Books: A tsar is born again

Robert Service on a sad sage
Invisible Allies by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (translated by Alexis Klimoff and Michael Nicholson), Harvill, pounds 9.99

In 1962, the USSR was still dazzling us by sending manned rockets into space, and there was concern that the West might lose its contest with the Soviet planned economy. That year, a literary meteor appeared in the form of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Previously, it had seemed that imprisonment and censorship had eradicated independent thought from Soviet culture. Now Solzhenitsyn's novella about a labour camp in the late Stalin period showed this to be incorrect. Courageous, critical spirits had survived in Russia.

Many contemporary readers assumed that Solzhenitsyn was a socialist. Why was this? The most obvious reason was that he initially enjoyed patronage of the regime. What is more, his critique of Stalinism was very understated. He deliberately described a rather "good" day in the life of prisoner Ivan Denisovich. Avoiding extravagant denunciation, he accorded a modicum of sympathy even to the nastier figures. And when the first news about Solzhenitsyn was relayed abroad, it was easy to believe that he was a man rather like Ivan Denisovich: simple, affable and modest.

Peace between the writer and the regime quickly broke down, and Solzhenitsyn was prominent in the dissident movement until, in 1974, he was deported. In this volume of memoirs, first published in Russian six years ago, he recalls his struggle and the dangers he ran. His account of the KGB's incompetent surveillance is a masterpiece of irony. Winter after winter, he vanished into the Estonian countryside - and no secret policemen knew where he was. Meanwhile, his helpers or "invisible allies" were scuttlng across Russia to deliver copies of his laboriously typed works into hiding. To this day, copies still lie buried in gardens and woods.

After Ivan Denisovich came two epic novels - The First Circle, Cancer Ward - and his historical treatise The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn was justly celebrated as a writer of unflinching bravery, and he continued to encourage anti-communist dissent.

Already, however, his behaviour showed a less attractive side. He was crabby and unforgiving to several of those who had close dealings with him. His brand of Christianity, which he proclaimed as the sole means of regenerating Russia, was distinguished more by its stern sermonising than by compassion. His impatience with criticism was intense. In debate, he was as intolerant as the propagandists of Marxism-Leninism.

His stated purpose in this book is to reveal the names of his secret helpers and express his thanks. But his sense of gratitude is seldom unaccompanied by some carping comment. Here a translator is roundly denounced, there a biographer is said to have misrepresented him. Even his helpers in the USSR, who risked their liberty, are judged sternly. All agreed with him in condemning Lenin's October Revolution; but one or two incautiously voiced approval of the Tsar's removal. Solzhenitsyn writes witheringly of their opinions. As a result, his book is deficient in graciousness and a sense of proportion.

Nowadays, this is also the conclusion drawn about him by most citizens of the Russian Federation. He could have returned to Russia before 1994; first Gorbachev and then Yeltsin invited him. But he would accede only at a time of his own choosing, and grumpily stayed in the US to complete his multi-volume novel on the First World War, the Revolutions of 1917 and the Civil War. When finally he returned to Moscow, he received a rapturous reception which culminated in his address to the Federal Assembly. He was also given a chat-show on TV to promote his ideas on the future of Russia.

Unfortunately, his show involved more monologue than conversation. Predictably this was unattractive to most viewers, who regarded their liberation from communism as involving the freedom to be unserious and unbossed. The feeling grew that he had little understanding of the reasonable aspirations of ordinary Russians and the show was removed. He continues to be bewildered by his fate. Communism was cruel to him; post-communism has in some respects been crueller. His latest book gives plenty of unintended clues as to why things turned out this way.