25.3 – An Interview with A. I. Solzhenitsyn [30 March 1972]

<< No 25 : 20 May 1972 >>

On 30 March 1972 A.I. Solzhenitsyn gave an interview to Western journalists.[1] Here are extracts from the interview :

What are you working on now?

October 1916, the second volume of the same book.

Will it be finished soon?

No, In the course of the work it has turned out to be more complex than I had foreseen. I have to cover the history of social and spiritual currents from the end of the nineteenth century, because these are expressed in the characters. Without knowing the preceding events one cannot understand people.

Are you not afraid that as you go deeper into a detailed history of Russia, you are getting further away from general and timeless themes?

On the contrary, I think. Here there is much that is general and even timeless.

Do you have to study much material?

A great deal. And this work on the one hand is unfamiliar to me, because until recently I was concerned only with contemporary events, and wrote from the experience of my own life. And on the other hand there are so many hostile external circumstances that it was much easier for a completely unknown student in provincial Rostov in 1937-38 to gather material on Samsonov’s catastrophe (not yet knowing that I would be destined to pass the same places as he, not when we were surrounded, however, but just the opposite). And although the hut where l lived with Mother was destroyed by a bomb in 1942, and all our possessions, books and papers were burnt, by a miracle these two notebooks survived, and when I returned from exile I was given them. Now I have used them.

Yes, then there were no special obstacles in my way. But now . . . you Westerners cannot imagine my situation. I am living in my own country, I am writing a novel about Russia, but it is as hard for me to gather material as if I were writing about Polynesia, For the present volume I should spend some time in certain historical buildings, but they are now occupied by government institutions and the authorities will not give me a pass. I am barred from access to central and regional archives, 1 should travel round the places where events took place, talk with old people—the last surviving witnesses, but this requires approval and help from the local authorities, which I cannot get. And without this, everyone shuts up, out of suspicion, nobody will tell me a thing, and I myself, without authorization, could be detained at any step along the way.

Couldn’t you get other people to help you with this— assistants, a secretary?

No. In the first place, as a non-member of the Union of Writers, I am not entitled to a secretary or an assistant In the second place, such a secretary, representing my interests, would be just as restricted and hemmed in as I am. Thirdly, I simply would not be able to pay a secretary. For you see, since the royalties for Ivan Denisovich I have had no significant income, except for the money left to me by the late K. I. Chukovsky, and now even that is coming to an end. The royalties lasted me for six years, and Chukovsky’s money for three. 1 was able to make them last as long by keeping my expenditure at the level of my teaching days. I never spend more on myself than I would have to pay a secretary,

Could you not use the money earned in the West?

I have drawn up a will and when it becomes possible, my lawyer will send these royalties so that they can be spent for the benefit of society in my native country. That pure-hearted newspaper, the Literary Gazette, which never tells a lie, in fact said as much: “He has given detailed instructions on how these royalties should be disposed of”, but the bit about the benefit of society in my native country was lost through innocent editing. 1 personally will make use only of the Nobel Prize. However the problem of getting even this money has been made degrading, difficult and uncertain for me. The Ministry of Foreign Trade lias informed me that every transaction requires a special decision of the Ministry’s board—whether to pay me at all, in what form, and what percentage of the sum received.

But how do you nevertheless manage to collect material?

Here again you have a feature of our life that a Westerner probably finds hard to understand. As I understand it, and I may be wrong, it is customary in the West to be paid for all kinds of work, and it is unusual for work to be done for nothing. But take our samizdat—that certainly goes on without any money changing hands. People expend their labour, their free time; they sit up at night doing work for which the most they can get is persecution. And that happens to be true in my case. The subject I am working on is well known throughout society, even outside Moscow. And well-wishers, often unknown to me, send me—of course not by post, or I wouldn’t get them— all kinds of books, even some of the rarest, their own memoirs, and so on. Sometimes these materials are exactly what I need and sometimes they are not so useful. But the fact that these materials are sent to me always touches me and strengthens the real feeling I have that I am working for Russia and Russia is helping me.

