Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008 ) was the most visible and important figure in a movement of writers, intellectuals and dissident—who at great sacrifice themselves and people close to them—publicized the atrocities of Soviet repression and produced compelling literature in the process. Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1970. A year later, the KGB reportedly tried assassinate him by stabbing him with a poisoned needle.
Solzhenitsyn sometimes seem likes someone who was campaigning to be a saint. Instantly recognizable with his long prophet-like beard and stern demeanor, Solzhenitsyn was an extraordinarily disciplined, uncompromising and patient man, driven by hatred of the Soviet system, deep religious faith and a passionate "love of Russia."
It has been said that Solzhenitsyn was as important as Gorbachev or Reagan in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union According to D.M Thomas, author of Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life, "Solzhenitsyn helped to bring down the greatest tyranny the world has seen. No other writer in the twentieth century has had such an influence on history." Author Tom Wolfe declared that Solzhenitsyn should be Time Magazine's the Man of the Century. "No individual in all history, completely on his own, using only power of one, has changed the lived of more people than...Solzhenitsyn...Solzhenitsyn survived eight years in prison camps and three years of internal exile, and in secret wrote The Gulag Archipelago.
Book: The best biography is Alexander Solzhenitsyn by Micheal Scammel (1984). Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life by D.M. Thomas (St Martin's Press, 1997) is also good.
Solzhenitsyn's Early Life
Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11 1918 in Kislovodsk, a popular resort town in the Caucasus mountains six months after his father died in an accident. He came from a line of Cossack intellectuals.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was an only child and, with his father gone, was brought up by women. He attended school in Rostov from 1926 to 1937 at the height of the Stalin repression.” He was a good in the mathematic and dreamed of writing a "big novel" on the scale of Tolstoy. Solzhenitsyn graduated with a degree in physics and mathematics from the University of Rostov. He took correspondence courses in literature from Moscow State University At that time he was a committed Leninist.
Solzhenitsyn enlisted in the Red Army in 1941. He was trained in artillery and was awarded the Order of Patriotic War as a lieutenant for his role in the brutal counter-attack in August 1943 that liberated Orel. He took part in the liberation of Berlin in 1945 and attained the rank of captain.
Solzhenitsyn as a Prisoner
Solzhenitsyn began to turn against the Communist state at the end of World War II as he witnessed the savagery of the looting and killing by Soviet troops and contemplated the millions of lives that Stalin had sacrificed in his mismanagement of Russia and the war.
After the war Solzhenitsyn went almost straight from the army to a labor camp. In February 1945, he was arrested at his battery command in East Prussia for calling Stalin a "gang leader" in a letter to a friend that was intercepted by the NKVD secret police.
In the 1940s and 50s, Solzhenitsyn spent eight years at a secret labor camp in what is now Kazakhstan and psychiatric institute in Moscow and spent three years in internal exile. Some of the buildings he participated in building as a gulag laborer during four years to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow still stand on Leninsku Prospekt. He used his experiences to provide graphic descriptions of life in these camp in his books.
Solzhenitsyn's experiences as a prisoner were not as bad as they could have been. He was not tortured or viciously interrogated and he did not have to do hard labor in freezing weather in Siberia. After brief stints at a brick factory and clay pits, he alternated between periods of manual labor and scientific research assignments in which he had access to books and technical journals and worked with other intellectuals. He was allowed occasional meetings with his wife.
Solzhenitsyn as a Dissident
Solzhenitsyn was released from prison in 1953 and exiled to a remote area in southern Kazakhstan. There he overcame cancer and worked as a schoolteacher. In 1957, he got a job as a schoolteacher near Moscow. In the years that followed he sketched out The First Circle, began research for the Gulag Archipelago and wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which was published in 1961.
From 1961 to 1974, Solzhenitsyn dominated intellectual life and the dissident movement in the Soviet Union. His moral authority and uncompromising will won him respect from many circles. In 1966 he fell out of favor with the Soviet government and his works were censored. In 1969 he was thrown out of the Writer’s’s Union. His novels were published through the underground publishing networks and made their way to the West.
Solzhenitsyn managed to avoid imprisonment by staying one step ahead of the K.G.B. and other pursuers. Writing was a struggle that became a cat-and-mouse game between him and authorities who wanted to censor his work. A group of women, primarily the painter and journalist Olga Carlisle, painstakingly copied and hid his work and ultimately were able to smuggle it out of the country for publication when publication within the Soviet Union was impossible.
Solzhenitsyn did not treat the women in his life very well. He was married to his first wife Natalya ("Natasha") Reshetovskya twice. He met her in 1936 and married her in 1940, and informed her that he didn't want to have any children because they would interfere with his work. She divorced him before he was released from Stalin's labor camp in 1953 and then had the marriage annulled.
Reshetovskya was a pianist and scientist. In 1956, while she was living with her second husband and two stepsons and Solzhenitsyn was living in a wooden house with his landlady, Solzhenitsyn wrote a letter to Reshetovskya, asking her to visit and this eventually lead a to renewal of their relationship. She divorced her second husband and she and Solzhenitsyn were married again in 1957.
