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In relation to Solzhenitsyn this story is full of irony. In 1972 Solzhenitsyn was still in the Soviet Union. He had lost the support of Novy Mir and all possibility of legal publication and was living in the dacha of the 'cellist Mstislav Rostropovich - 'the biggest present I remember ever receiving ... here in the incomparable peace and quiet of the special zone (where they live there are neither loudspeakers nor tractors to be heard), under the pure trees and the pure stars, it was easy to be firm and keep calm.' (Oak and Calf, p.270). But by 1972 'Rostropovitch had begun to grow weary and to weaken under protracted siege with no hope of relief, with the loss of the post he loved best, his conductorship at the Bolshoi, the banning of his best Moscow concerts, the termination of those trips abroad which had become a habit and used to occupy half his life. The question grew bigger all the time: Was it right for one artist to wither so that another might flourish?' (p.336). 

In the peace and calm of the dacha he was busy with writing The Red Wheel and planning the best circumstances to launch The Gulag Archipelago. He was also working with Shafarevich on From under the rubble. But meanwhile a legal literature existed that expressed ideas very close to his heart - a love of the non-Soviet Russian tradition, of the Russian peasantry and its way of life independent of the kolkhoz and Soviet bureaucracy, a respect for the Church even, a suspicion of industry, a concern with ecological issues. Solzhenitsyn himself had played an important role in this development with Matryona's House when according to Itzhak Brudny, 'he became the first Russian writer in the post Stalin era to combine an open criticism of party politics in the countryside with an equally open challenge to the official cult of modernity and the modern lifestyle. This combination became a distinctive mark of the ideology of the conservative wing of the Village Prose movement in the Brezhnev era.'   

One of Solzhenitsyn's closest friends in the Novy Mir circle, Boris Mozhaev, was a leading member of the Village Prose school and in the Sketches of Exile, he says:

''But the hope that is unquestionably coming to the surface of Soviet life all the same lies with the "ruralists" who, at the present time, under the Soviet yoke, continue the tradition of Russian literature. Shukshin, with his strong personality, is dead, but there is Astafiev, Belov, Mozhaev, Evgeny Nosov. They haven't stumbled, they've kept going. And suddenly the rapid, confident breakthrough of Valentine Rasputin [no relation! - PB] - with the great qualities of his heart and his profound understanding of things (and little by little Soloukhin is toughening up, who got soft moving in the higher literary spheres). Its now more than ten years that the "ruralists' have stayed faithful and write - and despite certain additions imposed by the official canons or certain forced silences, one can see emerging through their books the real authentic language and the life of the people who are humiliated in our time, and the foundations of a morality that owes nothing to conventions of the governing power.' (p.50).

And in his 1979 BBC interview: 

'During these last few years while I have been in exile in the West, I have been impressed and delighted by the Russian literary writings that have been coming out. And this successful writing has been achieved not by the free emigre writers, not through the abundance of so-called self-expression, but back in our Russian homeland where writers are aching [sic - acting? - PB] under enormous pressure. Moreover this success has been achieved in what is the real heart and core of Russian literature - in that area which Soviet literary critics half-contemptuously refer to as the "literature of the countryside." This is in fact the most difficult area attempted in the works of our Russian classic writers. It is in this area that there has been some outstanding Soviet writing in the last few years, despite all the restrictions. I could easily name five or six of these writers and give the titles of their books - some of them have written more than one - and an analysis of their achievements. But speaking as I am from America, I have no right to do that in a broadcast to Russia: the authorities would start reproaching those writers - "It's not for nothing that Solzhenitsyn is praising you," and so on. But I think the authors concerned, and their readers too, will understand of whom I am speaking. It's hard for us to appraise the standard of contemporary literary writing: but such a level in the depiction of peasant life from the inside, how the peasant feels towards the earth around him, towards nature, towards his own labor - such a level of unforced, organic imagery, springing straight from the life of the people - such a level of poetic, rich, popular language - this was the level to which our Russian classic writers aspired, but which they never achieved, not Turgenev, nor Nekrasov, nor even Tolstoy. And the reason why they could not achieve it was that they themselves were not peasants. For the first time, peasant authors are now writing about themselves. And today's readers can now enjoy the subtleties they find on the pages of these authors.'

Yet this movement was not a marginal, barely tolerated phenomenon.  Between 1971 and 1982 a total of 13,737,840 copies of books were published by Astafiev alone. He won the USSR State Prize in 1978 and the Gorky Prize in 1975. Nosov had 6,640,150 copies of books published in the same period, Shuksin 6,537,500 and he was awarded the Lenin Prize, posthumously, in 1976. Belov 4,006,00 copies and the USSR State Prize in 1981, Rasputin 3,478,600 and the USSR State Prize in 1975. (14) They were supported within the nomenklatura by what we might call the anti-Khrushchevite , anti-'liberal' tendency, overlapping with surprising ease - despite the implicit, and increasingly explicit anti-collectivisation of the ruralists - with the tendency that wanted to defend the memory of Stalin, being most concerned to maintain a defensive hostility towards the West (while Solzhenitsyn in the US was trying to toughen up the West's defensive hostility to the Soviet Union - they had in common from their different angles an opposition to détente); and to assert a continuity of the 'Russian' tradition through the Stalin era (while Solzhenitsyn insisted that Bolshevism, continuous through Lenin and Stalin, was profoundly in opposition to the Russian tradition).

(14) Figures from Brudny, op.cit., p.105.

Indeed, when in 1973 Solzhenitsyn wrote his Letter to the Soviet Leaders advocating something very close to the 'Village prose' ideal of an ecologically conscious Russian patriotism, he may well have had reason to think there were elements among the leaders who would look on it sympathetically - who were already convinced that 'Russia' was a stronger, more motivating idea than Marxism-Leninism. And who may even have had a soft spot for rural Russia. According to William Korey, 'A close study of the top 306 party executives on both national and regional levels (in 1958 and 1962) shows that almost half of them have peasant fathers. Only 6 per cent have white-collar origins, while a little more than a quarter come from the proletariat.' (15) 

This should also perhaps be borne in mind when considering the apparently extreme hostility Solzhenitsyn experienced from many of the Soviet dissidents.

(15) William Korey: 'The Origins and development of Soviet Anti-Semitism: an analysis', Slavic Review, vol.31, No 1 (March 1972), pp.123-4. His own source is George Fischer: The Soviet System and Modern Society, New York 1968. He is using these figures to help explain what he sees as the Soviet leadership's susceptibility to anti-semitism.