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There is No Way to Escape the Truth

On Solzhenitsyn's struggle to publish Gulag Archipelago in the waning days of the USSR

An edition of The Gulag Archipelago published in formerly Communist Poland (By tomeqs/Shutterstock)

Editor’s Note: These pages, written in 1994 but published here for the first time in English, recount the dramatic tale of how The Gulag Archipelago was almost published in the USSR in January 1989, but ultimately vetoed by Gorbachev himself, who literally stamped his feet at the editor-in-chief of Novy Mir and ordered half a million covers announcing Archipelago to be torn off at the last minute. 

If there was one book that decisively and irrevocably undermined the legitimacy of communist totalitarianism, and the entire Soviet enterprise, it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Combining Solzhenitsyn’s own story of arrest and confinement in prison and forced-labor camps, and later internal exile, with a searing account of 50 years of violence and mendacity under an historically unprecedented ideological despotism, this work provided a lightning bolt of truth, a fatal blow to the monstrous ideological Lie that human nature and society can be remade at a stroke. “Thanks to ideology,” Solzhenitsyn famously remarked in volume 1 of this magisterial book, “the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing calculated in the millions.” Communism came first with all its evils and atrocities, and Nazism followed with its own terribly twisted instantiation of ideological despotism. With the publication of The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn wrote, in his autobiographical The Oak and the Calf, that “Birnam Wood was moving,” just as the foul hags had announced so memorably in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The Communist Lie could not withstand the impact of this avalanche of truth.

The publication of The Gulag Archipelago in the West on December 28, 1973 was responsible for Solzhenitsyn’s forced exile to the West less than two months later. There he and his family waited, first for two years in Zurich, Switzerland, and then for 18 years in Cavendish, Vermont. The Russian writer worked in conditions of unprecedented freedom on his other masterwork, The Red Wheel, and had, seemingly against all evidence, an almost preternatural intuition that he would soon return to a Russia freed from the scourge of Bolshevik tyranny.

As glasnost and perestroika unfolded in the mid-to-late 1980s, intending to revitalize but not to bury the Soviet Union, pressures built to restore Solzhenitsyn’s citizenship and to make his books available to the people of the Soviet Union. Almost miraculously, Orwell, Koestler, and Pasternak, three anti-totalitarian titans of the 20th century, had already been published in the last years of the Soviet era. Solzhenitsyn knew that the Archipelago, as he called it, must be the first major work of his to return, because it, and it alone, told the full truth about the lies and violence that were essential, and not accidental, features of communism. “Archipelago Rebuffed” tells the story of the first heroic efforts of Sergei Zalygin and the editors of the great literary journal Novy Mir to publish the Archipelago in its pages in early 1989. Soviet leader Gorbachev, a so-called “reformer,” fiercely resisted and ordered 500,000 copies of an issue of Novy Mir announcing the imminent publication of the book to be pulped. The chief ideologist of the Communist Party, Vadim Medvedev, rightly saw in Solzhenitsyn the deadliest enemy of the political order established by Lenin. It would never be the right time to publish Solzhenitsyn, according to Medvedev. But as Solzhenitsyn wrote to Sergei Zalygin after this temporary setback, “such impregnable barriers” could only “last for a while: there is no way to escape the truth.”

– Daniel J. Mahoney

♦♦♦

Suddenly, on 8 September, a “letter by phone” to us in America from senior editor Dima Borisov. The editorial board of Novy Mir had come to a decision: in issue 12 of 1988 they would publish my Nobel Lecture with a foreword, cushioning the shock, by editor-in-chief Zalygin. And in issue 1 of 1989—Archipelago!!

We could not believe it—or get a good night’s sleep. And we didn’t dare rejoice. I was amazed by the boldness of the usually placid Sergei Pavlovich Zalygin, as I remembered him at long-ago meetings in Novy Mir. And to make things easier for him, I allowed them to remove for this publication several chapters, those that would be the most insufferable to a Soviet ear: “The Bluecaps” (about the Chekists), about the Vlasovites . . .

