so by way of Vladivostok and a two-month train journey across Russia.
By the time he arrived in Moscow, on July 21, 1994, only a small crowd braved the rain to meet him at the station—some twenty thousand fewer than at Harvard all those years earlier. He addressed them with conviction. He had met students and farmers and factory workers across the country, people living in slums and working without pay, and he hoped to “bring their message to the ears of the leaders in Moscow.” But it was too late. When he addressed the Russian Duma a few months later, the deputies stifled their yawns. He became the host of a fifteen-minute talk show on despised television, but it was canceled after a year for lack of interest.
Solzhenitsyn’s stock had sunk precipitously. A new edition of his collected works had only fifteen thousand subscribers. For many Russian writers he became a subject of mockery. Tatyana Tolstaya pilloried him in these pages as an angry misanthrope and pious hypocrite.2 One critic, Grigori Amelin, likened the “Voltaire from Vermont” to “a hat-rack in an entrance hall.” Another wrote that Solzhenitsyn’s “humanistic pathos” was just as comic and outdated as socialist realism, while the writer Dmitri Prigov held he was as much an icon of the Communist period as Lenin.
He retired behind a new stockade in the exclusive district of Troitse Lykovo, on the outskirts of Moscow, building a new dacha with his Western royalties. That it was in a district much favored by Kremlin grandees and on the site of an earlier dacha belonging to Stalin’s crony, Lazar Kaganovich, was not lost on his critics. More important to Solzhenitsyn was its proximity to the seventeenth-century baroque Church of the Dormition on the site of a former convent. A favored spot for Solzhenitsyn’s strolls, it is a melancholy reminder of Russia’s once splendid religious life.
How are we to account for the speed of Solzhenitsyn’s descent from revered sage and prophet, from “great writer” in the grand Russian tradition, to irrelevant political dinosaur and target of jokes? And what are we now to think of the novels, stories, plays, and that great hybrid of memoir and nonfiction, The Gulag Archipelago, that rocked the world with the stark truthfulness of its testimony when Soviet power seemed unstoppable? What, for that matter, are we to make of the ten lengthy tomes of The Red Wheel, which Solzhenitsyn himself thought of as his life’s work?
Such are the questions that have impelled the British novelist D.M. Thomas to reexamine Solzhenitsyn. In his recent biography, Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life, Thomas argues that it is now possible to assess Solzhenitsyn’s life and work “‘freed’ from the ongoing struggle against tyranny…. He is now, more distinctly, a writer than a fighter for rights; though that superhuman struggle will always be an essential factor in any assessment of him.” The project seems a plausible one. In the fourteen years since the last biography appeared, Russia has changed more dramatically than at any time since the October Revolution. And Solzhenitsyn is no longer a writer in exile.
The last biography, of course, was mine, and Thomas opens his book with a tribute to my own “monumental” work on Solzhenitsyn,3 whose scope, he says, he does not intend to rival with his own. For fully three quarters of his book, Thomas follows the trail I laid down rather too faithfully. It is all here: Solzhenitsyn’s nouveau-riche ancestry (later camouflaged), his poverty-stricken childhood, his brilliant record as a student at Rostov University, military service in World War II, arrest, imprisonment in the labor camps, and meteoric rise to world fame as bard of the camps and chief scourge of the Soviet government after Khrushchev’s thaw, followed by banishment to the West in 1974.
Thomas draws on the same sources and cites the originals. Since the English translations he quotes are either identical to mine or slightly paraphrased, and his interpretation usually no different, the borrowing is pretty obvious.4 It might be argued that close parallels are inevitable, given the sameness of so many of the sources and the basic facts of the life described, but in practice this rarely happens. Studies of all sorts of literary figures have shown that each new biographer, even scrutinizing the same documents as other biographers, can draw radically different conclusions. The point of a new biography should be to give a new perspective, not to recast an old one.
