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

Dec 11th 2018
WASHINGTON, DC – Though he rarely admits even the slightest discontent with the job he schemed for in unprecedented ways and somewhat accidentally fell into (thanks to the vagaries of the Electoral College), Donald Trump’s presidency hasn’t been what Americans would call a bowl of cherries. Yet no other week of his presidency so far has been filled with such problems and so many dark omens for him.
Dec 10th 2018
This Human Rights Day (December 10) marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sadly, events over the past few years show that the world is failing to uphold the commitments enshrined in that document, particularly when it comes to protecting children. For example, in separatist-controlled parts of Eastern Ukraine, where more than 200,000 children are receiving their education in militarized areas, bullets have struck kindergarten windows. In April, the Afghan air force, backed by US-led NATO coalition advisers, reportedly killed 36 students, teachers, and parents, and wounded 71 others, at a graduation ceremony. And in August, the Saudi-led coalition that has been waging war against Houthi rebels in Yemen dropped a bomb on a school bus, killing 40 boys between the ages of six and 11.
Dec 7th 2018
Figures like Boris Johnson, with his Churchillian pretensions, or Jacob Rees-Mogg, who resembles a minor character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, are anachronisms. In earlier times, they might have run an empire. Now they are mere politicians in a middle-ranking state. Brexit for the likes of Johnson or Rees-Mogg is more like a deluded grab for power, undertaken in the name of the common people, supposedly in revolt against the elites of which these politicians are themselves conspicuous members. Their nostalgia for grander forms of rule has already done great damage to the country they claim to love. This is all the more reason, now that the potential catastrophe of Brexit is so plain to see, why those common people should have a second chance to vote for a way to avoid it.
Dec 4th 2018
The argument against a second referendum is that it would be deeply divisive, especially if it leads to a reversal of the first referendum. But this rather misses the point. The hardline Brexiteers will reject any compromise with the EU. As ideological purists, they will not be satisfied until the UK is fully out of the EU, even if it means jumping off a cliff. Happily, the British public is unlikely to accept that option. So, whatever happens, the Brexit debate will rumble on. In the meantime, we Britons should apologize to our friends around the world. Our national spectacle of self-harm must be growing tiresome.
Dec 1st 2018
.......since last summer, Putin’s approval ratings have again dropped precipitously, to 66% in October and November. Beyond “making Russia great again” on the international stage, Putin was supposed to improve Russians’ standard of living. Instead, after four years of falling real incomes, the government announced deeply unpopular pension reforms, which included an increase in the retirement age.
Nov 30th 2018
The Senate slapped the Trump administration around on Wednesday, voting 63-37 to bring to the floor a proposal to end US involvement in the Saudi-led war on Yemen. I should declare my own interest by saying that I was one of 50-some Middle East experts and policy-makers who signed a letter to the senators urging them to take this step........The vote was the most significant bipartisan measure to come out of the senate in ages, and fell just short of a veto-proof two-thirds majority.
Nov 23rd 2018
Vibrant capitalist economies have always depended on a carefully calibrated balance between government policy and private competition. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s significantly extended the previously minimal role of the US federal government. But, rather than holding back growth and destroying private enterprise, it was followed by 30 years of spectacular capitalist development, spreading prosperity as never before and dramatically expanding the ranks of the American middle class. Ayn Rand’s free-market utopia, so beloved by climate-change deniers, is as detached from real-world complexities, and as likely to produce social and environmental disaster, as simplistic Marxist faith in the inevitable efficiency and incorruptibility of the state.
Nov 22nd 2018
Trump’s statement on his policy toward Saudi Arabia in the wake of the murder in Istanbul of dissident Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi brought a profound shame on the United States that will, as FDR put it, live in infamy. Trump began by saying he was putting America first, but that was the last thing he was doing. He was putting his own personal predilections and policies, and perhaps profit, above the interests of the United States. Here are the ways he put America last:
Nov 21st 2018
.......the Trump administration’s disruptive behavior has left the French and German governments furious. But, beyond fueling anger, Trump’s attacks on other countries’ sovereignty are adding momentum to a new push for European political unification...........Trump’s actions are actually something of a godsend, because they have forced Europeans to accept that they must stand together in defense of their sovereignty and prosperity. A union of almost 450 million people (after Brexit) cannot allow a country two-thirds its size to treat it like a group of vassal states.
Nov 20th 2018
The world’s central bankers have begun to discuss the idea of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), and now even the International Monetary Fund and its managing director, Christine Lagarde, are talking openly about the pros and cons of the idea. This conversation is past due. Cash is being used less and less, and has nearly disappeared in countries such as Sweden and China. At the same time, digital payment systems – PayPal, Venmo, and others in the West; Alipay and WeChat in China; M-Pesa in Kenya; Paytm in India – offer attractive alternatives to services once provided by traditional commercial banks.
Nov 19th 2018
They came in the middle of the night. At about 2.30am on May 11, Amal Fathy, her husband Mohamed Lotfy, and their three-year-old child were awakened by Egyptian security personnel. For hours, a special forces detachment of seven armed men in uniform and two plainclothes officers raided their home..........Amal, a former actress and fashion model, had posted a Facebook Live commentary expressing her anger about being sexual harassed two days earlier. In the 12-minute video,....
Nov 16th 2018
For while Iran has been receptive to Chinese investment in the past, it has equally sought European investment to balance this out and to prevent China from playing too dominant a role in the country. The sanctions have now made China’s dominance all the more likely. ..........possibly the most significant implication is how sanctions have led to widespread de-dollarisation, whereby the dominant global status of the dollar has been challenged. Since sanctioned states are no longer attached to the established system, it is easier for them to adopt an alternative way of operating. An example is the Petro Yuan – whereby China’s oil imports have been priced in yuan rather than in dollars – which has been adopted by oil-rich states targeted by sanctions, most notably Russia and Venezuela. The sanctions on Iran will only exacerbate this process.
Nov 12th 2018
It is clearly time for New Deal II. Instead of promising more tax breaks for the richest citizens, a more equitable fiscal policy could pay for necessary bridges and other public goods and services that would improve everyone’s life. Affordable health care for all citizens is a mark of a civilized society. The US is still a long way from that goal. The same is true of high-quality public education. It is grotesque that so many people who stand to benefit from such “socialist” policies are still persuaded to vote against them because they are supposedly “un-American.”
Nov 2nd 2018
The cold-blooded killing of the journalist Khashoggi, however gruesome, pales compared to the brutality and gross human rights violations Saudi Arabia is committing in Yemen. The Saudis are deliberately preventing food and medicine from reaching areas where children are dying from starvation or disease. Their indiscriminate bombings are killing thousands of innocent men, women, and children, leaving whole communities in ruin. The saddest part of this unfolding tragedy is that the US and other Western powers are supplying the Saudis with the weapons they need to massacre the Yemenites, who are trapped in this proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran (which neither can win), and the Yemenites will continue to pay with their blood.............Out of a total population of 28 million people, 22 million are in need of humanitarian aid. Nearly 5.2 million children are starving to death, and nearly one million are believed to be infected with cholera. Over 8 million people are facing famine, and 2 million are displaced and deprived of basic needs.
Oct 29th 2018
The nightmare election possibility for the Democrats is continued Republican control of both chambers. In that case, Trump will feel vindicated and more liberated than ever. He might then fire a raft of officials, treat immigrants still more harshly, and try to shut down Mueller’s investigation of his campaign’s possible collusion with the Kremlin and Trump’s probable obstruction of justice. The conventional wisdom may prevail, with the Democrats winning the House but not the Senate. But the polls have been fluctuating. And since Trump’s stunning election victory in 2016, most observers have become more cautious about predicting outcomes.
Oct 23rd 2018
As the Brexit negotiations peter out this week in Brussels, fevered Brexit fanatics – from Boris Johnson, David Davis and Jacob Rees Mogg in the Telegraph, to many others on Twitter – are ranting and raving about the most sensible thing Theresa May has done in two and a half years of Brexit negotiations by suggesting extending the transition period in an attempt at genuine compromise. This would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves of some salient facts. These Conservative MPs are speaking on behalf of the hardest of Brexiteers, a collection of somewhere between 60-80 of the Tory MPs. That’s somewhere between 60 and 80 MPs out of a total of 317 Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. And while having 317 MPs means the Conservatives are the largest party at the last election, they did not win enough of the votes to form a majority. Therefore, for all their bluster and bloviating, let’s just state clearly what the members of this small group are: they are a minority faction, holding a minority view, in a minority government.
Oct 23rd 2018

