Desperately Seeking Solzhenitsyn

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a former AP foreign correspondent and McGraw-Hill veteran of 17 years. He now writes for the International Herald-Tribune, American Spectator, thecolumnists.com, the Washington Times and a couple of specialized classical music outlets. 01.01.2014

When Nobel Prizewinning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn died five years ago, I experienced several days of flashbacks to the surrealistic times of Soviet power. I had been a correspondent in Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s and my most vivid memory was encountering the great writer face to face. He wasn’t particularly happy to see me.

Solzhenitsyn was tailed and harassed by the KGB for most of his life, and had made a dangerous game of dodging the authorities. Two of his early novels, The First Circle and The Cancer Ward, had been smuggled out of the country by trusted foreign contacts and published abroad to great acclaim. He would later go on to expose the Soviet labor camp system in his classic Gulag Archipelago, a work that reverberates to this day.

But he considered any interaction with the free-wheeling Western media to be risky, and he was right.

Of course every correspondent in Moscow wanted to be the first to find him after he won the Nobel in 1970. I was a young reporter and I intended to be the one to smoke him out. I was unconcerned about the consequences this publicity might have for him.

My search began with Lev Kopelev, a writer who was at a friendly stage in their up-and-down relationship. They had been fellow zeks (colloquial form of “ZK”, short for zaklyuchonny, or “locked up”), labor camp inmates, in the 1940s and 1950s. In the evenings, they argued ideology with such spirit that Solzhenitsyn based the character Rubin, in The Cancer Ward, on Kopelev. (Later in life, both living abroad, they sadly had a falling out and they died without making peace.)

I got to Lev through his wife Raisa Orlova, who had asked me to obtain a copy of an American book she wanted to translate into Russian, a biography of Martin Luther King Jr., who had recently been assassinated.

Lev was a burly, bearded, bear of a man and former Bolshevik activist who could never quite make the break with his Marxist past. At this stage in life he was no KGB informer but his sympathies were ambiguous. Solzhenitsyn, I later learned, did not totally trust 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, inviting my wife and me to their small, gloomy home for tea and a get-acquainted meeting. Raisa wanted something from me and I wanted something from Lev. Raisa spoke good English and worked as a translator. Lev was also a competent linguist but German was his main foreign language. His English came out in short, prepared bursts in a loud basso. We spoke Russian together.

My presence made him nervous but he tolerated our visit with good humor. 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 been able to find. We all knew that Solzhenitsyn was a leading candidate for the Nobel and that the award would be sensational news if it came to pass. While the award would help certify him as a major writer, it was also certain to lead to more trouble for him. Boris Pasternak had been down this path in 1958. Pasternak’s big novel,Doctor Zhivago, had also been a foreign sensation but was banned in the Soviet Union. The Nobel honor infuriated then-premier Nikita Khrushchev, who threatened Pasternak with expulsion from the country and withdrawal of his Soviet citizenship. In the end, Pasternak chose to remain in the Russia he loved so much, but without the prize.

At the Kopelev apartment, between sips of tea and informal chitchat, I made my request as politely as I could, explaining that the world would be waiting to hear from the great man, and promising to communicate his sentiments worldwide on the AP wires. Kopelev refused to budge. “Solzhenitsyn needs and deserves his privacy,” he said, with some justification. But he did agree to be the intermediary for carrying the news to Solzhenitsyn if he won. This seemed a fair deal, given the risks.

Access to the AP teleprinter in my office meant that I would have the news the moment it was announced. If the news was good, I agreed that I would 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, bells ringing, 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 phone but I was still none the wiser as to his whereabouts.

The award of the prize would change many lives in Russia and abroad, and would further show up the regime of Leonid Brezhnev as fearful of dissent, free thinking and the power of the written word.

With no further help from Lev, I set about contacting Russian acquaintances who might have an inkling of Solzhenitsyn’s whereabouts. He was known to have spent many years in Ryazan, a few miles south of Moscow, but recently had lived with various friends in and around the capital. He could have been almost anywhere. Moscow was then a city of 6 million.

