Monday, August 4, 2008
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose stubborn, lonely and combative literary struggles gained the force of prophecy as he revealed the heavy afflictions of Soviet Communism in some of the most powerful literary works of the 20th century, died late on Sunday at the age of 89 in Moscow. His son Yermolai said the cause was a heart ailment.
Solzhenitsyn outlived by nearly 17 years the Soviet state and system he had battled through years of imprisonment, ostracism and exile.
Solzhenitsyn had been an obscure, middle-aged, unpublished high school science teacher in a provincial Russian town when he burst onto the literary stage in 1962 with “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” The book, a mold-breaking novel about a prison camp inmate, was a sensation. Suddenly he was being compared to giants of Russian literature like Tolstoy, Dostoyevski and Chekov.
Over the next five decades, Solzhenitsyn’s fame spread throughout the world as he drew upon his experiences of totalitarian duress to write evocative novels like The First Circle and The Cancer Ward and historical works like The Gulag Archipelago.
Gulag was a monumental account of the Soviet labor camp system, a chain of prisons that by Solzhenitsyn’s calculation some 60 million people had entered during the 20th century. The book led to his expulsion from his native land. George Kennan, the American diplomat, described it as “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.”
Solzhenitsyn was heir to a morally focused and often prophetic Russian literary tradition, and he looked the part. With his stern visage, lofty brow and full, Old Testament beard, he recalled Tolstoy while suggesting a modern-day Jeremiah, denouncing the evils of the Kremlin and later the mores of the West. He returned to Russia and deplored what he considered its spiritual decline, but in the last years of his life he embraced President Vladimir Putin as a restorer of Russia’s greatness.
In almost half a century, more than 30 million of his books have been sold worldwide and translated into some 40 languages. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Solzhenitsyn owed his initial success to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to allow Ivan Denisovich to be published in a popular journal. Khrushchev believed its publication would advance the liberal line he had promoted since his secret speech in 1956 on the crimes of Stalin.
But soon after the story appeared, Khrushchev was replaced by hard-liners, and they campaigned to silence its author. They stopped publication of his new works, denounced him as a traitor and confiscated his manuscripts.
A Giant and a Victim
But their iron grip could not contain Solzhenitsyn’s reach. By then his works were appearing outside the Soviet Union, in many languages, and he was being compared not only to Russia’s literary giants but also to Stalin’s literary victims, writers like Anna Akhmatova, Iosip Mandleshtam and Boris Pasternak.
At home, the Kremlin stepped up its campaign by expelling Solzhenitsyn from the Writer’s Union. He fought back. He succeeded in having microfilms of his banned manuscripts smuggled out of the Soviet Union. He addressed petitions to government organs, wrote open letters, rallied support among friends and artists, and corresponded with people abroad. They turned his struggles into one of the most celebrated cases of the cold war period.
Hundreds of well-known intellectuals signed petitions against his silencing; the names of left-leaning figures like Jean-Paul Sartre carried particular weight with Moscow. Other supporters included Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, W.H. Auden, Gunther Grass, Heinrich Boll, Yukio Mishima, Carlos Fuentes and, from the United States, Arthur Miller, John Updike, Truman Capote and Kurt Vonnegut. All joined a call for an international cultural boycott of the Soviet Union.
That position was confirmed when he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in the face of Moscow’s protests. The Nobel jurists cited him for “the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”
Solzhenitsyn dared not travel to Stockholm to accept the prize for fear that the Soviet authorities would prevent him from returning. But his acceptance address was circulated widely. He recalled a time when “in the midst of exhausting prison camp relocations, marching in a column of prisoners in the gloom of bitterly cold evenings, with strings of camp lights glimmering through the darkness, we would often feel rising in our breast what we would have wanted to shout out to the whole world – if only the whole world could have heard us.”
He wrote that while an ordinary man was obliged “not to participate in lies,” artists had greater responsibilities. “It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!”
