As we move towards a 20 year disclosure of public records, today we mark the first mid-year release of government files. Previously secret files from 1983 have been released, offering us new insight into the Prime Minister’s in-tray that year. Themes of interest from the year include the workings of the Conservative government either side of a landslide election victory, the testing of the hitherto solid relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher following the US-led invasion of Grenada, and the discussions behind the placement of US missiles at Greenham Common.
The sheer weight of paperwork remains astounding, as hundreds of Prime Minister’s Office files, each page of which would have passed over Thatcher’s desk, have been made available in the reading rooms at The National Archives, Kew. There is evidence again of the Prime Minister’s tendency to heavily annotate documents, with some particularly virulent comments regarding work by Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, which perhaps indicates a degree of post-election frustration and impatience at the relatively sluggish pace of change.
One file which caught my eye in particular, though, regards a meeting between Thatcher and the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (PREM 19/1103). Solzhenitsyn who, as author of such texts as The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had gained great fame in the West, as well as having enlightened the world to the shocking conditions of the Soviet gulag, visited London having been awarded the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion.
Having been imprisoned in a gulag for eight years, following the end of the Second World War, and then being released to the relative freedom of permanent internal exile in Kazakhstan, Solzhenitsyn suffered for a long time at the hands of Stalinist repression. He was released during the de-Stalinisation programme of the Khrushchev era, only to find himself re-arrested and deported in 1974, when the repressiveness of the Soviet leadership re-emerged under Brezhnev.
In the meantime, Solzhenitsyn had written some of his finest works. Using his experiences of the gulag in which he was incarcerated, Solzhenitsyn managed to describe in incredible detail the day-to-day horrors of the labour camp in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and the practical nature and brutal realities of the forced labour system in The Gulag Archipelago. While the former was – somewhat extraordinarily – published publicly in the Soviet Union, the second remained underground. His treatment demonstrates the unpredictable nature of Soviet repression, vacillating wildly between open publication of critical literary works, to a swift crackdown which saw the author exiled from the country.
By the time of the meeting between Solzhenitsyn and Thatcher in 1983, the dissident had been living in the West for almost a decade. The meeting follows a fascinating trajectory, with Solzhenitsyn describing the many disappointments he had endured since moving to the West, and Thatcher demonstrating a conciliatory tone, and carefully considering what he had to say.
Solzhenitsyn describes his numerous concerns vividly, and does not hold back on attacking the repressiveness of the Soviet Union, or the passivity of the West. His main fear is that the economic weakness of the USSR was almost irreversible and that ‘the only course open to the Soviet Union was to start a war’, an analysis which Thatcher described as ‘disturbing’. In addition to this, Solzhenitsyn is adamant that the West is ill-prepared for any such war, showing particular frustration with anti-nuclear demonstrators, who he deems ‘prepared to surrender’. He continues: ‘Although there was no war today, the situation might be worse than that of 1940. The young did not seem prepared to defend their country,’ a point Thatcher contended, citing the Falklands. Solzhenitsyn goes on to claim the West ‘had lost the nuclear race’ and that balance ‘would never be restored’. However, demonstrating his latterly acquired faith, and general disregard for Western materialism, he claimed that, ‘if the West could re-discover spiritual firmness, the struggle could continue for a long time.’
Solzhenitsyn’s pessimism (he later claimed he had been an optimist his whole life but after he had come to the West he had become a pessimist) is demonstrated most extremely in his assessment of the Second World War, where he states ‘the German army could have liberated the Soviet Union from Communism but Hitler was stupid and did not use this weapon.’ It seems extraordinary that Solzhenitsyn saw the failure of Nazi Germany to annex the Soviet Union as some kind of missed opportunity, but it is at this point that we must consider his personal experiences in the gulag system, immediately after his efforts in the war (he was a twice decorated commander in the Red Army).
Nonetheless, Solzhenitsyn’s general tone seems to be a familiar one among the files released today. There was a sneaking sense that the Soviet Union had taken a lead in the arms and nuclear races, and the fear was that the West may not close the gap. Whether this was a genuine fear or propaganda to influence public opinion or increase military spending is not entirely clear, but there are fairly regular references to the West faltering behind the Soviet Union. Thatcher herself neatly summarises what she saw to be the reason behind this: ‘We held weapons to defend ourselves…But for the Soviet Union, armaments were a virility symbol.’ Solzhenitsyn did not seem to care what they symbolised, but was only interested in halting Communism and, ultimately, its destruction.