By Jonathon Van Maren
When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn left the Soviet Union in February 1974 as one of the most famous exiles of the twentieth century, his son Ignat was not yet two years old. The author of The Gulag Archipelago, long a thorn in the side of the Soviet regime, was charged with treason and forcibly evicted from his homeland. The family ended up spending two and a half years in Zurich, and then moving to America, where they spent eighteen years in exile in a small town in Vermont. Only in the 1990s could the Solzhenitsyns at last return to Russia.
Ignat Solzhenitsyn is now 48 years old and a world-renowned Russian-American conductor and pianist, the principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and the conductor laureate of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. Born in Moscow under communism, exiled to America with his parents and two brothers, and able to return after the long Soviet nightmare finally came to an end, Solzhenitsyn, who currently resides in New York City, has a singular understanding of what home means.
The exile was often discussed in the Solzhenitsyn home. “One of my earliest memories is my father explaining that Russia was under an evil spell, as so often happens in Russian fairy tales, and so we were waiting for the day when the spell was broken and we would be able to go back,” Ignat told me. “Little by little, we understood as we got older and were able to read for ourselves what it was all about and why we found ourselves in the USA—and the magnitude of our father’s work.”
Ignat had no concrete memories of Russia as he grew up—“just a couple of almost photographic memories in my mind, no memory of experiences”—but his parents taught him and his brothers what it meant to be Russian. Ignat’s mother Natalia Svetlova—who served as Aleksandr’s “editor, publisher, type-setter, and critic all rolled into one”—educated the boys in Russian literature, poetry, and the language.