By this time, Solzhenitsyn had completed his own massive attempt at truthfulness, The Gulag Archipelago. In more than 300,000 words, he told the history of the Gulag prison camps, whose operations and rationale and even existence were subjects long considered taboo.
Publishers in Paris and New York had secretly received the manuscript on microfilm. But wanting the book to appear first in the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn asked them to put off publishing it. Then, in September 1973, he changed his mind. He had learned that the Soviet spy agency, the KGB, had unearthed a buried copy of the book after interrogating his typist, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, and that she had hung herself soon afterward.
He went on the offensive. With his approval, the book was speedily published in Paris, in Russian, just after Christmas. The Soviet government counterattacked with a spate of articles, including one in Pravda, the state-run newspaper, headlined “The Path of a Traitor.” He and his family were followed, and he received death threats.
On Feb. 12, 1974, he was arrested. The next day, he was told that he was being deprived of his citizenship and deported. On his arrest, he had been careful to take with him a threadbare cap and a shabby sheepskin coat that he had saved from his years in exile. He wore them both as he was marched onto an Aeroflot flight to Frankfurt.
Solzhenitsyn was welcomed by the German novelist Heinrich Böll. Six weeks after his expulsion, Solzhenitsyn was joined by his wife, Natalia Svetlova, and three sons. She had played a critical role in organizing his notes and transmitting his manuscripts. After a short stay in Switzerland, the family moved to the United States, settling in the hamlet of Cavendish, Vermont.
There he kept mostly to himself for some 18 years, protected from sightseers by neighbors, who posted a sign saying, “No Directions to the Solzhenitsyns.” He kept writing and thinking a great deal about Russia and hardly at all about his new environment, so certain was he that he would return to his homeland one day.
His rare public appearances could turn into hectoring jeremiads. Delivering the commencement address at Harvard in 1978, he called the country of his sanctuary spiritually weak and mired in vulgar materialism. Americans, he said, speaking in Russian through a translator, were cowardly. Few were willing to die for their ideals, he said. He condemned both the United States government and American society for its “hasty” capitulation in Vietnam. And he criticized the country’s music as intolerable and attacked its unfettered press, accusing it of violations of privacy.
Many in the West did not know what to make of the man. He was perceived as a great writer and hero who had defied the Russian authorities. Yet he seemed willing to lash out at everyone else as well – democrats, secularists, capitalists, liberals and consumers.
David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, who has written extensively about the Soviet Union and visited Solzhenitsyn, wrote in 2001: “In terms of the effect he has had on history, Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of the 20th century. Who else compares? Orwell? Koestler? And yet when his name comes up now, it is more often than not as a freak, a monarchist, an anti-Semite, a crank, a has been.”
In the 1970s, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned President Gerald Ford to avoid seeing Solzhenitsyn. “Solzhenitsyn is a notable writer, but his political views are an embarrassment even to his fellow dissidents,” Kissinger wrote in a memo. “Not only would a meeting with the president offend the Soviets, but it would raise some controversy about Solzhenitsyn’s views of the United States and its allies.” Ford followed the advice.
The writer Susan Sontag recalled a conversation about Solzhenitsyn between her and Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet who had followed Solzhenitsyn into forced exile and who would also become a Nobel laureate. “We were laughing and agreeing about how we thought Solzhenitsyn’s views on the United States, his criticism of the press, and all the rest were deeply wrong, and on and on,” she said. “And then Joseph said: ‘But you know, Susan, everything Solzhenitsyn says about the Soviet Union is true. Really, all those numbers – 60 million victims – it’s all true.’ “
In the autumn of 1961, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a 43-year-old high school teacher of physics and astronomy in Ryazan, a city some 70 miles south of Moscow. He had been there since 1956, when his sentence of perpetual exile in a dusty region of Khazakstan was suspended. Aside from his teaching duties, he was writing and rewriting stories he had conceived while confined in prisons and labor camps since 1944.
