Like a Thunderbolt

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by Liudmila Saraskina
    Molodaia gvardiia, 935 pp, €30.00, April 2008, ISBN 978 5 235 03102 9

‘Lives of Remarkable Men’ was a series established by Maxim Gorky in the 1930s so that the Soviet Union might know its heroes. It’s ironic that Liudmila Saraskina’s deeply admiring biography of the David who challenged the Soviet Goliath should now appear under its imprint. As Saraskina tells the story, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian patriot and Orthodox Christian, was a man with a mission from the first. Unswerving, uncompromising, beset by perils and enemies, stoically enduring great ordeals, he set out to bring down the Soviet system. Like any prophet – like Lenin, to use an analogy more congenial to Solzhenitsyn than to Saraskina – he knew himself born to a historic destiny, suffering agonies of frustration when its accomplishment seemed impossible. In the end, his mission, like Lenin’s, succeeded. In fact, one might say that it succeeded at Lenin’s expense, a triumphant negation of Lenin’s success.

Back in 1984, Michael Scammell wrote a fine warts-and-all biography of Solzhenitsyn which was forced to end on a note of uncertainty. Had Solzhenitsyn blown his great international success of the 1970s by retreating into angry exile in Vermont to write a multi-volume epic of the Russian Revolution, The Red Wheel, which seemed likely to be a mammoth bore? Or would he somehow pull the rabbit out of the hat and end up as the Prophet Vindicated? Saraskina had no such problem with the conclusion of her biography (though it was written, of course, before Solzhenitsyn’s death last month). In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed; in 1994, Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia to an initially cool reception which by the end of the decade had transmuted into general acknowledgment of his heroic stature and achievement.

Saraskina’s reverential approach doesn’t make for lively reading, especially as she puts in every biographical detail and painstakingly corrects every misstatement and canard – of which there are many, partly thanks to the KGB. Slogging through the first hundred pages of family history, I wondered if I had the stamina to get through 935 pages of small print. But after a while I warmed a little to her style. Never critical of Solzhenitsyn (this is her credo as a biographer, and she faults Scammell for not observing it), she nevertheless gives a fair account of the facts – give or take a bit of conspiracy theory, which is par for the course in a Russian biography – and can be relied on to summarise significant criticism by others before refuting it.

Most of all, though, I warmed to Solzhenitsyn. What a fighter! What an incorrigible conspirator, and how infectious the enjoyment he got out of it! (His exclamation marks are infectious, too.) What a sense of theatre and timing! How unshakeable in his belief that he was always right, regardless of the occasional 180º turn! What a subverter of other people’s pieties (sometimes even his own)! How wickedly good at puncturing the self-regard of the intelligentsia! What a master of black humour!! What a polemical style!! In the great tradition of the arch-polemicists Marx and Lenin, but used for their undoing!!!

Solzhenitsyn was born in December 1918, a few months after his father died in a hunting accident. Like many other children in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, he had problems of social origin: a rich peasant grandfather and a father whose status as an officer in the wartime Imperial Army made him suspect. His mother, once a pampered daughter who (like his father) had gone to university, struggled to stay afloat. Not surprisingly, Sanya’s best friends at school, Kirill Simonyan and Nikolai Vitkevich, were, like him, fatherless, poor, and of ‘bad’ social origins. They called themselves the Three Musketeers. Saraskina claims that, even as a child, Solzhenitsyn thought of the Revolution as a catastrophe for the country as well as for his family: ‘Sanya understood everything – and that everything was purely dreadful, sinister.’ But her own evidence suggests that he grew up with the usual dual value system of children who know that things are seen differently at home from the way they are seen at school. Critical of Stalin from early on, and sceptical about the show trials of the ‘wrecker’ engineers in the early 1930s (one of the accused was a family friend), the young Solzhenitsyn seems to have admired Lenin and identified with the Revolution. He was only ten when he read War and Peace and decided to write a similar saga of the Russian Revolution. The hero, it seems, was to be an idealistic Bolshevik who was also, in some sense, his lost father (whose political sympathies in 1917-18 are unclear).

