Yearning for Home

Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaks at a news conference in Vladivostok in 1994. (Alexander Natruskin/Reuters)
An attempt to make sense of the conflicting signals — the “warm breeze” — wafting over from a USSR embarking on perestroika and glasnost

Editor’s Note:  The following piece, written in 1987, is excerpted from Chapter 13 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.

During recent months, my name has been bandied about in the USSR. In rumors — that I’ve already lodged an application with the Soviet embassy to return. But also in public. Aleksandr Podrabinek suddenly (on March 5, 1987, the day of the Soviet denial about the publication of Cancer Ward, although this was mere coincidence) wrote a letter to the government saying that now, with the onset of glasnost, it would be intolerable hypocrisy to continue to hush up Solzhenitsyn, who had called for honest and total glasnost 18 years ago — and he suggested repealing the decree that had stripped me of citizenship, giving me the opportunity to return to Russia; and that I be published in massive print runs. He made the letter public one month later. Then, another month later, he, a man who’d been in internal exile not very long before, was suddenly visited in Kirzhach by the Communist Party district committee secretary for propaganda, bearing the official response that “the Central Committee is looking into Solzhenitsyn’s case.”

This response was not binding upon them in any way (although they most probably did have discussions of some sort). Was it to give me a pretext to jump first, if I really was pining to return? But my return right now would be a huge propaganda success for the authorities, especially if secured without concessions.

For my part, although I understood all the lack of commitment, the expedience of this gambit, my heart still beat faster. After all, the wall is slowly melting — it’s melting, and my exile is coming to an end! And, indeed, given my age, it’s one of my last hopes.

And the signals coming from Moscow were ambiguous. In this same March, Vitali Korotich, the new editor of the liberal Ogonyok (Little Flame) (who had already grossly slandered me over The Gulag Archipelago), declared that I was “not a writer, but a political opponent and a fool.” —And in April, the seasoned Sovetskaya Kultura (Soviet Culture) enlisted my remark from an old BBC interview where I praised the “village prose” writers, saying that Russian literature in recent years had been successful not in the freedom of emigration “but in our Russian homeland . . . under enormous pressure.” And so they deceitfully scrapped “under enormous pressure,” then casually added the name “Solzhenitsyn” without further explanation, as if it might be encountered on any page. —And on May 16, an extremely peculiar article erupted onto the pages of Pravda. Or rather, it was perfectly normal: a justification of why Mikhail Sholokhov, in the 35 years from the end of the war until his death, was simply unable to complete They Fought for Their Countryand the only reason turned out to be that he was undermined after 30 years of work by the publication in Paris of Troubled Waters of the ‘Quiet Don,’ by D—, which questioned Sholokhov’s authorship. Well, it was Solzhenitsyn who wrote the foreword, and Sholokhov’s reaction was, “What does that crackpot want?”

This was staggering. After I’d already been branded a traitor, a literary Vlasovite, an enemy of the people, and a CIA agent — that was it, just a crackpot? . . . Had someone even at Pravda censored it, and so prevented me from being dealt the full force of the blow?

It will be a long time before they figure out internally how to deal with me.

They’re not calling me home, and it can’t be hurried along from the sidelines; all the more reason for me to keep silent, just as I’d fallen silent four years ago. Now that Sergei Khodorovich [the administrator of Solzhenitsyn’s Russian Social Fund to help political prisoners — Ed.] has, thankfully, been released, not even Alya [Solzhenitsyn’s wife — Ed.] needs to make public statements; what a relief. Keep silent for now. For what, in all conscience, can I say about Gorbachev’s perestroika?

That something has started — glory be to God. So can it be praised?

But all the innovations have, from the start, been harebrained and have gone wrong. So should it be criticized?

As it turns out, neither praise nor criticism is due.

In that case, all that remains is to keep silent.

Just now I was very touched by dear Irina Ratushinskaya [the renowned Russian poet and Soviet prisoner — Ed.]: she’s sent her complete understanding of my silence, my immobility, and my refusal of meetings.

But are there many like her, who truly understand? What about when speculation about me multiplies, and it all goes off in different directions? what about the Soviet show of “the Central Committee is looking into Solzhenitsyn”? — (I’ve heard not a whisper from those quarters) — it does get me worked up; and those affecting rumors that I’ve “already filed an application with the Soviet embassy”? — isn’t it strange to say nothing about oneself at such a moment?

And in any case, it’s not possible to stay dead silent. A request made its way to me: it was the 40th anniversary of Voice of America’s Russian Section — speak out! And how could I refuse them? — after all, they had suffered for the sake of my Stolypin [when in 1984 VOA had broadcast readings of the “Stolypin chapters” of Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914Ed.]. Alya resourcefully suggested an old quote of mine about Western radio broadcasting. And right away — VOA as a whole had been going for 45 years, and Reagan’s greeting to them quoted me: “The mighty nonmilitary force which resides in the airwaves and whose kindling power in the midst of the Communist darkness cannot even be grasped by the Western imagination.”

