SOVIET UNION: Solzhenitsyn: An Artist Becomes an Exile
February 25, 1974 | Vol. 103 No. 8 | Monday, Feb. 25, 1974
Woe to that nation whose literature is cut short by the intrusion of force. This is not merely interference with freedom of the press but the sealing up of a nation's heart, the excision of its memory.
The blue and white Aeroflot TU-154 jet airliner taxied to the far end of the terminal at Frankfurt's Rhein-Main Airport. From the first-class exit emerged a husky 55-year-old man with a distinctive fringe of red beard. At the bottom of the ramp, a German hostess handed him a single pink rose; he smiled faintly and bowed over her hand. As police held a swarm of newsmen at bay, the traveler got into a Mercedes-Benz limousine that whisked him to the tiny village of Langenbroich, 100 miles away. Arriving at his host's small farmhouse, he was welcomed in the harsh glare of TV floodlights. He slipped past the crowd of reporters, photographers, local police, neighbors and gawkers. "I was in prison just this morning," he said.
"First I must get used to things and try to comprehend my situation."
Thus last week began the exile of one of the world's great writers, an authentic hero in an age sorely lacking them, the man who for millions the world over has come to represent the conscience of Russia: Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Shortly after the dazed and weary writer landed in West Germany, the Soviet news agency Tass issued a laconic, nine-line communiqué. It announced that Solzhenitsyn had been stripped of his citizenship by a decree of the Supreme Soviet and deported for "systematically performing actions that are incompatible with being a citizen of the U.S.S.R." Tass added that his wife and children could join him "when they deem it necessary."
With the banishment, Solzhenitsyn's remarkable career as a writer in Soviet Russia came full circle. It had begun with the official publication in 1962 of his concentration camp novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a work that Pravda hailed as a masterpiece. Nikita Khrushchev was, in a way, his patron; he had encouraged the publication of One Day as part of his own effort to discredit Stalin. But once Khrushchev himself was deposed, there followed for Solzhenitsyn a decade of increasingly dramatic confrontations with the authorities. His subsequent novels were banned, and he was regularly excoriated in the Soviet press.
Nonetheless, his books circulated widely in Russia by samizdat (self-publishing) and became bestsellers in the West. At the same time, he became the spiritual leader of Russia's dissident "democratic movement." The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Solzhenitsyn in 1970 infuriated the Soviets, for it only enhanced the worldwide following that made him hard to silence.
Instead, they turned on others in the dissident movement in a brutal three-year drive to imprison its leaders or confine them in police-run madhouses.
A Giant Thorn. Solzhenitsyn's final and intolerable challenge came when he authorized publication in Paris of the first two parts of The Gulag Archipelago.
A devastating, documented account of Lenin's and Stalin's reign of terror, the book was a reminder of how unfree Soviet society was, and still is. Moreover, as the Kremlin well knew, he had even more devastating revelations to make: five as yet unpublished sequels to Gulag deal with repression under Khrushchev and his successor Leonid Brezhnev. Soviet frustration was mixed with anger when the author declared that he would order all his banned work published abroad if he was arrested. Defying the regime to act against him, Solzhenitsyn answered a barrage of criticism in the Soviet press with ever more daring and pointed rebuttals.
By exiling Solzhenitsyn, the Kremlin ridded itself of a giant thorn. And yet, as TIME Correspondent John Shaw cabled from Moscow last week, "in the last analysis, the deportation was an act of weakness and desperation—an admission that the Soviet system holds no answer in law or fact or argument to meet Solzhenitsyn's challenge. Unable to answer his charges, incompetent to silence him, afraid to imprison him and incapable of tolerating his opinions, the Soviet state had no other option but to declare him a non-person."
Solzhenitsyn's deportation climaxed a harrowing suspense drama that had riveted international attention for five days. It began with an ominous summons from the Soviet state prosecutor's office, which ordered the writer to meet with investigators. Solzhenitsyn's wife Natalya rejected the order. In response to a second, more peremptory summons, Solzhenitsyn released a defiant written statement of refusal. "Given the widespread and unrestrained lawlessness that has reigned in our country for many years, and an eight-year campaign of slander and persecution against me, I refuse to recognize the legality of your summons. Before asking that citizens obey the law, learn how to observe it yourselves. Free the innocent, and punish those guilty of mass murder."
