Solzhenitsyn Literature Prize > The Alexandr Solzhenitsyn Prize is Here for the Long Run

"The Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Prize is Here for the Long Run"

An interview with Natalia Solzhenitsyn

Appeared in Knizhnoie Obozrenie, (The Book Review), 21 October 1997
Interviewed by Aleksandr Shchuplov | Translated into English by Svetlana Phillips


Shchuplov: "Natalia Dmitrievna, how and when did the idea to launch the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Literary Prize come about?"

N. Solzhenitsyn: "The idea came about long ago - in 1974, in Stockholm, when Aleksandr Isayevich, already expelled from the USSR, was being awarded the Nobel Prize.  These events have been described in his memoir The Oak and The Calf.  It was precisely then that Aleksandr Isayevich said to me, and wrote down in his little notepad (he would always carry one around): how wonderful would it be someday to establish a literary prize in Russia…  This notation is included in the book The Little Grain Between Two Millstones, which we are preparing for publishing.  Here it is:

I dream: when the time comes to return to Russia (oh, when?), will we have the means to establish our literary prizes on our own - Russian and international.  Russia is versed in literature.  And even more so, having now known the true scale of life, [we] won’t overlook the worthy, [we] won’t award the shallow…

So, the idea about the prize was born already then.  For many years afterwards Aleksandr Isayevich hardly ever thought about it.  But he always believed that he would certainly return to Russia during his lifetime.  To the great surprise of those who considered themselves sane, as opposed to him being a dreamer, he had continued to insist that Communism is likely to collapse and he will live to see it, and return to Russia.  (although nothing in the international climate seemed to portend it at that time).  I did not have as much confidence as he did, but every time we talked about our hypothetical return I would remind him: “Once we return, then let’s launch the prize…”  He would reply: “Yes, that would be good…”  But when we did return, there was so much to take care of that we did not get down to it. Now the time has come.

"As Russian readers learn about the Prize, they may be puzzled by some questions that I would like to bring up.  Let’s talk about genres first: besides prose, poetry, drama, which the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Prize has stipulated, there are other genres, such as the study of art; children’s literature; memoirs (in the latter genre, by the way, Solzhenitsyn wrote [The Oak and] The Calf and is writing The Little Grain [Between Two Millstones]), and so on.  Is this discrimination or an oversight?"

"Neither.  We do not believe that we need to rehash the literary textbooks and to specify all kinds of genres.  As soon as we consider a noteworthy work, and as soon as the jury reaches consensus, we will award the prize.  The genres themselves are not determining factors."

"How is the Prize funded?"

"From The Gulag Archipelago’s worldwide royalties.  Even before his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974, Aleksandr Isayevich announced that they shall all be used for social needs.  After The Gulag was published in the West, the Soviet press exploded with defamation and accusations against him.  Solzhenitsyn replied (on January 18, 1974):  “The vicious press campaign hides from the Soviet reader the main point: what is this book about?  What is this odd word ‘Gulag’ in its title? <…>  They have the audacity to spit into the closed eyes of the murdered that the motivation for writing about their sufferings and death was foreign money. But they bungled it again:  the sale price of the book in all languages will be nominal, so it can be widely read. The price should cover only the translators’ work and printing expenses.  If any royalties are left, they will be used to memorialize the perished, and to help Soviet political prisoners and their families.  And I will appeal to the publishers to donate their profits to the same cause.

This was the first printed mention of his intention [to donate], which Aleksandr Isayevich, indeed, carried out immediately upon his exile.  A few weeks later, when the children and I had joined him in Zurich, he was already writing Nevidimki (Invisible Allies), the last chapter of The Oak and The Calf.  My reaction was: [when] sitting on a volcano, is that the right time for writing memoirs?  He replied: “I am afraid of forgetting it.  I need to write down everything that I remember, all the details, or they will certainly be forgotten.”  And then: “I have an idea I would like to discuss with you.

As a result of ‘discussing the idea,’ the royalties for The Gulag in all languages (and the copyright of the book itself) were then entirely donated to the Russian Social Fund for Persecuted Persons and Their Families, which was founded by him.  (The official name now is The Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Russian Social Fund).  The Fund was launched in Switzerland, where we lived at first.  In 1975 the Swiss government finalized its legal status. 

The Charter of the Fund designated two main objectives: first - to help families of those arrested and imprisoned in labor camps on political, ethnic and religious grounds to survive physically.  The second objective was cultural: to assist Russians abroad in implementing cultural initiatives forbidden by the Bolsheviks at home.

