Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Part I
Alexander Solzhenitsyn (hereafter, "Sz.") is one of the great
heroes of the 20th century. And as we watch events unfold in
Russia today, it''s important to remember his struggle. Perhaps
there are clues to the future of his native land. Perhaps there are
lessons to be learned.
Born in 1918, Sz. was sent to the Stalinist labor camps for 8 years
on trumped up charges of criticizing Stalin. It was an event that
changed his life forever and was the impetus for a number of
classic literary works that helped to change the world.
Shortly after Sz. was released from camp, Stalin died and, after a
power struggle at the top of the Kremlin, Nikita Khruschev
emerged as the new Communist Party chief. While in some ways
Khruschev was a breath of fresh air, as he launched a
reevaluation of Stalin''s almost 30 years of dictatorial power and
bloodshed, he was also highly inconsistent when it came to his
cultural policies. He was extremely distrustful of writers. Boris
Pasternak was vilified for the publication abroad of "Doctor
Zhivago" in 1958 and forbidden to accept the Nobel Prize for
Literature. Others had their works banned. In 1962, Khruschev
had declared "Do you know how things began in Hungary? [The
''56 Revolution there.] It all began with the Union of Writers."
Nonetheless, in 1962 Khruschev sat down to read Sz.''s
"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," the tale of one inmate''s
endurance of oppression in the labor camps. Khruschev allowed
the work to be published, thereby breaking open the silence on
the appallingly harsh treatment of political prisoners under
[Again, contradictorily, Khruschev played a decisive role in
having several millions of Stalin''s victims released from the
camps, yet he vigorously persecuted religion, closing many
thousands of churches.]
Sz. now felt he was free to undermine the Soviet system. Before
"One Day..." established him as a literary genius, he had been an
obscure provincial teacher of math and physics. Asked about the
secret of his art, he replied, "When you''ve been pitched headfirst
into hell, you just write about it." While in prison, he told himself
he had "entered into the inheritance of every modern writer intent
on the truth...I must write simply to ensure that it was not
forgotten, that posterity might some day come to know of it."
Before the publication of "One Day..." his earliest writings were
squeezed into an empty champagne bottle and buried in his
Now, however, his life was changed forever and, while
Khruschev may have liked his first published work, others in
Russia didn''t. The KGB had it out for him. Sz. was codenamed
PAUK, "Spider." In 1965 they did a sweep and found proof that
"Sz. indulges in politically damaging statements and disseminates
By the late 1960s, the dissident movement in the Soviet Union
was beginning to stir. Many of them were Jewish. In 1970
Andrei Sakharov (a prestigious member of the Academy of
Science and leading figure in Soviet nuclear development) and
others founded the ''Human Rights Committee." Sz. and
Sakharov became the primary targets of the KGB chief, Yuri
Andropov (who had taken over in 1967).
[Before I continue, Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union
became an increasingly important international issue. Soviet
Ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Dobrynin, has written that the
"misguided Soviet policy that resisted Jewish emigration and
viewed any demand for it as a reproof to our Socialist paradise
(was a disaster). That anyone should have the temerity to want to
leave it was taken as a rank insult!" The idea of expanding
Jewish emigration had actually been the brainchild of the Nixon
administration. Prior to 1969, such emigration had never been on
the agenda of the East - West dialogue. In 1968, only 400 Jews
were allowed to emigrate. By 1973 the annual figure had reached
Andropov was at increasing odds with the ruling Soviet
Politburo, which refused to deal with Sakharov, Sz., and the other
dissidents. Andropov, whose experience was shaped as a KGB
operative during the Hungarian revolution, warned that the failure
to act not only enraged honest Soviet citizens but also
encouraged "certain circles of the intelligentsia and youth to flout
authority." Their motto, he claimed, was "Act boldly, publicly,
involve Western correspondents, rely on the support of the
bourgeois press, and no one will dare touch you."