Friends, who feared that Solzhenitsyn would be arrested and imprisoned, were struck by his composure. After refusing the second summons, he went back to his desk in his narrow, 6-ft. by 18-ft. study. Solzhenitsyn often worked here twelve hours a day. That kind of dedication made possible his prodigious production in two decades of novels, plays, short stories—not to mention the massive Gulag. Six weeks ago, when the official drive against Gulag began, he had vowed, "They will not make me lose a single day of work."
Cruel Mockery. The day of his arrest began as a normal, busy family day. While Solzhenitsyn worked, his mother-in-law looked after his five-month-old son Stepan; his two older boys, Yermolai, 3, and Ignat, 16 months, played in the park near by. As dusk fell, seven policemen entered the building and hurried up the stone steps to Apartment 169. Solzhenitsyn's wife was told that the men wanted to talk to her husband. Their leader announced that he had the authority to take Solzhenitsyn with him —by force, if necessary. "There were seven of them," Natalya said later.
"What could we do? If there had been two it might have been different." Calmly, Solzhenitsyn packed a razor, a toothbrush and warm winter clothes and kissed baby Stepan goodbye. The men took him to Moscow's Lefortovo Prison, familiar to readers of Gulag as one of the most terrible of Russia's prisons.
What followed was like a scene from Gulag. Solzhenitsyn was first stripped and searched, then dressed in prison garb. He was questioned for several hours by a team of interrogators but refused to answer questions or sign the usual official report of the interrogation.
He was told that the charge against him was treason, for which the maximum punishment is death. Just as another great Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was placed before a sham firing squad 125 years ago, so was Solzhenitsyn subjected to a similarly cruel mockery.
Although the Soviets planned all along to deport him to the West, he was locked in a cell that night under the threat of the death penalty. At 1 p.m. the following day, he was ordered to dress in prison-issue street clothes and driven to Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. Only when the jet landed in Frankfurt did he know his destination.
Four and a half hours before Solzhenitsyn's departure, Soviet Ambassador to Bonn Valentin Falin had called on the West German Foreign Ministry to inform them of Solzhenitsyn's banishment and formally ask if the writer would be accepted. Bonn quickly agreed, and indeed there was speculation that the arrangement might have been worked out in advance between Moscow and Bonn. Only twelve days earlier, in a curious aside in a speech about freedom of expression, Chancellor Willy Brandt had stated: "Solzhenitsyn would be able to live freely and work unhampered here."
Solzhenitsyn's host in Germany was a friend and fellow Nobel prizewinner, Novelist Heinrich Boll. The morning after he arrived in Germany, Solzhenitsyn posed for photographers and even autographed copies of Gulag that were thrust at him by newsmen. Still, he refused to answer questions. "Genug, genug [Enough]," he said in German, adding in Russian, "I have given enough in my own country. There I spoke. Here I remain silent."
Among his first visitors was Dimitri Panin, who had been in prison with him and was the model for the character Sologdin in Solzhenitsyn's novel The First Circle. Panin, who now lives in Paris, later talked with TIME Correspondent David Tinnin. He said he found the author "very nervous, tired and restlessly pacing up and down," but that he seemed to relax somewhat after managing to get a telephone call through to his wife in Moscow. After two days in Langenbroich, Solzhenitsyn took a train to Zurich with his Swiss lawyer, Fritz Heeb. Although the writer chose to remain silent about his plans, Heeb told reporters that he thought the Solzhenitsyns would ultimately settle somewhere in Scandinavia.
The Soviet leaders' decision to deprive Solzhenitsyn of his citizenship and fling him out of Russia was a shrewdly calculated maneuver to rid themselves of their most eloquent critic while defusing the explosion of protest in the West. Although many European leaders expressed shock last week at Solzhenitsyn's summary banishment, the world wide response was largely one of relief. The Kremlin's solution was made to appear very nearly humane, in contrast with the worst that had been feared.
