Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn made a rare public appearance to say an emotional thank you and farewell to his neighbors in Cavendish, his home in exile.
"You forgave me my unusual way of life, and even took it upon yourselves to protect my privacy," he told residents gathered for the annual town meeting Monday. "For this, I have been truly grateful throughout all these years; and now, as my stay here comes to an end, I thank you."
Solzhenitsyn said he and his wife, Natalya, plan to return to Russia at the end of May, but that his sons would continue to live in Cavendish. He spoke in Russian and his 20-year-old son, Stephan, translated.
Solzhenitsyn and his family have lived in the south-central Vermont town of 1,300 since 1976, two years after his 1974 expulsion from the Soviet Union.
Townspeople have supported his desire for privacy. On a sign at the Cavendish General Store, it says, "No Directions To the Solzhenitsyn Home."
The 75-year-old author spoke movingly of his gratitude to Cavendish, and the crowd of more than 200 gave him a standing ovation.
"Our children grew up and went to school here, alongside your children," he told residents. "For them, Vermont is home. Indeed, our whole family has felt at home among you.
In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, The Gulag Archipelago and other books, Solzhenitsyn exposed the terror of Josef Stalin's rule and challenged the silence of his contemporaries.
In 1970, he won the Nobel Prize for literature. He decided not to leave the Soviet Union to accept. In February 1974, he was arrested and charged with treason. The next day he was put on a plane for West Germany.
He told townspeople: "Exile is always difficult, and yet I could not imagine a better place to live, and wait, and wait and wait for my return home, than Cavendish, Vt."
Solzhenitsyn gave the town a stack of autographed books for the town library, including several copies of The Gulag Archipelago, a condemnation of life in Soviet prison camps.
The town gave the Solzhenitsyns a marble plaque, a book of Cavendish sketches and marble pendants.
"And so today, both to those of you whom I have met over these years, and to those whom I haven't met, I say thank you and farewell," he said. "I wish all the best to Cavendish. God bless you all."