After his expulsion from Russia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn secretly worked on a memoir that would acknowledge the courageous efforts of the people who hid his writings and smuggled them to the West. Before the fall of Communism, the very publication of Invisible Allies would have put these friends in jeopardy. Now we are finally granted an intimate account of the extensive, ever-shifting network of individuals who risked life and liberty to ensure that Solzhenitsyn's works were kept safe, circulated in samizdat, and "exported" via illicit channels. These imperiled conspirators, often unknown to one another, shared a devotion to the dissident writer's work and a hatred of the regime that brought terror to every part of their lives. The circle included scholars and fellow writers and artists, but also such unlikely operatives as an elderly babushka who picked up and delivered manuscripts in her shopping bag. With tenderness, respect, and humor, Solzhenitsyn tells us of the fates of these partners in intrigue: the women who typed distribution copies of his works late into the night under the noses of prying neighbors; the correspondents and diplomats who covertly carried the microfilmed texts across borders; the farflung friends who hid various drafts of Solzhenitsyn's works anywhere they could - under an apple tree, beneath the bathtub, in a mathematics professor's loft with her canoe. In this group of deftly drawn portraits, Solzhenitsyn pays tribute to the anonymous heroes who evaded the KGB to bring The Gulag Archipelago and his many other works to the world.
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Nikolai Ivanovich Zubov
Every historical period produces its share of otherwise inconspcious individuals who have the gift of preserving the past, though not by setting down their memoirs for posterity. Instead, they evoke it in conversation with their contemporaries; their recollections can be borne across decades even to the very youngest listeners and when the narrator's own life is drawing to a close. As we stay receptive to its kindly silver-haired glow, we can continue to draw on its for the past its has preserved. But the use we make of these insights is then entirely up to us.
Nikolai Ivanovich Zubov had this special talent from an early age. At the time of the revolution, he was an observant twenty-two-year-old with a retentive memory, and he managed to preserve astonishing clear recollections of the Russian world that had been irretrievably shattered in the space of a few short months. Because Nikolai Ivanovich did not see the world in political terms, those recollections did not add up to a comprehensive picture of the whole, but consisted of a myriad of brilliant fragments, any one of which N.I. could readily extract from deep within his memory, well into old age. These might concern the organization of the railroads, local geographical features, the world of bureaucrats, daily life in small-town Russia, or various other minor but fascinating aspects of our history. He would always relate the kind of thing you could not have deduced by yourself or have picked up from a book. Yet strangely enough he could say virtually nothing about the Russian Civil War, even though he had been its contemporary. At the time, he had lived far from the hub of events, he had not personally taken part in the conflict, and it was as if his mind had refused to absorb the chaos and horror of this bloody turmoil.
The life of any individual is so full of its own problems and events that it can proceed in a direction completely unrelated to the flow of historical circumstances. N. I.'s father had died while he was still a boy, and the early age at which he had been left fatherless had made an indelible impression on his personality. This was the source of his eternally youthful outlook on life, his boyish pride in being good with his hands (he always carried a penknife), and his secretive, gentle, and timid attitude toward women. He loved and respected his mother to the end, never daring to flout her wishes, even though she was full of set ideas that she was determined to impose on her son. One such notions was that he, as a delicate and overprotected young intellectual, should marry a woman "of the people" and that in order to do so he should "go to the people."(*) Thus, as soon as N.I. had graduated from medical school, she packed him off to the Novgorod region to work in a butter-producing cooperative. And indeed the young man learned enough about butter-making and the Novgorod area to last a lifetime--but his choice of a wife proved to be an utter disaster. By the time I met him, no one in N.I.'s home was willing to speak of this hysterical woman "from the people," and I know nothing about her, except that she made his life such a misery that he was forced to leave her and take his three children with him: a silent, expressionless son who grew up a stranger to him and could not become N.I.'s successor in any way, and two daughters who inherited their mother's mental instability.
