Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who is being buried in Moscow today, was the most indomitable of the post-war opponents of the Stalinist terror machine in the Soviet Union, who paved the way for countless others.
The 1962 publication of Solzhenitsyn’s, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was an extraordinary event both in the Soviet Union and throughout the world. Its unembellished depiction of life in a Siberian prison camp made its reality spring to life for millions of readers.
Despite his youthful enthusiasm for Marxism and distinguished service in the Red Army where he was twice decorated for gallantry, Solzhenitsyn was arrested in 1945 by Stalin’s secret police. He was sentenced without trial to eight years in labour camps and permanent internal exile for having criticised Stalin’s conduct of the war in a letter to a friend.
The publication of Ivan Denisovich was possible only due to the personal intervention of Stalin’s successor as secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev and the courageous support of Alexander Tvardovsky, editor of the literary journal Novy Mir. It was an immediate sensation in the USSR.
But although it was studied in Soviet schools and three more of his books were published in 1963, two years later the author became a non-person. Khrushchev had been ousted in 1964, and the terrifying power of the secret police was reimposed.
Solzhenitsyn’s manuscript of his epic account of Stalinist repression, The First Circle, and archives were confiscated by the police. He appealed unsuccessfully to the Writers Union to defend literary freedom in 1967 but was instead expelled from membership. While forced into silence in his homeland, his books Cancer Ward and The First Circle appeared abroad. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, but could not travel to Stockholm to accept it.
Stig Fredrikson, a Swedish journalist living in Moscow, helped him smuggle out the works he continued to write in secret. Fredrikson explained later how the author had hidden copies of the manuscript with a few trusted friends. One woman in Leningrad, had a copy of his account of Stalinist labour camps, The Gulag Archipelago. “She had buried it in the ground, but somehow the KGB found out,” Fredrikson wrote later. “They interrogated her for days and nights until she confessed where she had hidden it. She was then released but went home and hanged herself. She felt that she had betrayed Solzhenitsyn's confidence in her.”
Because of his status as a symbol of resistance, the authorities could not arrest Solzhenitsyn, so they expelled him from the Soviet Union in 1974 and stripped him of his citizenship. The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko gave him support at this time. He was invited to live in the United States, where he spent the next 19 years on an isolated farm in Vermont, working on a history of the Russian Revolution, The Red Wheel.
From opposition to Stalinism he moved to an increasingly nationalist, backward looking view of history. He was an outspoken critic of US consumer society, but at the same time yearned for a return to pre-revolutionary Russia. In a long manifesto published in 1990, he envisaged a purely Slav Russia with a key role for the Orthodox Church.
By now Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost made it possible for his books to be published in the Soviet Union and Solzhenitsyn returned to his homeland in 1994. Gorbachev paid tribute to the writer yesterday, saying: “He was a great man, who was amid the first to raise voice against Stalin’s regime in defence of people that fell victims to it.”
Although Solzhenitsyn denounced the corruption and incompetence of post-Soviet Russian rulers, especially Yeltsin, his political trajectory to deeply backward Russian nationalism dovetailed with Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule. He accepted an award from Putin last summer, a ruler who, in the words of an exiled Russian journalist, “has revived the long-forgotten category of the political prisoner, and of the forcible confinement of critics in psychiatric clinics”.
But whatever his later evolution, nothing can detract from Solzhenitsyn’s contribution to the exposé and eventual fall of Stalinism.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn. December 11, 1918-August 3, 2008
A World to Win secretary