Why the Kremlin Fears Solzhenitsyn: "A Great Writer Is a Second Government"

“Kill me quickly because I write the truth about Russian history,” said the author of The Gulag Archipelago to his government just before it arrested him. Russian leaders chose instead to send him into foreign exile. Here a reporter who spent many years in the Soviet Union and has written many books about its system and its leaders tells how Solzhenitsyn stands in a tradition of Russian writers who have felt they owed their country the “civic duty” of exposing and expressing what others could not. “The only audience which is really important to him is the Russian people,” writes Harrison Salisbury, and that the leadership knows well. “They are afraid of him,” according to one of Solzhenitsyn’s friends, “because when he speaks they hear the voice of the camps, they hear them, those ghosts, those millions, those tens of millions who left their bodies there. . . .”

THE Atlantic FOUNDED IN 1857

by Harrison E. Salisbury

A doomed diplomat (He does not yet know that he is doomed within days to vanish into Stalin’s concentration camps) is talking with his brother-in-law, a famous Soviet writer, at a family feast. Each has had a little too much to drink.

“After all,” says the diplomat, “the writer is a teacher of the people; surely that’s what we’ve always understood? And a great writer—forgive me, perhaps I shouldn’t say this, I’ll lower my voice—a great writer is, so to speak, a second government. That’s why no regime anywhere has ever loved its great writers, only its minor ones.”

The writer makes a noncommittal response. He does not know the diplomat well enough to speak frankly. The conversation breaks off and is not resumed.

This scene comes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle and no one reading it can fail to be struck by its appositeness, the clarity with which it describes not only the role of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his own country but his understanding of it.

Several years ago, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a Russian poet who has never concealed his admiration for Solzhenitsyn, said, “He is our only living Russian classic.” Anna Akhmatova, the late Russian poet who, many believe, spoke with the purest lyric voice of the twentieth century, told Solzhenitsyn that he was “our great Russian writer"; that he should forget poetry and let his prose speak for the Russian people. A fierce, painwracked Soviet émigré who reached this country only in recent weeks said the other day: “He is our great Russian saint.”And a mystical light came into his eyes as he spoke. “They are afraid of him.”a very modern Soviet writer once told me. “Why?” I asked. “Because when he speaks they hear the voice of the camps, they hear them, those ghosts, those millions, those tens of millions who left their bodies there. And they are afraid.” The “they" of whom he spoke were Russia’s rulers, the Politburo.

They are afraid. . . . They are more afraid today with the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, the story of those millions, of how they became ghosts, of the sadistic, senseless regime which indicted upon Russia a blow more cruel than that of any enemy—more cruel than Hitler and his ravaging armies; more cruel, indeed, than Napoleon and his legions; even more cruel than those Mongol hordes who sat upon Russia’s back for two hundred and fifty years.

All his life Solzhenitsyn seems to have been preparing himself for this time. As a schoolboy, the suspicions of an extraordinarily tenacious and penetrating intelligence had been aroused by a feeling of deep inquietude concerning his homeland. He was a very patriotic youngster. He believed in Russia. He was by no means antagonistic to Communism. His hero was Lenin. But his suspicion of Stalin and Stalin’s ways was fired by the purge trials, and even before that by those long-forgotten trials of Ramzin and the so-called engineer-wreckers, the Shakhty case, the trial of the Menshevik centertrials which are remembered now only by specialists in Soviet affairs and those few individuals somehow connected with the protagonists.

Solzhenitsyn, as he describes in Gulag Archipelago, felt within himself a mission to seek the truth and to right wrongs. He developed the same feeling about World War I and the terrible reversals suffered by the Russians, particularly those in East Prussia which he described in August 1914. He entered World War II as a still dedicated supporter of Lenin’s Communism and the Soviet state but with a deep and growing cynicism of Stalin’s leadership—a cynicism and skepticism which were heightened by the disasters suffered by the Soviet armies in the early months of the war, and by his own firsthand observation of the military errors which sent millions of Russians to their deaths in 1941 and 1942—a disaster comparable in scale only to what happened under the czarist regime in World War I.

But it was not until his sudden arrest at the East

It was in those years in the Gulag Archipelago (the Soviet labor camp system), the eight years he spent in prisons, transit prisons, the relative comfort of a sharashka (prisoners’ scientific laboratory) and then in a hard regime camp in eastern Kazhakstan, followed by more years of forced exile in Central Asia, that Solzhenitsyn’s sense of mission became fixed upon awakening the Russian people to the inhumanity which the Soviet regime had wrought.