In was this divorce with three variously handicapped children whom the thirty-year-old Elena Aleksandrovna nevertheless chose to marry, even though she was still grief-stricken at the death of her first husband, a man who had been twenty-five years her senior and with whom she felt she had experienced the pinnacle of earthly happiness. But now she fell under the sway of her new mother-in-law, for N.I. could never challenge his mother's will. So in the Soviet Union of the 1930s--decidedly not a time when women were content to be chained to hearth and home--E.A. successfully came to terms with this new role, adapting to life under these "neofeudal" circumstances. Then the wrath of the almighty NKVD struck, and both N.I. and his wife were cast into prison camps. (I related their story in The Gulag Archipelago, Part Three, Chapters Six, and in Cancer Ward, where they appear as the Kadmins.)
After his stint at butter production, N.I. had been able to return to medicine, and had chosen gynecology as his specialty. There was nothing accidental about this, since it brought together the delicate sensitivity of N.I.'s hands, his gentle yet persistent nature, and perhaps some aspect of his youthful indecision about all those creatures of an alien gender with whom he shared the planet. I believed that he must have made an extraordinary successful gynecologist, a joy and comfort to his patients. And indeed they retained a deep and lasting sense of gratitude toward him, while he continued to practice his profession well into old age. Unable to draw his pension until he reached seventy (the years in camp were not counted toward that goal), N.I. remained eager to respond to calls involving difficult deliveries or serious illnesses. And he was seventy-five when he finally realized a pet project of his: introducing a brief course for girls in the graduating class of the local secondary school. The course concerned those "shameful" subjects that they needed to know about but the their parents could not bring themselves to discuss openly; rather, the students would pick up what they could from each other, typically in vague and inadequate form, with disastrous results in later life. N.I. wanted to write a book on the subject, a manual for teachers.
Being a doctor made it possible for N.I. to survive for ten years in a labor camp, and it allowed him to arranged for his wife to be a nurse at the same camp. But his versatility and skill at working with his hands continually inclined toward all manner of handicrafts, wit bookbinding a long-standing favorite. Before his arrest he had owned all the equipment essential for this task--paper trimmer, vise, and so on--and in the camp he managed to have these things produced for him during a quiet spell in the workshop. Later, when living in exile, he once again contrived to produce a set. He literally craved to bind books, particularly volumes he considered worthy. This was another manifestation of his delayed boyhood, as was his great love for Latin: in camp he became friendly with a noted Latinist, Dovatur, and used his position as doctor to organize Latin lecturers for the nurses! This boyish enthusiasm also drew him to a game especially close to his heart: conspiracy. While N.I. cared little about politics and had no actual need to engage in conspiracy (though a spell in the camps has a way of setting people to thinking, and N.I. did have long discussions on Russian history with the quasi-Bolshevik M.P. Yakubovich(*)), he never tired of refining various conspirational techniques in his spare time. For example, he devised a way of using the regular mails to set up a clandestine link with a distant correspondent unversed in subterfuge. His first message would include some harmless-looking poem and an ardent request for the recipient to commit it to memory. Once he had confirmation that the message had been received, his second letter would reveal that the poem had been an acrostic. Reading the first letter of each line, his correspondent would get the words: "unglue envelope." When he did so, he would uncover a message written on the glued-down strip of this latest letter informing him about the next communication, which might come in the binding of a book, in the false bottom of a box, or--the height of art--inside a simple postcard that, when soaked in warm water, could be peeled apart. N.I. had hit upon a brilliant technique here. He would split apart an ordinary postcard while it was dry, write his message on the inner surface, then glue the two halves back together (he had experimented with many types of glue). Finally he would write a message on the outside of the card, making sure that the new text covered the lines written inside. Postcards are hardly every checked and are the easiest things to get past the censor. (But it must be said that Soviet "free" citizens shrank from such conspirational connections and generally preferred not to respond.)
