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9794Serge Schmemann on Solzhenitsyn

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  • mateliza@aol.com
    Aug 6, 2008
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      August 5, 2008
      Editorial Observer


      Audio: Serge Schmemann on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (mp3)
      » _Listen_

      Solzhenitsyn in Search of the Russia That Always Eluded Him

      LABELLE, Quebec
      In May 1974, three months after his dramatic expulsion from the Soviet Union,
      Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn entered on a search for a place to live in North
      America. The search ended in Cavendish, Vt., but the first stop was at our summer
      place on a lake here in Quebec where Solzhenitsyn wanted to continue the
      long talks he had begun earlier in Zurich with my father, the Rev. Alexander
      Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox theologian and historian.
      I was thrilled to be there. Solzhenitsyn was a giant among the heroic
      dissidents in the Soviet Union, and his saga was a defining episode in the decline
      of the Communist tyranny. The appearance of “A Day in the Life of Ivan
      Denisovich” in the journal Novy Mir on Nov. 20, 1962, opened the window into the
      Stalinist camps and demonstrated that the great moral tradition of Russian
      literature had survived decades of brutal efforts to extirpate it.
      Then came “The First Circle,” “The Cancer Ward,” the 1970 Nobel Prize and
      the monumental “Gulag Archipelago,” revealing the full evil of Stalinism.
      Finally, there was the furious Soviet assault and the brusque expulsion.
      Now here he was in the flesh.
      My function was modest; I came to cook and drive. All Solzhenitsyn wanted
      were potatoes roasted with onions for his meals and a small, inconspicuous car
      for transport. But the conversations were electrifying: it was as if what
      Solzhenitsyn wanted from my father was an instant transfer of all the Russian
      history and ideas that had been denied him in the Soviet state.
      The talks were interrupted only for BBC Russian-language news, which
      Solzhenitsyn would rush outdoors to tune in to on a portable shortwave radio. He had
      lists of questions and took copious notes in a tiny hand — perhaps another
      legacy of a lifetime of hiding writings and thoughts from “them” — and the
      conversations continued even on long treks through the countryside. There was
      still ice on the lake and, as in Russia, only the first hint of green in the
      woods. Solzhenitsyn said our fields and forests lacked the songbirds of the
      Russian countryside. This was not Russia.
      That was always the reference point: Russia. Everything — the conversation,
      the setting, the food, the writing, the shortwave broadcasts, even the
      safari-style jacket and the patriarchal beard he wore — was about Russia.
      It was his Russia; one in which speaking truth was dangerous and heroic; a
      great and holy Russia that had to be rescued from an evil and godless power.
      Joseph Brodsky, another great literary exile, once told me that writing poetry
      in Russian became difficult for him in America after the language ceased to
      surround him.
      Solzhenitsyn seemed to fear a similar fate — that any interest or involvement
      in his new surroundings would dilute his self-imposed, sacred mission of
      rescuing Russia. He seemed determined to sustain the spirit of moral resistance.
      In all his years in Vermont, he rarely ventured into the world, and then it
      was to inveigh against Western immorality, consumerism and decadence in terms
      that showed little firsthand knowledge.
      The next time I saw Solzhenitsyn was 20 years later, when I covered his
      return to Russia in Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East. He continued to issue
      moral thunderbolts, now also against the chaotic, new post-Soviet Russia.
      Perhaps he was right, but his incessant criticism and the naïveté of his
      exhortations, usually centered on patriotism as the key to Russia’s future, seemed
      irrelevant to Russians caught up in the post-Communist tumult. The work that he
      had regarded as the most important of his life, “Red Wheel,” attracted
      little attention.
      It was a sad ending, but also typically Russian. As Solzhenitsyn himself
      noted in “The First Circle,” the writer is like a second government in a
      dictatorship. The paradox is that the moral authority gained through prophetic and
      powerful writing undermines the creativity at its source. Like many great
      Russian writers, Solzhenitsyn achieved immortality before he became conscious of
      his power, which then turned into pedantry.
      None of that detracts from the paean to the human spirit of “Ivan Denisovich,
      ” the great conflicts of his major novels, or the majestic anger of “Gulag.”
      To his credit, Solzhenitsyn struggled to the end to maintain the power and
      purity of these great works.

      Audio: Serge Schmemann on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (mp3)
      » _Listen_

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      St. George's Orthodox Church
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      _http://matushkaelizabeth.vox.com/_ (http://matushkaelizabeth.vox.com/)
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