What is most disconcerting about Thomas’s book is the opportunities it misses. It contains virtually no interviews with anyone in Russia who knew or worked with Solzhenitsyn (and very few with anyone in the West). Thomas traveled to southern Russia to see the hovel in which Solzhenitsyn spent much of his childhood in the city of Rostov; but for some reason he did not go the extra three hundred miles to visit Solzhenitsyn’s native village and interview the surviving cousin who lives there. He describes Solzhenitsyn’s birthplace from guidebooks and memoirs, and speculates about the wealth of Solzhenitsyn’s grandfather Semyon on the basis of newspaper reports. Had he gone to their village, he could have seen for himself the palatial house that Semyon Solzhenitsyn built there.5
Thomas refers to his subject throughout using the intimate nickname “Sanya.” Natalya Reshetovskaya, Solzhenitsyn’s first wife, becomes “Natasha,” Solzhenitsyn’s second wife, Natalya Svetlova, is “Alya,” and the redoubtable critic and writer Elena Chukovskaya is “Liusha.” This is like calling him “Al” Solzhenitsyn, or like writing about “Johnny” Updike and “Phil” Roth. Thomas excuses himself by saying that he is “a novelist and poet, not a biographer,” which also allows him to pass off Solzhenitsyn’s fiction as fact, and to make up for gaps in his knowledge by interpreting scenes preceded by the words “I imagine.”
In writing about Soviet history and politics, Thomas relies heavily on hindsight. It is easy now to thunder about the iniquities of the purges and the Stalinist terror, but Thomas is wholly unable to explain the attraction of Communist ideals for the young Solzhenitsyn (and others of his generation) in the Thirties, or why Solzhenitsyn was reluctant to abandon communism until long after he had been flung into the labor camps. Since he fails to understand such convictions, Thomas does a serious injustice to Lev Kopelev, Solzhenitsyn’s fellow prisoner and comrade. A seasoned dissident, Kopelev wrote courageously about the brutal events in which he had taken part as a young Party member during the Thirties. Thomas cites Kopelev’s account of the arrests and killing that took place at that time without acknowledging Kopelev’s subsequent remorse. Thomas also fails to consider whether the true believer Solzhenitsyn might also have taken part in such activities had he been ten years older and in Kopelev’s place. As a result, the reader might conclude that Kopelev was merely a soulless apparatchik, whereas he was an example of a familiar intellectual figure of our century (Solzhenitsyn was another), an idealist blinded by his faith.
In the last quarter of his book, Thomas is able to bring something new to his story. He draws adroitly, for example, on Solzhenitsyn’s brief addendum to his memoirs, Invisible Allies, published in 1995, and on a collection of Soviet government documents on Solzhenitsyn, The Solzhenitsyn Files, that I edited and published the same year. He is also able to quote from the memoirs of Galina Vishnevskaya Rostropovich about the efforts she and her husband made to protect Solzhenitsyn, as well as from memoirs by Solzhenitsyn’s first wife, Natalya Reshetovskaya. He also makes good use of press reports of Solzhenitsyn’s return to Russia in 1994, and the brief period of his life there since.
But here, too, there are problems, which are best illustrated by his dealings with Reshetovskaya. Thomas appears to have interviewed her twice, with meager results. He refers briefly to her third volume of memoirs, Ot-luchenye (“Excommunication”), published in Moscow in 1994, but most of his references to her role in Solzhenitsyn’s life come from her KGB-doctored memoir, Sanya, published in 1975. One guesses that this is because Sanya was published in English, since Thomas’s bibliography is limited to works in English; but Sanya was superseded eight years ago by its Russian original, Sol’zhenitsyn i chitayushchaya Rossiya (“Solzhenitsyn and Russian Readers”), published in serial form in Rostov in 1990, and as a book in Moscow the same year. As we would expect, the original memoirs are far fuller, more interesting, and more accurate than the distorted English version. Reshe-tovskaya gives far more weight to Solzhenitsyn’s literary achievements than in the later volume, and comes across as far less shrill and vengeful.
