When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994, ending 20 years of exile, I was there as his train pulled into Moscow's Yaroslavsky Station on July 21 -- the end of a long cross-country journey he took after flying from America to Vladivostok in May.
It was a big day: One of the most famous victims of the communist system was returning to a country free of the repressive Soviet government he had helped bring down by documenting daily life -- or the pale shadow of it that was lived by inmates in the Soviet prison-camp system.
Solzhenitsyn, who would have turned 100 on December 11 if he were still living today, was a figure of towering moral stature -- a man who spent years in the gulag and was praised for the "ethical force" of his life and work when he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature.
It wasn't that Solzhenitsyn was expected to ride to power on a white horse and right seven decades of wrong -- he had already said he would steer clear of party politics and repeated that in an address from a concrete abutment at the station, where an eager crowd stood listening in the rain.
For one thing, his return just seemed right, a momentous but natural step in in what many hoped would be Russia's transformation into an economically thriving democracy -- a "normal" country, as countless citizens described it in those days.
In his story Matryona's Place, the Solzhenitsyn-like narrator is returning from exile in the Central Asian desert and wants little more than to hear the "rumble" of leaves -- "to lose myself in the very core of Russia, if there was such a place anywhere."
For Solzhenitsyn, that Russia would prove elusive.
The day he landed in Vladivostok, he said Russia had been "altered beyond recognition." What he had seen from his temporary home among the leaves of Vermont and what he found upon his return -- three years after the Soviet Union fell apart, opening the country to a chaotic brand of capitalism and leaving citizens struggling to stay afloat -- was certainly far from his ideal.
He made that amply clear to the crowd at the train station in Moscow.
"No one expected that the leave-taking from communism would be painless. But no one thought it would be so painful," Solzhenitsyn said at the train station. "Russia is living through an orgy of vice and immorality…. We are handing over our children, defenseless, to the insolent forces of vice."
I don't remember much about that wet summer day, though photographs somehow bring back the mood of a whole decade. But for me, one image remains as a metaphor for what Solzhenitsyn may have been thinking: an empty pack of Rodina cigarettes -- the name means Homeland -- trampled on the grimy, rain-slicked platform.
'Out Of This Pit'
The 75-year-old Solzhenitsyn voiced hope, even certainty, that the post-Soviet problems would be overcome, citing the many "healthy souls" he encountered on his cross-country trip and stating: "We will succeed in getting ourselves out of this pit."
But the more he saw of Russia, for a while at least, the more he did not like.
"The masses of our people are dismayed, stunned and shocked by humiliation and by the shame of their powerlessness," he told the State Duma in a speech in late October 1994.
Russia under President Boris Yeltsin was an "oligarchy," he said, and there was "no evidence that the reforms and the government's policies are being undertaken in the interests of the people."
Comparing the State Duma to its doomed tsarist-era predecessors, Solzhenitsyn said that lawmakers must shape up or risk suffering a similar fate at the hands of a power-hungry executive branch.
If he meant the Duma would be dissolved, he was off the mark -- but not by far.
Parliament has not been disbanded since Solzhenitsyn spoke, and the Duma is still elected at more or less regular intervals.
But since Yeltsin handed Russia's reins to Vladimir Putin on the last day of 1999, it has become little more than a pocket parliament -- with the liberal opposition gradually squeezed out and the ruling United Russia party solidifying its control.
Putin also set to work seeking to muzzle the media and rein in powerful tycoons, bringing oil and other material riches back into state hands.
His years in power have been punctuated by terror attacks and disasters either caused or aggravated by human error, and corruption is still a major scourge.
But in some ways Russia has become less chaotic than it was when Solzhenitsyn returned, a troubled time less than a year after tanks shelled the country's own parliament in Yeltsin's showdown with opponents -- and less than a year before tanks rolled into Chechnya, igniting years of devastating war and insurgency in the North Caucasus.
Solzhenitsyn's vision of a Russia made secure and successful by strong local self-government had little chance of taking hold under Putin, who has sought to keep the far-flung regions on a short leash and consolidate power in the Kremlin.
Nonetheless, Solzhenitsyn clearly preferred Putin's Russia to Yeltsin's. Unlike other Soviet-era dissidents such as Lyudmila Alekseyeva, who died at age 91 on December 8, Solzhenitsyn never became a frequent critic of Putin.
In contrast to his distaste for developments in in his country in the 1990s -- an era that has also been a frequent target of the Kremlin's derision, part of the narrative that Putin has raised Russia from its knees -- Solzhenitsyn at times praised Putin for working to restore a strong state.
His view of the West, which he had admonished in a 1978 commencement speech at Harvard University, a few hours' drive from his home in Vermont, was more negative, more tinged with nationalism, and closer to Putin's than those of many Soviet dissidents.
And Solzhenitsyn sometimes said things that seemed to dovetail with the positions of Putin's Kremlin, such as when he dismissed Ukrainian assertions that the 1930s Holodomor famine was genocide as a "fable."
In 1994 it might have been hard to imagine anything less than animus between a longtime former Soviet KGB officer and an intellectual who was first imprisoned and then exiled by the Soviet state.
But for Putin, Solzhenitsyn proved to be a convenient ally at times -- even after his death.
In remarks at the unveiling of a monument to Solzhenitsyn in Moscow on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Putin called the writer "a true, real patriot of Russia" who "stood up against any manifestations of Russophobia" -- a term the Kremlin uses to blame Western officials for the badly strained state of ties with Russia today.
"Even in exile, Aleksandr Isayevich [Solzhenitsyn] never let anyone speak ill or dismissively of his homeland," said Putin.
A little over a year before Solzhenitsyn's death, Putin followed a Kremlin awards ceremony whose honorees included designers of nuclear-armed submarines by visiting the 88-year-old at his home -- the writer had not appeared in public for some time, and his wife had accepted the award on his behalf at the Kremlin -- and thanked him in person for "all your work for the good of Russia."
Solzhenitsyn, who sat in a wheelchair, thanked Putin for coming. And in a taped message delivered haltingly, he seemed to put stability above all else, saying that the country's ordeals in the "cruel and troubled years" he wrote about -- from the Bolshevik Revolution to the decades of communist rule -- could help "forewarn and protect us from destructive breakdowns" and upheaval.
Not Masters Of Their Fate
Solzhenitsyn died in August 2008, three months after Putin adhered to a constitutional limit of two straight terms by stepping down and letting his chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, assume the presidency.
But Putin did not go far, becoming prime minister and then returning to the presidency in 2012 -- a move that sparked big protests by Russians who felt he had violated the spirit of the law if not its letter and were dismayed at what they feared was the end of a chance for reforms.
They were also incensed by evidence of large-scale fraud in the ruling party's favor in the parliamentary elections held in December 2011, weeks after Putin's plan to return to the Kremlin was announced.
The Kremlin tightened the screws during Putin's third term and he won another election in March of this year, setting him up to stay in the Kremlin until 2024. Asked last month what will happen then, Putin answered with a quip: "What's the hurry? I'm not planning on going anywhere yet."
Solzhenitsyn is not around to assess Putin's return to the presidency, let alone his performance since then and his future plans -- both for himself and for Russia.
But when he arrived at the Yaroslavsky Station in the Russian capital almost a quarter-century ago, Solzhenitsyn vowed to speak the people's truth to "those who hold power in their hands." And one of the remarks he made there could provide a hint about what he might think had he lived to 100.
"The people are not the masters of their fate," he said, "and so we cannot talk about democracy."