August 4, 2008

Vociferous Critic of Both Russia and the West PROFILE


ONE of Alexander Solzhenitsyn s earliest memories was of helping his mother bury the medals his father had earned as an officer in the Russian army in the First World War. Not long after marrying Solzhenitsyn s mother at the battlefront, Isaaky Solzhenitsyn died in a hunting accident, and within weeks he and his kind were seen as a mortal threat to the Bolshevik regime.

Solzhenitsyn was born after his father s death, in the resort town of Kislovodsk on December 11, 1918, five months after the execution of the Imperial family. He and the infamous Gulag Archipelago, the Soviet Union s network of labour camps which he was to record so memorably in later life, came into existence within weeks of each other.

As the daughter of a wealthy self-made farmer, Solzhenitsyn s mother Taissia was viewed as a class enemy like her husband, and her life as a single mother employable only in menial jobs was harsh. Brought up in the city of Rostov, Solzhenitsyn recalled his childhood as queuing for bread, milk and mealZ. One of his aunts encouraged his interest in books, and from the age of 10 he began to read War and Peace and such classics as Dickens, Shakespeare and Jack London. At school he proved able in both arts and sciences and decided to study mathematics and physics at Rostov University.

As a schoolboy Solzhenitsyn revolted against his family s devout Catholicism and became a devoted Marxist, joining the junior wing of the Communist Party s Youth Movement when he was 11.

In 1940, Solzhenitsyn married fellow science student Natalya Reshetovskaya, with whom he was to have a long but troubled marriage.

A hint of what lay ahead might be seen in the fact that he not only took a copy of Das Kapital on honeymoon, but read it. When Germany declared war on Russia in1941, Solzhenitsyn enlisted and swiftly rose to become a captain in the army. It was during his time in the army that Solzhenitsyn and an old school friend made the mistake of committing their criticisms of Stalin to paper.

When these were discovered, in 1945, both were imprisoned. Solzhenitsyn served eight years in various labour camps, a harrowing if formative experience.

Twenty years later, Solzhenitsyn s works were being published to great acclaim in the West, notably The First Circle (1968), The Cancer Ward (1968), The Gulag Archipelago (197378) and August 1914 (1984).

Increasingly under suspicion from the Soviet state, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Writers Union in 1969, rousing international condemnation.

The following year he was awarded the Nobel Prize, for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literatureZ, although he was not able to collect the prize for fear of not being allowed back home.

Despite his best efforts to keep secret the existence of The Gulag Archipelago, about the Soviet prison system, the KGB learned of it and in 1973, following a series of raids, Solzhenitysn was obliged to publish it immediately in the West. He was charged with treason and sent into exile.

He and his family lived first in Switzerland, and then moved to the US .

During his 20 years of exile, Solzhenitsyn remained a vociferous critic of Soviet Russia, but also of the West, whose materialistic values he found almost as contemptible as the tyrannical regime of the Soviet Union.

In 1990, his Russian citizenship was restored, and many of his books were published in Russia. In 1994, he finally returned .

Originally published by Newsquest Media Group.

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