But, according to Dima, “almost no one” of the Moscow intelligentsia understood my obstinacy: just why was I demanding Archipelago first? Let the old works be published—that would be good enough.

But from Estonia came a request specifically for Archipelago. And the previously unknown Literary Kyrgyzstan wanted Archipelago first! The journal Nashe Nasledie asked for some chapters from my historical epic The Red Wheel. And Knizhnoye Obozrenie now had all the more right to publish something, after everything they’d been through. Neva wanted to publish my novel In the First Circle. In Leningrad an actor we hadn’t heard of was appearing in clubs with readings of my stories, and someone else was giving lectures about me. The film Solovki Power came out—and in it several extracts from Archipelago were quoted, but the filmmakers were too timid to name the source. Despite everything, these little streams were cutting a way through. . . .

Now there loomed an anarchic, unauthorized, pell-mell publication of my texts—even, perhaps, in a corrupted form, no one having checked them. Having heard about Novy Mir’s decision, others pushed to publish something of mine, some of them wanting stories, others—miniatures, others—old pieces of social and political commentary. And the critic Bondarenko, very determined, was already preparing to publish—with dyed-in-the-wool Sovetskaya Rossiya, of all places—a whole collection, the contents chosen by him personally, without Archipelago (and the American press was already calling him the “first publisher of Solzhenitsyn”). And someone had taken it upon himself, quite unauthorized, to bring Ivan Denisovich to the stage. This way, things could go topsy-turvy, start down the path I’d rejected.

There was still no authorization regarding me personally when the interim head of the Cinematographers’ Union, Andrei Smirnov, phoned from New York: we’d like to organize an evening at the House of Cinema in December, for the author’s 70th birthday. What could I say? I’d certainly have no objection, but of course I couldn’t go.

We were amazed. It was like a disconcerting vision in the early-morning mist. What other surprises could we expect?

And now another one rolled along. While I’d been procrastinating over Archipelago (was I the one procrastinating?), Memorial [an organization memorializing victims of totalitarian repression—Ed.] had been set up in Moscow—and sent a telegram inviting me to join their council. While still in Vermont? (Their first telegram, incidentally, had been returned: “Insufficient address.” This story found its way into The New York Times—then the second telegram got through.) There were 16 signatures, headed by Andrei Sakharov. But surely I couldn’t, with the charge of “treason” still not lifted, cross the ocean without a care in the world to engage in real work? How should I reply? And behind the leaders of this Council there was perhaps a growing mass, young people with inquiring minds—I must not give offense to them. I sent a telegram.

Pressure from the public—so unusual, so unfamiliar to the authorities and to the people themselves—this pressure, woven from their decisiveness, their consciousness, their will, was increasing. And it was in favor of my books—and me as well—returning. Starting in summer 1988 and continuing into the autumn, letters poured into the editorial offices of newspapers and magazines; voices were heard at meetings, rallies, and soirées: “We want to know the truth! And what is Solzhenitsyn actually writing? Publish his books!” (We learned much of this through the Parisian Russkaya Mysl, so prompt with its reactions in those days, the rest sometimes reaching us a great deal later.) The newborn Moscow magazine Express-Khronika and the Riga samizdat had already, in January 1988, wanted to publish Archipelago in a massive print run and “hold a cycle of lectures on Solzhenitsyn to mark his seventieth birthday.”

But the Party, steadfast, stood guard. In July, a high-level briefing at the Central Committee stated: “We do not know what Solzhenitsyn is thinking now [this was because of my silence on perestroika]. If he speaks out, he could upset the balance of power.” And now, after the decision of the Novy Mir editorial board, Zalygin was told, firmly, from the verytop: don’t even think of publishing Archipelago now; it is “not the right time.”

