16.1 Solzhenitsyn’s Friends and Foes

No 16 : 31 October 1970

On 8 October 1970 the Swedish Royal Academy of Literature awarded the Nobel Prize to Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn “for moral strength in the development of the best traditions of Russian literature”.

On the same day, during a brief interview with a Swedish correspondent in Moscow, A. I. Solzhenitsyn stated: “I accept the prize with gratitude. I am in perfect health and am prepared to travel in person to Stockholm, insofar as this depends on me.”

The Nobel prize-winner thereupon received an official invitation from the Swedish Academy to go to Stockholm for the ceremonial presentation of the prize. Solzhenitsyn’s reply reads: “I have received your telegram, for which I thank you. In the award of the Nobel Prize I see a tribute to Russian literature and to our difficult history. I intend to arrive at Stockholm by the customary date to receive the prize personally.”

The Western public warmly welcomed the decision of the Swedish Academy. The newspapers of the largest Communist Parties, those of France and Italy, published official announcements and articles at this time, approving the choice of the Nobel jury. The writer André Stil wrote in L’Humanité; Louis Aragon’s weekly journal Les Lettres Françaises saluted the new Nobel prize-winner; the Italian Unità devoted its principal columns to the event.

An article in the Norwegian paper Morgenbladet (“A great victory for Russian literature”) says that Solzhenitsyn is continuing the best traditions not only of Soviet, but also of classical Russian literature, “If anyone deserves the Nobel prize, it is Solzhenitsyn,” Professor Erik Krag of the Slavonic Institute [Oslo University] considers “this choice to be most apt”. The English newspaper The Observer, on 11 October 1970, called Solzhenitsyn “one of those writers whose very existence is proof of human endurance”.

It was only in the prize-winner’s own country, and in Poland and Bulgaria, that the news sparked off an anti-Solzhenitsyn campaign in the press.

On the day of the announcement by the Nobel jury the Moscow correspondent of a Swedish newspaper was unable to obtain any official comments on the decision, either from Literaturnaya gazeta or from the editorial offices of Novy mir. The Writers Union replied that Solzhenitsyn was not a member [see 11.1], and the matter therefore did not concern them.

“A shameful game” – such was the first official reaction of the nationwide Soviet press, which spoke out in the name of “the entire public of the nation”. In short: the decision in the award of the prize “was dictated by speculative political considerations”. Literaturnaya gazeta informed its readers that “the initial nomination of Solzhenitsyn for the Nobel prize was made by the malicious White-Guard journal Sentinel [Chasovoi], published in Brussels, which distributed a memorandum to this effect among well-known European writers, including certain French writers”. The decision of the Nobel jury is described here as “a typical political provocation by anti-Soviet foreigners”. In response the Nobel jury publicly explained in a special announcement the method of nominating candidates for the prize, remarking that it had learnt of the existence of the Brussels journal Sentinel only from the article in Literaturnaya gazeta. “Where does the Nobel committee look for literary talent and fame?” was the headline beneath which Komsomolskaya pravda published an anonymous collection of abusive attacks on Solzhenitsyn and fabrications about him.

It was in the summer of 1970 that the French organisation “Arts et Progrès” took the initiative in nominating Solzhenitsyn for the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature. This proposal was supported in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Belgium. The grounds for the nomination were as follows: the works of Solzhenitsyn reflect “what is most human in mankind, the striving towards humanity, truth and justice” and reveal “the spiritual state of a people”.

At the same time a hundred Soviet writers were sent letters expressing the West’s opinion of Solzhenitsyn and containing a request to “tell us your thoughts on the nomination of Solzhenitsyn as a candidate for the Nobel prize”. In July a reply came from [the literary official] Sergei Mikhalkov: “I personally regard this proposal as nothing but an ordinary political provocation directed against Soviet literature, having nothing to do with a genuine concern for the development of literature.”

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But meanwhile letters and telegrams congratulating Solzhenitsyn and wishing him good health were arriving from his readers in his own country. Among the letters there was a message from prisoners in the Mordovian political camps:

“Alexander Isayevich,

Accept our sincere congratulations on the award of the Nobel prize. Unfortunately, barbed wire and sub-machine guns in the hands of brainwashed youths prevent us from expressing to you in person all the depth of our admiration for your courageous work, which exalts humanity and lifts up to the light both the human soul which has been trodden in the mire, and human dignity which has been trampled underfoot by the iron-clad boot.

We are certain that as long as writers like you exist, the ‘teeth-smashing, bone-crushing blow’ will not become the sole form of contact among men.”

