Ludmila Ulitskaya's personal opinion of personality and work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Christianity without Mercy?
Lyudmila Ulitskaya

For many years since his controversial work, How To Get Things Right in Russia, was published, I have not read Solzhenitsyn. Not because that pamphlet so badly lacked in subtlety. Not because its simplicity appeared to be worse than skulduggery: Take three spoonfuls of the stuff a day, and thatll do the trick. Nor yet because it seemed ideologically or stylistically unacceptable. The main reason was sentimental: My soul bristled at the idea of an idol being debunked.

Time after time I said, and wrote, that three great men - Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, and Russian Orthodox priest Alexander Men - had turned around public consciousness in the post-Stalin era. But then I fell silent. It so happened that my own views needed adjustment and revision. It is a painful thing to suddenly discover that the accustomed two times two no longer makes four. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was the person assigned the role of the "main reformer" of public consciousness. And it was the intelligentsia (specifically the circle of young people who, in the early 1960s, were finishing school and starting out in life) that created the cult of Solzhenitsyn.

What did we mean when we talked about public consciousness? How could it be gauged and assessed? By conversations between people lining for bread or vodka? By telephone opinion polls? By election results?

As far as I am concerned, Solzhenitsyn did nothing to change my worldview: Both my grandfathers had been in Stalin labor camps, and there were no illusions left in our family about the cannibalistic nature of Soviet power. Whose eyes did Solzhenitsyn open by publishing his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, several forceful short stories, or The Gulag Archipelago? Not the eyes of the people who had been in those camps (half the countrys population) nor of those who had guarded them (the other half). We did not think about that in those days.

Of course he was heeded by the West. Not because he was the first (before him or about the same time, many other books were written: e.g., The Great Terror by Robert Conquest or Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov), but because he was a hero who had won a battle. Not a Western scholar analyzing Russias tragic history in the comfort of his university office, not a firebrand political opponent, not an emigre, but a person who defeated the regime (already weakening, already exhausted and emasculated, but still strong enough to do away with one particular individual, one particular cog). He was a hero, and the world admired him for that. Thats the way it is: The world loves winners.

Was he heard by his compatriots? For several decades I thought that he was. But now I doubt it. Had they heard him, they would not, 30 years later, have elected a KGB lieutenant colonel as their president. They would have gotten scared, skeptical, and suspicious: A strong hand is all very well, but isnt this going too far?

This is a sad subject, but I would not have raised it had it not been for one circumstance: The November 2003 issue of the Novy mir literary monthly published a part of Solzhenitsyns book of memoirs, A Small Grain Fell between the Millstones. I got phone calls from some of my friends who were greatly agitated and upset: The book contains a few lines referring to our late friend, Vadim Borisov (Dima to us) and casting a shadow over a person who is already gone and cannot defend his good name, honor, and dignity.

When he was quite a young man, an aspiring graduate student of history, Vadim Borisov was one of the authors who contributed to the From under the Rubble collection, published in 1977 by YMCA Press. From then on his life was bonded by a close friendly and business relationship with Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his family. That meant he had made his choice in favor of serving Solzhenitsyn and his cause, sacrificing to that service his considerable talent, academic career, and the sheer possibility of working in his specialty. It was a hard choice - what with a life under constant surveillance, under the threat of arrest with all telephone conversations being monitored.

The relationship assumed a typically Russian form, as distinct from the Western variety when business and personal relations are kept well apart while the work done is rewarded at a specified level of compensation. So Vadim devoted his whole life to that cause. He not only collected material for Solzhenitsyn, but performed private assignments on his behalf, although he was extremely reticent, and very few people knew about his close contacts with Solzhenitsyn.

When Solzhenitsyns works began to be published in his home country, Vadim Borisov became his agent and confidant. It is this period that Solzhenitsyn refers to in his A Small Grain Fell between the Millstones, explicitly accusing Vadim of being unscrupulous and implicitly accusing him of unspecified abuses. As a matter of fact, Vadim was guilty of neither. I admit that Vadim was not a very good organizer, but Solzhenitsyn, living as he was in the United States, had no idea about the situation in Russia, in particular its economic life at the time when paper and printing prices were constantly growing, paper for a book frequently had to be pinched in a civilized manner, and there was no question of accounting or properly executed paperwork. Piracy was rife, especially in the publishing industry, and it was to meet minimum publishing standards and ensure the authenticity of the texts that Vadim Borisov had to operate under the auspices of the Izdatelsky Tsentr, something that Solzhenitsyn now brings up against him.

Yet it is not the desire to set the accounting record straight that compels me to talk about this, but Solzhenitsyns words, namely: "A mistake can be forgiven, even one that is worth a million. Deception cannot be tolerated, even if it has caused just twopenny-halfpenny damage."

This is not about twopenny-halfpenny deception: It is about the life of a person who devoted himself to serving Solzhenitsyn and his cause. In fact, Vadim was unable to get over that charge of unscrupulousness, which undermined his already poor health, possibly precipitating his death.

It is about the set of values that Solzhenitsyn declared at the period of his life when he was already in exile while his wife and children were still in Russia. He writes that his children became hostages, "and here, a superhuman decision was made: Our children are not more precious than the memory of the millions who were tortured to death - we will not forsake that Book, whatever the cost."

This is typical Bolshevik logic: If ones own children are not more precious than the memory of the millions who were tortured to death, then these millions are not more precious than the bright future of the entire human race.

Now, what are Vadim Borisovs children supposed to do? They have a modest task to fulfill - namely, to preserve the memory of their father, his good name. We, Dimas friends, loved him dearly, valued his cordiality, wit, natural good spirits, charm, and generosity. We still grieve that he left us so soon, that he could not tap his vast creative capacity. He could not, because the choice that he made was not for self-fulfillment. The Book that Solzhenitsyn refers to was written, published in all languages, read by the whole world, and awarded a Nobel Prize, and I would like to hope that it has indeed played the role in the world that we have all assigned it. But what about the small grain? Not the one that fell between the millstones of the two mighty systems and survived without turning either into flour or into labor-camp dust, and may God bless it. What about the small grain named Vadim Borisov who, to the best of his ability, served the same cause as The Book and yet has not merited a kind word - only dishonor?

This is all the more intolerable given that in the much diminished army of Solzhenitsyn admirers and supporters, Dima was one of the last few who stayed loyal to him.

And one final thing. Let it come not as a rebuke but as a question: Is Christianity possible without mercy?

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