One story, a short novel, was A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, an account of a single day in an icy prison camp written in the voice of an inmate named Ivan Denisovich Shukov, a bricklayer. With little sentimentality, he recounts the trials and sufferings of “zeks,” as the prisoners were known, peasants who were willing to risk punishment and pain as they seek seemingly small advantages like a few more minutes before a fire. He also reveals their survival skills, their loyalty to their work brigade and their pride.
The day ends with the prisoner in his bunk. “Shukov felt pleased with his life as he went to sleep,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. Shukov was pleased because, among other things, he had not been put in an isolation cell, and his brigade had avoided a work assignment in a place unprotected from the bitter wind, and he had swiped some extra gruel, and had been able to buy a bit of tobacco from another prisoner.
“The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, adding: “Just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell. The extra three days were for leap years.”
Solzhenitsyn typed the story single spaced, using both sides to save paper. He sent one copy to Lev Kopelev, an intellectual with whom he had shared a cell 16 years earlier. Kopelev, who later became a well known dissident, realized that under Khrushchev’s policies of liberalization, it might be possible to have the story published by Novy Mir, or The New World, the most prestigious of the Soviet Union’s so-called thick literary and cultural journals. Kopelev and his colleagues steered the manuscript around lower editors who might have blocked its publication and took it to Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the editor and a Politburo member who backed Khrushchev.
On reading the manuscript, Tvardovsky summoned Solzhenitsyn from Ryazan. “You have written a marvelous thing,” he told him. “You have described only one day, and yet everything there is to say about prison has been said.” He likened the story to Tolstoy’s moral tales. Other editors compared it to Dostoyevski’s “House of the Dead,” which the author had based on his own experience of incarceration in czarist times. Tvardovsky offered Solzhenitsyn a contract worth more than twice his teacher’s annual salary, but he cautioned that he was not certain he could publish the story.
Tvardovsky was eventually able to get Khrushchev himself to read A Day in the Life. Khrushchev was impressed, and by mid-October 1962, the presidium of the Politburo took up the question of whether to allow it to be published. The presidium ultimately agreed, and in his biography Solzhenitsyn (Norton, 1985), Michael Scammell wrote that Khrushchev defended the decision and was reported to have declared: “There’s a Stalinist in each of you; there’s even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil.”
The novel appeared in Novy Mir in early 1963. The critic Kornei Chukovsky pronounced the work “a literary miracle.” Grigori Baklanov, a respected novelist and writer about World War II, declared that the story was one of those rare creations after which “it is impossible to go on writing as one did before.”
Novy Mir ordered extra printings, and every copy was sold. A book edition and an inexpensive newspaper version also vanished from the shelves.
Solzhenitsyn was not the first to write about the camps. As early as 1951, Gustav Herling, a Pole, had published A World Apart, about the three years he spent in a labor camp on the White Sea. Some Soviet writers had typed accounts of their own experiences, and these pages and their carbon copies were passed from reader to reader in a clandestine, self-publishing effort called zamizdat. Given the millions who had been forced into the gulag, few families could have been unaware of the camp experiences of relatives or friends. But few had had access to these accounts. A Day in the Life changed that.
Born With the Soviet Union
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born in the Caucasus spa town of Kislovodsk on Dec. 11, 1918, a year after the Soviet Union arose from revolution. His father, Isaaki, had been a Russian artillery officer on the German front and married to Taissa Shcherback by the brigade priest. Shortly after he was demobilized and six months before his son’s birth, he was killed in a hunting accident. The young widow took the child to Rostov-on-Don, where she reared him while working as a typist and stenographer. By Solzhenitsyn’s account, he and his mother lived in a dilapidated hut. Still, her class origins – she was the daughter of a Ukrainian land owner – were considered suspect, as was her knowledge of English and French. Solzhenitsyn remembered her burying his father’s three war medals because they could indicate reactionary beliefs.
He was religious. When he was a child, older boys once ripped a cross from his neck. Nonetheless, at 12, though the Communists repudiated religion, he joined the Young Pioneers and later became a member of Komsomol, the Communist youth organization.