The whole technique was developed by N.I. while he was in camp, but he found no obvious application for it at first. Then he got to know Alfred Stokli, a literary scholar from Moscow who was a prisoner in the same camp. Stokli told him that if he could find a way to keep it hidden, he would write a novel set in the time of Spartacus but drawing an analogy with the present (a favorite device of the daring spirits of Soviet literature) and basing the psychology of the Roman slaves on his observations of zek(*) behavior. N.I. immediately offered him a brilliant method of safekeeping: rather than hiding individual sheets of the manuscript inside a binding (which would have required an awful lot of books), N.I. suggested making the binding itself out of multiple layers of manuscript pages, glued together in such a way that they could be peeled apart without damage to the writing. The method was tested and found to work perfectly, and Stokli began to write. Whenever her had enough pages for one binding, N.I. would glue them together, keeping the newly bound volume in full view of the wardens as they did their routine searches. Later Stokli was transferred to another camp, possibly after he already abandoned his novel. N.I. not only preserved everything he had written but also managed to take it out of the camp to his place of exile. He then wrote to Moscow, where Stokli now lived as a free man, inviting him to collect his novel. secret author, my fellow conspirator, and we decided that he was missing the hints in N.I.'s letters, thinking that his precious text had been lost forever. In 1956, when I too headed for Moscow, N.I. asked me to look up Stokli and inform him of the situation directly. Alas, once rehabilitated, reinstated in his academic career, and installed in his former apartment in central Moscow, Stokli had lost all interest in his camp scribblings: all this stuff about slavery--who needs it? The whole episode reminded me of the devoted but spurned Maksim Maksimych in Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time.
N.I. arrived in Kok-Terek, his place of exile, several months before I did. He had been separated from his wife when she was sent off to the Krasnoyarsk region (not by any design of the secret police but simply due to sloppy work at the Ministry of the Interior), and it was a year before she could rejoin him. N.I.'s aged mother, who was the cause of the couple's arrest, dragged herself out there to join him, as did one of his daughters, already seriously deranged--but all that lay ahead. For the being he was alone, quite silver-hired yet as agile as a young man, wiry, small in stature, with a ready smile and clear-eyed gaze that was impossible to forget. We first met in the local hospital where I was admitted with an unidentified illness, a malady that struck me right after my release from prison camp. ("This was cancer that had been spreading undiagnosed for an entire year, and N.I. was in fact the first one to suspect what was wrong.) But N.I. was not my doctor, and we met as two fellow zeks.
At one point soon after I was discharged I recall walking with him through our settlement and stopping at a teahouse for a glass of beer. There we sat, both of us without family: he was still waiting for his wife to join him, mine had left me toward the end of my camp sentence.(*) At the time he was almost fifty-eight (in a kind of ironic accord with the article of our criminal code that had brought us here, these digits seemed to pop up everywhere!(*)) while I was going on thirty-five, yet our new friendship had something youthful about it. Perhaps it was our lack of family ties, the youthful bouyancy we both shared, and the feeling of a marvelous new beginning that overhelms the sense of a released prisoner. To some extent it was also the spring on the Kazakh steppe, with the blossoming of the fragrant camel thistle--the first spring after the death of Stalin, and Beria's last.(*)
But just N.I.'s was greater than mine, so too was his optimism. To think that he was getting ready to begin life at fifty-eight, as though the whole preceding period had counted for nothing! The past lay in ruins, but life had not yet begun!
I have always formed judgments about people at he very first encounter, the moment our eyes meet. N.I. charmed me so completely and was so successful in unsealing my tightly locked soul that I quickly resolved to confide in him--the first (and last) such confidant during my years of exile. In the evenings we used to stroll to the edge of the settlement, and there, seated on the edge of an old irrigation canal, I would recite selections from the verse and prose I had stored in my head, and would try to gauge his reaction. He was the ninth person in the course of my prison years to listen to my works, but his reaction was unique. Rather than praising or criticizing, he voiced sheer amazement that I should have been exhausting my brain by carrying this burden inside me for years.(*) But in fact I could imaging no place other than my memory where I could safely keep my works, and I had grown accustomed to the strain this placed on me, as well as to the constant need to review what I had learned. But now N.I. undertook to lighten my load! And a few days later he presented me with his first contrivance, amazing in its simplicity, so unobtrusive that it could not arouse suspicion amid the barest of furnishings, and easily transportable to boot. It was a small plywood box of the type used for mailing parcels, something that could be cheaply acquired in the cities while being quite unavailable in a place like Kok-Terek, That made it something that would be natural for an exile like me to hold on to in order to store small items; and it would not look out of place next to my sorry-looking furniture and the earthen floor of my hut. The box had a false bottom, but the plywood did not sag and only the most sensitive hands--such as those of a gynecologist--could ascertain by touch alone that the inside and the outside surfaces did not match. It turned out that two small nails had been inserted snugly rather than being hammered home; they were easily removed with the help of pliers. That released a locking crossbar and revealed the secret cavity--those dark hundred cubic centimeters of space that I had dreamed about and that, though technically within the U.S.S.R., were yet beyond the control of the Soviet regime. it was a quick task to pop in my texts, just as quick to retrieve them, and easy to ensure that the contents would not knock about there was room enough to hold a transcription of everything I had composed during my five years of captivity. (In the original edition of The Oak and the calf I mentioned "a fortuitous suggestion and some timely help" received from another person(*) and suggested that this happened after my treatment in Tashkent. This deliberate distortion was made to deflect suspicion from N.I. From the day I received his gift in May of 1953, I gradually began setting down on paper the twelve thousand lines of verse I had memorized--the lyrics, the long narrative poem, and my two plays.)