But Zalygin was already riding the crest of public support. On behalf of the Cinematographers’ Union, Andrei Smirnov wrote to the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (still Andrei Gromyko at that time): the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn was totally unlawful; there has been, for a long time now, no such article in the Criminal Code! We ask you to abrogate the decree stripping him of his citizenship, and reinstate him in the Union of Soviet Writers. October 4, the Memorial Council to Gorbachev: “We are extremely concerned that the publication in Novy Mir of chapters from The Gulag Archipelago has been put on hold for an indefinite period. It has been read all over the world, and the nation whose fate is the subject of that book must, at long last, give its verdict. Through its long-suffering history, it has earned that right.” October 6, 27 writers to the secretariat of the Union of Soviet Writers: Solzhenitsyn must be reinstated in the Writers’ Union, and the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet petitioned to abrogate the decree stripping him of his citizenship.

And a comment was quoted somewhere, from a KGB boss—the Ukrainian KGB, for some reason—Galushko: “Solzhenitsyn returning is out of the question.” (But I was no longer an “enemy of the people”?)

And two weeks later, as if to taunt him, right under his nose in Kiev, the railwaymen’s paper, RabocheeSlovo, published the full text of “Live Not by Lies”—what a sensation! (Other similar little papers, many others, immediately wanted to reprint it from RabocheeSlovo.) It was on that day, 18 October, that I took my first real step towards home.

Then someone informed the Central Committee that Zalygin had dared put one line of advance publicity on the cover of the October issue of Novy Mir: it said that in 1989 the journal would publish something (unnamed) by Solzhenitsyn. Zalygin was called to the CC and sternly informed that his escapades were intolerable and that he was smuggling an “enemy” into print. And they gave the printers a direct order: stop the presses! pull the covers off the copies already finished (and there were now almost 500,000 of these)—and shred them. A truly Bolshevik-scale exercise!

But times had changed: the print workers were outraged and refused to tear them off! But where could they go to complain? They made up their mind: to Memorial. (In October we also received our first letter from Dima, which is how we learned the details. Zalygin had taken that blow, the order to tear off the covers, hard. Dima, with great determination, and restraint too, was helping Zalygin stay firm. And, the main thing—the public pressure was not letting up.)

Nineteen Soviet writers, on the other hand, “supporters of perestroika” (I hope their names will be preserved for posterity), had obsequiously written to the Central Committee saying the exact opposite: this is not the time to publish Solzhenitsyn, it would destroy perestroika! And a figure well known from the ’60s added a heartfelt appeal: not only must Archipelago not be published, but neither must Solzhenitsyn himself be brought back to his homeland—he would damage the country, he is a monarchist, dark forces would gather around him. . . .

The covers were, of course, torn off: they don’t count costs in the USSR! But it was actually those covers that launched the scandal—on an international level. And photocopies of the cover were making the rounds of Moscow in samizdatform.

The era now dawning in Russia was certainly not one for bootlickers. Protests were coming thick and fast. 21 October, a group of 16 writers and academicians, to Gorbachev: the publication of Solzhenitsyn has been halted, but his oeuvre “will nevertheless reach Russian readers, with the inevitability of a physical phenomenon. Today the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s works in his homeland is awaited not only as a major literary event, but also as an unquestionable testimony to the completeness of our social renewal and the irreversibility of the transformations taking place in our land.” Immediately after that, again to Gorbachev, this time from 18 scientists, artists, and writers: “We are extremely alarmed. . . . Banning publication could undermine trust in the ideas of perestroika.” 24 October, from an evening event at the House of Medical Workers to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet: the decree stripping Solzhenitsyn of his citizenship must be abrogated. There were 291 signatures (with addresses!)

And, in the final days of October, the pan-Soviet Memorial held a conference in Moscow at the House of Cinema, and a good few former zeks gathered, from all over the country. And there was a proposal to vote for Solzhenitsyn’s “treason” to be repealed, along with the decree stripping him of his citizenship and expelling him. And it was inevitable that the resolution would of course be immediately adopted.

But the nest of vipers wasn’t dozing on the job! From the presidium, Izyumov, Chakovsky’s deputy at the literary review LiteraturnayaGazeta, showed himself at the rostrum. And, so bashfully: “I may be divulging an editorial secret, but I’m going to tell you anyway. We have in our office, already typeset, material about Solzhenitsyn collaborating with the Ministry of State Security for many years—and very soon now LiteraturnayaGazeta will be publishing the exposé.” Those communists—how their hearts palpitate with indignation!

