The continuing story of Natalia Solzhenitsyn
Over the course of 40 years, Natalia Solzhenitsyn worked hand in hand with her husband, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He died in 2008, at almost 90. Mrs. Solzhenitsyn continues to work. She is in charge of the Solzhenitsyn Archive, a vast project. Solzhenitsyn was a great man, of course: a symbol of freedom for Russia and the whole world. But he was also a great writer, and a prolific, versatile one.
Mrs. Solzhenitsyn’s “priority task,” she says, is to complete the publication of her late husband’s collected works. They will run to 30 volumes. At least three of them will consist of previously unpublished works.
She notes that Solzhenitsyn will be one of the last writers to leave a manuscript archive, in the original sense of “manuscript.” This is an archive of documents written by hand. He wrote by hand from boyhood to the day he died.
Speaking of his boyhood writings: At age ten, in 1929, he devised a magazine called Twentieth Century. He wrote all the articles, for every section, under a variety of names. The sections included “news and events,” science fiction, and games and puzzles. The boy Solzhenitsyn was the editor, the subscription manager, and everything else.
The “treasure” of his archive, says Mrs. Solzhenitsyn, is a manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago, the work that did so much to break the back of the Soviet Union. It was “saved by friends and lay buried in the ground for 20 years.” It was presented to the author when the Solzhenitsyns returned to Russia in 1994, after 20 years of exile.
Natalia Solzhenitsyn had a key role in her husband’s writing life, or rather, series of roles: She was editor, sounding board, assistant — constant helpmate. The two would pass drafts back and forth, making notes on them all the while. When he wanted to accept a suggestion of hers, he would make a plus sign; if not, a minus sign. He always explained himself (as she did, when making her suggestions).
Twenty years younger than he, she was born in 1939, in Moscow. A World War II childhood was a daunting beginning. Natalia was 14 when she realized there was something wrong and abnormal about the Soviet Union. She resolved to work for changes, although she could not know what form her work would take.
In college, it would have been natural for her to study literature, philosophy, and other such subjects. She was inclined in that general direction. But, to study those subjects, you had to join the Communist Party, and that, she refused to do. So instead, she studied math.
And, before long, she became a “soldier of the samizdat,” as she says: a worker in that underground world of dissident literature. “I was a very fast typist and spent a lot of time at the typewriter,” preparing the forbidden articles and books. She helped in their distribution, too. All of this was highly dangerous.
Eventually, she had four sons, and she now has a passel of grandchildren. She lives once more in Moscow, where two of her sons are also living.
Solzhenitsyn was exiled in February 1974; the family followed six weeks later. You might think this was a great blessing: The writer would now be free to work openly, without fear of arrest, imprisonment, and worse. Yet Solzhenitsyn considered his exile a tragedy, and so did his wife.
She was well aware, she says, that, without exile, her husband would have died in short order. (He had this same awareness.) He would have died even if he had not been sent back to the camps. His health was very poor; the pressure he was under was tremendous. But, says Mrs. Solzhenitsyn, “we were faced with the prospect of having to raise our kids in a foreign country. Of having to say goodbye to our country forever.” That was indeed tragic, in their eyes. “It seems to me now that for the first two or three years in the West, my mother, my husband, and I unlearned how to smile. It seems we never smiled. We did not feel ourselves.”
Mrs. Solzhenitsyn is a big-city girl, but she found herself living in rural Vermont, outside the town of Cavendish. Did she feel she was in Siberia, so to speak? Did she long for brighter lights? “Not at all,” she says. “Our life was so intensive, because of our work — it felt like the office of a major literary magazine.” Solzhenitsyn’s main activity in exile was to write The Red Wheel, his epic, multivolume novel of the Russian Revolution. He did much other writing as well. “If we had ended up in a large city,” says Mrs. Solzhenitsyn, “that would have slowed down our pace considerably. We couldn’t have kept up the crazy pace we set for ourselves in Vermont.”
She adds, though, “When I did find myself in a big city, it gave me pleasure.”
Readers of this magazine may like to know that the Solzhenitsyns subscribed to National Review, read it avidly and appreciatively, and saved every issue, for almost 20 years.
It was on Christmas Day 1991 that the Soviet Union expired. The Solzhenitsyns did not go back to Russia until May 1994, however. There was work to finish up in Vermont. And there was the matter of finding a place to live in Russia. (Mrs. Solzhenitsyn went on a scouting trip in 1992.)
