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Solzhenitsyn: exiled then exalted in Russia

The Nobel Prize-winning writer gave voice to millions imprisoned in Stalin's Gulag. He died Sunday.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 5, 2008

Solzhenitsyn: In June 2007, Vladimir Putin (r.), who gave Alexander Solzhenitsyn a humanitarian award, visited the writer at his home on the outskirts of Moscow.

Ria Novosti/AP/File



The Russian media erupted Monday with praise for Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning writer whose stormy life reflected Russia's 20th-century vicissitudes almost as dramatically as his own literary work.

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Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who spent eight years in the USSR's sprawling Gulag prison camp system and two decades living in exile, passed away Sunday in Moscow.

"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," the independent Interfax agency quoted the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, as saying.

It was Mr. Gorbachev's campaign of sweeping democratic reforms that made possible the restoration of Solzhenitsyn's Soviet citizenship and publication of his works in the twilight days of the USSR.

"He was one of the first people who spoke up about the inhumanity of Stalin's regime with a full voice, and about the people who lived through this but were not broken," Gorbachev added.

Solzhenitsyn was an irreconcilable opponent of the communist system but also vigorously rejected American consumerism and pop culture. He ended his days a fierce critic of the path taken by post-Soviet Russia.

Widely viewed as Russia's greatest contemporary writer, he will be best remembered for works that depicted the harsh underbelly of Soviet society under dictator Joseph Stalin. But his books, including several works of nonfiction, suggest the far more ambitious goals of seeking to reappraise Russian history.

The author may have been speaking for himself when he had a character in his novel, "The First Circle," say: "For a country to have a great writer is like having another government. That's why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones."

The early years

Born in 1918, Solzhenitsyn grew up a convinced communist and was educated as a mathematician. He served with distinction as a Red Army artillery officer in World War II, but was arrested in 1945 for "anti-Soviet agitation" over oblique comments he'd made about Stalin in a letter to a friend.

He subsequently spent seven years in the Gulag, first in a sharashka, a special prison for scientists, and later in a labor camp in Kazakhstan. These experiences, along with cancer treatment in Tashkent, served as the basis for his first great novels, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," "The First Circle," and "Cancer Ward."