Saturday, July 30, 2005

Around the time he received his Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, the Russian author and dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn remarked that during his imprisonment in Soviet gulags in the 1940s and ‘50s, “[I was] convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime.” He doubted that even his close acquaintances would read his writings.

But many Westerners read his works, and since the fall of Communism, ordinary Russians have been able to do so as well. He was elected to the Russian Academy of Science in 1997, and both post-Soviet Russian presidents, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, have met with him in recognition of his service to Russia.

Now, Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s complete works will be available in the original Russian for the first time, a small but much-welcome departure from the usual discouraging news about freedoms and press liberties in post-Soviet Russia.

As Agence France Press reported this week, the publishing house Vremia is undertaking a 30-volume project to make the great dissident’s complete works available to Russian readers. Vremia is responding to a wellspring of interest in the once-banned and exiled author. “Russia is going through a decisive period in its history, and those looking for landmarks find them in Solzhenitsyn,” Boris Pasternak, Vremia’s editor in chief, explained to AFP.

The backdrop for this news is Mr. Putin’s crackdown on the Russian press and the belief in Russia’s underworld that journalists can be intimidated and killed with impunity. As the State Department’s annual human-rights report put it in February: “Government pressure continued to weaken freedom of expression and the independence and freedom of the media, particularly major national television networks and regional media outlets.” Things are better for the printed word in Russia, the report stated, but with the murder of a dozen Russian journalists since Mr. Putin took office, plus the contract killing of the American Paul Klebnikov of Forbes magazine, it’s far from clear that this is actually the case.

Works like “The Gulag Archipelago” and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” played an essential role in exposing the evils of Soviet Communism. Publishing them can’t do much to solve the Russian government’s problems with the free press. But they are part of the country’s national literature, and insofar as Russians choose to study their Soviet past, Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s works are indispensable.

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