A Real Information Revolution

May 29, 1994|By SCOTT SHANE

Alexander Solzhenitsyn has left his exile in the Vermont woods to go home to a Russia remade by a revolution his work did much to kindle. He can count on a hero's welcome, but it is doubtful he will be pleased with what he finds.

In the most important sense for a writer, Mr. Solzhenitsyn returned some five years ago. In 1989, the journal Novy Mir ("New World") finally triumphed over the fossils of the Politburo and serialized Mr. Solzhenitsyn's masterwork, "The Gulag Archipelago."

"Gulag" became a part of the tidal wave of information, loosed not quite intentionally by Mikhail S. Gorbachev, that between 1987 and 1991 eroded the foundations of Communist rule and then swept away the Soviet empire.

What did in the Soviet Union with such shocking rapidity and non-violence was not economic collapse and certainly not American military build-up. Neither was it the intent of Mr. Gorbachev, who was absolutely sincere when he spoke of "renewing socialism" and preserving the union.

In essence, it was the power of words, feared and respected in Russian political tradition, that proved too much for the Soviet colossus. An information revolution that was not merely metaphorical set the world's largest country on a lurching course toward free markets and contested elections -- as well as bandit capitalism and nascent fascism.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who once offered the very Russian opinion that a writer can be "a second government," presided over this

revolution from afar, an intellectual founding father.

Repeatedly during the Gorbachev years he rebuffed the entreaties of Russian liberals that he return, insisting that the state formally drop the treason charge against him, restore his citizenship and apologize. All that happened, but still he bided his time, staying in his compound in Cavendish, Vermont, turning away visitors and finishing "The Red Wheel," his mammoth historical novel-cycle of the Bolshevik Revolution.

*

At a memorable news conference in November 1988, Vadim Medvedev -- a timorous, white-haired academic whom Mr. Gorbachev had chosen as ideology chief -- was asked whether glasnost might go so far as to rehabilitate Mr. Solzhenitsyn.

Some of Mr. Solzhenitsyn's work, Mr. Medvedev replied, might be published. But much of it -- fictional portrayals of Lenin and especially "The Gulag Archipelago" -- could never be printed, he said. Publication of such blasphemous works, he said in an unwittingly prophetic phrase, "would undermine the very foundations on which our life is built."

Mr. Medvedev and the army of Soviet censors he oversaw were heirs to a long Russian tradition. The greatest poet in the language, Alexander Pushkin, had been accorded the highest possible honor in the 1820s by Czar Nicholas I: not freedom from censorship, but a pledge that the emperor himself would do the editing. "Truth is good," says an old Russian proverb, "but happiness is better."

The Communists had turned this cultural legacy into a sprawling and elaborate system that required the censor's stamp for every news- paper article, every book, every pamphlet -- even for the scripts of stand-up comedians. History was a creative art, written to inspire, not to inform. Stalin's slaughter of millions was discreetly referred to in Soviet history texts as "excesses" or "mistakes."

In this climate, Mr. Solzhenitsyn's publication of "The Gulag Archipelago" abroad in 1973, after the security police seized all known copies of the manuscript, was a spectacular assault on the state's monopoly on information. Its staggering documentation and fierce sarcasm could provoke from the government only two possible replies: imprisonment or exile. KGB agents bundled Mr. Solzhenitsyn aboard an Aeroflot jet to the West in February 1974.

A few years earlier, in 1969, when he was being expelled from the Soviet Writers' Union, Mr. Solzhenitsyn had fired a manifesto back at the toadies of the literary establishment that used an interesting word. "Glasnost," he had written, "honest and complete glasnost -- that is the first condition of health in all societies, including our own."

Mr. Gorbachev, then a provincial party bureaucrat, probably was unaware of the writer's words. But after he came to power in Moscow in 1985, he proposed precisely the same remedy for the Soviet disease.

By the 1980s, Mr. Gorbachev recognized, information control posed a dilemma for the leadership. The Kremlin's power rested on it, but it was increasingly a crippling handicap for the country and economy.

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