Thomas promises a revaluation of Solzhenitsyn “freed from the ongoing struggle against tyranny.” This would entail a discussion of Solzhenitsyn’s literary work as a whole, above all of the ten volumes that make up The Red Wheel (to which Solzhenitsyn devoted nearly thirty years of his life—not just the seventeen in Vermont mentioned by Thomas). But no such analysis can be found in his book. Thomas’s devotion to English-language sources suggests that his Russian may not be up to it. October 1916 is touched upon briefly for some autobiographical tidbits concerning Solzhenitsyn’s love life, but the only work in the series that is discussed in any detail is August 1914, the only one translated into English when Thomas was writing his book.
To earlier discussions of this novel Thomas brings little new. Like others he notes that it starts out bravely, in “Tolstoyan” fashion, with some family scenes based on the life of Solzhenitsyn’s mother and grandparents, before lapsing into a historical treatise, which is briefly brought to life by stirring descriptions of General Samsonov’s campaign on the Eastern front during World War I, and Samsonov’s suicide after his defeat (which many critics think the strongest episode in the novel). Thomas does advance the interesting idea that in loading himself down with historical research, Solzhenitsyn “stopped listening to the muse.” In effect, he abandoned his imagination in order to recreate historical events in suffocating detail and at interminable length, thus throttling his talent.
What is true of August 1914 applies also to the later novels, and this may explain Thomas’s refusal to give even a cursory account of the several thousand pages in the series. In these novels, while following the family life and love affairs of his main character, the scientifically minded officer Vorotyntsev, and including isolated scenes from the private lives of a few other characters, Solzhenitsyn concentrates overwhelmingly on the social and political events of the era, and their lesson for the present. This is obviously where his true interest lies, and it plays havoc with his literary intentions: we get a dry commentary on Russian history and military failure, not an imaginativestory we can follow with interest.
Here, it seems to me, and not in reactions to his unpalatable political views, lie the real causes of the decline in Solzhenitsyn’s reputation. August 1914 has never been popular with readers either in the Soviet Union or in the West. Its lack of immediacy and urgency, its leisurely narrative techniques—despite the clumsy deployment of cinematic scenes, headlines, and similar “modernist” devices borrowed from Dos Passos and others—and its structural weaknesses have all disappointed admirers of his earlier work. When the first version of August 1914 appeared it was possible to hope that its lopsided architecture and its long-winded historical reconstructions formed only one corner of an edifice whose impressive shape would emerge as the later volumes were published. Unfortunately the volumes we now have form a structure whose upper stories appear stunted and disproportionately small, with almost no windows.
In an interview long ago Solzhenitsyn showed he was aware of widespread disappointment with August 1914 when he said that it was from the appearance of that novel that he dated the “schism” among his readers. His use of the word “schism” is characteristic, for Solzhenitsyn is a born schismatic of a peculiarly Russian type, much like Dostoevsky (Raskolnikov’s name means “schismatic”) and Lenin (who created a schism between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks). His use of this term to describe his audience indicated that he still took an ideological view of readers’ responses to August 1914, choosing to interpret them as hostile reactions to his politics, rather than criticism of his art.
The enlarged version of August 1914, published in English in 1989, was just as much a disappointment as the original one. The English translation sank with hardly a trace, and it will be interesting to see what happens when “Knot II,” November 1916, appears early next year from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Though still formidably long at just under a thousand pages, this volume pays rather more attention to the domestic and private lives of the characters than did volume one, and interweaves them more successfully with the public and historical events of the time. There are still plenty of historical digressions, but nothing to equal the 70 pages of small print devoted to Prime Minister Stolypin’s early life in August 1914. So, too, the cinematic and headline sections have been reduced in number. An interesting feature of the new work is the introduction of a lightly fictionalized portrait of the Don Cossack writer Fyodor Kryukov, whom Solzhenitsyn regards as the real author of large parts of Sholokhov’s The Quiet Don.6
Generally speaking, it seems as if Solzhenitsyn listened to the critics of August 1914 and made a genuine attempt to modify and lighten subsequent volumes in The Red Wheel, but it was not enough to win his Russian audience back. When Radio Liberty started broadcasting the novels into the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the number of people listening to the station is said to have plummeted. Solzhenitsyn had lost a large part of his audience well before he ever set foot in the country again, and the unpopularity of the later works eventually turned readers away from the earlier ones.
