Reporting the News from a Police State - Chapter 17: Desperately Seeking Solzhenitsyn

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He is now based in Bordeaux, France, where he writes for the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine. In 1990 he was appointed chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique where he worked as Editorial Director for two years. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press.

He is the author of four books and recently edited “24/7 Innovation” for an Accenture consultant and “Nokia: The Inside Story”, written by historian Martti Haikio, for the Nokia Corporation.

A fluent French speaker, he also speaks Russian.
16.05.2008

Every journalist in Moscow wanted to be the first to find Alexander Solzhenitsyn after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. I intended to be that journalist and I was unconcerned about the consequences this publicity might have for him.

I began my search with Lev Kopelev, a writer who was at a friendly stage in his up-and-down relationship with Solzhenitsyn. They had been fellow zeks (colloquial form of "ZK", short for zaklyuchonny, or "prisoner"), labor camp inmates, in the 1940s and 1950s. They argued ideology with such fervor that Solzhenitsyn portrayed Kopelev in his novels as his intellectual equal. Later in life, both living broad, they sadly had a final falling out. Lev died without making peace with Solzhenitsyn.

I got to Lev through his wife Raisa Orlova who had asked me to obtain a copy of a book she wanted to translate into Russian. Lev was a burly, bearded, bear of a man who could never quite make the break with his Marxist past. He was no KGB informer but his sympathies were ambiguous. Solzhenitsyn, I later learned, never totally trusted him. As Solzhenitsyn put it in a memoir, quoting an old Russian proverb, "Even fire cannot clean a barrel that once held tar."

But Lev and his wife Raisa were warm and welcoming to me, inviting me to their small, gloomy home for tea for a get-acquainted meeting. Raisa wanted something from me and I wanted something from Lev. Raisa spoke good English. Lev was also a competent linguist but German was his main foreign language. His English came out as a loud basso in short, prepared bursts. We spoke Russian together.

My presence made him nervous but he made the best of my visit. As tea was served, I mentally rehearsed the main item on my agenda: to obtain Solzhenitsyn's telephone number, or at least his address, neither of which any foreign journalist had yet found. We all knew that Solzhenitsyn was a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature and that the award would be a front-page story if it came to pass. While the Nobel Prize would help establish Solzhenitsyn as a major writer, it was sure to lead to trouble for him.

Between sips of tea, I made my request, only to be sharply refused. "Solzhenitsyn needs and deserves his privacy," Lev said, with some justification. But he did agree to be the intermediary for carrying the news to Solzhenitsyn if he won.

My access to the AP teleprinter meant that I would have the news the moment it was announced. I agreed to ring Lev, and he would ring Solzhenitsyn. I would get nothing from the arrangement other than the satisfaction of being the messenger.

A week later, I was on duty at the AP when the teleprinter came alive with a one-paragraph bulletin from our Stockholm office quoting the Swedish Academy as awarding the Prize to Solzhenitsyn. I let out an involuntary whoop. Before the paragraph had finished printing I was on the phone to Lev, who received the news with an even greater whoop. He immediately relayed the news to Solzhenitsyn by calling the Rostropovich number and asking the housemaid to summon the man living in the garage apartment.

The award of the Prize would change many lives in Russia and abroad, and would further show up the Brezhnev regime as insecure and vindictive.

With no further help from Lev, I set about contacting Russian acquaintances who might have had an inkling of Solzhenitsyn's precise whereabouts. He was known to have spent many years in Ryazan, but recently had lived with various friends in and around Moscow. I invited Chicago Tribune correspondent Frank Starr to join me and we set off for Peredelkino, the town with a name that always reminds me of the sound of Russian church bells. Peredelkino was the obvious place to look - it is the writers' community 30 miles outside of Moscow. We knew that he had been sheltered from time to time by Lydia Chukovskaya, a writer who also lived there. Most of the larger properties in the village were controlled by the Writers' Union, the organization that protected well-behaved writers.

There was no response to our knock at the Chukovskaya front door and so at random, we tramped through the mud and knocked on other doors around the village, including the Writers' Union office. Eventually we found ourselves walking through Boris Pasternak's gate and up the steps of the big, wooden house and rapped on the door. (Boris Pasternak had long since died, but the house will always known as be his residence. It is now a Pasternak museum.) A man named Stanislav Neuhaus came to the door and was most pleasant - unusual for encounters with foreign strangers. He invited us in and we chatted for a half hour. He was the son of Heinrich Neuhaus, the late Russian pianist and teacher. Neuhaus junior, who was Pasternak's stepson, had been practicing for a recital he was scheduled to give that evening in Moscow.

He didn't know where Solzhenitsyn was camping out but he talked a bit about Pasternak. Living there was like inhabiting a holy place, Neuhaus said. This was the house where Pasternak had cowered in fear of the stomp of police boots and a knock at the door to take him away to be imprisoned or shot, as had happened to so many of his writer and artist friends. Nobody knows quite why Stalin left Pasternak alone. He was allowed to write in relative freedom but was not authorized to publish most of his output in his homeland.

After an interesting but unsuccessful day, Starr and I returned to our flats in Moscow.

The next day I followed up a new tip from a cellist friend, Natalya Gutman, a Rostropovich protegée. She had heard that Solzhenitsyn was spending a lot of time at Rostropovich's dacha in Zhukovka, a cluster of country homes where some of the scientific and artistic elite lived, about 30 minutes from Moscow.

