Politics & Policy

An Encounter Sabotaged

Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan is seen with his wife, former First Lady Nancy Reagan, as they returned to the White House in February 15, 1982. (Mal Langsdon/Reuters)
The inside story of President Reagan’s invitation for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to visit the White House in May 1982, and the circumstances surrounding the scuttling of that meeting by then–White House adviser Richard Pipes

Editor’s Note: The following piece, written in 1982, is excerpted from Chapter 8 of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s newly published memoir, Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978–1994, translated by Clare Kitson and Melanie Moore, and reprinted with permission from the University of Notre Dame Press’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture Solzhenitsyn Series, © 2020 by University of Notre Dame. The piece also references this letter to former President Reagan

The newly elected President Reagan had evidently not forgotten our remote exchanges of 1976. The day before his inauguration on January 20, 1981, his people phoned us in Cavendish, from Washington: the president would like to call me that day from the White House; would I be by the phone? That kind of call was a demonstration of intent. Alya asked them to give us 15 minutes’ notice (in the building where I work there is no telephone; I’m not accustomed to using one, and haven’t lifted a receiver for years — it’s an important condition for a steady pace of work). I did some notes for a rough plan of what I would tell him:

“Mr. President, today even without me you are rich in all kinds of good wishes. But I too wish you a glorious and stable term of office. And I am wishing in particular, not just as a Russian, but also as a member of our threatened humanity, that you will always make a clear distinction between the Soviet Union and Russia; between Communism and the Russian people.”

But the president did not phone. It must have been difficult for him to interrupt those ceremonial matters. Or, more probably, it was decided that such a telling gesture would be too extreme for his first days.

Not two months later a young miscreant shot at him. And how to explain, if not as a divine miracle, the bullet missing his heart by a centimeter, and the 70-year-old recovering so rapidly? Our sympathy for him became even stronger.

In his first speech after the attempt on his life, that spring at the University of Notre Dame, he quoted my Harvard speech a good deal: on the failing courage of the West; and how the American intelligentsia had lost its nerve after Vietnam; what a mistake it had been to seek an agreement with Cuba; on the catastrophe of a humanist areligious consciousness, which has lost sight of a Higher Power. Turning his gaze to God was Reagan’s own, personal way, coming from his heart.

During the next few months proposals came — not direct from Reagan, but via influential Washington figures — to discuss a possible meeting with him. Even the American ambassador in Rome sent the same inquiry to his acquaintance, the lawyer Erich Gayler, who had defended our Fund: under what conditions would I accept the new president’s invitation to visit the White House? I responded to all the intermediaries in the same, totally forthright way: if there was to be, at the meeting, the possibility of a meaningful conversation, I would be ready to come; if the plan was for a symbolic ceremony — no.

In early winter 1981–82, rumors began to reach us, via Congressman Jack Kemp and Senator Henry Jackson, that an official invitation to me was being organized at the White House, and in fact it was already “signed and sealed.” At the start of winter! That’s the time when I submerge myself most deeply in work and don’t come out of it. I don’t venture beyond the gate, not even to the barber — my wife cuts my hair. I tell Alya I’d try to put it off till the spring. She says: “Is that really your prerogative? How can you dictate the president’s schedule?”

But I started thinking. Could Reagan do anything concrete to change, drastically, the United States’ attitude to historical Russia, as distinct from the USSR? (For in fact no American administration is really free — it is heavily influenced by various circles, some known publicly, others not.) He could do no more than express friendly feelings towards Russia — and he was doing that already. The best I could hope of Reagan was that he would just assimilate some small understanding of the Russian point of view, so that this might be reflected in at least some of the radio broadcasts. Should I offer support for his anti-Communism? Luckily, he was not in need of that. Reagan was already accomplishing a great deal, even if it was just salvaging the economy. That winter for the first time I started watching the TV news as well (before, I’d only listened to radio), which confirmed my view of Reagan’s humanity, sincerity, his sense of humor, and I would have been very willing to help, if he’d felt the need of it. But the route to these discussions was long, and the route to real action by him would be even longer. For me, a trip to Washington would mean — it couldn’t be avoided — meetings with other people too, participation in various events, press conferences. I’d lose a week at the very least, and it would disrupt my work. Was anything useful likely to come of it? Would it be worth it? All in all, I’d have liked the meeting, if it was unavoidable, to be later.

And that winter was indeed kind to me. Then the palaver over the meeting blew up in early April. The first thing was calls from Washington with rumors picked up in roundabout ways: it seemed that, instead of the proposed face-to-face meeting with the president (and afterward a dinner with many participants), a lunch was planned, in which I would be among a dozen guests — retired dissidents, apparently.

We couldn’t believe it — that wasn’t right: I’d earlier replied clearly to all the “intelligencers” that I would not travel to Washington for any ceremony — still less for the symbolism of a chummy lunch. Then we were told that Richard Pipes, now a senior adviser on Soviet affairs at the White House, could not find our telephone number (it’s not in the directories), and was asking us to call him. It was strange, because the White House did have our number. Alya called him; that was April 7. Pipes hurriedly explained that Solzhenitsyn was invited to a presidential lunch on May 11 with seven or eight “representatives of different nationalities,” and the formal invitation would arrive in a week. He explained no more than that, and asked no questions — and Alya, of course, didn’t drag the conversation out any longer than necessary.