Often I myself ask knowledgeable people, specialists, for information which is at times complex, or I ask them to select some material for me, All this requires time and effort; however, not only does no-one ever ask for remuneration, but everyone is glad to be able to help. And yet all this can be quite dangerous. A kind of forbidden, contaminated zone has been created around my family, and to this day there are people in Ryazan who were dismissed from their jobs for having visited my house a few years ago. A corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences, T, F. Timofeyev, director of a Moscow Institute [of the International Working Class], became so scared when he found out that a mathematician working under him was my wife, that he dismissed her with unseemly haste, although this occurred just after she had given birth and was contrary to all laws. My family made a fully legal change of flats while it was unknown that the family was mine. But no sooner did this become known than several officials in the Moscow Soviet were punished; how could they allow Solzhenitsyn, if not himself, but still his young son, to be registered in the centre of Moscow? It happens that a consultant may meet with me. We work for an hour or two and as soon as he leaves my house he’ll be closely followed, as if he were a state criminal; they’ll investigate his background and then go on to find out who this man meets.

Of course they can’t do this with everyone. The State Security people have their schedule and their own profound reasoning. On some days there is no surveillance at all, or only superficial surveillance. On other days, they hang around everywhere, for example just before Heinrich Boll came to see me. They put a car in front of the two entrances, with three men in each car—and they don t work only one shift. Then off they go after my visitors, or they trail people who leave on foot. And it you consider that they listen round the clock to my telephone conversations and conversations in my home, that they analyze the tape-recordings and all correspondence, and then collect and compare all these data in some vast premises—and these people are not underlings—you cannot but be amazed that so many idlers in the prime of life and strength, who could be better occupied with productive work for the benefit of the fatherland, are busy with my friends and me, and keep inventing enemies. And still others are trying to dig up things in my background, or arc being sent abroad to cause confusion with the publication of my books. And some individual draws up and manages this programme for my suffocation, The programme has not been successful so far, and therefore it has had to be altered several times along the way. But its evolution over the years cun be traced by stages . . . They decided to suffocate me in 1965, when they confiscated my archives and were horrified at my writings about the labour camp years as if they could fail to carry the mark of the eternally condemned! If these had been the Stalinist years nothing could have been simpler. 1 would have disappeared and that would have been that—no-onc would have asked any questions. But after the 20th and 22nd Party Congresses, things were more complicated.

First they decided to KEEP ME QUIET, Not a line was to be written about me, no-one was ever to mention my name, even to curse it, and after a few years I would be forgotten. And then take me away. But this was already the era of samizdatf and my books were spreading through the country and then making their way abroad. There was no way to keep me quiet. At that point they started (and they continue to this day) to SLANDER ME BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, It is almost impossible for a Westerner to imagine how this works, We have throughout this country an established network of party and public propaganda, and a lecture network. There is no institution or military unit, no regional centre or state farm where lecturers and propagandists do not give speeches according to a schedule, and all of them, everywhere at the same time, say one and the same thing based on instructions from a single headquarters. These instructions may come in different versions—for the capitals, for provincial centres, for the army, for academic institutions, and so on. Since these lectures are attended only by the staff members of the institution or people living in a particular area, they may be effectively closed, or they are completely closed. Since 1966 the orders have gone out to talk about me. First that I was imprisoned under Stalin for SOMETHING SERIOUS, that I was unjustifiably rehabilitated, that my literary works are criminal, and so on. As it happens, the lecturers themselves have never in their lives read these works, because the authorities have been afraid to let even them have them. The lecturers were simply ordered to talk like that. The system is that the lectures are attended only by insiders. On the surface it is a peaceful paradise, with no defamation, while in reality unimaginable slander is being poured over the country. You can’t travel to all the cities, you’re not admitted to closed lecture halls, and there are thousands of these lecturers. There is nobody to complain to, and the slander takes hold of people’s minds.

