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Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn
1918 - 2008

Nobel Laureate for Literature, one of the most prominent Soviet dissidents of the late 1960s and early 1970s.


Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born in the southern resort town of Kislovodsk. His father, a tsarist officer, died before his birth, and he was raised by his mother in Rostov-On-Don. He studied math and physics at Rostov University and was married in 1940 to his first wife, Natalia Reshetovskaya. Solzhenitsyn served as an artillery officer in the Red Army during World War II and was arrested by the secret police in February 1945 for criticizing Josef Stalin in his personal correspondence.

Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years, which he served in a number of facilities, including a sharashka (a special scientific installation/prison) and a labour camp in Kazakhstan. He was released from the camp system in February 1953, and then was sent into enforced internal exile in rural Kazakhstan, where he taught high school. Solzhenitsyn was diagnosed and treated for cancer during this period. He also reconciled with his wife, from whom he was divorced during his imprisonment. He was allowed to move to Ryazan, where he taught physics, after his conviction was over-turned in 1957.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Solzhenitsyn burst abruptly onto the national and international stages in November 1962, with the publication of his novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in the journal Novy mir (New World). This deceptively simple novella describes a normal day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet forced-labour camp in the early 1950s. It was the first work he had submitted for publication, though he had been writing for thirty years. Novy mir 's chief editor, Andrei Tvardovsky, passed the story on to one of Nikita Khrushchev's aides. Khrushchev, who had started a second round of de-Stalinization in 1961, personally approved its publication, which would have been impossible otherwise.

The publication of Ivan Denisovich caused a sensation. Although millions of Soviet citizens had been released from the camps or internal exile in the late 1950s, the topic had never been discussed publicly. The novella immediately sold out several press-runs totalling almost a million copies, provoking widespread discussion. Many liberal Soviet intellectuals hoped, in vain, that its appearance presaged a further loosening of artistic controls. It was also translated into numerous foreign languages and held up as a triumph of Soviet art. The combination of the novella's content and artistic quality made Solzhenitsyn an internationally recognized writer. He published several short stories in the months that followed, all in Novy mir.

Solzhenitsyn As a Dissident

The ten years after 1963 saw a rapid deterioration of the relationship between Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet leadership, devolving into open hostility by 1969. A crackdown against outspoken writers began in late 1963 and intensified greatly after Khrushchev was ousted from power in 1964. In this new environment, Solzhenitsyn was unable to publish anything, including two new semi-autobiographical novels: The First Circle, based on his sharashka experiences, and Cancer Ward, both of which were highly critical of the Soviet system. Their publication, even in revised form, was blocked by Party hardliners, who instead tried to coerce Solzhenitsyn to write more positive works about the Soviet Union.

In the meantime, some of Solzhenitsyn's works began to circulate in samizdat, and a few were published abroad without his permission. These developments, along with the accidental discovery by the KGB of some of his most critical writings in 1965, led to a hardening of official attitudes towards Solzhenitsyn. In 1967, Solzhenitsyn attacked the powerful Union of Soviet Writers, criticizing it for persecuting writers on behalf of the state, instead of protecting their artistic freedom. Solzhenitsyn's approval of the foreign publication of Cancer Ward, The First Circle, and other works, created further friction. Party and state officials responded by launching an escalating campaign of harassment, slander, and threats, including his expulsion from the Writers' Union in 1969.

Although Solzhenitsyn was part of a larger dissident movement of the 1960s and 1970s, he was unique in a number of ways. His international prominence, which only grew after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, protected him from arrest, and allowed him to be more confrontational in his actions than most other dissidents. It also allowed him access to Western reporters.

Solzhenitsyn also had his own unique political agenda. While most Soviet dissidents focused on the need for basic human rights, by the early 1970s Solzhenitsyn began to focus on the issue of morality. He believed that the Russian people could only be saved by a rejection of Bolshevik ideas and the resurrection of what he considered a unique set of moral values developed in Russia over centuries under the influence of Orthodox Christianity. He looked to pre-Revolutionary Russia for guidance, not to the West; indeed, he believed that these Russian spiritual values could save the West as well.

