#14 - JRL 7211
June 5, 2003
Natalya Reshetovskaya Dies at 84; Wife of Alexander Solzhenitsyn
J.Y. Smith, Special to The Washington Post
Natalya Reshetovskaya, 84, the first wife of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the dissident Russian writer whose chronicles of Soviet oppression brought him the Nobel Prize for literature, died w. The cause of death was not reported.
Ms. Reshetovskaya was a chemist, an accomplished pianist and a memoirist, but her life was largely defined by her relationship with Solzhenitsyn.
They met in 1938, when they were students at the University of Rostov, and were married two years later. In the following decades, they divorced, remarried and divorced again. Their relationship was marked by bitterness, recrimination and infidelity, and by forgiveness, reconciliation and love. In its turbulence, it mirrored the times through which they lived.
Ms. Reshetovskaya was born into a Cossack family in Novocherkassk in southern Russia. Her father fought in World War I and then against the Communists in the Russian Revolution. In 1919, he fled into exile. His daughter was raised by her mother and three aunts in Rostov-on-Don.
When she and Solzhenitsyn met, the bloody purges of Joseph Stalin were reaching a crescendo. A year into their marriage, they were separated by World War II, in which he served as an artillery captain. In 1945, he was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison for making a mocking remark about Stalin in a letter to a friend.
At first he was held in the notorious Lubyanka prison in central Moscow. Ms. Reshetovskaya would go every day to the nearby Neskuchny Gardens in the vain hope of catching a glimpse of him. In later years, when he was imprisoned and exiled in Central Asia, she was permitted to write him once a month, but could receive letters from him only twice a year.
In the early 1950s, Ms. Reshetovskaya joined the staff of an agricultural research facility in Ryazan, a city 120 miles southeast of Moscow. She survived a bout with uterine cancer. With Solzhenitsyn's encouragement, she obtained a divorce and became engaged to a man named Vsevolod Somov.
In 1956, however, almost on the eve of her marriage, Solzhenitsyn, like a character from one of his novels, returned from exile. He gave her some of his poems, one of which said:
At midnight, hiding my lips in a glass I whisper incomprehensibly to others, My love, we have waited a long time!
In a memoir, Ms. Reshetovskaya said she replied: "I was created to love you alone, but fate decreed otherwise."
She married Somov, but soon left him and remarried Solzhenitsyn. For some years, they lived together quietly.
In 1962, everything changed. Solzhenitsyn burst onto the world literary scene with the publication in Moscow of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch," his novella about prison life.
At first he enjoyed the patronage of Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet premier. But as his disillusion with the Soviet system grew, he became a fearless and scathing critic. His work was published to great acclaim in the West, but it was banned in the Soviet Union. He was on a collision course with the authorities.
At the same time, his personal life became extremely complicated. He had a number of love affairs. When Ms. Reshetovskaya confronted him, he said:
"Please understand me. I have to describe lots of women in my novel. You don't expect me to find my heroines at the dinner table, do you?"
Years earlier, he had used a similar excuse in insisting that they never have children -- they would interfere with his writing.
In 1970, the year he won the Nobel Prize, Solzhenitsyn learned that Natalya Svetlova, one of his volunteer typists, had become pregnant with their child. When he told Ms. Reshetovskaya, she is said to have considered suicide by throwing herself under a train like Anna Karenina, the Tolstoy heroine. She and Solzhenitsyn divorced a second time.
In 1973, Solzhenitsyn married Svetlova. In 1974, with the publication in the West of "The Gulag Archipelago," his masterful description of the Soviet camp system, he was forced into exile by the Soviet authorities.
Ms. Reshetovskaya reportedly was recruited by the KGB, the secret police, to try to dissuade Solzhenitsyn from allowing the book to appear. Later, she published several volumes of memoirs that were highly critical of him. In "Sanya -- My Husband Alexander Solzhenitsyn," she went so far as to deny the existence of the system he had described in "The Gulag."
She always denied she had ever betrayed him.
Her books were published by the Novosti Press, which was run by the KGB. Her editor there was Konstantin Semyonov, and he became her third husband.
In 1994, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia after 20 years of exile.
He supported Ms. Reshetovskaya financially and contributed to the cost of her funeral, but the two never again had a personal relationship.
At her death, Ms. Reshetovskaya lived alone in a tiny Moscow apartment, surrounded by pictures and memorabilia of the love of her life.