I tried to be smart about this search. I invited Chicago Tribune correspondent Frank Starr to join me the next morning and we set off for Peredelkino, the town with a name that always reminds me of the sound of Russian church bells. Peredelkino was an 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 friend who lived there. But most of the larger properties in the village were controlled by the Writers’ Union, the organization that protected well-behaved writers, those who practiced some form of state-mandated Socialist Realism.

There was no response 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. Nobody was willing to admit knowing anything. Eventually we found ourselves walking through Pasternak’s gate and up the steps of his big, wooden house. I rapped on the door. Pasternak had long since died, but the house will always be known as his residence. It is now a Pasternak museum.

Stanislav Neuhaus came to the door and was most pleasant, a rare treat for uninvited foreigners. He ushered us in and we chatted for half an hour. Stanislav 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, he said, but he talked a bit about Pasternak, and we were happy to listen. Living there was like inhabiting a holy place, Neuhaus said. This was the house where Pasternak had written his best works but he also cowered in fear of the night-time stomp of police boots and a knock at the door to take him away to be shot, as had happened to so many of his writer and artist friends.

Nobody knows quite why Stalin left Pasternak alone, Neuhaus said. He was allowed to write his poetry and even Doctor Zhivago in relative freedom but with few exceptions was not authorized to publish.

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

The next day, still burning with desire to find Solzhenitsyn, I followed up some new speculation confided to me by a cellist acquaintance, Natalya Gutman, a protégée of the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. She told me she had heard that Solzhenitsyn was spending a lot of time at Rostropovich’s dacha in Zhukovka, a cluster of comfortable homes where some of the scientific and artistic elite lived, about 30 minutes from Moscow. “He and might be there now,” she said.

This was what hungry journalists would call a hot tip. On Day 2 of the search an Italian colleague, Pietro Sormani of Corriere della Sera, and a Swiss journalist, Roger Bernheim of Neue Zurcher Zeitung, joined me in the hunt. We drove straight through the icy fog to Zhukovka early in the morning, ignoring the 30-mile restriction of foreigners’ travel that was in force at the time. The police did not bother us.

We quickly found our way to Dmitri Shostakovich’s house, the first landmark Ms. Gutman had indicated, and there we were flagged down by a short, stout policewoman. Bluffing our way through her questions, we asked outright where Rostropovich’s dacha was. Surprisingly, she gave us directions in the most clear and courteous manner. We had been prepared for a worst-case outcome – a reprimand or possible arrest for running around loose in a state-run complex without authorization.

We followed the rambling pathways and eventually came upon the 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 and knees knocking from the chill and the excitement. It was mid-winter under the usual leaden skies.

I could see off to the side of the property a handsome concert hall under construction. Work had been suspended till spring. Clean, sharp-edged bricks were scattered around the site. Such high-quality materials were rare in Russia and we recognized these as probable German imports. Only elite properties could expect clearance for such materials.
A lone birch tree, covered in frost, was struggling to survive on the front lawn. Nothing stirred.

I knocked at the door, expecting Rostropovich or his wife Galina Vishnevskaya, the operatic diva, to appear. A 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 to see Rostropovich, and she replied matter-of-factly, “Khozyain za rubezhom.” (“The master is abroad.”)

I then inquired whether Alexander Solzhenitsyn was living there. “I have never heard the name,” she said, “but there’s a man with a beard living in the garage over there,” pointing to the outbuilding across the property. Hmmm, we thought. A beard. Could it be him?

We thanked the maid and set out across the snow-covered lawn to the garage. More imported building materials and a cement mixer littered 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 reddish hair that spread down his face into a bushy beard. He gave us the once over with his beady blue eyes. We recognized him immediately from photographs as the author of a series of literary masterpieces, all banned in Russia. When he was satisfied in his own mind that we were not KGB operatives in disguise, 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 Nobel (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 quarters because he was a guest himself in the apartment owned by Rostropovich. It seemed like a poor excuse to turn us away but we understood the real reason.

