x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

In tyranny, he found inspiration

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's story is of a man who despised what his country became after it threw off the very shackles he railed against.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaking in the Duma, the Russian parliament's lower chamber in Moscow, in 1994.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaking in the Duma, the Russian parliament's lower chamber in Moscow, in 1994.

In 1972 when Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the writer who died in Moscow on Sunday of heart failure, was being hounded by the Soviet police, two US reporters spent weeks in secret negotiations to secure an interview with him. When the appointed time came, they eluded the police and sneaked into the home of the apostle of anti-communism. As they got out their tape recorders, the writer handed the reporters a 7,500-word text of the "interview" they were about to conduct, complete with ludicrously unlikely "questions". Solzhenitsyn demanded they print every word immediately. The journalists were shocked that Solzhenitsyn had no shame in using a technique of communist propaganda - the concocted interview - to get his message across. "We don't even guarantee the American president to print every word," Hedrick Smith, of The New York Times, told him. After three hours of negotiations the writer agreed to respond vaguely to four questions, provided they got the whole text published somehow. After the interview appeared in print, Solzhenitsyn wrote to complain that the journalist's description of his opening his front door was "fictionalisation" and had destroyed the coherence of his 7,500-word text. Two years later Solzhenitsyn was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and expelled for publishing his great work, The Gulag Archipelago, which revealed the full horror of Joseph Stalin's network of labour camps through which the writer had passed along with millions of others. But already in 1972, all the elements of Solzhenitsyn's character that made him one of the most influential writers of the 20th century were clearly defined: his rock-like inflexibility; his autocratic single-mindedness; and his disdain for western freedoms, including the liberty of the writer to choose his own words. For Solzhenitsyn, there could never be any compromise with the communists. "I put it like this," he said after being forced into exile. "Those people who have lived in the most terrible conditions, on the frontier between life and death - be it people from the West or the East - they all understand that between good and evil there is an irreconcilable contradiction." He certainly knew about the frontier between life and death, having fought bravely in the Second World War, and then been sentenced to eight years in a labour camp for some mild criticism of Stalin. This was followed by hungry exile to the steppes of Kazakhstan, and then falling ill with cancer. None of this put him off his life's work. He recovered from cancer and despite being told he would never have any children, had three boys with his second wife, Natalya. The accident of his birth in 1918, just after the Bolshevik Revolution, put him at the centre of key events of the century. "In a way, his life sums up the 20th century and its moral absolutes," said DM Thomas, a novelist and author of a biography of Solzhenitsyn. "Though his intended audience was his own people, with his one-man history of the suffering in the camps he blew the communist system open for those fellow travellers in the West who were rather sympathetic to its ideals." Despite only serving a relatively brief period in a labour camp, Solzhenitsyn always remained a zek, a convict. Some people are destroyed by prison life; others develop a detachment to their suffering; but for Solzhenitsyn the barbed wire entered his soul and hardened it, and it never left. For 18 years he lived in exile in Cavendish, Vermont, and visitors were struck by how he had built his own private gulag there. He never learnt English or socialised with his neighbours; he built a high wall around his property, in defiance of the New England tradition of living in open view of your neighbours; he rarely allowed visitors. One of the few Russians who was invited to see him in Vermont was Igor Zolutussky, also a former camp inmate and noted writer. Mr Zolutussky was struck by the abnormal life he led in the United States, and how he had never shaken off the imprint of prison life from his character. In prison he learnt to bite before he was bitten, and he never lost his distrust of people. It was unthinkable for him to admit weakness or say sorry. His life would have been grim indeed but for his fortunate choice of wife in Natalya, who was his devoted researcher and spokesman. She was shrewd while he was dogmatic, flexible while he was immovable. Solzhenitsyn's critics in the West have criticised him for not developing the sunny disposition of Nelson Mandela, that other famous political prisoner who destroyed a regime and spent not eight but 27 years in jail. The secret lies not just in character. Mandela was famous before he was arrested; Solzhenitsyn was unknown and friendless, and when he was released he supported himself teaching while writing in secret, utterly alone. If the writer's supporters hoped he would embrace the West, they were disappointed. In a tract written in Switzerland called Letter to the Supreme Leaders, he pictured the West as the source of harmful imports - technology and the "dark, un-Russian whirlwind" of Marxism - which had destroyed the moral perfection, as he saw it, of the Russian village. Only patriotism, led by the Russian Orthodox Church, could rescue the Russian people. Once in the United States he inveighed against the "filth" of consumer culture and the moral decay it entailed. In an address at Harvard, he said: "A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days." These tirades were no doubt inspired partly by the knowledge that, exiled from Russia, he could not flourish as a writer. The monumental works of history he wrote failed to inspire. "All Solzhenitsyn's great work was instigated by his experience of tyranny. Personal freedom, once he got it, did not give him a lot to write about," said Thomas Keneally, an Australian writer. The tragedy of his creative life is that his earliest work was the best. The short novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published during the Cold War "thaw" of 1962, inspires the reader precisely because the prisoner's day is a happy one as he receives a food parcel from his wife, manages to get a hacksaw blade past the guards and does not fall ill despite the Arctic cold. The First Circle is set in the most privileged of labour camps - a cosy place where brilliant engineers are locked up together to serve the Soviet state, despite being "enemies of the people". Cancer Ward, drawing on his experience of overcoming the deadly disease, is ultimately inspiring. It is for these three books, where his red-hot indignation is kept under restraint, that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. He declined to go to Stockholm to receive the award for fear that he would not be allowed re-enter the Soviet Union. Once he started to reveal the true horror of the gulag - an acronym for central administration of corrective labour camps - his messianic zeal took over and he turned into a literary prophet, as Tolstoy had done. When finally he returned to Russia in 1994 after his citizenship was restored, communism was in the past, and no one was interested in his books. People were grasping the "filth" of consumer culture with both hands. At one stage, it was thought he might emerge as an ayatollah-like figure, leading the country back to its village roots. But the Russians were more interested in flying to Dubai to shop. He was given a late-night TV chat show, but the guests rarely got a word in. It became a monologue. It was taken off the air for poor ratings. While never a full supporter of Vladimir Putin, he accepted the State Prize for literature from him in 2007. By taking an award from a leader who ordered Russian school textbooks to take a more positive view of communist history, Solzhenitsyn alienated some of his remaining liberal supporters. His last work, Two Hundred Years Together, a history of the Russians and the Jews, never found a publisher in English. He would wish to be remembered, however, not as a novelist but as a man who followed the Russian proverb he cited at the end of his Nobel speech in 1970: "One word of truth shall outweigh a whole world." aphilps@thenational.ae