The Chronicler of Stalin's Gulags Returns to a Transformed Russia

ROWS of barbed wire top the green wooden fence surrounding Alexander Solzhenitsyn's nearly finished red-brick home in this secluded village outside Moscow. Police dogs threaten approaching visitors. Guards allow only construction crews to enter.

``One of my ducks flew over the gate, but they wouldn't even give a poor babushka back her duck,'' complains Yekaterina Lobachova, who lives across the road from the big green gate. She was a cook in the mid-1930s for Lazar Kaganovich, the notorious Stalin henchman who once owned the land where Mr. Solzhenitsyn's home is being built.

Despite the fortress-like atmosphere, Russia's most famous living writer won't stay in seclusion after his triumphal return to his homeland on Friday.

Although he remained a hermit during most of his two decades of enforced exile in Europe and Cavendish, Vt., Solzhenitsyn plans to travel by train from the Far Eastern port of Vladivostok to Moscow with his family, talking with the Russian people along the way.

His absence has not dimmed his powerful image as the the greatest living dissident against the Communist dictatorship. But the import of his return is less a matter of reflecting on the past than of holding up a mirror to where Russia has come and is going.

How he will perceive the new Russia, with its underbelly of violence and commercialism, is not difficult to predict.

The man who chronicled the Stalinist terrors in books such as ``One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich'' and ``The Gulag Archipelago'' has not been transformed into a Rip Van Winkle, oblivious of the changes - both bad and good - that the demise of Communism has brought to his birthplace.

Ugly problems ``have surfaced from years of torment,'' he told the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein last year. ``For instance: the current nascent capitalism, fraught with unproductive, savage, and repulsive forms of behavior; the plunder of the nation's wealth, the likes of which the West has not known.''

How Russia perceives the Nobel laureate who spoke most vociferously against the Soviet regime, but later was branded either a crank, a nationalist, or an anti-Semite, is a different story.

``Solzhenitsyn's time has come and gone. What he did for the country is all in the past,'' former KGB official Oleg Kalugin told Izvestia Tuesday. ``The Russian people don't need him now.''

``His return does not carry the same meaning for him and the country as it would have years ago,'' says writer Vladimir Soloukhin. He first met Solzhenitsyn in 1956 during a Kremlin reception in the dissident's honor, and visited him in Cavendish in 1984. ``He's a world-famous writer, and it makes no difference now where he lives: in Singapore, the Bahamas, or Vermont.''

Mr. Soloukhin, who has been described as a nationalist himself, dismisses charges that Solzhenitsyn is too pro-Russian.

``If a person loves his culture, his language, his land, and his people, then he gets labeled a nationalist,'' he said one recent afternoon in his country home, nestled in the elite writers colony of Peredelkino where Solzhenitsyn often spent months at a time.

But Vyacheslav Bakhmin, head of the International Humanitarian and Cultural Department in the Russian Foreign Ministry, says all of Russia's diverse political groupings are hoping Solzhenitsyn will support them - especially ``aggressive nationalists.'' Mr. Bakhmin spent four years in the gulag prison camps, partly on charges of illegally distributing Solzhenitsyn's works.

``He won't play a political role, which is good because it will make it impossible for his opponents to blame him for anything,'' Bakhmin says, referring to Solzhenitsyn's promise to steer clear of Russian politics. ``He'll just remain himself, which is more than enough for him to be heard in Russia.''

The first major figure expelled from the Soviet Union since alleged counter-revolutionary Leon Trotsky, Solzhenitsyn was bundled on to a plane to Germany in 1974 after the Soviet Communist leadership decided he would pose less of a threat abroad.

Solzhenitsyn repeatedly stressed that he would return to Russia only after the country was liberated from Communism. He has not set foot in his motherland since he was exiled, choosing instead to complete his multi-volume epic ``The Red Wheel,'' which chronicles events leading to the Bolshevik Revolution.

Many of Russia's more pragmatic new generation of writers, in fact, are convinced Solzhenitsyn could not have made it back home any earlier.

``Two and a half years ago, there were still arguments about whether or not to publish his books. He was still Soviet Enemy No. 1,'' argues Alexander Kabakov, one of the new generation of Russian writers. ``It's possible that Solzhenitsyn's return now could mark the end of Soviet history in our country.''

Perhaps the voices most important, however, are those of the Russian people. Some residents of this sleepy village where the country houses of former Soviet ministers once stood think Solzhenitsyn is making a mistake by returning.

``I think life would be better, more calm for him in the United States,'' says a neighbor who calls herself Anna. ``He's a rich man, and Russians don't like the rich. It's better here to be poor and ride a bicycle.''

``I'm not sure who Solzhenitsyn is. I've heard he's a writer,'' says Mrs. Lobachova, who raises ducks and chickens to supplement her tiny pension. ``We'll meet with him, maybe have a cup of tea together.''

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