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The Best Books About Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

recommended by Michael Nicholson

Russian literature specialist Michael Nicholson, Emeritus Fellow at University College, Oxford, talks us through the best books to learn more about the great Soviet dissident and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Interview by Anna Blundy

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You’ve chosen books for us about the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” Do you want to start by telling me about Michael Scammell’s biography?

This was the first biography of Solzhenitsyn (we’re now on about the fourth, I think) and it was written at a time in the 1970s when really not very much was known about him. Scammell had some access to Solzhenitsyn and was able to ask a few questions in interviews he did in the 1970s. He was one of the first to see some of Solzhenitsyn’s early works, but Solzhenitsyn got fed up of the questioning and relations cooled. Then when he saw the nature of the final book they cooled even further. It’s a Western-style biography by a liberal, cautious admirer who wanted to give a balanced view. Other later biographers largely piggy-backed off this one but then, in 2008, came this whopping great book by Saraskina.

The Lyudmila Saraskina biography of Solzhenitsyn is presumably not Western-style?

Not at all. The family gave her pretty much unlimited access and support and she opens with a chapter about the role of the biographer, making very clear that she is going to be a loyal chronicler of the life of someone she hugely admires. It’s a very pugnacious book, clearing the record. There has been a lot of bizarre nonsense said about Solzhenitsyn, not least in Russia, and she sets out to put the record straight. She finished within a few months of his death and has since updated the book to include the time right up to his death. It’s full of marvellous things that she got straight from the family.

What kind of thing?

Well, she refers to a document that Solzhenitsyn is known to have been working on with a friend and that incriminated him at the time of his arrest in 1945. Passionate Leninist that he was, he was critical, though not explicitly, of the Stalinist line and he proposed a new line. This is a document that Scammell and others have referred to, but the original was retrieved from his interrogation document during perestroika and it was sent to Solzhenitsyn in exile in Vermont by Gorbachev himself. So Saraskina was able to quote it at length in her book.

Next on your list of books about Solzhenitsyn is The Solzhenitsyn Files. This is the politburo stuff released from the archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

This is something of a curiosity. It was part of that rush of archival material that suddenly became available at the end of the Soviet period, and the Russian editors filtered through a mass of politburo stuff concerning Solzhenitsyn and produced this intriguing book. You see, back in the 1970s, whenever any foreign journalists asked about Solzhenitsyn and what was happening to him, the official Soviet line was: “Look, you admire him as a writer, but do you really think the Soviet leadership is going to waste its time agonizing over one writer? Do you really think Brezhnev/Andropov is actually sitting around talking about a novelist?” That approach worked pretty well in the West because nobody could imagine the US President holding a meeting about what to do about Updike.

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But then came these archives and you’ve got Andropov and other leaders, phone conversations and transcripts of meetings, and they all are sitting around talking about Solzhenitsyn and what to do about him. The archives cover some of the scurrilous fabrications that came out concerning him (books and articles purportedly by friends denouncing him and smearing his reputation both morally and otherwise) but there’s no reference, unfortunately, to the ticklish issue of his attempted assassination in the early 1970s.

Do we know that’s true?

Yes. One of the KGB officers responsible has been interviewed and has confirmed exactly what happened, so we do know for certain, yes.

This collection of material is an extraordinary demonstration of how much writers mattered in the Soviet Union. If you were a writer you sort of … mattered. Solzhenitsyn said that in the West a writer could go to the top of a mountain and flap his arms about like mad and nobody would take any notice, but in the Soviet Union if a writer stirred his hand in a certain way it sent shock waves through the viscous air.

Another interesting thing for me was that this reveals that the KGB knew about Gulag Archipelago in the mid-60s. He’d been writing it furtively while he was publicly writing Cancer Ward, and they bugged a conversation in which he told a friend he was secretly writing this book that would be a huge bombshell when it was published in the 1970s. The KGB couldn’t then have doubted that there was another, secret book that was not Cancer Ward, which was basically pretty innocuous. This was a good five or six years before they actually located a copy of Gulag Archipelago and before the brouhaha that culminated in his expulsion in the 1970s.

So the Soviets, allegedly, made Solzhenitsyn the menace he became. But here, in these archives, we can see that he clearly did have an agenda already that would rock the Soviet Union on its heels and the KGB knew about it. The KGB report and transcript were sent by Semichastny to the Central Committee back in 1965.

This material also details all the counterfeits that were brought out to damage Solzhenitsyn’s reputation. There is a sizeable black museum of these things. One is a document alleging that he was an informer at Ekibastuz labour camp. Everyone knew he’d been approached and asked to be an informer because he wrote about it in Gulag Archipelago, and here is a forged document in which he denounces fellow prisoners who are planning an escape. The dates are all wrong but it’s a good forgery. This material shows you the wonderful world of spy stuff.

Next on your list of books on Solzhenitsyn is a novel. Tell me about Operation Prophet by Robert Asprey.

This is my all-time favourite. This came out when the West, particularly America, was receiving Solzhenitsyn in the 1970s and there were various novels appearing that gave various versions of him. Operation Prophet came out in 1977 and it is a silly novel which I don’t recommend at all, with all due respect to Mr Asprey. It is a sub-James Bondian adventure, “a novel of suspense about a Nobel Prize-winning writer …” etc.