By the time Solzhenitsyn entered the University of Rostov, a star student and one of eight holders of ‘Stalin’ stipends, he had resolved his childhood ambivalence – Saraskina sees this as a conversion – and with the single-mindedness that was to be characteristic of his adult life, become a thoroughgoing Soviet patriot. As he would write in The Gulag Archipelago, he was one of those 20-year-olds who saw themselves as children of the Revolution, fortune’s favourites, with ‘the brightest of futures ahead’. Although he had chosen to study physics and mathematics, his ambitions were already focused on literature. ‘From childhood on,’ he wrote, ‘I had somehow known that my objective was the history of the Russian Revolution . . . To understand the Revolution I had long since required nothing beyond Marxism. I cut myself off from everything else that came up and turned my back on it.’ In his mid-twenties, he invoked this mission to persuade his new wife, Natalia Reshetovskaya, that having a child was not on the agenda: ‘Practically anyone is capable of producing a child and bringing it up,’ he wrote to her. ‘But to write a history of the post-October years as a work of art is something that perhaps I alone can do . . . You and almost everyone else think of the future in terms of your personal life and happiness. But the only terms in which I can think are: What can I do for Leninism?’

The letter to Natalia, written in 1945 from the front, where Solzhenitsyn was serving as an officer, is contemporary with the correspondence with his old schoolfriend and fellow Musketeer, Vitkevich, that was to bring Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet career and aspirations to a grinding halt. It is often said that his arrest was a random event, something that might have happened to any Soviet citizen, the result of a casually disrespectful reference to Stalin. The reality is stranger. Solzhenitsyn’s lengthy correspondence with Vitkevich (an officer in a different unit) was highly critical of Stalin and of what they saw as the degeneration of the Communist Party under his leadership. The main subject, discussed in a transparent code, was the need for a radical political renovation after the war that would involve the recruitment of other like-minded individuals. If this wasn’t provocation enough, Solzhenitsyn and Vitkevich had devised a code to inform each other of the locations of their respective units – which was, of course, a military secret.

Small wonder that when he was arrested early in 1945 he made no attempt to deny his guilt under Article 58-10 of the criminal code (counter-revolutionary agitation and propaganda), quibbling only as to the applicability of Article 58-11 (counter-revolutionary conspiracy) to a group of two. What did he think he was doing? There are many ways of explaining his behaviour: the feeling of invulnerability he attributes to the ‘children of the Revolution’; his own sense of mission and his ultra-patriotism (‘What can I do for Leninism?’); the risk-taking propensities of young officers in wartime and their assumption that the empty-headed girls censoring their letters simply wouldn’t notice that something had been written in code. He himself later said that the whole thing had ‘a childish character, although we were already officers at the front’; and indeed small conspiracies engaged in by young people inspired by tales of the underground lives of the Bolsheviks before 1917, and now ‘playing at Revolution’ in the name of true Leninism, were not as rare in Stalin’s time as an outsider might expect. But it’s tempting to see this also as one of those moments of almost existential defiance of which there were to be several in Solzhenitsyn’s life. When disaster struck in 1945, exhilaration was part of his reaction: ‘something interesting, even alluring, was happening to me.’

He served an eight-year sentence in prison and Gulag, followed by three years in exile. The camps were the making of him. Labour camps were meant to be redemptive, according to idealistic early Soviet theory, and it could be argued that they proved so for Solzhenitsyn, if not in the way intended. He lost his Marxist-Leninist beliefs, regained the Orthodox faith of his childhood, and found his calling as the camps’ chronicler and the Soviet system’s denouncer.

From the beginning, he was fascinated by the variety of men and life stories he encountered in prison. Not long after his arrest he learned from other prisoners that the way to survive the camps was at all costs to avoid ‘general work’ (unskilled, manual, out in the open) and find a protected position indoors. He managed to use his knowledge of physics and mathematics to get himself transferred to a sharashka, one of those extraordinary prisons that were in effect closed scientific research institutes. The Marfino sharashka, where he spent almost three years working on secret telephone technology, probably saved his life. It provided him with comfortable living conditions, time for reading and writing and, above all, friends who were his intellectual equals. The passionate arguments he had with the Marxist (later dissident) Lev Kopelev (‘Rubin’) and the anti-Soviet Christian Dmitri Panin (‘Sologdin’) are vividly reproduced in The First Circle.

