Books

Wolves and Ephemerality

Wolves walk in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the abandoned village of Orevichi, Belarus, February 25, 2016. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)
On a silent encounter with a pair of Canadian wolves, and the transience of earthly life, especially for an exile.

Editors Note: The following piece, written in 1982, is excerpted from Chapter 7 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.

In July 1980, I was sent a short article from the Christian Science Monitor—a venomous left-liberal newspaper among the most influential in the States. Published in Boston, just around the corner, it once requested an in-depth interview: I declined. Now, one Harlow Robinson writes, under the headline “Solzhenitsyn: Shrill”: “Solzhenitsyn said in a recent interview that he would go back ‘at once’ to Russia, preferably as a national political leader [my italics — A.S.].” What kind of scoundrels are they? They can bark at me however they like — go on, damn you. But “Solzhenitsyn said” — the cheek of it! I didn’t say it, and have never thought it. So, what do I do? Get sidetracked, write a rebuttal: “Your highly intellectual newspaper is fully entitled not to know Russian history and not to understand the conditions of Soviet life [this refers to the rest of their article], but it has no right to print deliberate falsehoods. . . . I ask you to publish my letter, and I await a public apology from the author.”

And if they don’t publish? I’m not going to take them to court — that’s not for a normal person to do, much less a writer. And so it will stick.

Three weeks went by — not a word. I couldn’t rest, and wrote again: “Must I conclude that you are refusing to print my rebuttal, and I am free to write about this falsification openly in other publications?” An answer from the editor-in-chief! — ah, unfortunately, I was on vacation when your first letter arrived. . . . We have tried unsuccessfully to contact Mr. Robinson for the desired comments. (They themselves are unable to check that I said no such thing, nor anything like it, in my New York Times interview . . .) Eventually, after another month, my letter was published in the “Readers Write” section, as was Robinson’s response: “‘preferably as a national political leader’ was [Robinson’s] own interpretive addition,” and he was sorry.

And the whole episode wasn’t worth a fig — and I’d had to waste time and focus on it. But are you really going to keep up with the vastness of all the world’s media? issuing rebuttals? —The hydra heads of newspaper lies.

But it’s all a matter of scale. This petty nonsense ended on September 8; on the afternoon of the 11th, I was sitting as usual at my little desk beneath the birches, near the pond, on our plot fenced off by wire netting about two meters high. No one from the outside ever came there, and my family were at least 100 meters away, up the hill. But here — only chipmunks dashing around. I wrote in this solitude summer after summer, my soul unbound. A steady breeze is blowing, concealing any rustling. My eyes are on the paper. I can hear nothing and see nothing in my peripheral vision. Only when I happen to look up do I see a magnificent powerful copper-colored creature passing by on a raised path a meter and a half from my head. Could a dog be that size? whose dog? and so noiseless? I turn my head as it goes by, and behind the trunks of the birch trees I see the first wolf, which has already gone past. Now it has turned to look at the one behind and is baring its teeth in its long snout, as if asking why it’s lagging behind. Now I can see the second one in full. It’s gone by to catch up with the first. They’re gone.

I didn’t have time to gather my wits or to prepare myself. There wasn’t so much as a stick to hand in any case. The wolves passed by calmly and utterly soundlessly along our usual well-trodden path through the property. My desk, though, was in a hollow, so that they had passed within less than two meters, level with my shoulders, and nothing would have prevented either of them from leaping at my throat. Had God delivered me? were they not hungry? (My neighbor says they don’t live around here: they come in from Canada following the starving moose; it had even been on local radio.)

I sit and collect myself: that would have been a fine way to go (and on exactly the same day as the loss of my archive on September 11, 1965) — eaten by wolves! At my writing desk on my own property. No Russian writer had yet come to such a pathetic end. Rejoicing and laughter from my enemies. March incomplete, my life chewed up while I was still in my prime.

And what dangers I had lived through! . . . Yet you can’t tell what awaits you or where. Who can reckon death’s quick beckon?

For the first few days, I began to take a hunting rifle with me and to lean it up against my writing desk. And whichever of the children was bringing me pages from his mother had to shout from the mountainside: “Papa, I’m coming!!” and I would go and meet him.

But the wolves never came back.

And how I loved that spot! At my dugout desk, densely surrounded by the trunks of five birches, it was like sitting in an arbor. To one side, a little higher up, was the terrace outside the cottage, evenly laid with flat stones of varying shapes (when they were playing, the children used to say that one was Australia, another Greenland), and you could get a quick bit of exercise there next to the pond, racing up and down these flagstones. On hot days, I would take several plunges into the pond. To the other side, where those wolves had gone, was the only meadow on our entire property, 150 paces of it, and the only view open to the sky, where I took the boys to study the constellations. And on moonlit summer nights when I couldn’t sleep, I would sometimes wander slowly from the cottage by the pond through that meadow, knee-deep in grass, gazing in wonder at the towering poplars, and, through a chain-link gate that was never used, at the empty byway; and beyond lay the same distinctly defined and silent moonlit world, with only the sound of the three brooks playing as they came together — right there, near a dark dip in the ground. This exile world is still our familiar terrestrial one, but at the same time somehow extraterrestrial.

And — why am I here? and — is it for long? . . .  I always feel that: no, I am here temporarily; and, because of that, everything feels even more ephemeral than for others on Earth.

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