Russian human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov discusses the legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died at his residence outside Moscow on the night of August 3 at the age of 89. Interview conducted by Yevgenia Nazarets of RFE/RL's Russian Service.
RFE/RL: Tell us what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn meant for you.
Lev Ponomaryov: For me personally, Solzhenitsyn played a major role. When I was still a schoolboy, I remember thinking of ways to travel to Ryazan, where he worked as a teacher, in order to meet him. Even back then I had heard about him -- I knew that he had returned from the camps. I knew that he had written his first works, and I knew that they were being published. For me then, he was a leader of resistance to the regime -- already in the 10th grade, I was an anticommunist. However, I was never able to make that trip, but his books formed my entire life. Solzhenitsyn is one of those bright examples of a person who stood up to the regime. And he was lucky enough to survive, to show others that it is not only possible to stand up, but to survive as well. For this reason, to me, he was a leader of the resistance.
But he was also a great writer. It is rare for someone to be both the one and the other. That's why we will remember him and mourn him.
And he was also a social figure. And here I must take pause, sigh, and say that I did not always agree with him. I did not always agree with his social positions. But all the same, he was a powerful thinker and a great social figure. He had a different point of view that did not overlap with mine. But he always stirred up the minds both of those who agreed with him and of those who did not. And for that, one must take off one's hat, bow one's head, and say, "Ashes to ashes."
RFE/RL: How important is Solzhenitsyn's experience of resisting the regime for Russia today?
Ponomaryov: Resistance is always useful. A person who has the courage to speak, to write (you will recall that he wrote a letter to a friend in which he criticized the regime), to resist in the camps and survive -- that person is always extremely useful. He is simply a symbol -- that person becomes a symbol for everyone who follows the path of resisting a political regime. When a person does not make compromises, that is always important, that is always.... I am not a young man and I do not want to speak in overblown words like "beacon" or "symbol." Maybe this isn't correct, but it is true. There are names that become exactly that -- symbols. And Solzhenitsyn is a symbol of resistance.
RFE/RL: You became interested in Solzhenitsyn where you were still a young person. What do you think -- when should people become acquainted with this writer, with this public figure, with this leader of the resistance?
Ponomaryov: I suspect that young people today do not know that he is a symbol of resistance. I think that little has been said of this in recent time. And, naturally, he was an old man and he himself moved somewhat into the shadows, occupied himself with his literary works. His relationship with [Vladimir] Putin was impossible to understand, but this is not important. It was all just a crust that will fall away. It might be of interest to us right now, but it will pass into history. He will enter history as a great Russian writer, as a person who stood up to the totalitarian Soviet regime.
RFE/RL: At different times, the circle of people who read Solzhenitsyn has changed. In the dissident years, in Soviet times -- they were certain people. When perestroika began, mass interest in his works was observed. And what role do his literary works play now?
Ponomaryov: I am not a big expert in this area. But all the same, his "The Gulag Archipelago" will be known to all generations. It will be read and quoted. He has various works. There is "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," which many people know virtually by heart and which was one of the first literary works -- one might say a small masterpiece -- about the Soviet camps. On the other hand, he has the almost scholarly book "The Gulag Archipelago," which is simultaneously literary, where he spent many years of his life collecting an enormous amount of facts, where he laid bare the gulag, enabled the West to understand what the Soviet regime was, its full criminality. I think that, at the very least, these two masterpieces will remain for the ages. And, of course, many others.