Time was approaching for us to leave for America. Even before we’d left Vermont, however, I had received a letter from Buckingham Palace to say that Prince Charles was inviting me to lunch on 17 May; before that, he would be traveling, shackled to his schedule. Meeting him could be interesting: Prince Charles had publicly voiced his support for my views on more than one occasion. But ought we to hang around for another four days with nothing to do?
I received a letter from Buckingham Palace to say that Prince Charles was inviting me to lunch on 17 May.
In the autumn of 1982, [my wife] Alya, who’d gone to New York to defend Zoya Krakhmalnikova (and successfully too: she’d managed to persuade the U.S. delegation to the United Nations to raise the issue, and that may have had an impact on the Soviets), encountered a group (Anglo-Nordic Productions) who’d made a film [One Word of Truth, 1981] based on my Nobel Lecture. They were touring various countries, attempting to show the film and spread its ideas. They were a group of enthusiasts who’d raised the money from donors; they all worked for free, out of sheer conviction. They had handled the audacious challenge of the film pretty well, communicating the lunatic atmosphere of our modern times. Of the group, Alya got to know Patrick Colquhoun—a tall, thin, well-born half-Scot, descended from an ancient clan on his father’s side, with a suitably ancient surname that was almost impossible to spell. Patrick’s father had been one of Eton’s most celebrated teachers, and that was where Patrick grew up—on the playing fields of Eton. He finished school and went to Oxford and all of Britain’s best career paths to success were open to him. But he turned his back on it all, and selflessly embarked on a life of unpaid altruism, in the course of which he married Frances, who was exactly the same, much to the distress of his aristocratic mother.
Now, in London, Patrick endeavored to persuade us to wait until Prince Charles returned from his travels and, at the same time, he offered us a private house right in the center of London and, if we liked, several days traveling anonymously around Scotland. Scotland decided it.
The house, into which we immediately moved from the hotel, belonged to Malcolm Pearson, also a Scot, a financier, whom Patrick had got to know when Malcolm donated money for the film. Malcolm also made the arrangements for the trip to Scotland. He proved to have a wide range of keen interests, and to be exceedingly well-meaning. He created a friendly atmosphere for us right away. It emerged that he too had Eton connections (he was a former pupil and his second marriage was to the daughter of the Eton provost—the rector, in other words). This also decided the meeting with Prince Charles, and we informed his entourage. And I was starting to succumb to the idea of giving an unscheduled speech at Eton.
To avoid wasting daylight hours on the journey, we took the night train to Scotland that same evening. (It was lovely—the train and the layout of the compartments far more comfortable than any we had seen in Europe, or Canada’s “roomettes.” It was good to relax to the gentle rocking of the train after our packed days in London.)
We’d already passed Glasgow when we woke up in the morning. It was a distinctive and somber landscape, thinly populated. On the sparse highlands and the treeless hillsides with their patches of red-brown heather was the slow-moving straggle of placid sheep, left untended. Occasional thin copses. Hundreds of foaming white torrents. We left the train at Rannoch station, in the very heart of Scotland, and set off by car to Pearson’s estate, which happened to have a deer farm attached. Those servants who lived there full-time raised the deer.
An austere and sparse world, beneath overclouded skies for days on end, but it is what shapes the Scottish character and our picture of it.
We also visited more cultural places, like the small town of Pitlochry and Scotland’s picturesque Blair Castle with all its trappings—museum exhibits inside and, outside, pheasants, crossing the road at a leisurely stroll, plus, at set times, a piper playing at the entrance to the castle. I was impressed most of all, however, by an off-road journey we took, just the men, near Loch Rannoch. We towed there a squat, multi-wheeled all-terrain vehicle, and then drove it up into the mountains over a kind of rock-strewn tundra, scrambling noisily over gullies, sinking sideways into hollows—I hadn’t experienced anything like it even at the front. Somehow we didn’t overturn, and we made our way up to the top. A very cold wind was clearing the mist away. From there, we went down to the lake on foot over tussocks of moss, leaping across gullies and hollows, while the pointer with long droopy ears, which accompanied us, trembled from time to time, one paw raised, as it pointed towards prey it could sense somewhere nearby. With its owner’s permission, it would hurtle away to find it. Black-and-white, red-billed oystercatchers and whistling gray curlews flew and darted here and there.
An austere and sparse world, beneath overclouded skies for days on end, but it is what shapes the Scottish character and our picture of it. (Then again, you rarely encounter such warmheartedness as our host’s.)
