n a whirlwind of just a few hours I was transported from Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, and from the whole Great Soviet Prison itself, to Heinrich Böll’s country house near Cologne, into a dense crowd of over a hundred reporters waiting for my thundering pronouncements.1 But, to my own surprise, I told them: “I said enough in the Soviet Union. I will be silent for now.”
Wasn’t that strange? All my life I suffered under the prohibition that barred us from speaking; finally I had broken free—should I not be holding forth, lobbing salvos at our tyrants?
It was strange. But from those very first hours—perhaps because of the astonishing openness here in the West—it was as if something inside me had clammed up.
No sooner had I arrived at Böll’s house than I asked if a long-distance call to Moscow could be arranged. I was certain I wouldn’t be put through, but I was! And it is Alya2 herself who answers the phone—she is at home! So I manage to assure her with my own voice that I am alive and that I have arrived at Böll’s.
“But you? What about you?” I ask. (They surely will not have harmed the children, but who knew what might be going on in the apartment.)
Alya answers, her voice is clear, managing to signal through humdrum details that everyone is at home and that the KGB officers have left. Though she cannot say it outright, she adroitly manages to hint that the apartment has not been touched, the door is to be fixed. That means that they have not searched our apartment? I don’t know what to think. I was certain that a search would have been made. All the secret papers and documents lying on the tables!—so they hadn’t taken them?
Even before I arrived, Böll had already received calls from Betta (Liza Markstein)3 in Vienna and Dr. Fritz Heeb,4 the lawyer, in Zurich, saying that they were coming to Germany. A call was also put through to Nikita Struve5 in Paris, who said he would come, too. My Three Pillars of Support, all together, how perfect! But I felt that it would all be too much to bear, and so asked Struve to come to Zurich a day later instead.
Suddenly, the tension that had kept me going throughout that very long day ebbed, and I shuffled to my room and collapsed on the bed. But I woke up in the middle of the night. Böll’s house, which lay directly on the village street, was under siege: Headlights were flashing from cars that were pulling up and parking; right by the house there was a buzzing crowd of reporters, and through the window, open in the warm European night, came snippets of German, French, and English. The reporters were huddling, waiting to seize their morning bounty of news, finally some statement from me. But what statement? I had already said everything that was important in Moscow.
I had, after all, won for myself an almost complete freedom of speech in the Soviet Union. A few days earlier I had publicly called the Soviet government and the KGB a pack of horned devils flitting through the early dawn before the matins bell rings; I had denounced the lawlessness that knew no bounds and the genocide of peoples—what else was there for me to add now? These were things that were straightforward enough, and in fact known to all. Or were they? As for the more complex issues, those were hardly for the press. I would have preferred not to make any more statements: In my last days in the Soviet Union I had done so out of necessity, to defend myself, but what need was there to do so here? Here everyone could speak their mind without running the slightest risk.
I was lying there awake, in the knowledge that I had been successfully freed, but I was also caught up in a tangle of branching thoughts: What was I to do now, and how was I to do it? But even the questions refused to rise out of the shadows, and so nothing could be decided.
Betta had arrived that night, and we’d had a warm reunion. I had been intent on not going out to face the crowd of reporters, since I saw little point in parading myself before them like a silent scarecrow, but Betta changed my mind. She convinced me that Heinrich and I should go outside, stroll across the meadow, and let the press take pictures of us, since the reporters could not leave empty-handed. So after breakfast Heinrich and I went outside and were greeted with such a flood of questions that there was no way to respond: surprisingly foolish questions, such as how I felt and if I’d slept well. I don’t quite recall what I said, but I managed to utter a few words. Then Heinrich and I walked some hundred yards and back, a mad crush of photographers and journalists edging backward in front of us over the uneven ground, an older man falling painfully on his back. I felt bad for him, and for the others, too—theirs was not a job to be envied.
Betta’s next decision was that my one white KGB shirt would not see me through, and so, with the Deutschmarks that the KGB officers had slipped me on the plane, she went and bought me two shirts she found at the local village store. I didn’t notice it right away, but the shirt I wore for the trip the following day had gray and white vertical stripes—like the stakes of a stockade—almost identical to the prison uniform of the Soviet camps.
Soon after, Dr. Heeb, my sound and even-keeled benefactor, arrived at Böll’s house, a man of strong features and imposing and solid build. While Betta was with us I didn’t have to resort to German, but no serious discussions were required anyway. Meanwhile, the crowd of reporters was badgering me to come outside and be photographed and asked questions.
