Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel prize-winning writer who defied Soviet authorities and changed the world’s view of the USSR, died in Moscow of heart failure Sunday. He was 89.
Solzhenitsyn, who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 for his novels, which depicted the mass terror and prison camp system built by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, became a key symbol of the Cold War ideological rift between the USSR and the West.
“He was one of the first people who spoke up about the inhumanity of Stalin’s regime with a full voice, and about the people who lived through this but were not broken,” former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who restored Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet citizenship, said on Monday.
Though he grew up a convinced Communist, Solzhenitsyn’s life was transformed when he was arrested by Stalin’s secret police near the end of World War Two, for some disparaging remarks the young artillery officer made about Stalin in letters from the front.
He spent eight years in the USSR’s sprawling Gulag prison camp system, first in a sharashka — a special prison for scientists — and later at a labour camp in Kazakhstan.
These experiences, along with a spell in a cancer clinic in Tashkent to treat a stomach tumour he contracted during his imprisonment, served as the basis for his first great novels, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle and Cancer Ward.
A day in the Life was published in Moscow in 1962, but when the liberal reformer Nikita Khrushchev fell from power two years later all plans to print the other novels were cancelled.
All of Solzhenitsyn’s writings were smuggled to the West, where they were published to great acclaim.
His novels won Solzhenitsyn the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. But it was a work of non-fiction, The Gulag Archipelago, that prompted Soviet authorities to charge him with treason and expel him from the USSR, along with his whole family, in 1974.
Part memoir, part journalistic investigation, the vast four-volume book detailed life in Stalin’s Gulag system which, at its peak, included thousands of prison camps holding millions of citizens, most sentenced for political crimes.
Solzhenitsyn and his family took up residence, first in Switzerland and later in the US state of Vermont.
The author, a deeply religious Russian nationalist, subsequently baffled many of his Western admirers with his vigorous denounciations of American consumerism and pop culture.
After the collapse of the USSR, Solzehnitsyn returned to Russia in 1994, where he was greeted with a hero’s welcome.
But after staging a two month, 10,000 kilometre journey across Russia, he turned against the post-Soviet regime of President Boris Yeltsin, which he described as corrupt and soulless.
“(Solzhenitsyn) has said many times that we’ve chosen the worst, most crooked, most unfair and ineffective way to get rid of Communism,” his wife, Natalia, told the state-run Russia Today TV network in an interview earlier this year. “It’s his pain and concern”.
Last year President Vladimir Putin awarded Solzhenitsyn with a special medal for “outstanding humanitarian achievement”, and praised the author’s work in exposing the horrors of Stalinism.
Solzhenitsyn is survived by his wife, and three sons.