Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Powerful Voice for Truth

A week ago, I watched Alexander Solzhenitsyn's program on television. I don't know what I'd expected: some gloomy misanthrope, I think; annoyed, negative; Isaiah in a huff -- for this was the way he'd been described to me. "He's extremely badly advised," said one journalist. "He seems to be in the hands of second-rate people," said another, "who toady to his certainty and have no idea at all about the projection of his image."

Imagine my surprise, then, when the 1970 Nobel Prize winner finally came on in our little dacha kitchen: fiddle-faced, with his grizzled beard grown long and with the scar from a childhood accident still blazoned on his forehead. It's true that he didn't look as most Russian presenters do: as if they've recently been hit by a pair of flying dentures. But he was quiet, he was modest as he introduced his guest for the evening: Sviatoslav Fyodorov, the crew-cut eye doctor who's made a reputation (and a fortune) by applying high technology and production-line methods to a number of operations.

Now I don't hold much brief, as it happens, for Dr. Fyodorov, who seems to have a major interest in other, rather more dubious sectors of the Russian economy, such as hotels and gambling. But where was the rage, the ranting, the fulmination I'd been led to expect? In their stead, the two men -- Solzhenitsyn in a black shirt and tweed jacket -- talked quietly enough about the importance of workers having a stake in their work; about the distribution of profits; and about a notional future "people's socialism" in which they'd routinely hold shares in the companies they're employed by.

Only once did the conversation between the two men become even a little heated, when Solzhenitsyn, after a detour into the subject of zemstvos (grass-roots local councils: democracy established from the bottom up), said: "But there can be no social independence without economic independence."

"And so-called privatization," said Fyodorov, "hasn't got anywhere near achieving this in Russia, for it's been nothing but robbery."

"Robbery like nowhere else," exclaimed Solzhenitsyn. "All these press conferences they give -- about the stabilization of the economy and how it's all getting better! It's simply being stolen and nobody is speaking up about it. Russia is being destroyed, while the invasion of Chechnya deflects attention."

Having just spent a week in the city, dodging flotillas of long limousines and nervously eyeing hoods in Moscow restaurants, I couldn't have put it, I realized as the credits came up, much better myself.

So why is there this hostility toward him? Why is he (more or less) universally belittled? And why has his standing in the political polls published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta dropped from 72 to 21 points (or so) since his return? I think it has something to do with memory. For Solzhenitsyn is the embodiment of (what should be) Russian memory: of the continuity between the country's totalitarian past and its smash-and-grab present. And nobody, these days, much wants to be reminded of it: the old Communist apparatchiki -- now awash with money -- for obvious reasons, and the young, because they think it has nothing to do with them, and they don't want to be hectored.

But in turning its collective back on memory and the past, this country is also turning its back on a very brave and remarkable man. When his "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" was published in Novy Mir at the end of 1962, the whole nation wept: This ex-concentration-camp inmate and exile, then working as a provincial schoolteacher, had in one stroke given it back its memory and its language, brushing away from both the dead hands of jargoneers and apologists, bureaucrats and murderers-at-long-distance. From that point on, as he struggled to find a home in his own country for his other works, he increasingly took on -- one man -- the full murderous power of the state. Neither expulsion from the Writers' Union nor death threats could move him. Nothing could move him -- except the final coercive force of the KGB, which unceremoniously bundled him onto a plane bound for Frankfurt in 1974, just as the ticking time bomb of his "Gulag Archipelago" was finally set to explode in the West.

Now that he has returned to this country he has earned the right to take on its present, just as he tried to take on the whole history of its revolution in "The Red Wheel." Solzhenitsyn may be a lion in winter, a prophet unheard, speaking out into a silence. But he is a lion indeed.