He revealed yesterday: 'I thought I would come to a Russia that had read me, that knew me as a writer. But, in fact, only the older generation knows me. They remember something about an Ivan Denisovich. The rest have never read me.'
Speaking at the Far Eastern Technical University, Vladivostok, he said: 'The Iron Curtain did not reach the ground and under it flowed liquid manure from the West.'
Dmitri Litus, 16 and a student at the Vladivostok Gymnasium, has never read The Gulag Archipelego, even less 7,000 pages of The Red Wheel, but he still enjoyed seeing Solzhenitsyn at his school yesterday morning. 'I liked him. He is a famous Russian.' All in all, though, it was not a meeting of minds. 'I love U2. Freddie Mercury, too. I think Solzhenitsyn prefers Frank Sinatra.'
Elaborating on his assessment of the West's influence, Solzhenitsyn said: 'Not that there is only liquid manure in the West, nothing of the sort. But this is what came to us. In the West there is great culture, great accomplishment, great people, great minds. But they did not get through the Iron Curtain. We got only the cheapest imposters. They are poisoning our youth (who) think they have touched something great but in fact they have only got a false life.'
The theme was first explored publicly by Solzhenitsyn in a speech at Harvard in 1978, four years into his 20- year forced exile in the West. Only yesterday did he take the message to those he cares about most: Russia's youth.
'Gradually the Western world has begun to suffocate from its atheism. The upper lung is missing. They have everything: shops are full; clothes are plentiful; transport is never a problem; you can go wherever you want . . . but something is missing. Without this something man is not a person.'
An architecture lecturer suggested Solzhenitsyn would, like Tolstoy, squander his talents by moralising instead of writing. If life in Vermont made for good literature, why come home?
Solzhenitsyn, hands waving and voice bubbling with emotion, raced to respond. 'I could have remained there in great happiness, and peacefully worked much more. But I think your advice is wrong. This would have been an escape from duty, an escape from the pain of the people. I cannot run away from the people's pain.
'I did not come here because the country is flourishing and I want to join in, not because people were calling me a prophet.'
For the first time since arriving in Vladivostok from Alaska, Solzhenitsyn was trying to explain why he came back. 'It would have been unconscionable to just sit, to keep searching for elegant genres so some time in the 21st century someone might evaluate what I've achieved.'
Too many Russians have been killed, he said, for a Russian writer merely to write. 'I am obliged to help Russia with my experience, advice and influence, not knowing why, or what the result will be.'
His audience, held spellbound, broke into applause.
Photograph, page 10