From Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978–1994

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature. He spent the first two years of his forced exile in Zurich, Switzerland (1974–76), and then moved with his family to Cavendish, Vermont, where he remained until returning to Moscow in 1994. These memoirs, published for the first time in English, were written during his stay in Cavendish. The first selection reflects Solzhenitsyn’s joy at his newfound opportunity to read for pleasure after forty years of fighting at the front, incarceration in Soviet prisons and camps, and unrelenting harassment. In the second, he looks for methods to grapple with the enormous literary-historical task of shaping his revolutionary epic The Red Wheel.

Ignat Solzhenitsyn

The Joy of Reading

Starting that winter—and, indeed, for the first time since my years of reading in prison—I could allow myself to read, not specifically for my work alone, but also “just because,” as a matter of choice, for pleasure. The first I chose were Bunin, Goncharov’s The Precipice, Gleb Uspensky, Ostrovsky. And I could not resist copying out words I found there—they squeezed themselves willingly into my dictionary. After that, and now specifically to select words, I read Melnikov-Pechersky, Mamin-Sibiryak, and then started copying words from Valentin Rasputin, Vasili Belov, Viktor Astafiev, and on and on it went.

But my keenest hunger was to read the Soviet literature of the ’20s and ’30s—there’s much there I don’t know, and much left unsaid. (And I felt somehow drawn to return to my youth, to the start of my literary life.)

But it turned out that I couldn’t manage “simply to read”: my hand was always reaching out to note down my judgment, my appraisal, either of a particular aspect or in general—of the author’s techniques, structure, characters, the views expressed. I noted specific quotes, too. But when you’ve made such a quantity of notes, you don’t want to leave them around gathering dust, either: you have to work up your notes and put them into some kind of harmonious form, into a coherent text. And in this way, based on a disparate selection of books, a collection formed—they weren’t literary reviews exactly, no, just my impressions. And now, as more are added, I’ve started calling this my “Literary Collection.” Perhaps more will accumulate in the coming years.[1]

What a pleasure it is to be able, finally, to imbibe what I’ve missed in the constant rush and the constraints of my whole life, to fill in gaps in my knowledge—for I have been running all my life, like a horse driven hell for leather, without a moment to take a sideways glance.

Now they’re writing, as if it’s indisputable, that I’m influenced by the Slavophiles and am perpetuating their ideas—but up to now I’ve never read a single one of their books, or even seen one. And people are demanding interviews about what I think of the “Goethe-Mann tradition of harmony”—but I have never read so much as a line of Thomas Mann. Or else they detect the “obvious influence” on the Wheel of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg—but I’m only now thinking of reading it. How could any outsider possibly imagine how crammed full my life has been?

But, more importantly: the artist does not in fact require too detailed a study of his predecessors. It was only by fencing myself off, and not knowing most of what was written before me, that I’ve been able to fulfill my great task: otherwise you wear out and dissolve in it and accomplish nothing. If I’d read The Magic Mountain (and I still haven’t), it might somehow have impeded my writing of Cancer Ward. I was saved by the fact that my self-propelled development didn’t get distorted. I have always been hungry for reading, for knowledge—but in my school years in the provinces, when I was freer, I didn’t have that sort of guidance or access to that sort of library. And starting from my student years, my life was swallowed up by mathematics. I’d just set up a fragile connection with the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History when the war came, then prison, the camps, internal exile, and teaching—still mathematics, but physics too (preparing experiments for demonstration in class, which I found very difficult). And years and years of conspiring under pressure and racing, underground, to complete my books, for the sake of all those who’d died without a chance to speak. In my life I’ve had to gain a thorough grounding in artillery, oncology, the First World War, and then prerevolutionary Russia too, which by then was so impossible to imagine. Now I walk through our own library, assembled by Alya, and look enviously along the spines: so much I haven’t read! so much I’ve missed! But now that I’ve written the most important parts, the pressure I feel inside is lessening, and the weight is lifting from my shoulders—and a space for reading and knowledge is opening up. It’s now that I must make up for everything I’ve missed over those frantic decades. European history, for example, starting from the Middle Ages. (At the Moscow Institute, I’d raced through the Marxist textbook but have forgotten it all.) And especially European thought, from the Renaissance on. And the Bible, which I’d never reread since my childhood. And the Church Fathers—I’d never read them. Shouldn’t I now, at the end of my life, catch up with all that?

The younger the brain, the more you’ll retain, they say. But here I am—getting old. I’ve begun rereading the philosophy summaries I put together in prison, which were saved from the Marfino sharashka (prison research library) by Anna Isaeva.[2] I’ve started reading the history of the French Revolution. And the great Russian poets of the twentieth century. (Alya knows them, almost all, by heart.)

