Thursday, 7 August 2008

Becoming a dissident

With all the mess here I have completely neglected to contemplate something everybody in our circles is talking about: the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Yet he has been decisive for what I am. He opened my eyes when I was fourteen and made me a thinking individual. My parents were not directly dissidents, but as every intellectual in the former Soviet Union they were opposed to the regime. You had to be a conformist to some degree to survive, but whatever people say, there was no thought police, and somehow everybody knew when and to whom it was ok to talk. We had forbidden literature at home as long as I can remember, but it was not only from literature I knew the truth about labour camps. Half of my extended family had gone through them, and dozens of my parents’ friends. In every family I knew, someone had been murdered in prison, on absurd charges or no charges at all; someone died of famine and inhuman slave labour. So when I read Ivan Denisovich, First Circle and Cancer Ward, there were no new facts for me, but the power of literature made the facts tenfold stronger. Solzhenitsyn was for all of us a touchstone of courage and conscience, and a very great writer. When he got the Nobel Prize and the Soviet press accused him of treason, we celebrated as if it were our own triumph.

I translated a spiteful article from a Swedish Communist newspaper and typed it with five carbon copies to circulate among friends. Reading, keeping and circulating anti-Soviet literature could be punished by five years in camps. I was proud of being eligible for incarceration for political activity.

During the year when Solzhenitsyn lived outside Moscow at the world-famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich’s villa, we often met him on the train, because my parents rented a house nearby. We didn’t know him personally, but felt a part of his fate. Then he was sent to exile. We followed his adventures and misadventures through BBC and Voice of America. Those who had faith mentioned him in their prayers.

Then he returned to Russia, greeted by millions of admirers. He had then lived in exile for many years and didn’t know anything about Russia of today. But he started preaching and making prophecies. For me, he was by that time no longer an icon and perhaps not even a great writer.

But it does not matter. These days, when every newspaper and news agency carries obituaries and comments, I cannot help recalling the fourteen-year-old who sat as if enchanted, reading a ragged carbon copy of First Circle. It started me thinking. It has finally brought be to Cambridge.

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