News & Election Videos
|

How a handful of correspondents helped assure that Solzhenitsyn's papers survived his exile and made it to the West

James R. Peipert

In the bitter Moscow winter of 1973-1974, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a private, reclusive man, very circumspect in his dealings with Western journalists. He had good reason to be. In the eyes of the Soviet regime, he was an enemy of the people. Any ill-considered move could bring imprisonment _ or worse.

During my 3{ years in Moscow in the early 1970s, I never met the Nobel laureate. As a young Associated Press correspondent on my first overseas posting, I might have been intimidated if I had.

But I can proudly tell my grandchildren, if they express the slightest interest, that I and a handful of other correspondents of that vintage were involved with Solzhenitsyn that winter in a clandestine literary enterprise. And that he later wrote about it _ and us.

Solzhenitsyn died Aug. 3 at his home near Moscow at age 89.

When I arrived in Moscow in September 1970 during a particularly frigid period of the Cold War, Solzhenitsyn was hot news.

His novels "The Cancer Ward" and "The First Circle" had been smuggled to the West in 1968 and published to wide acclaim as a quixotic, disorganized dissident movement was emerging in the Soviet Union. In the West, Solzhenitsyn became an emblem of Soviet oppression.

But to the Soviet regime, Solzhenitsyn was a monumental nuisance. His writings were banned in the Soviet Union, but they circulated among Russians in samizdat, or "self-publication" _ copies typed on fragile, onion-skin paper with multiple carbon copies. The works, sharply critical of the communist regime, reflected the author's life _ as an artillery captain in World War II, teacher of math and physics, cancer survivor and labor camp inmate.

He first became known to Russians in 1962 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev allowed publication of the short novel "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" in the literary journal Novy Mir. Serialization of that chronicle of one man's struggle to survive a single day in the gulag was part of Khrushchev's effort to discredit the iron-fisted rule of Josef Stalin.

But that hope-filled period was short-lived. Khrushchev's successor, Leonid Brezhnev, ordered the harshest crackdown against dissent since the Stalin era.

Brezhnev and the ruling Politburo were in a tight spot in the early '70s. With a stagnant economy, the Soviet Union needed detente with the West, which promised the prospect of an influx of Western goods and technology. But the leadership had to impress upon Russians that detente shouldn't mean a free exchange of people and ideas.

Mind-numbing orthodoxy prevailed in every aspect of Soviet life, especially the arts. "Darwinism in reverse," one Russian friend called it _ the survival of the unimaginative and incompetent.

In this climate of great hostility to independent thought, the Nobel Committee in Stockholm selected Solzhenitsyn as winner of the prize for literature. In its announcement in December 1970, the committee cited "the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature."

The award was portrayed in the Soviet Union as "Judas' payment for betrayal of one's country."

Solzhenitsyn's fame in the West _ enhanced by publication in December 1973 of the first volume of "The Gulag Archipelago," a scathing history of Soviet labor camps _ almost certainly prevented his arrest. But a campaign of vilification, orchestrated by the government-controlled media, reached hysterical pitch in that winter of 1973-74.

On the evening of Feb. 12, 1974, eight police agents forced their way into the Moscow apartment that Solzhenitsyn shared with his second wife, Natalya Svetlova, and their three young sons, Yermolai, Ignat and Stephan.

They arrested the writer and took him to Lefortovo prison, a first stop in the penal system for many a Russian dissident. The next day, he was charged with treason, stripped of his citizenship and put aboard a Soviet airliner to West Germany.

It was the first time that the Soviet regime had stripped a malcontent of citizenship since Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Bolshevik Revolution who got crossways with Stalin, was deported to Turkey in 1929.

Left behind in Moscow was a mountain of Solzhenitsyn's personal papers _ manuscripts, archives, newspaper clippings, photographs, photo negatives, official documents. It was raw material for works still in progress _ among them the second and third volumes of "The Gulag Archipelago." Fearing that the KGB would confiscate the papers, Solzhenitsyn's wife put out the word to the few Western correspondents who wrote regularly on the dissident movement. For several days, the correspondents called at the apartment and _ like participants in a covert bucket brigade _ left with pockets and handbags stuffed with Solzhenitsyn's archives.

Despite a code of impartiality, journalists are sometimes faced with situations in which they must make moral decisions. Deciding to help prevent destruction of Solzhenitsyn's working archives by a repressive regime didn't require much soul-searching.

Helping rescue the material from the KGB may sound like a rakish bit of derring-do. But it was a small thing, really, compared to the risks that Russians took when they dared to speak out against the government.