I still have my full strength—it must have been given me for a reason. And I’m young at heart. I’ll study in old age, at least—and what a shame so few years are left. All the strands I began at some time—I must not let them go to waste but guide them to completion. In my constant haste, burrowing forward via tunnels of intuition, how many, many mountains I’ve left behind me, never conquered! But, of course: Tantum possumus, quantum scimus. (The more we know, the more we can do.) I’d like to climb up to an observation platform with a view of the centuries behind us and a half century ahead.

A hundred years you’ll score, and still be learning more.

So my motto from now on is: not a single superfluous movement outwards. I’ll draw inwards, to myself and to what’s most important in life. Don’t talk—do.

Good Lord, the working conditions here—could I ever have dreamed of any so wondrous?

“Thou hast set me at large when I was in distress. . . .”[3]

Delving into The Red Wheel

By 1979 I had been nursing the concept of The Red Wheel for forty-two years and working on it constantly for ten. And throughout all those long years, I had been collecting—some­times on paper, sometimes solely in memory—episodes, incidents, facts, key dates, available material, reflections, assessments, and ideas. I don’t think I would have been able to complete this work without my innate and systematically methodical approach or my mathematical mental training. (Indeed, who could?) I had now been writing the first draft of March 1917 for more than two years, meaning I had embarked upon the Revolution proper and on all the difficulties and peculiarities linked to the material of that period. (It was all the more vexing and distracting, therefore, to be forced to spend three months on Millstones instead, prompted by the KGB cacography of Tomáš Řezáč.[4] The return from the present day to 1917 was not achieved without effort.)

Is there any limit, any end to the work of collecting material for a historical epic? It takes decades, at the very least. What about compiling popular archetypes of soldiers, peasants, factory workers, officers, the civilian intelligentsia, and the clergy through photographs, drawings, or verbal descriptions of their external appearances, clothes, bearing, and ways of speaking? Lengthy searches and random scraps build them up bit by bit by bit—in order to provide a single depiction of, for example, a loud and lively gathering of a great many soldiers. The volume of material prepared and studied may sometimes be a hundred times more than that of the author’s final text and twenty times more is perfectly common.

It is very important, though sometimes difficult, to determine when to interrupt the influx of a particular type of material because it is threatening to stretch the overall structure to the point of collapse—after all, theoretically speaking, the material is infinite. A reliable indication is increasing hesitation as to whether or not something should be included. When the border between the essential and the non-essential flickers more frequently into view—there’s the sign.

In my case, enormous help has come from old people, the elderly émigrés of the revolutionary years. They have gifted me both with anecdotes and with the spirit of the time itself, which can only be conveyed by “non-historical,” ordinary people. How very many evenings I have spent warming myself with their recollections in my spacious study that is always poorly heated in winter. For me, each of those evenings was a refreshing encounter with contemporaries of the events—with “my” contemporaries in spirit, the living characters of my tale. In the evenings they strengthened me for the next day’s work. A table lamp shone down onto the pages while all the dark expanse of the high-ceilinged study was as if filled with a living, sympathetic, amiable throng of these “White Guards.” I certainly wasn’t lonely for even a minute.

I felt I was a bridge stretching from prerevolutionary Russia to the post-Soviet Russia of the future, a bridge over which the heavily laden wagon train of History is lugged over, across the entire abyss of the Soviet years, so that its priceless load would not be lost to the future.

What doesn’t work, however, is first selecting, perusing, and studying all possible materials and only later on sitting down and writing the epic straight off. No, both tasks must alternate, each exactingly clearing space for itself. Which is why mistakes occur too: fresh material, only just read, makes it into the writing perhaps less deservedly than another piece that has long lain unused. But there is also that happy state of affairs of fitting perfectly into the essence and synthetic scope of the subject matter, when the required anecdotes, facts, and excerpts—like burning letters etched in the brain—slide into place of their own accord without needing to be picked through or searched. Lucky breaks begin to ride to the rescue, emerging out of the work in hand. Yet on a different day, the work seems hopelessly stuck, only to be followed by a restless night with bouts of wakefulness and brief jottings by flashlight to avoid waking up altogether—and it is then that thoughts you cannot access by day rise to the surface of the subconscious, and what you most need breaks through. In the morning, you analyze your unfinished scrawls—and hello! it’s all there!

