Yves Hamant, an expert on Russian and Doctor of Political Science, taught Russian civilisation at the University of Paris Nanterre. He was cultural attaché at the French Embassy in the USSR (1974 - 1979) and closely involved in The Gulag Archipelago adventure.
Under what circumstances did you become the first French translator of The Gulag Archipelago?
In the Spring of 1973, Nikita Struve, who taught Russian literature at the University of Nanterre and worked for a small Russian emigrant publishing house, YMCA PRESS, arranged a mysterious meeting with me in a Parisian café. He told me that he had received a book on microfilm written by Solzhenitsyn, a veritable bombshell about the Soviet camps. Solzhenitsyn still hadn’t the intention then to publish it, but he had asked that someone begin to translate it in secret. I casually agreed to translate this book with the bizarre title, The Gulag Archipelago.
In the month of September in the same year, I found out in a newspaper that a woman in Leningrad, who had been interrogated for five days by the KGB, was discovered hanged in her apartment, then that the KGB had put their hands on a book by Solzhenitsyn devoted to the camps. It was the book that I was in the course of translating. I understood that I was holding a book in my hands that had provoked a tragic event. Afterwards Solzhenitsyn asked that the book be published in France, in Russian, which was done at the end of 1973, with the impact we know.
Then I was named cultural attaché to Moscow. I had to abandon my translation. In the meantime, the Solzhenitsyn couple had been deported from the USSR and were living in Switzerland. I accepted to become the intermediary between the Solzhenitsyns and their friends remaining in the Soviet Union. I was particularly responsible for the transmission of medication, mail, and money from the Fund for the Aid of Political Prisoners, conceived by Solzhenitsyn and directed by the dissident Alexander Ginsburg.
You organized an evening at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris on November 14th, entitled: « Solzhenitsyn: a collective adventure. » Wasn’t it the contrary, wasn’t the writer the incarnation of the strength of the individual will?
Solzhenitsyn is often presented as Moses descending from Mount Sinai, carrying the Ten Commandments. But one isn’t conscious, notably in France, of the collective aspect of his work. According to Solzhenitsyn, the act of writing isn’t only intellectual and moral, it is a material act. This man didn’t begin by writing, but by composing his texts, in his head, in the camp, reciting them by heart. He had a phenomenal memory. In surveyed residence, he continued in this way until the day when a former cellmate made a little case for him, with a double bottom in which he could hide his manuscripts. Then he learned to photograph the manuscripts on microfilm and entrusted these films to friends, who hid them in different places in the country. This is how he wrote The Gulag Archipelago, bit by bit. He only read his entire text once or twice. He mobilised hundreds of people in order to successfully complete his work. He also relied on all the people who had sent him their testimonies on the camps after the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). In the end, Solzhenitsyn assigned his rights to The Gulag Archipelago to political prisoners and their families in the USSR. So a third network was constituted. Finally, more than a thousand people participated in his work. As a matter of fact, he rendered them homage in his memoirs, calling them the « invisibles. » It is important, while his « solitary prophet » side is rather insisted upon, to highlight this collective aspect.
What do you think of the current popularity of Solzhenitsyn among the « new conservative right, » especially the conservatives who gravitate around Marion Maréchal?
I definitely speak out against this ideological distortion. What is important today is to retain what is essential. Of course one can find in Solzhenitsyn’s work this or that statement that moves in the direction of denouncing modernity, the Enlightenment, legalism, etc. But it must be placed in the context of Russian history. Because what matters to Solzhenitsyn is Russia. He is looking for a way forward for today’s Russia, he is groping. It is dishonest to use this groping aound for a cause which is alien to him. The quest for Russian identity is inscribed in a tragic history, made of ruptures and of traumas. The question of identity is posed then in terms very different from the West’s. The operation which consists of extracting a paragraph and then using it in a French context is quite simply false.
Interview by Michel Eltchaninoff
Translated from French to English by Sally Gordon-Mark.