Having rushed in from all the corners of Europe and from across the ocean—what kind of statement were they expecting from me? I simply couldn’t understand. Was some inane comment all they needed for a headline? That I was feeling extremely tired, or, on the contrary, extremely lively? That I was absolutely delighted to be in the Free World? Or that I really liked the German autobahns? If I said any of this their long journeys would have been justified. But, having just emerged from a great tumult, I was simply unable to humor them, even had I known how.
My silence turned out to be a great disappointment to them.
And so—from the very outset the Western media and I were not to be friends, were not to understand one another.
Then Herr Dingens arrived from Bonn; as a representative of the German Foreign Ministry he had welcomed me on my arrival in the West the day before. We sat at the table in the bright living room, but Annemarie, Heinrich’s wife, following a festive European tradition, also lit a few red candles. Herr Dingens had brought me a temporary German passport without which I could not exist, let alone travel. Officially, in the name of the government, he proposed that I could choose any place of residence I wished in Germany.
For a minute I hesitated. I had not made such plans. But I did like Germany, probably because as a child I had enjoyed studying German and learning German poems by heart, and in the long summer months had read books of German folklore, The Song of the Nibelungs, Schiller, and some Goethe. And during the war? Not for a moment did I connect Hitler with traditional Germany. As for the heated weeks of battle, I had felt only the zeal of pinpointing German batteries faster and with greater precision. It was zeal, not hatred; and I had felt only sympathy at the sight of German prisoners. Was I now to live in Germany? Perhaps that would be the right thing to do. But in the meantime I wanted above all to get to Zurich. That was something I could not even have imagined only two days ago, for my unfinished November 1916 was lacking in details concerning Lenin’s life in Zurich—after all, imagining a place is one thing, but seeing it with one’s own eyes is another, and now, tomorrow, I was to see it for myself!
I thanked Herr Dingens but turned the offer down, not with finality, but for the time being.
We had barely sat down with the Bölls and gathered our thoughts when we had word from outside that Dmitri Panin had come to see me with his wife (his second wife, with whom he had emigrated, and whom I didn’t know). I was quite taken aback—I had thought he was in Paris! For him to suddenly drop everything and catch a plane, without so much as letting me know! Hadn’t the emotional state I would be in and my being overwhelmed by demands crossed his mind?
But that was Dmitri Panin, my friend from the prison camp, a “Knight of the Holy Grail” and one of a kind.
Some five years earlier I had read his philosophical manuscript on how to understand and save humanity. I had asked him where one was to start, what he was proposing that we actually do here and now. But, as always, his main concern was that the edifice of his worldview be complete; putting his system into practice was of little concern to him, some lesser figure could see to that. (He had a hazy sense of reality and its possibilities. Back in 1961 Dmitri had strongly rebuked me for giving One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to the magazine Novy Mir [New World], and thus laying open my underground activity; I ought to have remained in the underground.) As for saving our nation from Communism, that was simple enough. It was necessary to convince the West to come together and give the Soviet Union a general ultimatum: “Relinquish Communism or else we will destroy you!” As simple as that. And the Soviet leaders would undoubtedly capitulate. (I laughed at the idea.) The only flaw in his concept that he was prepared to admit was that the countries of the West were not in accord with one another and would not present a united front, like de Gaulle’s reckless withdrawal from NATO. To unite the nations of the West, he argued, one had to go by way of the pope (“a Crusade!”). Two years earlier, Dmitri had decided, so be it, he would tackle the matter himself, hands-on. He would set out to convince the pope! With this in view he had left the Soviet Union with his new wife, by way of her Israeli visa. The pope even granted him an audience. But alas, the pontiff refrained from such a simple and direct course of action. So Dmitri began to lay the groundwork himself, publishing The Notebooks of Sologdin (his name in my book In the First Circle), and traveled throughout Europe on a book tour with posters featuring a small snapshot of us, with my arm resting on his shoulder, that had been enlarged. His presentations were rousing and combative, calling on everyone to rise and unite against Communism without delay; but those foolish Europeans were sluggish in their response.