One might have expected him to do everything in his power to resist banishment from this ‘semi-paradise’, as Saraskina calls it. Yet when the transfer order came in 1950, he seems not to have resisted, even in a way to have welcomed it. Saraskina calls this ‘the great enigma of his fate’, but concludes that it was a principled choice and compares him to the German physicists who didn’t want to work on the bomb – which seems a bit of a stretch. Scammell more plausibly saw the transfer as the result of over-confidence and miscalculation on Solzhenitsyn’s part. Restlessness and risk-taking were surely part of it too, as they had been in 1945. Then there was the urge to learn more about this nether world in whose ‘first circle’ he had lodged. His new place of education was Ekibastuz, a ‘general work’ camp in Kazakhstan, where he became a bricklayer.

The three years he spent in Ekibastuz gave him the material for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the only one of his Gulag works in which Solzhenitsyn himself is not the thinly veiled protagonist. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was one of the rare occasions when Solzhenitsyn seemed close to losing his sense of self and sinking into passivity. Towards the end of his sentence, he developed the tumour that was successfully treated in a hospital in Tashkent (as described in Cancer Ward) after his release into exile in February 1953. Despite the cancer and residual depression, his re-entry into civilian life was easier than that of many ex-prisoners. He became a schoolteacher in exile, apparently a good one, and continued in this profession after his release from exile in 1956, his remarriage to his first wife (Natalia had remarried while he was in Ekibastuz), and his move to Riazan, where she worked.

Though he had contacts among the intelligentsia of the capital, including his old Gulag friend Kopelev, he kept aloof from that milieu, preferring to stay in the provinces. He was still determined to write; and now he had his theme. Cautiously and secretly, keeping his day job, and building up an elaborate network of hiding places for his manuscripts, he started writing with the single-minded determination and self-discipline that were to characterise him from then on. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle and Cancer Ward were all written in the late 1950s, and it was at this point also that the idea of The Gulag Archipelago crystallised, though it was not written until the mid-1960s.

By the beginning of the 1960s, his work was circulating unofficially among the intelligentsia, but despite the Thaw initiated by Khrushchev at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, he hesitated to submit it for publication. The breakthrough came in the autumn of 1961, when Khrushchev renewed his attack on Stalin, and Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the editor of the reform-minded journal Novy Mir, called on writers to embrace the ‘boldness, directness and truthfulness’ which the 20th Party Congress had made possible. With Kopelev as intermediary, Solzhenitsyn sent the manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to Tvardovsky, who managed to get Khrushchev’s approval for its publication in Novy Mir in 1962. As the first unvarnished account of Gulag, a hitherto forbidden subject, it was a sensation. For a few years, Solzhenitsyn was the toast of the Soviet literary world, fêted and courted by the intelligentsia, hailed by the media as the harbinger of a rebirth of Soviet literature, elected to the Union of Writers without formal application, introduced to Khrushchev, offered a Moscow apartment (he turned it down), nominated for a Lenin Prize.

Like Solzhenitsyn, Novy Mir had a mission; for some years, Tvardovsky believed, or at least hoped, the two missions were the same. Novy Mir’s was to tell the truth about the Stalinist past, but to do it from a Marxist and Communist standpoint, in the manner of a ‘loyal opposition’. On principle, as well as for reasons of self-preservation, Novy Mir always repudiated any suggestion of agreement with critics who were hostile to the Soviet system, especially émigrés and non-Communist foreigners. In the era of the Thaw, the journal became a symbol of truth-telling, held in near veneration by much of the educated Soviet public.

Solzhenitsyn appeared at first to go along with the Novy Mir agenda, appreciative of the support and friendship that the warm-hearted Tvardovsky offered. He didn’t really trust Novy Mir, however, or the intelligentsia (though he made a partial exception for Tvardovsky, on the grounds of his peasant roots): the only people he really trusted and felt at home with were fellow zeks – ex-prisoners. His priority was to get his work published at any cost – abroad, if need be. His mission, as gradually became evident, was not to reform the Soviet system but to indict it (to destroy it, he would later claim, though it’s not clear that this was a fully formulated intention in the early 1960s).