So the writer Elena Chukovskaya ran up to the stage, grabbed a microphone, and began to shout: “Get out of here!” Instant uproar!—the whole hall erupted, they were angry and rowdy: “Get rid of them! Out! Clear off, you bastards!” One of the two microphones got broken. The burly Igor Dobroshtan, a leader of the Vorkuta camp uprising, yelled in his clarion voice: “Don’t believe them! Don’t believe their documents—they’re all fake! We know that man, and not by any bits of paper but by his deeds!” They wanted to drag the slanderer out of the presidium and throw him out of the hall, but he’d vanished. (Were my enemies actually thinking of publishing that “denunciation” again—that same well-worn fabrication that I myself had made public and unmasked 12 years before, in 1976? —Surprising, how necessary they found that falsification when attacking me. What ever could they cling on to, without my story in Archipelago? But those crooks were clearly cowed by the way the wind was blowing in this new Epoch.)

There was an immediate vote, with the resolution carried unanimously: to repeal the charge of treason; to reinstate citizenship of the USSR; and to publish The Gulag Archipelago as soon as possible! And Sakharov, at the presidium desk, raised his hand, arm straight as a die, towards the ceiling. (But even in January ’89, in Memorial’s newspaper with the account of this conference, the point about Archipelago was not passed for publication, so a blank line was left.)

On 21 October, Agence France Presse reported (and Lev Timofeev also published this in the samizdat journal Referendum, which at that time he edited) that Gorbachev had, in front of other people, stamped his feet in anger at Zalygin. Lydia Chukovskaya wrote to us that “Zalygin stood his ground magnificently.” On 2 November he sent Gorbachev a most determined letter. And on 9 November, at a newspaper editors’ meeting at the Central Committee, it was drummed into them for the umpteenth time that everything by Solzhenitsyn was banned. “He is hostile to us. And, in general, we do not need such figures hanging around.” (At the end of November, just before his 75th birthday, Zalygin suffered some heart trouble. He paid a heavy price for that long-drawn-out rigmarole.)

On 12 November in Riga, at an Ideology meeting, the Central Committee’s new head of Ideology, Vadim Medvedev, had a lot to say about me—about how unacceptable Solzhenitsyn was “for us.” His words leaked out through the Western wire services, but he did not back down and repeated it once more at a 29 November press conference: “To publish Solzhenitsyn is to undermine the foundations on which our present life rests. His attacks on Lenin are intolerable.”

But at least this Medvedev, when talking about me, did not actually slander me or resort to sly insinuations—as had Sinyavsky, Voinovich, Korotich, and countless hundreds of others. 

The House of Culture of the Moscow Electric Light Factory organized, 19 to 26 November, a “Conscience Week” and set up a “Memory Wall” in the foyer, with a raised-relief map of the USSR showing the locations of the camps, an exhibition stand with photographs of the victims of repression, and portraits of Varlam Shalamov and myself; and they’d put up “Live Not by Lies,” from the Kiev RabocheeSlovo; and those wanting to express their feelings in writing were invited to do so. In just the first three or four days there were more than a thousand notes—in favor of the immediate publication of Solzhenitsyn and his return to his homeland. And the number kept rising. Reading them was a very emotional experience.

All these obstacles, but also the whole development of this new pressure, reaffirmed over and over that we had been right: it was with Archipelago that we had to start! We had to shake things up, rather than wait for Gorbachev’s censors to wake up.

During that time of our defeat, I wrote (1 December 1988) to Zalygin: “I owe you my heartfelt gratitude for the steadfastness and courage with which you have tried to give the historical truth about our sufferings, and give my books, a path toward publication. I am sure that the history of Russian literature will not forget your efforts. You are not to blame for them now being blocked by such impregnable barriers—but that will only last for a while: there is no way to escape the truth.”

This essay is excerpted from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn forthcoming memoir, Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978–1994, translated by Clare Kitson and Melanie Moore, and reprinted with permission from the University of Notre Dame Press, © 2020 by University of Notre Dame.

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