Russians bring stories of their nation, and a returning patriarch takes notes

June 19, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

IRKUTSK, Russia -- Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn stared steadily down from the heights of an auditorium stage, looking at the expectant crowd before him like a stern father not entirely happy with his children.

The great Russian writer, stopping here on his inspection tour of eternal Russia, put on his glasses, opened his notebook, picked up his pen and told the people of Irkutsk to step forward and tell him their side of the story.

"I will be an accurate secretary," he informed them in a voice that tends to thunder rather than speak.

When he has heard from everyone along his 5,800-mile railway tour from Vladivostok to Moscow, he'll be ready to tell them how to get out of the fix they got themselves into while he was away.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn descended into Irkutsk from the pages of a terrible history. And the people of this Siberian city gathered curiously before him, wondering how this formidable literary figure might affect their lives today.

The 75-year-old writer, variously blamed and credited with helping to end communism, courageously revealed the inescapable brutality of the old regime in his books, among them "One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and "The Gulag Archipelago."

For daring to tell the truth about the Soviet prison camp system, where he himself had suffered eight years for making a veiled joke about Stalin, Mr. Solzhenitsyn was snatched by the KGB in February 1974, forcibly put on a plane to the West and forbidden to return.

Now he is back, three weeks into his tour, ready to reassert the moral authority he earned by his unbowed opposition to an inhuman regime. The fierce personality that could stare down the KGB and Politburo grew only more steely in 20 years of exile. Every day -- 20 years without a day off -- was devoted to telling the truth about Russia, writing an exhaustive history called "The Red Wheel."

He returns to a weary Russia where many have had enough of the truth, are sated with history, and hunger more for action than moral guidance.

At the train station last week, geologist Benjamin Starodvorsky, 56, and his daughter Katya, 10, waited patiently under a hot sun for the Solzhenitsyn train to enter Irkutsk, the eastern gateway to Siberia.

Mr. Starodvorsky, a great admirer of Mr. Solzhenitsyn, was proud that Katya already has read "Ivan Denisovich," and he was pleased that she was eager to share with him the historic moment of the writer's return.

"But I'm even prouder," he said, "that she reads Children's Business News."

Mr. Starodvorsky held a blazing orange bouquet of Siberian wildflowers in yellowing newspaper, with a gentle letter of remonstrance to Mr. Solzhenitsyn tucked inside.

"Some of his words have been jarring to me," said Mr. Starodvorsky, who belonged to a Friends of Solzhenitsyn group when "Ivan Denisovich" was published more than 30 years ago. "Some of his words about the current situation are too sharp. Certainly he cannot fully understand it."

Fury and the future

Mr. Solzhenitsyn has torn into modern Russia with a fury, castigating Mikhail S. Gorbachev ("He destroyed the old system before a new system was built.") He blasted the reforms now under way ("The land was stolen from the peasants. If we throw it on the market now, we'll lose Russia forever.") And he has ridiculed Yegor T. Gaidar, the former economic adviser to President Boris N. Yeltsin ("They are robbing the country a second time.")

"Solzhenitsyn is a kind of patriarch to our nation," Mr. Starodvorsky said, "and he shouldn't criticize one of our youngest, cleverest leaders."

"Maybe it's not his real feeling, but a lack of information," he said. "You can't live just by information. You have to live in a country, to feel it, to get on the streetcar like we do."

This is what Mr. Solzhenitsyn said he intends to do in his tour across the country. But his fame prevents him from shoving onto the streetcar along with everyone else. The Russian government has given him a private railway car -- which attaches to regularly scheduled trains -- to see the country. And he is followed everywhere by a BBC crew with an exclusive contract to document his return.

His public meetings, like the one in Irkutsk, have been jammed. The 600-seat hall was overflowing a half-hour before the meeting began. About 1,200 people -- young, old, middle-aged -- were crowded in, packed so close together it was impossible even to shift from foot to foot.

Alexei Terekhov hauled himself in through a window 5 feet off the ground, then pulled his smartly dressed wife up after him. As with many in the hall, they were sunburned from a weekend spent cultivating the vegetables they must grow to sustain themselves.

"I wanted to see the great Russian novelist," Mr. Terekhov said.

Lining up to talk

A long line waited at the microphone to address Mr. Solzhenitsyn in the former House of Political Enlightenment, like angry citizens prepared to dress down the mayor on Taxpayers' Night.

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