But we live in a new era, a different era. In these times all these lectures, even the most closed, are attended by my well-wishers, and then in various ways they let me know that on a certain date in a certain auditorium, lecturer so-and-so told such-and-such a lie and vilification about me. I jot down the most striking; perhaps I might confront one of the lecturers with it. Perhaps the time will even come in our country when they will personally answer for this before a court.

Why do these listeners not object when they spot a distortion?

That is still impossible in our country. No-one dares to stand up and object to a Party propagandist, because if he does the next day he may lose his job and even his freedom. There have even been cases when my name was used as a litmus paper to check the loyalty of applicants for graduate studentships or some privileged position: “Have you ever read Solzhenitsyn? What do you think of him?” The fate of the applicant would depend on the reply. There was a time when they liked to play around with my patronymic, “Isayevich”. They used to say, in passing, “Incidentally his real name is SolzheniTSER or SolzheniTSKER, but of course that doesn’t make any difference in our country,” But there was one serious charge that easily gets the attention of the listeners: TRAITOR TO THE MOTHERLAND.

In general in our country we seem to bait people not with arguments, but with the most primitive labels, the coarsest names, and the simplest, designed, as they say, to arouse the “fury of the masses”. In the twenties it was “a counter-revolutionary”; in the thirties, “an enemy of the people”; since the forties, “a traitor to the motherland”. You should have seen how they leafed through my military record, how they tried to establish that I might have been a prisoner of war for at least a day or two, like Ivan Denisovich—that would have been a real find! Actually, behind closed doors you can make a gullible public believe any lie, and for years, yes YEARS, in lecture halls far and wide, throughout the country, they would say, “Solzhenitsyn voluntarily gave himself up to the Germans—No, he surrendered a whole battery! And then he served as a policeman in the occupied territory—no, he fought for Vlasov. No, he worked right in the Gestapo!” On the surface everything is quiet, no defamation, but under the crust is the cancer of slander. On one occasion when Novy mir held a readers’ conference in Novosibirsk, someone sent a note up to [its editor] Tvardovsky: “How could you let a member of the Gestapo be published in your magazine?” Public opinion throughout the country was thus being fully prepared for any action against me. And yet times have changed; they can’t abuse people without it becoming known.

As it happened, the Soviet press had to acknowledge that I was an officer, and that my military record was unblemished. The fog was hanging there without rain, and it started to clear away. At that point began a new campaign of accusations that I myself sent Cancer Ward to the West. Behind closed doors, the lies started again: somewhere along the border (no-one said where) a friend of mine had been detained (again no names) and a suitcase with a false bottom had been seized from him containing my writings (again no titles). This nonsense was seriously proclaimed throughout the land, and people were horrified at the thought of what a villain I was. Again, a traitor to the motherland. Then after I had been expelled from the Union of Writers, there were open hints that I should get clear of the country, and thus justify the charge of “traitor to the motherland”. Then the fuss began around the Nobel Prize. Now the word from all the speakers’ platforms was: “The Nobel Prize is a Judas payment for betrayal of his country”.

But you sent August 1914 abroad yourself—and they aren’t prosecuting you for it?

They apparently have enough sense at present not to prosecute for this. But here the honest Literary Gazette does some editing, innocent, like all its editing, by saying “Solzhenitsyn promptly sent the manuscript of his novel abroad.[2] Oh no, that’s not a lie. They just omit a very small point—that he sent it abroad after he had offered the manuscript to SEVEN SOVIET PUBLISHERS—to “Artistic Literature”, to “Soviet Writer”, to “Young Guard”, and to various journals. Not one of them wanted even to take the manuscript in its hands, let alone read it through or even leaf through it. That’s how things were arranged. No-one answered my letter. No-one asked to see the manuscript.

