I have always had a strong suspicion that the Pink Floyd song Wish You Were Here is a homage to Ivan Denisovich, the fictional figure of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous novel of the same name. This possibility doesn’t become clear until you’ve churned through Solzhenitsyn’s opus – A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, and The First Circle at the minimum – because the references are oblique and cunning. They’re not so sneaky that I couldn’t ferret them out in Year 12 of high school, when I was obssessed with Pink Floyd and doing a full review of Solzhenitsyn for my special topic in English. Do a search on the internet and you’ll find all sorts of theories about what the song is really about, but they’re all wrong, because it’s about the Soviet prison camps and particularly, about the injustice visited on Soviet soldiers returning from the Great Patriotic War.

The big clue is in the following line:

And did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
located somewhere in the middle of the song. This is exactly what happened to a huge number of Soviet soldiers – captured by the Germans but then rescued by the advancing red army, they were suspected by red army political agents to have been corrupted into the ways of the West, and thus to be ideologically suspect, so were banished to the Gulag for a period of 5 or 10 years after the war.
The first line of the song also evokes a strong image of prison camp tales, the train line passing through the vast and unforgiving wilderness of Russia to its cruel destination:
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
and follows with a sneaky reference to the ever-present stool-pigeons of the society Solzhenitsyn describes when it follows up this “can you tell” with “A smile from a veil?” Large sections of the song also speak to the disillusionment that Solzhenitsyn describes in Cancer Ward and The First Circle:
And did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have you found? The same old fears.
I think the latter part of this song is also about the futility of revolution, and the way that it always seems to shake the same filthy power mongers to the top. It’s an anthem to cynicism, really, which is pretty much what Solzhenitsyn managed to put together over the best part of his literary career. There’s an enormous amount of cynicism in Pink Floyd’s work – the song Mother (delivered at its best, in my opinion, by Sinead O’Connor) drips with cynical venom, for example, and The Wall Part 3 may seem like overly rebellious stupidity to anyone under the age of 30, but to anyone who experienced British schools in the 70s it is 100% spot on in its nastiness. They certainly give it a try, but it’s a rare Englishman who can match the cynicism of your average Russian, and Pink Floyd during the era of Roger Waters were exemplars of those few who were more than up to the task. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that they would have been able to take on the deep, dark and pure cynicism of early Solzhenitsyn. Without David Gilmour I don’t know how they would have avoided sublimating into pure darkness – how Solzhenitsyn does it I can’t even begin to guess.
So, I think Pink Floyd rote a song in homage to Solzhenitsyn’s experiences and never bothered to tell their fans what it was about. If Iron Maiden can make their most famous effort from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, then why not? Good literature has always been the foundation stone of good rock, and Pink Floyd are no exception. So next time you’re listening to this fine song, spare a thought for all those people who only took the steel rail one way …
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