Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Was My Father

“The name cuts both ways. It’s an inalienable fact of life in my performing career. I don’t think about it a great deal but I am often reminded that others naturally think about it perhaps more than I do.”

Ignat Solzhenitsyn is sitting with me in a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The son of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, he has just completed a successful five week tour of Germany and Russia where as an acclaimed pianist and conductor he works with the finest orchestras available, even sharing the podium with Valery Gergiev, the legendary artistic director of Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. His home base however is New York where he lives with his American wife and three children Dmitri, 8, Anna, 7, and Andrei, 1. He is also conductor laureate of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and professor of piano at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, also in Philadelphia.

Of all these appointments Solzhenitsyn however says only: “It’s good to be busy.” This is because today we are discussing not music but rather In the First Circle, his father’s cold war masterpiece just published in the USA in a radically new edition—retranslated, greatly expanded (with 96 chapters instead of 87), much more caustic in its political criticisms, and with a bonus preposition in the title (in). A story of four days in a ‘sharashka’, a special camp where prisoner-scientists worked on secret projects for the Stalinist regime, in Solzhenitsyn’s hands it becomes a window on the entire Soviet Union.

“Actually,” says 37 year old Ignat, “This is not a new version but rather the original version, that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn always wanted people to read. The book that was smuggled out to the West and published in 1968 had been ‘lightened’ by my father in the hope that he could get it past the soviet censors. He restored the original text in exile, and this was published in Russian in 1978. English translations have always lagged behind, but I’m delighted that Harper Collins has finally seen fit to translate the whole thing.”

Polite but formal in his email correspondence, I had expected an intimidating figure. This is the son of a man who survived World War II, the Gulag, exile, stomach cancer and persecution by the KGB; who hastened the collapse of the USSR with his politically explosive books; and who alienated liberal Western opinion with his infamous Harvard address of 1978 in which he attacked ‘decadent’ Western culture. If even a fraction of this ferociously defiant, contrarian attitude had rubbed off on the son, then I was in for a difficult interview. And yet Ignat Solzhenitsyn—a big, burly man—was not only open, warm and gregarious but entirely lacking in pretension or pomposity. Did he or his two brothers ever find their father overwhelming, I asked?

“No. You hear about all sorts of quirks and deviations when it comes to artists, but we were very fortunate: I can’t imagine a great man being more normal than he was.”

Normal: not a word that featured in any of the obituaries published when Solzhenitsyn died last August aged 89. Opinion was divided over his achievements, as it still is: was Solzhenitsyn the literary heir to Tolstoy and a hero? Or was he a ‘Russian Khomeini’ with ‘virulently reactionary’ political views?

In fact, reading In the First Circle, I found the overtly political aspect the least interesting part of the book. Nowadays, when bookshop shelves groan under weighty tomes dedicated to the evils of Stalinism, accusations that the dictator was a Tsarist double agent, or declarations that the USSR should not be allowed the nuclear bomb have inevitably lost the impact they would have had in 1955-58 when Solzhenitsyn was writing. What shines through instead is Solzhenitsyn’s profound empathy: for the erotic longing of prisoners, for the guards terrified of landing on the wrong side of the prison bars, for the wives left behind, and especially for those who disagree with the author’s opinions. Solzhenitsyn’s ‘polyphonic’ structure allows each of the 60 significant characters to speak in his or her own voice; one of the most sympathetic portraits drawn is of Lev Rubin, a Jewish Communist who passionately believes in everything Solzhenitsyn rejected. More striking still is the portrait of Stalin. Solzhenitsyn depicts a man haunted by his past, paranoid, isolated and fearful—almost deserving of pity. In the introduction, Professor Edward Ericson even declares: “Dzugashvili the onetime seminarian has turned himself into Stalin the ruler, but also the greatest victim of the infernal empire.”

I put it to Ignat that this sympathy for the tyrant is remarkable, considering how much his father suffered at the hands of the regime.

“This humaneness is a very much under appreciated facet of his world view,” he replies. “There is this notion that Solzhenitsyn was so intolerant, that everything was black and white for him, and, well—bollocks! He rejected flatly those who sought to reduce his art or everything that he was to a political equation. In the Gulag Archipelago he says: ‘The line between good and evil does not go between parties, it does not go between countries. It goes across the heart of each person.’ He understood that we are all capable of becoming a camp guard, or a KGB informant.”

So why this image of the embittered, angry prophet?

“Partly it was his fault—the strident political tone was not compatible with typical western discourse. Then people saw the beard and well, 2+2 = Old Testament prophet. But that was a result of the urgency of the times he was living in. People did not understand the world he had come from.”

Ignat Solzhenitsyn left Moscow aged 18 months, joining his father in exile in Zurich, before moving to rural Vermont where the family lived for nearly two decades. He first encountered Stalin’s empire aged seven, when Solzhenitsyn read his story Matryona’s House aloud to his three sons.

