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’).
Unfortunately other writing was less cryptic, and in retrospect it seems naive that in private correspondence he should openly criticise Stalin, and propose the founding of a new political party – the proposal was couched in appropriate revolutionary jargon as ‘Resolution No 1’. The correspondence was intercepted and he was arrested. An interesting insight is afforded by the fact that he actually thought he might be on his way to discuss his ideas with the leaders in the Kremlin (a similar forlorn hope surfaced at the time of his second arrest in 1974). He was, of course, on his way to the Lyubyanka prison in Moscow, where he would be interrogated, then sentenced to eight years in prison camps followed by permanent exile.
A significant feature of the brutalising experience which had now begun were its Gogolian incongruities and bureaucratic inefficiencies. For example, the Lyubyanka library included many books which could not be read outside. On the other hand, his interrogator, Ezepov, did not read what duty required. Solzhenitsyn’s diaries, containing material for R.17 as well as incriminating stories about collectivisation, famine and shortages, were all burned and their author required to sign a document confirming that this was matter not relevant to the case. Such human failings allowed Solzhenitsyn to give his new life a degree of direction. It began with the arrest itself, when his military escort took the wrong turning and headed towards enemy lines: they extricated themselves only thanks to the map-reading abilities of their prisoner. It continued in Moscow, where it was Solzhenitsyn himself who had to lead his escort from the railway station to the Lyubyanka prison. More important, in transferring from prison to prison, Solzhenitsyn still appears to have been able to ‘lead’ his captors, now donning his officer’s uniform to get the job of shift foreman, now brazenly claiming to be a nuclear physicist in order to enter the ‘First Circle’ – the special camps where scientific research was carried out.
What an incredible world is opened up in this other non-state of the Gulag! Just as Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century had divided the realm into his own estate of the Oprichnina and the non-estate of the Zemshchina, preying on the latter to foster the former, so in a more technological age Stalin had his official state and his unacknowledged one, which was not only charged with opening up the riches of Siberia but also produced some of the official state’s outstanding scientific achievements, including those of its air industry. Incredible, perhaps, but logical, since Stalin’s paranoiac campaigns against ‘opposition’ had locked away the finest brains of the country. It was into this first circle of the hell which made Stalin’s ‘paradise’ possible that Solzhenitsyn was now transferred, not as a nuclear physicist, but as a mathematician and phonetician charged with developing a telephone scrambler. This was a much milder regime, and again one is struck by the incongruities: the non-free with access to books from the Lenin library which were not readily available outside; the politically suspect listening almost permanently to the BBC.
Solzhenitsyn’s attitude to his prison experiences is highly ambiguous. The camps were his universities where he educated himself in many senses – through discussion, through reading and through the harsh and terrible experiences which tested him psychologically and physically. It was, as he wrote, his ‘spiritual birthplace, and a secret part of your soul will remain here for ever – while your feet trudge on into the dumb and unwelcome expanse of freedom.’ Yet in this relative comfort he began to feel more and more rebellious. His Marxist convictions had gone, and after reading Dostoevsky he was returning to the private values of his childhood. He openly criticised the research project of a senior officer, refused to put in overtime in the laboratories, preferring to chop wood. His inevitable transfer to a lower circle of the Gulag empire was almost welcomed as another stage in his education: the hard rocky bottom that felt firm to his feet. Like his peasant hero, Ivan Denisovich, he found a meaning in hard physical work, yet never gave up his calling as a writer. He would write on scraps of paper while waiting for the next barrowload of mortar, and he devised an ingenious system of matchsticks and later an improvised ‘rosary’.
Something of Solzhenitsyn’s day-to-day life in Ekibastuz, in the arid steppes of Kazakhstan, can be seen in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was a new type of hard-labour camp introduced by Stalin in 1948 on the analogy of the old Tsarist penal settlement (katorga) – the sort of camp to which Dostoevsky had been sent a hundred years before. Like Dostoevsky, too, on the completion of his sentence he was to be released into permanent exile in Central Asia. This began in 1953 in Kok Terek, many miles to the south of his labour camp but still in Kazakhstan. The local authorities were wary of employing him in his former profession of schoolteacher, but by persistence, and the revelation of his talents as mathematician and pedagogue, he achieved his aim.
