Today, on the 96th birth anniversary of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008), arguably the greatest Russian novelist of the past century, my thoughts go back to the delightfully eclectic closing ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Giant portraits of artists and authors, among them Solzhenitsyn and Leo Tolstoy, were paraded as a tribute to Russia’s renowned cultural life.
In fact, Tolstoy himself could be spotted at his writing table, surrounded by heaps of books and, eventually, papers swirling about the floor of the stadium. Was that the original manuscript of War and Peace? A massive troika and an imperial ball from Tolstoy’s novel had already featured in the state-sponsored games’ opening ceremony.While Tolstoy’s thoughts on sport have escaped my attention, Solzhenitsyn’s life and literary creations are littered with sportive allusions. Take One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) for example. In the first published work of Solzhenitsyn, a celebrated brick-laying scene culminates with two inmates rushing from their forced labor site back to the prison camp. ‘They ran side by side, the big man and the shorter man.’ The following excerpt is expressed in the idiom of the protagonist, the ‘shorter man’ of peasant origin:
‘Some people with nothing better to do run races in stadiums of their own free will. Silly devils should try running for their lives bent double after a day’s work. In this cold with wet mittens and worn-out boots.’ (Trans. H. T. Willetts)
Curiously, both the conception and the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich coincided with the emergence of world-beating Soviet distance runners. Dare I assume that athletes such as Vladimir Kuts and Pyotr Bolotnikov crossed the author’s mind? If so, could the gutsy Kuts have defeated Ivan Denisovich in standard-issue felt boots?
Composed on the eve of his expulsion, Solzhenitsyn’s Letter to the Soviet Leaders (1974) touched on the impact of sport broadcasts on the Soviet population. Instead of seeking social or spiritual change, too many people seemed obsessed with ice-hockey and other similarly senseless pastimes, he reasoned. The communist media, for its part, cunningly promoted sport at the expense of meaningful topics.
Two decades later the Soviet empire reached its expiry date and Solzhenitsyn made a triumphant comeback to Russia. Alas, the post-communist country’s economy had undergone a thorough transformation-cum-collapse. No Russian government should ever get involved in sport, Solzhenitsyn insisted; public funds ought to be allocated to other, more constructive purposes. Let the athletes and their owners fend for themselves!
Turning to Solzhenitsyn’s personal life, his fondness or outright mania for physical activity is a well-known fact. In his youth, Sanya was an avid footballer; subsequently, he discovered the joys of cross-country skiing until, in American exile, he took to tennis. Midway through his American years, a French documentary captured the heavily bearded player’s movements on a small tennis court amidst towering pine trees. ‘It’s not sport’, the author of The Gulag Archipelago argued, smiling freely at his own clumsiness.
Few people would have disagreed with his understanding of body cultures. But genuine sport, including professional tennis, is all about total dedication and national prestige. My educated guess is that the Russian Tennis Federation will launch a new cup competition, Solzhenitsyn Cup, on the Nobel Laureate’s centenary, and, to add insult to injury, the winner of the 2018 FIFA World Cup will be decided in a stadium named after him.
Unless, of course, intrepid academics manage to prove Tolstoy’s penchant for modern sport, in which case a process known as Tolstoyfication of Russian sport will immediately get underway.