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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BOOKWORM: Living Prophet Refuses To Quit




Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who celebrated his 80th birthday Friday, can be a controversial figure, both in the West and in his native land. But most people are willing to grant him moral authority, springing from his self-appointed role as the keeper of truth (pravda).


Solzhenitsyn's unofficial status as a living prophet is obvious to everyone, although it is aesthetically or ideologically unacceptable to many. In this, he resembles another Russian writer whose 80th birthday the country celebrated 90 years ago - Leo Tolstoy.


When great novelists turn into teachers and preachers, they prefer to put aside their creative artistic forces. They begin a direct propaganda crusade with public statements, open letters, diaries and memoirs that are excerpted and published.


Everybody is ready to pay tribute to a national treasure, especially during his jubilee, but it is quite another thing to live next to a pravednik (a righteous man), and to follow his simple precept: Zhit ne po lzhi (live not by lies).


Several months ago, Solzhenitsyn published his latest gloomy assessment of the present situation in Russia, "Rossiya v obvale" ("Russia in Collapse"). Every periodical in the country, as well as many foreign publications, printed excepts from the slim volume, but barely 5,000 Russians cared to spend the ruble equivalent of 50 cents to buy the book.


This September, Novy Mir, the most prestigious of the thick literary monthly journals, began to serialize Solzhenitsyn's latest book of memoirs, "Ugodilo zyornyshko promezh dvukh zhernovov. Ocherki izgnaniya" ("A Small Grain Caught Between Two Millstones. Sketches of Exile"). It was Novy Mir that launched Solzhenitsyn's literary career 36 years ago, with the publication of "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich."


The memoirs, written just after the writer's exile from the Soviet Union in 1974, give a detailed account of how Solzhenitsyn viewed the West and how the West, in turn, viewed the Nobel laureate.


It was not a comfortable meeting, with many misunderstandings on both sides. It is certainly easier and more fun for us to read about such incidents now than for the grain that experienced the grinding process some 20 years ago.


The first part of Solzhenitsyn's memoirs was titled "Bodalsya telyonok s dubom" ("Oak and the Calf"). A friend of mine wrote the other day that, quite unexpectedly for all concerned, the calf became a prize bull and the mighty oak came crashing down.


This new volume in the writer's memoirs suggests that it was somewhat of a draw between the grain and the millstones. In fact, it is clear now that the grain was made of diamonds.


The second installment of Solzhenitsyn's memoirs will be in Novy Mir in November, with the full text to be published later in the year by Soglasiye Publishers.