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Mourners brave rainstorm to honor Solzhenitsyn

Many passing the coffin of the writer who laid bare Soviet evils are old. 'God is crying,' says one.

August 06, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, an author imprisoned and then forced into exile for his critical depictions of the Soviet Union, lay in a marble chamber in the heart of the capital Tuesday, guarded by Russian soldiers and mourned by thousands of his countrymen.

All day long, the onetime dissident lay waxy and white under bright layers of flowers in the Russian Academy of Sciences. His widow, children and grandchildren lingered at his side as grieving Russians braved a relentless rainstorm to say goodbye.

Many of the mourners were old and weary looking, pensioners who didn't have jobs to miss. They came shuffling out of the Metro and splashing through the puddles, clutching a few carnations or roses -- even numbers of stems, because in Russia the even numbers are traditionally reserved for death.

They came dragging their memories with them; it was hard to spot anybody who looked young enough to have been born after 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

"The sky is crying," said Yuri Agayev, a frail-looking man with thinning white hair, limping off into the wet afternoon. "God is crying."

It was a dark day, but Igor Andreyev wore his sunglasses. He'd taken the overnight train from St. Petersburg, where the retired librarian is member of the Solzhenitsyn Society. He suffered through internal Soviet exile, sent off to Sakhalin Island in the 1960s for being a member of a neo-Marxist organization, he said.

Andreyev walked through the marble hall, paid silent respects to the corpse and came out the opposite door, through the clusters of plainclothes security men muttering into their sleeves. Then he stood looking dazedly out into the day.

"It's nonsense. There were Duma deputies and FSB agents," he said, referring to members of parliament and to the post-Soviet successor agency of the KGB. "They have nationalist ideas, and yet they're here today."

Not for nothing, the security details. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was on the way to place flowers on the coffin. The prime minister later appeared on state television and called for Solzhenitsyn's books to be given more emphasis in the Russian curriculum.

"With the entire nation, he lived through a tragedy of repressions," Putin said. "By his works and his entire life, he inoculated our society against tyranny in all its forms."

Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday at 89, was a Red Army commander and an anti-Stalin dissident, a survivor of the gulag who was deported in 1974 and finally made his way home again two decades later. His searing texts were credited with eroding the moral authority of the Soviet Union, but he also scorned Russia's wild ride into post-Soviet liberalism and approved of Putin, who stabilized Russia but rolled back democratic reform.

All the contradictions and reversals of fate came to an end here, with the man who had pushed the horror of the gulag before the eyes of the world laid out and commemorated by the country's leaders.

"He was one of the dearest persons in the world," said Arkady Kurovich, a 70-year-old doctor who wore a carefully pressed suit and carried a broken umbrella. "He struggled against this evil, and now these devils are here today."

His death left a lot to contemplate for a Russia wistful for lost Soviet eminence and ambivalent over its history. Today, nostalgia for the superpower status of the USSR lingers.

Stalin's image has been softened among Russians who regard the storied dictator as a symbol of bygone strength and unity. When thousands of Russians voted this summer in an Internet poll to name the country's top historical figure, Stalin surged into the lead and stayed there for two weeks before being overtaken by Lenin and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

On Tuesday, the Communist Party newspaper ran several items deriding Solzhenitsyn in harsh language. The author "barfed" out his "bilious and lopsided" prose, the paper wrote. "The Gulag Archipelago," widely considered Solzhenitsyn's most important work, was described as "a tub of tendentious dirt."

Many Russians who made their way to his coffin seemed to be mourning not only the celebrated author, but also a Russia that has receded, a collective experience and understanding that is foreign to their children.

"Young people today are politically apathetic," said Irena Polduskaya, a slight 68-year-old woman with close-cropped silver hair. "They don't know who Alexander Solzhenitsyn is, and they don't care about what we went through. They only care about money."

The rain pelted down, coursing in dirty rivers in the gutters and drumming on Polduskaya's umbrella. A low fog sat over the city, swallowing the skyscrapers commissioned by Stalin.

"We used to read Solzhenitsyn's books at night, and it was a way of measuring things," she said.

"For us, he was like a lighthouse for ships at sea."

--

megan.stack@latimes.com

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