Reshetovskya helped her husband by typing his manuscripts. She said their marriage started to go wrong in 1962 after the success of his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, when he attracted a legion of admirers and began having an affair with a younger women. When Reshetovskya objected to the relationshop, he said. “I have to describe lots of women in my novels. You don’t expect me to find my heroines at the dinner table, do you? When she tried to commit suicide after their divorce in 1970, Solzhenitsyn asked her bitterly, "How could you do this to me?" Natalya later married an editor and cooperated with the KGB against her former husband and questioned some of his accounts of camps in The Gulag Archipelago. Later in life she said, “I love him right up to this moment.”
Solzhenitsyn later had an affair with Olga Ladishenskya, a brilliant mathematician and painter. When Natalya learned of the affair, Solzhenitsyn told he:r "You helped me create one novel. Permit me to allow her to help me create another." The affair with Ladishenskya came to an end because they sex they shared was reportedly so good that it distracted the author from his work. Several other women helped Solzhenitsyn by typing his manuscripts and smuggling his writings out of the country but, according to his biographer D.M. Thomas, once these women fulfilled their purpose, Solzhenitsyn discarded them.
Solzhenitsyn married his second wife, the mathematician Natalya ("Alya" ) Svetlova in 1973. She had already born him two sons before they were married and she bore him a third one later on.
Natalya was indispensable to Solzhenitsyn. While he worked in his study, sometimes for days at a time, she ran the household and raised his children. She also did research for him, typed his manuscripts and dealt with reporters, publishers and readers. She edited books on Russian history and administered a fund for camp veterans using funds from the Gulag Archipelago.
Solzhenitsyn's wife and all three of his sons are United States citizens. Solzhenitsyn youngest son Stephan graduated from Harvard and became an urban planner and environmental consultant in Boston. His middle son Ignat is a concert pianist and conductor in Philadelphia. His oldest son Yermolai studied Chinese in Taiwan.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Most of Solzhenitsyn's early works were semi-autobiographical and described life in Communist psychiatric hospitals and labor camps. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a description of one day in a Stalinist labor camp. It was a short book regarded as masterpiece for the immediacy of the language and the economy of the narrative. Grass soup was one of the main foods.
In 1961, Alexander Tvarddosky, the reknowned editor of the literary journal Novy Mir, was given a copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He was so moved by the opening pages that he got out of bed and put on a suit and tie because he felt the manuscript demanded that kind of respect.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was submitted pseudonymously to Novy Mir, and mysteriously approved by the Khrushchev government. It was published in 1962 during a period when Khrushchev was publically criticizing Stalinism. It overwhelmed Russian readers and Solzhenitsyn was given the Lenin Prize. It also won Solzhenitsyn a huge international following.
The First Circle and Cancer Ward were written before his exile in 1974 and described Stalinist repression in the 1930s. They were critically acclaimed and sold million of copies in the West. In the Soviet Union and eastern Europe illegally printed copies were passed from hand to hand, inspiring "hope against hope."
The Gulag Archipelago is regarded as Solzhenitsyn's greatest work. Paul Gray of Time described it as the "most authoritative indictment of the Soviet system ever published, and it came from within the U.S.S.R." David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker, “It is impossible to name a book that had a greater affect on the political and moral consciousness of the late 20th century. Not only did Solzhenitsyn deliver the historical truth of the Gulag; he conveyed, as no else did, its demonic atmosphere and the psychology of both the prisoners and the guards.”
The Gulag Archipelago is massive book. It was first published in France in 1973. It was responsible for Solzhenitsyn’s forced exile in 1974. It was published in the United States in three volumes by Harper & Row between 1974 and 1978. Tom Wolfe wrote that it revealed “for the first time the existence of this chain ("archipelago") of death mills...it was if the stake had been driven through the heart of Marxism. It was only a matter of time before the body and the tentacles rotted away."
Writing the Gulag Archipelago
The Gulag Archipelago was written by Solzhenitsyn over 20 years, mostly in secret. Some it is written in the first person. Much of it is based on testimonies and interviews from others. The project began in earnest after the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich when former prisoners, plus guards and even ex-secret police began writing Solzhenitsyn letters about their experience in the camps.
Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago each day in two shifts: between 1:00am and 9:00am and after a break, until 6:00pm. He then ate dinner at went to be bed at 7:00pm and slept with a pitchfork next o his bed, always expecting a knock on door in the middle of the night. The manuscript for the book was finished in 1968 and kept hidden
In 1973, the KGB in Leningrad confiscated a copy of he manuscript that Solzhenitsyn’s typist had buried at a friend’s dacha. Shortly after her arrest the typist was found dead from asphyxiation—an apparent suicide. After that he sent a message to his overseas contacts to publish the books. H e heard it as published on a BBC radio broadcast while eating lunch.
Solzhenitsyn’s wife Natalya Reshetovskaya said the work was a collection of “camp folklore” and was not based on “historical research or scientific research.” To make the point she said look at the book’s subtitle: “An Experiment in Literary Investigation.”
