It is hard today even to conceive of the glory that surrounded the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the first days of his exile from the Soviet Union in 1974. There was something 19th-century about it, reminiscent of an era when writers, more than politicians or entertainers, set the civilizational tone. Solzhenitsyn was walking alone one day on a wooded mountain path outside of Zurich when he encountered a very old Swiss man. “He was astonished to see me,” Solzhenitsyn later recalled, “came up to me and with both hands took me by the elbow, looked at me with emotion, and kept looking at me, tears flowing down his cheeks.” Crossing the frontier into Italy, Solzhenitsyn was detained for half an hour while the border guards left to get their copies of The Gulag Archipelago for him to sign.
Mathematician, scientist, poet, World War II artillery officer, Solzhenitsyn served years in various far-flung labor camps as punishment for the irreverence toward Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Stalinism that censors discovered in his letters home from the front. In 1962, during the “thaw” in Soviet culture brought about by Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, authorities permitted Solzhenitsyn to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a spare novella about a camp inmate’s daily routine. The spareness was what rendered it so devastating. Shorn of elaborate official rationalizations, the camps were not just an unfortunate side effect of building a Communist society. They were Communist society.
The authorities soon realized their mistake. The magazine Novy Mir, Solzhenitsyn’s literary home, froze him out — a drama he described in his memoir The Oak and the Calf (1975), written at the end of his time in the USSR. But by now, two novels had been smuggled out of the country. Solzhenitsyn was working in secret on his historical-autobiographical-philosophical masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago. The Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize in 1970. After Gulag was published in France in 1973, Solzhenitsyn was arrested, stripped of his citizenship, and expelled from the country. He lived briefly in Switzerland and then, for almost two decades, in Cavendish, Vt.
Exile did not cure him of his compulsive truth-telling. “My overall impression,” he wrote of his visit to Stockholm to collect his Nobel in 1974, “was that this was not the highest literary Areopagus in the world.” It became apparent that Solzhenitsyn had more on his mind than what Communism had done to him. He was a bold and eccentric man of ideas, most of them Christian, conservative, and running counter to the recent evolution of Western societies. Between Two Millstones is the name of the autobiography that picks up where The Oak and the Calf left off. This first installment covers the years 1974–78; a second volume, coving the years until 1994, will follow. Published in Russian periodicals in the late 1990s and now translated into English, the book charts a striking transformation in how Western readers saw Solzhenitsyn, and how he, in turn, saw himself.
Dissidents are always a little crazy by definition. Everyone has an urge to truth-telling and an urge to self-preservation that, in most cases, outweighs it. A person ready to stand up to a system that has for decades inflicted maximum harm on its critics is, in this sense, an abnormal person. His urges are disordered. There is a cruel paradox of political oppression: The less humane, the more ruthless, the more violent a system, the easier it is to cast someone who opposes it as off his rocker. Whether he overestimates his personal persuasiveness or the public’s backbone, a dissident is wrong about something, and his more cowardly fellow citizens can cling to this wrongness as an excuse for ignoring him, mocking him, informing on him.
Vain, Solzhenitsyn was less vain than most dissidents. He had no political deference, but a metaphysical humility had been beaten into him by what he had undergone. Exile was not a “new beginning” for him. He undertook it with dread, and a somewhat unrealistic idea of how tight a link he could maintain to the culture of the old country. He dreamed of establishing a Russian university in Canada that might serve the children of emigrants, “encouraging them to break free from Western satiation and turn toward the rigor of their motherland.” He appreciated the archives at the Hoover Institution in California and the writing conditions in Cavendish, but none of that made America home. Solzhenitsyn surrounded his property with chain link, to protect his tranquility and discourage interlopers, including those from the KGB. When he appeared at a town meeting in Cavendish to apologize to hunters and snowmobilers for the inconvenience, he took the opportunity to explain that “Russian” did not mean Soviet and that to confuse the two was to mistake a patient for a disease: “My people, the Russians, have been suffering from it for 60 years already; they long to be healed. And the day will come when they are indeed healed of this Soviet disease. On that day I will thank you for being good friends and neighbors, and will go back to my homeland.”
Solzhenitsyn resented fellow émigrés who did not feel this way, especially those who began arriving from Russia in the 1970s, “wily polemicists” who had flagged in their anti-Communist zeal and “given themselves up without resistance to the torrent of Western prosperity.”
At no other stage of his life does Solzhenitsyn appear in such an unflattering intellectual light — and not just because this is an unpolished book, clearly done on the side, in time spared from bigger projects. Solzhenitsyn was trapped in a situation in which it was impossible for him to make good decisions. Even after his wife and sons were able to follow him to the West, there were still literally dozens of people engaged in the dangerous work of either hiding or smuggling his Russian archives.
“We had no sense of how things really work in the Free World,” Solzhenitsyn recalled — and yet this was precisely the subject on which he was constantly being asked to pronounce. The Swiss lawyer tasked with donating to charity all the royalties from The Gulag Archipelago screwed up the paperwork, and Solzhenitsyn found himself described as a tax cheat on front pages across Europe. Initially grateful to the family that smuggled The Gulag Archipelago out of the Soviet Union in 1968, he discovered that they had still not translated the book five years later but were claiming world rights and agents’ fees for his works. He entered a CBS interview “poorly prepared, not realizing who Walter Cronkite was, how left his leanings were, his questions bristling with hidden jabs,” and, confused by a poor translation, wound up saying things about recent Soviet exiles that he immediately considered stupid and unfair. “All those years,” he writes, “I had acted either within the confines of the Gulag or the USSR, and had been almost free of error in my actions and in sizing people up. But suddenly I had to confront another world that was unknown to me, and here I began making one mistake after another.”