This coincided with the reading of two volumes of March 1917 over the un-jammed BBC. (And reports came in that it was being listened to in the Soviet Union.) Of course, the excerpts were selected without me, by BBC presenter Vladimir Chugunov, but he did it with understanding. I listened and was glad. And they suggested that I conclude the series myself, in my own voice — broadcast to Russia! —Well, how could I not agree? We arranged an interview. And just now, at the end of June 1987, Chugunov came along to do it.

How could I not take advantage of this exceptional opportunity to address my compatriots, not through jammed airwaves but with my voice unadulterated — and especially now, during such stormy, troubled months, with contradictory rumors proliferating and the authorities paralyzed and holding their tongues about me? To speak directly, yes, directly to listeners and readers.

And what should I say?

Still, we took stock: were they trying to entice me with Cancer Ward? But that had come very, very close to being published — in 1967. So, was that how far things had advanced in 20 years? (Or, indeed, not yet advanced . . .) What about Archipelago? It was the reason I was banished. And the whole of The Red Wheel? How on earth could I betray them? First of all, I should name them, right now, on air! And let the authorities, not me, rack their brains about what to do . . .

And I concluded the interview by saying I would go back after my books, not before them.

* * *

The situation at home in Russia is unpredictable. The country might not accept me for a long time yet. And in terms of strength, work, and age, how many more years must I remain uprooted in exile?

And what about our children? They have to move along. The time has come for our two eldest to leave home to further their studies. Where? Our homeland is not yet calling us.

Yermolai is just now, in June 1987, coming to the end of the twelve-year school system, two years ahead of his peers. And we’ve resolved to send him to Britain, to Eton, for the two years he has left before university. He’s retained his passion for modern history and politics. In recent years, Yermolai and I have been studying Russian history in detail — from the end of the 19th century to the revolution, and he has read copiously. And this summer before Eton, he’ll take an intensive course in Chinese, at the summer language school in neighboring Middlebury (a year’s study in nine weeks).

Ignat is 14 but he, too, is off this autumn, to London. In recent years he’s been studying with Rudolf Serkin’s assistant, Uruguayan pianist Luis Batlle, and has spent three summers in a row at music camp, enthusiastically immersing himself in chamber ensembles. Since his debut with orchestra at the age of eleven (Beethoven’s Second Concerto), he has played quite a lot in public, and Rostropovich now recommends that he go to Maria Curcio in London, a famous teacher and former student of Artur Schnabel, and finish school there at the same time. It’s a bit scary letting him move overseas alone, still just a boy. Although he’s more mature than his years and, in general, is growing up quickly, with a wide range of interests, an eager and perceptive reader in three languages.

And they’ve both found time to help us.

So, following on Dimitri’s heels, another two will leave. Only the youngest, Stepan, will stay with us — but for how long?

Our life here in Vermont is changing, but the warm breeze from over there hasn’t deceived us, has it?

 * * *

Will God allow us to return to our homeland, allow us to serve? And will it be at a time of its new collapse, or of a sublime reordering?

Twice already it was sent me to do the impossible, the unpredictable, in my country: ushering a tale of the camps into print under Communist censorship, and publishing Archipelago while in the Dragon’s maw. When publishing Ivan Denisovich and when banished to the West, I was raised up by two explosions of the kind where immeasurable forces hoist you up to an unexpected height. (And on both occasions I made plenty of mistakes.) If I have twice pushed my way through a concrete wall, will something similar suddenly be asked of me a third time? (And how not to make mistakes then?) Should the war-horn sound — my hearing is still keen, and I still have strength. Old steed, fresh speed.

Even if it is only to be a living presence at future events, even without playing a direct part in them? and might that presence itself become a form of action? and help transmit to future generations the worldview I have built up. Perhaps the task can be completed not through risk and drive, as before, but simply by living longer: could longevity itself become the key to fruition?

And, not for the first time, I’ve noted that the length of a person’s life depends greatly on the retention of his life task. If a person is much needed for his task, he lives. As the saying goes: die not when old but when your task is done.

Ever since Ivan Denisovich, I’ve served so many times as a sword of division. And the fiercer battles of the last dozen years have constantly divided me from a multitude of forces, whether of Western or of Russian origin — and it was inevitable, all of it. But the heart’s desire is neither to be divided nor to divide, but rather to bring together everyone it can reach, to act as a hoop binding Russia together.

That, after all, is the real task.

And so on life’s journey you climb from plateau to plateau and each time you’re tempted to say: now my peak years are upon me. Yet on you go, and it turns out that those too were not yet the summit.

Or else you cease to expect them anymore.

Make clear my path before me . . .