David Remnick
Solzhenitsyn being freed from Soviet oblivion

Washington Post / 1988

MOSCOW, AUG. 13 — The name Alexander Solzhenitsyn is no longer officially taboo in the Soviet Union.

Solzhenitsyn, the author of «One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich» and «The Gulag Archipelago,» among other ground-breaking works dealing with the infamous Soviet labor camp system, had been a symbol of resistance before and after his forced exile in 1974, but he has been a closed subject here for years. His books have been taken from library shelves, his name defiled in one propaganda tract after another, but now a series of articles, letters and television programs has dared to praise him.

Recently, the weekly journal Book Review published an extraordinary article by an old friend of Solzhenitsyn’s, Elena Chukovskaya. Under the headline «Return Solzhenitsyn’s Citizenship,» Chukovskaya gave a detailed description of Solzhenitsyn’s youth as a soldier in World War II and as a prisoner in the Soviet «Gulag,» the publication of his early stories, the censorship of his subsequent work and the long years of harassment that finally led to his arrest and exile in 1974.

Chukovskaya wrote that while Solzhenitsyn’s work is a national treasure, «we keep spitting on those treasures, even destroying them. Where is our sense of kindness, charity, respect for labor and talent?»

She said that before «Cancer Ward» or other Solzhenitsyn works are published here, the Soviet Union should reverse the verdict by the Supreme Soviet, or parliament, denouncing the writer for «betraying his motherland.»

«Solzhenitsyn was fighting for our present glasnost {openness} in 1969,» Chukovskaya writes. «In a letter to the Writers’ Union of the U.S.S.R., he said, ‘Glasnost, honest and complete. Glasnost, that is the first condition of any healthy society, including our society. Those who do not want glasnost are indifferent to our fatherland.’ »

Under the headline «Hello, Ivan Denisovich,» the weekly newspaper Moscow News published a long appreciation of the novella that made Solzhenitsyn famous here 25 years ago when it was published by the legendary editor Alexander Tvardovsky in Novy Mir, the journal of the Soviet writers’ union. The article quotes liberally from the short work, praising it for its realistic descriptions of «the inferno» of dictator Joseph Stalin’s prison camps.

And the Moscow News article is not the only hint that «One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich» may soon appear once more in the Soviet Union. Replying to a letter from a reader, the labor newspaper Trud said today that the release of Solzhenitsyn works that have been published only abroad «is not planned so far,» but that individual publishers may now issue works that appeared here first. Novy Mir’s current editor, Sergei Zalygin, has said here and abroad that he has been negotiating to publish the novels «Cancer Ward» and «The First Circle.»

Intellectuals with access to smuggled-in Russian language editions of Solzhenitsyn’s works say that his influence here remains deep. While many have serious concerns about Solzhenitsyn’s political and religious ideology, which they believe has an autocratic strain, all admire his work, especially his early fiction and the brooding, three-volume «Gulag Archipelago.»

In an interview, Andrei Bitov, author of the celebrated novel «Pushkin House,» said, «When I read his ‘Gulag,’ I feel like I am in the hands of one of the great ancient historians, Tacitus or Thucydides. Even as he is writing history, his prose is magnificent, and it is an amazing thing to remain an artist under such difficult circumstances.»

Bitov said that while a return of Solzhenitsyn’s books to the Soviet Union would be a «sensational thing,» he hopes that «one day it would just be normal, merely a part of our children’s lives.»

Lev Timofeyev, a leading dissident and the editor of the journal Referendum, said, «It’s impossible to describe Solzhenitsyn’s influence on people in this country. Personally, after reading ‘Gulag’ I suddenly felt the possibility of speaking the truth. Solzhenitsyn was a schoolteacher in Russia, and my wife was one of his pupils. But he was my teacher, too, a teacher for all of us, who opened up the modern world to us and created a kind of freedom for us.»

Solzhenitsyn, who lives in near isolation with his wife on a fencedcompound in Vermont, has said that he yearns to return to Russia, but only after his books are published here. Several years ago, he told his biographer, Michael Scammell, that despite all the evidence to the contrary, he was «firmly convinced» that it was «only a matter of a few years before I return to Russia.»

«I have no proof of it,» Solzhenitsyn said at the time, «but I have a feeling, a premonition.»

By David Remnick