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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Solzhenitsyn's American friend

“He is gone, where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Go traveler. Imitate him if you can. He served liberty.”
Epitaph on the tomb of Jonathan Swift

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn is gone. He died Sunday at the age of 89, at his home in Russia, having outlived the system that tormented him to greatness.

The Soviet Union perished as a natural consequence of economic reality, hurried to a perhaps premature end by the troika of Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II. But the moral ground was cut out from under it years before, with the publication of “The Gulag Archipelago.”

After the publication of “The Gulag Archipelago,” it was impossible for any intellectual apologist to defend the Soviet Union with any pretense of love for justice and mankind.

The New York Times remarked that Solzhenitsyn had already become somewhat obscure to a new generation of Russians, for whom the horrors of the Soviet regime are becoming a distant memory.

They should know about forgetfulness. The New York Times still proudly displays the Pulitzer Prize won by their star journalist Walter Duranty, who conspired with Stalin to hide from the world the Holodomor, the murder of from somewhere between two and 10 million Ukrainians by deliberate starvation.

Solzhenitsyn's work will without doubt endure. Though in truth his prose can be ponderous and hard to get through, it's worth the effort.

If nothing else, everyone should read his classic of prison camp literature, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.” (And what does it say about a society that it gives birth to such a genre?)

I once had occasion to discuss such matters with a Russian woman in Lithuania. (She's American now, and you ought to see the funny looks I get in Europe when I mention that fact.)

She told me, “To survive in a camp, there has to be something that you will not do.”

I said, “Oh, like in “A Day in the Life” when he says a hungry man who licks his soup bowl won't survive?”

She said, “It doesn't matter what it is, there has to be something that you just won't do.”

It was years before I began to understand that. It may be more before I do fully.

That could be because I'm an American. I didn't grow up in a society where your survival depends on your ability to keep the secrets of your heart from showing on your face.

But I know of one American who did understand, and wrote about it. He has been dead these 22 years now, and his book is long out of print. Used copies can be found, and it is also worth the read for the American perspective on the Gulag experience.

He is the man Solzhenitsyn called “the American Alexander D” in “The Gulag Archipelago” and he was one of the 227 former prisoners whose stories Solzhenitsyn drew on for his work.

His book, written with Patrick Watson, was "Alexander Dolgun's Story: An American in the Gulag," published in 1975, the same year as the third volume of “The Gulag Archipelago.”

Dolgun was the son of a Polish immigrant who went to the Soviet Union to work as a technician to build Soviet industry in the 1930s.

After he brought his family with him, the Soviets refused to let him leave. Dolgun and his sister grew up in the USSR, speaking fluent Russian. When he was grown, he worked at the US embassy as a clerk and translator.

Then one day in 1948, he was grabbed off the street and taken to the dreaded Lubyanka prison in Moscow. There he began what was to be an eight-year ordeal of torture and imprisonment in the Gulag system.

It emerged during questioning the Soviets had observed the typically American irreverence toward higher authority and disrespect towards the rules of this junior file clerk, and concluded from this his actual position in the embassy had to be much higher and top secret.

When he tried to explain he was just being American, they didn't believe him.
“Impossible, we would execute anyone for such behavior,” he was told.

Among other places, Dolgun survived Sukhanovka prison and he is thought to be one of the very few who emerged sane. Solzhenitsyn relied on Dolgun's description of the prison and the ingenious way he devised to measure the dimensions of the cells.

Even in the Gulag there was comradeship, laughter and love. Dolgun made friends, learned skills and even had a girlfriend. He survived, and found ways to keep his humanity.

For a time he was protected by the godfather of the criminal organization, who called him “chelovek” - “a man,” earning his place by telling stories from American movies.

After Dolgun's release during the Khruschev regime, he found his parents had been tortured by the secret police, and his mother driven mad.

Officially forgotten by the U.S. government, he was eventually allowed to leave the Soviet Union with his Russian wife and son, due to the tireless efforts of his elder sister Stella and Ambassador John P. Humes.

Dolgun settled in Rockville, Maryland and worked at the Soviet-American Medicine section of the Fogerty International Center at the National Institutes of Health.

He died in 1986 at the age of 59, his life almost certainly shortened by his ordeal, but well-lived to the end.


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