Thomas does not discuss the implications of this development, nor does he attempt to assess Solzhenitsyn’s literary achievement throughout his career. Such powerful works as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, and The Gulag Archipelago do not get the close attention they deserve. Instead, at every possible opportunity, Thomas resorts to strained comparisons with Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva, and even Pushkin. Thomas shows that he is familiar with the work of these writers—he has translated Pushkin and Akhmatova—but the only thing the four twentieth-century poets have in common with Solzhenitsyn is that they were persecuted by the same Soviet tyranny and resisted it. In every other respect, their experimental poetry could hardly be farther removed from the naturalistic realism of Solzhenitsyn.
More to the point is Solzhenitsyn’s affinity with Tolstoy, so obvious in the early novels and stories and so clearly the inspiration for The Red Wheel. Thomas acknowledges Tolstoy’s influence on August 1914, in which the great writer actually appears as a character. But he does not notice that Solzhenitsyn’s affinity is more with the late biblical and patriarchal Tolstoy than with the classic novelist in his sensuous prime. In Solzhenitsyn the reader will find no Natasha Rostova, Anna Karenina, or Pierre Bezukhov. At best he will find modern counterparts of the self-centered Andrei Volkonsky, the cunning peasant Platon Karatayev, and a shadow of Napoleon in the figure of Stalin in The First Circle.
Solzhenitsyn has encouraged the comparison with Tolstoy. It was himself he had in mind when he wrote, in The First Circle, that “a great writer is like a second government,” but he also knew that he was echoing Alexis Suvorin’s remark at the turn of the century that “we have two tsars in Russia: Nicholas II and Tolstoy.” However, the self-identification with Tolstoy has worked to Solzhenitsyn’s detriment, especially in the case of The Red Wheel.
The Red Wheel was clearly inspired by the same fanatical determination to tell the truth that has motivated Solzhenitsyn from the very outset of his career. The urge to bear witness made him into an incomparable chronicler of some of the worst cruelties of the twentieth century, and was the driving force behind all his best work. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, Cancer Ward, and above all The Gulag Archipelago were written with a fiery conviction that transformed history into poetry. The Gulag Archipelago even became a sort of model for The Red Wheel—even though the outline of the novel was conceived in the 1930s, before Solzhenitsyn had ever heard of the labor camps. Solzhenitsyn’s aim in both books, he once told his Paris publisher, Nikita Struve, was to “reconstruct history in its fullness, authenticity and complexity,” using “an artist’s vision” to bring documentary material to life.
But there was a problem that Solzhenitsyn did not reckon with. Having conceived while still a student a series of historical novels about the events leading up to the Revolution, Solzhenitsyn held doggedly to his plan for thirty years—through the world war, a term in the labor camps, a life of provincial obscurity, sudden fame, and exile to the West—even though his original vision had become an anachronism. The ideological purpose of the epic was entirely reversed: initially conceived as a celebration of the Revolution, it became an account of the Revolution as a tragic disaster. But that did not persuade Solzhenitsyn to reexamine his conception. He seems to have perceived his arrest and incarceration in the labor camps, and the great series of works he wrote recapturing his experiences, as a detour from the main task of his life, which was to write The Red Wheel. It was as though one part of his mental clock had stopped in about 1936. Perhaps he thought he would betray his youthful self if he did not persist with his great project.