He had scarcely arrived in Kok Terek when Stalin’s death was announced. Amidst a grief-stricken population Solzhenitsyn wanted to jump for joy. Much as the death of Nicholas I ultimately made the suspension of Dostoevsky’s permanent exile possible, so now events were set in train that would lead to the rise of Khrushchev, de-Stalinisation and Solzhenitsyn’s own rehabilitation. Before this could happen, however, it seemed as if another sentence had been passed on him: cancer of the abdomen was diagnosed, all the more worrying as it was a second manifestation of the disease. In the prison hospital at Ekibastuz a growth had been removed from his groin under local anaesthetic. He now had to go to hospital in Tashkent. Apparently cured, he returned to Kok Terek with material for a novel. The cancer which had been forced to relinquish his own body also seemed to be losing its grip on the body politic with the shooting of Beria and the reorganisation of the security services. A small paragraph tucked away in Izvestiya gave him hope of an amnesty, and he began to write petitions. By 1956 he was successful. Part of the rehabilitation process included a bizarre return to the Lyubyanka prison, where he was interviewed by a ‘friendly’ new-style secret policeman. But he did not wish to reside in Moscow or in any big town. He chose a village named after its peat works, Torfprodukt, where he lodged with a peasant woman, Matryona, whose life and character inspired one of his best short stories ‘Matryona’s Place’.
His wife, Natalya, with his consent and even encouragement, had divorced him, and was now remarried, but Solzhenitsyn wanted her back. She visited him in Torfprodukt and succumbed to his charm. Natalya divorced her second husband to remarry her first, and they started a new life together in Ryazan, where, as well as writing, Solzhenitsyn worked as a teacher of physics and astronomy.
Another parallel with Dostoevsky can be seen in the circumstances of his overnight acclaim as a writer on the strength of one work – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. From now on Solzhenitsyn’s name was linked with the liberal Marxist tendencies of Tvardovsky’s journal Novy Mir, but although for a time he was prepared to play along with this, he had moved away from the Marxism of his youth. After the fall of Khrushchev, Novy Mir itself was under fire. He had a wealth of material which by hook or by crook he was determined to publish, even though he realised that it might be dynamite for Soviet society. Indeed, he exploited that fact, smuggling works such as The Gulag Archipelago abroad to be translated and lie dormant until overall strategy demanded that they be summoned into play. Solzhenitsyn conducted his campaign against the Soviet literary establishment and the KGB like a general, counter-attacking, appearing elusive, delivering a succession of rapid blows from different quarters to keep his adversaries off-balance. This is the period of the rise of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn was careful to avoid becoming embroiled with them, but his biographer skilfully charts their growth and ramifications and provides a necessary background against which to assess Solzhenitsyn’s own ‘dissidence’. There was, of course, real danger in his brushes with the KGB, but Solzhenitsyn relished the game of cat and mouse, even the sense of being persecuted. This had its bizarre comedy – as when an agent was recruited to impersonate him and through debauchery and high-living discredit his public image. It is the world of Dostoevsky’s The Double or Gogol’s The Nose. A bizarre coda was added when friends followed a ‘double’ to the apartment of a certain lady, but Solzhenitsyn was not amused: they had uncovered his secret liaison with Svetlova, the woman who became his second wife. Marriage to Svetlova seemed inevitable when she became pregnant. Radiation, had not, after all, destroyed the fertility of this indestructible man. But this second marriage almost destroyed his first wife. Her suicide was foiled but she was left a crushed and bewildered woman – as much a figure of tragedy as Tolstoy’s wife.
A recurring theme emerges from this biography. The self-sufficient Solzhenitsyn needs people, but he can easily discard them. For example, he accepted the Nobel Prize not merely as a personal honour but as a powerful political lever to be used with maximum effect even if it caused embarrassment to those who had awarded it. The West as a whole was similarly used as a mocking mirror projecting his elusive image back to the Soviet Union. In a sense, he was merely playing a game in parallel to that of the KGB, who planted his works on Western organisations in order to discredit him, or reprinted hostile ‘Western’ articles about him which they themselves had written. But when the KGB played its ultimate ‘Western’ trick – exile – he found himself beyond the mirror in a topsy-turvy world which he both knew and did not know. His Western admirers were thrown off-balance. They rapturously accepted a hero, a fighter for freedom, a brave anti-Communist, but they were disconcerted to find him as outspoken in his criticism of them as he was about the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn has a very Russian view of the West, which, like Herzen, on the one hand, and Dostoevsky, on the other, he sees only in relation to the aspirations of his own country (however these are interpreted).
The towering figures of Russian literature, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, have been unable to resist the role of prophet and preacher, whatever dangers this might pose for their art. Gogol lost the struggle with his masterpiece Dead Souls when, under the influence of moral and religious ideas, he tried to turn his rogue hero into an exemplar of virtue. A similar problem haunts the great masterpiece which Solzhenitsyn sees as the consummation of his life’s work: how to convert the hero, first conceived when Solzhenitsyn was an ardent Marxist, into a figure better suited to the author’s present views, whilst retaining his central role in the Revolution.