Solzhenitsyn Opens a New Chapter of His Life: Celebrity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the first day of a cross-country tour to rediscover his Russian homeland, Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn visited a hospital Saturday. As the famous author stepped into an elevator, a small crowd of doctors and a television film crew jammed in with him.

Instead of going up to the director's office on the sixth floor, the overloaded elevator sank part way between the lobby and the basement and stuck there for 15 minutes before a mechanic came to the rescue.

Aside from the hazards of everyday life here, the mishap reflected the quandary of Solzhenitsyn's identity as he returns from two decades of exile to help post-Soviet Russia find itself. Is he an intellectual or a celebrity? Can't he have peace to search for new truths, or must he put up with media stardom and intrusive fans?

And how long can the 75-year-old Nobel laureate depend on special protection from a government he criticizes so fiercely?

Solzhenitsyn spelled out his controversial views on Russia's ills at a wide-ranging news conference, insisting that there is no real democracy or economic reform here, no cleansing of the Communist legacy and too much imitation of the West. He was equally passionate about his privacy.

"I would prefer not to have 200 photographers crowding around me all the time and shooting me day after day," he said. "I need to talk to the common people . . . to learn in detail about life in Russia."

To be more specific, he said he resents the fact that somebody in the crowd stepped on his wife's foot after their triumphant landing here Friday on a flight from Alaska.

"When it's enough for each photographer to take two shots, why take 250?" he asked.

After talking with doctors and surgery patients at the Territorial Clinical Hospital, Solzhenitsyn rode to the city's Pacific port, where he was greeted by a navy band playing a lively classical medley, well-wishers pressing for autographs and more cameras.

Strolling down a waterfront aisle of merchants selling food from truck-sized freight containers, the writer acted the part of a modern Rip van Winkle just awakened from a 20-year nap.

"How much is that?" he asked a man selling sausages.

"10,000 rubles," the merchant replied. About $5 a kilogram.

"I don't get it," Solzhenitsyn said, touching his long beard and appearing amazed. "When I left the country many years ago, prices were very different."

"Come again soon, sir," the merchant said with a laugh, "and I'll sell it to you for an even higher price!"

Plainclothes police officers locked arms in a protective ring around Solzhenitsyn and his wife as they walked, while uniformed officers stopped people at random to inspect purses and shopping bags.

"While he's here, we will keep him under guard whether he likes it or not," said Igor P. Lebedinets, the acting territorial governor. "We're mobilizing hundreds of men."

Later, Solzhenitsyn was driven in a black government Volga sedan to have lunch aboard one of the two luxury rail cars sent from Moscow by the Railway Ministry for his trans-Siberian journey to the Russian capital. The cars, equipped with a kitchen and Oriental carpets, will carry his entourage of family, friends, chefs, attendants, security police and a British Broadcasting Corp. documentary film crew.

Solzhenitsyn said the 5,700-mile rail journey, which will take several weeks, will allow him to make many stops and to "see things through the window."

He said he last saw Siberia from a prison van, on the way to an eight-year term in Stalin's gulag after World War II--the seminal experience for his powerful writings against the Soviet system.

The lavish official hospitality by the current authorities prompted one Russian journalist to ask Solzhenitsyn about comparisons to Maxim Gorky, the writer brought back from Italian exile under Stalin.

"Gorky came back to serve the regime," Solzhenitsyn replied. "I will never serve the regime, whatever government is in power."

But he refrained from criticizing Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, who sent a congratulatory telegram saying, "Your talent and your experience as a historian and thinker will help us all in reorganizing Russia."

The writer did, however, repeat many criticisms he had made abroad about the Yeltsin government's attempts at reform.

For example, he described the 1992 decisions to free up prices and sell off state property without breaking up monopolies as "brainless" steps that had made a country already wrecked by the Communists even poorer.

He called Russia a "pseudo-democracy" that still lacks local self-rule, has failed to punish the crimes of Soviet repression and blindly imitates Western ways unsuited to its culture.

He sneered at the seepage of such foreign terms as "voucher" and "futures" into Russian usage.

"It's not simply the sickness of our language," he declared, "it's the sickness of our soul."

Insisting that outsiders must "give Russia a chance to pull together as Russia," he implicitly called for joining the Russian-speaking parts of neighboring Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine with Russia proper.

At the same time, he dismissed Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the neo-fascist politician who played up nationalist themes in last year's parliamentary election, as a "caricature of a Russian patriot."

While Solzhenitsyn denied any political ambitions, his more measured Russia-first views are likely to strike a powerful chord as he travels and speaks across the country.

"The atmosphere in the hospital changed in one minute after he came," said Yelizaveta B. Pyatina, 58, a patient there. "Everybody began smiling and talking about books, politics, history. We all forgot about our ailments."

Some Russian politicians and intellectuals have criticized Solzhenitsyn for coming home too late to shape Russia's development.

The newspaper Moscow Komsomolets reflected that view with a headline: "The old man missed the plane."

The "old man" was not amused. When that newspaper's correspondent rose to ask a question at his news conference, Solzhenitsyn chided him for the headline and ordered him to sit down.

"You'll have to wait for the next plane," Solzhenitsyn said.

Sergei L. Loiko, a reporter in The Times' Moscow Bureau, contributed to this story.

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