Between Two Millstones, Book 1: Sketches of Exile, 1974–1978, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Notre Dame University Press, 480 pp., $35)It is hard today even to conceive of the glory that surrounded the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the first days of his exile from the Soviet Union in 1974. There was something 19th-century about it, reminiscent of an era when writers, more than politicians or entertainers, set the civilizational tone. Solzhenitsyn was walking alone one day on a wooded mountain path outside of Zurich when he encountered a very old Swiss man. “He was astonished to see me,” Solzhenitsyn later recalled, “came up to me and with both hands took me by the elbow, looked at me with emotion, and kept looking at me, tears flowing down his cheeks.” Crossing the frontier into Italy, Solzhenitsyn was detained for half an hour while the border guards left to get their copies of The Gulag Archipelago for him to sign.
Mathematician, scientist, poet, World War II artillery officer, Solzhenitsyn served years in various far-flung labor camps as punishment for the irreverence toward Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Stalinism that censors discovered in his letters home from the front. In 1962, during the “thaw” in Soviet culture brought about by Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, authorities permitted Solzhenitsyn to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a spare novella about a camp inmate's daily routine. The spareness was what rendered it so devastating. Shorn of elaborate official rationalizations, the camps were not just an unfortunate side effect of building a Communist society. They were Communist society.