The Giant Of Russian Literature

By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The great Russian writer who died in Moscow on Sunday night played a leading role in a Russian drama that has been captivating audiences for nearly 200 years. We might call this morality play "The Author, the Power and the People."

It was gripping in the 1820s and '30s when Alexander Pushkin played the part of the author, and when Dostoevski and Tolstoy took up his mantle in the second half of the 19th century; yet again when the early 20th-century poets took their turn, and in the 1960s and '70s, when Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn assumed the leading role. Only in Russia, probably, could such a drama remain a hit -- and remain relevant -- for so long.

In Moscow in the early 1970s, when I knew Solzhenitsyn, writers and intellectuals had a one-word name for him that was used by nearly everyone: "Classic." Members of the literary intelligentsia, as they called themselves, agreed that of all their contemporaries, Solzhenitsyn was "our classic," the one who would be remembered as the Pushkin or the Tolstoy of their time. He was the writer who most eloquently and effectively spoke the truth to the power of the day, the Soviet Communist Party. In authoritarian Russia, under both czars and commissars, that was the writer's role, and history would remember Solzhenitsyn for performing it so well.

But his stature did not make him a popular figure among Moscow's intellectuals and dissidents. No one so exasperatingly single-minded and self-centered could be popular. "It's too bad we don't have a better one," said Lev Kopelev, an important figure in Solzhenitsyn's career, "one with better manners or more patience or something else. But this is the only one we've got, the only one! So we've got to take him the way he is."

In 1985, Kopelev publicly broke with Solzhenitsyn, one of a string of old friends and allies who were alienated by the writer's insistent rewriting of history and disdain for those, including Kopelev, who had been so helpful to Solzhenitsyn in the years when he needed a lot of help. It was almost as though needing help was a weakness he wanted to forget, and insulting his helpers was a way to accomplish the forgetting.

Kopelev and his wife, Raisa Orlova, had introduced Solzhenitsyn's work to the editors who would eventually make literary history by publishing "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," a nuclear bomb of a novella that appeared in the literary journal Novy Mir (New World) in 1962. The story, based on the author's experiences in a prison camp in Soviet Kazakhstan, described -- in detail so vivid the reader could feel it -- "a good day" in the life of an inmate in the cruel and mindless world of Joseph Stalin's prison camps. The book's last words capture its haunting quality:

The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one.

Just one of the three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days of his sentence, from bell to bell.

The extra three were for leap years.

"Ivan Denisovich" may well be the Solzhenitsyn book with the longest literary life, because it is so accessible and so powerful.

At the time Novy Mir published "Ivan Denisovich," Moscow's literary world was a closed society. Solzhenitsyn was a provincial schoolteacher with no standing and few acquaintances in that community. But he knew Kopelev well -- after World War II they had served time together in a "sharashka," or special prison, where they worked on a top-secret project to try to perfect the art of identifying voices picked up by telephone taps. This effort is described in "The First Circle," another wonderful re-creation of the madness of the camps. The character called Lev Rubin in that novel is an eerily evocative portrait of Kopelev.

This shared history was not enough to sustain a friendly relationship. Solzhenitsyn wrote sharply critical letters to Kopelev, as he did to many of his onetime friends. In 1985, Kopelev replied, describing his sad realization that "our friendship was always one-sided." In fact, wrote Kopelev, a lovable bear of a man with boundless curiosity and enthusiasm, "You were friends with no one."

There was one exception, but only one: Solzhenitsyn's second wife and mother of his three sons, Natalia. She was a quarter-century younger than the author and remained totally dedicated and devoted to him until his death.

I met her the same day I met Solzhenitsyn, March 30, 1972. With my colleague Hedrick Smith of the New York Times, I confronted Solzhenitsyn's willfulness in my most memorable interview in 45 years at The Post.

From our predecessors as Moscow correspondents of The Post and Times, Smith and I had inherited a connection to Zhores Medvedev, a scientist and dissident who was one of those helpers Solzhenitsyn depended on. We met Medvedev once a month at a different street corner or park in Moscow, never speaking on the city's bugged telephones. Eventually, Medvedev told us that Solzhenitsyn wanted to give his first interview to Western correspondents. This was two years after the Swedish Academy had awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature, though the KGB had prevented him from actually receiving the prize. Solzhenitsyn now expected a revived propaganda campaign against him and hoped an interview would enable him to preempt the impact of such a campaign.

After elaborate preparations and with a high level of anxiety that the KGB might descend on us at any moment, we arrived at the apartment where the Solzhenitzyns lived in the center of Moscow. For the Moscow of that era, this was an unprecedented event, and we all knew it. Solzhenitsyn gave us a "transcript" that he had prepared: "Interview with The New York Times and Washington Post," he called it. He had written the answers, and the questions.

Over the next four hours, we jousted with the author. He wanted a promise that we would print every word in the transcript. We wanted a real interview, his answers to our questions. Natalia, who joined the conversation, seemed to realize that we could not speak for our editors by promising what would be printed, and she was sympathetic to our desire to actually ask her husband questions. Ultimately, he did answer a few, and we agreed to print a good portion of his prepared document, which did have real news value. Both papers splashed the interview on their front pages on April 3, about six weeks before Richard M. Nixon's first visit to Moscow.

Several years later I reviewed a memoir by Solzhenitsyn, "The Oak and the Calf," for an obscure magazine published in Dallas. By then Solzhenitsyn was in involuntary exile (he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974), living in Cavendish, Vt. My review was critical. I noted that the author mistold the story of the interview with me and Smith and had ungratefully ignored the risks Zhores Medvedev had taken by arranging it. Somehow, months later, Solzhenitsyn saw a copy of the review. It prompted an angry letter, breaking off "all relations" between us.

Living in this country confirmed Solzhenitsyn's worst fears about the West. He deplored the American way of life, and was not reluctant to say so. At Harvard in 1978, he gave a remarkable speech to the graduating seniors with a clear warning that Western civilization was in grave jeopardy. "The fight for our planet, physical and spiritual, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future," he said. "It has already started. . . . A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger." He criticized the reliance on law; he criticized the idea of freedom: "Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space" by Western civilization, he said.

Ironically, he produced three very American sons whose lives suggest they do not share his outlook. Yermolai and Stephan are both employees of the quintessentially American McKinsey & Co., a business consulting firm. Yermolai runs the firm's Moscow office. Ignat, the middle son, is a successful concert pianist. Even their mother, Natalia, became an American citizen.

But Solzhenitsyn's historic role was in Russia, and will be longest remembered there. He will be remembered for his great novels, the best of which capture one of the most horrific periods of Russia's grim history, and for his one monumental work of nonfiction, "The Gulag Archipelago." The title in English is a pale version of the sonorous Russian: "Arkipelag Gulag."

That book saved the stories of hundreds of zeks, prisoners in Stalin's camps, saved them so vividly that the world will never be able to forget them. In all likelihood his personal foibles will be forgotten with those who experienced them. Solzhenitsyn's talent as a writer and the greatness of his contribution will, and should, survive much longer.

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