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 an outspoken critic of the regime — was not lost upon us. Both of these men were heroic figures willing to risk their liberty, perhaps their lives, to speak out for human rights in Russia. Since 1966, when a show trial sentenced two writers to hard labor in the gulag, most Soviet intellectuals had kept their liberal views to themselves.

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, he seemed 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 the prize 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. He was talking in circles.

I told him we fully understood, and did not intend to bother him further, and with that we wished him the best of luck and departed.

As we made our way back to my car, I stopped to take a photo of the garage with the trembling birch tree, a fitting symbol for the events we were witnessing, in the foreground. It was published internationally along with the story confirming that Solzhenitsyn had not yet been bothered by the authorities and was sheltered by his friend Rostropovich. I threw in a couple of quotes, hoping the reader would grasp how restrained Solzhenitsyn was acting, and why.

Indeed, the consequences for harboring Solzhenitsyn were terrible for the cellist and his wife. Both were eventually forbidden to travel abroad, and Rostropovich was even blocked from performing in public at home. He recalled later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 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 autobiographyGalina of their friendship with Solzhenitsyn and their commitment to supporting him.

Solzhenitsyn accepted the Nobel award via the Norwegians but was refused access to the Swedish embassy in Moscow. Ambassador Gunnar Jarring, known for his extreme timidity, declined to offer his support despite his own Academy granting the award. Solzhenitsyn would eventually learn to live with the West’s contradictions. Later he would be refused an audience with U.S. President Gerald Ford, who also feared poking a stick at the Russian bear.

In three years that followed, under scrutiny from the police, Solzhenitsyn continued his prolific literary output, and, lacking permission to publish at home, spirited his work to foreign countries. In his 1977 book Invisible Allies he 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 instance, hiding pages of typescript in their shoes.

He later decided to go public by meeting foreign correspondents. He granted a joint interview to Robert Kaiser of The Washington Post and Hedrick Smith of The New York Times. He later recalled that their questions, such as “Do you know (the sometimes-liberal poet) Yevtushenko?” were of “surpassing triviality.”

Many other avenues were explored successfully, including diplomatic channels. The U.S. embassy had also kept its distance from Solzhenitsyn while trying to negotiate what we used to call “détente”. But when a friendly Soviet intermediary handed the American military attaché a full manuscript of a new Solzhenitsyn book, the attaché asked for a top-level meeting in the embassy’s tank, the one secure room that was regularly swept for KGB listening devices. The attaché recalled for me recently how he argued for an official okay to stuff the manuscript in with his furniture he was then packing for his imminent return to Washington. “The ambassador stopped me right there,” the attaché said. “‘Just don’t tell me about it.’” The manuscript was secreted in the container and a few weeks later crossed the border safely.

The shipment was delayed for two months in transit, however, leading to great personal anxiety on the attaché’s part. “Was I going down in history as the man who lost Solzhenitsyn’s next book?” he remembers worrying. Finally it did arrive, though, and the manuscript was quickly extricated and forwarded to Solzhenitsyn’s New York publishing contact. Exactly what was in the package remains a mystery but several months later the three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s historic study of the gulag network of Soviet labor began to appear.

Some time later I attended a Rostropovich concert in Moscow and happened to sit a few rows behind Lev Kopelev. At the end of the concert I approached him and extended my hand. He abruptly turned away, probably concerned that KGB eyes were upon him. Familiarity with a Western correspondent in public could only complicate his life.

Within a couple of years, both Solzhenitsyn and Rostropovich were 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, and continued writing his great Red Wheel cycle on the origins of the Soviet Union.

They both returned to Moscow after the breakup of the USSR in the 1990s, Solzhenitsyn continuing his prolific output and Rostropovich making music again, almost as if nothing had happened.


Posted first on the Open Letters Monthly, posted here with the authors and the Open Letters' kind permission.

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