Sun, Oct 13, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: Media frenzy over the ‘Russian big-beard’

The visit of Nobel Prize-winning, anti-communist author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Taiwan in 1982 sparked a newspaper war

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Solzhenitsyn and Free China displays a photo of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn making his speech in Taipei.

Photo courtesy of National Central Library

Oct. 14 to Oct. 20

The battle began when 17 media outlets issued a joint statement slamming the China Times on Oct. 18, 1982. A day earlier, the newspaper had announced on its front page the arrival of Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn to Taiwan, detailing his visit on page 3.

“Anti-communist writer visits adamantly anti-communist country, his freedom is proof of the freedom and democracy of Taiwan,” ran one of the headlines.

The paper’s rivals were furious that it jumped the gun despite them collectively promising to not publish anything until Solzhenitsyn made his first public appearance.

“Even though our reporters watched him enter the country ... the majority of newspapers, television and radio stations refrained from publishing anything per the agreement,” the statement read. “But only the China Times violated the agreement, ‘exclusively’ publishing the news of his arrival. This is very unfair because they took advantage of us keeping our word to their own benefit ...”

The China Times issued its own statement the next day, claiming that it had never agreed to the terms, instead criticizing Independence Evening Post (自立晚報) journalist Frank Wu (吳豐山), who coordinated Solzhenitsyn’s visit, for disrespecting press freedom by making such a request. They were especially incensed that as punishment, Wu announced that they would refuse to provide the China Times any press releases or photos and would ban them from attending Solzhenitsyn’s speech the following week.

“Mr. Solzhenitsyn is a man who upholds freedom, especially freedom of speech. We hope that he can fully experience the freedom that is enjoyed in [Taiwan]. We believe that he, as well as our citizens, will not accept any agreement that violates this spirit,” the paper fired back.

SECRETIVE VISIT

At that time, Solzhenitsyn was living in exile in the US. He was an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union, especially its gulag labor camp system under which he spent 11 years, and his work won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. After a failed KGB assassination attempt, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from his home country in 1974.

The fact that he agreed to visit Taiwan was big news, as the nation was floundering diplomatically, clinging on to the last vestiges of its claims as “Free China” and a beacon of anti-communism in Asia.

According to Frank Wu, the Wu San-lien Award Foundation first reached out to Solzhenitsyn in June 1981. Three months later, the author agreed to visit on the condition that everything be kept secret until his first public appearance in Taiwan. All correspondence was personally delivered by Wu San-lien’s sons or daughters-in-law as they shuttled between Taiwan and the US. Even so, Wu was not to refer to Solzhenitsyn by name in the letters, but as “Professor Smith.”

After a year of back and forth, Wu was informed on Oct. 9, 1982 that Solzhenitsyn would be arriving in exactly a week. On Oct. 13, Wu gathered members of the local and foreign press, instructing them not to publish anything until Solzhenitsyn gave the green light.

But news photographers descended on the airport to await his arrival on Oct. 16. Wu made them promise not to publish the photos until later, to shoot from a distance and not use flash. The latter request was ignored as the photographers mobbed Solzhenitsyn. He was visibly upset, Wu recalls.

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