While for many years Novy Mir cherished hopes of publishing Cancer Ward, and might conceivably have been able to publish The First Circle if the political stars had aligned themselves in the right way, it is hard to imagine any circumstances in which The Gulag Archipelago, which Solzhenitsyn was secretly writing throughout the 1960s, could have been published in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn hid the manuscript’s existence from Tvardovsky, though after the latter’s death in 1971, he regretted not having let him look at it: Tvardovsky had ‘grown up enough for that’ by the end, as Solzhenitsyn condescendingly put it. On the eve of his deportation from the Soviet Union, he came out with the manifesto ‘Live Not by Lies’, which called on Soviet citizens to withdraw all co-operation with official lies, and, in effect, put Novy Mir’s truth-telling-within-limits in the same category as lying. Novy Mir was basically no different from other Soviet journals, he wrote a few years later, and with Tvardovsky’s departure ‘it died an unlovely death, without ever uncurling its spine.’ To those who considered this blasphemy, objecting ‘that for many years Novy Mir was the window through which the Russian reading public saw the pure light of day’, he responded coldly in The Oak and the Calf: ‘Yes, it was. It was a window. But a warped window, crudely hacked in a rotten wall, and blocked not only by the censors’ mesh but by an opaque screen of its own choosing – something like the opaque wire-glass in the Butyrki prison.’

Even as he let Tvardovsky go out on a limb for him, Solzhenitsyn was savouring the thought of the storm that The Gulag Archipelago was sure to provoke. In a conversation with his friend Veniamin Teush, taped by the KGB, he said: ‘I’ll unleash an entire avalanche . . . When the time comes, I’ll fire a simultaneous and crushing salvo . . . Archipelago will murder them. It will be devastating!’ Guerre à l’outrance with the Soviet regime was Solzhenitsyn’s strategy from about 1967. Unmoved by the Novy Mir argument that dealing with the West meant lending one’s support to the enemy (basically, he was on the enemy’s side, though he didn’t tell Tvardovsky that), he privately welcomed the unsanctioned foreign publication of chapters from Cancer Ward that devastated Novy Mir, and secretly sent The Gulag Archipelago abroad for safe-keeping and eventual publication. It had become clear to him that Western publicity was his best weapon – even back in the camps he had had the remarkably prescient idea that a Nobel Prize was the way to get his message out to the world – and he had also noticed that sensational confrontations were needed to keep the attention of the Western press. After Boris Pasternak was offered but forced to refuse the Nobel Prize in 1958, Solzhenitsyn became, on his own account, obsessed with it:

All the more vividly did I see it, all the more eagerly did I brood on it, demand it from the future! I had to have that prize! . . . And the earlier I got it, the firmer I should stand, the harder I should hit! My behaviour then would be the opposite in every way of Pasternak’s. I should resolutely accept the prize, resolutely go to Stockholm, make a very resolute speech. Obviously the road back would be closed to me. But I would be able to publish everything! Tell all I knew! . . . Drag it all to the platform of the Nobel Prize ceremony and hurl it like a thunderbolt!

Solzhenitsyn got his Nobel Prize in 1970, though to his intense annoyance tangled domestic circumstances (his first son had just been born and he was in the midst of divorce and remarriage) prevented him going to Stockholm and hurling his thunderbolt in person. By this time, tired of Novy Mir’s dance with authority, he was intent on forcing the Soviet regime to a confrontation; his motto as set out in The Oak and the Calf was: ‘Don’t just defend yourself, your own narrow little sector. Set out to shatter their whole system.’ This had the disadvantage that the regime might arrest him or (more plausibly, in his estimation) send him into exile inside or outside the Soviet Union, but ‘the lot of an outcast was not too high a price to pay. (And in any case, I could picture myself returning before many years were out.)’ By now he had extensive, though necessarily covert, dealings with Western publishers (an interesting story well told in Scammell’s biography, but more or less ignored by Saraskina) and a foreign currency income that was about to soar with the publication of The Gulag Archipelago.

