The 8ft-high green fence on a bluff overlooking the Moscow River has been reinforced and repainted. Such are the tastes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, camp veteran, chronicler of the Gulag and, until this week, reclusive resident of Cavendish, Vermont.

The fence forms a barrier against the 'spiritual slime' that the 75-year-old writer believes is swamping Russia. At least, that was the plan. The neat, artfully crafted symmetry of Russia's ornery literary prophet abandoning a secluded farmhouse in Vermont to retreat behind the gates of a fortress-like dacha on the outskirts of Moscow has been undone by shoddy workmanship.

The roof of his new, custom-built home in the village of Troitse-Lykovo leaks, the garden is a mess and, according to Valery Kordumov, a loyal family retainer who shoos visitors from the entrance, it could be another year before the place is fit for habitation.

In the meantime, the Nobel laureate will make do with a flat in a brick block in the middle of Moscow. After 20 years in exile, a writer many regard as the most important of the century will make a new life on the 12th floor of First Truzhennikov Lane, behind a steel door with a peep-hole.

He will have plenty of space: two apartments containing five rooms. There is even a view of the Moscow River (and a power station and an American-owned hotel). But he will have no fence, no cordon sanitaire of birch, maple and pine trees, no buffer against the raw reality of a country he has diagnosed from across the Atlantic as 'terribly sick'.

In Vermont, Solzhenitsyn fulminated against corrupting Western ways, describing pop music as 'liquid manure, which seeped under the Iron Curtain'. On Truzhennikov Lane, the manure is seeping under his own front door: a notice in the lobby offers residents an around-the-clock supply of pop videos and other mental sludge, courtesy of MTV, CNN and a dozen other cable television channels.

Outside are the trophies of a law-of-the-jungle capitalism which Solzhenitsyn despises with the same uncompromising vigour that once made him such a potent threat to Soviet Communism. Parked in the driveway beside battered Zhigulis and Moskviches are a Chevrolet and a Mercedes.

How will Solzhenitsyn cope with what is literally a different country from the one he left on 13 February 1974, when he was bundled on board an Aeroflot plane to Frankfurt by the KGB? His wife, Natalia, told Izvestia last week that of all the letters they receive from Russia, nine out of 10 urge them not to come back. But she insists: 'We are returning. Returning for ever.'

Rather than enter at the point where his long exile began - Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport - Solzhenitsyn is flying to Vladivostok, seven time zones to the east. When he arrives from Alaska on Friday, he will take the train to Moscow, stopping on the way for a crash course in the miseries and, he imagines, hopes of the New Russia.

'I am going because I have fulfilled my literary duty, and must try to fulfil my duty to society to whatever extent I can,' he told the New Yorker in a valedictory interview. 'My role can be only moral.'

But Solzhenitsyn himself eschews the role of a Slavic Khomeini, for which there is little public appetite anyway. His return may well stir less interest than the arrival three months ago of Victoria Ruffo, star of a hugely popular Mexican soap opera (she was mobbed).

Sergei Chuprinin, editor of the literary journal Znamya, compares this with the frenzy that attended Solzhenitsyn's expulsion in 1974. Then the Communist Party's propaganda machine went into top gear, denouncing him as a degenerate, a traitor, an apologist for fascism - and any other insult the authorities could think of. 'They hated him,' recalls Mr Chuprinin, 'but they also feared him.'

The freedom that now allows Solzhenitsyn to return has also shrunk his status. The writer is no longer Russia's second government (the famous dictum enunciated by Solzhenitsyn in The First Circle). 'The peril of writing has gone, but so has its importance,' explains Mr Chuprinin. 'Stalin, Khrushchev, even Gorbachev - they all liked to meet writers. There was a strange dialogue between poets and power. It vanished with August 1991. Solzhenitsyn is not sacred. No one is sacred any more. The heroic period is over.'

On the editor's desk sits not a work by Solzhenitsyn but a Russian translation of Jurassic Park.

Znamya used to sell more than 1 million copies a month. Its circulation is now 70,000. Harder hit is Novy Mir, the journal that first published The Gulag Archipelago in Russia in 1989. Its sales have plunged from more than 2 million a month to about 55,000.

All the same, Solzhenitsyn can still stir passion. An article by Grigory Amelin in Nezavisimaya Gazeta last month dismissed him as 'a eunuch castrated by his own fame', who should 'stay in mothballs for ever'. This brought angry retorts from readers, including a letter to the editor from A Levshin, which said: 'There will always be hairy mongrels barking out of dirty alleyways at their great contemporaries.'

For all his time abroad, for all his curmudgeonly quirkiness, Solzhenitsyn still has a voice. And the queue of supplicants begins at his flat in central Moscow.

At the corner of Truzhenikov Lane stands the Cathedral of the Honest and Life-giving Cross of Our Lord. First built in the 17th century, it has been converted into a factory. Only a tiny portion of the building is used for worship. Lydia Broditskaya, a devout Christian, is lobbying for restoration of the rest, and she can't wait for Solzhenitsyn to move in down the road. 'If he says something, people may finally start to listen.'

Politicians hope that he will do the same for them. 'There will be a big struggle for Solzhenitsyn between democrats and nationalists,' predicts Father Gleb Yakunin, a former dissident who now sits in parliament.

Solzhenitsyn insists he has no intention of seeking office himself - despite a poll in St Petersburg last year showing that 43 per cent would vote for him as president. But he sent word from Vermont that he would not keep quiet. 'I speak out sharply, and will continue doing that.'

Russia's beleaguered reformers are particularly keen to have him on board. The death of Andrei Sakharov in 1990 deprived their cause of its moral anchor. But Solzhenitsyn is a tricky substitute. They roll their eyes at his more strident denunciations of the West and his bizarre vision of grass-roots democracy outlined in a 1990 pamphlet entitled 'Rebuilding Russia'.

They remember, however, how he backed Boris Yeltsin last October in his battle with parliament; they take comfort in his assault on Vladimir Zhirinovsky as an 'evil caricature of a patriot'; and they calculate that he could help them to reclaim some of the nationalist themes hijacked by an alliance of Communists and chauvinists.

Mikhail Poltoranin, a former confidant of President Yeltsin, says: 'Solzhenitsyn will be in the same position as Tolstoy. He will be the conscience of the nation. He won't be the political centre, rather the spiritual centre, a kind of reference point.'

But this, he warns, will win Solzhenitsyn few friends. 'His arrival will clear the spirit of Russia and irritate everyone. They may try to keep him off the television.'

Most irritated so far are the radical nationalists, who once looked to Solzhenitsyn as a possible prophet. 'He is coming at the worst possible time, he is too late,' says Sergei Kunyaev, editor of Nash Sovremennik, a strongly nationalistic literary magazine. 'He had two ideas. One was the fight against Communist totalitarianism. This no longer exists. The second idea is rebuilding Russia. He should have returned before the current regime destroyed this. He is coming home when all the plates are broken.'

Still harsher is the new breed of leather-jacketed, bully-boy 'patriots'. 'Who needs him?' asks Alexander Nevzorov, a popular television producer who now sits in parliament. 'My God, he has been taken out of formaldehyde.'

The editor of Nash Sovremennik objects. 'They forget he is not a corpse yet. Russia is searching for a way out. Solzhenitsyn arrives with the illusion that he will say something new. I don't think he will. But maybe he will.'

(Photograph omitted)