Well, now it was quite clear: I wouldn’t go. The promised invitation would arrive — and we’d say no.

Fat chance of that! The following day there was an article in the Washington Post — and instant tittle-tattle everywhere: the president had been planning to meet Solzhenitsyn but had been persuaded not to, and there would only be a lunch with a group of dissidents.

Like that, was it? — persuaded not to?

This was a peculiarity of all the top American institutions: in them, no secrets were kept long. In fact, it even seemed that you couldn’t refuse if a member of the press turned up: whatever he asked about, you had to answer. And our acquaintance, the veteran journalist Robert Kaiser, was delighted to demonstrate how well informed he was, and publish an account of how a reactionary meeting between the president and Solzhenitsyn had been aborted:

“But some officials in the Reagan administration advised the White House not to hold a private meeting with Solzhenitsyn now, since he has become a symbol of an extreme Russian nationalist position that many other Soviet human rights activists abhor.”

(So these were the “representatives of the nationalities,” were they? — they’d made it sound as if nations of some kind had elected them. But turns out these were run-of-the-mill dissidents — now become émigré politicians.)

They’re fantastic, the press! Kaiser had given away how my meeting with the president had been replaced by something different, and the real reason why. Of course, Pipes hated me personally and showed it consistently — and all over the place. He could not forgive my criticizing his distorted history of Russia, and took it as a personal insult (in Foreign Affairs, it’s true, it was not very gallant of me to compare him to “a wolf playing the cello”). Still, Pipes himself was not acting individually, but expressing the mood of the American “elite” — or its most populous stream — and I was just the physical symbol of the Russia they found repugnant, the Russia that was trampled underfoot in 1917, seemingly for good, and had not dared be reborn in any form, even spiritual, not even the idea of the historical Russia; but in my books it was being reborn, and appeared to be full of life. With the altered format of the presidential lunch, they were not only belittling me — they were welcome to do that — but also showing what kind of place they would allocate the Russia we were longing for, the Russia of the future. How low had Russia’s name sunk in the West, if clownish tricks like this were being played on us here?

But thanks for letting the cat out of the bag, anyway. Without your tittle-tattle, we might not have caught you.

And so it was that, already a month before the meeting, it was not only clear to us that I wouldn’t be going, but a letter declining the invitation was also taking shape. Alya, who was far more bothered by this whole business than I was — and also kept on edge all the time by phone calls — would from time to time bring me versions of phrases we might use to say no, many of which found their way into the letter that we composed together. The job of this letter was to present the whole situation in a condensed form, but on its true scale, not as a personal matter. And, in doing so, not offend the president — I was sorry that he’d been dragged into this game against his will and contrary to the way he saw things. And to draw a contrast between Reagan and his advisers. And make it understandable for our fellow-countrymen.

It was the White House’s fear of Moscow that had scuttled a first meeting with me, in Ford’s time. Now it was the White House’s subservience to anti-Russian influences. But Kaiser’s formulation gave me the possibility, and even obliged me, to give a broader answer, not on the changed format of the meeting alone.

Because of that, the letter I was forced to write became an important, even provoking step.

Like every battle, this one, too, forced us to advance and expose our flanks prematurely. But even though the rivers of history flow slowly, at some stage the fateful moments must come.

Over the following weeks there were frequent phone calls, with recent changes, information picked up by chance, suppositions, questions constantly reaching us. And now we were learning that the guest list was being chosen as if to be especially hostile and humiliating to me: Valeri Chalidze was on it, and Mark Azbel, who had insulted me, and Andrei Sinyavsky . . . (writer! — aesthete! — from Paris! — scurrying pathetically to the table, the moment Washington beckoned). But from the White House, surprisingly, the promised letter had still not arrived (Alya shrugged: “How unseemly”).

But as long as there was no invitation — there was nothing to decline.

Meanwhile, well-wishers on Capitol Hill had got wind of what was happening (for they were in fact being deceived by the White House secretariat), and demanded that an individual meeting with me — even if extremely short — be added to the program, before lunch. (Yet what good was that to me? No use at all.) But all that effort, for a measly little 15-minute audience (seven and a half minutes with translation . . .), was also agonized over in the White House, so frightened were they of even the shortest individual meeting. And that added proviso was so hard to extract from the depths of the administration bureaucracy that it would flutter in late, in the form of a telegram, on the very day of the lunch, May 11.

As for the invitation itself, that would finally arrive . . . in the form of a little card, an admission ticket, without a single word of explanation.

