Daring Russian Writer Told of Gulag Life
By DOUGLAS BIRCH
By Douglas Birch
The Associated Press
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian author whose books chronicled the horrors of dictator Josef Stalin’s slave labor camps, has died of heart failure, his son said Monday. He was 89.
Stepan Solzhenitsyn said his father died late Sunday near Moscow but declined further comment.
Through unflinching accounts of the eight years he spent in the Soviet Gulag, Solzhenitsyn’s novels and nonfiction works exposed the secret history of the vast prison system that enslaved millions. The accounts riveted his countrymen and earned him years of bitter exile – and international renown.
T hey inspired millions, perhaps, with the knowledge that one person’s courage and integrity could, in the end, defeat the totalitarian machinery of an empire.
Beginning with the 1962 short novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” Solzhenitsyn devoted himself to describing what he called the human “meat grinder” that had caught him along with millions of other Soviet citizens: capricious arrests, often for trifling and seemingly absurd reasons, followed by sentences to slave labor camps where cold, starvation and punishing work crushed inmates physically and spiritually.
His “Gulag Archipelago” trilogy of the 1970s shocked readers by describing the savagery of the Soviet state under Stalin. It helped erase lingering sympathy for the Soviet Union among many leftist intellectuals .
But his account of that secret system of prison camps was also inspiring in its description of how one person – Solzhenitsyn himself – survived, physically and spiritually, in a penal system of soul-crushing hardship and injustice.
The West offered him shelter and accolades. But Solzhenitsyn’s refusal to bend despite enormous pressure, perhaps, also gave him the courage to criticize Western culture for what he considered its weakness and decadence.
After a triumphant return from exile in the United States in 1994 that included a 56-day train trip across Russia to become reacquainted with his native land, Solzhenitsyn later expressed annoyance and disappointment that most Russians hadn’t read his books.
During the 1990s, his stalwart nationalist views, his devout Orthodoxy, his disdain for capitalism and disgust with the tycoons who bought Russian industries and resources cheaply after the Soviet collapse, were unfashionable. He faded from public view.
But under Vladimir Putin’s 2000- 08 presidency, Solzhenitsyn’s vision of Russia as a bastion of Orthodox Christianity, as a place with a unique culture and destiny, gained renewed prominence.
Putin now argues, as Solzhenitsyn did in a speech at Harvard University in 1978, that Russia has a separate civilization from the West, one that can’t be reconciled either to Communism or western- style liberal democracy, but requires a system adapted to its history and traditions.
“Any ancient, deeply rooted, autonomous culture, especially if it is spread on a wide part of the Earth’s surface, constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking,” Solzhenitsyn said in the Harvard speech. “For one thousand years, Russia has belonged to such a category.”
Born Dec. 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk, Solzhenitsyn served as a front- line artillery captain in World War II, where, in the closing weeks of the war, he was arrested for writing what he called “certain disrespectful remarks” about Stalin in a letter to a friend, referring to him as “the man with the mustache.” He served seven years in a labor camp in the barren steppe of Kazakhstan and three more years in internal exile in Central Asia.
That’s where he began to write, memorizing much of his work so it wouldn’t be lost if it were seized.
He continued writing while working as a mathematics teacher in the provincial Russian city of Ryazan.
The first fruit of this labor was “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” the story of a carpenter struggling to survive in a Soviet labor camp, where he had been sent, like Solzhenitsyn, after service in the war.
The book was published in 1962 by order of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was eager to discredit the abuses of Stalin, his predecessor, and created a sensation in a country where unpleasant truths were spoken in whispers, if at all. Abroad, the book – which went through numerous revisions – was lauded not only for its bravery, but for its spare, unpretentious language.
After Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, Solzhenitsyn began facing KGB harassment, publication of his works was blocked and he was expelled from the Soviet Writers Union. But he was undeterred.
The novel “Cancer Ward,” which appeared in 1967, was another fictional work based on Solzhenitsyn’s life. In this case, the subject was his cancer treatment in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, then part of Soviet Central Asia, during his years of internal exile from March 1953, the month of Stalin’s death, until June 1956.
In the book, cancer became a metaphor for the fatal sickness of the Soviet system. “A man sprouts a tumor and dies – how then can a country live that has sprouted camps and exile?”
He attacked the complicity of millions of Russians in the horrors of Stalin’s reign.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, an unusual move for the Swedish Academy, which generally makes awards late in an author’s life after decades of work. The academy cited “the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”
Soviet authorities barred the author from traveling to Stockholm to receive the award, and official attacks were intensified in 1973 when the first book in the nonfiction “Gulag” trilogy appeared in Paris.
The following year, he was arrested on a treason charge and expelled the next day to West Germany in handcuffs. His expulsion inspired worldwide condemnation of the regime of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Solzhenitsyn then made his homeland in the United States , settling in 1976 in the tiny town of Cavendish, V t., with his wife and sons.
Living at a secluded hillside compound he rarely left, he called his 18 years there the most productive of his life.
Although free from repression, Solzhenitsyn longed for his native land. Neither was he enchanted by Western democracy, with its emphasis on individual freedom.
To the dismay of his supporters, in his Harvard speech he rejected the West’s faith in “Western pluralistic democracy” as the model for all other nations.
Then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev restored Solzhenitsyn’s citizenship in 1990 and the treason charge was dropped in 1991, less than a month after a failed Soviet coup.
Following an emotional homecoming that started in the Russian Far East on May 27, 1994, and became a whistle-stop tour across the country, Solzhenitsyn settled in a tree-shaded, red brick home overlooking the Moscow River just west of the capital.
He is survived by his wife, Natalya, and his three sons . All live in the United States.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 . He wrote “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” about one man’s experience in a Soviet labor camp and also wrote the nonfiction “Gulag Archipelago ” trilogy.
Originally published by BY DOUGLAS BIRCH.
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