Wife and Soldier

Aleksandr and Natalia Solzhenitsyn in 1996


In the December 17 issue of National Review, I had a piece on Natalia Solzhenitsyn — widow of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Do you need a refresher on who he is? He was a great Russian writer, author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, and many other works. He was a great man — a symbol of resistance to tyranny, and perseverance in the face of it. His Gulag Archipelago helped to break the back of the Soviet Union.

When the 20th century came to an end, many played the game of “Who was the greatest man, or woman, of the century?” A lot of people said Churchill. A lot of people said Solzhenitsyn.

All right, let’s continue: Once in a while, I’ll do a “blowout” of an NR piece here in Impromptus — an expansion of it. And that’s what I propose to do now.

Over the course of 40 years, Natalia Solzhenitsyn worked hand in hand with her husband. He died in 2008, at almost 90. Mrs. Solzhenitsyn continues to work. She is in charge of the Solzhenitsyn Archive, a vast project. She discussed it at a book fair in New York last summer. Later, I interviewed her.

First, some notes from her discussion at the book fair . . .

She said that her “priority task” is to “complete the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s 30-volume collected works,” in accordance with the plan that he, she, and others put together. Sixteen volumes have been published so far. There will be many previously unpublished works, filling three volumes, at least.

You will find this interesting, as I did. “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is perhaps one of the last writers to leave a manuscript archive,” said Mrs. Solzhenitsyn. “All his works, beginning with childhood creations in school notebooks and ending with notes he made the day he died, were written by hand.”

There were just a few exceptions to this, she said — for instance, “correspondence to people who were not acquaintances.” To his friends, “he always wrote longhand.”

In the Solzhenitsyn Archive are “about two dozen notepads and notebooks with attempts at writing from his childhood and adolescence, which he later marked ‘unfit to print, ever.’” He wrote adventure stories when he was eight and nine.

And get this: The ten-year-old Solzhenitsyn put together a whole magazine, by himself. Twentieth Century, it was called. He wrote all the articles, for every section, under a variety of names. The sections included “news and events,” science fiction, and games and puzzles. The boy was the editor, the subscription manager, and everything else.

He would report on increases in circulation! An amazing imagination, amazing skill. It’s unsurprising that he was precocious.

The archive includes “a priceless manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago,” said Mrs. Solzhenitsyn, “which was saved by friends and lay buried in the ground for 20 years, then was given back to the author when he returned to Russia in 1994.” The manuscript, she said, is probably the main treasure of the archive.

Throughout their working life together, Mrs. Solzhenitsyn wrote suggestions on her husband’s manuscripts and drafts. The two would pass the documents back and forth. When Solzhenitsyn wanted to accept a suggestion of hers, he made a plus sign. When he did not, a minus. He always laid out his reasons, and she always laid out hers.

There are many thousands of manuscript and draft pages in the archive, said Mrs. Solzhenitsyn.

Anna Akhmatova gave Solzhenitsyn a collection of her poems in November 1962. She inscribed it, “To A. Solzhenitsyn in the days of his glory.”

Let me give you a few facts about Natalia Solzhenitsyn herself. She was born in 1939. She had four sons, and has a passel of grandchildren. She lives in Moscow, where two of her sons are now living.

I ask her, “Were you always anti-Communist? Did you ever have a period of Party loyalty? What about your parents?”

Her first years were spent during World War II, she explains. “All the people around me were anti-fascist, anti-Nazi. This was the unifying principle. Except for older people, maybe, no one distinguished between the Party and the people. The overriding concern was that Hitler not succeed in conquering the country.”

Her maternal grandfather, a Party official, was arrested in 1938. He died in the camps in 1943. Her father was killed as a soldier, in December 1941. Her mother was therefore a widow at 22. She, the mother, joined the Party during the war, but was never political. She remarried when Natalia was ten. The family was never Communist.

I ask, “When did you first realize that the Soviet Union was rotten and wrong?”

When she was 14, she says. “I couldn’t say that I just turned against everything. But I realized that a lot of things were wrong, and that it would be a better country if these things were different. I was prepared to work in the direction of improvement. What form my work might take, I was only dimly aware.”

“Did you ever suffer, or pay a price, for dissident views before marrying Solzhenitsyn?”

“No, but I might mention a couple of things.” It would have been natural for her to study literature, philosophy, and the like in college. She had always been inclined that way. But if you were going to be in one of those fields, you had to join the Party. And that, she was dead-set against doing.

So, she studied math.

“I liked math very much, and I never really regretted my decision. Yet that was clearly not my calling in life.”

In due course, she became “a soldier of the samizdat,” as she says — “samizdat” referring to the world of underground or dissident literature. “I was a very fast typist and spent a lot of time at the typewriter,” typing up forbidden articles and books. She also helped in their distribution.

All of this was terribly dangerous, of course.

Natalia Solzhenitsyn’s role in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writing life? First reader, editor, assistant, constant helpmate. She says, “To what extent my role was helpful to him, or valued by him, is not for me to judge. But he writes about it in The Little Grain.”

This is Solzhenitsyn’s memoir of his exile years (1974-94), not yet available in English.