August 5, 2008

A Champion of Freedom and Justice: Putin Leads the Tributes to Solzhenitsyn

By Dmitry Babichin Moscow; Anne Penketh

Russians piled flowers outside the gates of the home of Alexander Solzhenitsyn as they mourned the death of Russia's leading anti- Soviet dissident and Nobel laureate who chronicled the Stalin terror.

The writer, whose masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, revealed to the world the full horror of the Soviet labour camp network when it was published in the West, died of heart failure on Sunday night.

His wife, Natalya, who had accompanied him during his 20 years in exile in America after his arrest and expulsion for treason in 1974 over the novel, said the 89-year-old writer had passed away in the manner he had intended, at their home near Moscow. "He wanted to die in the summer, and he died in the summer. He wanted to die at home, and he died at home. In general, I should say that Alexander Isaevich lived a difficult but happy life," she said.

Solzhenitsyn's son Stepan said that he had died at the end of "an ordinary working day".

Russian and foreign leaders heaped praise on the writer who wrote so powerfully about his own labour camp experiences in his fictional works One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward and The First Circle, for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. His funeral is to be held tomorrow at the small Donskoi monastery in Moscow, after ordinary Russians have paid their respects today at the Russian academy of sciences.

Vladimir Putin, who struck up a bizarre friendship with Solzhenitsyn while he was Russian president, said Solzhenitsyn's literary achievements and the "entire thorny path" of his life "will remain for us an example of genuine devotion and selfless serving to the people, fatherland and the ideals of freedom, justice and humanism". Mr Putin is a former agent of the KGB which, according to Solzhenitsyn ,was responsible for the repression of an estimated 60 million people under the Soviets.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet president who restored Solzhenitsyn's citizenship in 1990 before the fall of Communism, said: "Solzhenitsyn's fate, as well as the fate of millions of the country's citizens, was befallen by severe trials. He was one of the first who spoke aloud about the inhuman Stalinist regime and about the people who experienced it but were not broken."

Tributes also poured in from abroad, including from the US and French Presidents, George Bush and Nicholas Sarkozy.

Anatoly Kurchatkin, a 64-year-old Russian writer who teaches young authors, said: "The attitude to Solzhenitsyn in Russia resembles a pendulum, and I can feel it from my conversations with young writers. There was huge interest in the 1970s and 1980s when he was banned and exiled. There was a kind of disillusionment in the 1990s when he returned to the country, which was absorbed in its daily problems and had no time for his preachings. Then finally, there was a rebirth of interest and respect during his last years."

Vladimir Voinovich, a 76-year-old satirist, said: "We admired Solzhenitsyn because, in the late 1960s, he stood alone against the totalitarian state. We worried for him sincerely. I knew people who hid his portrait in their apartments in order to show it to friends as some sort of a status symbol."

But Solzhenitsyn also came in for criticism for his controversial friendship with Mr Putin, his proposals for a Slavic heartland and perceived anti-Semitism.

His last book, Two Hundred Years Together, which was published in 2001, reflects on the role of the Jews in the Bolshevik revolution and in the secret police purges. Benedikt Sarnov, a literary critic, said: "Even if Solzhenitsyn was not the author of an anti-Semitic brochure, which was ascribed to him in the 1960s, a lot of the views which he expressed in the last years of his life basically match the lies of that brochure.

"As a thinker, he was sometimes controversial. For example, he lambasted Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the very people who made his return to Russia in 1994 possible. And he was friendly with Putin, who undid a lot of things established under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. How can one understand this?"

The praise

*"Until the end of his days he fought for Russia not only to move away from its totalitarian past but also to have a worthy future, to become a truly free and democratic country. We owe him a lot."

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president

*"We will remember him as a strong, brave person with enormous dignity."

Vladimir Putin, Russian Prime Minister

*"His intransigence, his ideals and his long, eventful life make of Solzhenitsyn a hero from a novel, an heir to Dostoyevsky. He belongs to the pantheon of world history."

Nicolas Sarkozy, French President

*"Alexander Solzhenitsyn was ... a man of immense personal courage and, as a writer, the one indisputable heir of Tolstoy ... a colossus of our times."

South African writer JM Coetzee

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