May 16th 2008

Reporting the News from a Police State - Chapter 17: Desperately Seeking Solzhenitsyn

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

Every journalist in Moscow wanted to be the first to find Alexander Solzhenitsyn after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. I intended to be that journalist and I was unconcerned about the consequences this publicity might have for him.

I began my search with Lev Kopelev, a writer who was at a friendly stage in his up-and-down relationship with Solzhenitsyn. They had been fellow zeks (colloquial form of "ZK", short for zaklyuchonny, or "prisoner"), labor camp inmates, in the 1940s and 1950s. They argued ideology with such fervor that Solzhenitsyn portrayed Kopelev in his novels as his intellectual equal. Later in life, both living broad, they sadly had a final falling out. Lev died without making peace with Solzhenitsyn.

I got to Lev through his wife Raisa Orlova who had asked me to obtain a copy of a book she wanted to translate into Russian. Lev was a burly, bearded, bear of a man who could never quite make the break with his Marxist past. He was no KGB informer but his sympathies were ambiguous. Solzhenitsyn, I later learned, never totally trusted him. As Solzhenitsyn put it in a memoir, quoting an old Russian proverb, "Even fire cannot clean a barrel that once held tar."

But Lev and his wife Raisa were warm and welcoming to me, inviting me to their small, gloomy home for tea for a get-acquainted meeting. Raisa wanted something from me and I wanted something from Lev. Raisa spoke good English. Lev was also a competent linguist but German was his main foreign language. His English came out as a loud basso in short, prepared bursts. We spoke Russian together.

My presence made him nervous but he made the best of my visit. As tea was served, I mentally rehearsed the main item on my agenda: to obtain Solzhenitsyn's telephone number, or at least his address, neither of which any foreign journalist had yet found. We all knew that Solzhenitsyn was a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature and that the award would be a front-page story if it came to pass. While the Nobel Prize would help establish Solzhenitsyn as a major writer, it was sure to lead to trouble for him.

Between sips of tea, I made my request, only to be sharply refused. "Solzhenitsyn needs and deserves his privacy," Lev said, with some justification. But he did agree to be the intermediary for carrying the news to Solzhenitsyn if he won.

My access to the AP teleprinter meant that I would have the news the moment it was announced. I agreed to ring Lev, and he would ring Solzhenitsyn. I would get nothing from the arrangement other than the satisfaction of being the messenger.

A week later, I was on duty at the AP when the teleprinter came alive with a one-paragraph bulletin from our Stockholm office quoting the Swedish Academy as awarding the Prize to Solzhenitsyn. I let out an involuntary whoop. Before the paragraph had finished printing I was on the phone to Lev, who received the news with an even greater whoop. He immediately relayed the news to Solzhenitsyn by calling the Rostropovich number and asking the housemaid to summon the man living in the garage apartment.

The award of the Prize would change many lives in Russia and abroad, and would further show up the Brezhnev regime as insecure and vindictive.

With no further help from Lev, I set about contacting Russian acquaintances who might have had an inkling of Solzhenitsyn's precise whereabouts. He was known to have spent many years in Ryazan, but recently had lived with various friends in and around Moscow. I invited Chicago Tribune correspondent Frank Starr to join me and we set off for Peredelkino, the town with a name that always reminds me of the sound of Russian church bells. Peredelkino was the obvious place to look - it is the writers' community 30 miles outside of Moscow. We knew that he had been sheltered from time to time by Lydia Chukovskaya, a writer who also lived there. Most of the larger properties in the village were controlled by the Writers' Union, the organization that protected well-behaved writers.

There was no response to our knock at the Chukovskaya front door and so at random, we tramped through the mud and knocked on other doors around the village, including the Writers' Union office. Eventually we found ourselves walking through Boris Pasternak's gate and up the steps of the big, wooden house and rapped on the door. (Boris Pasternak had long since died, but the house will always known as be his residence. It is now a Pasternak museum.) A man named Stanislav Neuhaus came to the door and was most pleasant - unusual for encounters with foreign strangers. He invited us in and we chatted for a half hour. He was the son of Heinrich Neuhaus, the late Russian pianist and teacher. Neuhaus junior, who was Pasternak's stepson, had been practicing for a recital he was scheduled to give that evening in Moscow.

He didn't know where Solzhenitsyn was camping out but he talked a bit about Pasternak. Living there was like inhabiting a holy place, Neuhaus said. This was the house where Pasternak had cowered in fear of the stomp of police boots and a knock at the door to take him away to be imprisoned or shot, as had happened to so many of his writer and artist friends. Nobody knows quite why Stalin left Pasternak alone. He was allowed to write in relative freedom but was not authorized to publish most of his output in his homeland.

