Solzhenitsyn show gets ready for the road

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The Independent Online
IF Igor Lebedinets had things his way there would be a proper welcome, Soviet-style with folk singers and balalaikas at the airport, a Zil limousine and a hotel where the plumbing still worked. A seasoned bureaucrat, now second in command of a region bigger than France, Mr Lebedinets has to worry about such things, especially as he is the one who must officially welcome Alexander Solzhenitsyn back on to Russian soil after 20 years of exile.

'He does not want any red carpets,' the deputy governor said glumly. 'Talented people always tend to be a bit strange.'

The people of Vermont, where Solzhenitsyn spent the past 18 years working on his last gargantuan project, The Red Wheel, came to pretty much the same conclusion. But it took them several years. Vladivostok is already puzzled, and Solzhenitsyn has not even arrived.

His Old Testament mien and the attached other-worldly aura seem to have stirred something akin to visions of the Virgin Mary. There have been several reported sightings. 'He has been spotted in Khabarovsk. He must have been with Elvis,' said his son, Yermolai, part of an advance team already in Vladivostok.

In fact, the Alaska Airlines plane carrying the 75-year-old writer, his wife and another son (and some 50 journalists), gets into Vladivostok late this afternoon. He stays over the weekend and then catches the trans-Siberian for a long journey back to Moscow. Mr Lebedinets, no stranger to top- drawer delegations, thought he knew just what to do with Solzhenitsyn: a hug on the tarmac, some music, and then zip off in a motorcade to a guesthouse built in the middle of a forest for talks in 1974 between Leonid Brezhnev and Gerald Ford. 'He said no. He said he wanted to meet the people.'

This must seem a particularly implausible explanation: meeting the people was exactly what Brezhnev would say he wanted to do too. This never meant going without hot water. Or, for that matter, going anywhere near the people. But this is what Solzhenitsyn will have to do if he checks into the Vladivostok, the imaginatively named local Intourist hotel, where Yermolai, 23, and the rest of the advance entourage have established a beach-head on the fifth floor. The hotel, along with most of the city, is without hot water at the moment because pipes are being cleaned - an eternal Soviet rite of spring with which Solzhenitsyn can now re-acquaint himself.

He will also get a chance to rub shoulders with prostitutes in the lift and young hoods on their way to an all-night casino in the lobby. But, says Yermolai: 'If fear was something that ever stopped my father, he would never have done most of what he did.'

Yuri Prokofiev, Solzhenitsyn's quartermaster and sometimes cameraman, insists that hot water is not a big issue for a literary genius. 'It is not an official visit. This is the return to the motherland of a great writer.'

For local authorities, the headache is how to inject a little pomp into the arrival of such a celebrated, if curmudgeonly, guest. 'It is very hard to find the right balance,' Mr Lebedinets said, adding that this should really be the job of his boss, the Governor, who conveniently absented himself with a trip to Peking to meet the Chinese prime minister.

An original itinerary had Solzhenitsyn meeting border troops - formerly part of the KGB - and saluting the Pacific Fleet. He said no. Nor will Solzhenitsyn play the hermit. His son went on television last night to invite the citizens of Vladivostok to a homecoming rally. Its venue: 'The Square of the Fighters for Soviet Power.'

At the No 33 literary bookshop, near the square, not a single one of Solzhenitsyn's works is on sale. Big sellers are Basic Instinct and Batman. Videos of the same are on sale at kiosks outside, near Magic Burger.

To get in the mood for the visit, though, loyal former Communists are busy recalling their own proximity with the suffering of the Gulag. Mr Lebedenits reminds visitors how his father was labelled an 'enemy of the people' by Stalin. He lost his party membership from 1936 to 1939. Such a plight pales next to the miseries of the Gulag Archipelago. But the terror touched everyone. And, for this reason, so does Solzhenitsyn.

'This trip,' says Yermolai, 'is the greatest road show there is.'

Leading article, page 17

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