One life in the last days of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

In his last years Alexander Solzhenitsyn kept close counsel, living in his dacha outside Moscow and seeing only his wife, Natalya, and a few friends. Galina Vishnevskaya, Andrei Zubov (who worked with Solzhenitsyn on a history textbook) and Elena Chukovskaya recall the author's life and final days.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Source: AP

Galina Vishnevskaya, opera singer

special to RBTH

In 1994, Solzhenitsyn returned to a country he thought he would never see again. I think he was disappointed by what he saw and by the criticism from all sides. He felt lonely in his last years. No one around him understood him or shared his views.

There were no pupils or like-minded people. But he never said he was disillusioned - he was not the kind of man to say that. He merely retreated into himself. He spent his time working at home. He was a man dedicated to his work and his ideas. He rose at six and went to bed at 10 in the evening.

He later said that it was his duty to write a history of Russia and the Russian Revolution. This did not mean that he was aloof to the problems of his family. He was very tender to his wife and children, though he was occasionally a severe father. He did not want his children to go to school, and taught them mathematics and history himself. As a result the children got a fine education and grew up to be excellent people.

His contemporaries have not yet fully realised what he did for Russia and the world. But the time will come when it will be properly appraised.

Andrei Zubov, professor, Moscow State Institute of International Affairs

special to RBTH

I got to know Solzhenitsyn after his return to Russia in 1994. Later we worked together on a textbook, Russian History in the 20th Century.

In 2006 a public debate flared up in Russia about how Russian history should be taught. Many approached Solzhenitsyn suggesting that he should write a textbook. But he turned down the offer and recommended me. For my part, I asked Solzhenitsyn to make comments and suggestions. After a while he passed me a letter with his comments on the first four chapters. I was awe-struck by his knowledge of history. He remembered a host of facts that even historians do not always recall. In due course I had a whole folder of his remarks.

The book [due out this year] was destined to be one of the last books on which Solzhenitsyn worked. He was pessimistic about post-Communist Russia. He foresaw that parting with the Soviet regime would be hard and would drag on for decades. Of course, he wanted to believe in a miracle, but the miracle did not happen. In 1998 he wrote a work, Russia Collapsing, informed with a sense of foreboding about what the future may hold for Russia. In his opinion, the Russian nation itself does not understand the depth and gravity of the disease that struck it. He believed that the task of the authors of the textbook was to highlight the degree of the disaster, the extent of spiritual devastation, in order to make it easier to cure it.

He spent his last years as a recluse, but he followed what was happening in Russian culture; look at the Solzhenitsyn Prize he instituted to reward achievement in various fields ranging from scientific research to feature films.

But he was aware of his isolation. He did not care what public figures said about him. The scale of his mission was such that it could not but provoke controversy and personal hostility. One felt that he was totally devoid of vanity, ambition, the lust for glory or for being praised.

As a deeply religious person, he reflected on death. He was sure that departure was not the end, but for a person as gravely ill as he was, it was also liberation. He often said: "I have outlived my due."

They said that when they diagnosed him with cancer in the labour camp, he vowed that if he recovered he would devote the next 50 years to telling the truth and nothing but the truth. That period expired in 2004. So, in his last years he felt that he was outliving his allotted time.

He always knew he had a mission, a hard, but important job to do. His life provided many striking episodes that proved it.

Take his story One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. An obscure army captain and yesterday's prisoner has two stories published in Novy Mir, the most prestigious and highly regarded literary journal of the 1960s, and was catapulted to worldwide fame. It could not but reinforce his sense of mission.

He never tried to be popular. His famous book-appeal, "Not to Live by Lies", is above all addressed to himself. No wonder he did not fit into any political system, Communism or capitalism. He called Yeltsin's regime "piratical". He criticised the West, he criticised the Russian people. Many resented it. But if a doctor tells a seriously sick person that everything is fine and he needs no treatment, he will have the highest death rate among his patients."

Yelena Chukovskaya, a close friend


Before Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the USSR, Yelena Chukovskaya [granddaughter of Korney Chukovsky] helped him in his work by retyping his manuscripts and obtaining the books he needed.

In daily life Solzhenitsyn was utterly indifferent to creature comforts, he was single-minded and demanding towards himself and the people around him. He was busy every minute: with his thoughts, reading, mulling over what he had read, writing or meeting the people he had to meet. When he was writing The Gulag Archipelago, they did not give him access to archives, so he travelled across the country, met people and recorded their stories. After the publication of Ivan Denisovich the whole country, especially those who had survived the labour camps, wrote to him. He had a rare combination of artistic talent and business acumen. There was no sloppiness.

When he was writing The Red Wheel he had the photographs of the characters he wrote about on his desk. Solzhenitsyn scoured the newspapers of the time for details. Studying the start of the First World War he read not only Russian, but also German books.

He tried not to live in Moscow, so he left me his manuscripts and I passed them on for safe-keeping, I got books for him, and generally provided him with technical help. After confiscation he kept nothing at his home. Even I did not know where his manuscripts were: I passed them on to some people and they passed them on to someone else. It was a great hindrance because, when he wrote Archipelago he had only the chapter he was writing on his desk, but not the others. One chapter was taken away and another was brought to him. He had to keep all these arrangements in his mind. If he needed to make a correction, he sometimes had to go to another city.

Read a homage that our reader Frank Manheim wrote to Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Read more: Exiled but not silenced: Shedding light on Solzhenitsyn’s time in America

Read more