Russia's realist goes home: Solzhenitsyn returns to Moscow on Friday and could once again influence the country that rejected him, says Vladimir Chuguev

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TWENTY years ago Alexander Solzhenitsyn arrived in Frankfurt on a Soviet plane - handcuffed and accompanied by KGB thugs. The Soviet authorities thought this was the best way of getting rid of him. Deprived of his country, its people and its language, he would fade into obscurity.

But there were other views. As usual in those days, they found most apt expression in a popular joke: In a few years' time people will ask 'Who was Brezhnev?' Answer: 'Some insignificant politician in the time of Solzhenitsyn.' Nobody laughs any more. It sounds like a simple, dry statement of fact.

Given the incredible events that have taken place since he went into exile, there is, however, a risk that the time of Solzhenitsyn will be perceived as remote from the present. It is a possibility that many people have pointed out to him since he announced that he was to exchange his comfortable home in the forests of Vermont for a brand new house in Troitse-Lykovo, near Moscow. And there are a fair number warning him not to return. Some are afraid that his voice will be lost completely in the chaotic din of post-Soviet society, others seem to fear that he will be heard in the wrong quarters and for the wrong reasons.

But it would be nothing new for Solzhenitsyn to disprove pessimistic predictions. In 1953 he was written off as having terminal cancer, after eight years of hell in the gulag. A decade later the literary novice placed himself at the centre of Russian literature with his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a place he still occupies. He refused an offer from the Swedish ambassador in Moscow to receive his 1970 Nobel prize for literature in secret, stating tersely that he did not steal it. He received it in person at a full-scale ceremony in Stockholm after his expulsion from the Soviet Union.

From the first day of his exile in 1974, and through all 20 years of his life in the West, he has maintained that he would one day return to his native country. For years nobody believed this would be possib1e. Yet now he is returning - to a Russia free of Communism and censorship, but a Russia that has fallen victim to moral decline, economic collapse, national conflicts, the all-pervasive pop culture, the Big Mac, heavy metal, soaring crime rates and general malaise. Does his return matter? Amid all these distractions, will it even be noticed?

There is some truth in the remark that his return would have attracted more attention if it had happened in 1989-91, when hopes for change were at their highest and the difficulties had not begun to bite. Now, his return will certainly be noticed, but it is unlikely to be greeted with such enthusiasm. Generally, this is a time of bitter disappointment for many Russians.

People have become more realistic; they have little doubt that things will get worse before they get better. Some do not believe they will get better. A peasant woman, Solzhenitsyn's future neighbour at Troitse-Lykovo, was recently quoted as saying: 'We have great respect for Alexander Isayevich, but our life is not going to change, is it?'

One cannot help feeling, however, that this is exactly how Alexander Isayevich would like to be greeted - calmly and realistically. Dostoyevsky said of some of his more fantastical novels: 'I am a realist in the higher sense'. The same could be said of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

In his Vermont retreat he guarded his work time so jealously that a whole legend grew up about him as a hermit, insulated from life. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is very well informed about world events. He has always received a huge number of letters from his readers in Russia, and his foundation, set up from the proceeds of The Gulag Archipelago and under the personal supervision of his wife, was - and is - actively involved in social and welfare work in Russia. He knows all about the difficulties of the situation. While in Vermont, he has denounced the way the country has aped the worst aspects of Western life: the debasing of the language, pop culture and criminality, materialism and profiteering.

Solzhenitsyn has never been afraid to speak out, even if this meant offending the might of the Communist dictatorship or the prejudices of left-wing opinion in the West. He will certainly continue to do so once he returns to Russia. But will his voice be heard over the noise of everyday life? At a time when Russians are catching up with the Western dictum that time is money, who will have the time to read his 10-volume epic The Red Wheel, the fruits of his 20 years of research and writing in Vermont?

But those who would write Solzhenitsyn off as a political and literary dinosaur forget that it was he who gave the clearest warning about Russia's future at the beginning of the turmoil, in 1990. In How shall we restructure Russia? - a work that has been widely misunderstood - he wrote: 'The wall of Communism is crashing down. Let us beware, lest we be buried beneath its ruins.'

Speaking recently about his personal future in Russia, he has categorically ruled out any political role for himself. Where, indeed, would he position himself in the present political chaos? He is a genuine Russian patriot, but there is nothing further from his mind than Zhirinovsky's ambition to see Russian soldiers conquering the south and 'washing their boots in the Indian Ocean'. He knows the West and is capable of appreciating it much better than some of the noisier so-called Westernisers. At the same time, he will dismiss their sneering contempt of Russian tradition and culture with the sarcasm it deserves.

He has indicated, though, that his life as a writer is over; his life's work is accomplished and in Russia he wants to meet and keep company with as many people as possible. There was a time when Tolstoy's estate at Yasnaya Polyana was as much a landmark of world and European culture as Weimar or Stratford-upon-Avon. In recent media reports about Troitse-Lykovo, the discussion has tended to focus on whether it was once home to Stalin's hatchet man, Lazar Kaganovich, the wolf of the Kremlin, or to Marshal Tukhachevsky, the Red Bonaparte, creator of the Red Army, butcher of the mutinous sailors of Kronshtadt, who finally became a victim of the gulag himself.

For centuries before the arrival of these Communist VIPs, though, Troitse-Lykovo was home to generations of ordinary Russians, the Ivan Denisoviches of Solzhenitsyn's work. And there is nowhere that Alexander Isayevich would feel more at home than somewhere like this.

The author is a writer and broadcaster, who serialised much of Solzhenitsyn's work for the BBC Russian Service.

(Photograph omitted)

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