February 20, 2018

Gulag Payback

On this day in 1970, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize. Solzhenitsyn was 51 years old, but 11 years had been spent in prison and labor camps, and then in exile-rehabilitation in Kazakhstan. Although he had been writing secretly for decades, he only began to publish in 1961, with the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. This documentation of Stalin-era labor camps caused an international sensation and, until Khrushchev fell from power and a new round of censorship began, encouraged others to publish similar revelations. In the late 60s, Solzhenitsyn published First Circle and Cancer Ward, and then in the year after the Nobel, August 1914, but when the first part of The Gulag Archipelago appeared in 1973 he was severely attacked, then charged with treason and expelled in 1974. This ended in 1994, when Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia with his citizenship restored.

In his 1975 memoir, The Oak and the Calf, Solzhenitsyn describes his failed attempt to use the Nobel Prize as a knock-out blow to Soviet repression. "During my time in the camps," he writes, "I had got to know the enemies of the human race quite well: they respect the big fist and nothing else; the harder you slug them, the safer you will be." His Nobel moment would be the opposite of Pasternak's reneging and knuckling-under: unconditional acceptance of the Prize, a rousing speech in Stockholm, no concessions come what may. Then it gradually became clear that the Academy, wanting his presence but not his politics, planned to keep him clear of the demonstrations, out of the flashbulbs and off the soapboxes: "Fine! The very reason why I trudged my way from camp work parades to the Nobel Prize -- to hide in a quiet apartment in Stockholm and flee with a carload of detectives from a lot of pampered young ne'er-do-wells." Then came strategic doubts: once out of the country he would likely be kept out, thus losing the ability to fight from within. Compounding these reasons -- this is not in the memoir but a 1984 biography by Michael Scammell -- was a personal situation not unlike Pasternak's: an extramarital affair that had his mistress pregnant, his wife suicidal, and all concerned vulnerable to counter-attack from the authorities. Having failed to talk the Swedish authorities into a satellite ceremony at their embassy in Moscow, Solzhenitsyn finally decided to stay home, sending only a seven sentence message to be read at the banquet.

Home at this point was the borrowed Moscow dacha-of his new friend, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Here Solzhenitsyn and a few friends gathered on the night of the Nobel banquet to celebrate and listen to whatever Nobel coverage came on the radio. They eventually heard Solzhenitsyn's speech -- blurred and full of static, but clear enough for Solzhenitsyn to realize that the Swedish presenter had cut his last sentence as being too political: ". . . So let none at this festive table forget that political prisoners are on hunger strike this very day in defense of the rights that have been curtailed or trampled under foot."

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