Anyway, the sleuth’s code name is Echo and his mission is to find out if Kubiatshev (Solzhenitsyn) is really Kubiatshev or if he’s an agent provocateur. Eventually, it turns out that the plane bringing the deported Kubiatshev to the West was diverted and Kubiatshev has been kidnapped and replaced with an actor lookalike. So, Kubiatshev arrives in the West and, instead of the mild-mannered liberal democrat Western liberal democrats expected, he is this ranting person who is fiercely anti-Soviet, and trying to undermine détente. It turns out he’s not funded by the relatively nice Soviets but by renegade KGB elements and neo-Nazis in a bid to nudge the world towards armed conflict. Echo, the sleuth, is an expert in Russian accents (he studied at Oxford so perhaps it was here that we taught him this skill) and so he spots that Kubiatshev’s accent is wrong in one of the recordings. The real Kubiatshev (Solzhenitsyn) then goes to this big rally, unmasks the imposter, ruins the neo-Nazi plot, and tells nice liberal America that he would never swoop down ranting like an omniscient messiah and that he is not like that at all.

It is glorious nonsense, but very typical of the liberal bewilderment that people experienced when Solzhenitsyn arrived. Most people didn’t know much about him and he was easily blurred into this kind of Prague Spring socialist, tailored subconsciously to liberal expectations of this nice guy who had suffered terribly. But suddenly there was the real Solzhenitsyn out there making strident anti-socialist speeches. So we have two choices. Either we say, well we didn’t really know him and should have read the books to get a proper impression of him. Or we say, is that really him? Nabokov actually believed it wasn’t him for a while. There was a real liberal reluctance to blend the two versions of Solzhenitsyn. So, this book, and the archival material, are really curios that show, in a kind of lopsided way, just how important politically Solzhenitsyn was.

The last of your books is Solzhenitsyn: Politics and Form by Francis Barker. Tell me about it. 

This is a book hostile to Solzhenitsyn, an unashamedly Marxist critique of him. It is an intelligent, book, though one I happen to disagree with, but that doesn’t matter. However, it’s a good example of the confusion that has been sown by the sequence of publication of Solzhenitsyn’s work in the West. He is often criticized for a progressive decline in standards from his debut with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich through to the supposedly later, longer, increasingly mystical, nationalistic works, Cancer Ward, The First Circle, The Red Wheel, and Gulag Archipelago. Whether or not one sees a decline from one published work to the next, this sequence bears little relation to the order in which he wrote his books or to the actual tensions and processes Solzhenitsyn underwent while writing in the camps and after them – and if I survive to finish the book I have started, it will be on Solzhenitsyn before Ivan Denisovich and will aim to correct some of those errors. Barker’s view is that Solzhenitsyn began with this lean, democratic and open short work, Ivan Denisovich, and went on to write books that became ever longer, more dogmatic, nationalistic, mystical, and irrelevant – that he became a worse and worse writer throughout his career. But, in fact, he made his first attempt to write Gulag Archipelago in 1958, before he had written a word of Ivan Denisovich.

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The sequence in which the works of an author are published often determines their reputation and that sequence was, in the West, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward and First Circle, then later the start of the vast epic August 1914 and then Gulag Archipelago. But Ivan Denisovich is not in any sense his first work. He wrote The First Circle years earlier and he was developing the concept and the characters of August 1914 way back in 1936, when he was still a student. Miraculously, some of the chapters he wrote then have even survived. In the early 60s, he was writing Cancer Ward openly and Gulag Archipelago furtively, at one and the same time, even going as far as shaving off his beard and going to an Estonian farmhouse to write without the authorities knowing.

So he was a mad, nationalistic mystic from the very beginning?

No. He was a gung-ho Pioneer, then Komsomolets, enraptured by Lenin and the Revolution, but precociously sceptical about Stalin. I mean, the first title for August 1914 was Love the Revolution! and he was not joking. It was to be his War and Peace, his paean to the Revolution. But his views were chipped at by war and by prison. In prison he was surrounded by people of all backgrounds and his ideas underwent a massive reappraisal. From then on he consciously tried to stop himself being strident, aggressive and goal-orientated, to teach himself patience and tolerance. He also starts to find his way back to the Christianity of his childhood. These tendencies and his growing interest and belief in a Russia different from the Soviet Union were already manifest in a huge verse epic, twice as long as Eugene Onegin, that he wrote in his head while he was in labour camp in the early 50s.

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Of course, he got older and more cantankerous as we all do, but the idea that there was this unspoilt young author of the spare, lean, undogmatic Ivan Denisovich, who later became encrusted with nationalism and other unsavoury-isms is not borne out by reality. The ingredients of everything that Barker doesn’t like were there during the gestation of Ivan Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn’s radical revolutionary nature became directed against the Soviet Union, but existed side by side with quietist, contemplative (even religious) moments when he dreamt of going off to lick his wounds and search for something true and genuine in the Russian heartland. At the same time he was transmuting his earlier narrative urge to write these huge things, long linear historical or autobiographical epics, or the grand impulse to write memorials to everyone who died in the camps – but there was also the increasing knowledge that he would do no good by shouting and flailing. Ivan Denisovich actually comes from a hugely difficult struggle to condense, to choke off the excesses of his own voice. So, he tries to see how far he can squeeze everything he needs to express about the camps into one ordinary day, to restrain himself stylistically, compositionally. Solzhenitsyn’s best writing comes out of that tension, not some early “good” writing and later “bad”.

The Barker book demonstrates the rather perverse limitations of thinking that Ivan Denisovich was his first work and confusing later publication with later development. The reality is immeasurably more interesting.

Interview by Anna Blundy

October 10, 2009

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Michael Nicholson

Michael Nicholson

Michael Nicholson is Emeritus Fellow of University College, Oxford, specialising in late 20th-century Russian literature and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Michael Nicholson

Michael Nicholson

Michael Nicholson is Emeritus Fellow of University College, Oxford, specialising in late 20th-century Russian literature and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.