Solzhenitsyn’s Archipelago was published first in Paris in Russian and French, and is about to be published here. Though suppressed in the Soviet Union, the volume circulated there in its underground version, inciting Soviet officials and periodicals to a fury of criticisms and condemnations. The Gulag Archipelago is a book that defies classification; it is not fiction, yet it is not conventional nonfiction. Solzhenitsyn calls it an “experiment in literary investigation.” He has taken the whole world of Soviet terror and police for his domain and this enables him to approach his subject with almost encyclopedic majesty. There is one section on arrests, for example, in which he recaptures not only his own feeling of naïve and primitive anger when he is suddenly seized at the headquarters of his unit at the front but analyzes the precise psychological effect of arrests on prisoners. The arrests were almost invariably carried out after midnight. The callous pawing-over of personal possessions, the deliberate mystification and sadistic commands of the searching and arresting units—all were calculated to disorient the newly captured prisoner and deprive him of the moral courage with which to sustain himself in the ensuing interrogation.

Solzhenitsyn draws heavily and unsparingly upon his own personal experience — his indignation that he, a Soviet officer, could be so treated; his concern even after arrest to preserve the privileges of officers’ rank: his inadequacy in standing up to the inquisition (he is more severe with himself than any of the slanderous accusations brought against him by the Soviet propaganda apparatus). Never, I think, has any writer conveyed with such poignancy the prison atmosphere as has Solzhenitsyn—differentiating among the classes of prisoners: the simple peasants, the Red Army men, the national minorities, the clever and bloodthirsty criminals who set upon the “politicals" like Solzhenitsyn and bit by bit robbed them of their clothing, their money, if any, and foodstuffs they received, thus inflicting upon these innocents the worst living conditions and the most arduous prison duties.

His pages are replete with glimpses into long baffling mysteries of Soviet history. He reports rumors that Stalin at the time of his death was planning to hang the Kremlin doctors (whom he accused of poisoning Soviet leaders) in Red Square before an audience of several hundred thousand Muscovites, then to launch a pogrom against the Moscow Jews, then to intervene a day or two later and graciously “save" the lives of Russia’s Jews by exiling them

all to Siberia. He suggests that Stalin was present behind a window screen during the famous purge trial of Bukharin and he fits together new and little-known bits of evidence to demonstrate how Stalin’s tactics of divide and conquer led the Old Bolsheviks to their doom.

Solzhenitsyn describes for the first time a prison called Sukhanovka, not far from the estate where Lenin died just outside Moscow in 1924. This prison, lodged in an old monastery, was the scene of such tortures that hardly a prisoner came out alive and those who did were usually mad. One survivor, Alexander Dolgun, a young American of Russian parentage, told his story to Solzhenitsyn. He was working in a minor clerical job in the U.S. Embassy on December 13, 1948, when he was suddenly arrested—literally kidnapped—on Gorky Street in broad daylight and whisked off to the Lubyanka. The secret police were preparing a false espionage case against the U.S. Embassy and had selected the young man as a “witness.” When he refused to tell the story they had manufactured, he was beaten and tortured almost to death. In 1956, Mr. Dolgun was able to return to the United States and he now works in an obscure government job in Washington.

Solzhenitsyn estimated that at least 500,000 political prisoners were executed in the 1937-1938 purges—possibly as many as 1.7 million. He fixed the population of the prison system at about 12 million with an intake as high as 3 million a year to maintain that average because of the terrible death rate.

What may not be immediately clear to Western readers is that Solzhenitsyn’s sense of purpose, his role as critic of his society, is not unique to him. Perhaps because Russia has never known a liberal or free-speaking epoch (if we except the cross-grained years between the 1905 revolution and that of 1917), her great writers have assumed the role of critics of Russian society and have automatically been considered enemies of the state.

This literary tradition may be said to have begun with Alexander Pushkin, who spoke up for the cause of the first modern Russian rebels, the socalled Decembrists, the young aristocratic military men who attempted a poorly articulated revolt in 1825. The Czar himself, Nicholas I, acted as Pushkin’s censor, playing a game of cat and mouse, sometimes suppressing him, sometimes publishing him, but never quite daring to imprison him. Dostoevsky was almost executed (he was led out to be shot and the Czar’s remission of sentence was read to him as he awaited execution). Turgenev was compelled to live most of his life abroad and many of his works were suppressed. Tolstoy was regularly censored and finally excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church. Gorky was arrested, censored, suppressed, and lived for long stretches in Capri.

All of these writers felt they owed to Russia the “civic duty” of exposing and expressing what others with lesser stature could not. Chekhov felt this duty of public conscience so keenly that, even though suffering from an advanced case of tuberculosis, he insisted on making a journey of thousands of miles to the fog-shrouded Sakhalin Islands to report on the condition of exiles there.

Almost every great writer in any country has been a social critic of his times. But nowhere has the writer acted more as the conscience of the people than he has in Russia. This tradition, so strongly rooted in czarist times, survived unbroken into the Bolshevik era despite every effort by Lenin and his successors to harness all Russian writers to the apparatus of the state or, failing that, to silence them by prison, execution, or suppression.

