Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn came to Cavendish town meeting in 1977 partly to apologize.
Solzhenitsyn was one of the most celebrated literary figures in the world. After expulsion from the Soviet Union and two years of exile in Switzerland, he bought a 51-acre property in Cavendish that he enclosed with a fence and a gate. He wanted his privacy.
"My fence prevents your snowmobiles and hunters from going on their way," he told Cavendish residents. "I am sorry for that and ask you to forgive me."
Solzhenitsyn died on Sunday in Russia. The people of Cavendish had forgiven him long ago. His presence in Vermont from 1976 to 1994 became a source of pride for Vermonters. The world saw little of Solzhenitsyn during that time, and his neighbors did their best to guard his privacy. "No directions to the Solzhenitsyns," said a hand-lettered sign posted at the Cavendish store.
Solzhenitsyn had a reputation as a prophet of freedom who waged a decades-long war of conscience against the system that had imprisoned him and had caused the deaths of 60 million Soviet citizens. He was the most influential of the heroic writers who labored under threat of persecution in the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc nations. "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" opened the eyes of the world to the realities of the Soviet prison system. Its publication occurred with approval from Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who hoped to move beyond the crimes of the Stalin years.
Solzhenitsyn's later works — "The Cancer Ward," "The First Circle," and others — turned the Soviet leadership against him because of the unsparing truths he revealed about the communist system. When Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 he became a champion of the West in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. His nonfiction masterwork, "The Gulag Archipelago," became a best-seller in the West and revealed to Soviet readers who managed to get their hands on it the ghastly truth about the Soviet prison system.
Over the years Vermonters caught a few glimpses of the famous writer in their midst. His wife, Natalya, spoke to the press on occasion, describing the long hours each day that her husband devoted to his work. A photo showed up in the press with Solzhenitsyn swinging a tennis racket on his private court. In 1985 there was a flurry of excitement at the federal courthouse in Rutland because the Solzhenitsyns were expected to be sworn in as U.S. citizens. But only Natalya appeared for the ceremony.
Solzhenitsyn made a rare public appearance in 1991 at a parade in Cavendish celebrating Vermont's bicentennial. He was genial and open as he responded through the translation of his son to questions from the press.
Solzhenitsyn always knew he would go back to Russia. He had told that first town meeting in 1977, "The Russian people dream of the day they can be liberated from the Soviet system, and when that day comes, I will thank you very much for being good friends and neighbors, and I will go home."
That is what happened, and yet his return home showed the degree to which his life had been defined by the communist system he had dedicated himself to opposing. After the fall of the Soviet Union, interest in his work and his pronouncements fell off, and though the Russian people celebrated his return in 1994, the severity of his moral judgments about his homeland and about the West caused his influence to wane.
His historic accomplishment was to shine the light of truth on the dark secrets of the totalitarian system he thought of as a "sickness" that had ruined his country. Vermonters join freedom-loving people all over the world who mourn his passing.