Exiled Soviet Writer : Solzhenitsyn Gets Boost in Homeland

Times Staff Writer

From the edge of the huge painting, “The Mystery of the 20th Century,” on exhibition here, a brooding, bearded figure in a prison uniform stares out at those who pause to study the faces of the famous in the panoramic canvas.

Visitors quickly recognize V.I. Lenin, the Bolshevik leader and founder of the Soviet state, the dictator Josef Stalin, China’s Mao Tse-tung, President John F. Kennedy, the Beatles and Brigitte Bardot.

But that other face, the prisoner’s, so intent and so troubled as he surveys artist Ilya Glazunov’s historical panorama, is at once familiar and yet rarely seen here.


“Solzhenitsyn!” an exhibition guide announces, pausing for the murmur to subside. “That is our great contemporary Russian writer Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, winner in 1970 of the Nobel Prize for Literature!”

Banned For Years

Until recently, the guide would not have been so bold. Indeed, “Mystery,” one of the most important paintings by Glazunov, a leading Soviet artist, was banned for more than a decade simply because of Solzhenitsyn’s inclusion.

“They wanted me to paint Solzhenitsyn out,” Glazunov told a group that had come to the current exhibition of his works here. “When I wouldn’t do it, they said, ‘Well, no one will see him--or your painting.’ And from 1977 until this year, they didn’t.”

But Solzhenitsyn’s art--even his ideas, so harshly critical of the Soviet system and, indeed, of most of the modern world--could not be denied permanently. Among members of the Soviet intelligentsia, who never forgot Solzhenitsyn, who had kept what works of his they could and for whom the issues that he raised remain fundamental, a movement is growing rapidly to rehabilitate him formally or at least to allow his books to be read and his ideas be debated.

Role of Critics

As these supporters see it, many of Russia’s great writers, notably Fyodor Dostoevsky, have assumed the role of critics of society, and thus been considered enemies of the state. With the increased political liberalism, they have begun campaigning quietly for recognition of Solzhenitsyn as a major figure in Russian literature and thought.

Soviet authorities had believed that Solzhenitsyn, stripped of his Soviet citizenship and expelled from the country in 1974 after publishing his searing expose of the Stalinist prison camps, would become a nonperson here, a difficult author whose books would be unread and whose ideas would be forgotten.

After a short stay in Western Europe, Solzhenitsyn settled in a secluded wooded area near Cavendish, Vermont, and, shunning publicity, continued to write about his native land, even though his works would not be available to Soviet readers.

His books were removed from Soviet libraries, literary critics assessing his writings were told to find new topics, his name was deleted by government censors from virtually all Soviet publications and even his attacks on the Soviet system were ignored after his expulsion.

Targets of Criticism

Those who had pleaded his case, sheltered him or urged publication of his works found themselves to have become targets of official criticism.

As the government campaign against political dissidents through the 1970s slowly silenced most of the opposition here then, the authorities appeared to have succeeded in removing Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet scene.

To most of a generation, Solzhenitsyn became simply the “vicious anti-Communist,” as described by the government, a traitor who had been arrested and then deported and who had become a willing tool of Western imperialism in its plots against the Soviet Union.

Before his exile, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda called him a “renegade” and a “profoundly immoral man” and said that he merited “the fate of a traitor.” His “Gulag Archipelago,” which had just been published, was dismissed as “another slanderous book.”

Now, Novy Mir, the country’s leading literary journal, is seeking permission from Solzhenitsyn to publish two of his novels, “Cancer Ward” and “The First Circle,” which were both banned before publication in the 1960s as the crackdown on dissent first intensified.

Worried About Conditions

Sergei P. Zalygin, Novy Mir’s editor, says that both books are important works in terms of the country’s literature, of its history and of its politics. They should be widely read here, Zalygin says, although Novy Mir staff members are worried that the author might set impossible conditions.

The avant-garde newspaper Moscow News devoted a whole page in one issue this month to a critical essay on Solzhenitsyn’s novella, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” describing it as one of the greatest classics of Russian literature.

The novella’s publication in Novy Mir in 1962 was “an outstanding event in (Soviet) literary, moral and spiritual life,” literary critic Lev Voskresensky wrote. While Solzhenitsyn’s overall work remains controversial, he said, “the past quarter century has proven ‘One Day’ is among the greatest, landmark achievements in our country’s literature.”

In a preface to the prison camp stories of the late Varlam Shalamov, whom Solzhenitsyn once asked to help him write “Gulag,” his epic account of the mass terror of the Stalinist era, Novy Mir went further recently and compared Solzhenitsyn with the great 19th-Century writer, Leo Tolstoy.

And the weekly magazine Book Review, widely read by intellectuals, published a call this month for Solzhenitsyn’s formal rehabilitation, including the restoration of his Soviet citizenship.

“It is time to halt the dispute with this remarkable son of Russia, an officer of the Soviet army, the bearer of combat medals, a prisoner of Stalinist camps, the world-famous Russian writer,” Elena Chukovskaya, the granddaughter of Kornei Chukovsky, one of the most famous Russian authors of the 20th Century, and a writer herself, said in a letter to the magazine.

“We have to return his Soviet citizenship to him. Only after that is it appropriate to publish his books and their critical concepts on the pages of our newspapers and journals.”

Another Step

Even the inclusion of “The Mystery of the 20th Century” in Glazunov’s exhibition was another step in Solzhenitsyn’s gradual rehabilitation--a signal to other intellectuals that he is no longer a political leper to be avoided.