It is this tradition which gave Solzhenitsyn so strong a platform on which to stand in Russia. Regardless of what the government does or has done, regardless of what the Party propagandists say, regardless of the acts of intimidation and suppression, the people of Russia and particularly the intelligentsia are well aware that Solzhenitsyn is a figure in the mainstream of Russian history and culture.

And this, too, increases the fear in which the regime holds him.

Gulag Archipelago will be read outside of Russia as a kind of revelation of depravity—a compilation of horrors so senseless, brutal, banal, and counterproductive that the mind boggles. Why should any government deliberately ship millions of young men in their most productive years into concentration camps where they will waste away and die working at the lowest possible level of productivity rather than harness this pool of labor to the task of rebuilding a war-devastated country? The mind searches endlessly for any rational explanation. Why should a country just entering the most intensive period of industrial expansion deliberately uproot continents of populations, disrupt the very foundations of its agriculture and industry, in order to populate Arctic wastelands and Siberian taiga, where the people can neither support themselves nor make any meaningful contribution to the national social and economic tasks?

These are the questions which are raised by Solzhenitsyn for the foreign reader. But Solzhenitsyn is interested only peripherally in the reader outside Russia; the only audience which is really important to him is the Russian people. He has confidence in his people and their ability to command their fate once they understand the nature of their society. But he is under no illusions. He is aware of the resignation which possesses so many Russians. He is aware of the extent to which the regime has set Russian against Russian through fear, greed, envy, subtle (and not so subtle) distinctions of power and privilege. But like generations of Russian intelligentsia before him, he is confident in the power of pravda, the truth. This is a word which has a special meaning in Russian. It is not just the name of the Communist Party newspaper. It is the traditional term for truth which carries with it a connotation of faith—of the word.

This is what Solzhenitsyn is doing in The Gulag Archipelago. He is bringing to the Russian people the word, the genuine Russian word. He does not expect the system to melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West with one dousing of a pailful of water. Indeed, the volume now being published contains only the first and second parts of a gigantic seven-part work which Solzhenitsyn has sent abroad. It will appear in print section by section like a long and continuous bombardment of heavy artillery of the kind Solzhenitsyn directed as an artillery officer during the war.

There is much that is military in Solzhenitsyn. He shapes his strategy years in advance. He said of August 1914 that the plan for this work took form in his mind in the late 1930s when he was still a college student. Perhaps it had its birth even earlier, for he has noted with a kind of mystical wonder that East Prussia was the scene of his father’s first military service under the Czar and he himself was sent to the identical region in World War II.

In accepting his Nobel prize for literature he declared that he began to compose his Nobel lecture while he was still living as a Zek (prison camp inmate) in the Soviet prison land about which he would write his classic works. From his very first days in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow in 1945 he began to collect the stories of other prisoners. At first he tried to jot down minuscule notes. Later he came to realize that he had an extraordinary memory, capable of almost total recall, and he memorized thousands of details of prison life, always confident that the day would come when he would emerge from the Archipelago and launch himself upon his main task in life—the reconstruction in words of that inner circle of hell.

With an iron wall he did just that. The moment he was able (in exile) to write, he began to jot down what he had committed to memory. But he did not halt at this. From the beginning (and the process was remarkably accelerated after the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) he collected additional information and delved into the archives to learn the origin of the prison system. There he found the evidence to support his hypothesis that it was Lenin who laid the groundwork for the whole structure of arrest, imprisonment, execution, and terror which grew up with the Bolshevik years.

Solzhenitsyn was remorseless with himself. He disciplined himself as he had been disciplined in the army. His writing came first. Nothing was permitted to interfere with it. He had given a pledge to the tens of millions of Soviet terror victims. Nothing would swerve him from fulfillment of that pledge.

Yet, Solzhenitsyn is a human being, a man who has survived incredible hardships and endless perils. The cost of all this has been great. He was married a year or so before being called up for military duty in World War II. He went straight from the East Prussian front into the camp system. In consequence he had only a few months of married life. While he was in prison his wife divorced him. When he emerged, she eventually divorced her second husband and remarried Solzhenitsyn in 1956. But it was too late for children. Small wonder that Solzhenitsyn fell in love with his present wife or that he takes enormous pride and fatherly satisfaction in his three young sons, Yermolai, Ignat, and Stepan. It is no accident that the three boys have been given deeply traditional Russian names. The Russianness of Solzhenitsyn seems to have deepened with the years. He was, like so many of his countrymen even in the Soviet era, baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church as a child, but years passed without his giving the church any heed. Possibly influenced by the moral courage and purity of those believers whom he encountered in the concentration camps, Solzhenitsyn has become an active member of the Orthodox faith. His boys have been baptized in church and he himself has addressed an appeal to the Patriarch of All the Russias, Pimen, calling upon him to rise in defense of the holy faith in the face of the relentless and continuing Communist persecution.

