Remembering the "Hairy Polemicist"


Hearing of the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, I recalled my first interaction with his writing, when I was assigned his classic book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, to be read alongside Yevgeny Zamyatin's dystopian classic We (In a course taught by the terrifically smart and engaging Audrey Altstadt). Unlike much of his later work, Denisovich is a slim, punchy account of the Soviet gulag system, an autobiographical story told through the surrogate character of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Many years later, I was struck when reading D.M. Thomas's Solzhenitsyn biography by the story of Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford's successful campaign to keep Solzhenitsyn from visiting the White House, and thus avoid offending the Soviets and risk undermining the policy of détente. For Kissinger, it was a legacy issue. Ford, on the other hand, seemed to completely and consistently misunderstand the Soviet menace. There was, of course, that famous 1976 presidential debate during which he told New York Times reporter Max Frankel that, contrary to received wisdom, Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination. Lest he be pilloried for what was clearly a slip of the tongue, Frankel asked Ford to clarify that he did indeed view Eastern Europe as a one large, contiguous colony of the Soviet Union. Absolutely not, Ford replied, for the people of Romania, Poland, and Yugoslavia are the masters of their own destinies.

Attacked by Soviet surrogates in the West and newspapers stubbornly sympathetic to the Soviet experiment (L'Humanite in France, The Guardian in Britain, for example), the Nobel Prize-winning author couldn't even wrangle an audience with America's accidental Republican president. D.M. Thomas recounts the details, reminding readers of Simon Winchester's time as The Guardian's Washington correspondent:

When he finally reached Washington, D.C., in June 1975, to deliver a speech to union members, the White House remained silent. Ford did not invite him round because, as aide said, the Russian was here "promoting his books," and the president felt he ought not to support a commercial venture. (This, a week or so after Ford had posed with a beauty queen and Pele, the Brazilian soccer star.) Later the reason was changed to Ford's not wanting a meeting "without substance." Ford's intellect presumably could find nothing of substance to talk about with the author of The Gulag Archipelago.


Simon Winchester, the English Guardian's Washington correspondent, praised Ford for his "reality and integrity" in denying a hearing to the "shaggy author," the "hairy polemicist" who had become the "darling of the redneck population" after talking for an hour and a half to thousands of "sagging beer bellies."

The Economist and Christopher Hitchens eulogize Solzhenitsyn.