HIS HEALTH IS LESS RELIABLE NOW, and the strain of life -- not just in t he Gulag halfa century ago but also in the struggling Russia of today -- has ta ken its toll. He still walks briskly, but he rests more, and he measures his public appearances with the careful weighing of necessity and risk that helped him survive the years in Stalin's prisons. Yet while he may be feeble, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is nonetheless hard to surprise, and the reemergence of Russia's Communists in the Dec. 17 parliamentary election certainly did not take him unawares. Ever since his return to the country in May 1994 after 18 years" involuntary exile in Vermont, the Nobel laureate has listened intently to ordinary Russians. His broad-brush conclusion: Russia's woes are the result less of bad policies pursued by President Boris Yeltsin than of democracy's shallow roots and oligarchical features, an almost total absence of self-government at the local level, and average Russians" unwillingness to admit exactly how evil Communism was during its seven decades in power.

For the first few months back in his homeland, Solzhenitsyn was courted by politicians of several parties, including Yeltsin, who actually had telephoned the writer in Vermont on one of his official visits to the United States. But if either the democrats or the ultra- nationalists hoped that Solzhenitsyn's prestige would boost their cause, they were disappointed. Soon after his return to Russia he dismissed Vladimir Zhirinovsky as a "caricature of a patriot," and when he addressed the Russian Duma 14 months ago, he castigated that body for its "scandals, boycotts, walkouts," as well as for the " shallowness" of some bills it had passed. Russian democrats were pointedly reserved in their applause. Several days before the Dec. 17 election, Solzhenitsyn signaled his disgust with all 43 party blocs by announcing that he would not even vote.

What does the writer want? From Samara to Orel to Almaty, Solzhenitsyn has declared his ethnic and territorial hopes for his country: a union of the three Slav republics of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus and of the ethnically Russian part of Kazakhstan, which he feels is suffering cultural discrimination as Kazakhstan revives its Islamic heritage. But as a visitor discovered who interviewed the writer with a TV crew recently, Solzhenitsyn emphatically does not seek what some of his fiercest critics -- in Russia as well as the West -- accuse him of wanting: He disavows monarchy, dictatorship, empire, and anti-Semitism as recipes either for Russia or for any other country. The 19th-century Slavophile idea of Russia as a state with a messianic mission he dismisses brusquely as "a blunder."

What Solzhenitsyn advocates is not political reform but moral change. The essential issue in Russia today, he says, is "repentance: repentance by those who did the coercing, who were the executioners, who mocked the people in exile." He wants Russia to go through the same self-questioning that Germany was forced to undergo after the defeat of Nazism. Whereas the Nazi ideology was denounced root and branch, Solzhenitsyn says, Communism wasn't. It was " like a radical branch of humanism," Solzhenitsyn says, "so no one could easily condemn it."

But if Solzhenitsyn's rejection of Marxist-Leninist ideas gives comfort to free-marketeers, he shares with his fellow anti-Communist Pope John Paul II a deep dissatisfaction with unfettered, areoral capitalism. Russians, and the rest of mankind, he insists, must learn "first not to grab their neighbor's throat and not to grab his piece of bread, not to grab what they do not need." Unrestrained industrial and commercial expansion, he believes, could eventually bring about a global crisis of both economics and environment.

Solzhenitsyn, in effect, remains today what he always was: an example to his people and to the world.

But does anyone listen? At the moment, ordinary Russians seem too preoccupied with mere survival -- or if they are entrepreneurs, with making lots of money very quickly -- to heed his almost archaic calls for a moral reckoning. Neither his novels, even staples like The First Circle and $ ICancer Ward, nor his social and political writings are to be found in Moscow's major bookstores.

A few months ago, Moscow television abruptly pulled his 15-minute fortnightly TV talk show without personally informing him. Later, on another talk show in the city of Samara, some 500 miles from Moscow, a phone-in questioner asked him what he would do if the Communists came back to power, and he wryly responded: "Well, I think my mouth got shut a little earlier than the caller anticipated, before the Communists came to power."

Observant and intelligent younger Russians clearly respect him but do not bel ieve he is relevant to the problems of their country. "If you stop being popula r among young people, you are not asking the important questions anymore," says Artyore Borovik, the youthful editor of a saucy, muckraking weekly called Sov ershenno Sekretno (Completely Secret), who nevertheless admires Solzhenitsyn' s immense courage in facing down Brezhnev's KGB thugs two decades ago. "People do not read him an ymore," says a young hotel worker as she hurries off to her duties.

Today, Solzhenitsyn lives comfortably in a dacha outside Moscow that, typically, took nearly a year longer to complete than the smiling builders, private entrepreneurs, had promised. He still keeps the apartment just behind Tversky Street (formerly Gorky Street) where the KGB wrestled him into a black Volga before his sudden exile in 1974. When he ventures outside the building, older Russians often come up to talk to him, believing that the great writer will somehow be able miraculously to solve some infernal problem they have had with the bureaucracy. It is a continuation of the quaint old Russian notion of the writer as a sort of"second government." He is much encouraged, meanwhile, by his intelligent and gutsy wife, Natalya, and his Harvard- educated son, Yermolai, in his early twenties, who often acts as interpreter when Solzhenitsyn writes or speaks for foreign audiences.

Reminded by a visitor of the Russian proverb he quoted in his Nobel speech, " One word of truth outweighs the whole world," Solzhenitsyn insists he is "sure and confident" of its validity, despite the dismal evidence of truth-seeking in the chaos of post-Communist Russia.

"I live on it and stand on it," says the bearded patriarch of Russia's search for national integrity at the end of the 20th century. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn may be no politician or social reformer, but he is still a patriot. And a prophet, perhaps, in Russia's latest winter of discontent.

David Aikman, David Aikman, a former TIME senior correspondent, has reported periodically from Moscow since 1985.

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