In May 1974, three months after his dramatic expulsion from the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn entered on a search for a place to live in North America. The search ended in Cavendish, Vt., but the first stop was at our summer place on a lake here in Quebec where Solzhenitsyn wanted to continue the long talks he had begun earlier in Zurich with my father, the Rev. Alexander Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox theologian and historian.
I was thrilled to be there. Solzhenitsyn was a giant among the heroic dissidents in the Soviet Union, and his saga was a defining episode in the decline of the Communist tyranny. The appearance of “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in the journal Novy Mir on Nov. 20, 1962, opened the window into the Stalinist camps and demonstrated that the great moral tradition of Russian literature had survived decades of brutal efforts to extirpate it.
Then came “The First Circle,” “The Cancer Ward,” the 1970 Nobel Prize and the monumental “Gulag Archipelago,” revealing the full evil of Stalinism. Finally, there was the furious Soviet assault and the brusque expulsion.
Now here he was in the flesh.
My function was modest; I came to cook and drive. All Solzhenitsyn wanted were potatoes roasted with onions for his meals and a small, inconspicuous car for transport. But the conversations were electrifying: it was as if what Solzhenitsyn wanted from my father was an instant transfer of all the Russian history and ideas that had been denied him in the Soviet state.
The talks were interrupted only for BBC Russian-language news, which Solzhenitsyn would rush outdoors to tune in to on a portable shortwave radio. He had lists of questions and took copious notes in a tiny hand — perhaps another legacy of a lifetime of hiding writings and thoughts from “them” — and the conversations continued even on long treks through the countryside. There was still ice on the lake and, as in Russia, only the first hint of green in the woods. Solzhenitsyn said our fields and forests lacked the songbirds of the Russian countryside. This was not Russia.
That was always the reference point: Russia. Everything — the conversation, the setting, the food, the writing, the shortwave broadcasts, even the safari-style jacket and the patriarchal beard he wore — was about Russia.
It was his Russia; one in which speaking truth was dangerous and heroic; a great and holy Russia that had to be rescued from an evil and godless power. Joseph Brodsky, another great literary exile, once told me that writing poetry in Russian became difficult for him in America after the language ceased to surround him.
Solzhenitsyn seemed to fear a similar fate — that any interest or involvement in his new surroundings would dilute his self-imposed, sacred mission of rescuing Russia. He seemed determined to sustain the spirit of moral resistance. In all his years in Vermont, he rarely ventured into the world, and then it was to inveigh against Western immorality, consumerism and decadence in terms that showed little firsthand knowledge.
The next time I saw Solzhenitsyn was 20 years later, when I covered his return to Russia in Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East. He continued to issue moral thunderbolts, now also against the chaotic, new post-Soviet Russia. Perhaps he was right, but his incessant criticism and the naïveté of his exhortations, usually centered on patriotism as the key to Russia’s future, seemed irrelevant to Russians caught up in the post-Communist tumult. The work that he had regarded as the most important of his life, “Red Wheel,” attracted little attention.
It was a sad ending, but also typically Russian. As Solzhenitsyn himself noted in “The First Circle,” the writer is like a second government in a dictatorship. The paradox is that the moral authority gained through prophetic and powerful writing undermines the creativity at its source. Like many great Russian writers, Solzhenitsyn achieved immortality before he became conscious of his power, which then turned into pedantry.
None of that detracts from the paean to the human spirit of “Ivan Denisovich,” the great conflicts of his major novels, or the majestic anger of “Gulag.” To his credit, Solzhenitsyn struggled to the end to maintain the power and purity of these great works.
* By SERGE SCHMEMANN (Editorial NYT; August 5, 2008)