Solzhenitsyn's son back in Russia with opera for centenary

1 / 4

Russian-American conductor and pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn, son of famous Russian writer and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, rehearsing the opera based on his father's story

Russian-American conductor and pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn, son of famous Russian writer and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, rehearsing the opera based on his father's story (AFP Photo/Alexander NEMENOV)

Moscow (AFP) - Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his family were exiled from the Soviet Union after he exposed the horrors of the country's labour camps to the world.

Today his US-raised son is back to conduct an opera based on the dissident's work, with what he says is a message for modern Russia.

The Bolshoi Theatre production of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is one of a number of Moscow events to mark 100 years since the Nobel laureate's birth.

"It's a useful reminder of how far Russia has indeed come that Solzhenitsyn is not only no longer banned but in fact is actively studied, read and debated," said musician Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who lives in New York with his family, ahead of the opera's final dress rehearsal.

But in an interview with AFP that touched on Russian authorities' ongoing crackdown on dissident artists, the 46-year-old admitted the country was "crying out" for more reforms.

"It's a country that's vastly different from the one that expelled Solzhenitsyn in 1974 and yet a country that surely still has a long journey ahead towards being... fully normal, fully integrated, and where people feel a sense of pride and of satisfaction," he said.

"Ivan Denisovich" is based on the author's own experiences as a political prisoner.

It recounts the Stalin-era repressions, in which millions were killed and millions more held in the Gulags, through the eyes of one inmate over the course of a day in a labour camp.

The opera, staged in the round in the Bolshoi's chamber theatre, sees prison guards patrol balconies behind barbed wire and searchlights roam the orchestra pit.

- Dissident voices now -

Composer Alexander Tchaikovsky said the late Soviet dissident was usually reluctant to approve adaptations of his works but was convinced after a direct appeal from the director of the first production in 2009.

"Unfortunately he didn't survive to see the opera," Tchaikovsky said of the work, which was first staged in the Urals city of Perm months after Solzhenitsyn's death.

In Moscow, authorities will unveil a new memorial to the writer to mark his centenary on December 11.

A number of theatres are putting on productions based on his works, and city hall has even produced an app-based "Solzhenitsyn tour" of the capital.

But some have accused President Vladimir Putin's government of perpetuating the Soviet Union's persecution of artists.

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov remains in a Russian arctic jail on "terrorism" charges that have been denounced as politically motivated, and celebrated director Kirill Serebrennikov is on trial for embezzlement.

Popular rapper Husky was briefly jailed as part of a crackdown that some have compared to the Soviet blacklisting of rock musicians.

Ignat Solzhenitsyn is reluctant to draw a line between his father, who in his later years supported Putin, and the modern dissidents.

"It's understandable why people would draw parallels, but I would say the differences outweigh the similarities," he said.

"The 'crimes' which are punishable are completely different from those days and the scope of people who fall under the eye of jurisprudence is incomparable. Those things matter as well."

Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in the 1990s, after some two decades in exile with his family following the publication of "The Gulag Archipelago".

- No new Cold War -

Most of those years were spent in the Vermont town of Cavendish, where he was famously jealous of his privacy and a sign in the local grocery store read: "No directions to the Solzhenitsyn home".

While the rest of the family eventually also returned to Russia -- with Ignat's two brothers working in Moscow for the American consultancy firm McKinsey -- the young musician remained in the United States and carved out a successful career as a conductor and pianist.

The Russian-American said he feels "a little uncomfortable at times" as he straddles the two cultures in the current political climate.

However he dismissed the idea that Russia and the West were in a new Cold War.

"When I hear people say, 'Things are back to how they were', that's lunacy. It's real lunacy to say that, it's silly to say that or it's completely dishonest."

If relations between Moscow and Washington are strained, Ignat hopes they can be improved in the near future and "absolutely" believes that culture has a part to play in this.

"Even in Soviet times, culture was the Soviet Union's finest export. We know what Russia is capable of and what kind of talent there is here. Theatre, the arts, remind us of what we all have in common."