Solzhenitsyn Tarries

September 22, 1991

Alexander Solzhenitsyn lived the nightmare, not the illusion, of Soviet history and has refused to keep silent. Born the year after the Communist revolution, he served in World War II and was decorated for heroism. His life since then has been a series of reversals. He was condemned to the "Gulag Archipelago" for anti-Soviet activity, exonerated of all charges and permitted to expose prison conditions when it suited Nikita Khrushchev to tarnish Josef Stalin. He was awarded the Nobel Prize -- and formally accused of treason and forcibly expelled from his homeland.

Through all the turns, Mr. Solzhenitsyn kept writing. Since 1976 he has been at work behind the walls of his compound in Cavendish, Vt., insisting that the truth be told and the history remembered, spicing his moral witness to the Soviet Union with grumpy jeremiads about the "decadence" and "materialism" of the United States, his country of refuge.

In the Gorbachev era, Mr. Solzhenitsyn's political fortunes improved. His books are now sold in his homeland, and last year he was offered restoration of his Soviet citizenship. He refused because the treason charge had never been withdrawn. Now that obstacle has been lifted, and Mr. Solzhenitsyn says he will go home. But not yet. First, he must finish the writing he is working on.

If that suggests Mr. Solzhenitsyn is more interested in the past than the present, it may be just as well.

A year ago, he published a long essay on the Russian future which seems both prescient and anachronistic. It advocated cutting loose the non-Slavic republics and re-founding a "Russian Union" of the core lands. Something of the sort now seems in progress. Yet the rest of the essay proposed a Russia of small-scale farms and artisan businesses where democratic institutions would be superfluous because traditional religious values would bring forth consensus. This is Slavophile romanticism, hardly appropriate to the age of television, fax machines and jet travel.

We do not share the fear of magazine editor Vitaly Korotich that Mr. Solzhenitsyn could become a "Soviet Khomeini," rallying unsavory Russian religious or nationalist extremists. If the favors of Khrushchev and the flattery of American right-wingers could not compromise his integrity, we believe Mr. Solzhenitsyn's moral compass will resist any opportunity to become Russia's man of the hour. He is better suited to being its man of the age.

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