Letter From Crimea: Solzhenitsyn and Putin

This is the third in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s portable typewriter, located in what was once his Moscow apartment, now a museum. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

With the Jewish museum closing, I decided to see if I could find the literary museum now located in the former Moscow apartment of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, just off Tverskaya, one of the principal boulevards that leads to the Kremlin and Red Square.

I thought it might speak to the world of Soviet dissidence in Putin’s Russia.

I had read online about The Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Center, but when I tried to find it on my bicycle, I ended up riding around what felt like a downtown maze. I had the address, and even its coordinates on my phone, but when I knocked on corresponding doors and asked for the whereabouts of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s home, startled clerks in insurance offices and boutique hotels gave me quizzical looks.

Finally, one of the residents in the apartment complex—it’s actually behind Tverskaya in a courtyard—walked me around the corner to a locked door, rang a bell, and got me admitted to the museum offices.

There the welcoming staff sold me a ticket, checked my bicycle bags, and walked me downstairs to the ground floor, which is where Solzhenitsyn lived with his wife Natalia Solzhenitsyn in the years before his 1975 deportation to the West.

Solzhenitsyn Comes of Age

I have always associated Solzhenitsyn with Moscow and the world of samizdat (underground) literature during the Cold War, but he was actually born in southern Russia, in the small city of Kislovodsk, not far from the Caucasus.

His mother’s family was Ukrainian while his father, who died in an accident before Aleksandr’s birth, was an officer in the tsarist army and had Cossack ancestry (something that the family covered up during the Soviet era).

Raised by his mother and an aunt, Aleksandr was always interested in writing and science, but the formative event of his early life was his service in the Russian army against the Germans during World War II. He served with distinction, and in the Solzhenitsyn Center there is a large map showing where he fought in Poland and East Prussia.

Toward the end of war, the Soviet secret police arrested him for derogatory comments that he made about Stalin in a letter to a friend. That led to more than ten years’ imprisonment in what we now call the Gulag, made famous by his history of the camps as The Gulag Archipelago.

Brief Rehabilitation

Only after Stalin died and Nikita Khrushchev reversed some of his repressive policies was Solzhenitsyn released from prison and acknowledged (grudgingly) as a war hero, which allowed him to teach school and pursue his writing.

His breakthrough publication was the 1962 printing of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which appeared in the magazine Novy Mir. In the museum, I was thrilled to see the original article under glass. It tells the story of the Gulag through the life, over the course of one day, of a political prisoner.

After One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn was a marked man in the eyes of the Soviet regime. It viewed his novels and non-fiction as a threat to the state, and declared him a non-person. Despite the pressure against him, Solzhenitsyn continued to write feverishly, as if confined to one of Dostoyevsky’s undergrounds.

Solzhenitsyn’s best-known works during this period were The First Circle, August 1914, and Cancer Ward (specifically about his illness in the camps, but also about the Soviet Union at large), and they earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. But it was The Gulag Archipelago that led to his exile from the Soviet Union in 1974.

Russia by Night Train

I did most of my reading of Solzhenitsyn in the 1970s, when I took an undergraduate class in the dissident literature of Eastern Europe, followed by a student trip to Russia.

The professor of that class—taught in Vienna during my junior year abroad—was Max Peyfuss, and his day job was that of a magazine editor, which had published some Solzhenitsyn stories.

At the end of the semester Peyfuss was to lead the class on a trip to the Soviet Union, but the Russians revoked his visa a few days before we were to depart for Moscow, leaving us at the mercy of some indolent Intourist guides.

When the Russians cancelled Peyfuss’s visa, they also cancelled many of our hotel reservations, which meant that on several nights we were loaded onto sleeping cars and shunted out of Moscow—only to return the following night on an inbound sleeper. I actually didn’t mind, as I love night trains, and I was happy to see such regional cities as Smolensk and Tallinn.

Putin and Solzhenitsyn

If I were still in Peyfuss’s class, the first question I would ask the professor is why the administration of Vladimir Putin authorized a center and museum in memory of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, given his hostile views about the Soviet Union, and given that in the West it is assumed that Putin’s goal is to recreate the Soviet state.

Without the benefit of Professor Peyfuss’s thinking (he died in 2019), my guess would be that Vladimir Putin shares with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn an intense Russian nationalism, and that Putin admires the writer’s service against the Germans in World War II.

