Solzhenitsyn remembers darkest terrors of Stalin's gulag: Andrew Higgins in Khabarovsk followed the 75-year-old author as he paid tribute at a mass grave for 12,000 victims

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The Independent Online
Osip Mandelstam, the poet who died in one of Stalin's camps, and up to half a million others rode in freight cars, eastwards across Siberia, to the most murderous outpost of the gulag. Yesterday, the 75-year-old chronicler of their torment began a 6,000-mile return journey that Mandelstam, and many, many more, would never make.

Starting a stately progress westwards in a de luxe railway carriage laid on by the BBC, Alexander Solzhenitsyn arrived with his wife and two sons in Khabarovsk to be besieged by autograph hunters, stalked by photographers and smeared with lipstick across both cheeks by the kisses of a weeping admirer. 'I thank God that he has given you health and brought you here for our salvation,' shrieked an elderly woman as the writer stepped from the Ocean Express after an overnight journey from Vladivostok. An enthusiastic embrace imprinted his face with a streak of red on either side.

Another well-wisher suggested Solzhenitsyn was responsible for the glorious sunlight bathing Khabarovsk, a city on the banks of the River Amur better known for snow and rain. 'I'm sure your return will be just as radiant,' she gushed. But this was the cue for what, since he came back to Russia last Friday after 20 years abroad, has been one of Solzhenitsyn's principal themes. 'It will definitely not be radiant,' he chided her. 'Russia is in such a wrenching and difficult state that people are seized by fright, concern, fear for the future, and the humiliations of life today.

'It is so difficult for everyone it cannot be easy for me, especially as I will never bend to accommodate what people like or what they say against me. I will speak out in any way that might help Russia.'

It is this that worries Russia's zig-zagging political elite in Moscow, seven time zones to the west, and gives Solzhenitsyn's voice an integrity and strength that carries his message beyond devotees of One Day in the Life of Ivan Deniso vich or The Gulag Archipelego.

Solzhenitsyn's entourage includes not only his family but 10 film-makers and friends. Together they occupy two carriages - one an ordinary sleeper, the other equipped with extra suspension and a cook. The first stage of his trans-Siberian trip to Khabarovsk covers what in the Thirties and Forties was the final stage of a horrific descent into Stalin's camps. Mandelstam, starved and half- mad, died in a transit camp in Vladivostok. Survivors would be packed on to boats and sent to work in gold mines around Magadan. Solzhenitsyn, arrested in 1945, spent eight years in the gulag, mostly in Kazakhstan.

Expelled from Russia and stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1974 for publishing The Gulag Archipelego in the West, he made a brief stopover in Magadan last Friday on a flight from Alaska. Yesterday, he paid formal tribute to the victims of Stalin's Great Terror with a visit to a mass grave for 12,000 people at Khabarovsk's municipal cemetery.

Escorted by Valentin Kulikov, head of the local Chapter of Memorial, he laid roses and crossed himself before rows of enamel tablets bearing the names of 210 people murdered between 1937 and 1938. 'Don't take pictures of me, take pictures of these,' he told a swarm of photographers.

This insistence that the past must not be forgotten unsettles all political camps - democrats because Boris Yeltsin's own past as a senior Communist official is something they would prefer to forget and the opposition because many of its leaders, too, are tainted.

Between craven politicians and the worried intellectuals, though, are people such as Konstantin Vitalyev. A 27-year-old baggage handler at the Khabarovsk railway station, he watched Solzhenitsyn get off his train yesterday morning: 'So what if he spent eight years in the gulag? I spent nine and a half years there.' How so? 'I robbed a shop.'

Solzhenitsyn read aloud a gold inscription in the cemetery: 'Here and elsewhere thousands of martyred believers are buried. Pray so that souls of the innocently slaughtered may find peace.'