Solzhenitsyn: exiled then exalted in Russia

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

Ria Novosti/AP/File
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.

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.

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."

"A Day in the Life" was published in Moscow in 1962, but when the liberal reformer Nikita Khrushchev fell from power two years later, all plans to print the author's other novels were canceled.

All of Solzhenitsyn's writings were smuggled to the West, where they were published to great acclaim in the late 1960s. But adulation abroad brought Solzhenitsyn into deepening friction with Soviet authorities, who were furious that his revelations about the Gulag and spiritual poverty of Soviet life appeared to validate the West's cold-war image of conditions in the workers' state.

International acclaim

His novels won Solzhenitsyn the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. But it was a work of nonfiction, "The Gulag Archipelago," that prompted Soviet authorities to finally charge him with treason and expel him from the USSR, along with his whole family, in 1974.

Part memoir, part journalism, the immense three-volume work chronicled the origins and evolution of the USSR's secret web of prison camps, which, at their peak, numbered in the thousands and held millions of hapless inmates.

Expelled from Russia, Solzhenitsyn and his family took up residence in Switzerland and later, from 1976, on a 50-acre estate in Vermont. During his long exile in the US, he worked on his still unfinished cycle of novels, entitled "The Red Wheel," which cover the early 20th century history of Russia's descent into war, revolution, and communism.

He returned to Russia after the collapse of the USSR and in 1994 embarked on a two-month, 6,000-mile journey across the country that left him with grim impressions. "I came with a very sad, dark idea of the country," he told a meeting in the central Russian city of Yaroslavl. "It has been confirmed." The author rebuffed ex-President Boris Yeltsin's attempts to present him with a medal, but last year finally accepted a State Prize for "humanitarian achievements" awarded by Vladimir Putin.

Solzhenitsyn's warming ties with the Kremlin under Mr. Putin led some critics to view him as soft on Russia's growing authoritarianism. The author also triggered controversy with a book he wrote about Russian-Jewish relations, "Two Hundred Years Together," published in 2003, which some saw as perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes.

In an interview with the state-run English language TV channel Russia Today this year, Solzhenitsyn's wife, Natalia, said he was disappointed with Russia's post-Soviet direction.

"[Solzhenitsyn] has said many times that we've chosen the worst, most crooked, most unfair and ineffective way to get rid of communism," she said. "All his works during the recent 14 years have been full of hope that we would finally straighten our paths in some ways, and full of sadness that we've chosen an extremely irrational and ineffective way. And our country will be paying for it for a long time."

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