History

Letter to President Reagan

Solzhenitsyn in Vermont, 1994 (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Editor’s Note: The following letter by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was written on May 3, 1982, from Solzhenitsyn’s home in Cavendish, Vt., and addressed to President Ronald Reagan. Solzhenitsyn explains his reasons for declining an invitation to meet with the president at the White House, an episode recounted in Chapter 8 of Solzhenitsyn’s memoir, Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978–1994. It is reprinted here with permission from the University of Notre Dame Press.

Dear Mr. President:

I admire many aspects of your activity, rejoice because the United States at last has a president such as you, and unceasingly thank God that you were not killed by the villainous bullets.

But I never sought to obtain the honor of being received at the White House — either under President Ford (the issue arose on their side without my being involved) or later. During the past months, indirect inquiries reached me through different channels concerning the circumstances under which I would accept an invitation to the White House. I always answered that I would be prepared to go for a substantive conversation with you, in a setting that would make an effective, in-depth exchange of views possible — but not for a merely formal ceremony. The lifespan at my disposal does not leave any time for symbolic encounters.

It was not, however, a personal meeting with you that was announced to me (by telephone call from an adviser, Mr. Richard Pipes), but a luncheon including émigré politicians. From the same sources the press publicized that it is to be a luncheon for “Soviet dissidents.” But a writer and an artist belongs neither to the first group nor to the second, in the Russian mind. I cannot allow myself to be placed in a category that is not mine. Moreover, the fact, the form, and the date of the reception were established and transmitted to the press before I was informed of them. Even up to this very day I have not received any clarification, nor even the names of those among whom I have been invited for 11 May.

It is even worse that the White House’s variations and hesitations were publicized by the press in advance, as also the reason why a personal meeting with me was considered undesirable, in terms that have not been denied or corrected by the White House: allegedly, I “have become a symbol of an extreme Russian nationalist position.” Such a wording is offensive for my fellow countrymen, to whose suffering I have dedicated my entire life as a writer.

I am not at all a “nationalist”: I am a patriot. This means that I love my country — and therefore well understand other people’s love for theirs. I have declared publicly on many occasions that the vital interests of the peoples of the USSR demand an immediate termination of all Soviet attempts to conquer the globe. If individuals thinking as I do would come to power in the USSR, their first action would be to withdraw from Central America, from Africa, from Asia, from Eastern Europe, leaving all these peoples to their own untrammeled fate. Their second step would be to cease the deadly arms race, and to direct all the nation’s forces toward healing the internal, almost century-long wounds of a nearly dying population. And, beyond any doubt, they would throw wide open the exit gates for those who wish to emigrate from our hapless country.

But how surprising: all this does not suit some of your close advisers! They want something different. They define such a program as “extreme Russian nationalism,” while some U.S. generals suggest selectively destroying the Russian population by an atomic assault. It is strange how Russian national consciousness inspires the greatest fear in the world today for the rulers of the USSR — and for your entourage. It is the revelation of a hostility to Russia as such, to her people and to the country, as distinct from the state structure, which is characteristic of a significant part of the American educated community, American financial circles, and, alas, even some of your advisers. Such a frame of mind is pernicious for the future of both our nations.

Mr. President, it is hard for me to write this letter. But I think that if, anywhere, a meeting with you were deemed undesirable because you are an American patriot, you would also feel insulted.

When you are no longer president, if you ever happen to be in Vermont, I cordially invite you to come and visit me.

Since this entire episode has already received wide and distorting publicity, and it is highly probable that the reasons for my nonparticipation will likewise be distorted, I fear that I shall be compelled to publish this letter. Please forgive me.

Respectfully and sincerely yours,

A. Solzhenitsyn

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