Volume 10 Number 3
01 June 1997
'Invisible Allies' by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Harvill Press, 1997, £9.99
For 200 years the role of the Russian writer in opposition to the ruling autocracy has been proverbial. In the 1960s and '70s, a remarkable dissident movement emerged in the Soviet Union. One of its outstanding figures was the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
The 14 portraits in this book introduce us to ordinary, decent Soviet citizens whose secret help made it possible for Solzhenitsyn to write not only his milestone three-volume account of Soviet labour camps, The Gulag Archipelago, but other uncensored works while evading the KGB. This involved moving manuscripts when necessary, copying them (by typewriter-five copies at a time), smuggling them abroad and arranging passwords and rendezvous.
In one chapter, we learn how Estonian friends, many former zeks or camp inmates, introduced him to Marta Port, a lady in good official standing who made her farm near Tartu available to him as his 'hiding place'. Here he worked undisturbed and out of sight for two successive winters in 1965-67. 'I worked as I never have in my whole life. It even seemed as if it was no longer I who was writing.'
One of the most touching stories is that of Elizaveta Denisovna Voronyanskaya, who worked devotedly in the production of The Gulag Archipelago. She kept a diary about her activities and disobeyed Solzhenitsyn's instructions to destroy a draft of the 'subversive' work which was in her keeping.
In 1973 the KGB pounced. She was taken away for five days of continuous interrogation, which forced her to reveal the whereabouts of that fatal material. She was found hanged a few weeks later in the grim stairwell of her tiny Leningrad apartment. Was it suicide or murder? No one knows. Solzhenitsyn suspects she may have been killed after trying to inform friends of the seizure of the 'Gulag' manuscript.
These events led Solzhenitsyn to order the immediate publication of the work in Paris. His arrest and deportation followed in early 1974.
A sad counterpoint in the background is the disintegration of Solzhenitsyn's first marriage to Natalya Reshetovskaya, who found it less and less possible to accept the sacrifices imposed by her husband's complete dedication to his work. After their final separation, the KGB exploited her bitterness to besmirch his reputation. In another chapter we read how he met his present wife.
Solzhenitsyn will be 80 next year. He has returned to a very different Moscow from the one he left 20 years earlier. Some consider him a figure of the past. Yet a few weeks ago I heard a member of the new Ukrainian parliament say that his entry into politics had been inspired by Solzhenitsyn's statement, 'Live not by the Lie'.
The stories of the invisible allies are told with love, spiced with irony and occasionally censure. The book tells of the intense bond between those who together risk their comfort and lives in the pursuit of truth and intellectual freedom.