About the worst reprisal that the Soviet authorities would take against a Western correspondent was expulsion from the country. But a Soviet citizen laid everything on the line.

Solzhenitsyn's punishment, harsh for an author so tied to his native land, was more than two decades in foreign exile _ a couple of years in Zurich, Switzerland, and 18 years in the United States at a secluded farmhouse near Cavendish, Vt. During that time, he wrote a book to pay tribute to those kindred spirits. He called them "my loyal companions in arms, my collaborators, my helpers."

"Unknown to the world," he wrote in the book "Invisible Allies," published in English in 1995, "they risked everything without receiving in recompense the public admiration that can mitigate even death. And for many of them the publication of these pages will come too late."

I had heard from a former Moscow colleague that such a book was in the works and that it would also include a chapter on the foreigners who had helped Solzhenitsyn. But I wasn't quite prepared for Pages 272-273, which recounted that long-ago effort to spirit away Solzhenitsyn's papers for future generations.

"Of the Americans, three splendid men, Steve Broening, Roger Leddington and Jim Peipert, took one load after another. As did three trusty Englishmen, Julian Nundy, Bob Evans and Richard Wallis," the Nobel laureate wrote. "But the suitcases that would eventually house all these papers were as large as the journalists' pockets were small, and some of our helpers had to come back for another load of dynamite every single day. ...

"Weak and belated as these lines of mine may be, let them stand, nevertheless, as a grateful tribute to these correspondents. Without that handful of Westerners, it would have been years before my work regained its momentum."

Broening and Leddington were fellow correspondents in AP's Moscow bureau; Nundy, Evans and Wallis worked for the British news agency Reuters. As Solzhenitsyn recounts in "Invisible Allies," most of the papers ended up with another Moscow correspondent, Stig Fredrikson of the Nordic News Agencies, who arranged for their safe journey to the West.

Fredrikson, a neighbor in the apartment block where I and my wife lived, had served as a clandestine contact between Solzhenitsyn and the Nobel Committee in Stockholm. AP correspondent Frank Crepeau, another neighbor in the apartment block, served as a stand-in for Fredrikson when he was out of town.

Through Fredrikson, I received a Russian-language version of "Invisible Allies" from Solzhenitsyn . On the title page, Solzhenitsyn had inscribed these words in Russian: "To James Peipert. With gratitude for your help in those days. A. Solzhenitsyn. October 1996."

I felt pride ... and a measure of awe.

By the time Solzhenitsyn wrote those words of thanks, he was again living in Moscow.

The regime that he had so bravely fought against disintegrated in 1991, after the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, restored his citizenship and dropped the treason charges against him. The Berlin Wall was no more. The borders of Russia and Eastern Europe had become porous.

It was time for him to go home.

The author arrived in Moscow on July 21, was received by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and addressed the Duma, or parliament. What a remarkable turnaround for a man who two decades previously was forced into exile.

Sadly, Solzhenitsyn's work never regained the power it had in those heady days in the early 1970s, when he and a relative handful of like-minded activists mustered the courage to take on a mighty state.

Upon his return, he never seemed to reconnect with his countrymen _ particularly young people. As one Moscow critic wrote: "Everyone knows his name, but no one reads his books."

Solzhenitsyn's message was that the nation's survival lay in eschewing materialism and returning to the virtues of Holy Russia, but that didn't resonate in a country sloughing off the wreckage of more than seven decades of social engineering under communism.

We correspondents who worked in Russia in the early 1970s would be stretching the truth if we said now that we had predicted the precipitous collapse of the Soviet system. The state seemed too powerful and the dissenting voices too weak to effect such a sea change.

But Solzhenitsyn and other brave dissenters, such as Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Mstislav Rostropovich, Andrei Amalrik, Valery Chalidze, and hundreds of anonymous Russians described by Solzhenitsyn as his "invisible allies," were the sparks that lit the inferno that devoured the beast.

One day, perhaps, a fanciful anecdote that circulated in Russia in 1974 might be told again _ but then as truth:

In 2074, a Russian schoolchild asks the teacher, "Who was Leonid Brezhnev?" The teacher ponders a moment and replies: "I believe he was a Communist Party apparatchik during the Solzhenitsyn era."

___

ABOUT THE WRITER

James R. Peipert, a former Fort Worth Star-Telegram staff writer and member of the Editorial Board, was an Associated Press correspondent in Moscow from 1970 to 1974. He wote this for the Star-Telegram.

___

(c) 2008, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Visit the Star-Telegram on the World Wide Web at http://www.star-telegram.com.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

_____

ARCHIVE CARICATURE on MCT Direct (from MCT Faces in the News Library, 202-383-6064): Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Tribune Media Services
|