Clumsy Tactics. The reaction with in the Soviet Union of course was quite different. Prior to his arrest and deportation, Soviet papers were full of letters from citizens insisting that the authorities do just that. After his banishment, the letter-writing campaign continued with a new twist. Demands for his punishment were replaced by expressions of gratitude that Kremlin leaders had up rooted "the traitor." Only twelve hours after Solzhenitsyn's deportation had been announced on Moscow Radio, Izvestia was able to print a letter purportedly from a reader in Baku, although mail usually takes ten days to reach Moscow from there. Other minor miracles were performed by letter writers from Minsk and Kiev: their messages of approval were also received several days ahead of schedule. Such transparently clumsy tactics were added evidence that the Kremlin had long prepared the action against Solzhenitsyn.
Soviet leaders have reason to fear him: no man alive today has more au thority than Solzhenitsyn to draw world attention to the Kremlin's long record of inhumanity. In an era of detente, many would prefer to have that record forgot ten. Yet Solzhenitsyn — martyr, survivor and great writer — demands a hearing.
He spent eleven years in Stalin's prisons, camps, and in exile, preparing himself to bear witness to what he had observed.
His superb earlier novels (The First Cir cle, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Cancer Ward) were fiction alized reflections of that experience. In the first two parts of Gulag, however, he set out to document the entire range of horrors inflicted upon the Soviet people from 1918 to 1956. A 260,000-word mosaic, composed of personal reminiscences, interviews with survivors, and documents, Gulag lays out the intricate patterns of terror.
True, that terror subsided after 1956, when, by Khrushchev's decree, millions were freed from the giant "archipelago" of prisons and camps run by "Gulag," the Central Corrective Labor Camp Administration. But the significance of Gulag lies in its thrust into the present—and future—of the U.S.S.R.
Solzhenitsyn perceives that an entire nation has been debased by four decades of totalitarianism far more oppressive than Czarist authoritarianism. Ordinary people have been rendered indifferent to injustice and pitiless toward the suffering of others. Among bureaucrats, the absolute exercise of power in the past continues to corrupt absolutely in the present. "Thus," he mourns, "have we been driven to become savages."
By Accident. Solzhenitsyn argues that Stalin's rule by terror was no mere aberration in the development of Communism. Instead, he writes, it is inherent in the system established by Lenin, consolidated by Stalin and preserved, in essence, by the present Kremlin leaders.
He points an accusing finger at Stalin's accomplices who still hold office in the Soviet Union: "What a path to ruin lies ahead if we cannot cleanse ourselves of this filth festering in our body!"
Much of Gulag's power to persuade lies in the author's unsparing personal account of the path he traveled before arriving at the convictions expressed in his book. An archetypal child of the Russian revolution, he was born in 1918, the son of an officer, and brought up in the provincial city of Rostov-on-the-Don. As a youth, Solzhenitsyn dreamed of writing a history of the revolution. "Then," he recalls, "I never needed anything but Marxism to understand the revolution." He failed to recognize signs of mass terror, like the column of prisoners he remembers seeing pass through Rostov in his boyhood. Solzhenitsyn entered Rostov University to study mathematics in 1936 on the eve of the Great Purges, which sucked millions of innocent people into the camps. He admits that it was only by accident that he was not hired by the secret police when their recruiters came to the university. "I was a fully qualified executioner," he writes. "If I had gotten into NKVD school under Yezhov,* maybe I would have matured just in time to serve Beria."
Instead, Solzhenitsyn was drafted into the Red Army in 1941. After that, he confesses, he acquired the habits of the Soviet elite: "I ate my officer's butter with pastry, without giving a thought to why I had a right to it, while rank and file soldiers did not... This is what happens when you put epaulets on people's shoulders; they begin to feel like little gods." Rising to the rank of artillery captain, Solzhenitsyn was decorated several times for bravery while serving on three fighting fronts. Then, in the midst of a battle in 1945, he was arrested for criticizing Stalin in letters to a friend.
