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 There will be many previously unpublished works, filling three volumes, at least.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.
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?”
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.”
“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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