Solzhenitsyn takes long journey home

MOSCOW — MOSCOW -- Russians have been speaking of it this week simply as "The Return."

Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, the stern and exacting protagonist in Russia's struggle for historical truth, arrived in his native country today after 20 years in exile.


Upon the 75-year-old author's arrival at the Siberian city of Magadan, the Associated Press reported, he stooped and touched the ground with both hands after emerging from a flight from Alaska. "I am so overwhelmed with so many different kinds of emotions," he said.

From there he planned a measured and almost stately procession across the length of Russia, as if to inspire himself again with the air of this huge country.


He is coming as a legend, as a monument and as a writer. With his biblical beard and unflagging conscience, his descent upon Russia has some of the overtones of the last act of a morality play.

For most Russians he is an unavoidable presence, though not one they always feel comfortable with.

"Solzhenitsyn was an innovator. He changed what was in the air. He is a source," said Pyotr Aleshkovsky, a 37-year-old novelist and historian.

"He thinks globally about Russia.

Maybe he's wrong, maybe he's right. I've read only two parts of 'The Red Wheel' [Mr. Solzhenitsyn's immense new historical novel]. I have no time, I have no strength, to read the rest. The critics are barking at him. But I cannot say bad things about a man who transformed my life."

"I don't quite like this fuss over his return," said Yevgeny Popov, a satirical writer.

"I respect Solzhenitsyn the great writer, but not Solzhenitsyn the superstar."

To many Russians, Mr. Solzhenitsyn is a great man with a too-chaste conscience. Because he refused to compromise, he was bundled out of the country in 1974, pushed into exile by the KGB. It was an acute punishment for a man who disdained emigrants and felt himself powerfully tied both to the idea of Russia andto the Russian land.


And yet, inescapably, his forced exile caused him to miss the tumultuous events of the next two decades. He was simply not here -- not even during the past three years, after the collapse of the regime that exiled him, when there was nothing to prevent his return.

"He should have returned when he still had influence," growled Yuri Karshak, a 46-year-old movie critic and Russian nationalist. "Sure, let him come back. But he should have shared the destiny of the Russian people during these crucial years."

And yet Russians know that he is not easily characterized or dismissed. Mr. Solzhenitsyn himself has said that he needed to stay at his home in Cavendish, Vt., to finish "The Red Wheel," which he considers his most important work.

"People have the right to live their own lives," said Mr. Popov. "Solzhenitsyn has done so much for the country that he deserves the right just to water flowers, if that's what he wants."

Critics have complained that his writing is intentionally archaic, that it's filled with old words simply for effect. "No, he's a very modern writer," said Mr. Aleshkovsky. "He modernized the language. Yes, he used historical words. But he found new music."

Many have accused him of being humorless. "There's humor even in 'The Gulag Archipelago,' " said Mr. Popov, referring to Mr. Solzhenitsyn's harrowing dissection of the Soviet prison camp system where he was kept. "It's Russian village humor. It's humor of the blackest sort -- as black as coal."


Hard to categorize

Some people have tried to portray Mr. Solzhenitsyn as a narrow-minded Russian nationalist, perhaps even an anti-Semite -- but he has also been criticized by nationalist politicians, and most people have a hard time knowing where to place him.

A poll taken by the Moscow-based International Center for Sociological Research found that, in 10 selected Russian cities, an overwhelmingly large number of people were unable to predict if Mr. Solzhenitsyn would side with President Boris N. Yeltsin or with Mr. Yeltsin's opponents.

In most cities, a majority believed that his return would help strengthen Russian nationalism. But in Moscow, 61.5 percent said they weren't sure.

One thing was clear. Hardly anyone was unaware of Mr. Solzhenitsyn's return. In Moscow, 89 percent of those polled knew he was coming; in St. Petersburg, 90 percent; in Novosibirsk, 95 percent.

The manner of his exile and return says much about him. In 1974, the year he was forcibly put on a plane for Frankfurt, West Germany, another prominent artist, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, also left the Soviet Union, although half-voluntarily.


Mr. Rostropovich was hounded out of the country in part because of his support for Mr. Solzhenitsyn. The two are very much Russian types. And yet their experiences were to be quite different.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn removed himself to a secluded estate in Vermont, where he lived always as an exile, never putting down roots. Mr. Rostropovich, on the other hand, became the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington.

As soon as perestroika made a home visit possible, Mr. Rostropovich leaped at the chance to make a triumphal return to Moscow. That was in 1990. He accepted a new Soviet passport. And he conducted the National Symphony in a passionate, tear-filled concert at the Moscow Conservatory.

It was an event that can never be forgotten by anyone who was there. A gentle Russian snow fell outside, and inside a blizzard of flowers descended on the stage. For the last of many encores on that emotional evening, Mr. Rostropovich directed the orchestra in "The Stars and Stripes Forever," hardly a serious American classic, much less a Russian one. Yet the crowd, standing, applauded lustily until the end.

Such a moment would be inconceivable in the disapproving life of Mr. Solzhenitsyn.

And, just 18 months later, Mr. Rostropovich would again return. When news of the 1991 coup broke upon the world, and of Mr. Yeltsin's resistance to it, he impulsively leapt on a plane in Paris and came to Moscow. A famous photograph shows him sitting in Mr. Yeltsin's redoubt at the Russian White House, holding a Kalashnikov on his knee.


What could a balding cellist do against Soviet tanks? Just be there. And being there, he helped bring down the Soviet government.

Elaborate preparations

Mr. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, has insisted on having everything in order before his return. A dacha had to be reconstructed first. His works had to be published. The way had to be prepared.

He was offered the use of a government guest house in Vladivostok, although he chose a hotel instead. The government has reportedly made available for him two private railroad cars for his long journey across Russia -- his inspection of his homeland.

Mr. Aleshkovsky finds this a little unseemly.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn returns to a country where it is no longer true that all literate persons read the same books. Some read Solzhenitsyn; some read pulp trash. On the other hand, two of his books -- the "Gulag Archipelago" and "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" -- are required reading in high schools.


Many here find it hard to warm up to Mr. Solzhenitsyn, yet he is indisputably the great writer of his era. What can't be predicted is how he and Russia will take to each other after such a long separation and so many upheavals.

"Well, Russia loves killing its own talent," said a librarian, Lena Slivkina. "I don't understand why he's returning."

Various democratic politicians have suggested that he would be better off staying out of politics and remaining as a "moral force" instead.

Most likely, the great interest in this man from the past will die away rapidly. He won't be a news event for long. He can find his way to a deeper place in Russian life.

"I won't go to greet him," said Mr. Aleshkovsky. "I've already said hello to him many times, in my heart -- heart to heart. I've already said, 'Thank you.' "