An Interview with Clare Kitson and Melanie Moore, translators of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Between Two Millstones, Book 2”

The University of Notre Dame Press is the proud publisher of the first English translation of Between Two Millstones, Book 2 (November 2020). This long-awaited volume picks up Nobel prize–winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s remarkable and courageous literary and personal life in 1978, after his controversial commencement address at Harvard University, and concludes in 1994, as he bids farewell to the West and prepares at last to return to his Russian homeland with his wife Natalia. Clare Kitson and Melanie Moore translated this concluding volume of Solzhenitsyn’s two-part memoir of his time in the West. They spoke to us about the translation process, Russian literature, and how this book will interest anyone seeking to understand the historical currents driving current Russian-American relations.

When and how did you start your career as a translator? What drew you to Russian literature and to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s work?

Clare Kitson: I started my translation career late in life, after forty years in cinema and television. I loved the Russian literature I’d read, but wasn’t initially confident enough to think about translating it. But in 2012 I attended a literary translation summer school in London, the Russian group run by Robert Chandler. Robert, apart from being a wonderful translator, is also a great benefactor to newbies, recommending them for translation jobs to help launch their careers. In my case, one of these was to translate two interviews with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I jumped at the chance, of course, having read some Solzhenitsyn and having been stunned by this dangerous material coming out of the USSR and his almost unbelievable courage. These interviews led to my translating one of the April 1917 volumes of The Red Wheel.

Melanie Moore: Unlike Clare’s, my whole career has been as a translator, initially for BBC Monitoring, and latterly working freelance on literary and academic texts. I am one of a generation of students taught Russian at secondary school in a bid to ensure Britain had linguists who could talk to the Soviet Union. It was my love of the Russian language that took me to university where I was exposed to a thrilling array of Russian literature. Solzhenitsyn was a towering figure of my Cold War adolescence, his books were welcomed as inside information on what the West was not being told—or did not want to believe—about the Soviet Union. My first Solzhenitsyn translation also came courtesy of Robert Chandler.

I’m interested in how the translation process works for Solzhenitsyn’s books. How long does it take to translate a nearly 600-page book? How do two translators work on the same book?

Clare Kitson: Between Two Millstones Book 2 had a slightly complicated start, so it’s hard to say how long it took in total. I’d already done three chapters, under an earlier arrangement, but Melanie and I did the rest of the translation in about a year. Then came the editing stage, which happened in batches across another year. We translated alternate chapters, then checked each other’s chapters for accuracy of translation and for style and consistency.

Melanie Moore: I’d just like to add that we also had recourse to Russian friends whose cultural insights were invaluable throughout. We then handed off the text to our first readers, the Solzhenitsyn family, and subsequent editors to ensure the text read as seamlessly as possible.

Solzhenitsyn’s many fans are eagerly awaiting this installment of his memoirs. He was a celebrity during his time in the West, hounded by the paparazzi. During the nearly two decades covered in this book, he was living reclusively with his family in Cavendish, Vermont, where his neighbors fiercely guarded his privacy. What will readers learn about life in the Solzhenitsyn household during this period?

Clare Kitson: Cavendish was a huge success. Readers will discover an impeccably organized household routine, in which Solzhenitsyn is able to dedicate himself to his writing, while his much-loved wife Natalia (Alya) handles domestic matters, book editing and production, and all contact with the outside world. Both parents also find time to mastermind aspects of their sons’ education, language and literature being covered by Alya, math and science by Solzhenitsyn.

There were downsides too, of course, when the roads became impassable in winter, for example, and the printer engineer couldn’t get through so that Alya was unable to proceed with her urgent typesetting work. Elsewhere Solzhenitsyn is amused to find, among other unexpected visitors, the rock group Mashina Vremeni at his door, offering to organize his tour of the Soviet Union. Others spend so long to reach the remote location uninvited that the Solzhenitsyns feel obliged to find them accommodation for the night.

What fascinating details of Solzhenitsyn’s life emerge from this text? Are there any surprises on his views on political or literary personalities, current events, or misunderstandings about his work that will be brought to light for the first time for an English audience?

Clare Kitson: People have often had opinions on Solzhenitsyn, not always based on a reading of his work. He has been dogged, in particular, by accusations of anti-Semitism. In this book we learn that, from the day he arrived in Vermont, he threw himself into the Stolypin section of August 1914. His writing about Stolypin’s murder by Dmitry Bogrov, who was Jewish, went on to cause massive controversy in the US, beginning with a perhaps ill-judged essay by an academic and subsequent coverage by Radio Liberty and large swathes of the US press—all this before August 1914 was even published in English! Readers of the French translation, published a year earlier, had failed to detect any anti-Semitism, and once Harry Willetts’s English translation appeared, the media controversy died away.

