Scholars discussing legacy of Russian dissident Solzhenitsyn

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FILE — In this May 25, 1994, file photo Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn gets into the family car as he departs his Cavendish, Vt., compound. Dozens of international experts on the works of the late Nobel Prize winning Russian writer are gathering in Vermont for a planned two-day conference to begin Sept. 7, 2018, commemorating the 100th anniversary of his birth. Solzhenitsyn, who spent nearly two decades in exile in Vermont, died in Russia in 2008. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Scholars from around the world are gathering in Vermont to discuss the writings and legacy of the late dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who chronicled life in Soviet-era prison camps and spent 18 years in exile in the state before living out his days in his native Russia.

A highlight of the two-day conference beginning Friday on the Lyndon campus of Northern Vermont University will be a visit to Cavendish — the southern Vermont town where the acclaimed writer lived in near-seclusion.

Solzhenitsyn, a son says, did his best writing while his privacy was famously guarded by townspeople who refused to give the curious directions to his home.

Over the decades, Solzhenitsyn — who spent 11 years in captivity in his homeland — wrote about life in the Soviet labor camps through books such as "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and "The Gulag Archipelago." He also wrote histories of Russia and the Soviet Union before his death in 2008.

His works still resonate today amid strained relations between the U.S. and Russia, conference organizer Alexandre Strokanov said.

"If you want to understand where Russia is going and what Russia, at least in part, has become, we have to read his works," Strokanov said. "He answers all these questions in his books."

The Vermont conference is one of a number of commemorations in Vermont to celebrate the centennial of Solzhenitsyn's birth. The Vermont Historical Society has an exhibition at its Montpelier museum. The Cavendish Historical Society also has a Solzhenitsyn exhibition and is renovating an old church so it can become a permanent home for Solzhenitsyn artifacts.

Next month, the first English translation of "Between Two Millstones, Book 1, Sketches of Exile, 1974-1978," Solzhenitsyn's book about his life in exile, is being published.

Solzhenitsyn did some of his best work in Cavendish, said son Stephan, 44, who now lives in Moscow but spent his childhood in Vermont.

"That's something he could never have done if he didn't have the ability to work quietly and undisturbed," he said.

Margo Caulfield of the Cavendish Historical Society said people still regularly visit the town to learn about Solzhenitsyn's time there. Some are fans of his writing; others are people who lived under the Soviet system.

"Everybody comes with their own sort of agenda," she said.

Thomas Beyer, a professor of Russian and East European studies at Vermont's Middlebury College, said he began reading Solzhenitsyn in the 1960s before the author became famous. Beyer says he was struck by "the moral courage that he presented in his novels and also the ability to endure ... the worst possible deprivation."

But Solzhenitsyn's legacy after writing about the camps is mixed. He was an early supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he never really fit in while living in Vermont, Beyer said.

"It would have been hard to consider him a true Vermonter in any sense of the word, save for his rigid independence of thought and action," he said.

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