The Meaning of an Oath

Editor’s Note:Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his family lived as “stateless persons” after the stripping of Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet citizenship and his forcible exile to the West in February 1974. Solzhenitsyn was a passionate and self-critical Russian patriot but a deadly enemy of the Communist totalitarianism that lay at the heart of the entire Soviet enterprise. Contrary to legend, he was neither anti-Western (rather, he spoke critically of “the weakness of the West”) nor unappreciative of American virtues: the magnanimity of its people, its impressive capacity for democratic and local self-government, and the ample freedom it gave him and his family. But as this provocative excerpt from Book 2 of his memoir about his years of Western exile (Between Two Millstones) demonstrates, Solzhenitsyn finally could not assent to becoming an American citizen when he had the opportunity to do so in June 1985.

Studying carefully the oath of citizenship in advance of the ceremony, he realized he could neither renounce his attachment to Russia (not the Soviet Union) nor take up arms, if need be, against his compatriots. He concluded that “Russian soil may not be accessible to me for a long time to come, perhaps until death, but I cannot sense American soil as my own.” As it was, Solzhenitsyn returned to post-Communist Russia in May 1994 and lived in his homeland until his death on August 3, 2008. Yet as his “Farewell” to the people of Cavendish, Vermont in February 1994 made clear, he was grateful to the United States for the refuge it had provided him for eighteen years, and to the education and home it had provided for his sons. And last but not least, he was impressed by the vigorous local self-government he saw at work in New England during his years of North American exile.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              — Daniel J. Mahoney

But we were brought low when Alya [Solzhenitsyn’s wife—Ed.] fell ill and remained unwell for two whole years. In April 1986, on the very day of the Chernobyl disaster, she had serious surgery. Thank God, it was successful. But it coincided with agonizing worry about our Russian Social Fund: a crucial bit of its backbone, a key link in the supply chain of our aid sent into the Soviet Union, had been dislodged in the autumn of 1983. In the increasingly terrifying circumstances on the ground, perhaps only Eva [Solzhenitsyn’s “invisible ally” Natalia Stolyarova—Ed.] could have found a replacement—but, less than a year later, our dear Eva died during a failed operation.

Alya would have to patch up, or even perhaps rebuild, the chain of tightrope walkers—and doing so required meetings with the “starting” links in person, rather than by mail, and that meant trips to Europe. She’d already done this in the autumn of 1983—she’d seen Eva in Switzerland (for the last time, as it turned out) and Vilgelmina (“Mishka”) Slavutskaya in Vienna, and the meetings had evidently been noted. Mishka was searched on the train going back, and when they got home there was a noticeable increase in surveillance of them both. Alya was distraught that it was her fault: having no citizenship, she was obliged to request a visa for any trip, and for several weeks the documents would wander around European consulates, from which informers could easily report—and, in that case, all her movements, down to the exact dates, would have been known in advance. For that reason, the already great risk to our selfless volunteers would have increased many times over.

The only solution Alya could see was to take US citizenship, to which we had already been entitled for four years but had never acquired. It would enable rapid, unimpeded travel in the West, without special passports or visas. However, the spotlights were trained on us at the slightest movement, let alone a step like this, and Alya felt that taking citizenship on her own, without me, was unthinkable—it would look like she was making some kind of point. (Just then, at the beginning of 1985, a film attacking the Fund was shown, quite openly now, across the whole of the Soviet Union.) Alya was burning up, insisting the goal was more important than striking a pose, and I could find nothing to contradict her.

And, really, why stand out like a solitary heron in a marsh?

We turned to the Vermont branch of the immigration service. They sent us forms full of little boxes and questions. I couldn’t even be bothered to read them closely—after all, they were rather like the ones we filled in for every visa, in duplicate or triplicate; I never read those either. I gave my secretary, Leonard DiLisio, instructions to fill them all in and, if need be, to come back with questions. And he did, asking for some biographical information about both Alya and me, nothing more, everything was fine. We sent them off. I did know that, as part of the procedure, we would also have to raise a hand to swear an oath of some kind—I’d seen pictures, but I thought nothing of it, a mere formality. They swear on the Bible any time they bear witness.

Some weeks went by—Alya and I were summoned to that same immigration branch office. An obligatory interview took place, with each of us separately. We had to answer some very simple questions about the constitution. We’d brushed up. But the clerk asked me more, about myself. From lack of practice (I hadn’t conversed in English for years) I listened intently to understand what she was saying. Again, please. —“Are you willing to bear arms on behalf of the United States?” Absolutely not! I hadn’t even been expecting the question. I replied: “But I’m sixty-six.” —“But, still, in principle?” What is this principle? You’ve got young men here of an age to be drafted; they burn their draft cards and get away with it, whereas I, at more than sixty years of age, could be called up? I expressed bewilderment. Then she said that, on the form, I’d already confirmed and signed that I was willing. Wha-a-a-t? (DiLisio had filled it in without the slightest hesitation, and hadn’t told me.) I felt sick. . . . All I could do was mumble, “Well, in principle, not literally . . .”

I had been shockingly lax to miss this—that’s how casually I’d approached the issue of citizenship.

We went home and now I did read the form and, at the same time, the text of the oath—it turned out to have been sent us as well.

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