However the appearance of August suggested a new path to my persecutors. The point is that in this novel I have recounted in detail my maternal and paternal lines. Although there are many friends and acquaintances, alive todav. who knew mv relations, funny as it may seem, the omniscient State Security only found it out from this novel. Then they rushed on to the trail, with the aim of compromising me—by a Soviet yardstick. Their efforts in this were divided into two; at first the RACIAL line was resurrected—more exactly the Jewish one.

A special major of the State Security by the name of Blagovidov got going on cheeking the personal affairs of all lsaakys in the archives of Moscow University in 1914, in the hope of proving that I was a Jew. That would have supplied a tempting way of explaining my literary position, for, you see, with the appearance of a historical novel, the task of those who persecute me is made more complex: it’s not enough to discredit the author himself, it’s necessary, in addition, to shake any faith in his views on Russian history—those he’s already stated and possible future ones. Alas, their racial investigations came to nothing. I turned out to be Russian. Then’they changed the racial line for a CLASS one, for which they went to my old aunt and composed an article from her tales, which they printed in the yellow-press magazine Stern.[3]

Is one really blamed for one’s origin now?

Of course they don’t make an uproar as they did in the twenties and thirties, but this “judgment according to social origin” is very firmly instilled in the consciousness and is still very much alive in our country. It would take very little to kindle that fire again at any time. And quite recently Tvardovsky^ enemies publicly reproached him for his so-called “kulak” origin. And in mv case—if “betrayal of the motherland” didn’t work with the invention of my capture by the Germans, then maybe it will stick through the use of “CLASS ORIGIN”? For this reason the latest articles in the Literary Gazette, for all their illiteracy and stupidity, are by no means simple, aimless mock inn. Bv the wav, vou observe that the Literary Gazette never even argues against my writings and views IN ESSENCE, never dares to print one genuine critical analysis about me, even the most hostile, because it would half-open a part of the intolerable truth. In its judgments about me it is as if it has lost its voice altogether, as if it lias been deprived of its own critics and authors. In its attacks on me it hides behind re-printing, behind a yellow- press magazine, foreign journalists,[4] and even variety singers[5] and jugglers …

What is the plan?

The plan is to drive me either out of society or out of the country, to throw me in a ditch, or to send me to Siberia, or to have me dissolve “in an alien fog”, as they write. What self-confidence, that those whom the censors cherish have more rights to the Russian land than others born in the same place. In general in all this defamation we see only the stupidity and shortsightedness of those who direct it. They refuse to acknowledge the complexity and richness of history in all its diversity. All they are concerned with is to silence all the voices that they find unpleasant to their ear, or that deprive them of their tranquility. And they don’t worry about the future. By senselessly silencing Novy mir and Tvardovsky they themselves were made poorer, they were made blind, and they refuse to understand their loss.

By the way, two weeks ago in The New York Times a letter was printed from a Soviet poet, Smelyakov, in which he criticizes my speech in memory of Tvardovsky.[6] The form of this new attack on me is startling: it would seem that the entire press is in their hands, but can’t they answer me anywhere nearer than in the New York Times? This must really mean that they are afraid of the truth. If they answered me in the Soviet press, they would have to quote me, even just a little — and that would be impossible.

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NOTES

[1] To Hedrick Smith of the New York Times and Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post. Their accounts appeared on $ April. The Chronicle here condenses Solzhenitsyn’s record of the interview, which appeared first in samizdat and subsequently in Vestnik RSKhD, No. 103, pp. 183-98.

[2] A paraphrase of a sentence in the issue of 12 January, 1972. p. 13.

[3]  See issue 48, 21 November 1971. The article was later translated in the Literary Gazette. 12 January 1972. For a good analysis of this episode see Possev 2, 1972, pp. 10-13.

[4] A reference to the attacks on him by a Finnish and a German journalist, translated in Literary Gazette. 23 February 1972.

[5]  A reference to Dean Reed. See note 2.

[6] See text of the speech in CCE 23. Ya. Smelyakov’s letter appeared on 11 March 1972, followed on 6 April by a rebuttal from Michael Nicholson of Essex University, England.