Solzhenitsyn views his arrest as a great personal turning point—the beginning of his life as a thinking being. At that same crossroads, he suggests, millions of Russians entered into one of two categories of Soviet citizens: the oppressed and the oppressors. This national dichotomy, he says, tragically disturbed the balance of good and evil that he perceives in every man. Speaking of the oppressors, he asks: "How did this tribe of wolves arise from among our people? Are they not of the same root, the same blood?" He confesses that he too might have joined the predators had he not been imprisoned.
In Gulag, Solzhenitsyn describes his arrest for the first time. In February 1945, as the Red Army rumbled inexorably through Germany to Berlin, the battle-worn captain was suddenly seized near Konigsberg, on the East Prussian front. He was stripped of his rank, his medals and his gun, and escorted by armed guards back to Moscow's Lubyanka Prison. It was then that the writer was born. Passing through a Moscow subway station en route to Lubyanka on that bitter winter day, Solzhenitsyn paused and surveyed the scene:
"The circular upper hall with its white cupola is bathed in electric light, and from the depths of the station, along two parallel escalators, Muscovites rise to meet us in serried ranks. They all seem to look at me as if expecting me to shout at least one word of truth. Why am I silent? ... Because these Muscovites standing on the escalator stairs are not numerous enough; my cry would be heard by 200, perhaps 400 people. But what about my 200,000,000 compatriots? I have a vague premonition that one day I will scream out to all those 200,000,000. But for the moment I do not utter a sound, and the escalator carries me irresistibly to the nether world."
Bitter Paradox. Gifted with near-total recall, Solzhenitsyn set out to develop his powers of observation while in captivity. In the monotonous daily routine of his first weeks in Lubyanka, he noted that "the events are tiny, but for the first time in your life you learn to examine them under a magnifying glass." For the first time, too, he encountered the victims of Soviet terror whom he would meticulously interview for the next 23 years. He was struck by a bitter paradox: prison offered the possibility of discussing freely what was unthinkable "outside." Meetings with prisoners led him, for the first time, to question his faith in Marx and Lenin. One old-time convict, a former associate of Lenin's, told him: "You're a mathematician. Don't forget Descartes. Subject everything to doubt. Everything."
Solzhenitsyn also became aware at that time of alternatives to Communism. From an Estonian lawyer he heard about the democracy that was finally crushed by the Soviets in 1944. "I had never before dreamed that I would become interested in Estonia or bourgeois democracy," he writes. "It was not clear why, but I began to like it all, and the new information was stored away in my mind." His education continued as he learned of the mass arrests that had swept millions of peasants, as well as hundreds of thousands of party members and Soviet intellectuals into prison camps in the 1920s and '30s. He memorized hundreds of grim stories told by the survivors. He also noted the methods of police interrogators, often so cynical that they did not even bother to disguise their disbelief in the confessions they wrung out of their victims.
Scope of Evil. After a few weeks in Lubyanka, the seeds of doubt had been planted in the mind of the fervent young Marxist. But it was only after he was transferred from Lubyanka to another Moscow prison, Butyrki, that Solzhenitsyn began to perceive the scope of the evil that had befallen his country. In Butyrki, he met the first contingent of Russian soldiers and civilians who had been captured by the Germans during the war. These people were now being repatriated—straight into Stalin's prisons and camps. Nearly 2 million of the 5.7 million prisoners of war had died of hunger and mistreatment in the Nazi camps.
Now Solzhenitsyn began to hear the appalling stories of the survivors. Recalling one of the horrors recounted to him by an ex-prisoner, Solzhenitsyn writes, "A crazed P.O.W. might have crawled up to me, too, as I was dying, and gnawed the flesh off my elbow ... Listening to such things, the story of my own arrest seemed to me insignificant."
Solzhenitsyn regards the brutal fate of these returned P.O.W.s as one of the most frightful of Stalin's crimes. "They were called traitors, " he writes of them, "but they did not betray the motherland. The motherland betrayed them, and betrayed them three times." The first betrayal was Stalin's bumbling strategy, which nearly lost the war and allowed the Germans to capture vast numbers of prisoners. Then these Soviet P.O.W.s were virtually abandoned by Stalin and left to die in Nazi camps. Finally the survivors were lured home by the oft-repeated promise of forgiveness.
