When Nobel Prizewinning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn died five years ago, I experienced several days of flashbacks to the surrealistic times of Soviet power. I had been a correspondent in Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s and my most vivid memory was encountering the great writer face to face. He wasn’t particularly happy to see me.
Solzhenitsyn was tailed and harassed by the KGB for most of his life, and had made a dangerous game of dodging the authorities. Two of his early novels, The First Circle and The Cancer Ward, had been smuggled out of the country by trusted foreign contacts and published abroad to great acclaim. He would later go on to expose the Soviet labor camp system in his classic Gulag Archipelago, a work that reverberates to this day.
But he considered any interaction with the free-wheeling Western media to be risky, and he was right.
Of course every correspondent in Moscow wanted to be the first to find him after he won the Nobel in 1970. I was a young reporter and I intended to be the one to smoke him out. I was unconcerned about the consequences this publicity might have for him.
My search began with Lev Kopelev, a writer who was at a friendly stage in their up-and-down relationship. They had been fellow zeks (colloquial form of “ZK”, short for zaklyuchonny, or “locked up”), labor camp inmates, in the 1940s and 1950s. In the evenings, they argued ideology with such spirit that Solzhenitsyn based the character Rubin, in The Cancer Ward, on Kopelev. (Later in life, both living abroad, they sadly had a falling out and they died without making peace.)
I got to Lev through his wife Raisa Orlova, who had asked me to obtain a copy of an American book she wanted to translate into Russian, a biography of Martin Luther King Jr., who had recently been assassinated.
Lev was a burly, bearded, bear of a man and former Bolshevik activist who could never quite make the break with his Marxist past. At this stage in life he was no KGB informer but his sympathies were ambiguous. Solzhenitsyn, I later learned, did not totally trust him. As Solzhenitsyn put it in a memoir, quoting an old Russian proverb, “Even fire cannot clean a barrel that once held tar.”
But Lev and his wife Raisa were warm and welcoming, inviting my wife and me to their small, gloomy home for tea and a get-acquainted meeting. Raisa wanted something from me and I wanted something from Lev. Raisa spoke good English and worked as a translator. Lev was also a competent linguist but German was his main foreign language. His English came out in short, prepared bursts in a loud basso. We spoke Russian together.