Thursday, October 6, 2011

"There were so many surprises..."

"Today's crooks aren't expected to repent."

"Now I think: Did Vermont exist?"

"There were so many surprises...Because we never knew anything."

"There was a tacit agreement--they delivered dialectical materialism lessons, and we acted like sheep."

Alexander Solzhenitsyn possessed remarkable wisdom and moral courage. He wasn't always right, but he got one big thing right: the Soviet Union was a morally bankrupt, blasphemous enterprise from start to finish.

Alexander Sokurov's television documentary, Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, gives us a window onto the soul of this brilliant if opinionated man. In the film, we get a snapshot of Solzhenitsyn's rich but tortured life, including his university education in physics and mathematics, his early dedication to socialist ideals, his brave leadership in the Second World War, his trial for slandering Stalin in personal letters to a friend (they burned his war diaries), his eight years in the gulag and exile in a small town in Kazakhstan, his emergence as a powerful new voice in Russian literature, his subsequent persecution as a dissident writer, his eighteen year exile in Vermont, his second marriage and family of three boys, and his dramatic return to a free Russia.

Sokurov's quiet film treats the grand old man of Russian letters with awe and reverence. Sokurov allowed the camera to languidly follow the Nobel Prize winner as he slowly moved along a nature trail or sat at his desk in silence working. We see two studies, an old-fashioned typewriter, hand-written manuscripts, a green and red pen, bookshelves, and windows that overlook a forest.

In conversation, Solzhenitsyn demonstrates his obsession with the Russian language (he says he learned Russian again, in prison, from a dictionary--from the ground up) God, nature, ethics, repentance, Russian literature, and his bitter past. Some of the film's most powerful moments occur when the writer's memories are stirred by some banal topic and he seems to be transported back in time the Gulag, which never seems far away. Solzhenitsyn wife explains that she and the author receive thousands of letters from former political prisoners, and actually systematically contacted former inmates or their families to offer them financial assistance.

Solzhentisyn's second wife is also interviewed. She describes her husband as a simple, quiet, modest, orderly, grateful, and easy-to-please man, a creature of routine. But what a routine!

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