An Italian journalist, Pietro Sormani of Corriere della Sera, and a Swiss, Roger Bernheim of Neue Zurcher Zeitung, joined me for this second day of the hunt. We drove straight to Zhukovka early in the morning.

We quickly found our way to Shostakovich's house, the first landmark Miss Gutman had indicated, and there asked a policewoman where Rostropovich's dacha was. Surprisingly, she gave us directions in the most clear and courteous manner. (We thought we might be arrested for being at large in the complex without permission.) We followed the pathways and soon came upon the great cellist's dacha. It reminded me of the big wooden farm houses in Indiana where I grew up.

We cautiously climbed the steps, snow squeaking underfoot, our teeth chattering from the chill and the excitement. It was mid-winter, bitterly cold and overcast with leaden skies. I could see off to the side of the property a brick concert hall under construction. Work had been suspended for the winter. Clean, sharp-edged bricks were scattered around the site. Such high-quality materials are rare in Russia. These were obviously German imports.

A lone birch tree was struggling to survive on the front lawn. Nothing stirred.

I knocked at the door, expecting Rostropovich or his wife Galina Vishnevskaya, the soprano, to appear. The housemaid answered the door promptly. She was a heavy woman in her 50s, missing most of her teeth, a scarf over her hair and an apron over her sweater and woolen skirt. She looked like she needed a bath and she spoke in a heavy provincial accent. I asked for Gospodin Rostropovich, and she replied matter-of-factly, "Khozyain za rubezhom." ("The boss is abroad.")

I then asked if a Gospodin Solzhenitsyn was living there. "Never heard of him," she said, "but there's a man with a beard living in the garage over there," pointing to the outbuilding across the property. Hmmm, I thought. A beard. It could be him.

We thanked the maid and set out across the snow-covered lawn to the garage. Imported building materials were also scattered around the driveway. I approached the door and knocked a few times. When no one responded, I called out "Alexander Isayevich?". A pause of a few seconds ensued, then came a piercing voice, none too inviting, "Kto eto?" ("Who's there?") I replied that we were foreign journalists from Moscow who had come to congratulate him on his Nobel Prize.

The door burst open and we were transfixed by this little man with a magnificent head of unkempt reddish hair that spread down his face into a bushy beard, ending at chest level. He gave us the once-over with his beady blue eyes. We recognized him immediately -- the author of a series of masterpieces: "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", "Cancer Ward", "The First Circle", all banned in Russia. When he was satisfied in his own mind that we were not KGB, he confirmed his identity.

Solzhenitsyn spoke rapidly, like a man with a lot on his mind, in a strange, high-pitched voice. I started by asking him for his reaction to being selected for the Prize (probably some inane question such as "How does it feel?"). He avoided the question, perhaps dreading headlines around the world that might make his situation even more difficult.

He replied that he regretted he could not invite us into his humble room because he himself was a guest in the apartment owned by Rostropovich. We could see inside that he was housed in a partially completed apartment being constructed inside the garage. The danger that this represented for Rostropovich -- harboring Solzhenitsyn -- was not lost upon us. Both of these men were heroic figures willing to risk their liberty, perhaps their lives, to oppose the Soviet regime.

The conversation that followed was brief and to the point. Solzhenitsyn confirmed that he knew about the Prize but felt he could not comment on it because his host was away. Although he had by then considerable experience with the West and the Western press, he was doubtful about our motives and probably wondered about our common sense. He was obviously not prepared for our questions. He said he had made no decision about whether to accept it or to do as Pasternak had done, reject it. And he repeated how much he regretted that we could not be invited in for tea. I told him we fully understood, and did not intend to bother him any further, and that we wished him the best of luck.

As we made our way back to my car, I stopped to take a picture of the garage with the trembling birch tree in the foreground. It was published all over the world along with my story confirming that Solzhenitsyn had not yet been bothered by the authorities and was sheltered by his friend Rostropovich.

The consequences for harboring Solzhenitsyn were terrible for the cellist and his wife. Both were henceforth forbidden to travel abroad, and eventually Rostropovich was blocked from performing in public at home. He recalled later stopping in a doorway in central Moscow and bursting into tears as he realized what the regime was doing to him. His wife writes movingly in her autobiography of their friendship with Solzhenitsyn and their commitment to supporting him.

Solzhenitsyn continued his prolific literary output, and, lacking permission to publish at home, spirited his work to foreign countries. He later praised Jim Peipert, Steve Broening and Roger Leddington, my colleagues and successors in the AP office, for helping him move his archives abroad, using small bundles or in one case hiding materials in their shoes.

Within a couple of years, both Solzhenitsyn and Rostropovich had been expelled from the country and deprived of their Soviet citizenship. The Kremlin's hope was that they would be lost in a sea of chaotic free expression in London, Paris or New York, never to surface again.

Instead, both went to the United States where they were welcomed as the great men they were. Rostropovich became conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington and Solzhenitsyn built himself a splendid house in the state of Vermont - the closest climate he could find to Russia's. They both returned to Moscow after the change of regime there, Solzhenitsyn continuing his prolific output and Rostropovich back to making music.

Neither man had dared dream that rehabilitation would be possible in his lifetime.

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