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|Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)|
Russian author and historian, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn continued the realistic tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and complemented it with his views of the flaws of both East and West. In the 1960s and 1970s he produced a number of major novels based on his own experiences of Soviet prisons and hospital life. Later he saw that his primary mission is to rewrite the Russian history of the revolutionary period in the multivolumed work The Red Wheel (1983-1991).
"He had drawn many a thousand of these rations in prisons and camps, and though he'd never had an opportunity to weight them on scales, and although, being a man of timid nature, he knew no way of standing up for his rights, he, like every other prisoner, had discovered long ago that honest weight was never to be found in the bread-cutting. There was short weight in every ration. The only point was how short. So every day you took a look to soothe your soul - today, maybe, they haven't snitched any." (in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1962)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn descended from an intellectual Cossack family. He was born in Kislovodsk in the northern Caucasus Mountains, between the Black and Caspian seas. His father, Isaaki Solzhenitsyn, a tsarist artillery officer, was killed in an hunting accident six months before Aleksandr's birth. During WW I he had served on the front, where he married Taissia Shchberbak, Solzhenitsyn's mother.
To support herself and her son, Taissia worked in Rostov as a
typist and did extra work in the evenings. Because the family was
extremely poor, Solzhenitsyn had to give up his plans to study
literature in Moscow. Instead he enrolled in Rostov University, where
he studied mathematics and physics, graduating in 1941. He also
took correspondence courses in literature at Moscow State University.
In 1940, he married Natalia Alekseevna Reshetovskaia; they divorced in
1950, and remarried in 1957. By 1968, his family life with her was
over. Before they divorced officially in 1973, Natalia made a suicide
attempt by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. This contributed to
Solzhenitsyn's decision not to apply for a travel permit to Stockholm
for the Nobel ceremony.
When Solzhenitsyn was writing The Gulag Archipelago, he would get
up at one A.M. and work until nine; after a break he worked until six,
then he ate dinner, went to bed at seven P.M., slept till one, and
started again. Mostly, Solzhenitsyn lived at his country cottage in
Rozhdestvo, or at the homes of friends, or
at the dacha of the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. To get
away from his watch dogs, Solzhenitsyn shaved his well-know patriarchal
beard in 1965, and took a train to Estonia, where Arno Susi offered him
a refuge for a few months in the Vasula village.
In 1973, Solzhenitsyn married in Natalia Svetlova. "... I had dreamed in vain of finding a male friend whose ideas would be as close to my own as were those that Natasha came out with unprompted," Solzhenitsyn wrote in an autobiographical account. "As if this were not enough, she revealed a deep-rooted, innate spiritual affinity with everything quintessentially Russian, as well as an unusual concern and affection for the Russin language" They had three sons, Yermolai, Stephan, and Ignat. Dmitri was the son from Svetlova's first marriage to Prof. Andrei Tiurin. Svetlova, born in 1939, was a postgraduate of the mechanical department of Moscow State University.
During the Great Patriotic War, Solzhenitsyn achieved the
rank of captain of
artillery and was
twice decorated. He entered East Prussia with the Red Army in
January 1945, witnessing the systematic murder, rape and destruction
committed by the troops. The epic poem Prussian Nights,
which he wrote in Ekibastuz, was based on these experiences. "Well, now
we're getting our revenge lads. / Weve hit him good and hard, the foe!
/ Everything's aflame -
" At the end also the nameless narrator, who had stood aloof, rapes a
German woman, who begs him not to shoot her: "Doch erschiessen Sie mich
From 1945 to 1953, Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned for writing a letter in which he criticized Joseph Stalin - "the man with the mustache." Solzhenitsyn served in the camps and prisons near Moskow, and in a camp in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan (1945-53). During these years, Solzhenitsyn's double degree in mathematics and physics saved him mostly from hard physical labour, although in 1950 he was taken to a new kind of camp, created for political prisoners only, where he worked as a manual laborer.
"The Kolyma was the greatest and most famous island, the pole of ferocity of that amazing country of Gulag, which, though scattered in an archipelago geographically, was, in the psychological sense, fused into a continent - an almost invisible, almost imperceptible country inhabited by the Zek people." (in The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, 1974)
After a short stint at Marfino, a specialized prison that employed mathematicians and scientist in research, Solzhenitsyn was transferred to forced-labour camp in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic; there he developed stomach cancer. Between 1953 and 1956 Solzhenitsyn was exiled to South Kazakhstan village of Kok-Terek. To supported himself Solzhenitsyn worked as a mathematics and physics teacher. Solzhenitsyn also wrote in secret. He developed a cancer, but was successfully treated in Tashkent (1954-55). Later these experiences became basis for the novels Rakovyi Korpus I-II (1968-69, The Cancer Ward) and V kruge pervom (1968, The First Circle). The full 96-chapter version of the latter book was published for the first time in Russian in 1978. After rehabilitation, Solzhenitsyn settled in Riazan as a teacher (1957).
At the age of 42, Solzhenitsyn had written a great deal, but published nothing. After Nikita Khrushchev had publicly condemned the "cult of personality" - an attack on Stalin's heritage - the political censorship loosened its tight grip for a period. Solzhenitsyn's first book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, appeared next year in the leading Soviet literary journal Novyi Mir. It marked the beginning of Soviet prison-camp literature, which for a period Khrushchev considered useful for his anti-Stalin campaign. Solzhenitsyn used third-person direct speech, examining the Soviet life through the eyes of a simple Everyman. Written in clear and honest style, it described the horrors of just one day in a labour camp. The book gained fame both in the USSR and the West, and was compared with Fedor Dostoyevsky's novel House of the Dead. With the royalties, Solzhenitsyn bought a green Moskvich car.
Novyi Mir published also the stories 'Matryona's Home' and 'An Incident at Krechetovka Station', but rejected Cancer Ward , in which Kostoglotov, the protagonist, was a semi-authorial figure. The characters confront questions of life and death, truth and falsehood - emphasized by the discussion of Lev Tolstoi's What Do Men Live For? in the ward. Stalinism is paralleled with the tragedy of those in the hospital suffering from cancer: an informer has cancer of the tongue. The First Circle was set during the late 1940s and early 1950s, and drew a picture of a class of intellectuals, research scientists, caught up in the system of prisons and camps. They are forced to work for the secret police, and debate endlessly about politics and the principles of morality. The title of the book referred to the least painful circle of Hell in Dante's Inferno. However, if the prisoners do not produce satisfactory work, they will found themselves in the lower circles of the labor camps.
The period of official favour lasted only a few years. Between
the years 1963 and 1966 Solzhenitsyn managed to publish only four
stories and finally all his manuscripts were censored. Khrushchev
himself was forced into retirement in 1964. The KGB confiscated The
First Circle and other writings in 1965. Solzhenitsyn refused to
join his colleagues who protested prison sentences imposed on the
writers, because he "disapproved of writers who sought fame abroad",
but in 1969 he was expelled in absentia from the Writers' Union. "Dust
off the clock face," Solzhenitsyn said in his open letter after the
expulsion. "You are behind the times. Throw open the sumptuous heavy
curtain - you do not even suspect
that day is already dawning outside." From 1971 his unpublished
manuscripts were smuggled in the West. These works secured
Solzhenitsyn's international fame as one of the most prominent
opponents of government policies. The KGB agents sought to poison him
with ricin. Solzhenitsyn had blisters, the largest of which were
fifteen centimeters in diameter.
Rejecting the ideology of his youth, Solzhenitsyn came to believe that the struggle between good and evil cannot be resolved among parties, classes or doctrines, but is waged within the individual human heart. During the Cold War years, this Tolstoian view and search for Christian morality was considered radical in the ideological atmosphere of the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. As the great 19th-century Russian writers, Solzhenitsyn assumed the role of an observer. "Where can I read about us? Will that be only in a hundred years?" says a woman in Cancer Ward. Solzhenitsyn became a chronicler, witness whose own experiences are part of the way to approach truth and judge.
The first volume of The Gulag Archipelago appeared in 1973. (Gulag stands for "Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps.") For the work Solzhenitsyn collected excerpts from documents, oral testimonies, eyewitness reports, and other material, which all was inflammable. The detailed account of the network of prison and labor camps - scattered like islands in a sea - in Stalin's Russia angered the Soviet authorities and Solzhenitsyn was arrested and charged with treason. "A great writer is, so to speak, a second government in his country," Solzhnenitsyn wrote in The First Circle. "And for that reason no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones."
As with Boris Pasternak, the Soviet government denounced Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize as a politically hostile act. "If Solzhenitsyn continues to reside in the country after receiving the Nobel Prize, it will strenghten his position, and allow him to propaganda his views more actively," cautioned the KGB chief Yuri Andropov in a secret memorandum.
In 1974, the author was exiled from the Soviet Union. He lived first in Switzerland and moved then in 1976 to the United States, where he continued to write series called The Red Wheel, an epic history of the events, that led to the Russian Revolution. August 1914 (1971), constructed in fragmented style, focused on the defeat of the Russian Second Army in East Prussia. Although Solzhenitsyn did not have much sympathy for intentionally experimental, avant-garde literature, he used also in this work documents, proverbs, songs, newspapers, and imitation film scripts. With these technical devices Solzhenityn managed to create a broad social picture of this crucial moment of history.
