- Solzhenitsyn: A Biography by Michael Scammell
Hutchinson, 1051 pp, £18.00, February 1985, ISBN 0 09 151280 8
This is undoubtedly the most thorough account of the life and times of Solzhenitsyn to date, but research cannot have been easy, even though Mr Scammell had the cooperation of Solzhenitsyn himself – up to a point. The disentangling of facts from myth, from propaganda, from disinformation, from studied amnesia, has been undertaken with great skill.
From the outset Solzhenitsyn’s life was marked both by misfortune and fortitude. His father, who served as an officer of the Imperial Army during the First World War, died in a hunting accident before Solzhenitsyn was born. He was therefore brought up, mostly by women, in that very difficult period following the Revolution, a situation made more hazardous by the fact that his mother’s family was wealthy (his uncle owned a white Rolls-Royce – said to be one of only nine in the whole of Russia). Naturally the family was anti-Bolshevik, and equally naturally, the young Alexander was fed Bolshevik heroism and Revolutionary fervour at school. The resulting social tension Solzhenitsyn himself regards as having conditioned his entire development; it caused him to subordinate the values of personal life to those of public life; ‘it somehow defined the path I was to follow for the rest of my life ... even now it is that same social tension that drives me on.’
His mother managed to scrape a living as a typist and the private life of his boyhood was spartan. Meanwhile the public ambition was that of the committed Marxist. He was an ardent member of the Komsomol, who devoted his spare time to the study of Marxism-Leninism. When he went to university, typically he chose to read for two degrees – one in mathematics, the other in literature – and as a star pupil of the regime, was awarded a Stalin Prize. It even appears that a film was made about him. But private life was subordinated to public ambition: his courtship of fellow student Natalya Reshetovskaya could only begin on the stroke of ten when the library shut for the night; and on his brief honeymoon he took along Marx’s Das Kapital. As a member of the gilded youth of Stalin’s Russia, he was shielded from many of its harsher realities: the devastation of the villages, the show trials, the mass deportations. He told his wife: ‘I believe to the marrow of my bones, I suffer no doubts, no hesitations – life is crystal clear to me.’ Nevertheless he did have doubts about Stalin, which strangely seemed to centre on style – on his image as leader and the way he mangled the Russian language both in his writings and in his spoken utterances, with their heavy Georgian accent.
When war broke out, after some initial difficulties (due to a groin injury which was later to be the source of his cancer), Solzhenitsyn managed to join the fighting forces. Military school gave him a foretaste of prison-camp life, but its bleak setting in the northern Russian landscape ‘appealed to his ascetic side, to a subconscious fascination with austerity, sacrifice and hardships’. Solzhenitsyn took to military life, he experienced the ‘joy of simplification’. Trained as an artillery officer, like his father before him, he found himself in East Prussia where his father, too, had fought. The area had further significance for Solzhenitsyn, since he regarded Samsonov’s Prussian campaign in the First World War as a turning-point in Russia’s destiny, and his great ambition was to write the definitive novel of that war and the ensuing revolution. He was already writing notes and collecting material under the cryptic heading R.17 (‘Revolution 1917’).