RYAZAN, U.S.S.R. -- For the best part of two decades, this sleepy provincial town in the middle of the great Russian plain did all it could to obliterate the memory of its most famous son. This year, it finally rehabilitated him.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, chronicler of the gulag labor camps and prophet of the fall of communism, was made an honorary citizen of Ryazan a few weeks ago. A memorial plaque was attached to the side of the white clapboard house where he wrote many of his best-known works, like "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," "The First Circle" and "The Gulag Archipelago." There is even talk of naming a street after Solzhenitsyn.
Solzhenitsyn's return to civic favor in Ryazan has more or less coincided with his controversial reentry into the Soviet political dialogue, 16 years after he was forcibly deported for "actions incompatible with Soviet citizenship and harmful to the Soviet Union." In September, Soviet newspapers published a 16,000-word political tract by Solzhenitsyn that calls for the dismantling of the Soviet "empire" and the introduction of a quasi-monarchic guided democracy to replace the communist system.
Titled "How Are We to Organize Russia?," Solzhenitsyn's pamphlet has become the subject of heated debate throughout the Soviet Union. President Mikhail Gorbachev decided that it was so important that it warranted a direct response from the floor of the Soviet parliament. Although he praised Solzhenitsyn as an outstanding writer, he attacked his political views as reactionary. "He lives in the past," the Soviet leader declared.
The people of Ryazan are clearly enjoying the reflected glory of a man who was once routinely denounced by the Kremlin as a "traitor" and a "renegade." But they seem to be of two minds about his message. Here in the Russian heartland, the stock reaction to Solzhenitsyn's latest pronouncement from Cavendish, Vt., is that the author is undoubtedly a great patriot, but perhaps a little out of touch with recent developments.
"Solzhenitsyn predicted much of what has happened in the Soviet Union, but he has been away from us for a long time," said Valery Ryumin, Ryazan's recently elected mayor and a good representative of a new breed of radical politicians now coming to power in Russia. "Of course, he is right in many respects. If we cannot feed Russia, what purpose does all this imperial ballast serve? But Solzhenitsyn is telling us things we already know. We have now moved on."
"A lot has changed since Solzhenitsyn left Ryazan," said Viktor Sergeyev, a lecturer at the Ryazan agricultural institute, who now occupies the tiny three-room apartment on Uritskovo Street where Solzhenitsyn lived with his first wife, Natalya, from 1957 to 1969. "He writes as if nothing had changed, that the same old bureaucratic apparatus controlled everything."
Asked about the provocative opening sentence in Solzhenitsyn's essay -- "Communism has lived its final hour" -- Sergeyev winced. "Well, perhaps some of the expressions he uses are a little sharp, a little offensive. Perhaps it's too early to say this. In general, I would say, he is 70 percent right."
The 12 years that Solzhenitsyn spent in Ryazan were probably the most productive of his literary life. He had just been released from 11 years in Stalinist labor camps and was determined to expose the horrors of the gulag to the world. As his biographer, Michael Scammell, has noted, Solzhenitsyn arrived in Ryazan "unknown, unsung, an obscure provincial teacher." He left "in a blaze of publicity, world-famous, controversial, at the eye of the storm."
By all accounts, Solzhenitsyn kept to himself during most of his time in Ryazan. He used a part-time job as a physics teacher at a local high school as a cover for his writing. His neighbors observed him filling up notebook after notebook in the garden in his meticulous handwriting. But it was not until the publication of "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" in 1962 that they realized what obsessed him.
"He was a very cautious person, very secretive," recalled Tatyana Zharkievich, who lived directly upstairs from the Solzhenitsyns during most of their time in Ryazan. "Of course, we knew that he had been in the camps. Everybody did. But nobody asked him about it. That was not the kind of thing you talked about in those days."
Compared with the camps, Ryazan seemed like paradise to Solzhenitsyn. "I don't remember having such good living conditions in all my life," he said later, describing what to Western eyes is a ludicrously small communal apartment, shared with half a dozen other people, including two aunts and a mother-in-law.
After Nikita Khrushchev was deposed in 1964 in a Kremlin coup, Solzhenitsyn also fell into disfavor. Unable to publish his novels in the Soviet Union, he sent them abroad secretly, enraging the country's new leadership. In November 1969, he was unceremoniously thrown out of the Ryazan branch of the Soviet writers union, a move that presaged his official disgrace and eventual deportation from the Soviet Union.
In response to his expulsion from the writers union, Solzhenitsyn wrote an open letter calling for complete glasnost -- openness -- in Soviet life. Writing 16 years before Gorbachev made the word his political slogan, Solzhenitsyn described glasnost as "the first condition of health in any society, including our own... . He who does not wish this openness for his fatherland does not want to purify it of its diseases, but only to drive them inwards, there to fester."
None of the writers who took part in the kangaroo court at which Solzhenitsyn was accused of "anti-social behavior" still lives in Ryazan. Most are long since dead and forgotten. Their successors -- for the most part undistinguished literary apparatchiks -- seem unable to quite make up their minds over whether Solzhenitsyn deserves a public apology.
"Life has confirmed many of the things that Alexander Isayevich wrote about," said Vladimir Kolobov, a member of the union's governing board. "We must study his article. There are still many people here who consider him to be an enemy of the socialist order."
Portraits of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin and the revolutionary poet Sergei Yesenin adorn the walls of the shabby conference room where Solzhenitsyn was expelled. But there is still no picture of the only member of the Ryazan writers union ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.