The Exile Returns - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

On the morning of January 7, 1974, the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union convened to draw up battle plans against a grave threat to Communist ideology and power—a writer and his manuscript. Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Party, sat at the head of the conference table and opened the meeting. “Comrades,” he began, “according to our sources abroad and the foreign press, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has published a new work in France and in the United States—‘The Gulag Archipelago.’ ”

By then, Brezhnev’s health was beginning to fail. He worked only four or five hours a day, his burden soothed by frequent naps, massages, saunas, and snacks, and by round-the-clock attention from his doctors. His speech was slow, slurred. “I am told by Comrade Suslov that the Secretariat has taken a decision to develop in our press a debunking operation against this work by Solzhenitsyn and its appearance in bourgeois propaganda,” Brezhnev went on. “No one has had a chance to read the book, but its essential contents are already known. It is a filthy anti-Soviet slander. We have to determine what to do about Solzhenitsyn. By law, we have every basis for putting him in jail. He has tried to undermine all we hold sacred: Lenin, the Soviet system, Soviet power—everything dear to us. . . . This hooligan Solzhenitsyn is out of control.”

Yuri Andropov, the chief of the K.G.B. at the time and a future successor to the Party throne, did not wait long before offering his recommendation. He was by far the most intelligent of the Politburo members, and it is plain from reading the minutes of the Politburo session (a stack of classified documents stamped “Top Secret” in the Party archives) that Andropov’s was the decisive voice. Better than anyone else, he understood the threat Solzhenitsyn’s work posed to the regime. Back in 1962, when Nikita Khrushchev approved the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” as a way of discrediting the Stalin era, a great cultural thaw had already begun—one that so unnerved the Communist leaders that they eventually called it off, banned Solzhenitsyn from print, and, in 1964, “retired” Khrushchev “for reasons of health.” But Solzhenitsyn’s literary mission, the process of giving voice to the sixty million victims of Soviet terror, went on secretly, and even collectively. Much of “Gulag” was based on the hundreds of letters and memoirs that former prisoners had mailed to Solzhenitsyn after “One Day” was published. Andropov had an intuitive sense that this new work could do as much, in its way, to undermine Soviet power as all the nuclear arsenals in the West.

“I think Solzhenitsyn should be deported from the country without his consent,” Andropov said, according to the Politburo minutes. “Trotsky was deported in his time without getting his agreement. . . . Everyone is watching us to see what we will do with Solzhenitsyn—if we will mete out punishment to him or if we will just leave him alone. . . . I maintain that we must take legal action and bring the full force of Soviet law against him.”

Andropov then fuelled the already evident anger of the other members with terse descriptions of Solzhenitsyn’s “impudence”—his meetings with foreign correspondents, his brazen flouting of Party control over literature and over publication abroad. (The manuscripts of “Gulag” and other works had been microfilmed by Solzhenitsyn and his wife in Moscow and smuggled by friends and other contacts of theirs to publishers in the West.)

Nikolai Podgorny, the chairman of the Presidium, was furious, and indignantly defended Andropov’s proposal to suppress Solzhenitsyn against any prospect of a righteous response abroad. “In China, there are public executions,” he said. “In Chile, the Fascist regime shoots and tortures people! In Ireland, the English use repression on the working people! We must deal with an enemy who gets away with slinging mud at everybody.”

“We can send Solzhenitsyn away to serve his sentence in Verkhoyansk,” beyond the Arctic Circle, said Alexei Kosygin, the Soviet Premier, a “liberal” in the eyes of many foreign analysts. “Not a single foreign correspondent will go visit him there, because it’s so cold.”

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