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To Russians, ‘a Ray of Light’ is Now Dimmed

August 5, 2008

By Alex Rodriguez, Chicago Tribune

Aug. 5–MOSCOW — When Alexander Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994 after 20 years in exile, he found a country free from tyrannical rule but deeply troubled by new burdens. The economy was eroding. The stage was being set for the era of oligarchs.

Speaking to a throng of Russians welcoming him in Vladivostok, Solzhenitsyn yearned for a day when his homeland would find “a ray of light ahead.”

For millions of Russians, Solzhenitsyn was that ray of light, a revealer of truth in a land where totalitarian governments had so ably obscured reality for so long. On Monday, as Russians mourned Solzhenitsyn, who died a day earlier at age 89, they remembered the mantle the writer took on as chronicler of the network of slave labor camps Josef Stalin established for the sake of Russia’s industrialization.

“He opened my eyes to the truth–that’s what he did,” said Marina Galkina, 50, a Moscow accountant. “It was the late ’70s or early ’80s when I first read Solzhenitsyn, and for the first time in my life I realized something was wrong about our life, our country. … There were many people like me, for whom he was sort of a guide.”

‘An irreparable loss’ In Russia and around the world, there were tributes to the bearded dissident who, more so than any other Russian writer, exposed the brutality of Soviet authority. The Soviet Union’s last leader and the architect of perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev, praised Solzhenitsyn as a writer who “changed the consciousness of millions of people.”

“He was one of the first who raised his voice against the system, against Stalin’s regime and in defense of people who had fallen victims to it,” Gorbachev told the Russian news agency Interfax on Monday. “His books, ['One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich'] and ['The Gulag Archipelago'], have helped people to see what this regime really was.”

In a letter of condolence sent to Solzhenitsyn’s family, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called the writer “a true citizen and patriot” whose “heart was filled with pain for the Russian people.”

“The death of this great man and one of the 20th Century’s major thinkers, writers and humanists,” Medvedev wrote, “is an irreparable loss for Russia and for the world as a whole.”

Warm words also were offered by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the former president and KGB officer whose firm-handed rule was praised by Solzhenitsyn in recent years. Putin said the “entire thorny path of [the writer's] 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.”

‘A difficult but happy life’ Russians are expected to line up Tuesday at the Russian Academy of Sciences building in central Moscow to pay tribute to Solzhenitsyn. A funeral is scheduled for Wednesday at Moscow’s Donskoy Monastery cathedral. Solzhenitsyn will be buried at the monastery’s cemetery.

World leaders reacting to Solzhenitsyn’s death made clear their belief that the Nobel laureate will be remembered not only for the imprint he left on his homeland, but as a writer whose influence was global and enduring.

“His intransigence, his ideals and his long, eventful life make of Solzhenitsyn a hero from a novel, an heir to Dostoyevsky,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy. “He belongs to the pantheon of world history.”

Solzhenitsyn’s family said the writer died of heart failure late Sunday at his home in Moscow. He spent the last day of his life as he always did, his wife, Natalya Solzhenitsyna, told the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy.

“He was working all day yesterday, as usual,” she said. “He just became ill in the evening when he had already gone to bed. He wanted to die at home, and he has died at home. … He lived a difficult but happy life.”

Though age and frailty had kept him out of the public eye for some time, Solzhenitsyn never ceased to be relevant for generations of Russians who relied on him as a window into one of the blackest chapters of Russian history.

“When you read him, you feel he speaks the truth because he survived all this,” said Andrei Koshenkov, a 45-year-old construction worker from Moscow. “It’s important to know the truth and to retain it in our memories. Otherwise, we won’t be able to prevent such things from happening in the future. This is part of our social self-consciousness — to realize whether we are slaves or free citizens.”

ajrodriguez@tribune.com

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