The last of the Russian prophets

Alexander Solzhenitsyn
December 25, 1998

In the 1970s, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov were, for most educated Russians, synonyms for an uncompromising fight against the system.In those days, people did not know and did not want to know about the fundamental differences in their outlooks and about their arguments. An old copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a coveted possession, and only a few lucky people could read samizdat copies of Cancer Ward and First Circle. Most people used to listen to BBC radio at night and discuss the news with their close friends in the morning. One of the numerous jokes of the period went as follows: in the year 2020, a little boy asks his father who was Brezhnev? Unable to answer, his father searches in the encyclopaedia and answers that Brezhnev was a political figure in the era of Solzhenitsyn. In the 1970s, this idea seemed absurd, incredibly funny.

Then perestroika came, a glorious time of hope with its abundance of publications. Magazines published works previously banned, including Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, Anna Akhmatova's Requiem, Leonid Grossman's Life and Fate, and books by emigre writers. The first extracts from The Gulag Archipelago appeared in Novy Mir magazine in 1989. Then came the first subscription to Solzhenitsyn's collected works, which included The Gulag Archipelago. There were long queues at the bookshop in Sretenka Street where one could obtain these red-and-black paperbacks. They were like a symbol of hope, because only when The Gulag Archipelago was published in full was it clear that the changes were for real.

Then came Solzhenitsyn's triumphant return in 1994. Only later did we ask ourselves, did it have to be so pompous? Was it really necessary to travel by a special train with a BBC crew filming his every step, recording every word for posterity? Only when he began regular talk shows on television, in which he harangued his audience with obvious truths, did we start to realise that he had been away from the country for more than 20 years, and had missed all the changes, including changes in people's mentality. He did not get a warm welcome from critics. Many considered him "hopelessly outdated"; young writers ignored him.

D. M. Thomas's book about Solzhenitsyn cannot be called a typical literary biography. As we might expect from a novelist such as Thomas, the fictional element is essential. Thus, he invents inner monologues for Solzhenitsyn, as if performing the role of his personal psychoanalyst. Whether Solzhenitsyn would agree with any part of this analysis is highly debatable. Most probably not. We know that he refused to co-operate with the author. And Thomas does not hesitate to depict Solzhenitsyn as a rather unsavoury character, tyrannical and difficult to deal with, someone who has managed to alienate most of his former friends. But we do see a person who is very demanding himself. Thomas compares him with Lenin, whom Solzhenitsyn depicted in Lenin in Zurich, in probably the most interesting chapter of his study. "Although ideologically Lenin and Solzhenitsyn are scarcely on the same planet, the Lenin of the book does strikingly remind of his creatorI He is a prophet, changing the world is his only vocation; only few will listen, so he is short-tempered and intolerant."

It is a fact that many of Solzhenitsyn's literary creations are embodiments of himself or of people he closely knew. Thomas is pleased to discover the name of the woman with whom Solzhenitsyn had an affair in Leningrad in 1964 and who appears as Olda Andozerskaya in August 1914. But one wishes that Thomas had reined in his urge to speculate, especially about Solzhenitsyn's erotic feelings. In an episode describing Solzhenitsyn's meeting with Anna Akhmatova in 1964, Thomas makes her - the greatest Russian living poet and by then an elderly woman - feel Solzhenitsyn's attractiveness and wish that she "could come to him just once in the shape of the girl of 1913". Such passages seem to me extremely far-fetched and entirely out of place.

Also, the familiar version of the name Alexander - Sanya - that Thomas uses throughout the book, although shorter and easier for a western reader,seems rather inappropriate. Normally, such names are reserved for relatives and close friends.

Generally, this is a readable book, but not one on which a scholar should base research, for it is not clear which parts of the portrait are soundly based in evidence. For this reviewer, the best aspect is that Thomas does not try to create an image of Solzhenitsyn as politician and publicist. We must not forget that Solzhenitsyn's main achievements in literature are One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Matryona's House and other works of prose, not his numerous letters, addresses and speeches. The reading public needs reminding that Solzhenitsyn has always been first and foremost an outstanding writer. He is the last in the brilliant line of Russian writers who were also public figures, prophets, "a second government" - as Solzhenitsyn defined them. Ironically, he contributed much to ending this tradition, so that henceforth a writer could be just a writer.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a bold attempt to create a psychological portrait of one of the outstanding people of the century, and through this to understand his literary creations better. It is left to the reader to define the genre to which the book belongs.

Dmitri Antonov is at the Centre for International Education, Moscow State University.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life

Author - D. M. Thomas
ISBN - 0 316 64329 7
Publisher - Little, Brown & Co
Price - £20.00
Pages - 583

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