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Remembering The Eternal Dissident

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1994, after his return to Russia
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1994, after his return to Russia
The news of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's death came as a shock. Not surprise at his passing, exactly. After all, the man was 89, a former inmate of the Soviet gulag system and a cancer survivor. It was more a guilty realization that, for more than a decade, the great Russian writer had barely registered on my consciousness.

I remember well the excitement of Solzhenitsyn's return to Russia after his 20-year exile in the West. It was my first major reporting assignment for "The Moscow Times," and I boarded the Aeroflot plane to Vladivostok in May 1994 with a mixture of elation and terror. Everyone on the flight, it seemed, was an eager journalist hoping to be the first to interview a man whose name was synonymous with courage and resistance, a writer who had exposed, in haunting prose, the full horror and inhumanity of the Soviet regime.

Solzhenitsyn had been a dim presence in my life for decades, since my very first days as a Russian student. I went to school in Vermont, where the famous dissident had set up his compound, surrounded by a high fence. He was a recluse who barely engaged with the community, although his three tow-headed boys were frequently seen around town.

When the great man did emerge, as in his famous Harvard commencement speech in 1978, it was to deliver lengthy diatribes against Western culture and values. He thundered against consumerism, moral laxity, and rock and roll.

When I finally made it to Russia myself, as a diplomat in the 1980s, the fearsome Soviet monolith was already beginning to crumble. A rather saccharine but, for the time, daring novel called "Children of the Arbat" had just been published in a literary magazine, and everyone was braced for a minor revolution.

"Do you think that Solzhenitsyn will ever be published here?" I would ask Muscovites -- from taxi drivers to booksellers to Soviet diplomats I would meet on the cocktail-party circuit.

They all gave me the same answer: "Not in our lifetime."

That was in 1987.

By 1990, when I returned to Moscow as head of a student group, Solzhenitsyn's works were available in almost every metro underpass. Booksellers would display his pamphlet, "Rebuilding Russia," alongside earlier books, such as "Cancer Ward," "The First Circle," and even his masterwork, "The Gulag Archipelago," which documented the full horror of the Soviet prison-camp system.

But it seemed that most browsers were too busy scooping up the latest translation of another formerly banned writer, Agatha Christie, to pay attention to the weighty tomes of their native son.

I knew people who had copied entire Solzhenitsyn manuscripts by hand in the 1970s, passing them from friend to friend, to be devoured in all-night reading binges, and burned or flushed if there was a suspicious knock on the door.

But as the old restrictions faded, Russians were intent on putting their tragic and traumatic history behind them, concentrating instead on sampling the formerly forbidden fruits of Western decadence.

As with his books, so with the man himself. By 1994, when Solzhenitsyn finally returned to his homeland, he found himself sadly out of step with most of his compatriots.

In Vladivostok that very cold May, we were braced for the arrival. At the last moment, Solzhenitsyn changed his plans and made first landfall at Magadan, famous during the Stalinist years for its fearsome prison camps, or gulag. We, waiting a few hundred miles away, sighed and groaned: we had missed the moment. His eventual press conference in Vladivostok was something of an anticlimax.

For days we played tag, with reporters, photographers, and television crews all jostling to follow Solzhenitsyn and his family around town.

Vladivostok itself was unimpressed by the celebrity who appeared with such fanfare in their midst.

"Who's the guy with the beard?" grumbled impatient shoppers, waiting to buy meat in a long queue. Solzhenitsyn had taken a morning trip to the market, accompanied by the world media, and was strolling the stalls asking the price of sausage. He started a near riot when several nonliterary locals began protesting that he had jumped the queue.

Solzhenitsyn soon left Vladivostok on a specially equipped train, for an odyssey across the land he had been separated from for so long. This romantic reconnection of the writer with his roots was to be filmed by the BBC, in an exclusive deal negotiated for an undisclosed sum.

He whistle-stopped his way across Russia, delivering the same message at every town meeting, press conference, private audience: Russians, bewitched by this "democrap" nonsense, had sold their souls for a bit of Western glitz. It was time to get back to basic Slavic values.

By the time Solzhenistyn arrived in Moscow several weeks later, he had become a dissident once again.

Indeed, local figures were a bit alarmed by his fire and brimstone. "Here comes Ayatollah Khomeini," said a local Orthodox priest, standing on the platform as the train chugged in.

They needn't have worried. Solzhenitsyn was not preaching revolution.

He contented himself with haranguing his countrymen on everything from the education of children to kitchen gardens, in a weekly televised sermon that was soon dropped for lack of interest.

He retreated into his compound outside of Moscow, much the same as he had closeted himself in Vermont.

Now that he has gone, it is time to assess his legacy. Most of the retrospectives I have read focus on the early years, and, of course, on his major works. This is as it should be. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will be remembered as a giant of literature. His self-appointed role as prophet and Jeremiah may soon be lost, but his masterpieces will live forever.

Jean MacKenzie worked as a journalist in Moscow from 1992 to 1999. She now trains journalists in Afghanistan, where she has been with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting for the past four years. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL