Remembering Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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Russian author Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, pictured in Zurich in 1974, died in Moscow on August 3

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author whose novels chronicled the daily horrors of life in Soviet gulags, has died from heart failure on August 3 in Moscow at age 89, the Associated Press reported.

It was always Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's ambition to be a writer. He read War and Peace in its entirety when he was only 10. But as a young man he couldn't get his work published, and he wound up studying mathematics in college. Then he was drafted into the Red Army in 1941. If it weren't for Stalin, his ambition might have gone unfulfilled.

Solzhenitsyn was born in a resort town in the Caucasus mountains in 1918, the same year the last czar of Russia was murdered by the Bolsheviks. He never knew his father, an artillery officer who died in a hunting accident while his mother was pregnant. His mother was a typist. A zealous communist, Solzhenitsyn served with distinction in World War II, but in 1945, in the teeth of the Red Army's march on Berlin, he was arrested for a personal letter that contained passages critical of Stalin and sentenced to eight years in a labor camp. His life as a free man was over, but his life as a writer and a thinker had just begun.

Solzhenitsyn was eventually transferred from the camp to a prison with research facilities, and then in 1950 — when he would no longer cooperate with the government's research efforts — to a harsher camp in Kazakhstan. There he began to write on stray scraps of paper. Once he memorized what he had written, he would destroy the scraps.

By the time he was released in 1953, Solzhenitsyn's belief in communism was gone, but he had found a fervent Russian Orthodox faith and rediscovered his purpose as an author. At first he wrote for himself, but by 1962, when he was 42, the strain of remaining silent had grown unbearable, and the cultural climate had warmed enough that he was able to publish his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, an account of an innocent man's experiences in a political prison camp, enduring brutal conditions without self-pity and taking solace from tiny pleasures, like a cigarette, or extra soup. It's a stunning work of close observation and simple description, and a devastating study of the psychology of oppression. It was also the first published account of life in a Soviet labor camp. Its appearance was a seismic event in Russian culture.

For a time, the Soviet government tolerated Solzhenitsyn. Khrushchev was eager to discredit Stalin and consolidate his own power, and Solzhenitsyn's work served his political aims. He became a global literary celebrity. But he quickly outlived his political usefulness, and his next two books, The First Circle and The Cancer Ward, had to be published abroad. In 1970 Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel prize for literature, but he wasn't permitted to leave the country to accept it. In 1973 he completed the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, a thundering, encyclopedic indictment of the Soviet labor camp system and the government that built it which combines literary fiction with the testimony of hundreds of actual survivors. It is a towering monument to the power of witness.

In The First Circle Solzhenitsyn wrote: "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." With The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn had become too great for the Soviet government. After years of harassment he was put on a plane and expelled from Russia.

Thus began a strange new life for Solzhenitsyn. With his wife and three sons he settled on a 50-acre compound in rural Vermont, where he preserved every aspect of Russian life that he could. Once a year he would commemorate the day of his arrest with a 'convict's day,' when he reverted to the diet of bread, broth and oats he ate in the labor camps. He rose early every day and wrote until dusk — producing, among other works, his novel-cycle The Red Wheel, a vast, Tolstoyan account of the Russian revolution that runs to 6,000 pages, beginning with August 1914.

Solzhenitsyn was an icon of freedom to the Western world, but he did not return the esteem it heaped on him. As a man of enormous Christian faith, he regarded the West as spiritually deteriorated, and he sometimes baffled supporters and critics alike with his reactionary criticisms of Western democracy. In a searing speech to Harvard's graduating class of 1978, he observed that "a decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today."

Then what Solzhenitsyn had long predicted came to pass: the Soviet Union ceased to be. In 1994, at age 75, a bearded, patriarchal Solzhenitsyn returned from exile to his native Russia, where he was welcomed as a hero, the prophet of the post-Soviet era. But his home had become strange to him. He had imagined himself as the conscience of his native land, and he certainly commanded a great deal of cultural authority — he was given his own TV show, and in 2007 Vladimir Putin visited him personally to present him with a state medal. But he was never quite in step with the new Russia. To Solzhenitsyn, Russia meant the old Russia of the 19th century, a nostalgic, spiritual Russia of the soul. To Russians, Russia was something else — an increasingly Western and forward-looking and materialistic nation.

But Solzhenitsyn remained hopeful that the coming centuries would bring with them a world where mankind's material and spiritual lives, our bodies and our souls, would be able to flourish together. After personally enduring and bearing witness to some of the greatest tragedies of a tragic century, he still believed that life could and would evolve and improve. "The ascension is similar to climbing onto the next anthropological stage," he said. "No one on earth has any other way left but upward."