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Invisible Allies, by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

Too often for my taste, cloak and dagger doings are portrayed with a sense of romance and style that seem to belie the risk inherent in the activities. I've often wondered what it's really like to be part of an underground, where lives are literally on the line and seemingly innocuous occurrences could be anything but. A dear friend's gift of Invisible Allies has allowed me a revelatory glimpse into such a system. While Invisible Allies is not a short book, and provides a detailed view of the network of researchers, typists, couriers, archivists, and others who helped Russian writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn prepare, edit, and smuggle his works out of the Soviet Union, I call it a glimpse because the book represents only Solzhenitsyn's perspective—and only the details he remembered at the time of writing, and was comfortable sharing. These are important points to keep in mind regarding his tale—an outsider will never fully comprehend the double life of one inside a subversive network; and insiders probably don't fully appreciate the roles and risks of others within it, either.

Many chapters are titled with a name—an individual who's the ostensible focus of that portion of Solzhenitsyn's narrative. It is truly difficult to say which is more inspiring: the indomitable spirit that fired so many of his conspirators, or the creative means they employed to accomplish their varied tasks. The first chapter, Nikolai Ivanovich Zubov, is an excellent example. Zubov devised several ingenious means of transferring messages and materials, often using the Soviet postal system itself to carry them—before knowing of a need for such processes. Another chapter recounts using a coded system of postage stamps as a means by which Solzhenitsyn could request stored materials to be sent to him. Many chapters tell of individuals who worked full days, some of them directly in Soviet employ, and devoted their leisure time to their clandestine pursuits, forgoing sleep and social activities in order to complete their tasks. For several, this arduous lifestyle continued for years. The reward for such devotion was a constant fear of being caught or revealed by another—a very real threat which happened to some. Of course, the participants were rewarded by contributing to a cause whose ideals they strongly believed in; it was heartening to learn of so many individuals willing to risk so much for the sake of getting some truth out to the world at large. Many were later rewarded monetarily, as Solzhenitsyn directed funds from his 1970 Nobel Prize in literature to help his invisible allies, but no one apparently expected tangible payment for their efforts. While some tales overlap, Solzhenitsyn's vivid prose ensures each has its own timbre. He also provides a penetrating look into his own mind, as he reveals how indebted he is to each person who helped him create his many works, store them, publish them, and defend them against the inevitable Soviet denunciations—and how much he, and others of his group, cared for and about each other.

Having read a few of Solzhenitsyn's books prior to picking up Invisible Allies gave me an ability to empathize more deeply with many of his conspirators' activities. Knowing the damning contents of The Gulag Archipelago, for example, helped me imagine the tightrope his library insider must have walked, smuggling out materials the Soviets forbade its citizens to see; or to feel the tension a typist might experience, typing its pages in a small apartment at night while potential informers occupy the rooms around hers. Similarly, cat-and-mouse aspects of the brushes with the KGB evoked shivers, despite knowing in a broad sense how the drama played out. Solzhenitsyn also devotes a fair amount of attention to foreigners who aided his causes, in a specific chapter as well as elsewhere. Americans do not figure prominently in the story, and Solzhenitsyn focuses on part of the reason for that in a commentary on assistance he got from foreign journalists:

The European papers and agencies tended to be the more understanding, and their correspondents fared better. .... Americans, on the other hand, tend to be career-oriented to a particularly single-minded degree, and if one of them should blunder, he would not earn sympathy or moral support from his boss and colleagues but would be held up to ridicule as a loser. (p. 272)
The saddest thing about reading that statement is how true it is still, even as our own country totters into totalitarianism.

Not to diminish the value of Invisible Allies as a penetrating examination of Soviet domination of its citizens, but American lovers of liberty would be very well served by reading and thinking about the many lessons it offers us. We who have hopes that some of the semi-libertarian people we know will come to our aid as the American iron curtain draws shut will need to steel ourselves for the reality that many won't. Most humans simply aren't willing to risk their comforts, let alone their lives, for principles. And of the few who will, tolerance and trust will be the slender threads holding individuals fast to the principles of liberty and telling the truth in the face of the state propaganda machines. The ingenuity and perseverance demonstrated by Solzhenitsyn and his conspirators will need to be matched—probably exceeded—if we are to route around Real ID, NAIS, and other obstacles in the paths of free beings. Even as the story unwound in Invisible Allies offers plenty of cautions, it also offers hope, for the underlying theme throughout is that tyranny cannot win.

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