He wrote diligently, comprehensively, profoundly, and in secret. Why? What good is a silent memory when the forgotten deserve justice? This way, he might avoid the despair of having his work confiscated and destroyed or the frustration of having his work rejected by publishers as inadequate or politically unacceptable. Worse, making public his work, his memories, might cost him the measure of happiness he then enjoyed. It might send him back to the Gulag. For whatever reason, he kept his work to himself and to his wife, Natalya. "During all the years until 1961," he wrote, "not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime but also I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written, because I feared that this would become known."
He was a writer with unusual gifts, utterly devoted to his art, brilliant and exacting, producing work that would stun not just literary worlds but the entire Cold War political world, and he was resigned to being unread until "this secret authorship began to wear me down." Following Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Communist Party Conference and the cultural thaw, Khrushchev encouraged at the Twenty-second Congress in 1961, [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn mustered the courage to send One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a fictitious account of one day's suffering in a poor peasant's life in a labor camp, to the literary journal Novy Mir. The magazine's gifted editor, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, recognized it as a work of genius, compared it to Tolstoy, sent it to Khrushchev for the premier's permission, and published it. Tvardovsky said that while reading the manuscript late at night "he was so moved by its power that he got out of bed, put on a suit and tie and sat up the rest of the night reading ... because it would have been an insult to read such an epic in his pajamas."
Solzhenitsyn decided to write, in seven parts, a history of the gulags, which were not first conceived, as popular opinion held, in Stalin's malevolent paranoia, but by Lenin himself, who in the earliest days of Bolshevik rule provided the legal justification for strengthening the party's hold on power by establishing slave-labor camps. Stalin, of course, had expanded the system beyond Lenin's vision.
The writing began in fits and starts. Another round of cancer treatment interrupted him. And he had doubts that, lacking any access to official records, his own experiences — what he "was able to take away from the archipelago on the skin of my back and with my eyes and ears" — provided sufficient material on which to base such an immense undertaking. He set it aside. But after the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn began to receive hundreds of letters from Gulag survivors, and the letters and accounts obtained in conversations and memoirs from a total of 227 witnesses gave him the material necessary to complete the work.
In 1964, he began to work diligently on The Gulag Archipelago, writing sixteen hours a day in two eight-hour shifts. He completed the second draft in two and a half months, from late 1966 to early 1967. In the spring of 1968 he wrote feverishly to finish and microfilm the work in anticipation of sending it abroad for publication. On June 2,1968, it was done. One week later a friend carried the microfilm rolled in a capsule to Paris. Five years were to pass before it was published.
Solzhenitsyn had to make three decisions before The Gulag Archipelago and its truths, which were to wreak enormous damage on the Soviet system of oppression and hasten the demise of the entire postwar balance of power, would be available to the world. The first, of course, was the decision to write it. Even had the period of cultural liberalization in the Soviet Union lasted indefinitely, Solzhenitsyn's truths would still have greatly offended Stalin's successors. Among them were the accusation that Lenin shared culpability for the Gulag; and the recognition that the Soviet people themselves, not only Stalin and other Soviet leaders, must accept part of the responsibility for these crimes. His second decision was to send the manuscript abroad for publication, knowing that he would never receive permission to publish it in the Soviet Union. The third decision was to order its publication.
Each decision carried enormous risks for Solzhenitsyn.
This excerpt is drawn from "Hard Call: The Art of Great Decisions," (Twelve), which Senator McCain coauthored with Mark Salter. It is reprinted with permission of the book's publisher.
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