Wife and Soldier

Aleksandr and Natalia Solzhenitsyn in 1996


“Which of Solzhenitsyn’s writings that are not currently in English would you most like to see in English?”

“I would put The Little Grain at the top of the list, because it deals with his years in the West, his years in America. But second, how is it possible that a great, vast, and important country such as the United States has not yet seen The Red Wheel in its full form?” (Only two of the four “nodes,” as Solzhenitsyn called them, have been published in English.)

Third, Mrs. Solzhenitsyn mentions Two Hundred Years Together, Solzhenitsyn’s last major work, his history of Russia’s relationship to its Jewish inhabitants. This work grew out of The Red Wheel.

I say to her, “Solzhenitsyn almost never answered criticism. Do you wish he had done more of that?”

“It’s true,” she says, “that I reacted to criticism. I took it much more personally than he did. But I supported his stance, because he was right” — right not to answer, right to concentrate on his own work.

“Do you have a favorite novel of his? Favorite book? Or story or poem?”

“Whichever one I’m working on at the moment, that seems to me the best. I find myself in love with whatever I’m reading or working on. This is hardly a blind love — I’m aware of weaknesses. But that’s how I feel.”

“Some people do their best writing in letters — personal letters. I imagine you don’t have many from him, seeing as you lived together! But do you have any such private writings? Did he shine in letters and private notes?”

Very few letters, yes. “But those I do have — I don’t know if I say they’re brilliant, but they’re priceless to me, and beautifully tender.”

They wrote to each other every day, many times a day — in the margins of manuscripts and drafts. And in other notes, ferried between the two by their children. One note might read, “I just heard on the radio that martial law was declared in Poland.”

“Do you feel that you need to be the custodian of Solzhenitsyn’s reputation? Is his reputation something you worry about? Or are you willing for history to take its course, so to speak?”

“When dealing with an artist of such magnitude, we can rely on history to take care of reputation. But naturally, every chance I get, when I’m asked to provide information or context, I do. I’m happy to provide honest information, which contradicts the layers of lies that have accumulated over the years.

“When a widow such as I goes into battle to defend her husband’s reputation or set the record straight, that does not carry much weight. Therefore, I don’t take the initiative. It is just not very effective. But when someone asks, I’m happy to speak.

“The best thing I can do is prepare and publish the most accurate and responsible versions of his texts.”

“How do people react to you, when they see you and recognize you on streets and in stores and so on?”

“These are awkward moments. I’m bathed in a kind of sea of well-wishing and admiration on the streets of Moscow and environs. Sometimes people say nothing. They just stare, or shake my hand. Or say, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ Nothing but ‘thank you.’”

Sometimes they say more, Mrs. Solzhenitsyn admits, but she is reluctant to repeat what they say: “too embarrassing.”

“What do you miss about the United States, and what do you not miss?”

“Honestly, my life in Russia is so intensive, so full, that I don’t really have time to reflect on my former life in the U.S., and what I might miss or not miss. But when I do find myself here” — she and I are talking on American soil — “what strikes me is the self-confidence of the people. People from all walks of life. Your average American seems much more confident about who he is and where he is than the average Russian.

“The American is not expecting something bad to happen, every moment. Not expecting the proverbial brick to fall on his head. Not expecting to be cheated, not expecting his neighbor to do him wrong.” There is not a feeling of anxiety, of wariness, “minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day.”

“Do you share Solzhenitsyn’s concerns — such as those expressed in the Harvard commencement address — about American softness?”

“America has ceased to be soft. America has become harder than it needs to be. On the international scene, it can be quite clumsy. Not scary, but clumsy. Even when it does the right thing, it is clumsy, inelegant, tone-deaf.”

America has done the wrong thing with regard to Russia, Mrs. Solzhenitsyn says. It is responsible for poor U.S.-Russian relations.

“When we returned, there was mass adulation of America and all things American in the Russian populace. But from then till now, that attitude has changed dramatically.”

Contrary to what many Americans may think, says Mrs. Solzhenitsyn, this is not the result of anti-American propaganda on the part of Russian leaders. The reverse is true: The people pushed the leaders into a more anti-American stance.

Mrs. Solzhenitsyn points out that Americans have fought their wars on other people’s land. (Our Civil War is obviously an exception.) Therefore, “Americans do not experience war psychologically the way other people do.” In both world wars, Russia was invaded, and lost many millions.

There is a feeling in Russia, says Mrs. Solzhenitsyn, that America is encouraging anti-Russian attitudes in the former Soviet republics and other nearby countries. This has Russians fearful and resentful.

“Russia’s leaders can and should be blamed for many things,” she says. But not in the area of U.S.-Russian relations. It is America, she says, that has lost, “for the foreseeable future, the opportunity for détente, to use a Soviet-era word”: the opportunity for a relaxing of tensions and the forging of a relationship.

I have a final question for Natalia Solzhenitsyn. I think I heard her say, at the book fair in New York over the summer, that Solzhenitsyn liked short pencils. True? Are those the instruments he wrote with?

She answers, “His main writing implement was a ballpoint pen.” But he used many, many writing implements, in many colors. He had a complicated system, “like a giant pipe organ, with every pipe in its place, every pipe serving its purpose.” Every color had its place in this system: denoting characters, themes, linguistic curiosities, etc.

He did use pencils, yes, among the other implements: “They were extensions of his fingers, like another knuckle, another bone or joint. He simply used them until they were finished — right down to the nub.”

One of the Solzhenitsyns’ sons, Ignat, sends me a photo. He is a pianist and conductor who lives here in America. The caption on his photo is “Like father, like son.” He too uses pencils right down to the very end. The picture shows his current pencil: almost finished.

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