But the “question of Solzhenitsyn,” as it is generally put, remains difficult, even in the era of glasnost, the political openness proclaimed by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, as a fundamental element in his reforms.

Solzhenitsyn’s accounts of the Stalinist Era are being matched, perhaps even overtaken in some respects, by new histories of the period and new novels based on those times, although his books still set the standard by which all such works are judged.

In explaining the publication of Shalamov’s long-suppressed stories, Novy Mir argued the “great need” for people to read about the Stalinist Era now in order to understand the need for sweeping political reforms.

Widely read as an argument for the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s works as well as Shalamov’s, the journal’s preface drew no critical rebuttal, and many intellectuals now expect much more “camp literature,” including Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag”, to be published here--if he gives permission.

“ ‘Gulag’ is the classic, the standard and, of course, the original, but after what we have read in the past year, nothing in it could shock us,” a Moscow chemical engineer commented. “Although I have read only a little bit of the ‘Gulag,’ I think its merit now lies, first of all, in its literary qualities and secondly in its path-breaking nature. As for the contents, well, our newspapers and journals now print revelations every day.”

Covered Whole System

However, Solzhenitsyn, a former political prisoner, has written not only about prison camps and the Stalinist Era but about the whole Soviet political system as founded by Lenin and continued by the Communist Party for 70 years.

What he regards as his major work, what will be an eight-volume series on the Russian Revolution, challenges the legitimacy of the Soviet state from its inception, and in other writings, he seems almost a monarchist with a political philosophy drawn from the mysticism of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Questioned about Solzhenitsyn’s rehabilitation recently, Vladimir V. Karpov, the first secretary of the Soviet Union of Writers, told newsmen that, while Solzhenitsyn “may well be published” again in the Soviet Union, he could not return to the country without changing his political views.

‘No Place for Him’

“If someone wants to come back and take part in our reform process, then he is welcome,” Karpov said. “But if a person has lied through his teeth and slandered our country from abroad and wants to come back and do the same from here, then there is no place for him.”

The State Committee for Printing, Publishing and the Book Trade took a similar line over the past weekend, declaring that the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s later works “so far has not been planned,” indicating that the debate is still raging within the leadership over the controversial author. But the committee did say in a statement to the labor union newspaper Trud that whatever Solzhenitsyn had managed to publish here in the 1960s or 1970s--primarily “One Day”--could be republished without further permission. For many Soviet writers, artists and other intellectuals, Solzhenitsyn is a test case for glasnost .

“The question is whether there are still taboos, closed zones, no-go areas or whether we are really free to discuss, to debate, to probe, to go beyond the limited horizons the (Communist) party has fixed for us up to now,” a senior editor of a leading literary journal said last week.

“Solzhenitsyn, for nearly 15 years, has been a prohibited topic. I have two adult children, both university graduates, who are barely aware of who he is and what he has written. Yet, he is undoubtedly one of the greatest living writers in the world today, and he is ours. . . .

“There are also important ideas in his work--many with which I agree, others that I reject, some I do not understand--and, for the sake of our country and its future, we need to assess these frankly and openly.”

Asking not to be quoted by name so that he would not prejudice the outcome of the “Solzhenitsyn question,” he said he believes that the Soviet leadership would sanction the author’s de facto rehabilitation as a writer but defer the issue of political rehabilitation and restoring his citizenship.

The long persecution of Solzhenitsyn, Moscow intellectuals suggest, was due primarily to the late Mikhail A. Suslov, the party’s chief ideologist under Leonid I. Brezhnev, whose 18-year leadership of the country is now criticized as the “period of stagnation.”

The publication of “Ivan Denisovich” in 1962 had been approved by Nikita S. Khrushchev, who was then the party’s first secretary and who saw it as part of his de-Stalinization campaign. But Solzhenitsyn ran into trouble with “Cancer Ward” and “The First Circle” after Brezhnev came to power in 1964.

Correcting Mistakes

If Brezhnev and Suslov were to blame for his severe alienation, Moscow intellectuals theorize, then Solzhenitsyn’s rehabilitation is easier as the party corrects what it now regards as the mistakes of that period.

In recent months, such once-banned Russian authors as Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky, Alexander Galich, Yuli Daniel, Nadezhda Mandelstam and Mikhail Bulgakov have all been published here as a result of the political and cultural liberalization.

Chukovskaya, in her letter to Book Review, had already fashioned a possible justification for Solzhenitsyn’s rehabilitation.

“Gulag,” whose publication led directly to his expulsion, was published abroad after one of the first manuscripts of the book was confiscated here and his typist died in uncertain circumstances, apparently a suicide after being forced to disclose where the manuscript was hidden.

Reason for Speed-Up

“The circumstances compelled him to do it,” said Chukovskaya, implying that the likely suppression of the book and possible danger to himself, his wife and children led Solzhenitsyn to speed up foreign publication.

Solzhenitsyn had been a model Soviet citizen, she argued, until alienated by the Stalinist perversion of the country’s socialist system.

He had served as commander of an artillery battery during World War II and been awarded two medals for bravery. He had been thrown into a labor camp for eight years for criticizing Stalin in a private letter, but had emerged to take a job as a high school mathematics and physics teacher, writing in his spare time.

After publishing “Ivan Denisovich,” he joined the Writers Union and remained a member, despite official persecution, until he was expelled from the organization in 1969.

The task of literature, he told the group, which came to be regarded largely as an assembly of political hacks, was to “tell people the real truth, just as they expect it” and to lay bare the “secrets of the human heart and conscience.”

His real offense then, Chukovskaya asserted, was advocacy of what today is called glasnost .