Nobel laureate and Soviet dissident Solzhenitsyn dies

published August 4, 2008



Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the dissident Russian writer and Nobel laureate whose portrayals of Josef Stalins labour camps and political oppression helped undermine the Soviet grip on power, has died, his son said. He was 89.

He died of heart failure, Stephan Solzhenitsyn said.

Solzhenitsyn revealed to the Western world the inner workings of the gulag, the network of prisons and camps that held as many as 20 million people during Stalins reign of terror and killed at least 1.5 million. He became a thorn in the side of Soviet authorities and was an icon for Russian intellectuals, helping trigger the demise of the communist regime with his calls for social conscience and historical justice.

“No writer that I can think of in history really was able to do so much through courage and literary skill to change the society they came from, wrote David Remnick, the New Yorker magazine editor whose account of the Soviet collapse in Lenins Tomb won the Pulitzer Prize. “And to some extent, you have to credit the literary works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn with helping to bring down the last empire on Earth.

Solzhenitsyn, who wrote more than 20 books, drew on his own experience as a political prisoner in his early works, including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. He was stripped of citizenship, moving to Switzerland in 1974 before emigrating to the US two years later.

International recognition earned Solzhenitsyn a place in the ranks of the countrys most prominent dissidents, who included nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov, writer Vladimir Bukovsky and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Some turned to samizdat, the secret copying and distribution of banned literature, to promote human rights and freedom of expression. Others used self- censorship by employing Aesopian language to deliver a political message to Russian intellectuals without appearing on the radar of the Soviet censors.

Solzhenitsyns passion for Russian culture and disillusionment with Western consumerism prompted a return to the country of his birth in 1994.

His ideas were considered anachronistic in post-Communist Russia and he received little public attention in later years. Russian writer Aleksandr Genis described the repatriated Solzhenitsyn as “the last remaining prophet in the abandoned temple of absolute truth”.

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11th, 1918, in Kislovodsk, a north Caucasian town between the Black and Caspian seas.

Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics at Rostov University and took a correspondence course at the Institute of History, Philosophy and Literature in Moscow. He served in World War II as commander of an artillery-position-finding unit on the frontline. While in East Prussia, he was arrested in February 1945 for writing disrespectful remarks about Stalin in letters to a friend.

The sentence was eight years in a detention camp, considered relatively lenient at the time. The periods he spent in various camps and prisons were documented in works such as The Tenderfoot and the Tramp, The First Circle and Ivan Denisovich. He later said he wouldnt have survived his sentence if his mathematics skills hadnt earned him a transfer to a sharashka, a secret research laboratory where inmates developed new technologies and were spared hard labour.

In March 1953, Solzhenitsyn was sent into “exile for life” in Kok-Terek, a town in southern Kazakhstan. A year later, he was allowed to travel to Tashkent for successful treatment of stomach cancer.

His time in the clinic inspired the book Cancer Ward, which was published in 1968. All of his writing in exile was done in secret and financed by his job teaching mathematics and physics.

“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,” he wrote in an autobiographical profile submitted for his Nobel Prize in 1970. After the 22nd Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1961,

Solzhenitsyn gambled that the thaw in political thinking would allow his works to be published. He approached Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir magazine, who agreed to release Ivan Denisovich the following year.

The authorities terminated the printing of the book almost immediately and Solzhenitsyns papers were confiscated.

In 1969, he was expelled from the Soviet Writers Union for denouncing censorship in the country. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize a year later, though he didnt attend the ceremony. “We all know that an artists work cannot be contained within the wretched dimension of politics,” he said in Stockholm in 1974 at a banquet celebrating his Nobel Prize four years earlier. “For this dimension cannot hold the whole of our life and we must not restrain our social consciousness within its bounds.” Solzhenitsyn spent about two years in Zurich after he was exiled abroad. There he wrote his autobiography, The Oak and the Calf, and Lenin in Zurich, a book debunking the myths surrounding the father of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. In 1976, Solzhenitsyn moved with his family to Cavendish, Vermont, where he lived in isolation and wrote The Red Wheel, a historical series on the 1917 Russian Revolution.

For almost two decades he was rarely seen in public, with the notable exception of his commencement speech at Harvard University in June 1978. On that occasion, he lambasted the moral decrepitude of Western society, which stood at “the abyss of human decadence” and “in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.”

In 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev restored Solzhenitsyns citizenship and treason charges were dropped against the writer the following year. His return to Russia in 1994, preceded by an audience with Pope John Paul II during a stopover in Rome, failed to ease Solzhenitsyns alienation.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia embraced the consumerism that he so despised in the West, while its political system fell under the control of oligarchs whose actions bore a troubling resemblance to those of the old Soviet leaders.

“It is as if, just having survived the heaviest case of cholera, to immediately upon recuperation get the plague,” he said of the transition. Solzhenitsyns wife, Natalia, returned with him to Russia, while their three sons – Yermolai, Stephan and Ignat – remained in the US, where they held citizenship.

“As the Russian saying goes, ‘Do not believe your brother, believe your own crooked eye’. And that is the most sound basis for an understanding of the world around us and of human conduct in it, Solzhenitsyn once said.