Back to article index


When Solzhenitsyn arrived in Europe in February 1974 he was received almost universally as a hero, both as 'the greatest Russian writer of the twentieth century' and as the model champion of freedom against tyranny. Twenty years later, when he returned to Russia, his reputation was in tatters partly because, instead of flattering those who had been so anxious to flatter him, he had withdrawn from the world to concentrate on what he regarded - rightly in my view - as his major work, The Red Wheel, his huge account of the revolution of February/March 1917.

But there were also real political issues at stake, the most obvious being 'Russia' and the relation between 'Russia' and 'the Soviet Union'. The point at issue was whether the Soviet Union could be seen as a specifically Russian development - an extension of the old Russian Empire, with Lenin, Stalin and their successors as the new Tsars - or, as Solzhenitsyn maintained, it was a new non- or multi- national entity with Russians to be numbered among the peoples it was oppressing.

Solzhentisyn has written an account of his time in exile in the West in two large (excessively large, they include quite a lot of rather dull accounts of his travels) volumes under the title The Seed fallen between millstones. The first volume was published in French in 1998 as Le grain tombé entre les meules, the second in 2005. Neither is yet available in an English translation. The extracts I shall be giving are my own translations from the French.

The first millstone is of course the Soviet Union. Yuri Andropov, chairman of the KGB from 1967 until 1982 when he became General Secretary of the Communist Party and therefore leader of the Soviet Union, took a particular personal interest in his case and much effort was put into discrediting him, in particular using his first wife, Natalya Reshetovskaya and some of his early friends, notably Nikolai Vitkevich, his co-accused at the time of his arrest. 

But what was the other millstone?

It was partly a matter of what he saw as his mistreatment at the hands of people he thought were his collaborators - translators, publishers, lawyers. Partly also the unexpected pressures of celebrity in the West - harassment by the press and by institutions wanting to confer honours on him. But the most interesting problem was his gradual realisation that so much of what he had construed as opposition to the Soviet Union, both among his fellow dissidents of what he called 'the third emigration' and among policy makers in the United States, was in fact opposition to Russia as a geopolitical entity. 


The first two Russian emigrations - broadly the 'White' or at least anti-Soviet migration of the 1920s - and those who had escaped in the chaos of the Second World War, were clear in their minds that what they were leaving, what distressed them, was the Soviet Union. The first emigration in particular had done what they could to maintain the cultural and intellectual ferment that had been taking place in Russia in the period leading up to 1917. An intense intellectual life - Vladimir Lossky, George Florovsky, Sergei Bulgakov, Nicolas Berdiaev are perhaps the best known names - was concentrated in Paris. Among the wider Russian Orthodox diaspora there was a feeling that the catastrophe that had befallen them was a call from God to spread Orthodoxy, not the most missionary minded of Christian tendencies, through the world. 

Solzhenitsyn, once he was settled in the relatively secure isolation of Vermont, launched two ambitious projects. One was a publishing house to make available both academic studies and memoirs of aspects of recent history ignored by Soviet historiography. The other was to put together an archive of documentary material relating to the first and second emigrations. These projects were in addition to his 'Russian Social Fund', established almost immediately on his arrival in Europe, using the royalties of The Gulag Archipelago to help survivors of the camps. According to D.M.Thomas (Alexander Solzhentisyn - A century in his life, London, Abacus, 1999, p.459) 'between April 1974 at the Fund's inception and February 1977, when its administrator in Moscow, Alexander Ginzburg, was arrested for alleged currency speculation, Solzhenitsyn had provided the rouble equivalent of $300,000, and this sum had helped 1500 political prisoners.'