Some of this I already knew back in the USSR through smuggled letters and newspaper clippings, and the rest he told me now. He and I sat in the front parlor, while his wife, Issa, went to the living room to join the others at the table with the red candles. The plan Dmitri laid out before me was this: to immediately declare before the crowd of journalists outside our alliance and solidarity unto death against Communism. The allocation of responsibilities, which he would also later send me in writing, was that I would be the swift frigate with bright and colorful sails, while he would be the frigate’s cargo hold filled with an arsenal of ideas. Together we would be invincible! My God, how skewed all this was, not only in regard to my having just arrived in the West a few hours earlier and struggling to adapt to my new situation, but to his tenuous grasp of reality and life. How could one achieve anything the way he was proposing? We would end up a laughingstock. But Dmitri did not understand, all my arguments falling on barren ground. My refusal deeply wounded him, and he left extremely upset, if not furious.
This was immediately followed by a new challenge: Janis Sapiets of the BBC Russian Service, known to his listeners as Ivan Ivanovich, had arrived and was asking if I would see him. How could I not? He turned out to be an extremely kind and pleasant man, his voice so familiar to me for many years. He persuaded me to record an interview then and there; this would be important for Soviet listeners, which indeed it was. We did the recording (but I don’t remember what I said).
Now that I had my passport in hand, I could have left and no longer been a burden on Heinrich. (But a burden I was to be, for the whole world had found out that I was at his house, and for the next month there was a flood of telegrams, letters, and books, his secretary struggling to keep records and send everything on to Zurich.) Betta and Heeb were thinking, of course, that we catch a plane. But was I to see nothing of Germany? Might there not be a train we could take? There was—we could board a train in Cologne in the morning and reach Zurich before nightfall. That was ideal.
Early the following morning we took leave of the hospitable Bölls and drove off. A few dozen cars that were still lining the narrow village streets all turned to follow us. We soon reached the train station in Cologne without my having seen much through the window, and hurried to the platform, going up in an elevator of all things, getting there just two minutes before our train was to pull in.
But what two minutes! Right before me, in full view and in all its perfection, was that work of beauty, no, that miracle, the Cologne Cathedral! More than its intricate ornamentation, it was its spiritual depth that struck me, its towers and spires striving up to the heavens. I gasped, and stared with my mouth open, while the reporters, ever alert and already on the platform, took snapshots of me staring. And then the train pulled in and swallowed us up.
The day brightened, and we could see out of the window far into the distance. The tracks ran right beside the Rhine, along its left bank, and we went through Koblenz and Mainz. But the Rhine seemed dirty and industrialized, no longer poetic, even near the Lorelei Rock which they pointed out to me. It must have been idyllic before it had been spoiled in this way. But the main beauty of the area, the centuries-old huddling houses and narrow streets, could not be seen from a passing train.
Back in Moscow, as soon as Alya or I would meet up with Betta, there ensued fiery exchanges of clandestine ideas—but now that I was free to discuss whatever I liked, I simply could not gather my thoughts. After a great upheaval passes, you feel it even more.
Word had already spread that I was on this train, and groups of curious onlookers came crowding to the carriage at the stations. They asked me to autograph the German edition of Archipelago, which I did, from the steps of the railcar, and then through the window. I was photographed, and always in that striped convict’s shirt. Many of these snapshots were to be subsequently published in Germany.
Though it was only mid-February, it turned out to be a warm day. We reached Basel shortly after noon, our travel papers checked both on the German side and then on the Swiss. The border guards were already waiting for me, greeted me, and also asked for an autograph. Then we rode through the narrow and cozy Swiss valleys between the mountains.
The station in Zurich was teeming with people, and not just on our platform but on all the others, as well as in the concourse and all the way out onto the square. A whole police force would not have been able to contain the crowd. Without exaggeration, there was a serious danger of people being crushed. It was as if we were trapped in a clamp, and two huge Swiss men, editors from the Scherz Verlag, the publisher of Archipelago in German, who had been sent for our protection, courageously battled to open a way for us to inch forward. It really seemed as if we might not make it through the crowd in one piece. Inch by inch, little by little, we finally got to a waiting car into which I was shoved like a cork into a bottle, and I sat there for a long time, the car surrounded by a crowd of Swiss people all so friendly and—somewhat contrary to their nature, it seems—overcome with enthusiasm, while the others in our party were led through to our car. We set out slowly, the crowd waving, and more people lining the streets. From the first bridge we reached, the first houses and tramways, Zurich struck me as enchanting.
We drove over to Heeb’s apartment. He lived somewhere on the outskirts of the city in one of the new high-rises. No sooner had we arrived than the reporters besieged the place. They insisted I come out and make a statement. I could not. Well, then just a pose or two for the camera. But above all, posing was beyond what I could muster, and I did not come out. (The press was becoming increasingly resentful.)
