D.M.Thomas, British writer and poet, for RIA Novosti
The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn marks also the symbolic end of the Russian twentieth century. And since Russia has been a principal player in world history, and since Solzhenitsyn deeply affected political thought in the West, his passing is a solemn moment for us all. His life spanned every major event in Russian history since the October Revolution: indeed, he was conceived only a few months after that cataclysm, one of ‘October’s children’. His family lived in silent fear, night after night, as the civil war raged. Little Sanya, with his sensitivity, must have ‘heard’ that anxious silence. And maybe this sowed the seeds of his later ‘on guard’ personality.
Growing up in Rostov, he worked hard and believed in Stalin, like others blissfully unaware of the great famine out in the countryside, killing millions. He studied hard, joined the Komsomol, and graduated in physics and mathematics. He even found time to marry: a perfect young homo sovieticus. But as an artillery captain after the Nazi invasion, he began to have doubts. How could the mighty USSR, under its Great Leader, collapse so totally against the onslaught? The sense of order and prosperity he sensed beneath the rubble of East Germany shocked him further: this was so different from his poverty-stricken homeland. He voiced one or two mild criticisms in letters, and found himself under arrest, then sentenced to eight years in a labour camp. The scowl on his face in his official prison photo shows that the new, the real, Solzhenitsyn has been born.
I love Alexandr Tvardovsky’s account of how he first read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. An assistant at the Novy Mir offices had gulled him into taking the manuscript home with him, in December 1962, by saying it was about a peasant. Tvardovsky, of peasant background, couldn’t resist that. He started reading it in bed, but almost at once got up, dressed, and went down to his study. He said from the first page he knew this writer was a genius, and he would not dishonour him by reading his work in his pyjamas. His reaction does honour to Tvardovsky too, and indeed to the great Russian tradition that literature is of paramount moral and artistic value.
When Denisovich was published in the West, we could not appreciate the literary subtleties of the original Russian, but were overwhelmed by the knowledge that the work represented the conscience of a suffering nation. Soft western authors could hardly compete. With every succeeding book – First Circle, Cancer Ward, The Gulag Archipelago — his reputation soared ever higher in the West, and (circulated in samizdat) his own country. There were other dissidents, but he stood out by his almost flamboyant challenge to the Politburo. If they punished or tried to silence him, he found a way to counter-attack, with amazing bravado. One such riposte came when he and his second wife, Natalya Svetlova, proclaimed that not even threats to harm their children would move them to compromise their beliefs. He never lost the aggression and strategic sense he must have learned on the battlefield.
Not even the hosts of left-leaning intellectuals in the West, for so long blind to the evils of Stalinism, could prevent having their eyes forced half-open. He was responsible for a great conversion. As Akhmatova bore witness to ‘Russia’s terrible years’ in cameo, through Requiem, Solzhenitsyn did so with massive force in the Gulag. For this stupendous work was not dry history, but written with a true artist’s verve. There is no greater opening than his quietly savage account of the small academic readership of Nature, learning that men had found frozen specimens of prehistoric salamanders on the Kolyma River; had broken open the encasing ice, ‘and devoured them with relish on the spot’. Who, he asks, would devour such fossils with relish? Only the tribe of the zeks.
His great quality, illustrated there, is his energy and vitality, which fills the reader with exhilaration, even when the most dreadful events are being related. One feels he is taking on Communism single-handed, and he’s going to win. And he did win.
Author of Alexander Solzhenitsyn: a century in his life and the novel The White Hotel.