In 1974, after long deliberation and internal argument, the Politburo decided to expel the troublemaker; this was also the year of Solzhenitsyn’s definitive breakthrough to international superstardom with The Gulag Archipelago. Like his banishment from the sharashka in 1950, and perhaps also his arrest in 1945, Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the Soviet Union was a catastrophe that he had in some sense sought. The event was traumatic, for all his long anticipation of it, partly because he had a new wife who didn’t really want to emigrate and three small children he wanted to bring up as Russians. His first reaction on reaching freedom in the West was a stunned silence: here, finally, he had his chance to tell the whole truth to the sea of microphones in front of him, but suddenly it seemed pointless, ‘unworthy . . . to speak there, where everyone speaks, where it’s allowed’. It wasn’t long before he was back on form, however, producing The Oak and the Calf, an over-the-top polemical masterpiece on the ‘calf’s’ dealings with Novy Mir and the regime, and a remarkable short novel, Lenin in Zurich, dealing with the last year in Lenin’s émigré life before the return on the sealed train after the revolution of February 1917.

Untypically, Lenin in Zurich was not autobiographical – at least not overtly so. Father Alexander Schmemann, an American Orthodox theologian who had recently befriended Solzhenitsyn, had noted something like ‘Bolshevism turned inside out’ in The Oak and the Calf, something ‘cold’ and ‘cruel’; but Lenin in Zurich caused him even more alarm, for Schmemann had been told by Solzhenitsyn that he was the novel’s Lenin, just as he was Vorotyntsev, the hero of his Red Wheels saga: ‘It’s a description from inside . . . a book written by “a twin” . . . The loneliness and “passion” of Lenin. The loneliness and “passion” of Solzhenitsyn, struggle as the content – the only content! – of life. Ceaseless engagement with the enemy.’ Lenin, in Solzhenitsyn’s compelling representation, is a driven man, intensely frustrated by being stuck in Switzerland in 1916 when revolution might be imminent in Russia: ‘His vocation – he knew no other – was to change the course of history, and fulfilment had been denied him.’ A hard and disciplined worker, he demands total control over his domestic environment. An inveterate conspirator, his immediate problem is how to avoid being morally compromised as a recipient of foreign gold, while still accepting the German (enemy) help he needs to carry out his mission. Saraskina is distressed by the notion of a Lenin/Solzhenitsyn analogy and disputes it at some length (while also, perhaps inadvertently, providing some clues as to where Solzhenitsyn, whose best characters are usually drawn from life, might have got his Inessa). Even in her account, however, Solzhenitsyn’s relation to his subject in this book was unusual. Describing how he drafted Lenin in Zurich with Lenin’s photograph on a nearby table, Solzhenitsyn wrote: ‘He sees my idea – and cannot hinder it (or can he?). For him, torture beyond the grave – and for me, competition on earth.’

It’s hard not to see the Vermont years – between 1976 and 1994 – as a comedown after the great dramas of the 1960s and early 1970s, first on a Soviet and then on a world stage. Always a loner (or a ‘splitter’, as they said of Lenin), Solzhenitsyn had prickly relations with other dissidents and quarrelled with many of the Russian émigrés. In his Vermont retreat – a self-made Gulag, as some unkindly described it – he lived a hard-working and isolated life, marked by intense self-discipline and a household (complete with three sons, a stepson and a mother-in-law) tightly controlled for his convenience by his selfless second wife, Natalia (‘Alya’) Svetlova. His big writing project in these years was the epic of the Russian Revolution that he had conceived long ago: but now, instead of an idealist Communist as hero and authorial stand-in, the central protagonist, Georgyi Vorotyntsev, was an Imperial Army officer. Unfinished in terms of the original conception, The Red Wheel – published in many volumes in Russian but only partially available in English translation – started in August 1914 and reached April 1917, though a fragment of a projected October volume seems to have been published in Russian in 2007. Critically, the book has been a failure both in Russia and the West. It’s huge, a lot of it is boring, and even Saraskina doesn’t make big claims for it as a literary work, admiring instead – and justifiably – the stubborn determination and sense of purpose, sustained (with appropriate adjustments) over seventy years, that kept him at it, regardless of what anybody thought.

