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Recalling Solzhenitsyn's Swiss years

The Russian writer (second from right) arrives in Zurich

(Keystone)

The Soviet dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died aged 89 at his home outside Moscow late on Sunday, spent the first two years of his exile in Switzerland.

The Nobel literature prize winner came to live in Zurich in 1974 only days after being exiled from his native Russia.

When Solzhenitsyn arrived in Switzerland on February 15, 1974, he was besieged by a pack of Swiss and foreign journalists.

"Applause and cheers from an impressive crowd greeted Solzhenitsyn as he arrived at the railway station. The police had trouble holding the people back to allow the writer to get into a car," the Swiss news agency reported at the time.

A leak to the press about the arrival date of Solzhenitsyn's family a few weeks later resulted in around 60 journalists and photographers heading to the airport for the occasion, with many attempting to break through the barrier in the terminal.

In an interview, the writer who revealed the horror of Stalin's camps to the world said he wanted to stay in Switzerland "for a long time".

He liked Switzerland's direct democracy and he already spoke German - a language he learned at school.

"Isn't it remarkable that the great Russian author has chosen our country which for many Swiss men of letters is no more than a target of one-sided, petty criticism," the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper gratifyingly asked.

Solzhenitsyn's French translator, Georges Nivat, told swissinfo that one reason he came to live in Switzerland was the presence of his lawyer in Zurich. "But he quickly realised he had no peace, and that the KGB had installed itself in the house across the street and was watching him closely," the Geneva University professor said.

Solzhenitsyn siege

And the reporters also refused to leave him alone. They trampled the property of his Zurich neighbour in a bid to get a closer look at the celebrated author.

The siege of Solzhenitsyn in Zurich continued for several weeks and prompted students of the nearby school to erect placards on which were written; "Peace and quiet for Solzhenitsyn".

But the Russian dissident also got entangled in a tax dispute with the Swiss authorities.

"He created a foundation in Zurich which held the rights to 'The Gulag Archipelago', with proceeds going to former victims of the Gulag," Nivat said.

"The authorities demanded exorbitant taxes. This was one reason for his departure [for the United States] because it made him bitter, since he never received a penny of income from the book sales.

"The case was settled, but Solzhenitsyn also believed he could escape KGB surveillance in Vermont."

Nivat said the writer also had a few good memories of his time in Switzerland, fondly recalling a visit to the "Landsgemeinde" in Appenzell - an open-air assembly asserting the people's rights at the cantonal level.

Once settled in the US town of Cavendish, local residents granted his wish for privacy, refusing to tell strangers where he lived.

He made a hero's return to Russia in 1994 then reeling from the fall of the Soviet Union.

"He was averse to interviews. He did not want to repeat himself and therefore his appearances in the media were rare and he was often irritated because he felt he had already said everything," Nivat said.

"He chose how he wanted to live his life and it was wonderful. He already knew in adolescence what he wanted to do and was a combative writer."

Nivat described him as a "moderate nationalist" but believed that independence should be granted to all territories that did not want to be part of Russia, including Chechnya.

swissinfo with agencies

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918. He served in the Red Army in the Second World War but in 1945 was convicted for criticising Stalin's conduct of the war, and spent the next decade in prison camps and internal exile.

He came to literary prominence in 1962 with "One Day on the Life of Ivan Denisovich", a short novel based on his own labour camp experiences, the only work published in his homeland during Soviet rule.

For his later writings, published abroad, he was stripped of his citizenship and put on a plane to West Germany in 1974 for refusing to keep silent about his country's past. Solzhenitsyn became an icon of resistance to the communist system from his American home in Vermont.

He received the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature for a body of work including "The First Circle" (1968), and "Cancer Ward" (1968).

His monumental history of the Soviet police state, "The Gulag Archipelago", was published in Paris in three volumes between 1973 and 1978.

He returned to Russia in 1994.

According to Russian news agencies, the writer died of either heart failure or a stroke in his home outside Moscow late on August 3, 2008.

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