Readers want to be amused Writer: Alexander Solzhenitsyn's new book has the same old deep-thinking message his writing always has. Trouble is, Russians don't want to hear it anymore.

June 05, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Once, Russians were willing to risk everything to read a blurry, typed carbon of anything written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, dissident, Nobel-prize winner, national hero.

Now, when they can read him as freely as they like, hardly anyone wants to. Yesterday, Solzhenitsyn's latest book went on sale in Moscow. The great voice of an earlier age was diminished: His book had a press run of only 5,000 copies.

"Solzhenitsyn used to be extremely popular," says Gennady Kuzmin, deputy editor of the journal Book Review. "Times have changed."

During the Soviet years, millions coveted Solzhenitsyn's books, which were officially banned. Solzhenitsyn exposed the crimes of the Stalin era in the vivid prose of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and the "The Gulag Archipelago." Some considered him a national hero. The Soviets eventually expelled him.

Solzhenitsyn spent 20 years in exile, much of that time in America. When he finally returned to Russia in 1994, he might have expected to return a hero if not a saint. At least he might have emerged a best-selling writer.

Instead, his new book, called "Russia in the Abyss," created a stir only because it made so little impression. Just as in the Soviet days, Solzhenitsyn is attacking the authorities. Only today he is accusing them of moral bankruptcy, of bleeding the nation's resources dry for their own greed, of lusting too much for things Western and of destroying Russia's great spiritual tradition.

Many people agree, but they don't want to be told about it. They want to forget about it.

Russia's reading public -- which for years feasted on great names like Pushkin, Chekhov and Tolstoy -- has been turning away from weighty literature. They're tired of being told what's good for them. Today, they want entertainment.

"The majority have moved to television sets," says Boris Dubinin, who reports on cultural issues for the newspaper Izvestia.

The most popular books are detective novels, science fiction, romances and children's stories, says Alexei Braginski, spokesman for EXMO-Press, a large publisher. Next comes how-to books -- how to operate a computer, how to cook or embroider.

"Classical literature is read more in provincial Russia," Braginski says.

Solzhenitsyn, who is now 79, has no interest in entertaining. He wants to warn, and enlighten, in the darkest of language.

"Our frenzied rulers are stabbing Russia to death," he says in the new book.

In an interview with Obshchaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper, Solzhenitsyn appeared to be under few illusions about his influence today. "A few people will have it," he said of his new book. "I will send the book to them. Books are not distributed now. ... One can speak, but nobody would hear."

When he first returned from exile, Solzhenitsyn had a television show broadcast every other week. Low ratings soon did it in.

"I spoke on television in a hope the authorities would react," he said, "but it was wasted on them, like throwing beans against a concrete wall."

He referred to a prescient letter he wrote to another dissident, Andrei Sakharov, in 1969.

"I said it was painful when we were stripped of freedom of speech, but it will be even more painful when we get it back. We will be strangers among strangers."

Pub Date: 6/05/98

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