I was ecstatic. For me it was no less of a liberation than stepping out of the camp gates had been. N.I.'s eyes simply shone, and a smile parted his gray beard and whiskers: his passion for conspiracy had not been in vain; he had found a use for it at last!
To think that in a settlement with barely forty political exiles (of whom fewer than ten were Russians) a do-it-yourself underground writer would stumble upon a born do-it-yourself conspirator! It was nothing short of a miracle.
Later N.I. installed another secret hiding place in my crude working table. The storage capacity available for safekeeping kept growing, my work was now easy to get to, and one can imagine the boost this gave to my clandestine writing activities. I could stow my texts away a few minutes before heading for school, quite unconcerned about leaving everything for hours on end in my isolated hut, protected by nothing but small padlock and windows fit for a dollhouse. There was nothing there to tempt a burglar, and a sleuth from the command post would know what to look for. Despite my heavy (double) teaching load, I now managed to look at my drafts daily and to add to them on a regular basis. Sundays I would work the whole day through, provided we were not herded out to work on a collective farm, and I no longer had to spend a week of every month on review and memorization as I had to do before. It last I also had a chance to polish my texts, reappraising them with fresh eyes without being afraid that making changes would impair my ability to recall what I had memorized earlier.
N.I.'s help in the loneliest moments of my devastated life and the sympathy offered by Elena Aleksandrovna, who joined him in the fall, were a constant source of warmth and light; they served as a substitute for the rest of humanity from whom I concealed my true self. When E.A. arrived, I was waiting for permission to leave for a cancer ward, with the prospect of almost certain death there.(*) It was an austere meeting; we spoke in matter-of-fact tones about my impending death and how they would dispose of my belongings. I decided against leaving my manuscripts in their house so as not to burden them; instead I buried my camp poem and plays in a bottle on my plot of land, in a spot known only to N.I. From the Tashkent cancer clinic (and later from Torfoprodukt and Ryazan), I wrote them frequent, long, and richly detailed letters, unlike any I have ever written to anyone else in my life.
The Zubovs belonged to the better half of the zek race, to those who remember their years in prison camp to their dying days and who consider this period a supremely important lesson in life and wisdom. This made me feel as close to them as though we were related or, rather, because of our ages (N.I. was only slightly younger than my late father), as if they were my parents. For that matter, not many people could have enjoyed as interesting and cheerful a time with their natural parents as I did with the Zubovs, whether we corresponded by means of notes inserted under a dog's collar (their smart little dog dashed back and forth between our two houses), attended the local movie house together, or sat in their clay gazebo at the edge of the open steppe. There, with more frankness than one could have with parents today, I talked about the deplorable fact that marrying would jeopardize my manuscripts, and together we pondered ways of getting around this problem.
In the spring of 1954, when I was blessed with a return to health and wrote my play Republic of Labor(*) in a delirious surge of creativity, I had in mind virtually no one but the Zubovs as a potential audience, seasoned zeks and dear friends that they were. But staging a reading of the play was no simple matter. They did not live alone, and trusting N.I.'s daughter was out of the question. Furthermore, their hut was wedged in between others, while I wanted to read in a natural voice, acting out each and every role. My own hut was well placed in this regard, all the approaches being visible for a hundred meters or so. But the text was enormous, longer by half again than the version known today, and the reading would take a good five hours, counting intermissions. For the Zubovs to stay so long at my place during the day was to risk arousing the suspicion of the neighbors and of the command post. Besides, we had jobs to go to and household chores to take care of. There seemed to be no other solution than for them to come by after dark and stay the night.
