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Memory and Hope: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the Challenge of Exile: A Review Article

John N. Somerville Jr.

Between Two Millstones, Book 1: Sketches of Exile, 1974–1978, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by Peter Constantine. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018, xv + 451 pages, $35.

For those whose formative years have come since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the singular menace of the Soviet empire is perhaps little more than a vague prologue to our current geopolitical circumstances. But for others, those who came of age at the height of the Cold War, who remember the deep worry created by Soviet communism, that nation’s aspirations to worldwide domination, and the prospect of nuclear annihilation, that era certainly continues to inform their view of the world.

Such individuals were also inevitably and keenly interested in the fate of those Russian citizens living under the brutal weight of the Soviet system and were captivated by accounts of resistance within that population. Among those dissidents, one who achieved international celebrity, even as he suffered intense persecution in his homeland, was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He had first come to the attention of the world in 1962 when his novel about the Soviet prison labor camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was published in a leading Russian literary journal. In the following years he engaged in a long struggle to get other works published and found himself increasingly at odds with Soviet authorities. He suffered continual harassment and an attempted assassination at the hands of the KGB, and in 1974, four years after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, was deported from the Soviet Union.

Between Two Millstones, Book 1, is Solzhenitsyn’s account of life in the first four years after his expulsion and is, in a sense, a sequel to his earlier memoir, The Oak and the Calf. The new volume, the first English translation of the book, will be followed at a later date by a further installment covering the years from 1978 to 1994, or up until his return to Russia.

For those who were aware of Solzhenitsyn’s plight during the late 1960s and early 1970s, his every publication, his conflict with state authorities, and his being awarded the Nobel Prize were cause for great interest. The circumstances of his life after 1974, however, tended to receive less attention. In fact, apart from the publication of new books and his 1978 Harvard graduation speech, Solzhenitsyn kept a fairly low profile. For those curious about his first years in the West, as Solzhenitsyn negotiated the challenges of living in a different world, this volume goes a long way to filling out the story.

His deepest yearnings were, it seems, to acquire the time and quiet to pursue his research and writing, and to find a place—a home—for his family and himself. He remarks early in the book that, delivered from the constraints he endured in the Soviet Union, “I was free to discuss whatever I liked” (8). Many pages later, however, he reflects on the Harvard address, saying that “I naively believed that I had found myself in a society where one can say what one thinks, without having to flatter that society” (287). But it is not just this one episode that troubles Solzhenitsyn: the book contains, in fact, a long series of incidents where Solzhenitsyn laments the failures of words—in pirated or poorly translated editions of his books, but most often as a result of his own miscalculations, misunderstandings, and hotheadedness in making public statements. It is hard at the end of his narrative not to recall his words to reporters on arriving in Germany after his expulsion: “I said enough in the Soviet Union. I will be silent for now” (3).

True, Solzhenitsyn finds periods during which he can, without interruption, gather information for his Red Wheel cycle of novels about the Russian Revolution.  He also notes with pleasure those moments in Switzerland and later at his new home in Vermont when he found the opportunity to write. Much of his time, however, is spent on the necessary, but tiresome business of dealing with visitors, invitations, speeches, interviews, and thousands of letters. He must deal also with the exasperating details related to the ownership, translation, and publication of his books, concerns that inevitably draw Solzhenitsyn into seemingly endless legal battles. These, he writes after many such episodes, are “a profanation of the soul, an ulceration. As the world has entered a legal era,” he continues, “gradually replacing man’s conscience with law, the spiritual level of the world has sunk” (202).

If Solzhenitsyn encounters a sort of “noise” in the law, he finds something no less disturbing in the Western press, which becomes a constant nemesis to the liberated novelist. Indeed, he shouts at a group of reporters soon after his arrival in the West, “You are worse than the KGB!” Solzhenitsyn adds immediately, “My relations with the press grew worse and worse” (13). Perhaps as telling as any moment in his dealings with the press occurs in relation to his Harvard speech, during which he singles out journalists for criticism, and after which he laments their misreading of his message. In their many attacks on Solzhenitsyn in the days after the address, he complains that “they had completely missed everything important” while “invent[ing] things that simply did not exist in my speech” (286).

The cause of Solzhenitsyn’s greatest distress, however, of which the legal system and the press are symptoms, is the West’s moral decline and cowardice before the communist menace. He voices these thoughts most famously in the Harvard graduation address, where, among other things, he complains that in the West “the notion of freedom has been diverted to unbridled passion” and “a sense of responsibility before God and society has fallen away” (285). The West, he adds, adrift in its “excesses and carelessness” (50), has its origins in “irreligious humanism,” and has, with the rest of humanity, no hope or “way left but—upward” (286).

Despite such unhappiness with the world he finds in freedom, Solzhenitsyn also conveys some sense of promise. In its simplest form, this occurs in reports of his travels through Europe, Canada, and the United States, all previously inaccessible to him. These passages, at the least, provide some of the more interesting and amusing episodes in the book, including the Nobel laureate’s story about receiving a speeding ticket during a trip from California to Vermont and his blunt descriptions of the ugliness of cities such as Montreal and New York. More significant, though, are the places where Solzhenitsyn seeks and then finds a home, a location where he and his family can settle during their life in exile. Solzhenitsyn describes their first stop in Zurich, his later search in Canada and Alaska, then finding a comfortable spot in rural Vermont. There, aided by the tireless labors of his wife, Solzhenitsyn can focus on his writing and other projects, and together they can raise their sons. Though he rarely mentions them, one short section of the book describes the boys coming to his writing cottage for instruction in mathematics, to swim in the pond, and to pray with their father. In this place Solzhenitsyn can find some of the quiet he craves, a refuge with his family from the ruined world, East and West, that he knows so well.

Since the fourth of the book’s five chapters—although it also recounts the turmoil associated with his Harvard speech—pays particular attention to Solzhenitsyn’s domestic retreat in Vermont, it is jarring to read the last chapter, a long response to a book that attacked Solzhenitsyn. He devotes page after page to the book’s accusations and to his defense against those charges. The seeming purpose of the chapter—or to the chapter’s placement in the narrative—is that it underscores the truth that for Solzhenitsyn, although he has found his refuge, the world with which he has engaged has not finished with him.

Here, as elsewhere in the book, Solzhenitsyn shapes his narrative with the care of a novelist. And it is in this unhappy closing chapter that he embeds his single most moving passage, a message addressed to his childhood friend Kirill, one with whom the young Solzhenitsyn shared a passionate love for literature, but who as an adult betrayed the writer by contributing his own lies to the book attacking Solzhenitsyn. “Kirill! . . . Kirochka!” Solzhenitsyn writes, “What have you done? How could you have gone over to them?” (327). The plaintive tone of heartbreak that saturates Solzhenitsyn’s words in this brief section eloquently expresses the spirit of sadness that is never far from the surface in the book.

Despite this strain of unspoken sorrow and the ceaseless battles that Solzhenitsyn fights, even in the relative freedom of the West, Between Two Millstones testifies above all to the author’s immense courage and resilience, invaluable reserves gathered to some degree from his Russian Orthodox faith. We can now look forward to the second volume, to observing Solzhenitsyn, having obtained some degree of quiet and a place of his own, as he negotiates his final years in exile.

John N. Somerville Jr. is a professor of English, Barbara Longway Briggs Chair in English Literature, at Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant, November 2019.

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