May 16th 2008

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

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

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.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jan 12th 2022
EXTRACTS: "While at the time of writing, the outcome of Djokovic’s visa troubles was uncertain, the double standard of rules raises a much bigger question about the philosophy of law: can the application of a rule be so unfair that we have no valid reason to follow it?" ------ "......a rule that doesn’t treat like cases alike can’t be a law at all. This is because a key requirement of a legal system is that it needs to be stable, which means that people need to know what the law is and when it applies. If a rule doesn’t treat everyone equally, then it does the opposite and increases doubt and uncertainty about what the law even is. And if enough rules exist that create uncertainty about what the law is and when it applies, the system will collapse. A rule that undermines a legal system in this way can’t really be law at all, and legal officials shouldn’t create or uphold them."
Jan 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "Novak Djokovic, the world’s top-ranking tennis player, has just been granted a medical exemption to take part in the Australian Open. Djokovic, who has won the event nine times (one more victory would give him a record-breaking 21 major titles), refused to show proof of vaccination, which is required to enter Australia. “I will not reveal my status whether I have been vaccinated or not,” he told Blic, a Serbian daily, calling it “a private matter and an inappropriate inquiry.” The family of Dale Weeks, who died last month at the age of 78, would disagree. Weeks was a patient at a small hospital in rural Iowa, being treated for sepsis. The hospital sought to transfer him to a larger hospital where he could have surgery, but a surge in COVID-19 patients, almost all of them unvaccinated, meant that there were no spare beds. It took 15 days for Weeks to obtain a transfer, and by then, it was too late."
Jan 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "The protests that erupted across Kazakhstan on January 2 quickly turned into riots in all of the country’s major cities. What do the protesters want, and what will be the outcome of the country’s most severe civil unrest since independence in 1991? "
Jan 7th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....one wonders how Chinese President Xi Jinping views Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan, which shares a nearly 1,800-kilometer (1,120-mile) border with China, especially in light of Putin’s earlier comments diminishing the history of Kazakhstan’s independent statehood. (He has shown similar contempt for the independence of Belarus, the Baltic states, and Ukraine.)"
Jan 7th 2022
EXTRACT: "The problem with history as propaganda is not that it makes people feel good or bad, but that it creates perpetual enemies – and thus the perpetual risk of wars."
Jan 5th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....a scenario in which Trump (or one of his allies) is designated president by the House of Representatives after the 2024 election probably belongs in the realm of political-thriller fiction.  Now consider the unlikely event that Trump were nominated and won a clear Electoral College or popular-vote majority in 2024. Rather than establish the white-nationalist dictatorship of progressive nightmares, an elderly second-term Trump would most likely be an even more ineffectual figurehead in a party dominated by conventional Republicans than he was in his first four years. If Italian democracy could survive three terms of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister, American democracy can survive two terms of Trump. None of this is to suggest that American democracy is not under threat. Populist demagogues like Trump are symptoms of a disease in the body politic. The real threat to American democracy is the disconnect between what the bipartisan US political establishment promises and what it delivers. This problem predates Trump by decades and helps to explain his rise. "
Jan 4th 2022
EXTRACT: "This month, the world’s major central banks shifted gears and announced plans to tighten monetary policy. But there was one notable exception: the European Central Bank, which says it does not intend to raise interest rates in 2022, even though it is well aware of today’s inflation risks." ----- "Does this mean that the ECB is “soft on inflation,” occupying a dovish outlier position among the world’s major central banks? Is Germany’s bestselling tabloid, Bild, justified in bestowing on ECB President Christine Lagarde the mocking sobriquet “Madame Inflation”? No and no.
Dec 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "By the grim metric of fatalities in the first 10 years of a dictator’s rule, Kim Jong Un has yet to match the records set by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, or father, Kim Jong Il – the two tyrants who reigned by terror in North Korea before him. For now, the number of people Kim Jong Un has personally ordered killed – such as his uncle in 2013 and half-brother in 2017 – is likely to number in the hundreds." ---- "Concrete numbers of how many have died from starvation and malnourishment-related conditions such as diarrhea and pneumonia under Kim are difficult to come by. But as a scholar of Korean history, I believe the young dictator – who turns 38 next January – has the capacity to surpass even the ghastly death tolls of his two familial predecessors."
Dec 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "But have enough Conservative backbenchers reached the conclusion that Johnson should be removed as party leader? There is a historical precedent which throws light on the present situation. This was when Margaret Thatcher was sacked as leader of her party – and consequently lost her job as prime minister – in 1990. She had a loyal following in the party and had won three elections in a row, but even that couldn’t save her when polling showed that the Conservatives were heading for a serious defeat under her leadership. ---- "That said, if Thatcher’s experience is anything to go by, at present the Conservatives are not going to sack Johnson. It took 18 months of seriously deteriorating polling for a revolt over Thatcher’s leadership to finally succeed – and she almost survived the leadership challenge. The present hope among Conservative backbenchers will be that the party can recover next year."
Dec 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although Johnson has a well-deserved reputation for maintaining an arm’s-length relationship with the truth, many voters seem to have priced this in to how they perceive him. Moreover, Conservative Party insiders, and those who previously worked with Johnson in journalism (his career before politics), have always known that he was unlikely to follow any rules that did not suit him. This rather large personal failing was apparent even in his boyhood, as a remarkably prescient school report by his Eton College housemaster noted. “I think,” Johnson’s teacher wrote, “he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.” "
