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Natalya Reshetovskaya, 84; Twice Married to Alexander Solzhenitsyn

June 06, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Natalya Reshetovskaya, who married, divorced and remarried Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn before their final divorce in 1973, died May 28 in Moscow. She was 84.

The two had not spoken to each other in years, but his friends said he supported her financially and contributed to her funeral expenses.

Reshetovskaya was an accomplished scientist and a noted pianist, but her personal achievements were overshadowed by the highly publicized accounts of her torrid relationship with Solzhenitsyn. Their consuming love and hatred for one another became Reshetovskaya's public identity.

After her father fled Russia in 1919 for his anti-Communist activities, she was raised by her mother and several aunts in Rostov on Don. She and Solzhenitsyn fell in love as students at the university there in the late 1930s.

By their final parting more than 30 years later, she had publicly accused him of frequent affairs with other women and of discouraging her from bearing children for fear that parenthood would disturb his writing career.

She attempted suicide twice -- the first time in 1970, the week that he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

Reshetovskaya wrote a series of controversial memoirs that were published after their marriage was permanently dissolved. In them she portrayed "Sanya," her pet name for Solzhenitsyn, as an egomaniac who brought government censorship upon himself with his searing criticism of the Soviet system. She implied that he exaggerated the hellish existence in Russian prison camps when he described that life in his nonfiction book, "The Gulag Archipelago" (1974).

The best-known of her works, "Sanya, My Husband Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn," was first published in Russia in the mid-1970s by Novosti, the press agency owned by the KGB, the Soviet Union's secret police.

Reshetovskaya wrote of Solzhenitsyn's descriptions of the camps that the information he received from prisoners and exiles "bore a folkloric and frequently a mythical character."

When Reshetovskaya married her editor, Konstantin Semyonov, she was suspected of being an informer against Solzhenitsyn, although she denied this.

Western reviewers panned her book, noting, among other problems, that it made light of the brutal crackdown on political agitators.

Of her relationship with Solzhenitsyn, she wrote that friends had warned her that "Sanya's despotism ... would crush my independence and would not permit my personality to develop. Life has proven my friends right. But it required 30 long years for me to admit this to myself."

In its review, the Economist, the British news magazine, called her book the work "of a vindictive and petty-minded woman."

Solzhenitsyn threatened to sue Bobbs-Merrill, the book's U.S. publisher, charging that Reshetovskaya had quoted from his letters and journals without his permission. No legal action came of his threat.

In one of those journals, Solzhenitsyn had written that the Reshetovskaya he fell in love with was a quiet and serious young woman who invited him home for dinner and played Chopin piano etudes for him. They married in 1940.

In 1952 she was offered a job on the staff of an agricultural research institute in Ryazan, southeast of Moscow, a prestigious position that she kept for 30 years.

When she went to Ryazan, the two had lived together for only one of their 12 years as husband and wife. During World War II, in 1941, he was made a captain of artillery and sent to the eastern front. She was evacuated to Central Russia and assigned as a teacher. She was so distraught without him, she later said, that she disguised herself in a Red Army uniform and went to see him on the battle line.

Her life turned even more stressful in 1945 when her husband was arrested for critical comments about the Stalin regime in a letter to a friend that was intercepted. He spent eight years in Lubyanka, Moscow's brutal prison.

She went regularly to the public gardens beside the prison, hoping to catch sight of him. But after she moved to Ryazan in the early 1950s she had an affair with a fellow scientist, Vsevolod Somov. She also developed cancer of the uterus and learned that she could not bear children. Friends later said she liked the idea of helping Somov raise his two children.

She divorced Solzhenitsyn in 1956 and agreed to marry Somov. Just before the wedding, Solzhenitsyn returned from exile and gave her a poem he had written about her:

"At midnight, hiding my lips in a glass

I whisper incomprehensibly to others

My love we have waited a long time."

She assured him, "I was created to love you alone, but fate decreed otherwise." Then she went ahead with her marriage to Somov.

Barely a year later, she went back to Solzhenitsyn. They remarried in 1957.

They lived a comparatively quiet life until his novella "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" was published in Moscow in 1962. The book brought him international fame. His work was soon banned in Russia.

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