“I remember being very struck by it. Not understanding everything, but then reading the short stories, Ivan Denisovich… soviet reality was never far from our consciousness or conversation at the dinner table. I think that’s something we imbibed with mother’s milk—a very clear understanding of what life was like for them, for their friends, for the whole country.”

Ignat describes his home life, immersed in literature, art and music, as ‘extraordinarily rich’. A word he uses repeatedly is ‘organic’; his own discovery of music illustrates what he means by this. In the USSR many parents forced their children to study an instrument. Having seen the misery this generally caused, Solzhenitsyn and his wife opposed music lessons for children, and treated Ignat’s interest in piano as a hobby. It took a visit from the famed cellist Mstislav Rostropovitch for his gift to be recognised, after which his parents encouraged him wholeheartedly. I remark that this sounds almost… liberal.

“If this seems at odds with the prevalent image in the West,” says Ignat, “Then I am here to testify over and over that that image is largely inaccurate. There is a confusion between my father taking his work seriously and taking himself seriously. He was a man of great humility.”

Indeed, the ‘prophet’ who railed against Western culture encouraged his sons to learn English and had them educated at the local schools. When Ignat and his brothers brought Black Sabbath records home—music Solzhenitsyn abhorred—no attempt was made to prevent them from listening to it. “I don’t remember anything that was forbidden or frowned upon other than a failure to live up to the standards of basic human decency.” Free to mix with American children the brothers became linguistically and culturally bilingual. Solzhenitsyn listened eagerly to the stories they brought back from their travels abroad, and was fascinated when they introduced him to new American literature; and yet the world outside viewed him as an embittered hermit, hiding behind a barbed wire fence.

“The seclusion wasn’t a question of ‘I don’t want to be seen'”, says Ignat. “I say this with certainty. After all the difficulties of writing in the USSR he finally had a chance to deepen his involvement in the major work of his life, the Red Wheel (a massive epic of the Revolution, only partially into English). He wanted to go someplace quiet where he could work without distractions. He himself said that he wished that he could have had the luxury to spend more time collecting impressions, mingling with Americans and traveling. But he knew that the Red Wheel would take every ounce of his time and energy, and so he made his choice.”

And the barbed wire around the family farm?

“You must remember he had been very nearly killed by the KGB assassination in 1971. There were anonymous phone calls, constant threats against his family. And though he knew that this was a KGB psychological game it was very unnerving. If the KGB had wanted to get in they would have got in of course, but the fence was a symbol and provided a measure of security—and it was also to stop gawkers…”

The Solzhenitsyn family’s yearning for Russia never wavered. Ignat remembers New Year celebrations, observed on Russian time, as “some of the brightest memories of my childhood.” Indeed this sense of connection was so powerful that Ignat’s brothers ultimately chose to live in Russia rather than the America in which they had grown up. Today both of them are partners at the Moscow office of the international consulting firm McKinsey and Company—Yermolai, 38, specializes in precious metals while Stephan, 36, works in the area of new energy solutions. Like Ignat they remain fiercely loyal to their father’s legacy, working with their mother Natalia on projects in Russia, but also internationally: for example all three brothers produced translations for the English language Solzhenitysn Reader published in 2006.

As for Ignat, although he relishes the opportunity his work as a musician gives him to visit the remote provinces of Russia where he says audiences are ‘especially receptive’ he is content to live in Manhattan for the time being. He stresses however that he has never felt like a stranger in Russia, even after a childhood spent in rural Vermont. When he first returned in 1993, invited to perform as a soloist on a Mstislav Rotropovich concert tour, he found no significant difference between the real Russia and the country of his imagination:

“The picture that we learned from my parents and their friends was of a country obviously in distress where people lived in brutally miserable conditions. So for me going back, it was extraordinarily moving but … it was very much what I was expecting. And this leads us to another misconception: that Solzhenitsyn somehow had this idealized, mythical Russia in his head that no longer existed. I’ve always been really stumped by that; it’s just bizarre. This is a man who fought in WWII. This is a man who sat 8 years in the camps and was in exile on the edge of the desert, who was treated—if you want to use that word—in a free soviet clinic for cancer. And given all that, in terms of having experienced some of its worst then current attributes or realities, well, who knew Russia better than he did?”

But misconceptions surrounding Solzhenitsyn seem likely to persist, as will the debate over his legacy. In the First Circle, the masterpiece which waited 40 years to be properly translated, is yet to be reviewed in some major US venues and even more bizarrely, no British edition is planned (although the American edition is available). In Russia however Solzhenitsyn’s reputation is assured. Last week it was announced that the Gulag Archipelago will be taught in schools: thus Russian children will encounter the greatest work of a man who dedicated much of his life to the struggle against soviet tyranny. Says Ignat:

“He’s a great example, not only as a great artist but as an extraordinary human being. To have a man like that as a father, yes, it’s a lot to live up to. My brothers and I, we cannot and nor do we strive to become him. But as an example of moral and physical courage, it’s a great example to have in front of one’s life.”

From the Times Jan 5th 2010

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