Thus Aleksandr Isayevich donated all earnings from The Gulag to help his younger brother-inmates and, in addition, established stipends for researchers of Russian history of the 20th century, and for those who worked on preservation of Russian art heritage abroad. We launched publication of two book series in Paris (now continued in Russia): "Studies in Modern Russian History" and the "All-Russian Memoir Library".  The Fund’s resources have enabled us to compile an extensive collection of manuscripts, memoirs of our compatriots.  They might have vanished otherwise… We then repatriated this unique collection to Russia, and opened it for public use.  (We succeeded in setting up a library, “Russia Abroad”, at Taganka Square, and it is our joy and pride).

We stated the Fund’s cultural objective right from the beginning. But, of course, in those years our top priority was to provide urgent care for the children and elderly parents of the Gulag prisoners. Today one may say that the political Gulag no longer exists, thank God. But there are many elderly zeks [prisoners] whose years in the labor camps deprived them of their families, occupations and health, and who are suffering great poverty in today’s conditions. Of course, it is impossible to help all of them, but our Fund is helping over a thousand people on a regular basis by paying them a sort of pension from the proceeds of The Gulag…"

"…Compensating for the Government’s neglect?"

"Aleksandr Isayevich never felt himself entitled to any compensation for The Gulag, not even one ruble or one dollar. Right from the beginning he donated all of his royalties for the book, which was published in 30 languages. All other books together brought a fifth of that, and only this part he kept for himself, for his family. Quite an unprecedented act, if one looks around. I am speaking as a contemporary and as a person familiar with the policies and practices of private funds, not as his wife.

The time has come when our Fund is able to afford a substantial project such as this annual literary Prize."

"It seems that this is the only literary award in Russia established by a private individual, since, as I understand, it is funded from the family budget."

"That is not exactly what I said.  The money was taken out of the family budget at the very beginning, when Aleksandr Isayevich decided to donate all his royalties from The Gulag.  Undoubtedly, he did not have to do it, so the money would then have become the ‘family’s.’  But then - he would not have been Solzhenitsyn.  I do not know whether this is the only literary prize in Russia established by a private individual, but it is most certainly the only case of a writer’s earnings turned into a literary prize." 

"The time period designated in the Charter will raise questions: the nominated works should be written and published in the post-revolutionary period.  Thus, Akhmatova and Evtushenko, Platonov and Astafiev, Bulgakov and Bitov, Erdman and Petrushevskaya would be eligible candidates…   And more - Yesenin, Belov, Babel, Makhanin, the Yerofeevs (both), Yuri Kazakov, Tokareva…  Not to mention the young [generation of writers]."

"Why not?  In our opinion, they all - the young and the old – organically share a connection to the unique post-revolutionary Soviet era."

"But do you agree, there are different levels of talent?"

"I do agree.  That is what the Prize is for.  However, an author’s popularity will not bewitch us when choosing a laureate."

"Well, let’s imagine that each member of your jury recommends a different candidate.  A stalemate, isn’t it?  To yield to the diktat of an authority is the only way out.  And it is clear who the authority is."

"I would disagree.  What you just brought up is related to the chemistry of the jury’s work: how we are going to interact, how we are going to nominate and discuss.  This is a confidential matter, and understandably so: every jury works behind closed doors, and behind them there is no place for diktat.  Aleksandr Isayevich, as founder of the Prize, had the first say in choosing members of the jury.  All members of the jury are his choice.  Each is highly respected by him, particularly for their independence and professionalism.  Only one who has never worked with him could talk about “Solzhenitsyn’s diktat.”  I do have long experience working with him, and I can say that Aleksandr Isayevich is exceptionally open to any criticism, and he is always grateful for any comments during the working process."

"But six members of the jury is an even number.  What if the votes split three against three?"

"Well, it is one of four possibilities: 6:0, 5:1, 4:2, 3:3.  We the jury had actually discussed this hypothetical scenario and decided unanimously: in such a case, so be it, Solzhenitsyn himself should be given an extra one hundredth of a seventh vote.

Finally, I would say: we have given serious thought to this Prize.  The energy, the resources, and the commitment to literature should endure for a long time.  The replacement procedure for jurors has been thought through as well.  We are establishing this prize in the hope that The Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Literary Prize is here in Russia for the long run."