But what route could I take to get into the president’s hands my letter of refusal? I wanted him to be the first to receive and read it, not be handed it by his officials. We availed ourselves of the kind mediation of Edward Bennett Williams, who had access to the White House — and he managed both to hand my letter to the president and to explain how basely Pipes had tricked him. And on May 7, Williams phoned us: the president had “understood everything” and “not been offended.” Thank God for that.

For us in Cavendish, it was a great relief.

But not in the White House.

If they themselves had not leaked the news that Solzhenitsyn was to be received by the president, it would have been quietly swept under the carpet by now, and that would have been the end of it. But now — they’d have to explain my absence somehow, wouldn’t they? And within a very few days.

We received feverish phone calls, seeking our agreement. First of all the White House proposed as its wording for the press: “Solzhenitsyn’s schedule prevented his attendance.”

We rejected it.

Then, at the crack of dawn on the 10th — the day before the lunch — Williams passed on an insistent message from the president’s chief adviser and friend: think again! — do come!

No, impossible.

Around midday, a call with a new formulation: “He was unable to accept the invitation right now, but the president is expecting to meet Solzhenitsyn later.”


But I doubted that Pipes would allow that through to the press.

And indeed, that afternoon of the 10th, already aware of my refusal, they were still prevaricating in the State Department, that Solzhenitsyn would be attending the following day. But then they probably decided not to release any official explanation at all from the White House, just to allow a “leak.”

And, just as before, the “leak” went to Kaiser, and from him into the Washington Post, which offered this pathetic twist: Solzhenitsyn “was displeased that news of the invitation appeared in the press before he received it.” It was not enough — not strong enough. So they offered another little scrap: he felt it inappropriate to count him among the dissidents.

That was instead of any of the substance of my arguments.

That was forcing us to make public the essence of the matter, that is, my whole letter.

We decided it would be fitting to publish it only in a modest Vermont newspaper, and after that — whether people noticed it or not — not to offer anything to the hungry press and news agencies.

And — what do you think? A good number of the major American newspapers took the story from the Vermont paper. (Kaiser’s, in the capital, in its weekday edition censored and mangled the text, of course — but the Washington Post’s Sunday edition, independent of Kaiser, found room for the whole letter.)

This was the end of that peripheral, but trying, experience, which had been imposed on us and lasted more than a month. Its organizers did not gain a great deal: Reagan couldn’t now cancel the lunch, but he reduced its status to the lowest category — he arrived without his chief adviser, did not give his prepared address, the guests made no speeches, and the event was not filmed for television, as was so longed-for, nor followed by a press conference.

Those who had staged it and taken part were simmering with rage — my absence had spoiled everything for them — oh, how they simmered. But this was strange: if, as they asserted, they were for “human rights” and against the imposition of anyone’s will on other people, why were they so angry when I exercised the most modest of human rights — the right to decline a lunch invitation? Why this collective diktat — “you should have gone!” And the dissident Kronid Lyubarsky wrote a rebuke that seemed to choke for breath in its anger (and again the extent of his insecurity was mirrored in its length — it was three times longer than my letter to the president): I was “slandering the country that had offered refuge,” had forgotten the Gulag Archipelago (I, of all people!), my attitude to my fellow-countrymen was base, and I had no right to determine what was and what wasn’t Russian — so was Lyubarsky going to determine it? Were they already reaching for the reins of Gogol’s Troika? [According to Gogol’s famous image from Dead Souls, for the reins of Russia herself — Ed.]

General Grigorenko, who’d been with them at that lunch, also rather spoiled things for them: he wrote to the president, saying he felt a profound guilt, was shocked by the “crafty, underhand actions” of the organizers in changing the format of the president’s meeting with me, and thought I’d been right not to attend.

(But what the Soviets picked up was: “Solzhenitsyn is a welcome guest at the White House”— and there would be no correction, of course. Who would get to the bottom of that, and when? the lie would likely stick for decades. —I had reproached Reagan over the American generals who were aiming, in the event of an atomic war, to destroy Russians selectively — and at that very moment, on the page of Sovetskaya Rossiya (Soviet Russia) that celebrated May Day, at the top, across the whole width, were all the leaders on the Lenin Mausoleum reviewing stand, and on the lower half of the page an article by some servile poet, one Vitali Korotich, of the defamation with falsification type: “Mr. Solzhenitsyn, expelled from the Soviet Union . . . has published the words, addressing you and me, ‘Just wait, you vermin! A Truman will see you off! They’ll drop the atom bomb on your heads!’” — And how were my fellow-countrymen to know that this was a scene from Archipelago, part V, chapter 2: it’s autumn 1950, in the Omsk transit prison, and the zeks shout out to the prison guards as they’re being “crammed and screwed into a prison van, like lumps of sweating, steaming meat,” and their life is “not worth living . . . [they] should not have minded if [they and their] tormentors were incinerated by the same bomb.” —And in the Soviet Union that poison was inundating millions of brains: Solzhenitsyn was calling on America to drop an atom bomb on our country! And when ever would I be able to forge a way through those new clods of lies?)

But overall Pipes had got what he wanted: he’d disrupted my meeting with Reagan, and counted it a feather in his cap.