Solzhenitsyn didn’t like America. And, true to form, he told it so in his Harvard speech in 1978, when he indicted the West (specifically the United States) for its loss of civic courage and conscience, superficial and sensationalist press, decadence, mediocrity and misuse of liberty. The West was no model for Russia, he concluded, because for all its problems, Russia’s suffering had brought a higher spiritual development to its population than anything the West could offer. This prompted outrage and accusations of ingratitude. Solzhenitsyn’s running conflict with the American media intensified, focused now on his Russian nationalism and what was alleged to be a consequent tendency to anti-semitism; he found out by experience how potent this particular accusation is in American politics, and how hard to shake. (Saraskina oddly sees his problems in America as stemming from the US elite’s hatred of Russia, and for Solzhenitsyn as its symbolic representative.) The attacks were hard on his wife and children, Solzhenitsyn wrote, because, by virtue of their everyday dealings with the outside world, America was for them a ‘real’ country in which they (unlike him) lived as ‘real inhabitants’.

The Soviet Union’s collapse paved the way for Solzhenitsyn’s return in 1994, which he staged with typical élan and instinct for publicity, taking a train from Vladivostok and proceeding through the length of Russia to Moscow. There isn’t a theatre director in the world who could have thought that one up, Saraskina comments (admiringly). It was intended as the return of the Prophet Vindicated, filmed in every detail by the BBC, but it didn’t quite come off. Too late, many said; a great figure, but now irrelevant. Solzhenitsyn was equal to that, plunging again into one of his favourite roles, that of Jeremiah. The Russia he discovered in the mid-1990s was a moral sink, national consciousness and spiritual traditions lost, criminality rampant, party and Duma politics contemptible, the plight of the Russian people appalling and ignored by the new-rich rulers, privatisation a theft of public assets in broad daylight, Russia’s ‘liberal’ intellectuals as posturing and out of touch as ever, the break-up of the empire and consequent loss of Russia’s ‘iconic regions, outlets to the sea, and millions of Russian people’ a catastrophe, ‘shock therapy’ an outrage, even the Russian language corrupted. As for the free Russian press, they were a bunch of jackals, worse than the Cheka.

The jeremiad disconcerted the post-Soviet Russian elites, insofar as they paid attention, but by the late 2000s, Solzhenitsyn – visited, in a symbolic gesture, by Putin – seemed settled in the position of a prophet honoured (though not necessarily listened to) in his own country. He died a few months short of his 90th birthday: by special permission of the Patriarch, he was buried in the Donskoy cemetery in Moscow, along with the Dolgoruky princes, the White general Anton Denikin and the historian Vasily Klyuchevsky. A great writer, humanist and patriot, according to the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, though the Western press is more inclined to see him as the man who ‘stood up against totalitarianism’. Western tributes, variations on the theme that Russia’s loss is also the world’s, were extensively quoted in the Russian media, but so were statements in the British press that Solzhenitsyn proved irrelevant to contemporary Russia.

The title of Saraskina’s last chapter can be translated either as ‘A Happy Man’ or ‘A Fortunate Man’. Fortunate he certainly was: even ‘dying his own death’, as the Russians say, was an achievement, not to mention blowing his horn before the walls of Jericho and (post if not propter hoc) having them come tumbling down. ‘Happy’ – even the kind of happiness Saraskina seems to have in mind, which was always feeling he had work to do – seems a bit demeaning for such a virtuoso of savage indignation. Would one call Swift happy? Or Lenin? Surely it was part of Solzhenitsyn’s greatness never to be a mere seeker of happiness. Struggle was what he enjoyed; and victory, the routing of his enemies, was what he strove for. One might say that in 1991, with the Soviet enemy destroyed, he got what he wanted, or as near as is possible in any human life; but the same might be said of Lenin in 1917, and we know how that story ended. In any case, the contrarian Solzhenitsyn simply changed the direction of his fire. How much folly, corruption and idiotic self-satisfaction remained in post-Soviet Russia! What heedlessness and hedonism, what spiritual deadness! Solzhenitsyn was not one of those who mistook 1991 for the end of history.