It was a steamy night in late June, majestically lit by moonlight in a way possible only on the open steppe. But we had to keep the windows closed to muffle the sound, and there we sat in my miserably stuffy quarters breathing in the fumes of my kerosene lamp. We aired the place during pauses in the reading, and I would step outside to make sure no one had crept up to eavesdrop. In fact, the Zubovs' dogs were lying close by; they would have barked at any intruder. That night the life of the labor camps reappeared before us in all its vivid brutality. It was the same feeling that the world at large would experience twenty years later on reading The Gulag Archipelago. When the reading was finished, we went outside. As before, the whole steppe was suffused with boundless light, only the moon had by now moved to the far side of the sky. The settlement was fast asleep, and the predawn mist was beginning to creep in, adding to the fantastic setting. The Zubovs were deeply moved--not least, perhaps, because for the first time they seriously believed in me and shared my conviction that what was being readied in this ramshackle hut would one day have explosive consequences. And E.A.--already fifty and leaning on the arm of a husband soon to be sixty--exclaimed, "I can't get over how young we feel! It's like standing at the very summit of life!"
Life had not treated us zeks to many summits.
As soon as Nikolai Ivanovich and I had begun to earn salaries as "free" employees-salaries that were no longer on the measly scale of the camp--we were like overgrown schoolboys fulfilling a long-held dream: we each bought a camera. (We went about it systematically, first reading up on the theory of photography; soon afterward N.I. even sent the factory that had produced his camera some critical comments on its construction.) But enjoyment of our new craft did not distract us from our conspiratorial schemes; rather, it stimulated them further: how, we wondered, could photography be harnessed to serve our goals? We studied up on the technique of photoreproduction; on my trips to Tashkent for follow-up-medical treatment I procured the more esoteric chemicals; and in due course I learned to make excellent photographic copies of my texts. A half-built clay shed with walls but no roof protected me from the wind and the prying eyes of neighbors. Whenever the sky became overcast--which never lasted long in Kazakhstan--I would rush to my shed, set up the portable equipment, and for as long as the light remained steady, with no breaks in the cloud cover or sudden sprinkles, I would hurriedly photograph my tiny manuscript pages, none of them bigger than five by seven inches. But the most important and delicate task was then up to Nikolai Ivanovich. He had to remove the binding from an English-language book we happened to have; create spaces inside the front and back covers, each large enough to hold an envelope; pack the two envelopes with sections of film, four exposures to each strip; and then close up and reattach the binding in such a way that the book seemed to have come straight from the store. It was probably the most demanding binding job N. I. had never undertaken, but the result was a marvel to behold. (Our only misgiving was that the silver nitrate in the film made the bindings seem heavier than usual.) Now all that remained was to find that noble Western tourist who should be strolling somewhere in Moscow and who would accept this incriminating book thrust at him by the agitated hand of passerby. . . . But no such tourist turned up, and in later years I reworked my texts, making the earlier versions out of date. I kept the book for a long time to commemorate the astonishing workmanship of N. I., but at the time of my 1965 debacle(*) I burned it. I can still see it in my mind's eye--a collection of plays by George Bernard Shaw in English, published in the Soviet Union.
The Zubovs and I had taken for granted that we would live in Kok-Terek "in perpetuity," to use the phrase entered in our documents, but in the spring of 1956 the whole system of political exile was abolished, and I immediately made plans to leave. The Zubovs stayed on, prisoners not of the Interior Ministry now but of their domestic burdens. It was no easy matter for them to uproot themselves, given their declining strength and the illness of Nikolai Ivanovich's mother. To make matters more difficult still, N. I.'s deranged daughter, wandering defenselessly through the settlement, had become pregnant (apparently by the chairman of the village soviet) and had saddled the Zubovs with a baby Kazakh before she herself vanished forever into a mental institution. (The Kazakh heredity asserted itself in astonishing ways: the boy was brought up in a Russian family and was taken out of Kazakhstan while he was still an infant, yet without prompting and with no examples to emulate, he always preferred to sit cross-legged in the Muslim fashion.) N. I.'s other daughter committed suicide a year later by jumping out of a commuter train in a Moscow suburb. The safekeeping system N. I. had devised was so light and so easily transportable that he sent me another by ordinary post when I moved to Torfoprodukt(*) in central Russia. I now had three of these parcel boxes, and they were to serve me for many years to come; in fact, I made occasional use of them right up to my expulsion from the Soviet Union. But when I moved to Ryazan(*) to be reunited with my first wife Natalya Reshetovskaya, the availability of a typewriter made a further expansion necessary. (Reshetovskaya had then been married to another man for six years and returning to her was a false move on my part, one that would cost both of us dearly.) Typing three or four copies at a time rapidly increased the volume of material to be stored, and I had to find more hiding places. Fortunately N. I. had taught me what to look for, so that I was able to come up with some pretty decent ideas myself: installing a false ceiling in a wardrobe, for instance, or inserting manuscripts into the casing of a record player that was already so heavy that the additional weight would not be noticed.
