Alexander Solzhenitsyn – far-reaching thinker
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of the most far-reaching thinkers, writers and humanitarians of the 20th century; he continued the realistic tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Until the end of his days, he fought for Russia not only to move away from its totalitarian past but also to have a worthy future, to become a truly free and democratic country.
Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk. He was raised by his mother, a typist, because his father had died in an accident six months before he was born.
Alexander studied mathematics and physics at Rostov-on-Don State University while at the same time taking correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History. He graduated from the University in 1941, just days before Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
When war broke out, he enlisted in the Red Army and rose to the rank of artillery captain. Decorated twice, he witnessed some of the fiercest battles of World War II, leading an artillery company on the front lines from November 1942 to February 1945. It was then that Solzhenitsyn was arrested for “anti-Soviet agitation” – he made critical references to Stalin in correspondence with a friend – and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Thanks to his mathematical training, Solzhenitsyn was initially spared the worst excesses of the Gulag. From 1946 to 1950, he was confined to a “sharashka,” a special prison for scientists forced to work on government projects. The experience later became the basis for his novel “The First Circle.” The title of the book referred to the least painful circle of Hell in Dante’s “Inferno.”
In 1950, he was sent to a special camp for political prisoners in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan where he spent the next three years working as a miner, bricklayer, and foundry man. His experiences at Ekibastuz formed the basis for the book “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. While there he was diagnosed with a stomach tumor which was operated on, though no cancer was diagnosed then. “It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good,” he wrote. “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.” Solzhenitsyn’s gradual turn to a philosophically-minded Christian is described at some length in the fourth part of The Gulag Archipelago. (“The Soul and Barbed Wire.”)
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Solzhenitsyn was exiled to southern Kazakhstan, where his health continued to deteriorate. In 1954, he was permitted to travel to Tashkent for successful treatment of stomach cancer. Later these experiences became basis for the novel Cancer Ward.
Solzhenitsyn’s exile ended only after Khrushchev made his famous “secret speech” denouncing Stalin’s crimes in 1956. After rehabilitation, Solzhenitsyn settled in Ryazan as a teacher (1957). During all those years of exile he taught mathematics and physics at school and wrote prose in secret.
In the relatively liberal atmosphere of the Khrushchev years, Solzhenitsyn decided to try getting published. He later wrote, in his short autobiography that “during all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written.”
In 1961, after the 22nd congress of the USSR communist party and A. Tvardovsky’s speech at it, Solzhenitsyn decided to offer the manuscript of his short novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” to the literary journal Novy Mir. Based on Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in Kazakhstan the novel recounted a day in the life of an ordinary gulag prisoner and was an almost unheard-of instance of free, unrestrained discussion of politics through literature. The novel appeared in print in 1962 and immediately made him, an unknown math teacher from a provincial town, a celebrity. Solzhenitsyn was invited to join the Writers’ Union. His success was short-lived, however, and after the publication of the stories ‘Matryona’s Home’ and ‘An Incident at Krechetovka Station’ he found that he could no longer get his works printed. Following the ousting of Khrushchev in 1964 the KGB began seizing his manuscripts. Defiantly, Solzhenitsyn sent an open letter to the Writers’ Union in 1967 demanding an end to censorship. This led to his expulsion from the union.
In 1968, Solzhenitsyn’s novels “The First Circle” and “Cancer Ward” were published in the West. The books made him a figure of international renown, and in 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though invited to Stockholm to accept the prize, he declined to go out of fear that the Soviet authorities would not let him return to his family. (Solzhenitsyn received his prize at the 1974 ceremony after he had been deported from the Soviet Union.)
Now being under constant harassment, Solzhenitsyn took refuge at the dacha of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya who suffered considerably for their support of Solzhenitsyn and were eventually forced into exile themselves. The writer lived there, on and off, for four years.
One of Solzhenitsyn’s main dilemmas at the time was what to do with the text of “The Gulag Archipelago” – a timeless, truly great memorial to the victims of Stalinist repression, a memorial to all those who suffered and all those who died, which he had completed in 1968. For this work Solzhenitsyn collected excerpts from documents, oral testimonies, eyewitness reports, and other materials. Alexander Isayevich hid portions of the book’s manuscript at the homes of trusted friends and in 1972 he started smuggling it to the West with the help of a Swedish foreign correspondent. The book first appeared in Paris in December 1973, leading to a flurry of bad publicity for the Soviet Union in the international press. The Politburo met on Jan. 7, 1974, to discuss what to do with Solzhenitsyn.
On Feb. 12, he was arrested and charged with treason. On the following day he was stripped of citizenship and deported from the Soviet Union to West Germany. He lived first in Switzerland before emigrating to the United States in 1976. In the LTS the writer retreated into seclusion, moving to the small town of Cavendish, Vermont. He spent most of the next two decades working on what he considered to be his life’s work – “The Red Wheel” – a multi-volume epic history of the events which led to the Russian Revolution.
Though he initially received a hero’s welcome in the West, Solzhenitsyn’s reception soon turned sour. In a series of speeches – most famous a commencement speech at Harvard University in 1978 – he attacked what he saw as the moral corruption of Western society, which stood at “the abyss of human decadence” and “in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.” “Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space,” he told the Harvard graduates. “Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror.” In turn, Solzhenitsyn was ridiculed in the Western press and accused of being a tsarist and an anti-Semite.
President Mikhail Gorbachev restored Solzhenitsyn’s citizenship in 1990 and the treason charge was finally dropped in 1991.
A.I. Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia on May 27, 1994, landing in the Far East city of Magadan – which was once a major transit center of Stalin’s gulag – and then flying on to Vladivostok. From there, he embarked on a seven-week train trip to Moscow, saying he wanted to reacquaint himself with everyday Russian reality. In a series of public appearances, he railed against “brainless” privatization reforms and the degradation of the Russian language. “It is as if, just having survived the heaviest case of cholera, to immediately upon recuperation get the plague,” he said of the transition.
A.I. Solzhenitsyn spent most of his last years in the house specially built for him in Troitse-Lykovo in western Moscow, doing what he loved most: writing. He published several works of nonfiction and memoirs. In his political writings, such as “Rebuilding Russia” (1990) and “Russia in Collapse” (1998), Solzhenitsyn criticized the oligarchic excesses of the new Russian ‘democracy’, while opposing any nostalgia for Soviet communism. He defended moderate and self-critical patriotism (as opposed to extreme nationalism), argued for the indispensability of local self-government to a free Russia, and expressed concerns for the fate of the 25 million ethnic Russians in the “near abroad” of the former Soviet Union.
Alexander Isayevich also launched several charitable projects, using the proceeds from sales of “The Gulag Archipelago” and his Nobel Prize award money. In 1997, he established an annual literary prize that continues to be awarded today. He also helped open the Russian Abroad Foundation Library, an archive and research center near Taganskaya metro station that collects the papers of Russian emigres.
On June 12, 2007, V. Putin visited his home to give him Russia’s highest award, the State Prize for humanitarian achievement, saying that millions of people around the world associate Solzhenitsyn’s name and work with the very fate of Russia itself.
The great writer died on August 3, 2008 and was laid to rest at the Donskoi Monastery in central Moscow.
(Compiled from different sources)