Monday, July 5, 2021

"Between Two Millstones, Book 2" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Two momentous events occurred in the life of Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) in 1978. He gave the commencement address at Harvard University, and he and his family moved to Vermont. They would spend the next 16 years in Vermont, returning to Russia only after the fall of communism and the Soviet Union. 

The speech at Harvard ruffled Western sensibilities, especially the sensibilities of Western news media. In short, they never forgot it, and they never forgave him for it (one observer said that Solzhenitsyn had accomplished the impossible: he’d given a commencement address that was remembered a year later). The news media had initially embraced Solzhenitsyn when his Soviet arrest loomed in 1973 and when it happened, he was exiled, and he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1974. His was a heroic tale; it also allowed the media to tweak the noses of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who were deep in the throes of détente with Leonid Brezhnev. 


The move to Vermont was less controversial. The Solzhenitsyns had considered Switzerland, Norway, and Canada before finally deciding on Vermont. Solzhenitsyn needed calm and quiet to work on what he considered his great work – The Red Wheel, the multivolume story of how the Bolshevik Revolution happened. 


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America 1978-1994
 tells that story. It also tells the stories of the trial and tribulations of literary agents, biographers (some of which were not above deliberate deception), enemies and often friends financed by the KGB to discredit the author. It also tells the stories of Solzhenitsyn’s dealings with the news media, especially the American news media and the author running smack into what was little known then but common knowledge today – the new media’s many narratives, which are often very different from the news.


The memoir is written is the same style as its predecessor, Between Two Millstones, Book 1: Sketches from Exile 1974-1978. (The “millstones” of the title refer to the two competing societies and systems of Soviet communism and the culture of the West.) He makes ample use of exclamation points (he was a passionate Russian, after all). He struggles to balance his need for privacy and quiet with the necessity of defending himself. He deals with the mundane activities of family life (although he acknowledges that his wife dealt with far more of the mundane).


He talks about the mistakes and often wrong assumptions he made, about people and the Western news media (including the ones who sent photographers secretly on to his property for photographs and possibly a chance meeting). He discovers the critics and biographers who were less interested in telling his story and far more interested in their own careers. Old émigré friends unexpectedly turn upon him. Yet he also finds many steadfast friends and supporters. 


The account of the two volumes of Between Two Millstones are taken from journals Solzhenitsyn wrote at the time. The books are footnoted, which is often helpful with names of people and places. They give a deep insight into what was happening to one of the great writers of the 20th century, the man who helped bring down communism simply be telling, and publishing, the truth. 




Between Two Millstones by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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