After an interesting but unsuccessful day, Starr and I returned to our flats in Moscow.

The next day I followed up a new tip from a cellist friend, Natalya Gutman, a Rostropovich protegée. She had heard that Solzhenitsyn was spending a lot of time at Rostropovich's dacha in Zhukovka, a cluster of country homes where some of the scientific and artistic elite lived, about 30 minutes from Moscow.

An Italian journalist, Pietro Sormani of Corriere della Sera, and a Swiss, Roger Bernheim of Neue Zurcher Zeitung, joined me for this second day of the hunt. We drove straight to Zhukovka early in the morning.

We quickly found our way to Shostakovich's house, the first landmark Miss Gutman had indicated, and there asked a policewoman where Rostropovich's dacha was. Surprisingly, she gave us directions in the most clear and courteous manner. (We thought we might be arrested for being at large in the complex without permission.) We followed the pathways and soon came upon the great cellist's dacha. It reminded me of the big wooden farm houses in Indiana where I grew up.

We cautiously climbed the steps, snow squeaking underfoot, our teeth chattering from the chill and the excitement. It was mid-winter, bitterly cold and overcast with leaden skies. I could see off to the side of the property a brick concert hall under construction. Work had been suspended for the winter. Clean, sharp-edged bricks were scattered around the site. Such high-quality materials are rare in Russia. These were obviously German imports.

A lone birch tree was struggling to survive on the front lawn. Nothing stirred.

I knocked at the door, expecting Rostropovich or his wife Galina Vishnevskaya, the soprano, to appear. The housemaid answered the door promptly. She was a heavy woman in her 50s, missing most of her teeth, a scarf over her hair and an apron over her sweater and woolen skirt. She looked like she needed a bath and she spoke in a heavy provincial accent. I asked for Gospodin Rostropovich, and she replied matter-of-factly, "Khozyain za rubezhom." ("The boss is abroad.")

I then asked if a Gospodin Solzhenitsyn was living there. "Never heard of him," she said, "but there's a man with a beard living in the garage over there," pointing to the outbuilding across the property. Hmmm, I thought. A beard. It could be him.

We thanked the maid and set out across the snow-covered lawn to the garage. Imported building materials were also scattered around the driveway. I approached the door and knocked a few times. When no one responded, I called out "Alexander Isayevich?". A pause of a few seconds ensued, then came a piercing voice, none too inviting, "Kto eto?" ("Who's there?") I replied that we were foreign journalists from Moscow who had come to congratulate him on his Nobel Prize.

The door burst open and we were transfixed by this little man with a magnificent head of unkempt reddish hair that spread down his face into a bushy beard, ending at chest level. He gave us the once-over with his beady blue eyes. We recognized him immediately -- the author of a series of masterpieces: "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", "Cancer Ward", "The First Circle", all banned in Russia. When he was satisfied in his own mind that we were not KGB, he confirmed his identity.

Solzhenitsyn spoke rapidly, like a man with a lot on his mind, in a strange, high-pitched voice. I started by asking him for his reaction to being selected for the Prize (probably some inane question such as "How does it feel?"). He avoided the question, perhaps dreading headlines around the world that might make his situation even more difficult.

He replied that he regretted he could not invite us into his humble room because he himself was a guest in the apartment owned by Rostropovich. We could see inside that he was housed in a partially completed apartment being constructed inside the garage. The danger that this represented for Rostropovich -- harboring Solzhenitsyn -- was not lost upon us. Both of these men were heroic figures willing to risk their liberty, perhaps their lives, to oppose the Soviet regime.

The conversation that followed was brief and to the point. Solzhenitsyn confirmed that he knew about the Prize but felt he could not comment on it because his host was away. Although he had by then considerable experience with the West and the Western press, he was doubtful about our motives and probably wondered about our common sense. He was obviously not prepared for our questions. He said he had made no decision about whether to accept it or to do as Pasternak had done, reject it. And he repeated how much he regretted that we could not be invited in for tea. I told him we fully understood, and did not intend to bother him any further, and that we wished him the best of luck.

As we made our way back to my car, I stopped to take a picture of the garage with the trembling birch tree in the foreground. It was published all over the world along with my story confirming that Solzhenitsyn had not yet been bothered by the authorities and was sheltered by his friend Rostropovich.