Solzhenitsyn criticized Western culture for its decadence and argued it was weakening the United States to the point where it would soon no longer be able to stand up to the communist threat. He denounced the policy of détente, saying that the Soviet Union was using the process to take advantage of the United States' weakness. Solzhenitsyn's religiously tinged nationalism was similar to that of the nineteenth-century Slavophile movement. Although hinted at in interviews, Solzhenitsyn's philosophical opinions only became widely known after his arrival in the West in 1974.

The Gulag Archipelago

In the mid-1960s, Solzhenitsyn began work on a project titled The Gulag Archipelago. The title referred to the extensive system of prisons and forced-labour camps that had begun shortly after 1917 and expanded dramatically under Stalin; the term Gulag was the Russian acronym for the Main Directorate for Camps. The book, which Solzhenitsyn termed "an experiment in literary investigation," was based on his own experiences and those of over two hundred former prisoners. This epic work eventually ran to three large volumes. Although the manuscript was completed and copies smuggled to the West in 1968, Solzhenitsyn delayed its publication abroad until the end of 1973, when his hand was forced by the KGB's seizure of a manuscript copy.

The Gulag Archipelago was by far Solzhenitsyn's most damning work on the Soviet system. It described, in horrifying detail, the ordeal that prisoners underwent, from arrest through life in the camps, including the systematic use of torture and attempts to dehumanize prisoners. It also argued that the organized use of state terror was an integral part of Soviet communism from the start, and that Stalin only expanded the system created by Vladimir Lenin. Solzhenitsyn predicted, correctly, that the appearance of this work would intensify state actions against him; he was arrested and expelled from the Soviet Union shortly after its publication in the West.

The publication of the Gulag Archipelago 's first volume had a huge impact outside the Soviet bloc, particularly in Europe and the United States, where it sold millions of copies. It is widely considered to have done more than any other single book to shatter Western illusions about the nature of the Soviet dictatorship. The term Gulag entered widespread use in many languages. The book's influence was particularly strong in France, where many intellectuals had remained sympathetic to Soviet communism until its publication. The book's impact was heightened by its presentation, which mixed fiery rhetoric with literary skills, separating it from standard historical writings. Appropriately, Solzhenitsyn used his profits from the project to aid the families of jailed Soviet dissidents.

Many readers were overwhelmed by the book's size, however, and sales of the next two volumes were considerably lower. Although some of Solzhenitsyn's specific facts and details are now contested, the Gulag Archipelago remains one of the definitive works on the Soviet prison system.

Exile and Return

In February 1974 Solzhenitsyn was arrested, charged with treason, stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and expelled to West Germany. Party leaders believed that exiling Solzhenitsyn would be less damaging to their international reputation than sending him to prison. His second wife, Natalia Svetlova, and their sons were allowed to follow him a short time later. After a brief period in Europe, Solzhenitsyn moved to the United States, settling in Vermont.

After a tumultuous reception, Western sympathies towards Solzhenitsyn cooled after he articulated his moral philosophy in a series of articles and lectures, which concluded with his 1978 Graduation Address at Harvard. His attacks on Western culture alienated many, and he eventually withdrew into self-imposed seclusion in Vermont, where he worked on his Red Wheel series of novels. Solzhenitsyn also engaged in heated polemics with members of the dissident and emigré communities who disagreed with his views and tactics.

In 1989 Solzhenitsyn's writings began to appear in the Soviet Union, starting with The GulagArchipelago. Although he published some additional articles in the Soviet press, his absence from the scene limited his influence during the period of transition. Solzhenitsyn finally returned to Russia, amid great publicity, in 1994. Upon his return, he had a short-lived television talk show (1994 - 1995) and published several books. His didactic style limited his audience, however, and he had relatively little influence on Russian society after his return. Solzhenitsyn continued writing; one of his works, Dvesti let vmeste (Two Hundred Years Together, 2000), revived old accusations of anti-Semitism, charges which Solzhenitsyn and many observers rejected as false.










This web page was last updated on: 16 December, 2008