Olga Andreyev Carlisle, born into a great Russian literary family exiled from its land, lives on Russian Hill. The daughter of an impoverished country lives with her husband, writer Henry Carlisle, in an elegant apartment on Union Street overlooking Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Bay.
Her visits to Russia are a return to a world she knows well, yet at an emigre’s distance. “As a Russian, this has been a very benign fate that life has assigned to me,” says Carlisle.
Granddaughter of literary lion Leonid Andreyev, writer and painter Olga Carlisle, 62, has spent her life in France and the United States, but she was reared in a world of Russian literature. Marina Tsvetayeva and Isaac Babel visited her family’s Paris apartment. She was nurtured on the poetry of Boris Pasternak, Nadezhda Mandelstam and Alexander Blok.
Her grandfather Andreyev, a confidant of Maxim Gorky and friend of Leo Tolstoy, opposed Bolshevik terror and died in exile in 1919 in Finland, despondent and isolated. Though considered one of the great Russian writers during his life, Soviet authorities suppressed his works from 1917 until his “rehabilitation” in the late 1950s during the Khrushchev thaw.
Carlisle’s father, belletrist Vadim Andreyev, and mother, Olga Chernov, were non-Marxist socialists. Both fled the Soviet Union and probable execution during the Red Terror of 1919-'23, before meeting and marrying in France.
They were allowed to return to Russia in 1957, and continued to visit for the rest of their lives. Carlisle went to the Soviet Union for the first time in 1960, but her entre was short lived. She was barred from re-entry in 1967 because of her involvement with Soviet dissenters. Twenty-two years later, during Gorbechev’s glasnost , Carlisle returned. She records the adventures of her trips to Russia in 1989 and 1990 in her recent memoir, “Under a New Sky: A Reunion With Russia.”
In the book, Carlisle explores the evolving nation along with the history of her literary family from the Bolshevik revolution to today. She writes of such giants as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova and Andrei Sakharov.
“There have been many, many books of a more systematic nature that try to explain what goes on in Russia,” says Carlisle, “But it’s a huge implosion; it’s so complicated. I think under the circumstances, writing in a personal voice pulls it together.”
Carlisle says she is of three cultures: Russian, French and American. “I feel that my personal life has been extraordinarily lucky. I was given the best of three worlds.”
But it is her Russian side that consumes her. Her other books include “Voices in the Snow,” a memoir of her 1960s visits to the Soviet Union, and “Solzhenitsyn and the Secret Circle,” published in 1978, which explores her dealings with the Nobel Prize-winning novelist.
During her childhood, she discovered Russia through poetry. “Russia seemed to me to be a wonderful, poetic country with a lyrical quality.”
Of her first visit in 1960, she says, “It was the discovery of a whole world that was mine, but that I knew only through literature.” She visited prominent literary figures, including Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Ilya Ehrenburg, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Mikhail Sholokhov.
Boris Pasternak, who had caused a storm of controversy in 1959 with the publication of “Doctor Zhivago,” was forbidden to meet with Westerners. Nevertheless, he agreed to a visit with Carlisle for an interview she conducted for the Paris Review. He asked her to embark on a mission worthy of her family’s legacy: join the Russian intelligentsia’s cause against a repressive regime.
“Someone with your background must tell the truth about us,” she says he told her. During the ‘60s, Carlisle made five trips to the Soviet Union and introduced Westerners through her writing for periodicals to Russian dissenters and the ring of repression tightening around Soviet artists.
In the spring of 1967, she met Solzhenitsyn, a friend of her parents. Her father had smuggled the manuscript of Solzhenitsyn’s second novel, “The First Circle,” out of the Soviet Union in the pockets of his trench coat in 1965. Solzhenitsyn asked Carlisle to act as his literary agent in the West, entrusting her with the publication of the book.
“When it came to Solzhenitsyn, we were very scared,” Carlisle recalls. “I heard amazing stories about the way the KGB was coming around, close to my relatives, but never quite closing in.”
A year later, “The First Circle” was published in the United States and Europe, coinciding with his third novel, “The Cancer Ward,” making Solzhenitsyn famous around the world.
Then he asked Carlisle to oversee the publication of the epic “The Gulag Archipelago,” which Carlisle’s brother, Alexander, had slipped out of Moscow.
In 1970, Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize and some Western critics called him an heir to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. However, “Gulag” had yet to be published in the United States, which angered Solzhenitsyn, as he wrote in his 1975 memoir, “The Oak and the Calf.”
Carlisle details her rocky relationship with the great writer in her memoir. Solzhenitsyn accused Carlisle of contributing to his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974 by not publishing the two-volume “Gulag Archipelago” in the United States before his exile. Had this been done, the writer believed he would have been able to stay in his homeland, she says. Carlisle says he never gave her final permission to publish the two-volume book. “I had the feeling he was maybe a little obsessed,” she says. “But the whole thing was very painful.
The argument does not affect her admiration for the man. Carlisle writes, “By telling the truth about its penal system, Solzhenitsyn helped destroy the Soviet system . . . Solzhenitsyn had reaffirmed the power of a writer to change the course of history.”
Carlisle’s next literary endeavor is a companion to her earlier memoir, “Voices in the Snow.”
“When I first went to Russia in 1960 and met Pasternak I wrote ‘Voices in the Snow,’ which was an encounter with what Russia was like in the Khrushchev era, when a lot of people my age were very liberal and very talented.
“Then those people were put in a deep freeze, or destroyed one way or another. And now I am able to write something 22 years later, which carried on some of the motifs and same hopes, encountering a younger generation. The first book was about their parents, and this one is about the children, who went to support Yeltsin at the White House.
“I have a theory that Gorbechev came just in time, when those young people still hadn’t given up, had not become total cynics,” she says. “Another five years, and they would have become alienated. I don’t think Russia would have had a future then.”
In “Under a New Sky,” Carlisle examines Russia’s hopes for a democratic future, and warns of anti-Semitism. She writes of observing dissemination of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and the virulent anti-Semitic tract, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
“The atmosphere was very troubling,” says Carlisle of her 1990 visit. “When I returned home, I had something almost like a nervous breakdown. I was so upset. Those were not really Russian nationalists, but a small band of former Communists, KGB operatives, a kind of intellectual thugs who want to intimidate the Russian population into submitting to another reign of totalitarianism.”
A Jewish poet, whose identity Carlisle protects in her book, tells her: “The Soviet Union will never be a democracy. Don’t you understand? We have not yet even begun to pay for Russia’s imperial past.
“My heart bleeds at hearing what difficulties the Russians are experiencing,” she says. Carlisle, though, says she believes that with ample support from the West, Russia can implement the mechanics of democracy.
In “Under a New Sky,” she writes, “I recognized many acquaintances from the past. . . . But these people I had known in their youth looked now as if they had been bleached out, their faces and postures altered almost beyond recognition, like those of the guests at the party at the end of ‘Remembrance of Things Past.’ Like Proust’s hero, away for many years, I had come back to a gathering of survivors.”