Nobel archives reveal judges’ safety fears for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

·4 min read

Newly opened archives at the Swedish Academy have revealed the depth of concern among Nobel judges for the consequences awaiting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn if the dissident Soviet writer were awarded the prize for literature in 1970.

The author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, who revealed the horrors of Stalin’s gulags in his writings and was eventually exiled by the Soviet Union, was named the Nobel laureate that year, lauded by the committee for “the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”.

But archives at the Swedish Academy, which are sealed for 50 years after each laureate is named, have revealed the fierce debate among the judges over what a win might mean for Solzhenitsyn.

“There are external circumstances that are recognised by all as extremely difficult to assess: whether a Nobel prize for Solzhenitsyn will benefit or harm him,” wrote academy member Artur Lundkvist, in documents seen by Swedish journalist Kaj Schueler and reported in Svenska Dagbladet. “The canvassing from many quarters for his candidacy does not take into account the consequences for him. It is primarily a matter of demonstrating against the Soviet Union, both justifiably and unjustifiably. However, the Nobel prize should not become a battleground between different political interests.”

The academy had previously awarded the Nobel to Boris Pasternak in 1958, after the publication of Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak accepted the award, but was later forced to decline it by Soviet authorities who had banned his novel. In 1965, the award went to Mikhail Sholokhov, a writer who was acceptable to the Soviet government.

Henry Olsson, another academy member, argued against Lundkvist’s view: “Precisely because we gave the prize to the Stalinist Sholokhov in 1965, impartiality demands that we should also be able to give it to a communist more critical of the system, such as Solzhenitsyn.”

Schueler notes that Olsson’s phrasing is ambiguous, but adds that it “suggests that giving the prize to Sholokhov was a way to appease the Soviet state that had aggressively persecuted Pasternak”.

Lundkvist had another concern about Solzhenitsyn: was his writing actually any good? By then, Solzhenitsyn had published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, describing a day in a Soviet gulag, and his major works The First Circle and Cancer Ward. His magnum opus The Gulag Archipelago, which he wrote in secret in the Soviet Union, would not be published until 1973 and resulted in his deportation the following year.

Lundkvist wrote that he felt that the artistic value of Solzhenitsyn’s books had been “generally overlooked”, arguing that his writing “appears rather primitive and uninteresting” when compared to other 20th-century novels. Olsson disagreed, arguing that Solzhenitsyn “possesses a human knowledge, a strength of empathy and an intensity in the artistic capacity that makes such an opinion impossible”.

In 1970, Solzhenitsyn won out over other Nobel candidates, Chilean writer Pablo Neruda (who won in 1971) and Australian author Patrick White (who won in 1973). But his path to receiving the award was not smooth. Then being harassed by the Communist party and the KGB, the author was fearful that if he went to Stockholm to accept the Nobel, he would be stripped of his Soviet citizenship and prevented from coming home.

Proposals were put in place to present him with the prize at the Swedish embassy in Moscow, but Solzhenitsyn was furious at the suggestion of a private ceremony, describing the conditions as “an insult to the Nobel prize itself” and asking if his win was “something to be ashamed of, something to be concealed from the people”.

Plans were arranged for the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Karl Ragnar Gierow, to give Solzhenitsyn the award in a Moscow apartment. But when Gierow was refused a visa, the author again became angry, and in an open letter he released to the press, he asked the Swedish Academy to “keep the Nobel insignia for an indefinite period”, adding: “If I do not live long enough myself, I bequeath the task of receiving them to my son.”

Solzhenitsyn still wanted to deliver his Nobel lecture, however. Swedish foreign correspondent Stig Fredrikson met the author and smuggled negatives of his lecture to Helsinki, events Fredrikson later described as akin to a spy thriller.

“The lecture was published in the Swedish and international press in August 1972,” he writes in an essay for the Nobel website. “It was a very powerful text, which caused a sensation when it came out, and was quoted all over the world. It was the first time that Solzhenitsyn mentioned and made known the name The Gulag Archipelago, where, as he said, ‘it was my fate to survive, while others – perhaps with a greater gift and stronger than I – have perished’.”

After his exile in 1974, Solzhenitsyn received his Nobel medal in Stockholm. He and his family moved to the US, where they lived for almost 20 years. He died in Moscow in 2008, aged 89.