Exiled Russian writer Solzhenitsyn
found brief summer respite at Norwich © Aug. 29, 2008 Norwich University Office of Communications
George Turner, a retired Norwich University English professor, flipped through a notebook of black and white images from more than 30 years ago. He paused at a photograph of Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn leaning on top of a car to sign an autograph, and laughed.
At the time, photographers the world over were scrambling to snap images of Solzhenitsyn, author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Gulag Archipelago, said Turner. He was able to follow the writer around the campus of Norwich, the nation’s oldest private military college, with a camera for four days, taking photographs of unprecedented familiarity.
“My wife always said, ‘That’s the most famous man in the world you’re escorting around campus,’” said Turner, who lives in Northfield, Vt., where the university is located. “There wasn’t anyone who didn’t know who Solzhenitsyn was.”
The writer, who illustrated the full horrors of the Soviet Stalinist prison labor system for the world, landed at Norwich during the summer of 1975, between exile from his home in Russia and his eventual settlement in Cavendish, Vt. The eyes of the world were upon Solzhenitsyn, Turner said. When his colleague, Dr. Nicholas Pervushin, head of Norwich’s Russian School and friend of Solzhenitsyn, told Turner there was someone on campus he should meet, he suspected nothing. Seeing the writer in Pervushin’s Central Street home was certainly a shock.
“I told him I’d like to arrange a press conference tomorrow,” said Turner, who was handling public relations for Norwich at the time. “He said, ‘no press.’“
In exchange for secrecy and a few days of quiet to work on an article about the Russian Orthodox Church, Solzhenitsyn allowed Turner to accompany him around campus while he learned about the school, met summer students and attended a pageant of Russian music and performance. It was during an hour of recreation that Turner snapped a photograph that would make him, if not famous, at least aware of the writer’s global impact.
On the second day of his stay, Solzhenitsyn had Marion Hubiak, a foreign-language teacher who earned her master’s degree in Russian at Norwich in 1971, teach him to play tennis. Turner brought his camera to the courts and snapped five pictures. Hubiak said she can’t remember if Solzhenitsyn asked for the lesson, or if she offered.
“He didn’t even have tennis shoes,” she said. “He played in sandals.”
Turner said Solzhenitsyn was no athlete. “I really was concerned about him. He was sweating blood.”
A photograph of the writer wearing long pants, gripping a racquet, ran in local newspapers before it was picked up by the Associated Press. Paris Match magazine called it the photograph of the year and it was seen all over the world in publications like Newsweek and Der Spiegel, but Turner never received credit.
“I’d forgotten about it,” he laughed, saying he was surprised to see the picture re-emerge after news of Solzhenitsyn’s death on Aug. 3, 2008.
Hubiak, who lives in Clarks Summit, Penn., said Norwich’s Russian School numbered close to 300 students and faculty at the time. All were thrilled to have Solzhenitsyn visit, and arranged a second performance of their annual pageant for him.
“It was really an exciting time there,” she said.
Norwich’s Russian program thrived until the Cold War petered out in the 1990s, and the school continues to tailor foreign language curriculum to meet the needs of the modern world. In 2007, Norwich introduced a minor in Chinese.
“We’re having great success with interest in the Chinese language,” said Stewart Robertson, chairman of the modern language department, adding that 35 students signed up during the first year. “Last year was much better than we were hoping for.”
Norwich worked with the Department of Defense to make the strategic language program available for ROTC students, although all programs are available to undergrads who lead a nonmilitary college lifestyle. Robertson said they also considered offering Arabic, but made a choice based on the vast number of Chinese speakers and belief that the importance of knowing the language will grow. They’re also seeing more high schools offer Chinese.
Norwich also offers French, Spanish and German-language minors, and a major in international studies.
Hubiak believes it was ties to the Russian School that brought Solzhenitsyn to Norwich and helped convince him to live in Vermont until his 1994 return to Russia. Despite the warmth he showed the Norwich community—he was impressed by the program, she said—the writer continued to guard his privacy fiercely, living behind a tall fence and rarely appearing in public.
“I think he was a very serious person,” she said. “[But] I felt very much at ease with him.”