"Exile from his great theme, Stalinism and the Gulag, had exposed his major weakness. Whatever its origins – and I suspect it was born early in his life – an overpowering repression would not allow him to penetrate below the conscious level of his mind. In his earlier works this did not matter, for he was able to externalize his unconscious: the savage, Inferno-esque vision of Gulag is, in a sense, a projection of his own repressed violence – on a gargantuan scale, because of the intensity of the repression. Lacking a strong fictive sense, he could never have invented and Inferno, as Dante did; he didn't need to, because this Russian Inferno existed. He hacked the salamander out of the ice. No one else in world literature, ever, could have done it." (D.M. Thomas in Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1998)
living in the town of Cavendish in southern Vermont, Solzhenitsyn never
met his countryman, the poet Joseph Brodsky, who worked in South
Hadley, Massachusetts, only an hour and a half drive away. Brodsky, a
Nobel laureate too, criticized Solzhenitsyn's opinion that Russia is
the keeper of certain values that the West has betrayed, saying that
this was "monstrous nonsense." Basically their difference reflected the
old quarrel between Slavophiles and Westernizers. In his commencement
address to Harvard class of 1978 Solzhenitsyn accused the West of lack
of faith, of moral degeneration and political cowardice.
After collapse of the Soviet Union Solzhenitsyn returned
Vermont to his native land in 1994. The new regime, led by Mikhail S.
Gorbachev, had offered to restore his citizenship already in 1990, and
next year his treason charges were formally dropped. Solzhenitsyn made
a sensational whistle-stop tour through Siberia. His journey from
Vladivostok to Moscow was sponsored by the BBC. While in the United
had turned down all Presidential invitations to the White House, but in
Russia he gave an address to the Duma. With
President Boris Yeltsin he talked for four hours and they even had a
little vodka. Solzhenitsyn's comment afterwards: the meeting was
useless. Solzhenitsyn felt that Yeltsin permitted an enormous
devastation of Russia.
Solzhenitsyn settled in Moscow, where he continued to criticize western materialism and Russian bureaucracy and secularization. Western democratic system meant for Solzhenitsyn "spiritual exhaustion" in which "mediocrity triumphs under the guise of democratic restraints." "We have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. The complex and deadly crush of life has produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting personalities than those generated by standardized Western well-being." (from a speech given in Harvard in 1978) Sozhenitsyn's old Russian ideals were already explicit in the character of Matryona in 'Matryona's House'. Its narrator meets a saintly woman, whose life has been full of disappointments but who helps others. "We had lived side by side her and had never understood that she was the righteous one without whom, as the proverb says, no village can stand."
In modern Russia Solzhenitsyn was soon labelled as "a reactionary utopian." His basic message was that the only salvation is to abandon materialist world view and return to the virtues of Holy Russia. Due to low ratings, Solzhenitsyn's 15-minute talk show was cancelled a year after it was started, but the television adaptation of The First Circle, broadcasted in 2006, gained a huge audience.
The Solzhenitsyn Prize for Russian writing was established in
1997. Since his return Solzhenitsyn, published several works, but in
the West his views did not gain the former interest, with the exception
of the essay Rebuilding Russia (1990) which was widely read and
arose much debate. Solzhenitsyn's later books include Rossiya
v obvale (1998, Russia Collapsing), an attack on Russia's business
circles and government, published by Viktor Moskvin. The first printing
was 5 000 copies. He also wrote on Russian-Jewish relations in Dvestina let mveste (2001-2002);
was his last major work. While acknowledging the plight of Jews
in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn argued in his
essay 'Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations' (1973)
that the Russians have been even more victimized: "No country
in the twentieth century has suffered like ours, which within its own
borders has destroyed as many as seventy million people over and above
those lost in the world wars - no one in modern history has experienced such destruction."
In January 2003 Solzhenitsyn was hospitalized with high blood pressure. "For me faith is the foundation and support of one’s life," Solzhenitsyn said in a Spiegel interview (July 23, 2007). Russian President Vladimir Putin granted in 2007 Solzhenitsyn a State Award for humanitarian achievement, saying that millions of people around the world associate Solzhenitsyn's name and work with the very fate of Russia itself. Solzhenitsyn met Putin only once. "Oh, he had quite a lot of interesting ideas," said Putin. Solzhenitsyn died from a heart condition on August 3, 2008.
For further reading: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Major Novels by Abraham Rothberg (1971); Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Kathryn B. Feuer (1976); Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by S. Allaback (1978); Solzhenitsyn in Exile by J.B. Dunlop, et al. (1985); Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision by E.E.E. Ericson (1980); Solzhenitsyn: A Biography by M. Scammell (1985); The Great Reversal by Paul N. Siegel (1991); Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World by Edward E. Ericson (1993); One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. A Critical Companion, ed. Alexis Klimoff (1997); Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century of His Life by D.M. Thomas (1998); Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile by Joseph Pearce (1999); 'Deep in the Woods: Solzhenitsyn in Moscow' by David Remnick, in Reporting (2006); Alexandre Soljénitsyne by Lioudmila Saraskina (2010); The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker by Daniel J. Mahoney (2014); Solženitsyn: elämä ja eetos by Erkki Vettenniemi (2015) - See also: Heinrich Böll, Mikhail Sholokhov, Lennart Meri