He was a good student with an aptitude for mathematics, though from adolescence he imagined becoming a writer. In 1941, a few days before Germany attacked Russia to expand World War II into Soviet territory, he graduated from Rostov University with a degree in physics and math. A year earlier, he had married Natalia Reshetovskaya, a chemist. When hostilities began, he joined the army and was assigned to look after horses and wagons before being transferred to artillery school. He spent three years in combat as a commander of a reconnaissance battery.
In February 1945, as the war in Europe drew to a close, he was arrested on the East Prussian front by agents of Smersh, the Soviet spy agency. The evidence against him was found in a letter to a school friend in which he referred to Stalin – disrespectfully, the authorities said – as “the man with the mustache.” Though he was a loyal Communist, he was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp. It was his entry into the vast network of punitive institutions that he would later name the Gulag Archipelago, after the Russian acronym for the Main Administration of Camps.
His penal journey began with stays in two prisons in Moscow. Then he was transferred to a camp nearby, where he moved timbers, and then to another, called New Jerusalem, where he dug clay. From there he was taken to a camp called Kaluga Gate, where he suffered a moral and spiritual breakdown after equivocating in his response to a warden’s demand that he report on fellow inmates. Though he never provided information, he referred to his nine months there as the low point in his life.
After brief stays in several other institutions, Solzhenitsyn was moved to Special Prison No. 16 on the outskirts of Moscow on July 9, 1947. This was a so-called sharashka, an institution for inmates who were highly trained scientists and whose forced labor involved advanced scientific research. He was put there because of his gift for mathematics, which he credited with saving his life. “Probably I would not have survived eight years of the camps if as a mathematician I had not been assigned for three years to a sharashka.” His experiences at No. 16 provided the basis for his novel The First Circle, which was not published outside the Soviet Union until 1968. While incarcerated at the research institute, he formed close friendships with Kopelev and another inmate, Dmitry Panin, and later modeled the leading characters of The First Circle on them.
Granted relative freedom within the institute, the three would meet each night to carry on intellectual discussions and debate. During the day, Solzhenitsyn was assigned to work on an electronic voice-recognition project with applications toward coding messages. In his spare time, he began to write for himself: poems, sketches and outlines of books.
He also tended toward outspokenness, and it soon undid him. After scorning the scientific work of the colonel who headed the institute, Solzhenitsyn was banished to a desolate penal camp in Kazakhstan called Ekibastuz. It would become the inspiration for A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
At Ekibastaz, any writing would be seized as contraband. So he devised a method that enabled him to retain even long sections of prose. After seeing Lithuanian Catholic prisoners fashion rosaries out of beads made from chewed bread, he asked them to make a similar chain for him, but with more beads. In his hands, each bead came to represent a passage that he would repeat to himself until he could say it without hesitation. Only then would he move on to the next bead. He later wrote that by the end of his prison term, he had committed to memory 12,000 lines in this way.
On Feb. 9, 1953, his term in the camps officially ended. On March 6, he was sent farther east, arriving in Kok-Terek, a desert settlement, in time to hear the announcement of Stalin’s death broadcast over loudspeakers in the village square. It was here that Solzhenitsyn was ordered to spend his term of “perpetual exile.”
He taught in a local school and secretly wrote poems, plays and sketches with no hope of having them published. He also began corresponding with his former wife, who during his incarceration had divorced him. He was bothered by stomach pains, and when he was able to visit a regional clinic, doctors found a large cancerous tumor.
His life as a restricted pariah struggling with the disease would lead to his novel The Cancer Ward, which also first appeared outside the Soviet Union, in 1969. He finally managed to get to a cancer clinic in the city of Tashkent and later described his desperation there in a short story, “The Right Hand.”