By 1970 Andropov wanted Sz. expelled upon his receiving the
Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1970. "When analyzing the
materials on Sz. and his works, one cannot fail to arrive at the
conclusion that we are dealing with a political opponent of the
Soviet state and social system. If Sz. continues to reside in the
country after receiving the Nobel Prize, it will strengthen his
position, and allow him to propagandize his views more actively."
Meanwhile, Communist Party Chief Leonid Brezhnev thought Sz.
would be won over.
Andropov stepped up his harassment of Sz. Once in 1971, when
Sz. was away, a friend of the writer had stopped by his home to
check on things when he surprised two KGB officers who were
searching for subversive manuscripts. Other KGB men quickly
appeared and the friend was badly beaten. Andropov ordered
Sz. to be "informed that the participation of the KGB in this
incident is a figment of his imagination."
In 1972 Andropov tried to persuade the Politburo again to expel
Sz., providing evidence that "he was deliberately and irrevocably
embarked on the path of struggle with the Soviet government."
But the Politburo continued to balk.
Andropov tried everything. The main fear was that dissident
writers like Sz. would smuggle their manuscripts out to the West
for publication. Andropov once tried to recruit pianist Miroka
Kokornaya as a plant. Since the pianist regularly went on tours,
the KGB chief hoped that Sz. would hand his manuscripts to
Kokornaya, thinking they would find their way out of the country.
It didn''t work.
In 1973 Sz. and Sakharov stepped up their criticism of
concessions they saw the U.S. as making to the Soviet Union.
Sz. wrote a "Letter to the Soviet Leaders" before his exile.
"Your dearest wish is for our state structure and our ideological
system never to change, to remain as they are for centuries. But
history is not like that. Every system either finds a way to
develop or else it collapses."
Andropov was now a full voting member of the Politburo and on
Feb. 14, 1974, Sz. was forcibly put on board an Aeroflot flight to
Frankfurt by KGB officers. He was the first man removed from
the Soviet Union in this manner since Leon Trotsky.
Sz. moved to Zurich and soon, unwittingly, counted Soviet agents
amongst his most trusted advisers (a ploy frequently applied by
the KGB). It was tougher to tell one''s friends from foes outside
Andropov reported to the Politburo that Sz. was hatching
subversive plans against the U.S.S.R. Sz.''s latest novel, "The
Gulag Archipelago," was selling fast in the U.S.
In September of ''74, Andropov approved a plan to destabilize Sz.
and his family. A series of hostile books and articles were
sponsored by the KGB. There were constant threats against his
children and the sending of suspicious packages which looked as
if they might contain explosives. Finally, by 1976 he decided to
move to the U.S.
Sz. thus became embroiled in controversy of a different type.
President Gerald Ford refused to receive him. Liberals blamed
the administration for being too weak in defending humanitarian
issues, especially Jewish emigration and the plight of Soviet
dissidents. Conservatives found nothing good in the current
SALT talks (on the reduction of nuclear weapons) and accused
Ford of being "too submissive to the Russians."
Sz. decided to speak out. As the authors of "The Sword and the
Shield" spell out, "He was dismayed by what he saw as Western
indifference to the Soviet menace. He took to denouncing,
sometimes in apocalyptic tones, the moral failings of a West he
did not fully understand." Sz. settled in Vermont, becoming a
In 1978 Sz. gave a commencement speech at Harvard wherein he
spoke of the materialism and selfish individualism of the West.
The New York Times and the Washington Post both criticized
Next week we will go into more detail on his Harvard speech as
well as other musings of his about the West and its relationship
with the old Soviet Union and today''s Russia.
Sources: "Russia: A History" Gregory Freeze
"In Confidence" Anatoly Dobrynin
"The Oxford History of the 20th Century"
Michael Howard & Wm. Roger Louis
"Diplomacy" Henry Kissinger
"The Sword and the Shield" Christopher Andrew &
"Lenin''s Tomb" David Remnick