This letter was written only two years after the publication of Chukovskaya's own heart-rending masterpiece about the Stalinist disappearances, Sofia Petrovna. A commendation from such a writer, one who was at the heart of the purges of the Thirties, is surely proof enough of Solzhenitsyn's greatness. In 1990 when his writings finally appeared in the Soviet Union (and he and his family were still in rural retreat in Vermont) the books were to sell seven million copies.
However, by 1996, five years after the dissolution of the Soviet communist party, only 15,000 subscribers could be found for a new collected edition of his works. The great Novy Mir journal which, with the approval of Khruschev, first published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, had plunged from a circulation of two million down to 50,000. Meanwhile Arthur Hailey and Denise Robbins competed in the bestseller lists in Moscow. By then, not only Western critics were deploring what they regarded as Solzhenitsyn's reactionary, arguably crazy, political philosophy and the decline in his literary skill evident in the late historical epic The Red Wheel. Young Russian writers and critics were also putting the knife into a figure who many would argue had played a major role in the bringing down of Soviet communism. Victor Yerofeyev, for example, turning to Gogol for a wounding metaphor, accused him of being "another Slavophile 'Government Inspector', dragging behind him all the traditional baggage of Slavophile ideology".
There are a great many equally disconcerting ironies to be found in D M Thomas's compelling though considerably flawed biography. After finishing Thomas's exhaustive 564 pages, I turned to Michael Scammell's much-praised 1,000-page predecessor, published in 1984, to which Thomas acknowledges a debt. At the start of Scammell's book there is a haunting photograph. It is a picture of Solzhenitsyn taken during his first months as a political prisoner when he was 26 or 27. The photo has a quaint, faded, almost daguerreotype appeal, and the young man portrayed has a shaven head, a deep vertical line on his forehead, and a solemn and vulnerable mouth. He looks rather like a shy working-class apprentice, insignificant, almost forgettable. In reality this sad, overgrown skinhead was a brilliant graduate in maths and physics from Rostov University. Later in his dismal years of incarceration, he would excel in doing linguistic decoding work on behalf of the tyranny which had jailed him. For a few slighting references to Stalin in some letters to his friends he was awarded eight years in jails and labour camps followed by internal exile to Kok Terek in southern Kazakhstan. This same "criminal", a fervent Leninist up until a year before, had also been a highly disciplined captain in the Red Army. In charge of a battery command near Konigsberg when arrested, he had also been decorated with the Order of the Patriotic War. It is this unlikely and elusive kaleidoscopic identity which is captured in one remarkable photograph. And the principal triumph of D M Thomas's highly readable book is to substantiate the subtle many- sidedness of his subject's personality. Generally, where appropriate, Thomas apportions judicious blame or praise.
There are dozens of ambiguities in Solzhenitsyn's make-up, but those that intrigue us most are the predictable ones. His behaviour towards the invariably subservient women in his life; his mercurial, often callous, attitude towards his friends and his literary supporters; his ideological history and his ultimate view of things temporal (ie political) and spiritual. For one who by middle age had adopted Orthodox Christianity, and who would recommend it as an alternative to debased Westernised democracy, Solzhenitsyn was a past master at rejecting erstwhile supporters and an expert at non-forgiveness. Even those who had risked their lives in making samizdat copies and helped smuggle them out to the West were not immune from his raging ingratitude.
There are numerous examples of seemingly monstrous heartlessness towards his wife Natasha, whom he finally divorced, a suicidal wreck, in 1973. Thomas quotes Solzhenitsyn's ranting when Natasha had botched her first suicide attempt: "How could she do this to me? How dare she do this to me?" At the time his lover Alya was pregnant with their first child, Stepan Solzhenitsyn: all this fuss was making it hard for the author to work. As with most driven geniuses, his work was always the thing that mattered most. Sometimes he expressed this biblical devotion to his Chosen Task in a way that appals. Pondering the likely strategies of Andropov and the KGB when the publication in the west of The Gulag Archipelago was imminent, Solzhenitsyn thought it likely that they might try and kidnap the children of his new family. Writing about this possibility in Oak and the Calf, he states: "Our children were no dearer to us than the memory of the millions done to death, and nothing could make us stop that book." In the same vein, at his divorce petition in 1972 he said. "She [Natasha] blames her actions on illness, but in reality she lacks the will to keep her nerves in order."
Yet this brutal rigidity was not the whole truth of the Gulag author and his former wife. Tellingly, Thomas quotes Solzhenitsyn's contrition, as expressed to Michael Scammell during a four-day interview in Vermont: "I understand that it's wrong to abandon women at the edge, I know it. It's terrible, absolutely terrible. It's a weight that will be with you till the end of your days; you'll never have a clear conscience again. It will always be here inside ... and it's very hard."