Then I was informed that the Stadtpräsident of Zurich, in other words the mayor of the city, Dr. Sigmund Widmer, had arrived at Heeb’s apartment to greet me. A tall, intelligent-looking man with a pleasant but solemn face came into the living room. I stood up and walked toward him and he, with much effort and some inaccuracy, uttered a phrase of welcome—in Russian! I answered with two or three German phrases (brain cells carrying old memory, lighting up and linking into chains), and Dr. Widmer beamed. We sat down and conversed, Betta interpreting for us. His nervousness abated, and he proved to be an extremely pleasant person. He was most forthcoming, and offered every possible assistance for my settling down. Might I want to rent an apartment? Needless to say, I could stay at Heeb’s for a day or two, but what then? Decisions had to be made.
But I could not come to any decision. In the meantime I was flooded with requests, invitations, proposals. I had not been there an hour when Senator Helms called from America, the interpreter on the phone inviting me to come right away to the United States, where I was being eagerly awaited. There followed another call from the States; it was Thomas Whitney, who had translated Archipelago into English, and whom until now I had known only by name. Another call: a woman’s deep voice speaking Russian with a light accent, Valentina Holub, whose mother had fled from Vladivostok in 1920 with a Czech man who was with the retreating forces. Valentina and her Czech husband had left Prague, fleeing the Soviet occupation, and now were living in Zurich. “There are six thousand of us Czech émigrés here, and all of us worship you and will do anything for you. You can count on us!” She offered to help with any day-to-day matters, and that in Russian. I was very grateful to her; after all, we were in no uncertain terms guilty in what we had done to the Czechs in August 1968. They would be true allies. We arranged to meet.
And then what a telegram from Munich! “All transmitters of Radio Liberty are at your service. Director F. Ronalds.” Who would have thought! To speak to the entire USSR, as much as one likes! It was indeed something that should be done. But couldn’t one at least have a minute to catch one’s breath?
Then I had a visitor—perhaps not that evening but the following one, though I will describe it here. From the lobby, where a police post had been set up (to prevent the apartment from being stormed), we were informed that the writer Anatoli Kuznetsov was asking to see me. None other than the Kuznetsov who had written Babi Yar, and surprised us all when he fled to the West in 1969 (under the pretext of researching Lenin’s time in London—perhaps as I was going to do in Zurich now?); surprising us no less that he was now ashamed of his surname Kuznetsov (at the insistence of the Soviet authorities he had proffered charges against the publisher in the West who had brought out his novel without authorization), and so all his future novels (of which in the past five years there have not been any) were to be simply signed “Anatoli.” He was conducted through to the apartment. But we had so little time to talk, just the briefest chat, almost on the go. He was a short man, agile, very sincere, with a touch of despair in his voice. Despair, needless to say, at things having turned out so badly for him, but also despair and fear that I might make the same mistakes he had. He warned me of what he likened to the bends, coming from a high- to a low-pressure zone where one ran the risk of bursting. It was vital at first not to make any statements at all, just to take in one’s new surroundings. (How right he was!) And the poor fellow had come all the way from London just for ten minutes to warn me about something I already knew. I was completely aware of how careful one had to be not to throw oneself into the arms of the press, though I did not know how to take cover from their relentless siege.
So I do not go out to meet the reporters. It is already dark outside, perhaps time to go to bed. Heeb’s wife gives me a sleeping pill, but still I cannot sleep. In the darkness I go out onto the balcony, to breathe in some air in the silence of the night. It is the back of the building, the fourth floor. Suddenly a powerful floodlight switches on, trained on me. I am caught! Photographed yet again. They will not let me breathe. I leave the balcony. More pills.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature. These pages, written in 1978, pick up where his memoir The Oak and the Calf leaves off, beginning with his expulsion to West Germany on February 13, 1974. They are excerpted from Solzhenitsyn’s forthcoming memoir, Between Two Millstones, Book 1: Sketches of Exile, 1974–1978, translated by Peter Constantine and reprinted with permission from University of Notre Dame Press, © 2018 by University of Notre Dame.
1 Böll was a Nobel-prize-winning German novelist.
2 Solzhenitsyn’s wife, Natalia Svetlova.
3 Betta was the nickname of Liza Markstein, an Austrian supporter of Soviet dissidents who had translated The Gulag Archipelago into German.
4 Fritz Heeb had been chosen by Solzhenitsyn (who had never met him) to represent him in the West.
5 Nikita Struve was the Paris publisher of The Gulag Archipelago.