The consequences for harboring Solzhenitsyn were terrible for the cellist and his wife. Both were henceforth forbidden to travel abroad, and eventually Rostropovich was blocked from performing in public at home. He recalled later stopping in a doorway in central Moscow and bursting into tears as he realized what the regime was doing to him. His wife writes movingly in her autobiography of their friendship with Solzhenitsyn and their commitment to supporting him.

Solzhenitsyn continued his prolific literary output, and, lacking permission to publish at home, spirited his work to foreign countries. He later praised Jim Peipert, Steve Broening and Roger Leddington, my colleagues and successors in the AP office, for helping him move his archives abroad, using small bundles or in one case hiding materials in their shoes.

Within a couple of years, both Solzhenitsyn and Rostropovich had been expelled from the country and deprived of their Soviet citizenship. The Kremlin's hope was that they would be lost in a sea of chaotic free expression in London, Paris or New York, never to surface again.

Instead, both went to the United States where they were welcomed as the great men they were. Rostropovich became conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington and Solzhenitsyn built himself a splendid house in the state of Vermont - the closest climate he could find to Russia's. They both returned to Moscow after the change of regime there, Solzhenitsyn continuing his prolific output and Rostropovich back to making music.

Neither man had dared dream that rehabilitation would be possible in his lifetime.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Feb 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Beyond the usual economic and policy risks that most financial analysts worry about, a number of potentially seismic white swans are visible on the horizon this year. Any of them could trigger severe economic, financial, political, and geopolitical disturbances unlike anything since the 2008 crisis."
Feb 18th 2020
Extract: "In late 2019, Zogby Research Services (ZRS) once again had the opportunity to poll public opinion across the Middle East and North Africa about many of these issues that are of such critical concern to the region and its peoples..............One of the more intriguing results in our 2019 survey were the changes in Arab views toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Arabs still blame the US and Israel for the absence of peace and have little confidence that the conflict can be resolved in the near future. Maybe as a result of this despair, this issue now ranks low as an Arab priority. Also noteworthy is the fact that majorities in most Arab countries now say that normalization with Israel, which they acknowledge is already happening, may be a good thing. This development shouldn’t be overstated, however, since there is still no love for Israel. It appears, from our survey, to be born of frustration, weariness with Palestinians being victims of war, and the possibility that normalization might bring some economic benefits and could give Arabs leverage to press Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Global dissatisfaction with democracy has increased over the past 25 years, according to our recent report. Drawing upon the HUMAN Surveys project, the report covered 154 countries, with 77 countries covered continuously for the period from 1995 to 2020. These samples were possible thanks to the combination of data from over 25 sources, 3,500 national surveys, and 4 million respondents. Not surprisingly, the gloomy headline finding – rising democratic dissatisfaction – attracted the most attention. Less widely discussed, however, is the “good news” – that a small sample of countries has bucked the trend, and have record high levels of satisfaction with their democracies."
Feb 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "This is how dictatorships begin. As the US prepares for its next presidential election in November, it is every citizen’s responsibility rationally to examine Trump’s dictatorial impulses, which reelection would only reinforce. It is not safe to assume that he won’t go too far, or that he is too much of a “mediocrity” – as Leon Trotsky called Stalin (an assessment with which many Bolsheviks agreed) – to transform his country......Vladimir Lenin, himself a ruthless Bolshevik, wrote in 1922 that, “Stalin concentrated in his hands enormous power, which he won’t be able to use responsibly,” owing to traits like rudeness, intolerance, and capriciousness. Trump has all of them in spades. The more power he concentrates in his own hands, the dimmer the long-term outlook for American democracy becomes. His reelection could mean lights out."
Feb 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Does this mean that the dream of European unity is over? Does the exodus of a member state obliterate the vision of Victor Hugo and Václav Havel? Does Europe now fit the description of what the great American president Abraham Lincoln called a house divided against itself? Not necessarily. History is more imaginative than we are. The EU still has the option of keeping Britain close in heart and mind. We can still benefit from our absent partner, by resurrecting the partnership through our actions."
Feb 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "There, no formal change from a republican system to an autocratic system ever occurred. Rather, there was an erosion of the republican institutions, a steady creep over decades of authoritarian decision-making, and the consolidation of power within one individual – all with the name “Republic” preserved.........Will the GOP-led Senate’s endorsement of this defense clear a path for more of the manifestations – and consequences – of authoritarianism? The case of the Roman Republic’s rapid slippage into an autocratic regime masquerading as a republic shows how easily that transformation can occur."
Feb 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "So all that is why Cramer is talking about the death knell of petroleum stocks. We probably agree on almost nothing else, but when people are right, you have to give them credit. He is right."
Feb 3rd 2020