In the Thirties, it should be recalled, Tolstoy was force-fed to Soviet students as one of the great harbingers of the Communist revolution, and held up in literary circles as the best classical model for Soviet writers to emulate. This canonization of a protorevolutionary Tolstoy showed a profound misunderstanding of his art. That an eighteen-year-old neophyte should fall under its influence and be swept away by visions of imitating Tolstoy is understandable, but that a mature writer in his fifties, with a distinguished body of writing behind him, should return to that adolescent vision suggests a triumph of will over common sense. It was too late even in 1936 to be dreaming of Tolstoyan epics, let alone after the world-shattering events of World War II.
The example of Tolstoy affected Solzhenitsyn in other ways as well. His Vermont retreat struck many visitors as self-consciously reminiscent of Tolstoy’s estate Yasnaya Polyana, where he lived during the last decades of his life. When I was in Vermont in 1977, I couldn’t help noticing the scythe leaning against the wall of his summer house, a reminder that Tolstoy liked to use his scythe in his spare time in imitation of his beloved peasants (but Solzhenitsyn’s scythe was of stainless steel).
Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana, however, was open and welcoming. Visitors came liberally from Russia and abroad, and Tolstoy maintained vigorous contacts with other thinkers and writers of his time. Cavendish was walled off from the rest of the world by a chain-link fence and closed-circuit television at the main gate. It seemed as though Solzhenitsyn had shut himself off in a private compound, a substitute for the harsher one in which he had spent the formative years of his life.
Solzhenitsyn, in my view, could more usefully be compared to Maxim Gorky, another Soviet idol during Solzhenitsyn’s youth (a doting uncle even sent Gorky some of the young Solzhe-nitsyn’s stories). Like Solzhenitsyn, Gorky was a provincial autodidact who became a world literary sensation, rocked the literary and political establishments of his day, and in the last part of his career became a legend, an icon, and a “rule-giver.” Gorky is remembered more for his nonfictional autobiographies and memoirs than for his many novels and short stories, and the same may well prove to be true of Solzhenitsyn.
The more one looks at his work, the more it seems that The Gulag Archipelago will last as his one incontrovertible masterpiece. Infusing the dry facts of political history with liberal doses of autobiography and hundreds of personal stories brought to him by fellow prisoners and helpers, Solzhenitsyn created, at great speed and in the white heat of inspiration, a unique polyphonic saga, an epic chronicle of cruelty and courage that has no precedent in Russian or in any other literature.7 The Gulag Archipelago also has a unique narrative voice, which Solzhenitsyn permitted himself only here and in his memoir, The Oak and the Calf. It is a sinuous, flexible, often harsh instrument that ranges from intimate reflection to stentorian revelation, from quiet prayer to magnificent exhortation, from deadpan description to ruthless irony; in its power it far surpasses the quietly ironic voice of even his best novel, The First Circle.
The inspired quality of The Gulag Archipelago has gone largely unrecognized in the English-speaking world owing to the hasty publication of volumes one and two in a badly flawed translation. The haste was a result of Solzhenitsyn’s demand that the work be published as soon as a copy fell into the hands of the KGB, and the task became even more urgent when Solzhenitsyn was arrested. Thomas takes note of the difficulties surrounding the book’s publication and concedes the poor quality of the translation, but instead of considering the consequences for Solzhenitsyn’s literary reputation, he gets tangled in the details of the fiasco.8 The only part of The Gulag Archipelago that now exists in a readable English version is volume three, translated by Harry Willetts. That, however, did not appear until 1978, the year of Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard speech, and like volume two, it went largely unread. Solzhenitsyn’s supreme work is thus largely unknown to English speakers.
Looking back, one is astonished at how short the period of Solzhenitsyn’s literary eminence was. He burst into world consciousness with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1961; fourteen years later, in 1975, his last acknowledged major work, The Oak and the Calf, was published in Russian. Future readers may still revalue The Red Wheel, and there is probably a second volume of memoirs to come. Some hopes were raised after Solzhenitsyn’s return to Russia with the announcement that he planned to publish some new short stories. Two came out in the May 1995 issue of Novy Mir, and three more in October. One is a sympathetic account of the life of Marshall Zhukov, another a satirical portrait of a prominent Soviet writer, told in the realist style of Solzhenitsyn’s late work. They are of interest more for their subject matter than for any special literary qualities, and give every appearance of being offshoots from the later volumes of The Red Wheel.
