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.