Solzhenitsyn in the United States
In 1974, at the age of 55, Solzhenitsyn became only the second Soviet citizen ever to be expelled from the Soviet Union (the first was Leon Trotsky in 1929). His offense was "systematically performing actions that are incompatible with being a citizen of the U.S.S.R." Solzhenitsyn was given a plane ticket out of the country. He was exiled rather than sent to a Siberian labor camp because he was too well known. His family was allowed to join him.
Solzhenitsyn's son Ignat was 18 months old when they were expelled. Solzhenitsyn went first to West Germany and then to Switzerland. The Solzhenitsyns lived in Zurich between 1974 and 1976 and moved around Europe for several years before he eventually settled on a heavily-wooded estate in Cavendish, Vermont in the United States. Here, he kept mostly to himself, often working 16 hours a day on historical works dealing with World War I. When he did materialize in public, he often criticized the West.
Solzhenitsyn’s family spoke Russian at home and the children had to go through some adjustment when they entered school. Solzhenitsyn wrote he told his children that a boulder on their property was a magic horse that would take them pack to Russia one day. Ignat told the New York Times, "So we grew up with that—not just a love for Russian literature, music, culture and painting, but with a very clear family goal, that someday Russia will be free, and we will be able to go back. My father always believed that he would outlive Communism."
Solzhenitsyn criticized the West with almost as much vehemence as he had attacked the former Soviet Union. He regarded the West as a petty, empty, superficial wasteland of materialism. "The more amiable [Westerners] appear on the surface," he wrote, "the more hard-hearted they are in reality." In June 1978, he gave a notorious commencement speech at Harvard in which sharply condemned the West. The outcry over the speech forced him deeper into isolation.
Solzhenitsyn Returns to Russia
In May 1994, after 20 years in exile, Solzhenitsyn returned to his homeland. He began his trip in The Far East, in Magadan, on the Sea of Okhotsk, one of the main centers of the gulag system. He traveled by train across Russia with his family in special cars paid for by the BBC, which shot a documentary about the event. He he stopped in cities, signed books and appeared on local television. The BBC paid the Russian railways $28,000 for the privilege of recording Solzhenitsyn's two-month journey.
Solzhenitsyn's return was largely ignored by Russians. Those that remembered him were thankful for what had he done in the past but, as with Gorbachev, they feel he had outlived his usefulness and suffered from an inflated view of his own importance.
Within 24 hours of his landing in Russia Solzhenitsyn began making bold pronouncements. He called Yeltsin "brainless" and Zhirinovsky a "caricature of a patriot." He said large chunks of Kazakhstan were actually part of Russia and called the Russian political system a "pseudo-democracy."
Solzhenitsyn's Later Books
Solzhenitsyn later books dealt mostly with Russian history. He spent the last years of his life working on The Red Wheel, a four part, 5,000 page epic describing the events that lead up to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The first volume of the work was released in the United States under the title August 1914. The work was marred, wrote Russia expert David Remnick, by long wooden passages and artificial dialogue
In the 1990s, Solzhenitsyn wrote two short books: The Russian Question and the End of the Twentieth Century (1994) and Russia in Collapse (1998). In 2001 Solzhenitsyn published Two Hundred Years Together, a history of Jewish-Russian relations. Expressing his intentions, Solzhenitsyn said, "I am now appealing to both sides, Russian and Jewish, to come to patient understanding and to acknowledge their own share of guilt. I am trying to understand both sides. That is why I am studying and analyzing events and not polemics."
Solzhenitsyn was criticized for making anti-Semitic statements and downplaying the persecution of the Jews and linking Russian suffering to Jews and other minorities. Those that have followed his career believe these accusations are unfair. He has many Jewish friends and his wife's mother was Jewish. One of his main points was the persecution of the Jews in Russia was not unique. Other groups suffered just as much as the Jews but received less attention.
Solzhenitsyn Later Life
In Russia, Solzhenitsyn lived in isolation in a house in Triotse-Lykovo, a forested area along the Moscow River that is regarded as a suburb of Moscow. When he appeared in public he wore his signature brown safari jacket. In 1997 he was elected as a full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and established his own literary prize.
Solzhenitsyn continued to make authoritative pronouncements. He blamed Gorbachev for setting in motion reforms that led to destructive commercialism, crime, permissiveness and sexual freedom. He criticized Yeltsin for breaking up the Soviet Union without taking into consideration the 25 million Russians living in the former republics, He blamed Putin for heading down the same misguided path of his predecessor and criticized Chechens, Westerners and Russian reformers.
In the early 2000s,Solzhenitsyn's books were relatively difficult find in Russia and many Russians dismissed him as a cantankerous old man with outmoded nationalistic and conservative views. His Russian television show was dropped because of low ratings. Gorbachev called him a hypocrite for condemning the very freedoms that allowed him to return to Russia and voice his opinion.
In 2001, when was 82, Solzhenitsyn suffered from two heart attacks and intense back pain. He continued to work. In 2005, he said that oppression under Putin had gotten to a point that Russia was ripe for a Ukrainian-style “freedom revolution” and said that Russia was not backtracking away from democracy because it was never very democratic to begin with. Solzhenitsyn died of heart failure near Moscow on 3 August 2008, at the age of 89. A burial service was held at Donskoy Monastery, where he was buried.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016