“I was like the sick people all around me, and yet I was different,” he wrote. “I had fewer rights than they had and was forced to be more silent. People came to visit them, and their one concern, their one aim in life, was to get well again. But if I recovered, it would be almost pointless: I was 35 years of age, and yet in that spring I had no one I could call my own in the whole world. I did not even own a passport, and if I were to recover, I should have to leave this green, abundant land and go back to my desert, where I had been exiled ‘in perpetuity. ‘ There I was under open surveillance, reported on every fortnight, and for a long time the local police had not even allowed me, a dying man, to go away for treatment.”
After acquiring medical treatment and resorting to folk remedies, Solzhenitsyn did recover. In April 1956, a letter arrived informing him that his period of internal exile had been lifted and that he was free to move. In December, he spent the holidays with his former wife, and in February 1957, the two remarried. He then joined her in Ryazan, where Natalia Reshetovskaya headed the chemistry department of an agricultural college. Meanwhile, a rehabilitation tribunal invalidated his original sentence and found that he had remained “a Soviet patriot.” He resumed teaching and writing, both new material as well as old, reworking some of the lines he had once stored away as he fingered his beads.
Twenty-two months elapsed between the publication of Ivan Denisovich and the fall of Khrushchev. Early in that period, the journal Novy Mir was able to follow up its initial success with Solzhenitsyn by publishing three more short novels by him in 1963. These would be the last of his works to be legally distributed in his homeland until the Soviet Union began to collapse in 1989.
When Leonid Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev as party leader in October 1964, it was apparent that Solzhenitsyn was being silenced. In May 1967, in an open letter to the Congress of the Soviet Writers Union, he urged that delegates “demand and ensure the abolition of all censorship, open or hidden.”
He told them that manuscripts of The First Circle and The Cancer Ward had been confiscated, that for three years he and his work had been libeled through an orchestrated media campaign, and that he had been prevented from even giving public readings. “Thus,” he wrote, “my work has been finally smothered, gagged, and slandered.”
He added, “No one can bar the road to truth, and to advance its cause I am prepared to accept even death.”
The letter touched of a battle within the writers union and in broader intellectual and political circles, pitting Solzhenitsyn’s defenders against those allied with the party’s hard-line leadership. Two years later, on Nov. 4, 1969, the tiny Ryazan branch of the U.S.S.R. Writers Union voted five to one to expel Solzhenitsyn. The decision ignited further furor at home. In the West, it intensified a wave of anti-Soviet sentiment that had been generated in 1968 when Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress the liberal reforms of the Prague spring.
The conflict grew 11 months later with the announcement that Solzhenitsyn had won the Nobel Prize for literature. The Soviet press responded with accusations that the award had been engineered by “reactionary circles for anti-Soviet purposes.” One newspaper belittled the author as ” a run of the mill writer”; another said it was “a sacrilege” to mention his name with the “creators of Russian and Soviet classics.”
But there were also Russians willing to defend Solzhenitsyn. The eminent cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich wrote to the editors of Pravda, Izvestia, and other leading newspapers praising the writer. Rostropovich, who had taken some risk in inviting Solzhenitsyn to live at his dacha near Moscow for several years, suffered official disfavor after his letter was published abroad.
Even greater risks were taken by the inmates of the Potma Labor camp. They smuggled out congratulations to Solzhenitsyn, expressing admiration for his “courageous creative work, upholding the sense of human dignity and exposing the trampling of the human soul and the destruction of human values.”
At the time, Solzhenitsyn’s private life was in turmoil. As news of the prize was announced, his marriage was dissolving. Two years earlier he had met Natalia Svetlova, a mathematician who was involved in typing and circulating samizdat literature, and they became drawn to each other. As Solzhenitsyn explained, “She simply joined me in my struggle and we went side by side.” He asked his wife, Natalia Reshetovskaya, for a divorce. But she refused, and continued to do so for several years. At one point, shortly after he had won the prize, she attempted suicide, and he had to rush her to a hospital, where she was revived.
In the meantime, Natalia Svetlova gave birth to Yermolai and Ignat, Solzhenitsyn’s two oldest sons. Finally, in March 1973, Natalia Reshetovskaya consented to a divorce. Soon afterward, Solzhenitsyn and Natalia Svetlova were married in an Orthodox church near Moscow.
