Aleksandr Solzhenitsy Moves to Television
Stanley, Alessandra. "Now on Moscow TV, Heeere's Aleksander!" New York Times, A1, April 14, 1995.
MOSCOW, April 13 -- Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsy, the great anti-Soviet dissident
who while living in exile in Vermont turned his wrath on the empty
materialism and low-brow culture of the West, has found a new calling since
he returned to a free Russia.
He is a talk show host.
Mr. Sozhenitsyn, winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, has not
resorted to interviewing women-who-love-men-too-much or celebrity chefs.
But the austere, bearded 76-year0old writer, a man revered and feared as a
20th-century prophet, has adapted quite nimbly to the mass media revolution
that swept his country in his absence.
On his talk show, "A Meeting With Sozhenitsyn," he has chatted with
well-known personalities like Svyatoslav N. Federov, a leading eye surgeon;
Vladimir P. Lukin, a former Ambassador to Washington, and some of the
country's most notable journalists.
Given to treating his guests to long, lofty monologues, Mr.
Solzhenitsyn comes across as a combination of Charlie Rose and Moses.
"It is horrible that our officialdom is invulnerable," he said recently
during a screed on the unaccountability of the Russian bureaucracy. "one
cannot find the truth, and the horrible thing is that shameleessness is
spilling over our society. The absence of conscience and honesty is the
air of our society. It was like this in the Soviet society, and it is going on
now -- shamelessness is reigning."
The show is taped in Mr. Sozhenitsyn's apartment in Moscow, in his
He and his guests sit side by side at his desk, against the backdrop of a
giant bookase crammed with books. Mr. Solzhenitsyn keeps a few hand-
written notes on the desk, but mosly he speeks, apocalyptically, off the
top of his head.
The Russian press has written almost nothing about the show. On the
air since September, it has not been reviewed by televsion critics. But
other Russian talk show hosts speak condescendingly about Mr.
Solzhenitsyn's television venture.
"For the post-perestroika generation, he really means nothing," said
Artyom Troitsky, a writer and rock critic who has a post-midnight
talk show, "Cafe Oblomov."
"Why should anyone now care abou;the Gulag Archipelag?" he added.
"I'm afraid that Solzhenitsyn is tatally, totally passe."
But there are fans. Mr. Solzhenitsyn said on one show that he gets 30
to 40 letters a day, mostly from desperate older people imploring him
to intercede on their behalf. He said his mail illustrated the corrosion
of the Russian political system.
"In most cases, people ask for protection -- protection from courts,
from state bodies of power, from officials," he said.
And some of the political leaders that Mr. Solzhenitsyn criticizes with
such verve also pay heed to his show. President Boris N. Yeltsins's office
often asks the television studio for transcripts of the program. So do
some members of Parliament.
Mr. Solzhenitsyn recently staged a blistering attack on the
Government's decision to reorganize state television and create a public
station that will be partly owned by a consortium of banks and businesses
that favor the current administration.
Sergei Blagovolin, the head of the public station, boasted that by not
interfering with Mr. Solazhenitsyn's denunciation, he had illustrated the
new station's commitment to fairness.
Mr. Solzhenitsyn's ratings are respectable, but not high. An April 3
survey of 650 random Moscow viewrs showed that while 12 percent
watched his show, 19.3 percent preferred to watch a talk show of Vladimir
Pozner, who learned how to whip up a studio audience American-style while
working alongside Phil Donahue in the 1980's.
Some of Mr. Solzhentisyn's worst fears about the Westernization of the
Russian soul apear to be true: The show with the highest ratings, 26.6
percent, was "Wild Rose," a Mexican soap opera.
When Mr. Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia last May after 20 years in
exile -- 18 in vertual isolation in Vermont -- his comeback caused a
sensation that flared brightly but petered out.
Most Russians, preoccupied with their daily lives and economic
survival, have tuned out the fierece rectitude and scolding of the man who
spent eight years in Stalin's labor camps and exposed the full horrror of
Soviet oppression in works like "The Gulag Archipelago," "One Day in the Life
of Ivan Denisovich" and "Cancer Ward."
After a two-month train ride across Siberia, which he took to
reacquaint himself with ordinary Russians, he received little attention from
the new Russian elite.
Democrats were alienated by his nationalistic views. Even former
dissidents like Gleb Yakunin, a defrocked Russian Orthodox priest, worried
openly that the inflexible Slavophile would become another "Ayatollah
Khomeini," stirring up fundamentalism and xenophobia.
But Mr. Solzhenitsyn was equally withering about the ultra-nationalist
leader Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, calling him a "caricature of a Russan
Younger intellectuals, more attuned to irony than moral certitude,
take delight in knocking the towering figure of Aleksandr Solzenitsyn.
"its' better to have him speak than write," said Viktor Yerofeyev,
a novelist and literary critic. "He writes such ugly Russian." He said
that with the talk show, Mr. Solzhenitsyn had returned to his roots: "He
is once again what he always was at heart -- a provincial schoolteacher."
Mr. Solzhenitsyn's most recent opus, "The Red Wheel," a 5,000-page
history of the Russian Revolotion, was coolly received by critics and
largely unread by the public.
So when he arrived in Moscow, Mr. Solzhenitsyn turned to a more
accessible medium, television.
"We completely do everthing that Mr. Solzhentisyn wants," said
Alvar V. Kakuchaya, director of the Russian state television channel,
No.1, that produces his talk show. "He knows how much we respect him.
I think that is why he chose us to broadcast his program."
Mr Solzhenitsyn alone selects his guests. When the station offered
him 15 minutes, he demanded 20. He also insisted on being broadcast on
prime time, 9:40 pm, the slot after the news, even though he is up against
highly popular movie channels.
However dour and uncompromising his message, Mr. Solzhenitsyn
is an energetic and compelling speaker, surprisingly at ease before the
camera. But there is little small talk on his show.
When he introduced one recent guest, Mr. Lukin, the head of the
Foreign Affairs Committee of the lower house of Parliament, as a former
Ambassador to the United States, he brushed off Mr. Lukin's ingratiating
reply--"Oh, but you too were an ambassador..." -- and raced ahead to one of
his favorite topics, the perfidy of the West.
"This is a very ambiguous organization today; it seems to consist of
our people, our contemporaries, living among us but receiving their
salaries from Washington and their instructions from Washington," Mr.
Solzhenitsyn said of Radio Liberty, which is financed by the United States
Government. "This is direct interference in our affairs."
Mr. Lukin, like most other guests, did not get much of a chance to
respond. Most shows are less a conversation than dueling monologues.
Which may explain why there will be a slight change in the format
of "A Meeting With Sozhenitsyn" beginnning next week. His wife, Natalya,
explained that after an seven-month trial run, Mr. Solzhenitsyn has
decided that the show would work better without guests.