He would also have agreed with Solzhenitsyn that Ukraine is inextricably bound with Russia and that Russians exiled to foreign countries (after the breakup of the Soviet Union) are in need of rescue. As Solzhenitsyn liked to say: “Russia has fallen into a torn state: 25 million have found themselves “abroad” without moving anywhere, by staying on the lands of their fathers and grandfathers.”

I can also imagine Putin reading with admiration Solzhenitsyn’s The Russian Question At the End of the 20th Century (first published in 1994), in which Solzhenitsyn writes:

I do not wish the burden of great power status upon Russia, nor upon Ukraine. I sincerely express the best wishes for the development of Ukrainian culture and distinctiveness, and genuinely love them; but why begin not with the restoration and spiritual strengthening of the national nucleus, not with cultural work within the bounds of the Ukrainian population and territory proper, but with an impulse to become a “Great Power”? I suggested (1990) solving all national, economic and cultural problems within a single Union of Eastern Slavs, and still regard this as the best solution, for I do not see any justification for splitting millions of friendship and family ties by international borders.

In December 2018, in the same year that the center was opened, Putin said at the dedication of a Solzhenitsyn monument in Moscow:

I remember well all my contacts with Alexander Isayevich, his wisdom, foresight and a wide gasp of history. His heart, soul and thought were filled with pain for the Fatherland and unfailing love for it. These feelings were a driving force of his creative endeavor. He clearly distinguished authentic, real, people’s Russia and the totalitarian system that plunged millions of people into sufferings and hard trials. But even in exile, Alexander Isayevich never let anyone speak disparagingly and spitefully about his Motherland, rebuffing any manifestations of Russophobia.

I guess it was a mutual admiration society as earlier, in 2006, Solzhenitsyn said of the Russian president:

Reverse efforts to save the country’s lost statehood began to be taken under Putin. Some of these attempts however looked rather face-lifting but later they became more rigorous. The foreign policy, bearing in mind our situation and possibilities, is quite reasonable and more foresighted. But in terms of what has been inherited from the predecessors, much is still in shambles. The general situation people are living in is still hard and chaotic.

Now I suspect Solzhenitsyn might wish that he could delete some of his earlier tweets.

Who knows, if Putin ends his own days in a Russian prison, he can take comfort in some of Solzhenitsyn’s writing about the Gulag; for example, this declaration in One Day in the Life of Denisovich: “Rejoice that you are in prison. Here you can think of your soul.”

Michael Scammell’s Solzhenitsyn

One of the staff at the center walked me around the apartment, pointing out the writer’s personal effects. I saw several of Solzhenitsyn’s typewriters (manuals from the 1960s), his Gulag jacket, his shortwave radio (I had one just like it), and annotated galley proofs from one of his books with handwriting all over the margins.

Surprisingly, in the collection of books about Solzhenitsyn’s life, there was not a copy of Michael Scammell’s monumental work Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, which was published in 1984 and is considered among the definitive accounts of his life. Nor, for that matter, had the museum staff even heard of the biography published in the West.

I said I would try to find them a copy, as I had met Scammell through our mutual friend, Gene Schulman. Scammell once told an interviewer: “The core of his (Solzhenitsyn’s) greatness is . . . that when the chips were down, he did it. He rose to the occasion far more consistently than any of his peers.”

Vermont Exile

The Moscow apartment brought Solzhenitsyn alive for me. No longer was he that Olympian dissident figure from the headlines in the 1970s but someone who enjoyed tea at the kitchen table while reading his newspaper and listening to music or the evening news.

Most of all I enjoyed the room that recreates the desk at Solzhenitsyn’s house in Cavendish, Vermont, where he lived in exile for almost twenty years after his 1975 deportation.

Over his writing table—which had his glasses, papers, pens, and an open book—there was a poster showing the Vermont forest behind his house. Solzhenitsyn had shut himself away from the Western culture that he found decadent in a snowy compound that was as close as he could get to Russia.

I was pleased that the state of Vermont could offer him such solace. After all, he had endured a lonely childhood, the Second World War at its worst, the Gulag, Soviet repression, KGB reprisals, and finally enforced exile, like so many characters in Russian literature. Furthermore, pedaling around Moscow (often in a chilly rain), I was happy to catch a glimpse of the United States, even if it was just a poster of what looked like those snowy New England woods that Robert Frost described as “lovely, dark and deep.”

I would like to believe that Solzhenitsyn would despair at the return of the Russian war state, making Ukraine subservient to Putin’s will at the sharp end of cluster bombs.

He did write that a fatal flaw in Russian history is that “we troubled more about ‘European’ interests than about our own people.”

Next: Puskin’s and Pasternak’s Russia. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.