A community writes book about Solzhenitsyn who changed history

CAVENDISH — Cavendish, Vt. is known for having been the home of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize winner who lived there for almost 18 of the 20 years after he was exiled from Russia. The town’s willingness to protect his privacy from outsiders is legendary, and as a recent visitor to the Cavendish Historical Society (CHS) Museum noted, “there is little on the Internet about Solzhenitsyn’s time here, other than people wouldn’t give directions to his house.”

That is about to change, with the publication of “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Writer Who Changed History.” The author, Margo Caulfield, coordinator of the Cavendish Historical Society, explained that this is a community effort that started in the 1970s when a group of volunteers met weekly and clipped articles pertaining to Cavendish. Through their efforts, Solzhenitsyn’s time in Cavendish was well documented and these archives were key in writing the chapter “Life in the West.”

The inspiration for “The Writer Who Changed History” came from former third grader Isabelle Gross. As part of CHS’s outreach to children, Solzhenitsyn’s experience as a captain in the Russian army during World War II was included along with the stories of other Cavendish veterans. Isabelle became extremely upset about how Solzhenitsyn was arrested on the front lines and imprisoned just because he wrote to a friend about his concerns with Stalin. She kept on saying, “This is unfair!” and had many questions, including, “Was he okay?” “Did they hurt him?” By seeing pictures of Solzhenitsyn living in Cavendish, his children and grandchildren, her concerns were eased. It became clear that having a book might be a better way for Isabelle and other students to understand that Solzhenitsyn’s war experience was literally just one chapter in a very amazing life.

The Cavendish Community Fund provided funding for editing, while the Vermont Humanities Council gave CHS a grant to develop the book’s companion website, thewriterwhochangedhistory.com. Cavendish resident Katie Hamlin is the webmaster for the site, which includes a study guide and curriculum that teachers and book groups can use. Finally, private donations helped with other costs.

Caulfield stated, “There were three things I thought were important. The book needed lots and lots of photographs that on their own could tell the story.” Thanks to the generosity of the Solzhenitsyn family, who provided the majority of the book’s photographs, some of these pictures, until now, have not been seen in the West.

Equally important was the look of the book. “It needs vibrancy and color. We don’t want kids turned off because it appears dark,” Caulfield said. Another Cavendish resident, Julia Gignoux, was able to provide the right mix. Responsible for the layout and design, Gignoux made “The Writer Who Changed History” come alive, resulting in a final product that is appealing to all ages.

The third element was the inclusion of Solzhenitsyn’s writing. “When you mention his name, people immediately think of ‘Gulag Archipelago,’ “she said, “but his body of work is vast and includes plays, poems and so much more. As much as possible I thought it important to rely on these resources so that Solzhenitsyn gets to tell his own story but at a level children will understand.” “The Writer Who Changed History” includes excerpts from speeches and interviews as well as text from his books.

Most important are the people of Cavendish. Their cooperation and willingness to protect Solzhenitsyn from the prying eyes of the public made it possible for him to complete “The Red Wheel.” That same Vermont spirit brought many locals together to make “The Writer Who Changed “ possible.

The book is self-published by CHS and is available for purchase locally at the Cavendish town office (37 High St.); Minibees (1990 Main St., formerly the Cavendish General Store); and the CHS Museum, which is right next to Minibees.

All proceeds will be used for the society’s Solzhenitsyn Project.

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