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Notes on Solzhenitsyn

Larisa Bogoraz, Moscow
On 11 December Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had his 80 thbirthday. Nobody influenced the public opinion of the 60s-80s like Solzhenitsyn. The gift of a prophet, hate of the state violence, attention to the life of the Russian people, immense literary talent - all these features put Solzhenitsyn in the rank of the classics of Russian literature. The time will come when our epoch will be called that of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. In order to celebrate the writer’s jubilee we publish Larisa Bogoraz’s personal remembrances on Solzhenitsyn. This is the first publication of the notes.

Editorial board of PL


‘We live without feeling the country beneath us,

Our speech at ten paces inaudible.’

This diagnosis made by Osip Mandelshtam of the state of our society in early 30s remained valid up to early sixties. It would be untrue to say that the people did not know all this time about what was happening in their country: about famines, concentration camps, mass executions on the Vorkuta and the Kolyma. Pack of lies! Half the country went to the concentration camps. The terror concerned almost every family. By the beginning of the 60s the children grew up of those who had been killed, who had been rotten or who were lucky to survive in deadly camps, colonies and exiles in order to return to the big concentration camp of the country. Khrushchov’s report on the ‘cult of personality’ was already widely distributed and, actually, did not become a source of unexpected information.

But people behaved as if they did not feel country beneath them, the country looked numb and petrified.

In spite of Khrushchov’s report some topics were discussed only in whispers, ‘inaudible at ten paces’. Was it a habit? Or — rather — inertia of fear? This chorus of whispers went on up to 1962 when everyone heard a loud distinct voice, without any subterfuges, from the pages of the most prestigious ‘Noviy mir’. This was the voice of Ivan Denisovich, or maybe Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn, or maybe Aleksandr Trifonovich Tvardovskiy, the editor-in-chief of ‘Noviy mir’. Rather the former entrusted to speak on behalf the other two. A little later Matriona spoke by the mouth of them. At last all heard the voice of the country. This happened because Solzhenitsyn pushed out the gag from his mouth and spoke from behalf of the multimillion people in rough, rude and half-suffocated voice. This event meant the beginning of the ability to speak.

The next step was made by Solzhenitsyn too in 1967 at the congress of Soviet writers. The congress continued in the usual routine way, but Solzhenitsyn managed to stir up this routine. He said what was secretly thought of almost by every writer: censorship shall be cancelled.

This idea seems obvious, even banal, but only Solzhenitsyn dared to say this banality, and it broke the dam.

‘Then Word stopped the sun and broke town walls’ (Nikolay Gumilev). When Solzhenitsyn said his Word, thousands of pensioners set at their typewriters and started to multiply Solzhenitsyn’s words. And he appealed: ‘Do not live in lies’, ‘A village cannot stand without a righteous…’.


Certainly, I was eager to meet Solzhenitsyn, to listen to his speeches. It rumored that he was writing (or even had finished) a new book which would be published in samizdatby the autumn. Literally all spoke about this secret. I wanted to meet the author and to ask him about the book.

By the spring of 1968 Solzhenitsyn rather frequently met with his readers at some establishments. I heard from my friends who were lucky to be present at such meetings, but myself I did not manage to come to such a meeting. People said that small halls were usually overcrowded.

One day my friend Maya Ulanovskaya, a librarian, said that Solzhenitsyn had to meet with his readers in their library, and if I came, she would take me to the hall. I certainly did come. At the entrance of the library a crowd was waiting for the writer. The writer did not come. The rumor explained that somehow the meeting was cancelled ‘at the top’. Nobody was surprised, it was clear that they at the top did not like such meetings. They said that such meetings were cancelled rather frequently.

Suddenly, in May, I was informed that Solzhenitsyn wanted to meet with Pavel Litvinov and myself. They added that Solzhenitsyn himself would appoint the place and the time of the meeting.

Some time later Solzhenitsyn’s invitation was passed to me to come to Pavel’s parents’ place at such and such time. At the appointed time we came to the appointed place. I do not remember whether Solzhenitsyn had been already there or he came after us. I do not remember the process of introduction because I was struck by Solzhenitsyn’s appearance: this was the strongest impression that ousted from my memory all other impressions. He had bright, I even can say scintillating blue eyes, irradiating energy. This energy resembled me a ball lightning (twice in my life, in childhood, I saw a ball lightning falling at two paces from me, and I remember a rolling clot of electricity: it was extraordinary and terrifying).

Some time later when we were sitting at table and Flora (Pavel’s mother) put plates with delicatessen on the table, another visitor joined us (perhaps, he had been invited too beforehand). It was Ivan Yahimovich, the chairman of a Latvian kolkhoz. Ivan had brightly blue eyes, but not scintillating but slightly opaque. Real blue eyes are seldom and there at one table there were two pairs.

The conversation with Solzhenitsyn started before Yahimovich’s arrival, and the ball of the conversation was surely spun by Solzhenitsyn. The first what he said (looking at Pavel) that he was glad that we were robust. It was true relative to Pavel; I at that time was 39-year-old and healthy, but hardly could be called robust. Solzhenitsyn had read our ‘Address to the world public’ and imagined us to be meager egg-heads. Perhaps he was willing to meet us because of this address. Then he showed to us a strip of paper and said that this text about us would be put to a book of his. In these lines he said that two persons broke the play set by the powers — the January trial of Galanskov, Ginzburg, Dobrovolskiy and Lashkova. The authorities were sure that the play would be successful, it was important for them after the trial of Siniavskiy and Daniel. However they lost, they lost because of two egg-heads. I do not remember the text verbatim, maybe the word ‘egg-heads’ was not used, the text was simple and somewhat more solemn than in my rendering. ]

I asked Solzhenitsyn if he read Anatoliy Marchenko’s book ‘My testimony’, which then circulated in samizdat. He said he read it, but in his opinion the author distorted the prison reality. He could not imagine convicts to behave so independently, who even debated political topics with the prison administration. Marchenko told about hunger strikes of convicts — Solzhenitsyn thought that it was a stupid way to defend rights, because the prison administration did not care a pin, it was only the way for convicts to loose the remnants of their health. A strike is much better than a hunger strike!

‘How do you think, is it possible to convince intellectuals to go on strike?’ — ‘Certainly not, Aleksandr Isaevich’ — ‘That is a pity’.

If my memory does not fail, Solzhenitsyn did not approve Marchenko, because he handed his manuscript to ‘Noviy mir’. He decided that Marchenko wanted to distribute his book through the magazine. It will put the magazine in danger, he said. I tried to explain that Anatoliy did not hand his manuscript to ‘Noviy mir’, it was done by somebody else. I do not know whether Solzhenitsyn believed me.

In the conversation I made a shameful blunder for which I cannot pardon myself until now. I asked Solzhenitsyn if his book ‘In the first round’ has a continuation (so people spoke then on the ‘GULAG archipelago’) and may I read it? Solzhenitsyn literally hissed at me, putting a finger to his lips: ‘Hush-sh’. I do not know whether Solzhenitsyn remembers this meeting.

I will finish the portrait with one detail. In 1997 when I with my sons went to Strasbourg to accept from the European Parliament the premium ‘To a fighter for freedom of speech’, with which Anatoliy Marchenko was awarded posthumously, Aleksandr Ginzburg passed me a sum of money (to my shame I do not remember how much). Ginzburg said: ‘Solzhenitsyn and his wife have sent this money to you, Marchenko’s widow’. Thus was allowance from the Solzhenitsyn’s fund, one of many handed to different people.
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