Of more topical interest is a 1996 story, “Rough Times,” which contrasts the tough morality of a Soviet industrialist with the corrupt financial maneuvers of a Yeltsinite banker, very much to the industrialist’s favor. Last year, Solzhenitsyn published in Novy Mir some “miniature stories”—his name for poems in prose. Their lyrical tone came as a relief from the relentlesssocial commentary of the longer stories, but both the miniatures and the longer stories are very far from having the bloom of Tolstoy’s late works, such as his peasant parables and Khadji Murat.
Still, nothing that Solzhenitsyn has published in the last quarter of his life can detract from the quality of the works written in his prime. That even they have been eclipsed in recent times owes more to declining interest in his great theme of the labor camps than to any inherent deficiencies. The crimes and enormities of the recent past get little attention in today’s shallow and materialistic Russia. Unlike after World War II, when the defeated Axis powers were obliged to confront their governments’ crimes and to re-educate their populations under pressure from their conquerors, the Russians now seem to have emerged from party dictatorship untroubled by the horrors of the past. With no external force to pressure them, they prefer almost total amnesia, at least for the time being. And for them Solzhenitsyn is part of the tragic history they want to forget.
The wheel (if not The Red Wheel) will undoubtedly turn again. When the contemporary urge to bury the past abates, Solzhenitsyn’s contribution to Russian letters (not to speak of his influence on the history of our century) will be evaluated anew. His reputation will probably never quite regain the luster that it possessed between 1962 and 1972, but he will still be recognized as one of the most important Russian writers of the twentieth century.
December 3, 1998
Ronald Berman, editor, Solzhenitsyn at Harvard: The Address, Twelve Early Responses, and Six Later Reflections (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1980). ↩
Solzhenitsyn, A Biography (Norton, 1984). ↩
For example, a translation I made from the memoirs of a White Cossack officer, Colonel A.G. Shkuro, published in Argentina in 1946, is quoted word for word, yet the attribution is made to Shkuro. The translation I made of a more obscure Danish pamphlet, Hvem er Solsjenitsyn? (“Who Is Solzhenitsyn?”), by one of Solzhenitsyn’s school friends, Kirill Simonyan, is paraphrased by Thomas, yet the Danish original is cited. There are numerous other examples of such unattributed “borrowings.” ↩
I had seen photographs of Semyon’s big house when writing my account of Solzhenitsyn’s childhood, but did not mention it because allegations about Solzhenitsyn’s well-to-do grandparents were being used to discredit him (and his work) in the eyes of Soviet readers. ↩
See D., Stremya Tikhogo Dona (“The Stream of ‘The Quiet Don”‘), with an introduction by Solzhenitsyn (Paris: YMCA Press, 1973). ↩
Curiously enough, The Gulag Archipelago was conceived as a riposte to a superficially similar work, edited by Gorky, The White Sea-Baltic Stalin Canal, about the glories of Stalinist “re-education through labor.” ↩
The full story of the publication of this flawed translation, in which I was involved by trying first to stop it, and then to edit it, remains to be told. The writer Olga Carlisle has commented on it twice, in Solzhenitsyn and the Secret Circle (Holt, 1978) and Under a New Sky (Ticknor and Fields, 1993), but the picture remains unclear. According to Thomas, she was in possession of a complete edited version of Thomas Whitney’s translation of volume one of The Gulag Archipelago, but declined to show it to Solzhenitsyn’s Swiss lawyer on the grounds that he did not ask for it. Given the intense pressure to publish volume one after its discovery by the KGB in the summer of 1973, and the extraordinary measures taken by Frances McCullough and myself to edit Whitney’s first draft at top speed, it is extraordinary that Carlisle never came forward. So far as I can make out, her edited translation was not made available to Harper and Row, and has never seen the light of day. ↩