Solzhenitsyn says of the different emigrations:

'Much as I respected the first emigration - not all of them, certainly, but very precisely the White, that which didn't run away, didn't try to save its skin, but fought so that Russia would know a better destiny, and had retreated fighting; much as I felt at ease with the second, which was my own generation, sisters and brothers of my companions in prison, those unfortunate suffering Soviet citizens who had by chance managed to escape long before the death of the regime, after only a quarter of a century of slavery, and were afterwards dragged along the arid paths offered to fugitives; by so much did I feel indifference for the great mass of the third emigration who were absolutely not escaping death or a prison sentence but had gone in search of a better organised, and pleasanter life ... Certainly they had made use of the right every man has to leave a place where he doesn't want to live but the problem was that not all Soviets - far from it - had this longed-for possibility. All right, I admit. All one could really reproach them for was using, in order to leave, the name of the state of Israel, and then to have gone to a completely different place ... Among them were certainly people who had done time in the camp or the psychiatric asylum, but these were isolated cases, easy to count. A relatively large number by contrast belonged to an elite which had actively served in the machinery of the lie (a lie that was omnipresent, embracing popular songs as well as the film industry) who had been on friendly terms with this machinery ... And the worst was that as soon as they appeared in the West, free to do as they wished, they looked back to judge and deliver lectures to the unfortunate, useless country they had just abandoned, to dictate, themselves being over here, what the life of Russia ought to be ...' (pp.409-10)

He is referring to the mainly Jewish emigration of the late 1960s and 1970s, a very remarkable phenomenon when the Soviet authorities, while vehemently attacking the Israeli aggression of the 1967 Six Day War and the annexation of the West Bank, allowed a large scale Jewish emigration, notionally to Israel as the 'Jewish homeland' though, as Solzhenitsyn (sympathetic to Israel) complains, many chose to go elsewhere. The Jewish emigrants tended to be acutely aware of anti-semitism as a specifically Russian problem and to see the Soviet Union as an extension of the Russian Empire. They shared this anti-Russian bias with the Ukrainian diaspora.

Before settling in Vermont, Solzhenitsyn explored the possibility of settling in Canada and while travelling there, he 'decided to go to Winnipeg, the centre of the Ukrainians in Canada, which I wanted to see. They have a sort of pan-Ukrainian parliament abroad - the World Congress of Free Ukrainians [1] where different dispersed branches of the Ukrainians meet, with a general concelebration by the two different Ukrainian churches: Catholic and, in a manner of speaking, Orthodox (autonomous, with a non-canonical appointment of their bishops since 1918 [2]). By contrast, the Russians who belong to different churches [3] not only never meet but even make war against each other.

[1]  This was founded in New York in 1967. It is now called the Ukrainian World Congress and organised internationally.

[2]  The Ukrainian autocephalous churches in the USA and in Canada - unlike the two rival autocephalous churches in the Ukraine itself - are now, since 1996, attached to the Patriarch of Constantinople and are therefore recognised by the mainstream Orthodox churches as 'canonical'. The 'Catholic' tendency he mentions are the 'Uniates' who continue to use more or less the same rite as the Orthodox but are in communion with the papacy.

[3]  He is referring to the Russian Orthodox believers attached to the Moscow Patriarchate, the independent emigré Russian Church Abroad - now, as it happens also attached to the Moscow Patriarchate though violently hostile to it during the Soviet era - and the Paris based 'vicariate' attached to Constantinople.

'But what about the Ukrainians? Their cohesion it seems is much greater but, so to speak, inert: they undertake nothing against the Soviet power, they say nothing that carries even a little weight; their whole ambition is to live, to live as one lives in the West, where one doesn't live at all badly and one waits to be liberated by the operations of the Holy Spirit, as much from the Russians as from the Communists. As for putting some effort into fighting, they're only ready to do it against the "Moscals" ...

'The Ukrainian question is one of the most dangerous for our future, it risks delivering us a bloody blow even at the very moment of our liberation and our minds, on both sides, are badly prepared for it ... I think that a good number of my comrades from the camp are still to be found in Ukraine and they will help in the future dialogue. It won't be any easier to reach an understanding with the Russians. Just as it is useless trying to show the Ukrainians that both spiritually and by heredity we are all descended from Kiev, so the Russians refuse the idea that on the banks of the Dnieper another people is living ... There is in any case one thing I know and I will proclaim it when the time comes; if, God forbid, a Russo-Ukrainian war has to break out, I myself won't have any part in it and I won't let my sons join it.' (pp.265-6).