I ask what their homecoming was like: “Thrilling? Shocking? Saddening? Gladdening?” All of the above, says Mrs. Solzhenitsyn. “But also, I had an enormous sense of gratitude,” to be returning to “my country and my language and my people.”
Another question: Has she been able to forgive the Soviet persecutors, either individually or collectively? “Not one of them ever asked for forgiveness of me” — except for some journalists “who had participated in one way or another in the campaign against Solzhenitsyn.” Did she forgive them? “Of course,” she says.
And then she elaborates: “One could forgive only if one dealt with individuals. Then we could talk about forgiving and not forgiving. My husband and I perceived these people as parts of a machine — as cogs in a giant totalitarian machine. Some of them took no pleasure in participating; others probably or certainly did. But we never had any personal animus against them. It’s the machine, the system, that cannot be forgiven.”
She does not see old persecutors and apparatchiks on the street, she says. They’re not walking around. If they’re still alive, they ride in limousines with dark-tinted windows.
Though she admires many of the old dissidents, she is willing to name three who stand out. The first is Aleksandr Ginzburg, “who was a beautiful, luminous person.” He was arrested three times and sent to the camps three times. The third time was “for helping to manage our fund for political prisoners and their families.” Solzhenitsyn insisted that all the proceeds from The Gulag Archipelago — which has sold 30 million copies worldwide — go into this fund.
Mrs. Solzhenitsyn then names Vladimir Bukovsky, “a man of extraordinary personal courage.” She says that “we weren’t as close to him” as to Ginzburg, “but I have just as high an opinion of him.”
Finally, there is, of course, Sakharov — who “traveled that difficult road from privileged elite to below the level of an untouchable.” Andrei Sakharov was one of the most honored scientists, and honored people, in the whole country. He was on top of the Soviet heap. And he threw it all away to campaign for human rights and democracy.
Many of Solzhenitsyn’s writings are available in English, and many are not. Which writings in the latter category would Natalia Solzhenitsyn most like to see translated? “I would put The Little Grain at the top of the list.” This is Solzhenitsyn’s memoir of his years in the West. “But second, how is it possible that a great, vast, and important country such as the United States has not yet seen The Red Wheel in its full form?” (Only two of the four “nodes,” as Solzhenitsyn called them, have been published in English.)
She does not have a favorite Solzhenitsyn novel, poem, story, or other work. “Whichever one I’m working on at the moment, that seems to me the best. I find myself in love with whatever I’m reading or working on. This is hardly a blind love — I’m aware of weaknesses. But that’s how I feel.”
Solzhenitsyn almost never answered criticism, and there was much of it directed at him. He could do his own work, or he could answer the critics. There was hardly time to do both. He put his shoulder to the wheel: The Red Wheel. Does Mrs. Solzhenitsyn wish he had defended himself more? “It’s true that I reacted to criticism. I took it much more personally than he did. But I supported his stance, because he was right.”
She does not feel the need to look after Solzhenitsyn’s reputation — she figures history will take care of that. “But naturally, every chance I get, when I’m asked to provide information or context, I do.” There is this thought too: “When a widow such as I goes into battle to defend her husband’s reputation or set the record straight, that does not carry much weight. Therefore, I don’t take the initiative.” But “when someone asks, I’m happy to speak.”
Mrs. Solzhenitsyn returns to America every now and then, to see family here. She says that she is most struck by the self-confidence of the people, from all walks of life. “Your average American seems much more confident about who he is and where he is than the average Russian.” The American, she continues, “is not expecting something bad to happen, every moment. Not expecting the proverbial brick to fall on his head. Not expecting to be cheated, not expecting his neighbor to do him wrong.” There is not a feeling of anxiety or wariness “minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day.”
She has a sharp criticism of America: that it has been clumsy on the world stage, and that it has botched U.S.-Russian relations in particular. She also says that the Russian government can and should be criticized on a number of fronts.
One thing I wish to know is how people in Russia react to her, when they see her on the street or in a store. Solzhenitsyn means a great, great deal to many people. She says, “These are awkward moments. I’m bathed in a kind of sea of well-wishing and admiration on the streets of Moscow and environs. Sometimes people say nothing. They just stare, or shake my hand. Or say, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ Nothing but ‘thank you.’”
Sometimes they say more, Mrs. Solzhenitsyn acknowledges, but she is reluctant to repeat what they say. “Too embarrassing.”