About known things he was clear-eyed. He rushed into print a Letter to the Soviet Leaders, a speculative political essay that envisioned the potentially chaotic end of Communism. “A transitional authoritarian period would be necessary,” he warned. “We can only be saved by a smooth, gradual descent from the icy cliffs of tyranny.” In theory, Solzhenitsyn was naïve, ignoring the way authoritarian governments work to prolong, rather than resolve, the emergencies that bring them to power. The essay was, in Western terms, a mistake, costing him the support of Andrei Sakharov and other prominent exiles. In practice, it was a fairly accurate prediction of what ended up happening in the 1990s, in the lawless aftermath of Communism. “Freedom” permitted Russia to have its assets looted by the only people who knew where its assets lay — the heirs to the former Communist bureaucracy.
Just because there was no censorship in the West didn’t mean there were no taboos. Solzhenitsyn had neither the cultural savvy nor the inclination to edulcorate his Russian Orthodox and anti-Communist views for a happy, sappy mainstream press. Westerners who could speak the truth without getting killed were, as he saw it, frittering that freedom away. Increasingly he flung his own truth back in their faces. Fascinated by the simple peasantry of Spain, with its “extremes of godliness and ungodliness” that reminded him of Russia, he made a speaking tour there in the days after strongman Francisco Franco’s death: “I had to explain to the people of Spain in the most concise possible terms,” he recalled, “what it meant to have been subjugated by an ideology as we in the Soviet Union had been, and give the Spanish to understand what a terrible fate they escaped in 1939.” This was not a common view among American diplomats, even at the time. For Winston Lord, a protégé of secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Solzhenitsyn was “just about a fascist.”
He was not. He was a writer, a literary writer, sucked into a set of political conflicts he had not chosen. His measures of justice and of the good life were drawn from Dostoevsky and Chekhov, not Eleanor Roosevelt. The least appreciated of his writerly virtues was his capacity for self-criticism. And in exile, coming to see that he had taken for granted certain excellences of Russian (as opposed to Soviet) society, he grew both more patriotic and more tolerant. Solzhenitsyn spends many pages in this volume responding to a 1977 essay by the literary critic Vladimir Lakshin that got under his skin. Lakshin had accused Solzhenitsyn of having been unfair in The Oak and the Calf to the poet Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the Novy Mir editor who had published Ivan Denisovich during the Khrushchev thaw. Indeed, this is the impression that most readers will have formed from that first memoir, even if it was not the one Solzhenitsyn meant to leave. (Nowadays the fascinating thing to an American about The Oak and the Calf is not its strangeness but its familiarity: The form Soviet repression took in the early 1970s has more in common with our own political correctness than with the Stalinist repression of earlier decades.)
Tvardovsky’s bravery was sufficient to establish Solzhenitsyn’s reputation, but insufficient to protect it, as Khrushchev gave way to the harder line of Leonid Brezhnev. Tvardovsky mumbled excuses and sat on Solzhenitsyn’s work. Once his anger cooled, Solzhenitsyn softened his opinion, saying of Tvardovsky and colleagues: “The fairer thing would be to admit that they all acted exactly as their prison-like Soviet conditions bound them to act, and that they could not have done otherwise.” In exile, in fact, he marvels at “the calm, dignified, and deep discourse that Novy Mir managed despite its having been shackled within such rigid confines.”
Harvard University had invited Solzhenitsyn to speak at its commencement almost as soon as he was driven into exile. Had he visited then, he would have been able to deliver what was expected of him: an expression of “the gratitude of the exile to the great Atlantic fortress of Liberty.” Indeed, his early speeches to labor-union leaders and Cold War academics had taken just this tone. But he could not accept Harvard’s invitation until 1978, and by then almost half a decade in the West had changed his mind.
Solzhenitsyn had become convinced that, far from being a reliable defender of others’ liberty, the West was at risk of fumbling away its own. He saw in the rich nations a “blindness of superiority,” a “decline in courage,” relativism, litigiousness, and a sense of responsibility to God that was growing “dimmer and dimmer.” The speech was a turning point in the Cold War, redrawing all its lines in a way that would anticipate the conflicts of our own time. Indeed it was with this speech during the Carter administration, not with the Putin ascendancy in the first decade of this century, that one first began to hear the progressive complaint that “the true Russia, as opposed to the Soviet Union, is a far greater danger to the West,” as Solzhenitsyn lamented. That foolish but durable view is the cornerstone of elite Western thinking about Russia today.
All along, there had been something false about the heady early days of his exile, Solzhenitsyn would later come to suspect: “That incredible and unjustified groundswell that lifted me had been triggered by a mutual lack of understanding.” A giant of Western literature and philosophy had taken up residence in the United States, had spoken to the West in a spirit of friendship, and had gone on to write much of his best work there. Yet, within a few years, many of the West’s most influential people discovered to their surprise that they distrusted and even detested Solzhenitsyn, much as his Soviet persecutors had — and, alas, for many of the same reasons.