From Vermont, with Love

updated 05/16/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Behind the gruff facade is a loving family man

WITH THE VIGOR OF A MAN 20 YEARS younger, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 75, strode briskly to the podium at the Cavendish, Vt., town hall last February. It was a rare public appearance for the Nobel laureate, who seemed visibly moved as he addressed his neighbors in Russian while his son translated. "Exile is difficult, and yet I could not imagine a better place to live and wait for my return home," he said. "You forgave me my unusual way of life and took it upon yourselves to protect my privacy.... Now, as my stay here ends, I thank you."

Thus did Solzhenitsyn begin to close the book on what has been the most tranquil and productive period in his tumultuous life. Now, 20 years after being expelled from the Soviet Union, Russia's greatest living writer is going home.

Packing crates clutter the spacious farmhouse where Solzhenitsyn and his second wife, Natalia, raised their sons, Yermolai, now 23, Ignat, 21, and Stephan, 20, in a secluded, 78-acre compound complete with chapel, pond and tennis court. Here, he has been able to work in comfort and solitude on more than a dozen literary projects, including his multi-volume opus, The Red Wheel.

Solzhenitsyn's prodigious appetite for work is matched by his celebrated passion for privacy, and Vermonters have respected his wishes. ("No restrooms. No bare feet. No directions to the Solzhenitsyn home," reads a sign at the Cavendish general store.) There have been rare sightings of the celebrated exile-in-residence sporting a cowboy hat behind the wheel of his Jeep and browsing in the local bookstore. (On one occasion, when an out-of-towner blurted out, "You're Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, aren't you?" the reclusive writer replied, in thickly accented English, "No, I just look like him.") But most of Solzhenitsyn's days have been dedicated to writing. Imprisoned for years in Stalin's work camps, he is overwhelmed by a sense of urgency. "I've lost so many days of my life, unable to do what I was destined to do," he has said. "I have no more time to waste."

Solzhenitsyn's troubles began in 1945, when, as a captain in the Soviet army, he was arrested for making jokes about Stalin in letters to a friend. He was sentenced to eight harrowing years of hard labor and three years of internal exile in Central Asia, later chronicled in such autobiographical works as The Gulag Archipelago. In the '50s, Solzhenitsyn was told he had cancer and that he would die. Astoundingly, he responded to treatment at a Central Asian hospital, and his ordeal became the basis for his 1968 novel, Cancer Ward.

After completing his sentence, Solzhenitsyn took a job in central Russia, teaching high school to support his writing, and friends smuggled his manuscripts to Western Europe. The 1962 publication abroad of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich began the cycle of Western acclaim and Eastern vilification that marked the next 12 years of Solzhenitsyn's life before Leonid Brezhnev declared him "out of control" and ordered his deportation. The dissident and his family found refuge in Switzerland, where they were besieged by the press. In 1976, an architect friend recommended that the couple resettle in Cavendish; Solzhenitsyn was immediately drawn to the small town's birch forests and frigid winters, which reminded him of Russia.

Delighted to welcome such a vitriolic critic of the Soviet system, Americans tried to embrace Solzhenitsyn—and found themselves hugging a porcupine. In his infrequent public statements (most famously the 1978 Harvard commencement address) he could be as critical of capitalism's excesses as he was of Communism. "I could have spent time making myself likable to the West," he said. "But I would have had to drop my way of life."

Although Solzhenitsyn imbued his sons with a sense of their Russian identity, he also wanted them to feel comfortable in America. Educated in local schools (and tutored by their parents in Russian, math and physics), the boys were allowed to indulge their interests in TV, baseball and rock. "Work and play were completely mixed, we never felt pressured," says Stephan, now a junior at Harvard. (Yermolai is currently working at a trading firm in Taiwan, while Ignat is studying piano and conducting at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute; Dimitri, Natalia's son from her first marriage, recently died of a heart attack at 32.)

As children, the boys pitched in with their father's projects, researching, translating and setting type. But Natalia has been Solzhenitsyn's pillar—his reader, critic and buffer against the world. "He has a genuine partnership with his wife," says a former assistant, Irina Alberti. "She's kept her strong personality, and he listens to her and respects her opinions."

When they return to Russia at the end of May, the couple plan to travel around the country, reacquainting themselves with the land and people before moving into the dacha they are building on an estate outside of Moscow. To express his gratitude to the town he came to love, Solzhenitsyn presented the Cavendish library with copies of the 14 volumes he had completed while living in Vermont. He inscribed them, "To the people of Cavendish." In return, the residents presented their famous neighbor with a plaque that reads, "It is our hope that the Solzhenitsyns and the people of Russia will find peace, happiness and prosperity in the reborn nation."

S. AVERY BROWN in Boston, YVONNE DALEY in Cavendish and CATHY NOLAN in Paris

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