Wife and Soldier

Aleksandr and Natalia Solzhenitsyn in 1996


Solzhenitsyn did not leave the Soviet Union voluntarily. He was expelled. His family followed shortly after. I ask Mrs. Solzhenitsyn to tell me a little about what it was like to be exiled. Just a little. For this is, of course, a very big subject.

She was well aware, she says, that if her husband had not been exiled, he would have died — he would not have lived very long at all. This would have been true, she says, even if he had not been sent once more to the camps. His health was poor. He was under tremendous “stress,” as we would probably say today.

Even so, the Solzhenitsyns considered exile a tragedy. “We were faced with the prospect of having to raise our kids in a foreign country, of having to say goodbye to our country forever,” possibly. “It seems to me now that for the first two or three years in the West, my mother, my husband, and I unlearned how to smile. It seems we never smiled. We did not feel ourselves.”

Mrs. Solzhenitsyn is a big-city girl — a Muscovite. Almost all of her exile — their exile — was spent in rural Vermont, near the town of Cavendish. I ask, “Was it hard to live in so rural an area? Did you feel you were in Siberia, so to speak? Did you long for some brighter lights?”

“Not at all,” she says. “Our life was so intensive, because of our work — it felt like the office of a major literary magazine.” Solzhenitsyn’s main activity in exile was to write The Red Wheel, his epic, multivolume novel of the Russian Revolution. He did much other writing as well. “If we had ended up in a large city,” says Mrs. Solzhenitsyn, “that would have slowed down our pace considerably. We couldn’t have kept up the crazy pace we set for ourselves in Vermont.”

She adds, though, “When I did find myself in a big city, it gave me pleasure.”

Readers may wish to know that the Solzhenitsyns subscribed to National Review, read it avidly and appreciatively, and saved every issue, for almost 20 years.

Mrs. Solzhenitsyn was quite confident they would eventually return to Russia, she says — “until 1979, when the Afghan invasion took place. Inside the Soviet Union, the screws were being tightened. We knew this from correspondence with our friends and colleagues there. That was the moment I began to waver.”

On Christmas Day 1991, the USSR expired. The Solzhenitsyns did not return until about two and a half years later. There was work to finish up in Vermont. There was the matter of finding a place to live in Russia. (Mrs. Solzhenitsyn went in 1992, on a scouting trip.) The Solzhenitsyns returned to Russia, for good, in May 1994.

I ask, “What was the homecoming like? Thrilling? Shocking? Saddening? Gladdening?”

“Yes, yes, all of those things. But also, I had an enormous sense of gratitude toward fate, which allowed me to make this figure eight — to come back to my country and my language and my people.”

“Have you been able to forgive the Soviet persecutors, either individually or collectively?”

“Not one of them ever asked for forgiveness of me — however, there were some journalists who had participated in one way or another in the campaign against Solzhenitsyn, and they did ask for forgiveness, after I returned. Privately, not publicly.”

“Did you grant it?”

“Of course.”

Mrs. Solzhenitsyn continues, “One could forgive only if one dealt with individuals. Then we could talk about forgiving and not forgiving. My husband and I perceived these people as parts of a machine — as cogs in a giant totalitarian machine. Some of them took no pleasure in participating; others probably or certainly did. But we never had any personal animus against them. It’s the machine, the system, that cannot be forgiven.”

“Do you ever see old persecutors or apparatchiks on the street?”

“No, never,” says Mrs. Solzhenitsyn. “They don’t go of their own power.” What she means is, they’re not on foot — they’re riding around in limousines, with dark-tinted windows.

I know she admires a great many dissidents. But could she name just a few, for whom she might have special admiration?

“For me, No. 1 is Aleksandr Ginzburg, who was a beautiful, luminous person. Three times arrested, three times sentenced to labor camps. The third arrest was for helping to manage our fund for political prisoners and their families.”

Continuing, “Vladimir Bukovsky. A man of extraordinary personal courage. We weren’t as close to him — we don’t happen to be close friends — but I have just as high an opinion of him as I do of Ginzburg.”

And, “of course,” says Mrs. Solzhenitsyn, “Andrei Sakharov. He traveled that difficult road from privileged elite to below the level of an untouchable.”

Needless to say, there are others one could name, she says.

Let me tell you something about the “fund” she mentions — the fund to help political prisoners and their families. Solzhenitsyn insisted that all the proceeds from The Gulag Archipelago go into this fund. All of them. Every cent. The book has sold something like 30 million copies worldwide.

And here’s a quick reminder about Sakharov: One of the foremost scientists in the country, he was at the tippy-top of the Soviet heap. One of the most honored people in the entire country. And he threw it all away to speak out for human rights and democracy. He suffered greatly.

I ask Mrs. Solzhenitsyn, “Were you and your family the targets of envy on the part of other dissidents?”

She says, “There were two basic categories of people who expressed public disapproval of Solzhenitsyn. In the first category were honest critics — people who simply disagreed. In the second category were slanderers — people who knew what they said about Solzhenitsyn to be untrue but said it anyway, to bring him harm.

“I am not prepared to say what their motive was. But I can say something about one political dissident and one writer: They both found themselves in the West. They both expected to have more influence than they did. They both seemed disappointed not to have more influence, and they both blamed Solzhenitsyn — for blocking out their sun.”