Dec 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "This puts US Democrats in a difficult position. What is a political party to do when the other main party has been taken over by self-appointed holy warriors? To treat them as a loyal opposition worthy of engagement in a spirit of compromise and respect becomes almost impossible. Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, and Joe Biden have sometimes been criticized by their own supporters for not fighting dirty and giving Republican fanatics a dose of their own foul medicine.  That would be a mistake. All legal means should be used to stop extremists from wrecking democratic institutions, but those institutions won’t survive if all parties turn politics into a matter of life and death. In a quasi-religious war, the far right will almost certainly win; they have more fanatics and, in the US, many more guns."
Dec 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "In contrast to the index for consumer goods, which measures only the prices of final products, industrial producer prices capture all intermediate stages of production. They therefore have a certain prognostic significance for consumer prices, even though the final products won’t show such extreme spikes. ----- These new inflation figures are so extreme that the ECB’s position looks like willful denial. Germany is currently experiencing the strongest inflation in a lifetime. And the situation is not much better in other European countries. In September, France reported an 11.6% annual increase in industrial producer prices, and that figure stood at 15.6% in Italy, 18.1% in Finland, 21.4% in the Netherlands, and 23.6% in Spain."
Nov 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "So it could well be that, despite the faster spread of the infection, its ultimate health, social and economic impact proves negligible. We simply do not know at this point. But detecting more uncertainty than before, financial markets have reacted with panic. For example, the S&P500 tumbled 2.3% on Friday November 26 only to rise 1.1% on Monday November 29. Most markets gave up between 2% and 4%, which is a pretty substantial one-day fall."
Nov 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Momentous changes are casting a long shadow on China. The country’s political system will soon undergo a profound reform, pending final approval (a quasi-formality) at next year’s congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). President Xi Jinping, the Party chairman and the “navigator” of the country, has decided on a new course, abandoning the principle of collective leadership. Xi is leading China away from the path taken by Deng Xiaoping after the terror of the Cultural Revolution, and back toward a system of absolute rule by one person without term limits, as under Mao Zedong."
Nov 25th 2021
EXTRACTS: "”The biggest disappointment in Glasgow was the last-minute watering down of the proposed (and widely supported) agreement to “phase out” the use of coal in energy production. With India providing political cover for China in vetoing this language, the final conference proposal was to “phase down” coal”. ---- “China accounts for more than half of the world’s coal consumption, and has the largest amount of coal-fired generating capacity under construction. Pressed about why his country would not do more in Glasgow to help save the planet, China’s chief negotiator pointed to the commitments in the Communist Party of China’s current Five-Year Plan. So, our future now depends on the CPC’s program. The tragedy for the world is that the Party cannot be phased down, much less phased out, despite the fact that it is a huge threat to the future of all of us.” ------ “To save the planet, robust democratic leadership must be phased up – not phased down, let alone phased out. Rather than merely keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best, we should start by calling out the appalling behavior of dictatorships such as China and Russia.”
Nov 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The transitory inflation debate in the United States is over. The upsurge in US inflation has turned into something far worse than the Federal Reserve expected. Perpetually optimistic financial markets are taking this largely in stride. The Fed is widely presumed to have both the wisdom and the firepower to keep underlying inflation in check. That remains to be seen."
Nov 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "S&P projects that companies are planning to install 44 gigawatts of new solar in 2022. The year 2020, despite the onset of the pandemic, saw a record-breaking 19 gigawatts of new solar capacity installed in the U.S. So given the bids out there already, it appears that in 2022 solar installers will more than double their best year ever so far. The U.S. currently has 100 gigawatts of solar electricity-generating capacity, so in just one year we are poised to add nearly 50% of our current total. A gigawatt of power can provide electricity to about 750,000 homes. So the 44 new gigawatts we’ll put in next year have a nameplate capacity that would under ideal conditions allow them to power 33 million homes." ----- "Not only is there a lot of good news on the green energy front but there is good news in the bad news for fossil fuels. S&P finds that coal plants are being retired way before the utilities had expected. Some 29 gigawatts of coal retirements are expected from 2020 through 2025. "
Nov 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Zemmour’s way of thinking stems from a tradition going back to the French Revolution of 1789. Catholic conservatives and right-wing intellectuals, who hated the secular republic that emerged from the revolution, have long fulminated against liberals, cosmopolitans, immigrants, and other enemies of their idea of a society based on ethnic purity, obedience to the church, and family values. They were almost invariably anti-Semitic. When Jewish army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of betraying his country in the notorious scandal of the 1890s, they were on the side of Dreyfus’s accusers. ---- Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 gave reactionaries of this kind the chance to form a French puppet-government in Vichy. Zemmour has had kind things to say about the Vichy regime. He also has expressed some doubt about the innocence of Dreyfus. ---- None of these views would be surprising if they came from a far-right agitator like Jean-Marie Le Pen. But Zemmour is the son of Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Algeria who lived among the Muslim Berbers."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "performed strongly in last month’s parliamentary and regional elections. Officially, Communist Party candidates took 18.9% of the popular vote for the State Duma (parliament), compared to nearly 49.8% for the Kremlin’s United Russia party. But the Communists refused to recognize the results, insisting that the vote was rigged. And, indeed, some experts estimate that they should have gotten around 30% of the vote, with United Russia taking about 35%."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Powell was charismatic in the true sense of the term. Nowadays, this description is too often used to indicate an ability to attract supporters or generate celebrity interest. Internet lists of those who are regarded as charismatic include characters as varied as Adolf Hitler, Bono, Donald Trump, George Clooney, and Rihanna. But the ancient Greeks and Saint Paul used “charisma” to describe values-based leadership infused with a charm capable of inspiring devotion. The Greeks believed that this quality was a gift of grace, while Christian theology regarded it as a power given by the Holy Spirit."