At the heart of the memoir lies a touching portrait of Solzhenitsyn’s wife Natalia. She is the president of the Solzhenitsyn Fund, founded in 1974 to provide financial assistance to people who were persecuted in the Soviet Union, editor of a 30-volume edition of her husband’s collected works, and, during this volume, a busy mother of young children. What do we learn from this book about the extent of her contributions to her husband’s work? 

Clare Kitson: The amazing, and terrifying, work for the Fund would have been a great life’s work in itself. In case any one of them was intercepted, every communication had to be tiny, hidden, and careful not to mention other people in order to safeguard the chain of collaborators in Russia, who were actually distributing the funds. Tragically, this was not always successful. But Natalia did so much more, as well. She spoke good English and managed all contacts with the outside world. And she collaborated in every stage of her husband’s literary work. She advised on the structure of the works, typed them up, edited them closely with, he tells us, very beneficial results (she always found the right word when her husband hadn’t!), proofreading, typesetting—with her mother, also a resident at Five Brooks, helping.

What will Russian literature and history scholars take away from this volume? What other professional readers will be interested in the book?

Clare Kitson: Having translated a volume of The Red Wheel, I was puzzled about Solzhenitsyn’s sources. His range is vast—from the inner thoughts of historical figures, complete with extraordinary detail of their situations and problems, to tiny anecdotes, tragic, chaotic and absurd, of everyday life—on the street, in the fire station, in the army, on the train, everywhere. The latter voices sound very real indeed even though we know that people alive at the time were absolutely not supposed to spill any beans. Millstones provides the answers. The greatest archival treasure trove turned out to be nearby: the Hoover Institution. But perhaps the even greater treasure was those few people who had, against the odds, written, hidden, and hung on to diaries from the time of the Revolution. Then, when other, now elderly, witnesses heard that Solzhenitsyn was out of the USSR and looking for such materials, they wrote about their experiences and sent them to Cavendish. In Millstones, Solzhenitsyn acknowledges that all these details might perhaps be “overloading” the Wheel, but points out that “it is that very material that’s needed for categorical proof,” noting wryly that he “never took a vow of fidelity to the novel form.”

How is Between Two Millstones, Book 2, an important source for anyone seeking to understand the historical currents driving Russian-American relations? What sections do you think resonate especially with contemporary conversations or events?

Melanie Moore: Solzhenitsyn was deeply, deeply shocked to discover that he could be pilloried for his views in the West, where he had imagined he would be able to speak his mind with impunity. He can be seen, perhaps, as an early example of cancel culture, with senior politicians declining to meet with him because of the views he’d expressed, raising issues of the extent of freedom of speech and who establishes it. The West wanted a Solzhenitsyn who fitted its preconceived ideas and served its purposes, a reminder in these polarized times to examine our own biases and not to be satisfied with surface impressions. Similarly, Solzhenitsyn’s constant frustration with the West’s conflation of Russia and the USSR prompts us to be sure to listen deeply to our conversation partners, not simply to hear what we expect to hear.

Solzhenitsyn’s title Between Two Millstones, likens his position in the West to that of a grain that becomes lodged between two massive stones, each grinding away—the Soviet Communist power with its propaganda machine on the one hand and the Western establishment with its mainstream media on the other. Yet Richard Tempest says, “This is a happy book.” Can you explain his contradictory statement?

Melanie Moore: Yes, as we have seen, despite these external pressures, Solzhenitsyn is happy in his domestic setting where he has the time and space to think and to write undisturbed. He is able to practise his faith freely and to hone his thinking. While not universally admired, he remains a respected figure invited to address audiences all over the world and to expound his views from prestigious public platforms. He is a man in his personal and creative prime.

Who would you like to read Between Two Millstones, Book 2 and why?

Clare Kitson: When I’ve mentioned to friends what I’ve been translating, they’ve looked nervous. These are people for whom Solzhenitsyn is a great hero, a man who underwent terrible hardships to reveal the truth, whose works are all deadly serious, who won a Nobel Prize for this, and who’s rather daunting. But here we see the man, the very human reactions—his love of family, some grumpiness, a lot of frustration, a good dose of humor, with worries about aging, when he’s so desperate to complete his work. I think these friends should read it.

Melanie Moore: I would like to see both volumes reach readers who have grown up since the demise of the Soviet Union and may know little of its history. I think many will be astonished to learn of the difficulties Solzhenitsyn faced in having his works published, for example. With the appeal of authoritarian leadership seemingly growing worldwide, Solzhenitsyn’s life is a timely illustration of the costs of stepping out of line for one man, his family, friends, and supporters.

This is a question we receive from readers all the time. What Solzhenitsyn translations are you working on next?

Clare Kitson and Melanie Moore: Nothing has been agreed upon at the present time. Solzhenitsyn could be very scathing of his translators’ output, so in joining their ranks we can only hope he would have approved of what we have done so far.


This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.

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