Then there are dreams involving my characters—so vivid they’re deeply affecting. On three separate occasions, I dreamed about Nikolai II. He was visible, substantial. I had just committed to writing about him at the end of 1976. It was as if we were sitting next to one another in the seats of an empty theater—no performance underway, curtain down—having a conversation. I could see his face, close up, clearly defined—and in color too. —Later, with March well in hand, we talked about Russian foreign policy one minute (he spoke gently and with interest in the subject), the next about the succession, and he shook his head sadly that no, Aleksei[5] could not rule as tsar. Likewise, I dreamed about Aleksandr II once, when I was studying the liberals. —On separate occasions, I dreamed of General Alekseev, Aleksandr Guchkov, and even Trotsky in various situations. And surely this was bound to happen when I was spending hours looking at pictures of them, pondering them, thinking myself into the characters. For me, they had become the most contemporary of contemporaries, and I lived with them day in, day out for weeks and months at a time, and many I quite simply loved as I wrote their chapters. How could it be otherwise? You can usher one, two, or three main characters through a story or novel effortlessly, drawing only superficially on your own experience, but how can the same be true of a hundred and fifty people when you are equally responsible for Palchinsky, Shlyapnikov, Kozma Gvozdev, NCO Kirpichnikov, the grand dukes Nikolai Nikolaevich and Mikhail Aleksandrovich, generals Kornilov and Krymov, and Mikhail Rodzyanko? (How much I learned about the Duma’s much loved “Samovar” from the manner of his death! It was the only way he could die—his heart ruptured by joy: in Serbia, he had been wrongly informed that the Soviet government had fallen. . . .)

And notably, throngs of historical rather than fictional characters came increasingly to dominate the book: some in decidedly tragic tones, others courting a tongue-in-cheek style, but through all of them sounded and resounded the beating pulse of the Revolution.

And alongside these historical figures, absorbed wholeheartedly and experienced as close acquaintances, neither the reader nor I had so much need anymore of a plethora of fictional characters. Real-life veracity was well established even without them, through the real people who figured among the ordinary rank-and-file members of the crowd.

A small work of literature arises naturally from an integral and comprehensive plot design. A major historical epic can begin only by reconstituting the framework of events. Only its completeness can subsequently ensure that the narrative is convincing, the proffered historical explication persuasive—even though this completeness poses a threat to the narrative in terms of sheer volume and overload. But if an author sets himself no such objective, all he can do is surrender to an irresponsible play of the imagination. (In the early years of my work, I had cast around for material for all twenty Nodes, right up to 1922—but later realized that this effort would prove of no use to me.)

But even as a writer clarifies and probes this historical basis, it begets further attempts to interpret all the fragments and the connections between them. (There can be no making up for these attempts “later on.”) This is the first draft. After that, it seems, the narrative already lies before you—even though it doesn’t exist yet. At this point, the second draft of the Node begins (I worked on each of the Nodes separately), in which elasticity is achieved and hundreds of internal links in the narrative emerge, which had been utterly unnoticed and inaccessible when the primary material was being gathered and brought to light.

It can be difficult to progress from the first to the second draft, given the vastness of the material. It calls for a kind of inner reinvention, an ascent into a state of flight. So, in spring 1979, working on the vast four-volume March, I underwent an inner crisis, a shutdown. There was no need to force myself, however: my feelings bounced back of their own accord all of a sudden, out of the blue—and they drew me on and on. In the course of this crucial draft, dozens more vital chapters would arise, flare up, be written, and themselves find where they fit best. And at this point, the less planning there is, the easier it is to surrender to the unhindered course of instinct.

After the second draft, the book already exists, even if death stops you in your tracks. In actual fact, however, a great deal of work remains to be done and of the most delicate kind. You must still reveal the harmony inherent in these events, and sometimes their magnificence and symbolic nature as well, and help them become visible. And what a lot of other detailed and subtle tasks arise to ensure specially reinforced borders (of a volume or Node)—a criterion so familiar to any builder. This occupies the third and fourth drafts, as does putting the finishing touches on many chapters.

An essential role in creating a large-scale work of literature belongs to the properly imagined relationship between its parts, both horizontally (how a specific character, specific small community, specific topic continues throughout the Node) and vertically (how chapters succeed one another and fit together over the course of hours and days). Both are important and rightly demand attention—but they are not immediately apparent even to the author’s eye; they require a patient attentiveness. Each of the narrative links in the horizontal chain must be located and worked out by the author, and somehow signposted or flagged so that it is more easily detected and remembered by the reader despite the vast size of the work. Fusing the horizontal and the vertical is among the tougher nuts to crack. (Just as it is when laying the bricks of different stories.) In the second draft, the horizontal predominates, exerts the pull, so as not to have to part from a character once you have entered into his world.

Plotting the horizontal for social units (the Provisional Government, the GHQ,[6] the headquarters of the various fronts, the Executive Committee of the Soviet of Deputies, the Bolshevik higher-ups) was harder still as their mutual influences were closely intermeshed (a “horizontal cluster,” as it’s called in mathematics), and not one could be charted on its own. The slightest stirrings of that less-than-brilliant Rodzyanko, for example, had an immense impact on other people’s actions until he lost all traction and receded into non-influence. There is a constant need to verify horizontal progress against the vertical: you write one chapter and check another dozen to ensure they don’t clash. By contrast, the staccato episodes of February in Petrograd are barely horizontal at all. Rather, they are immediately written into the vertical of their day.

