Monday, October 24, 2016

The Book A Community Wrote About a Writer Who Changed History

 Cavendish, Vermont is known for having been the home of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize winner who lived there for almost 18 of the 20 years after being exiled from Russia. The town’s willingness to protect his privacy from outsiders is legendary and as a recent visitor to the Cavendish Historical Society (CHS) Museum noted, “there is little on the Internet about Solzhenitsyn’s time here, other than people wouldn’t give directions to his house.” 

That is about to change, with the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Writer Who Changed History. The author, Margo Caulfield, the Coordinator of CHS, explains that this is a community effort that started in the 1970s when a group of volunteers met weekly and clipped articles pertaining to Cavendish. Through their efforts, Solzhenitsyn’s time in Cavendish was well documented and these archives were key in writing the chapter “Life in the West.”

The inspiration for The Writer Who Changed History came from former third grader Isabele Gross. As part of CHS’s outreach to children, Solzhenitsyn’s experience as a Captain in the Russian Army during WWII was included along with the stories of other Cavendish veterans. Isabelle became extremely upset about how Solzhenitsyn was arrested on the front lines and imprisoned just because he wrote to a friend about his concerns with Stalin. She kept on saying, “This is unfair!” and had many questions including “Was he okay?” “Did they hurt him?” By showing her pictures of Solzhenitsyn living in Cavendish, his children and grandchildren, her concerns were eased. It became clear that having a book might be a better way for Isabele and other students to understand that Solzhenitsyn’s war experience was literally just one chapter in a very amazing life.

The Cavendish Community Fund provided funding for editing, while the Vermont Humanities Council gave CHS a grant to develop the book’s companion website.  Cavendish resident Katie Hamlin is the webmaster for the site, which includes a study guide and curriculum that teachers and book groups can use. Finally, private donations helped with other costs.

Caulfield states, “There were three things I thought were important. The book needed lots and lots of photographs that on their own could tell the story.” Thanks to the generosity of the Solzhenitsyn family, who provided the majority of the book’s photographs, some of these pictures, until now, have not been seen in the west.

Equally important was the look of the book. “It needs vibrancy and color. We don’t want kids turned off because it appears dark.” Another Cavendish resident, Julia Gignoux, was able to provide the right mix. Responsible for the layout and design, Gignoux made  TheWriter Who Changed History come alive, resulting in a final product that is appealing to all ages.

The third element was that the book had to include Solzhenitsyn’s writing. “When you mention his name, people immediately think of “Gulag Archipelago,”  but his body of work is vast and includes plays, poems and so much more. As much as possible I thought it important to rely on these resources so that Solzhenitsyn gets to tell his own story but at a level children will understand.” TheWriter Who Changed History includes excerpts from speeches, interviews as well as text from his books.

Of most importance are the people of Cavendish. Their cooperation and willingness to protect Solzhenitsyn from the prying eyes of the public, made it possible for him to complete “The Red Wheel.” That same Vermont spirit brought many locals together to make The Writer Who Changed History possible.

“Yes,” in response to a common question posed by longtime local residents, the book does contain a picture of the now famous homemade sign that hung at the entry of the Cavendish General Store “No Directions to the Solzhenitsyn Home.” And, “No,” is still the answer to visitors who ask for those directions.

In addition to having the book and website for students, teachers and anyone interested in Solzhenitsyn, there is a Facebook page and Pinterest board.  CHS plans to use these digital tools as a way to engage students from around the world in discussing issues that were of importance to Solzhenitsyn.

The book is self-published by CHS and is available for purchase locally at the Cavendish Town Office (37 High St); Minibees (1990 Main St), formerly the Cavendish General Store; and the CHS Museum, which is right next to Minibees. The book is available on-line at Create Space and Bulk purchasing is available by calling 802-226-7807 or e-mailing

All proceeds from the sale of the book will be used for the Society’s Solzhenitsyn Project, which includes a permanent exhibit, archives, education and outreach.

Margo Caulfield
Cavendish Historical Society
PO Box 472
Cavendish, VT 05142


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