His skirmishes with the state only intensified. While the authorities kept him from publishing, he kept writing and speaking out, eliciting threats by mail and phone. He slept with a pitchfork beside his bed. Finally, government agents who had tried to isolate and intimidate him arrested him, took him to the airport and deported him. Solzhenitsyn believed his stay in the United States would be temporary. “In a strange way, I not only hope, I am inwardly convinced that I shall go back,” he told the BBC. “I live with that conviction. I mean my physical return, not just my books. And that contradicts all rationality.”
With that goal, he lived like a recluse in rural Vermont, paying little attention to his surroundings as he kept writing about Russia, in Russian, with Russian readers in mind.
“He wrote, ate, and slept and that was about all,” Remnick wrote in 1994 after visiting the Solzhenitsyn family in Cavendish. “For him to accept a telephone call was an event; he rarely left his 50 acres.” In contrast to the rest of his family, he never became an American citizen.
His children – a third son, Stepan, had been born six months before Solzhenitsyn was deported – went to local schools, but they began their day with prayers in Russian for Russia’s liberation, and their mother gave them Russian lessons. She also designed the pages and set the type for the 20 volumes of her husband’s work that were being produced in Russian by the YMCA Press in Paris. And she administered a fund to help political prisoners and their families. Solzhenitsyn had donated to the fund all royalties from The Gulag Archipelago, by far his best-selling book.
As for the author, he would head each morning for the writing house, a wing the Solzhenitsyns had added to the property. There he devoted himself to a gigantic work of historical fiction that eventually ran to more than 5,000 pages in four volumes. The work, called The Red Wheel, focused on the revolutionary chaos that had spawned Bolshevism and set the stage for modern Russian history. It has been compared, at least in it’s sweep and intentions, with Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”
Solzhenitsyn started work on the first volume, August 1914, in 1969, though he said he had begun thinking about the project before World War II, when he was a student in Rostov. August 1914 was spirited out of the Soviet Union and published in Paris before Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion.
He believed that his account, which challenged Soviet dogma about the founding period, was as iconoclastic as his earlier writings about the gulag.
In the United States, August 1914 reached No. 2 on best-seller lists, but the subsequent volumes, November 1916, March 1917, and April 1917, all completed in Cavendish, have not been widely bought or read.
Solzhenitsyn was displeased by the Russian reaction to The Red Wheel, which he spoke of as the centerpiece of his creative life. He expressed the hope that it would gain importance with time.
Aloof in America
In Solzhenitsyn’s 18 years in Vermont, he never warmed to Americans beyond his Cavendish neighbors. On the eve of his return to Russia in 1994, he acknowledged he had been aloof. “Instead of secluding myself here and writing The Red Wheel, I suppose I could have spent time making myself likable to the West,” he told Remnick. “The only problem is that I would have had to drop my way of life and my work.”
But even when he stepped outside Cavendish, as he did when he addressed the Harvard graduates in 1978, his condemnations of American politics, press freedoms and and social mores struck many as insensitive, haughty and snobbish.
There were those who described him as reactionary, as an unreconstructed Slavophile, a Russian nationalist, undemocratic and authoritarian. Olga Carlisle, a writer who had helped spirit the manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago out of Moscow but who was no longer speaking to Solzhenitsyn, wrote in Newsweek that the Harvard speech had been intended for a Russian audience, not an American one.
“His own convictions are deeply rooted in the Russian spirit, which is untempered by the civilizing influences of a democratic tradition,” Carlisle said. And Czeslaw Milosz, generally admiring of his fellow Nobel laureate, wrote, “Like the Russian masses, he, we may assume, has strong authoritarian tendencies.”
Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia on May 27, 1994, first landing in the Siberian northeast, in Magadan, the former heart of the Gulag. On arrival, he bent down to touch the soil in memory of the victims.
He flew on to Vladivostok, where he and his family began a two-month journey by private railroad car across Russia, to see what his post-Communist country now looked like. The BBC was on hand to film the entire passage and pay for it.
