Books

The gulag warrior of words

Solzhenitsyn's amazing life reflects the tumult of Russia

DIANE TURBIDE March 16 1998
Books

The gulag warrior of words

Solzhenitsyn's amazing life reflects the tumult of Russia

DIANE TURBIDE March 16 1998

The gulag warrior of words

Books

Solzhenitsyn's amazing life reflects the tumult of Russia

DIANE TURBIDE

The irony is not lost on D. M. Thomas, author of the new biography Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

A Century in His Life. Solzhenitsyn, the dissident Russian writer who suffered decades of persecution for his anti-Communist stance, now seems to be trying to exercise a little censorship himself. Not only did he refuse to meet with Thomas and deny the British biographer permission to reprint certain passages from his works, but the 79-year-old Solzhenitsyn has also withdrawn a coming book of his own essays from St. Martin’s Press,

Thomas’s publisher. The reason, according to Thomas, is because he met with Solzhenitsyn’s estranged first wife, Natasha Reshetovskaya, whom he divorced in 1973. (The same year, Solzhenitsyn married Natalya Svetlova, who had already borne him one son, and would give birth to two more.) “It seems that anyone who talks to Natasha is beyond the pale,” Thomas said in a recent interview. The author regards the tactics with dismay, especially from a Nobel Prize-winning writer who was exiled in 1974 because of his books. “For God’s sake, if you’re a biographer you’ve got to meet with people who are hostile as well as friendly towards your subject.”

Thomas’s wrenching tale of Solzhenitsyn’s 33-year first marriage figures prominently in the biography, but it is only part of a splendid account of a towering figure. His portrayal of the man who, more than any other writer, changed the course of Russian history neither canonizes nor condemns. Instead, it explores the private and public Solzhenitsyn with admirable balance and novelistic flair. “The fact that he is perhaps a curmudgeonly individual, the fact that he became what someone called ‘a surly prophet’ doesn’t matter,” insists Thomas, himself the author of 12 works of fiction, including the acclaimed 1981 novel The White Hotel. “He wrote books that demanded huge courage and determi-

nation to write and get published. Only he could have done it, only he had the energy, the dedication, the warrior temperament, to take on the Communist system.” Solzhenitsyn’s most important works— One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, The Cancer Ward and The Gulag Archipelago—exposed the sufferings of millions who had been sent to forced labor camps in Stalinist Russia and, in a more general way, decried the corrupt, totalitarian

regimes that had ruled the Soviet Union since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. For that, he was punished with 20 years of exile, most of which he spent in rural Vermont. His first novel, Ivan Denisovich—based on his own three-year experience in a gulag, or labor camp, in Kazakhstan—chronicled one day in the life of an ordinary man trying to survive the hunger, cold and humiliation. The book was championed by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who approved its publication in 1962 as a way of repudiating the brutality of his predecessor, Josef Stalin.

But Solzhenitsyn’s elevation to honored writer was shortlived: Khrushchev was deposed in 1964, and the dissident author would endure years of harassment and even a KGB assas-

sination attempt with a poisoned needle. (At one point in the late 1960s, in a bizarre

twist of events, Solzhenitsyn moved into the

Moscow house of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, which happened to be within waving distance of the home of

KGB head Yuri Andropov, who was orchestrating the persecution

of the author.) Meanwhile, a network of dedicated assistants, risking imprisonment or worse, helped smuggle microfilmed manuscripts out of the country for publication abroad. At home, copies were circulated in secret—the samizdat literature

that fed his fellow citizens’ hunger for the truth. (Eventually, his books were published at home in 1990, after the fall of communism, and sold seven million copies.)

Thomas makes much of the Russian propensity to regard its persecuted novelists, poets and playwrights as the conscience of the nation or, as Solzhenitsyn himself once put it, “the other government.” In fact, Thomas’s own deep knowledge of Russian literature—he has translated Russian poetry and woven many aspects of that country’s tumultuous history into his own novels—gives the biography an extraordinary richness. He considers Solzhenitsyn the last in a great line of poets and novelists, beginning with Alexander Pushkin (17991837), whose works challenged tyrannical times. But this is no dry recitation of literary history. Thomas vividly conjures, for example, the life of the venerated poet Anna Akhmatova (1888-1966), whose husband was executed by the Bolsheviks, and who started composing her most famous poem, “Requiem,” while waiting in a lineup with

other mothers to find out if their sons, imprisoned for trumped-up crimes, would be shot. Thomas also evokes the country’s cataclysmic upheavals during Solzhenitsyn’s childhood: the Civil War of 19181921, the famine and the collectivization of farms in the 1930s, all of which caused tens of millions to die. Against that background, “Sanya” was born in 1918 and raised by his penurious widowed mother in Rostovon-Don in southern Russia. Thomas relies heavily on Michael Scammell’s 1,000-page, 1984 biography, Solzhenitsyn, for de-

tails of his subject’s early life, including his brilliance at school, his 1940 marriage to his college sweetheart, Natalya (Natasha) Reshetovskaya, and his service as a decorated Red Army officer fighting the invading Germans.

