As he moves into his eighth decade of life, Alexander Solzhenitsyn remains a brooding presence in both his Russian homeland and his chosen place of exile, the United States. Less than two weeks before Solzhenitsyn's 70th birthday on Dec. 11, the top Kremlin official in charge of culture and ideology reaffirmed the ban on publishing the author's works in the Soviet Union. Lifting the ban would undermine the foundations of Soviet life, said Politburo member Vadim Medvedev. Only one Solzhenitsyn book, the short novel "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," has ever been published in his native country.
In the United States, meanwhile, Solzhenitsyn remains a figure of compelling interest despite - and also because of - his reclusive existence in rural Vermont. Adding piquancy to the author's aloofness is the knowledge that he is less than enamored of the society in which he has lived since being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974. In a 1978 Harvard commencement address that elicited wide comment, Solzhenitsyn asserted that "the defense of individual rights (in Western countries) has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time in the West to defend not so much human rights as human obligations."Solzhenitsyn has not appeared in public for several years, giving rise to speculation about the state of his health. He has suffered at least two serious bouts with cancer, experiences that found expression in his novel "The Cancer Ward." On the other hand, unconfirmed reports from Vermont suggest that he is still working on his multivolume history of the origins of the Soviet state - a project that the guardians of Soviet literature and political orthodoxy find especially offensive.