Mary Dejevsky: Farewell to the keeper of Russia's conscience

All that Solzhenitsyn wrote rang true. It was suffused with personal experience of bitter conflicts

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Moscow; the afternoon of Monday, 18 December, 1989, and the grey day was already fading to dusk. The temperature had fallen to more than 20 degrees below; flakes from the intermittent snow squalls dusted hats and gloves; the powder underfoot had long packed into ice.

Yet still they queued: thousands upon thousands of dark-clad Russians, heads bowed, exchanging the merest snatches of conversation. An out-of-towner – who else would have posed such a question at that place and on that day – approached and asked, as a new-arrival habitually asked of any long queue in those days, "What are they selling up there?" To which the answer, borne on the perishing wind from somewhere further up the line, was this: "Conscience, that's what they are selling. Fragments of our conscience."

This was the day they buried the nuclear physicist, Nobel laureate and Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov; I had just arrived in Moscow as a reporter, and the Soviet Union still had two years of its faltering existence to run.

The times now could not be more different: the height of summer, rather than the bitter depths of winter; the colourful chaos of plenty, rather than the grey and white of deprivation; a society that has burst open, compared with one that was still essentially closed. But the announcement of the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn conveyed me instantly back, as it doubtless conveyed many Russians old enough to remember, to that winter's day when the country re-discovered its national conscience and brought the end of Soviet power that much closer.

Solzhenitsyn was then living in Vermont – where he spent most of his enforced exile – and resisting the still-secret entreaties of the Kremlin to return. Mikhail Gorbachev's loosening of Soviet constraints through the late 1980s brought many former dissidents, including Sakharov, in from the cold. But Solzhenitsyn was an infinitely tougher nut to crack.

His eventual return to Russia in 1994, after 20 years of enforced exile, was intensively negotiated and planned. A progress across the country, east to west, his homeward journey was hailed – as he surely knew it would be – as proof that Russia had finally recovered its soul.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's life mirrored in an uncanny way the fate of his fellow-countrymen and of Russia itself. Born in 1918, he was destined always to be as old as the Bolshevik revolution. Decorated for bravery as a young officer in the Second World War, he was denounced almost immediately for criticising Stalin. At which point his long peregrinations through the Soviet system of prison camps – chronicled in his later work, The Gulag Archipelago – began.

In common with many of the more original writers and artists of his generation, he had to wait until his forties, and the later stages of the cultural "thaw" initiated by Khrushchev, to have his first work published. Even then, it was a brave editor – Alexander Tvardovsky at Novy Mir – who ventured to print the novella that made his name, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. An account, in minute detail, of the daily drudgery of a Gulag prisoner, the work was lionised – for political as much as literary reasons – by a Western world in the grip of the Cold War.

With Khrushchev's tenure, and the "thaw", summarily ended two years later in 1964, Solzhenitsyn's major novels were all published abroad and smuggled back to Russia. There, devotees spent many hours copying them out in minute script, word by word, page by page, for distribution through the burgeoning – and risky – network of Samizdat. The Nobel Prize for Literature followed, along with internal exile in the provincial city of Ryazan. In 1974, the year in which the first volume of his magnum opus on the prison camps appeared, he was summarily expelled from Russia to Switzerland.

Solzhenitsyn is not one of those dissenters of whom it can be said that Western exile made him. His reputation in the then Soviet Union was built on his courage in tackling quintessentially Russian subjects that many knew about, either personally or second-hand, but few were prepared to address in print. All he wrote rang true; it was suffused with personal experience of the bitter conflicts that intellectual life demanded in those years, and his utter – some would say, pigheaded – refusal to compromise. As an artist, he addressed universal dilemmas, but he remained a very Russian writer-hero.

While some Soviet-era dissidents courted Western attention as strengthening their cause and, perhaps, keeping them alive, for Solzhenitsyn such considerations always seemed immaterial. His was an internal Russian world that did not go much beyond the book-lined walls of his study. In Vermont he rarely strayed beyond the bounds of his walled estate, where he and his family lived almost in the manner of Russian intellectuals before the Revolution. As his polemics against Western secularism showed in later years, he never ceased to tend the flame of his brand of Russian-ness – espousing the priorities of Orthodoxy, autocracy and national identity by which Tsarist Russia defined itself.

And in a Russia where cynicism about Soviet life and its increasingly discredited values was mounting, Solzhenitsyn provided something constant, an alternative standard to which many felt they should aspire, but knew they could never meet. When Gorbachev – another child, incidentally, of the Khrushchev "thaw" – unleashed the cacophony of "glasnost", and the Soviet Union collapsed under its weight, there was Solzhenitsyn: still as stern, as uncompromising and, in his patriarchal way, as enduring a guardian of the Russian soul.

Solzhenitsyn was among those cultural luminaries – Rostropovich was another – who, by what they were rather than what they did, helped Russia re-emerge as a state from the ruins of the Soviet Union. His work, now freely available in every Russian bookshop, fostered not only a sense of continuity, but a sense of conscience. It supplied many of the less edifying chapters edited out of the country's fractured past.

Had Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia even a year before he did, he might have been accompanied across his native land by hundreds of thousands, flocking to him for some sort of absolution. The quieter reception he was accorded in 1994 reflected a country settling into its new life and starting to reconcile itself – albeit fitfully – to its chequered past. Today's Russia is also more sceptical of the very 19th-century brand of Russian exceptionalism that distinguished his thinking. To this extent, Solzhenitsyn had outlived his age.

When he died, on his estate outside Moscow, Solzhenitsyn was culturally back on his country's margins. Then again, for a writer whose place in history is guaranteed as the keeper of Russia's conscience through the grimmest of times, the margins are probably where he would most like to be.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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