Leading Article: An exile's return to a changed country

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THE return to Russia today of Alexander Solzhenitsyn after 20 years in exile in the West is a moving moment. At last, the prophet comes back to the people who owe him so much. A victim of the gulags, he risked his subsequent freedom by giving back to the Russian people the true and terrible history of their country under Stalin. He became a kind of icon: not just a courageous chronicler but a nationalist, a believer in the true Russian Orthodox faith, and a doughty battler for oppressed individuals against tyranny.

For most of the past 20 years he buried himself on a well-defended estate in Vermont, completing a 10- volume, 5,000-page account of the years 1914-17, so crucial in Russian history, to be called The Red Wheel. He was unhappy in the West, whose technology, materialism and liberal values he despised; and he is likely to be unhappy back in his own country, which, in its post- communist phase, is aping many of the worst features of Western capitalism. Yet he feels he has no choice but to return, to fulfil what he calls his duty to society.

It is typical of the man that, rather than fly direct to his new home in Moscow, he should choose to land in Vladivostock and proceed slowly by train to the capital, stopping on the way to talk to ordinary people and discover the true nature of this strange new Russia. After his long travail in New England, devoted to intense research and writing, he will once again be taking in rather than giving out words.

There are those who deride the lateness of his return, like the nationalist who complained: 'He is coming home when all the plates are broken.' To them he points out that his first duty is to his work, not to fruitless political gestures.

Certainly the impact of his return would have been much greater immediately after the fall of communism that he had so confidently predicted, and indeed helped to hasten. Yet he himself believes his role in Russia can only be moral. To both the nationalist, Slavophile tendency and to ex-dissident intellectuals, he remains a beacon of authority and hope. Both will be seeking to enlist him on their side. To avoid being sucked into politics while asserting his values will require less courage than his old role, but a level of diplomatic finesse that will not come easily to this great but difficult Russian.