Thomas is most impressive when he demonstrates the incisive common sense of a middle-aged biographer examining the youthful Solzhenitsyn, Natasha and their closest student friends, Lev Kopelev and Dmitri Panin. There is an admirably mature sympathy here which unfortunately does not sustain itself over the length of the biography. The last 120 pages, covering the post-1974 years - the period following Solzhenitsyn's expulsion from the USSR - are the weakest. Otherwise, with the exception of an awkward and rather posturing Prologue, the book offers an intense readability and a novelist's sense of pace. As long as Solzhenitsyn is suffering and battling inside the USSR, whether as a schoolboy living in a Rostov shack with his widowed mother, or as a 35-year-old schoolmaster enduring both cancer and lonely exile, Thomas holds a firm grip on his material. However once he is living more or less happily in his fenced-off fortress in Vermont, the biographer as well as the author seem to flounder in the difficulties of excessive freedom.
Even in his best chapters, Thomas shows some irritating weaknesses. He is far too fond of declamatory one-line paragraphs, gratuitous poetic flourishes, and a reductive Freudian terminology employed to explain repetitive patterns, as he sees them, in his subject's life. We get Synchronicity, Repression, Substitute Breasts, and more. At times, Thomas steps into the action himself and angrily ticks off the protagonists for a culpable act. Rzhezach, a Czech writer and KGB stooge who published a lying memoir of Solzhenitsyn in the USSR, comes in for the following roasting. "He [Rzhezach] knows it as one of the most corrupt, lying and meretricious books ever written ... even Mein Kampf was cleaner, being at least sincere. Does the author sign copies for friends? Do his lovers think his breath smells slightly from the grave?"
Does D M Thomas, I ask myself, ever think that a little bit of rhetoric goes a long way?
Sometimes he takes the righteous, interrogative tone of a tabloid editorial; at others, the dazed hubris of a coffee-table biographer giving his homely gloss of things before bustling on to the next milestone. Arguably these are minor irritations. One can forgive him perhaps, given the impressive control he displays when it comes to the mass of his raw material. Thomas, like Scammell before him, has to make sense of the melancholy twists and turns of his subject's love-life; the unspeakable miseries of the Lubyanka and the six other hellholes that led Solzhenitsyn finally to the Ekibastuz gulag in Kazakhstan. There is a colossal amount that requires effort to tell, not only in terms of the historical background, but also in terms of the chilling and the monstrous. The KGB almost killed Solzhenitsyn by clandestinely injecting him with the poison ricin when he was shopping in a foodstore in Novocherkassk. Thomas also gives us a privileged insight into the workings of the Politburo. He includes a bleak transcript of a 1974 committee where Brezhnev, Kosygin and Andropov debate whether to exile this thorn in their flesh, or worse. Someone calmly suggests it would be a good idea to send Solzhenitsyn to Verkhoyansk as no Western reporter would be able to stand the cold there. Cheerful little Kosygin recommends "severe measures" and adds that in any case in England they are always doing away with people.
Which brings us to Thomas's overall weakness as a serious biographer. Throughout the book he cites the conservative author Robert Conquest as one of his principal sources. Conquest, in his book The Harvest of Sorrow, does the invaluable job of itemising the horrors of the deliberately engineered Ukranian famine, and the virtual genocide of the smallholder kulaks. Sixteen million people died in that awful period, and Thomas is right to be shrill in his condemnation of all those on the left who have stayed silent or equivocal about it. However Thomas draws a shaky line which connects G B Shaw and J B Priestley and their fatuous approvals of early Bolshevism, down to such stony ideologues as Sartre. This simplistic conflation allows him to poeticise along the following dangerous lines: "Solzhenitsyn's work overturned a religion - that Sartrean faith which for half a century had strained at every gnat that came from America while swallowing every camel from the Soviet Union. It was symbolically fitting that Sartre went blind in the year of Gulag's publication 1973. He and his kind had been guilty of a worse moral blindness than that of Oedipus, for they had actually adored the monster and its plague." Apart from classifying the napalming of Cambodian children under the category "gnat", this bullish rhetoric also translates an old man's blindness into psychohistorical "synchronicity".
More importantly, the other comforting falsehood that writers like Thomas, Conquest and Paul Johnson insist on sustaining, is that the truth about totalitarianism was somehow originally unearthed by fearless conservatives like themselves. In fact the real pioneer, the name that will be remembered when every Spectator contributor has long gone to his Anglican heaven, was a lifelong socialist and detestable dupe of a western liberal called ... George Orwell.
One final objection. Given that Thomas is a former Russian lecturer, it would have been nice to have been offered more illuminating literary and political parallels with, say, Gorky, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. We get tantalising bits and pieces but when we do, it is too frequently through the good offices of Sigmund.
8 'Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in his Life' by D M Thomas is published by Little, Brown at pounds 20.Reuse content