Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose stubborn, lonely and combative literary struggles gained the force of prophecy as he revealed the heavy afflictions of Soviet Communism in some of the most powerful works of the 20th century, died late on Sunday at the age of 89 in Moscow.
Solzhenitsyn had been an obscure, middle-aged, high school science teacher in a provincial Russian town when he burst on to the literary stage in 1962 with A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The book, a mould-breaking novel about a prison camp inmate, was a sensation. Suddenly he was being compared to giants of Russian literature like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov.
Over the next five decades, Solzhenitsyn’s fame spread throughout the world as he drew upon his experiences of totalitarian duress to write evocative novels like The First Circle and The Cancer Ward and historical works like The Gulag Archipelago. Gulag was a monumental account of the Soviet labour camp system, a chain of prisons that by Solzhenitsyn’s calculation some 60 million people had entered during the 20th century. Solzhenitsyn was heir to a morally focused and often prophetic Russian literary tradition, and he looked the part. With his stern visage, lofty brow and full, Old Testament beard, he recalled Tolstoy while suggesting a modern-day Jeremiah, denouncing the evils of the Kremlin and later the mores of the West.
Solzhenitsyn owed his initial success to Khrushchev’s decision to allow Ivan Denisovich to be published in a popular journal. Khrushchev believed its publication would advance the liberal line he had promoted since his secret speech in 1956 on the crimes of Stalin. But soon after the story appeared, Khrushchev was replaced by hard-liners, and they campaigned to silence its author. They stopped publication of his new works, denounced him as a traitor and confiscated his manuscripts.
But their iron grip could not contain Solzhenitsyn’s reach. By then his works were appearing outside the Soviet Union, in many languages, and he was being compared not only to Russia’s literary giants but also to Stalin’s literary victims, writers like Anna Akhmatova, Iosip Mandleshtam and Boris Pasternak.
At home, the Kremlin stepped up its campaign by expelling Solzhenitsyn from the Writer’s Union. He fought back. He succeeded in having microfilms of his banned manuscripts smuggled out of the Soviet Union. He addressed petitions to government organs, wrote open letters, rallied support among friends and artists, and corresponded with people abroad. They turned his struggles into one of the most celebrated cases of the cold war period.
Hundreds of intellectuals signed petitions against his silencing; the names of Left-leaning figures like Jean-Paul Sartre carried particular weight with Moscow. Other supporters included Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, WH Auden, Gunther Grass, Heinrich Böll, Yukio Mishima, Carlos Fuentes, Arthur Miller, John Updike, Truman Capote and Kurt Vonnegut. All joined a call for an international cultural boycott of the Soviet Union. That position was confirmed when he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in the face of Moscow’s protests. The Nobel jurists cited him for “the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”.
His acceptance address recalled a time when “in the midst of exhausting prison camp relocations, marching in a column of prisoners in the gloom of bitterly cold evenings, with strings of camp lights glimmering through the darkness, we would often feel rising in our breast what we would have wanted to shout out to the whole world — if only the whole world could have heard us”.
He wrote that while an ordinary man was obliged “not to participate in lies,” artists had greater responsibilities. “It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie.” By this time, Solzhenitsyn had completed his own massive attempt at truthfulness, The Gulag Archipelago. In more than 300,000 words, he told the history of the Gulag prison camps, whose operations and rationale and even existence were subjects long considered taboo.
Publishers in Paris and New York had secretly received the manuscript on microfilm. But wanting the book to appear first in the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn asked them to put off publishing it. Then he learned that the KGB had unearthed a buried copy of the book after interrogating his typist, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya. He went on the offensive. With his approval, the book was published in Paris, in Russian, just after Christmas of 1973. The Soviet government counterattacked with a spate of articles, including one in Pravda, headlined ‘The Path of a Traitor’. On February 12, 1974, he was arrested. The next day, he was told that he was being deprived of his citizenship and deported. Solzhenitsyn was welcomed by the German novelist Heinrich Böll. After a short stay in Switzerland, the family moved to the United States, settling in the hamlet of Cavendish, Vermont.
There he kept mostly to himself, writing and thinking a great deal about Russia and hardly at all about his new environment, so certain was he that he would return to his homeland one day.
There were those who described him as reactionary, as an unreconstructed Slavophile, a Russian nationalist, undemocratic and authoritarian. Czeslaw Milosz, generally admiring of his fellow Nobel laureate, wrote, “Like the Russian masses, he, we may assume, has strong authoritarian tendencies.”
Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994, first landing in the Siberian northeast, the former heart of the Gulag. He flew on to Vladivostok, where he began a two-month journey across Russia, to see what his post-Communist country now looked like. His homeland, he said, was “tortured, stunned, altered beyond recognition”. And after settling into a new home on the edge of Moscow, he began to voice his pessimism, deploring the crime, corruption, collapsing services, faltering democracy and what he felt to be the spiritual decline of Russia.
In the final years of his life, Solzhenitsyn had spoken approvingly of a ‘restoration’ of Russia under Putin, and was criticised in some quarters as increasingly nationalist.
The New York Times