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The Great Northern Route

Stig Fredrikson

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Thirty years ago, Stig Fredrikson smuggled Alexander Solzhenitsyn's order to publish "The Gulag Archipelago" out of the USSR. They remain good friends.

As told to Andrew Jack, the FT's Moscow bureau chief

I first met Alexander Solzhenitsyn at a Shostakovich concert at the Moscow Conservatory in March 1972. The controversy surrounding his 1970 Nobel prize had made him an international celebrity - he had refused to travel to Stockholm to accept the prize because he was afraid the Soviet authorities would not let him return. They thought if they cut him off from Russia, they would cut off his inspiration.

Solzhenitsyn's appearance at the concert was a sensation. I had just arrived as a correspondent for the Nordic News Agencies. Several journalists were asking for interviews, which he refused. I asked him only for his autograph, which he gave me.

Not long after, my bosses asked me to act as a go-between to arrange the Nobel prize-giving ceremony in Moscow. But Solzhenitsyn had been to the Swedish embassy twice before and got the impression that he was not welcome. The Swedes were cowardly - they did not want to upset the Soviet authorities.

Instead, the Swedish Academy tried to host a ceremony in the apartment of Solzhenitsyn's wife Natasha, off Gorky Street. In the end the secretary of the Academy was refused a visa, so the ceremony could not go ahead. But this is where Solzhenitsyn and I met properly for the first time. I had imagined that someone so tall and bearded, who looked like a prophet, would have a deep bass voice, but he had a high voice. I was struck by his charm and his warmth.

We took a walk. He asked me if I could smuggle out a microfilm of his acceptance speech. I was worried - others had been evicted for contacts with dissidents. But I thought it was worth trying. I glued it to a piece of paper, emptied out a pill from a box of aspirin and placed it inside. I put it in my sponge bag, and took the train to Helsinki.

That was the first of about 20 secret meetings with him, and four with Natasha. Sometimes I glued things on to my back with tape, sometimes I put them inside my transistor radio. We kept everything in our heads, with nothing written down, no visits to the apartment and no phone conversations. We fixed the place, date and time of our next meeting, and a fall-back date in case something went wrong.

He would call me before 9am (when my Soviet secretary arrived) and pretend to have a wrong number - that was the sign to meet. He would spend the whole day shaking off his KGB tails, changing trains and metros. We would usually meet at the Belarus station, then the Kiev station, and walk and talk. He would give me documents, photos, until the sheer volume became so large that I got help from the Norwegian embassy, which smuggled things out in diplomatic bags. Solzhenitsyn called it "the Great Northern Route".

I always refused to get a scoop, turning down his offer to interview him. I remember thinking that if I did so, my role as a courier for him would end. I never thought I would tell anyone about it.

Then, in the autumn of 1973, Solzhenitsyn heard that Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, who had secretly typed a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, had been arrested by the KGB in Leningrad and tortured until she revealed where she kept it. A few days later, she hanged herself.

Solzhenitsyn decided to get word immediately to his Swiss lawyer to publish the book, which he had already smuggled out. He had delayed publication to protect those he cited in the text who were still alive. Now he was worried that the KGB might produce a false version of Gulag, or stop its production in the west.

On September 4 he handed me the letter containing instructions to publish. I felt the importance of it. We met five more times - I was more and more frightened for both of us with every meeting. I imagined Solzhenitsyn was the number-one target for the KGB.

Gulag was published in Russian in Paris on December 28 1973. Our last rendezvous was on January 14 1974. That day Pravda published a vicious attack on him. He said he hadn't read the newspaper. We agreed to meet again on February 14. But two days beforehand, he was arrested. I was filled with grief and concern about his family, but also about my work, both as a correspondent and as a smuggler.

Did the KGB know about our contacts? I think we will never know. Solzhenitsyn thought we fooled them. And when Gorbachev in 1991 asked to see his 105 files from the archives, the KGB told him they had all been destroyed. They were so afraid of the coming democratic wave.

The article was published the Financial Times Arts and Weekend edition.

Posted: 3/24/04



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