Solzhenitsyn has not shrunk from the most prickly questions in Gulag Archipelago. He has met head on the issue of those Russian soldiers and officers who joined in various formations, of which the Vlasovites were the most notable, to oppose their own comrades in World War II. He has called on his countrymen to think again before making judgment upon them, noting that never in history have so many young army men switched sides to take up arms against their own formations. They were not, he is confident, enemies of Russia; they were enemies of the system which had fastened itself like a cancer upon their own country. Nor has he hesitated to take up the defense of young Red Army prisoners who agreed to carry out espionage and sabotage missions for the Germans. He is confident that the motivation in almost every case was survival and that they firmly intended to return to their own units the moment they got back within Russian lines.

Why did young Russians behave thus? His answer is that it was not they who deserted the Motherland but the Motherland that “sold them to the gypsies.” They had been betrayed by Stalin and his leadership. The true criminals were in the Kremlin, not the straggling, frightened, half-starved youngsters who made up the cannon fodder at the front.

Only a man with the firmest confidence in the truth could tell the Russians these harsh facts, knowing that the present regime would use them to blacken his reputation and make it seem that he is a traitor rather than a Russian patriot.

Solzhenitsyn did not shrink from this test of wills. He did not, however, in all probability intend to publish Gulag Archipelago just now. It was completed four or five years ago but put aside for what he might consider the most appropriate moment of publication. He was not eager to publish such explosive material when it might jeopardize the lives of the more than two hundred persons who had aided him in compiling his basic data. Moreover, with a new young family he may very well have felt that it was better to defer such a test of wills. After all, it was conceivable (if not likely) that the government policy would moderate.

But this was not to be. When the secret police seized two parts of his manuscript (parts three and four) which had been in the hands of a Leningrad woman (who hanged herself after the police had forced her to reveal the hiding place of the manuscript), Solzhenitsyn like a good tactician felt he must choose his own time and place of battle. Otherwise, the police would use the manuscript for purposes of blackmail and slander and might even themselves attempt to hawk it to Western publishers (as on other occasions), possibly in tampered form.

So Solzhenitsyn gave the order for The Gulag Archipelago to be published. Typically, he arranged for first and prior publication of the Russian text. This was not only to establish copyright. It was also because it is Russian readers whom Solzhenitsyn wants. And regardless of police repressions, regardless of the fact that arrest faces anyone in Russia caught with the manuscript or book in his hands, Gulag Archipelago is already circulating widely within the Soviet Union.

To make this decision, Solzhenitsyn had to confront the possible steps which the government could take against him: imprisonment, or expulsion from the country. He had to be willing to face reprisals against his young wife and his boys. Not an easy decision. But his life has never been one of easy decisions, and his duty to his country, to the lost millions of the Archipelago, came first.

So he made his decision, and the Kremlin made its: expulsion. The Russian leaders probably calculated that by expelling Solzhenitsyn and permitting his wife and sons to join him they could thereby vitiate the worldwide sense of outrage directed at them.

The case is not that easily resolved. From whatever country in which he chooses to live, Solzhenitsyn almost certainly will press the confrontation home. On the one hand stands a powerful authoritarian state with all the apparatus of the police and terror behind it. It is defended by phalanxes of propagandists and a praetorian guard of Party agitators that can, on signal, carry out any order — bury a name in slander, arouse “indignant citizens,” smear the papers with headlines, rally even respectable writers and scientists to sign denunciations.

Against the powerful state stands a single man, a bearded fifty-six-year-old writer who survived eight years of prison camps, three years of exile, more than four years at the front in World War II, a serious cancer illness, and more years of isolation and neglect. The odds against Solzhenitsyn seem tremendous. Yet I know of no Russian writer who would not trade his soul for Solzhenitsyn’s mantle, who does not know that one hundred years from now all the world (including the Russian world) will bow to his name when most others have been forgotten.

And the Russian people—what will be their verdict? At the end of Boris Godunov, Pushkin’s great poem, the boyars who have murdered Godunov’s son cry out to the people to cheer the new Czar, the false Dmitri. But in Pushkin’s words: “The people are silent.” The Russian people are still silent but it is not a silence which bodes well for the Kremlin. Rather it is the silence of those who are slowly making up their minds as to where the pravda, the truth, really lies. This is a long, slow process in Russia. So it has always been. But I think the fear within the Russian leadership at Solzhenitsyn’s voice is justified. He speaks not alone but with the voice of those tens of millions who perished in the Gulag Archipelago. He will be heard. □