Meanwhile, the juxtapositions of chapters along the vertical, that is, their order of succession, provide an extra way of creating an impression. A juxtaposition is like an additional, unwritten piece of text without a single line of its own, which deepens the meaning through contrasting tones or the sequence flow. The juxtaposition can also provide something that cannot be expressed by any text. (Juxtapositions operate particularly starkly in conveying a tumultuous revolutionary situation. As calm returns, the role of juxtapositions diminishes, and you even set the chapters out in such a way that it takes the reader less of a leap to continue.)

It is exceptionally effective, impressive, and conclusive to use extracts from the newspapers of a particular day or week. They are an indelible, incontrovertible stamp of the public mood, rich in factual information to boot. (And when the information contains a deliberate error or a calculated lie, it becomes all the more typical of the atmosphere of the times. Newspapers differ from memoir writers in this being of the moment: they do not know what will happen tomorrow.) Linked to a precise date, newspaper columns hammer the indelible details of events into us. For the reader, some will be mere repetition, reinforcement, or the first report of a fact—although always colored by the newspaper’s distinctive features and very frequently piquing the reader’s sense of humor, heartily in places: the hurried journalists themselves cannot tell how amusing what they are writing is. It remains for the author to group newspaper reports together, to put them in order. This, particularly through juxtapositions, provides yet another bundle of sentiments, arranges an entire newspaper symphony.

Newspaper overviews entail another plus: that the reader is induced actively to work through the primary material on his own.

This activity by the reader is also ensured by the fragment chapters—collections of real-life episodes on a theme (the capital, small towns, the railway, the army, the villages). They relate the shards of the period very vividly and intensely, and once again the grouping of the fragments creates a fourth dimension of joins and juxtapositions.

Contradictory ideas are vividly conveyed in faceless group or mass dialogues and discussions. And some public scenes of the post-February weeks themselves invite humor.

The proverbs quoted separately in large print between chapters are called upon to express the people’s judgment of what has just been heard (read) in the chapter. When successful, these too disclose an extra dimension to be grasped. Sometimes they also shed light on the next chapter.

And finally: difficult to encompass, the scope of the epic insistently requires that a brief summary of chapter contents be drawn up at the end of each volume (this device also pays homage to old-fashioned tradition). To help the person who has already read the book to find the place he’s looking for, and the person who has not—to form something greater than a cursory impres­sion. This task effectively demanded the creation of another subgenre. While singling out the main names and facts, this list should not be a dull enumeration. Signposts, as mnemonics for the reader, may contain emotive phrases or show an event in a light or from an angle that was not clearly expressed in the main body of the text, enhancing it through some new association.

What wondrous cohesion stems from many months, many years of working on this colossus. There are never enough hours in the day. I move from desk to desk, from manuscript to source material, and the joyful feeling that I am doing the most impor­tant work of my life never leaves me. (No matter when Alya comes in, she always finds me enraptured, happy.)

No matter how demanding the normal working day, I am always calm and composed at its end.
[Translated from the Russian by Clare Kitson and Melanie Moore]
Published with permission from the University of Notre Dame Press, © 2020 by the University of Notre Dame.

[1] “Literary Collection”: Solzhenitsyn would go on to publish parts of it in Novy Mir and other journals after his return to Russia. Most recently, the first five issues of the Studying Solzhenitsyn almanac have contained his reflections on Leskov, Astafiev, Bulgakov, Goncharov, Ostrovsky, and Akhmatova.

[2] Anna Vasilievna Isaeva (1924–1991) was a free worker at the Marfino sharashka, who saved several of Solzhenitsyn’s manuscripts despite the threat of severe repercussions. She was an “invisible ally” who could not yet be named in the 1995 English-language edition of Invisible Allies but will take her rightful place in Sketch 10 in the forthcoming definitive English-language edition of The Oak and the Calf.

[3] Ps. 4:1.

[4] Tomáš Řezáč, The Spiral of Solzhenitsyn’s Treason (Moscow: Progress, 1978). See Between Two Millstones, Book 1, chap. 5.

[5] Aleksei (1904–1918): only son and youngest child of Emperor Nikolai II and Empress Aleksandra Fyodorovna; hemophiliac; murdered, together with his parents and sisters, by the Bolsheviks.

[6] GHQ: General Headquarters of the high command of the Russian Imperial Army during World War I. The GHQ was located in what is today Belarus.