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

Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."
Aug 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Climate change is real, and it is a problem. According to the IPCC, the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2-2% loss in average income. That’s not the end of the world, but the same as a single economic recession, in a world that is much better off than today.  The risk is that outsized fear will take us down the wrong path in tackling global warming. Concerned activists want the world to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But it will mean slowing the growth that has lifted billions out of poverty and transformed the planet. That has a very real cost. "
Aug 20th 2019
EXTRACTS: "It is no exaggeration to say that Johnson has lied his way to the top, first in journalism and then in politics. His ascent owes everything to the growing xenophobia and English nationalism that many Conservatives now espouse................Johnson has chosen a government of like-minded anti-European nationalists. His principal adviser, Dominic Cummings, was described by David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2016, as a “career psychopath.” Cummings is, alongside Johnson, the most powerful figure in the new government; he is an unelected wrecker who earlier this year was ruled to be in contempt of parliament. Fittingly, if depressingly, he now is masterminding our departure from the EU with or without parliamentary approval."
Aug 19th 2019
EXTRACTS: "Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation.................It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I've been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different."
Aug 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Gaslighting typically refers to intimate relationships. It’s a way of controlling someone by creating false narratives – for example, that they are irrational or crazy. If such lies are repeated constantly, victims may get confused and start believing there really is something wrong with them. Confusion, diversion, distraction and disinformation can similarly be used to gaslight an entire society. So how can you tell if you are being gaslighted, and how do you avoid it in the first place?"
Aug 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Trump has once again painted himself into a corner. Since the latest massacres, he’s been at pains to present himself as a reasonable fellow who can get behind gun reform (and perhaps mollify suburban women, his most dangerous foes on this issue). But he’s also noticeably (and typically) anxious to maintain the loyalty of the rural voters who form an important part of his base. Trump has also taken the gamble of using racial politics and white supremacy as instruments for winning in 2020. When faced with the dilemma of trying to assuage suburban voters or keeping the base close, time after time his instinct has been to shore up the base. (That didn’t work very well in 2018.)"