After the chilly outings came the traditional sitting by the fireside, with hot drinks.
During two days at Malcolm’s estate, I’d pondered and thrown together a rough draft of my forthcoming speech at Eton.
On the third day we went to Edinburgh by car via Aberfeldy and Perth. In the wilder areas by the roads, you would sometimes see solitary standing stones, their ancient significance lost. Then came an ever more farmed and cultivated area, with abundant crops. I was particularly rewarded by the sight of the fateful Birnam Wood: a strip of forest that really does follow the curving ridge of a hill so closely that it’s like a line of troops ready for action. [For Solzhenitsyn, the march of Birnam Wood in Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” had especially strong meaning, as he had more than once linked Russia’s eventual awakening from the spell of Communism to this very metaphor—Ed.]
Edinburgh’s deep sea gulf, the Firth of Forth, is traversed by a bridge of the kind that now crosses the Bosphorus. We spent a whole day roaming the wide streets of the later Edinburgh (the tops and gables of its residential buildings seemingly the model for many streets in St. Petersburg), and in the center of the city was a tall, broad cliff, on which a strikingly picturesque castle still stood, all one color, all one style, the tower shaped like a crown, and the medieval city clinging to its feet. A stately building within the castle contains a list of all the battles Scots have fought, some of them as part of Great Britain, and a list of all who died. The royal Holyrood Palace expands the Old Town a step further. It is very Scottish. Holyrood Abbey, meanwhile, was burned down by the ruthless Cromwell (a sorrowful Polish Catholic recognized me in the ruins and came over to us; Scots who recognized me held back—that’s what they’re like). Princes Street Gardens are in a drained lake at the foot of Castle Rock, and blackbirds sing tunefully there. On one of the hills are a burial ground and the grave of David Hume: a patch of ancient grassy land encircled by a stone rotunda with bars. A tower on Princes Street remembers the Scotsman Walter Scott. —All of a sudden, with mounting clatter, a foolish, yelling crowd of Sunday soccer fans races past us in the rain, taking no thought for bygone days. —There beneath us, under the bridge, is the station we will depart from for London, taking the night train once again.
It’s a shorter distance, and a high-speed train. It arrives in London well before dawn—but then comes a very English convenience: the passengers aren’t forced off the train. They may sleep their fill, and need leave only at seven in the morning.
On the morning of the 17th, Patrick drove us to Eton. The main outlines of my short speech were clear to me, whether I delivered the text as I’d jotted it down or otherwise. I’d been warned that Eton’s senior pupils were not children, they were fifteen to seventeen years old, and more mature still in terms of their education. This age group was in fact the most approachable for me—it was exactly the age I’d always taught, and I found it very easy to strike the right note with them. After an initial exchange of greetings with the provost, Baron Charteris, and Head Master Eric Anderson (effectively the president and prime minister of Eton—it was they who drew the comparison), we were taken straight to the chapel where the speech was to be given. It too had Gothic arches and, built in 1440, was the same age as the Guildhall [in London]. The central aisle from the door to the pulpit was empty and we walked over the ancient flagstones between two rows of pews, alongside which around five hundred older pupils in black tailcoats, waistcoats, and white shirts (apparently no one ever repealed the mourning once declared for Henry III, so that it has continued down the centuries) stood in several rows, facing the aisle. As far as I was able, I examined their faces as I walked slowly by. They were all well-groomed, many even sleek, although I wouldn’t say that I spotted many keen intellects; some even seemed pretty average. But be that as it may, it was the hothouse of Britain’s future elite, and perhaps my speech would not fall on deaf ears. Irina Kirillova interpreted once again, standing next to me. The requisite number of loudspeakers were dotted somewhere about the hall, but I couldn’t hear them and inadvertently spoke so loudly that my voice reached the full height and length of the chapel, at the far end of which sat invited guests. Then, pupils approached a microphone in the middle of the hall and asked questions which could be heard by the public but were barely audible to Kirillova and me—though she somehow did manage to make them out. One boy, who was studying Russian, even asked his question in Russian. My answers unwittingly repeated things I’d said in my series of interviews; it was inevitable: appearances on a single trip to a single country always form something of a whole. Loud and lengthy applause then followed, which, from what has been written, isn’t the usual practice in that chapel. Again I walked between the two lines of boys and studied their faces with mixed feelings. Press photographers appeared outside (by tradition, the press are not allowed inside Eton’s buildings). A heightened significance of some kind was imparted to these photos with the pupils: they later appeared in newspapers, and not just English ones, perhaps to condemn me (for hobnobbing with “aristocrats”). My Eton appearance itself was widely reported (although the text remained unpublished).