Some of the repatriated Russians were, as Solzhenitsyn concedes, Nazi collaborators. He does not condone the fact that more than 500,000 Soviets served in the German army—mostly as noncombatants. But he also points out that this was the first tune in history that a nation had formally and officially renounced its P.O.W.s, refusing to sign the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war.
Since Stalin had written them off, Hitler treated the Russians far more cruelly than other Allied prisoners.
As a result, many felt compelled to serve the Germans in order to survive. Solzhenitsyn is careful to distinguish between degrees of collaboration. Some "scum" joined the Nazi polizei. Ukrainians, Latvians and other national groups, deeply embittered by Soviet persecution, joined Waffen SS divisions. The so-called "Russian Army of Liberation"* held the pitiful belief that a German victory would enable them to bring democracy to Russia. Other P.O.W.s escaped the Nazis to fight with the Soviet partisans or try to rejoin the Red Army. Whether scum or hero, all received the same sentence when they returned home: ten years.
As a former soldier, Solzhenitsyn deeply identifies with the plight of these wretched men. He records "with shame" an incident he witnessed at the front. A sergeant of the Soviet Secret police, on horseback, was using a knout on a captured Russian soldier who had served in a German unit. Staggering, the man was naked from the waist up, his torso covered with blood. Suddenly he cried out to Solzhenitsyn in agony: "Mister Captain!"
"Any officer in any army in the world should have put a stop to this act of torture without trial," he writes. "But I was a coward ... I said nothing and I did nothing... This picture has remained in my mind ever since. It is, after all, almost the symbol of the archipelago."
The passages in Gulag about the Russian P.O.W.s are the first accounts of their tragic fate to come out of the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities have used these chapters to portray the author as a Nazi traitor. Most of the official attacks on the book have included falsified quotations purporting to show that Solzhenitsyn called General Vlasov a "hero" and "mocked the sacrifices made by the Soviet people during the war."
Though utterly untrue, these allegations were shrewdly calculated to appeal to the citizenry of a nation that lost 20 million in World War II. This terrible memory has been kept alive by three decades of Soviet propaganda, presenting "the Great Patriotic War" as an unmitigated triumph for Communism. Any objective appraisal of wartime collaboration by Soviet citizens with the Germans is still forbidden.
But this, as Solzhenitsyn points out, is no way to write history. "My object," he declares, "is to examine the social reasons for this unheard-of phenomenon: that several hundred thousand young people took up arms against their mother country on the side of her worst enemy. We must consider who was to blame—these young people or the motherland. You cannot explain it by some inborn biological instinct for treachery.
In general," he concludes, "the war showed us that the worst thing on earth is to be a Russian."
The Kremlin would clearly have preferred a harsher punishment for Solzhenitsyn had he been less famous and more vulnerable, but exile had its political advantages. The author's deportation was unlikely to cause more than an intense but brief flurry of dismay at the 34-nation European Security Conference currently meeting in Geneva.
Plans for the Brezhnev-Nixon summit next spring continued in Washington, and the White House declined to comment on the deportation. Predictably, Democratic Senator Henry Jackson called Nixon's silence "deplorable." He said that "the Administration has posed a false choice between avoiding nuclear war and keeping faith with the traditional value of individual liberty."
High-level State Department officials, on the other hand, were relieved that the writer was out of prison before Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was obliged to face the issue of his arrest. Explained one U.S. Government official: "Kissinger was rescued from a terribly difficult situation. He would have had to deplore the arrest or lose a great deal of stature. From his standpoint, he was very lucky." Kissinger's statement was distinctly cool. He said that Solzhenitsyn would be welcome to settle in the U.S., but added that "our constant view has been that the necessity for detente does not reflect approbation of the Soviet domestic structure." That necessity, in Kissinger's view, is rooted in the threat to the world's survival posed by the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals; hence the absolute priority given to a measure of concord and understanding between the two superpowers.