The watershed in Solzhenitsyn’s life occurred in early 1945, when he was arrested for “anti-Soviet activities.” He had written a letter to a friend saying he feared Stalin was perverting the socialist ideals of Lenin, whom he greatly admired. For that “crime,” he was sentenced to eight years of internment. The camps—first near Moscow, then in Kazakhstan in what was then Soviet Central Asia—were the crucible that determined the course of Solzhenitsyn’s artistic life. The horror and degradation he suffered during those years brought about a conversion from atheist to believer. Thomas compares him to that other great writer, Dostoyevsky, who experienced God after a mock execution in a Siberian camp 100 years earlier. They also provided his great literary inspiration. The camps, Thomas writes, made Solzhenitsyn realize “the enormity of what had happened to Russia, and that Stalin had given him the opportunity— as nature or God had given him the talent— to explore this theme in all its terrible

grandeur.” Having survived hunger, backbreaking labor, separation from loved ones and even a diagnosis of terminal cancer, he dedicated his life to one endeavor: his books would speak for those who had been, and still were, enslaved by totalitarianism.

But Solzhenitsyn’s self-imposed mission came at great cost to his personal life. By the time he was reunited with his wife in 1956, he had spent 15 of the previous 16 years separated from her, because of the war, internment and internal exile. The couple was childless, first at Solzhenitsyn’s insistence that his writing come first, then because of

The biography is a tale of prison, love and betrayal separation. During his absence, he had urged Natasha to divorce him, but she had refused. But after years of loneliness, she set up house with a widower and his two sons for nearly four years. However, she returned to her beloved Sanya after his release.

For several years, they seemed perfectly in sync, with Solzhenitsyn teaching highschool physics and astronomy and secretly writing, and Natasha working as a chemistry professor and being muse and helpmate to her husband. But the fame that came with Ivan Denisovich helped corrode the marriage. The tall, charismatic writer had at least one passionate affair, with mathematician Olga Ladizhenskaya, in 1964. When he confessed to his wife, he urged her to release him, saying—according to Natasha’s memoirs—“You’ve helped me to create one novel. Permit me to allow her to help me create another!”

Solzhenitsyn eventually gave up Olga, but four years later, the then-50-year-old author met another brilliant mathematician, 28year-old Natalya Svetlova. The couple conceived a child (the first of three) while he was still married to Natasha. A devastated Natasha attempted suicide in September, 1970; a month later, Solzhenitsyn discovered that he’d won the Nobel Prize. “I’m always intrigued by the disparity between the public persona of writers, and the reality of their internal lives, which are often in tumult,” says Thomas. ‘The Nobel committee cited his ‘contribution to the ethical force of truth.’ But like many of us, he was steeped in personal disaster, conflict and messiness, where no

one acts ethically because they’re all too emotional and distraught.” Today, the ailing Natasha (Solzhenitsyn still pays her medical costs) lives only a few miles from her former husband and his family. Thomas describes her as a sad individual inhabiting a Moscow apartment filled with mementoes of her years with Sanya. Solzhenitsyn regards her as a traitor who collaborated with the KGB to suppress The Gulag Archipelago and who allowed her memoirs (four volumes, published between 1975 and 1994) to be doctored to discredit him.

not sit much better in the new Russia than they did in the West. He is still, Thomas points out, very much the dissident. In his moving conclusion, the biographer— describing a scruffy park where torn-down statues of Soviet figures are dumped—speculates about whether a monument will one day be erected to the man he considers “one of the great heroes of the past 50 years.” He needn’t worry too much: in Solzhenitsyn, Thomas has created his own monument to a singular figure, one that reveals a man with the strength of stone and feet of clay. □

Solzhenitsyn is now mostly ignored, even derided, in his homeland. His ideas about God and his diatribes against Western-style democracy and soulless consumerism do not sit much better in the new Russia than they did in the West. He is still, Thomas points out, very much the dissident. In his moving conclusion, the biographerdescribing a scruffy park where torn-down statues of Soviet figures are dumped-spec ulates about whether a monument will one day be erected to the man he considers "one of the great heroes of the past 50 years." He needn't worry too much: in Solzhenitsyn, Thomas has created his own monument to a singular figure, one that reveals a man with the strength of stone and feet of clay.