Secret documents that Solzhenitsyn left: Julian Nundy remembers his time in Moscow during the dramatic events surrounding the exile of the dissident writer

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The Independent Online
ON 12 February 1974, a wiry, bearded man showed visitors a bag beside the front door of his ground-floor flat just off Gorky Street; it held the essentials he needed for his expected return to a labour camp. Once imprisoned, his ambition was to work on a history of Russia for children.

The heavy curtains in the flat were drawn so that KGB eyes and lenses could not peer in. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, then 55, was in a cheerful and combative mood. He chuckled at a visitor's remark about his 'Russian-Russian phrasebook' - a child's magic slate, a banned artefact in Breznhev's justly paranoid Soviet Union, with which he could communicate without fear of microphones. Writing on the slate, he told his two visitors, an American correspondent and myself, what he wanted of them.

Expecting arrest at any time, he handed over documents to publish if the authorities came for him. One of them was a thundering tract, Live Not by Lies], an acerbic denunciation of the Soviet system.

Solzhenitsyn did not have to wait long. The next day the KGB barged into his flat and took him away. Within 24 hours, he had been charged with treason, stripped of his Soviet nationality and put on an Aeroflot flight to Frankfurt. Solzhenitsyn was heading for exile, expelled from his beloved Russia.

The next evening, friends and supporters, including Andrei Sakharov, ate a snack of toasted green cheese in the Gorky Street kitchen as Natalya, Solzhenitsyn's young wife, waited for news. When it came, a KGB colonel - she used to call him 'my colonel' - was appointed as official liaison to ease the family's departure.

Solzhenitsyn caused the KGB an extra headache by including in the list of relatives he wanted to join him an aunt in her nineties living in Odessa. The KGB made the effort to find the old lady but she telephoned to say she would rather not leave in view of her age.

Although Natalya's colonel had said all Solzhenitsyn's archives could leave the country without hindrance, she decided to send them by other, secret means. The documents were collected in small lots over a couple of weeks and hidden in clothing.

Now that Solzhenitsyn is back in Russia, it is difficult to see what influence he can have in the free-market free-for-all mayhem that his country has since become.

The total change in mentality there would seem to rule out much of a role for someone whose views seem rigid and mystic, let alone old-fashioned. He has said he wants no political role and most of those who tried to claim him as theirs seem to have given up.

'What happens now is of little significance,' said a French expert on the former Soviet Union this week. A witness, too, of Solzhenitsyn's last days in Russia in 1974, he said: 'He'll be interesting in a few months once the Russians have got to know him again. Don't believe all that stuff about how nobody's going to give a damn.'

(Photographs omitted)