A billboard at a construction site, with a photo of an Ottoman-style mosque with four minarets and the flag of Turkey, was erected recently in the center of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

Oct 17th 2018
Yemen is a country of some 29 million persons, but over a third of them are at risk of starvation if Saudi and UAE bombing campaigns continue.
Oct 14th 2018
Now the Trump administration is eroding the dollar’s global role. Having unilaterally reimposed sanctions on Iran, it is threatening to penalize companies doing business with the Islamic Republic by denying them access to US banks. The threat is serious because US banks are the main source of dollars used in cross-border transactions. According to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), dollars are used in nearly half of all cross-border payments, a share far greater than the weight of the US in the world economy. In response to the Trump administration’s stance, Germany, France, and Britain, together with Russia and China, have announced plans to circumvent the dollar, US banks, and US government scrutiny. “Plans” may be a bit strong, given that few details have been provided. But the three countries have described in general terms the creation of a stand-alone financial entity, owned and organized by the governments in question, to facilitate transactions between Iran and foreign companies.
Oct 5th 2018
There are a lot of oddballs in US President Donald Trump’s entourage, but few are as odd – or as sinister – as 33-year-old Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser. Miller resembles a type on the far right that is more common in Europe than the US: young, slick, sharp-suited, even a trifle dandyish. He is a skilled rabble-rouser, whose inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants and refugees – “We’re going to build that wall high and we’re going to build it tall !”– drives the crowds at Trump rallies into a frenzy. One of his crowd-pleasing notions is that migrants will infect Americans with terrible diseases.