From that perspective, the Solzhenitsyn case has long been regarded by the Nixon Administration as troublesome for the course of detente, however just the writer's case and criticisms of the Soviet regime. In turn, Solzhenitsyn has often been cited by opponents of East-West accommodation as the symbol and proof of the Kremlin's resistance to any ideological or social change.
Inevitably, questions arise as to whether he had any sort of political strategy plotted out in the timing of Gulag's publication, which seemed to force the pace of retribution against him. By all accounts, apparently not. He has never directly engaged in polemics about detente, unlike his friend and fellow dissident, Physicist Andrei Sakharov, who appealed to the U.S. Congress last year to make democratization of the U.S.S.R. a precondition for expanding trade relations with Russia. Solzhenitsyn's concerns have always been less political than moral. In his Nobel Prize lecture, he wrote: "The salvation of mankind lies only in making everything the concern of all. People in the East should without exception be concerned with what people are thinking in the West; people in the West should without exception care about what is happening in the East. Literature, one of the most sophisticated and sensitive instruments available to human beings, has been one of the first to pick up and to join in expressing this feeling of the growing unity of mankind."
Though provoked by Solzhenitsyn's defiance, the Soviet leaders' action against him was doubtless calculated to deprive the dissident movement within Russia of its spiritual leader while further intimidating the regime's remaining critics. About 50 dissidents have been detained and interrogated in the past three weeks, and many feared that Sakharov might soon be deported too. "We now feel very naked, very alone," a young liberal intellectual told Correspondent John Shaw in Moscow last week.
Nonetheless, Solzhenitsyn's example may in fact hearten rather than discourage Russia's libertarians. Last week Sakharov and nine other prominent dissenters issued an impassioned defense of Solzhenitsyn's actions: "His so-called 'treason' consists of his disclosure to the whole world, with shattering force, of the monstrous crimes committed in the U.S.S.R. not very long ago." They demanded the publication of Gulag in the Soviet Union and called for an international investigation of the crimes against innocent Soviet citizens.
But what now of Solzhenitsyn in exile? From a financial standpoint, at least, he has no worries. Swiss banks have custody of anywhere from $2 million to $6 million in royalties on his books—money that he had earmarked for "humanitarian purposes." Part of this could justifiably be used to ensure his family's future. Ironically, a new life of freedom might expose Solzhenitsyn to a hazard he never faced in Moscow: the constant, distracting attention of paparazzi and other celebrity seekers. So far he seems to be tolerating, if not actually enjoying the novelty. On arriving in Zurich, he smilingly acknowledged cheers from the waiting crowds.
The larger question, though, is whether his work might suffer now that he has been cut off from his native language. Solzhenitsyn certainly is aware of the difficulty: a character in The First Circle refers to exile in the West as "spiritual castration." Most experts, though, believe that he will survive as a creative force, even though he will have lost his unique platform in Russia.
His Mission. Britain's leading specialist in Soviet literature, Max Hayward, points out that "Solzhenitsyn is already a fully formed, great writer who has completed many major works in Russia. Exile is hardly likely to affect him now as a writer." Leonard Schapiro of the London School of Economics adds that "even if he is cut off from the living speech of Russia, he is now engaged in writing historical works, and there is no doubt that he has a tremendous gift of bringing history alive that is denied to us mere historians."
Before his exile, Solzhenitsyn spoke of his "relief and calmness" in the accomplishment of his mission. This he perceives as a memorial to the dead of the archipelago. But his books are also Solzhenitsyn's gift to the living. Mindful of George Orwell's dictum that he "who controls the past controls the future," he has already wrested Soviet history from those bent on obliterating it and restored it to his people. In the future, he may also succeed in quickening the conscience of both the oppressed and the oppressors in his unhappy country. For, as he wrote in his Nobel Prize lecture, "The persuasiveness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable; it prevails even over a resisting heart."
* Nikolai Yezhov, head of the secret police from 1936 to 1938; he was replaced by Lavrenty Beria.
* A phantom "army" led by ex-Red Army General Andrei Vlasov. Two Russian divisions in the Wehrmacht were formed in 1944 under him. These units switched sides in 1945 and helped liberate Prague from the German army.
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