On the first of 17 stops, his judgment was already clear. His homeland, he said, was “tortured, stunned, altered beyond recognition.” As he traveled on, encountering hearty crowds, signing books and meeting dignitaries as well as ordinary people, his gloom deepened. And after settling into a new home on the edge of Moscow, he began to voice his pessimism, deploring the crime, corruption, collapsing services, faltering democracy and what he felt to be the spiritual decline of Russia.
In Vermont, he had never warmed to Mikhail Gorbachev and his reform policies of perestroika He thought they were the last-ditch tactics of a leader defending a system that Solzhenitsyn had long known to be doomed. For a while he was impressed by Boris N. Yeltsin, Russia’s first freely elected leader, but then turned against him. Yeltsin, he said, had failed to defend the interests of ethnic Russians, who had become vulnerable foreign minorities in the newly independent countries that had so suddenly been sheared off from the Soviet Union. Later, he criticized the advent of Vladimir Putin as antidemocratic.
Russians initially greeted Solzhenitsyn with high hopes. On the eve of his return, a poll in St. Petersburg showed him to be the favorite choice for president. But he soon made it clear that he had no wish to take on a political role in influencing Russian society, and his reception soon turned tepid.
Few Russians were reading The Red Wheel. The books were said to be too long for young readers.
Michael Specter, then The New York Times correspondent in Moscow, observed, “Leading intellectuals here consider his oratory hollow, his time past and his mission unclear.”
Nationalists, who had once hoped for his blessing, were alienated by his rejection. Democratic reformers, who wanted his backing, were offended by his aloofness and criticism of them. Old Communists reviled him as they always had.
In October 1994, Solzhenitsyn addressed Russia’s Parliament. His complaints and condemnations had not abated. “This is not a democracy, but an oligarchy,” he declared. “Rule by the few.” He spoke for an hour, and when he finished, there was only a smattering of applause.
Solzhenitsyn started appearing on television twice a week as the host of a 15-minute show called “A Meeting With Solzhenitsyn.” Most times he veered into condemnatory monologues that left his less outspoken guests with little to do but look on. Alessandra Stanley, writing about the program for The Times, said Solzhenitsyn came across “as a combination of Charlie Rose and Moses.” After receiving poor ratings, the program was canceled a year after it was started.
As the century turned, Solzhenitsyn continued to write. In a 2001 book, he confronted the relationship of Russians and Jews, a subject that some critics had long contended he had ignored or belittled in his fiction. A few accused him of anti-Semitism. Irving Howe, the literary critic, did not go that far but maintained that in August 1914, Solzhenitsyn was dismissive of Jewish concerns and gave insufficient weight to pogroms and other persecution of the Jews. Others noted that none of the prisoners in Ivan Denisovich were definitively identified as a Jew, and the one whose Jewish identity was subtly hinted at was the one who had the most privileges and was protected from the greatest rigors.
Remnick defended Solzhenitsyn, saying he “in fact, is not anti-Semitic; his books are not anti-Semitic, and he is not, in his personal relations, anti-Jewish; Natalia’s mother is Jewish, and not a few of his friends are, too.”
In the final years of his life, Solzhenitsyn had spoken approvingly of a “restoration” of Russia under Vladimir Putin, and was criticized in some quarters as increasingly nationalist.
In an interview last year with Der Spiegel, Solzhenitsyn said that Russians’ view of the West as a “knight of democracy” had been shattered by the NATO bombing of Serbia, an event he called “a grave disillusion, a crushing of ideals.” He dismissed Western democracy-building efforts, telling the Times of London in 2005 that democracy “is not worth a brass farthing if it is installed by bayonet.”
In 2007, he accepted a State Prize from then-President Putin – after refusing, on principle, similar prizes from Gorbachev and from Yeltsin. Putin, he said in the Der Spiegel interview, “inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people. And he started to do what was possible – a slow and gradual restoration.”