Monday, March 16, 2020

"Between Two Millstones" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

In February 1974, writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) was expelled from the Soviet Union. After years of his writings being published in the West, the triggering event for the Soviet government was the publication of the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn’s highly detailed account of life in the Soviet prison camp system. 

The writer was flown to West Germany, beginning an exile that would last until 1994, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the restoration of his Russian citizenship, and his eventual return. But in 1974, his wife and young children had to be allowed to leave, his rather large archive of research materials, notes, and other documents had to be smuggled out, a place to live had to be found. He also had to navigate life in the West, survive the machinations of unscrupulous people disguised as helpers, and deal with a news media he found horrific.

Between Two Millstones, Book 1: Sketches of Exile 1974-1978 is the first of two volumes on the 20 years he spent in the West. Translated by Peter Constantine. The account provides a story of an internationally famous author bewildered by Western culture and society. He was at first embraced by the Western news media and intellectuals; he was something of a problem and embarrassment for the Richard Nixon / Henry Kissinger plan for détente with Soviet Russia

The media the intellectual elites soon discovered, however, that Solzhenitsyn was not the Western-style liberal they expected; he was first and foremost a Russian, and a conservative one at that; the man actually worshipped faithfully in the Russian Orthodox Church. He learned quickly to distrust the news media in all of its forms

Solzhenitsyn must have kept meticulously detailed diaries or have a phenomenal memory, or both. The memoir covers an almost daily account of his first five years outside of Russia. He had to give countless interviews. He had to find a place to live, considering Switzerland, Norway, and Canada before finally deciding on Vermont in the United States. He had to deal with the constant propaganda efforts of the KGB, the Soviet counterpart to the CIA. And he had to gather together his archives, visit universities and research centers, and somehow find time to help his wife raise their children.

Solzhenitsyn and his three sons about 1975
It’s no wonder he often felt caught between what he called two millstones – the millstone pf the Soviets and the KGB, and the millstone of unending pressure from elements of Western culture, and Western culture itself. 

I have read most of Solzhenitsyn’s works (including all three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago) and his two earlier memoirs, The Oak and the Calf and Invisible Allies. I had believed that his falling out with the Western news media and intellectual elites stemmed from his 1978 Harvard commencement speech, published as A World Split Apart. More than one pundit observed that Solzhenitsyn had done something at Harvard that no one ever had done anywhere before – he gave a commencement address that was remembered a year later.  What Between Two Millstones makes clear, however, is that the falling out between the writer and western news media happened much earlier, almost as soon as he arrived in Germany.

Solzhenitsyn in 1974.
The memoir also provides a deep understanding of Solzhenitsyn experiences as he began to write his fictional account of the rise of the Bolsheviks and how they seized power in 1917. Doing research at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, he’s shocked to learn that the first revolution of 1917, in which the tsar abdicated and Alexander Kerensky took over as national leader, was not the glorious moment he and many other Russians had believed it to be. In fact, that revolution was just as much responsible for the eventual tyranny of communism as the second revolution of 1917, that in November that was celebrated as the founding moment of Soviet Russia. 

Between Two Millstones is for admirers of Solzhenitsyn, for critics interested in his writings, and for historians who want to understand a short five years that, in their own way, contributed to the ultimate dissolution of Soviet Russia.

Top photograph: Solzhenitsyn at his home in Cavendish, Vermont.

1 comment:

Maureen said...

Thank you for this, Glynn. This is a book of Solzhenitsyn's I haven't read.