Kok-Terek had seemed an extraordinary attractive place as long as getting a release from exile was hopelessly barred. We had actually grown to love it! But how swiftly it lost its charm once we were granted the gift of freedom and people all around us started leaving. For the Zubovs there was no way of returning to the Moscow region. ("You can't buy a ticket to the land of the past"--N. I. liked to repeat this melancholy aphorism born of his prison-camp experience.) "The Crimea, then!" his wife would urge. She had spent happy years in Simferopol as a girl, and the Crimean peninsula evoked treasured memories. While changing one's place of residence in the Soviet Union is painfully difficult even for ordinary citizens, one can imagine the problems faced by a former zek, especially one not officially rehabilitated. (The authorities could not forgive the Zubovs for having briefly given shelter to a deserter.) Zeks are simply unwanted everywhere. Still, after lengthy correspondence and endless inquiries, Dr. Zubov was finally allowed to take a position in Ak-Mechet (now renamed Chernomorskoye)--a remote settlement in the barren Crimean northwest. With great difficulty, the Zubovs made the move in 1958, but what they found bore little resemblance to the popular image of Crimea, much less to the Crimea E. A. remembered: there was empty steppe all around, just as in Kok-Terek, and the sun-scorched barren landscape actually resembled their place of exile. (I once joked that it was simple Kok-Terek "next to a sea dug out by Komsomol enthusiasts"--but I realized at once that I had hurt their feelings.) But they did have a smooth beach, the real Black Sea, and, best of all, a bench not far from their home with a view of the bay; the Zubovs would come here in the evenings arm in arm to watch the sun go down. With their astonishing ability to find joy within themselves and to count even their tiniest blessings, the Zubovs declared this to be a happy place, a spot from which they would not stir for the rest of their lives. Although E. A. was still far from old, her mobility became progressively impaired, until eventually she was unable to reach that bench of theirs and was practically confined to her bed. But they had mastered the art of living the inner life--just the two of them together beneath their tranquil roof, listening to music in the evening and exchanging letters with friends. For them, it was a world in its fullness.
Now that I had acquired a typewriter and could produce multiple copies of all my works, it made sense not to keep them all in one place. I should not have imposed on the Zubovs, but I had no one I could trust more. So in 1959 I traveled from Ryazan to leave them copies of all my plays, as well as the narrative poem I had composed in camp and The First Circle (in the ninety-six-chapter version that I then consider complete(*)). And N. I. once again set to work rigging up false bottoms and double walls in his rough kitchen furniture and hid everything away.
From Ryazan I kept up a very warm correspondence with the Zubovs, though I necessarily had to stay within the generalities appropriate to the postal censorship. When Tvardovsky(*) accepted my Ivan Denisovich, there was no one with whom I was more anxious to speak about it than the Zubovs, but no letter could capture everything I wished to say. By Easter 1962 I had typed up a revised version of The First Circle, and with a copy of this text in hand I dashed off to see the Zubovs in the Crimea. There, in surroundings so familiar to me and at a round table that resembled my own back in Kok-Terek, I told my favorite couple of the incredible developments at Novy Mir. As I talked, E. A. plucked a freshly butchered rooster for a gala dinner, and now and then she would pause in amazement with her hands full of feathers. And because the whole scene was so reminiscent of the cozy chats the three of us had had in Kok-Terek (the only difference now being the electric lighting), the full significance of the miracle was brought home to me as never before: not even in our wildest dreams had we hoped to see anything like this in print during our lifetime. But then again, could we be so sure that we would this time?