A heightened significance of some kind was imparted to these photos with the pupils: they later appeared in newspapers, and not just English ones, perhaps to condemn me.
Patrick then took us to lunch at Kensington Palace. It was built in 1689 as an out-of-town residence by William III (William of Orange), who hoped the country air would alleviate his asthma. Since then, several kings have died and Queen Victoria was born there, while the palace itself has long found itself within city limits. It is now the home of the heir to the throne and his young wife. Irina Ilovaiskaya was with us. She’d once again made the journey from Paris, especially and selflessly, in order to interpret this conversation, which was being kept under wraps. The proceedings, approaches, and the number of servants were far more modest than at Buckingham Palace. We were taken into an empty drawing room. Our escort departed, but immediately, via a small, snug service door so narrow they could barely fit through it, came the even slimmer Prince Charles and Princess Diana—both of them tall, modest, even shy, particularly Diana. The five of us sat around the low drawing-room table and, after a few sentences, the conversation took a turn that saw Diana leave the room: immediately outside, she was handed her first child, the heir to Britain’s royal line, one-year-old William, all ready to go. She brought him in to be introduced to us, and he behaved excellently, in a friendly manner, causing no trouble at all. Diana was radiant (she was pretty as a picture) and Charles was too—in a more measured, manly fashion. And somehow all of it—the loneliness of the parents in the dormant, half-empty palace, their hounding by the vulgar press, Charles’s well-known and steadfast interest in the depths of things, greater than required for today’s pared-down British throne, and the hazy future of that throne itself, created in me (and in Alya too: we compared notes later) a bittersweet sympathy for these young people.
The dignified and elderly Laurens van der Post, whom we already knew, arrived. We went into a neighboring dining room and spent about an hour over lunch, the six of us. And that hour too was as packed with conversation as had been the case with [Margaret] Thatcher; I couldn’t remember a thing that appeared on the table, although I certainly ate and drank my share. Irina Ilovaiskaya translated my conversation with Charles while, along the other side of the table, Alya (she’d given her English a real workout on this trip) talked to everyone else, and then they listened to what we had to say.
Basically, the conversation should have been almost a repeat of the one with Thatcher, plus introductory provisos—that I was aware that the British crown has virtually no constitutional rights of state, although it has great moral authority, and that, as a result, the prince might be able, in his own country, to command a strong spiritual movement, even if not a political one. Then, as with Thatcher: there was no need to fight or be ill-disposed towards Russians as such (it was unbearable to see during those days that all the English newspapers were using “Russia” whenever they meant the ussr). The fact that Russians had been handed over to Stalin in 1945 should be loudly and definitively condemned. Prince Charles listened, absorbing what was said and throwing in the occasional question.
I’m no confirmed monarchist, to sympathize wholeheartedly with each and every crown, and, in addition, I gravely reproach the British throne: frightened of public opinion, George V refused to offer basic shelter to his deposed cousin, Nikolai II. None of the past was forgotten, yet there prevailed in me that bittersweet sympathy for this amiable young couple in the stifling calm before the storm. (I wrote Prince Charles a letter of thanks from Vermont but with an undertone of a recurring sentiment Alya and I had shared since our visit: “My wife and I took a very warm feeling away from our meeting with you, and we are genuinely moved by your fate. I would like to hope that the darkest of my predictions when talking to you do not come true.” —Out of the blue, Prince Philip sent me a copy of his book A Question of Balance; a lecture to an engineering symposium on modern technologies; and a letter: he’d been deeply impressed and had taken to heart what I’d said at Buckingham Palace and the Guildhall. “You still have allies in the West.” Now that certainly went beyond the duty he had undertaken to present the prizes! We were touched. I wrote to Prince Philip: “I have deep respect for the difficult task your family performs: to preserve and bear aloft the commendable ideas and qualities necessary to your people—as they are to all mankind—but which, in its blindness, mankind is increasingly losing.”)
1 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature. These pages, written in 1987 but published here for the first time in English, describe portions of Solzhenitsyn’s 1983 trip to the United Kingdom: his visit to the western highlands of Scotland, speech at Eton, and meeting with Prince Charles and Princess Diana. They are excerpted from his forthcoming memoir, Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978–1994, translated by Clare Kitson and Melanie Moore, and reprinted with permission from the University of Notre Dame Press, © 2020 by University of Notre Dame.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 1, on page 4
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