Vyto Starinskas / staff file photo
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, his wife Natalia and son Stepan surprised Cavendish townspeople by showing up at the town’s bicentennial parade in May 1994.
CAVENDISH — The town of Cavendish will have an opportunity to honor the legacy of a former resident and renowned literary writer on Town Meeting Day.
The town will decide whether to acquire the Universalist Church on Main Street and transform the historic building into a museum and exhibit for the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn. According to Margo Caulfield, director of the Cavendish Historical Society, it could be the most important article on this year’s town meeting agenda.
“We want to have a permanent exhibit and museum specifically focusing on the 18 years Solzhenitsyn lived here,” Caulfield said. “Our goal is very clear. We want to remember him and his work.”
Solzhenitsyn was born in the former Soviet Union in 1918. According to his biography, he spent eight years in a Soviet labor camp, wrote two literary classics, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and “The Cancer Ward,” many novels and novellas, and was deported in 1974 by Soviet authorities.
In exile, Solzhenitsyn lived in West Germany, Switzerland and Stanford, Calif., before settling in Cavendish in 1976. Solzhenitsyn lived a secluded life and the town respected his privacy.
Solzhenitsyn regained his Russian citizenship in 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and he returned there in 1994. But the years when he lived in Cavendish remain a mystery.
According to Caulfield, all of that is about to change.
“The majority of the museum’s focus will be on the 18 years he was here,” she said. “What the specifics are going to be and how it will look will be revealed.”
The historical society discussed the idea of a Solzhenitsyn exhibit for years, according to Caulfield. Last summer, several Russian tourists visited the historical society and inquired about Solzhenitsyn’s life in the area. As a result, the society met with Solzhenitsyn’s family members and they agreed that it was the right time for an exhibit.
“Caulfield first contacted us in August to let us know they were collecting information and materials about Alexander Solzhenitsyn and that they wanted to create a place where future generations could learn more about his time in Cavendish,” Carolyn Solzhenitsyn of Cavendish, who is married to Solzhenitsyn’s son Ignat, said in an email.
“Museums exist in other cities and towns where Alexander Solzhenitsyn lived,” she said. “We think it will be great and fitting to have one where he spent almost 20 years of his life, the years he calls his most productive, and the place where he raised his family.”
The historical society selected the Universalist Church on Main Street in Cavendish as the site for the exhibit. The historic landmark does not have an active congregation and is used for educational purposes, according to the church’s page on Facebook.
The historical society met with the church’s owners, the Universalist Unitarian Congregation of St. Johnsbury, and they approved of the idea, according to Caulfield.
“What’s the most beautiful part of the story is that it was approved on what would’ve been Solzhenitsyn’s 94th birthday, Dec. 11,” Caulfield said. “It gave us all a very nice birthday present.”
If the town approves the transfer, the Universalist Unitarian Congregation will sign the deed over to the town and the town will lease the church to the historical society.
Caulfield did not know how much it would cost to maintain the church, but the historical society will discuss its plans with the Division of Historic Preservation in the coming weeks.
“Once we know what to do, we’ll put our money together and find the right people to help. There’s a lot of legwork taking place on how we want this to look like.” Caulfield said.
The historical society may open the exhibit by summer and display a timeline of Solzhenitsyn’s life, select photos and miscellaneous items.
The Solzhenitsyns are now collecting various documents, videos and other materials for the exhibit and Caulfield believes it has potential to become a popular tourist site.
“The name of the exhibit will be called, ‘I Wrote and Waited.’ It’s a quote from ‘The Homecoming,’ a BBC documentary that documents Solzhenitsyn’s return to Russia in 1994,” Caulfield said.
“While in Cavendish, Solzhenitsyn wrote ‘The Red Wheel,’ a series of Russian historical novels, and in the film Solzhenitsyn explained that living in Cavendish allowed him to write uninterrupted,” she added. “He said, ‘I took work all my waking hours. When you’re absorbed in your work, there’s no room for other thoughts. Here I’ve been able to immerse myself fully in the years.’”
Solzhenitsyn died in Moscow, Russia, in 2008. His wife Natalia and two sons, Yermolai and Stepan, live in Moscow, while his son Ignat and his wife Carolyn and their children live in Cavendish.
Cavendish town meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Monday, March 4, at the Cavendish Elementary School.
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