This letter, dated October 1970, was signed by twelve people [including Yury Galanskov].

On 31 October, in reply to the press campaign, Mstislav Rostropovich wrote an Open Letter to the editors of Pravda, Izvestiya, Literaturnaya gazeta and Sovetskaya kultura. The Chronicle reproduces this letter with minor omissions.

“… Within my recollection three Soviet writers have received the Nobel prize. In two cases out of three we have regarded the award of the prize as a dirty political game, but in the third (Sholokhov) – as a just acknowledgement of the leading world importance of our literature.

If Sholokhov had at the time refused to accept the prize from the hands of those who had awarded it to Pasternak ‘for Cold-War reasons’, then I should have understood that we were continuing in our mistrust of the objectivity and honesty of the Swedish academicians. But now it turns out that we selectively accept the Nobel prize for literature with gratitude on one occasion, and turn to abuse on the next. What if next time the prize is awarded to Comrade Kochetov [see 12.10 (4), and Commentary 5]? Then we shall have to take it!

Why is it that on the day after the award of the prize to Solzhenitsyn, there appears in our newspapers a strange item about an interview with correspondent X of the Writers Union, saying that the nation’s entire public (i.e., apparently, all the scientists and all the musicians, etc.) actively supported his expulsion from the Union of Writers? Why does Literaturnaya gazeta tendentiously select from the multitude of Western newspapers only the comments of the American and Swedish communist papers, passing over such incomparably more popular and important communist papers as L’Humanité, Les Lettres Françaises and Unità, not to speak of the multitude of non-communist papers? If we believe some critic called [Philip] Bonosky, then what about the opinion of such major writers as Böll, Aragon and F. Mauriac?

“I remember our newspapers in 1948 and should like to remind you how much nonsense they wrote about the giants of our music – S.S. Prokofiev and D.D. Shostakovich – who are now highly esteemed. For example: ‘Comrades D. Shostakovich, S. Prokofiev, V. Shebalin, N. Myaskovsky and others! Your atonal, unharmonious music is organically alien to the people . . . formalistic scribbling arises when there is little talent but many pretensions to originality . . . We are quite unable to apprehend the music of Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, Prokofiev . . . There is no harmony in it, no order, no broad tunefulness, no melody.’ Now, when you look at the newspapers of those years, you feel unbearably ashamed of many things. Of the fact that the opera Katerina Izmailova was not heard for three decades; that Prokofiev did not see in his life-time the final version of his opera War and Peace, or hear his symphony-concerto for cello and orchestra; that there were official lists of forbidden works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Khachaturian.

“Can it be that the times we have lived through have not taught us to take a cautious attitude towards the crushing of talented people? Not to speak in the name of the people? Not to force people to express an opinion about things they have simply not read or heard? I remember with pride that I did not attend the meeting of workers in the cultural field at the Central Art-Workers’ Club where Pasternak was reviled, and where I was supposed to make a speech in which I had been ‘given the job’ of criticising Doctor Zhivago, which at the time I had not read.

“Who formed the ‘opinion’ that Solzhenitsyn should be expelled from the Union of Writers? I have been unable to find out, although I made great efforts to do so. I doubt whether the five Ryazan writer-musketeers [see 11.1] dared to take the decision themselves without a secret ‘opinion’ . . . . Apparently it was an opinion, too, which prevented the release of Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, which had already been type-set for Novy mir. Now, if it had been printed here, it would have been widely discussed to the benefit of author and readers.

“I do not touch on the political or economic affairs of our country; there are people who know far more about these than I do. But please explain to me exactly why it is that in our literature and art the decisive word is spoken by people who are absolutely incompetent in the field. Why are they given the right to discredit our art in the eyes of our people?

“I am stirring up the past not in order to grumble, but so that in future, say in another twenty years, we shall not have to hide today’s newspapers in shame.

“Everyone must have the right to think und express his opinions, independently and without fear, about what he knows, what he has thought over for himself, what he has lived through; and not merely to produce feeble variations of an opinion which has been implanted in him. We shall definitely achieve free discussion without hints and prompting!

“1 am aware that after my letter there will emerge an opinion about me as well, but I am not afraid of it – I say openly what I think. The talents which make up the pride of our nation must not be subjected to a preparatory assault. I know and love many of Solzhenitsyn’s works, and I consider that suffering has given him the right to depict the truth as he sees it; I see no reason to conceal my attitude towards him when a campaign against him has been unleashed.”