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Solzhenitsyn: Exile With a Mission : Will Glasnost Reopen the Motherland to the Dissident?

November 26, 1987|CHARLES TRUEHEART | The Washington Post

CAVENDISH, Vt. — High above town along Windy Hill Road, just beyond the gash of the power lines and the graveyard in the hillside, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's perimeter fence begins. Every few yards, painted signs declare private property, brook no trespassing. At the gate, a camera's eye is vigilant. A mountain stream crashes along somewhere in the trees, and the wind blows, but there is no whisper of human presence.

The Soviet Union's most prominent exile bought and fortified this 50-acre estate in 1976. The Nobel laureate's dramatic expulsion from Moscow two years before, and the erratic movements and blunt pronouncements in the West that followed, had turned him into journalistic flypaper.

Today, though his novelty has worn off, Solzhenitsyn is still beleaguered, not just by the remnants of a curious press, but by rubber-neckers and well-wishers and assorted pilgrims, buzzing at the gate.

But he must husband his time. Solzhenitsyn will turn 70 next year. He does not consider it dumb luck that he survived the privations of Joseph Stalin's labor camps or that he vanquished a harsh cancer 30 years ago. But he knows his mission to warn the world against communism does not carry an indefinite term. And he has work to do.

Why the Seclusion

Thus the motive of his seclusion, and of his polite refusal (tendered by his wife, Natalia Svetlova) of all but a few interviews.

There is this, too: The year he moved to Cavendish, in a conversation with one of his publishers, Solzhenitsyn observed that he had set the action of his novels in closed institutions--labor camps in "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," a prison research facility in "The First Circle," a clinic in "Cancer Ward," not to mention "The Gulag Archipelago"--because he had spent so much of his life in confinement. It is the world he knows. Years later, a free man in the land of the free, he has chosen a confinement of his own making.

Such confusing and ironic messages about Solzhenitsyn are characteristic of the man and his aura.

Westerners, and certainly Americans, thought they knew the living myth who settled among them: resilient survivor of Stalinist slavery and Brezhnevian repression; authentic voice of the Russian heartland and exponent of its folkways; visionary David poised against the clumsy Goliath of the Soviet lie.

More Disquieting Truths

Once he was clasped to the Western bosom, however, more discomfiting truths were added. Solzhenitsyn thought American society, too, was bankrupt--small-minded, soulless, self-indulgent and perilously indifferent to the Soviet menace. He was a monarchist of sorts, a reactionary, a mystic. And he turned out to be little inclined to join the dance of American publicity.

That he has been misunderstood, repeatedly, is certain. But he has not been helpless or even idle in the shaping of his enigmatic public persona. There is method in the stony silence he projects, a message in the long beard on the long face.

Referring recently to the news media and those interested parties who speak through them, he said: "They lie about me as they would about a dead man."

He has, it is true, achieved the misty stature of the departed. Even though his output continues to be prodigious, he is more remembered than read--and remembered as much for what he endured as for what he wrote, or writes.

What Will Summit Mean?

In a couple of weeks, the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States will meet on their figurative mountaintop. No matter what agreements he may reach with President Reagan, for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev the summit will be an occasion for making impressions. Most Americans, like most Soviets, want to believe that glasnost and perestroika, the new "openness" and "restructuring" of Soviet society that Gorbachev wears as epaulets of his good intentions, are for real.

It has even been suggested that, if Gorbachev means what he says, the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn might be published in the Soviet Union for the first time in more than two decades. Some of his fellow emigres believe Solzhenitsyn is silent for that purpose, too: that he not jeopardize the best chance for his return to the motherland, in word if not in deed.

On this question, Solzhenitsyn has spoken quite recently, in the lofty and peremptory manner the world has come to expect.

"I cannot go back before my books," he said. "First the books must return, then me."

Secure and anonymous, the wooded estate in Cavendish is "the perfect place to disappear into the landscape," as it has been described by Michael Scammell, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's biographer and one-time translator. But family and friends take vigorous exception to the common characterization of Solzhenitsyn as a recluse.

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