EXTRACT: "........as the citizens of the remaining 27 states have observed the destabilising impact that the referendum decision has had on British politics, they have been inoculated against the desire to secede from the EU. Outside the UK, national-populist parties have moderated their anti-EU rhetoric and nowadays profess to want to change the EU from within instead of destroying it."
Feb 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Senators will soon decide whether to dismiss the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump without hearing any witnesses. In making this decision, I believe they should consider words spoken at the Constitutional Convention, when the Founders decided that an impeachment process was needed to provide a “regular examination,” to quote Benjamin Franklin. A critical debate took place on July 20, 1787, which resulted in adding the impeachment clause to the U.S. Constitution. Franklin, the oldest and probably wisest delegate at the Constitutional Convention, said that when the president falls under suspicion, a “regular and peaceable inquiry” is needed."
Feb 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Britain will be celebrating its glorious independence from the complications of international cooperation at a time when the intellectual, political, and economic hostility between China’s communist leadership and liberal democracies is becoming ever clearer. If liberal democracy is to survive, it must stand up for itself. And we should be under no illusion: open societies under the rule of law, from the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia, are in China’s hostile sights. The West should not aim to encircle or pen in China. But liberal democracies cannot allow it to distort international norms in its own favor."
Jan 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Switzerland and Denmark have gone furthest into negative territory, both offering unprecedentedly low rates of -0.75%. The Swiss National Bank, which has kept its rate at this level since 2015, signalled recently that it intends to stick with this experiment and is not ruling out going even more negative. It has said that negative rates were boosting the economy and that the country’s fundamentals were not being significantly affected."
Jan 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "Electricity will dominate the future global energy system. Currently, it accounts for only 20% of final energy demand,......Without assuming any fundamental technological breakthroughs, we could certainly build by 2050 a global economy in which electricity met 65-70% of final energy demand,....."
Jan 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the world economy operating dangerously close to stall speed, the confluence of ever-present shocks and a sharply diminished trade cushion raises serious questions about financial markets’ increasingly optimistic view of global economic prospects."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Gibson’s diagnosis is supported by international attitude surveys. One found that most Americans rarely think about the future and only a few think about the distant future. When they are forced to think about it, they don’t like what they see. Another poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 44% of Americans were pessimistic about what lies ahead. But pessimism about the future isn’t just limited to the US. One international poll of over 400,000 people from 26 countries found that people in developed countries tended to think that the lives of today’s children will be worse than their own. And a 2015 international survey by YouGov found that people in developed countries were particularly pessimistic. For instance, only 4% of people in Britain thought things were improving. This contrasted with 41% of Chinese people who thought things were getting better."
Jan 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "........while over 80% of the ECB scheme buys government and other public sector bonds, a huge chunk still goes into corporate bonds and other assets. At the time of writing, the ECB holds €263 billion worth of corporate bonds – a very significant amount in relation to individual firms and the sectors in question. According to the ECB, 29% of these bonds were issued by French firms, 25% by German firms and 11% each by Spanish and Italian firms. As at September 2017, the sectors they came from included utilities (16%), infrastructure (12%), automotive (10%) and energy (7%)."
Jan 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Thanks to cutting-edge digital technology, cars are increasingly like “smartphones on wheels”, so manufacturers need to have access to the latest patented 4G and 5G technologies essential to navigation and communications. But often the companies that hold the patents are reluctant to license them because manufacturers will not accept the high fees involved, which leads to patent disputes and licensing rows."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Recent polling from Pew Research demonstrates how the public’s attitudes toward the US and President Trump have witnessed sharp declines in many nations across the world. In Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East favorable attitudes toward the US went from lows during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency to highs in the early Obama years to lows, once again, in the Trump era. And in our Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling we found, with a few exceptions, much the same trajectory across the Middle East."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "In the absence of a declaration of war against Iran, the killing of a foreign official – by a drone strike on Iraqi territory – was possibly illegal. But such niceties do not perturb Trump. The evidence is that Trump’s decision was taken without consideration of the possible consequences. The national security system established under Dwight D. Eisenhower, designed to prevent such reckless measures, is broken to non-existent, with ever-greater power placed in the hands of the president. If that president is unstable, the entire world has a very serious problem."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is possible that Trump’s reverential base won’t be sufficient to keep him in the White House past 2020. But such ardent faith is hard to oppose with rational plans to fix this or that problem. That is why it is so unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result."