08-03-2008, 05:58 PM
I saw this on the BBC News page. I've never read any of his works (in fact, one of my great literary deficiencies is I've never made it through any Russian novel. I've really got to rectify that!
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who has died at the age of 89, played a significant role in ending communism. His novels were beautifully crafted, damning indictments of the repressive Soviet regime.
Born into a family of Cossack intellectuals, Alexander Solzhenitsyn graduated in mathematics and physics, but within weeks the Soviet Union was fighting Hitler for its survival.
Solzhenitsyn served as an artillery officer and was decorated for his courage, but in 1945 was denounced for criticising Stalin in a letter.
He spent the next eight years as one of the countless men enduring the gulags. He was one of the lucky ones to survive.
There followed a period of internal exile in Kazakhstan during which Solzhenitsyn was successfully treated for stomach cancer.
On his return to European Russia, he was allowed, following Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin, to publish his largely autobiographical One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in 1962.
This made him an instant celebrity. But with the subsequent fall from power of the reformist Khrushchev, the KGB stepped up its harassment of Solzhenitsyn, forcing him to publish his work abroad.
His novels The First Circle and Cancer Ward were further damning allegories of the Soviet system.
In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. But he refused to attend the award ceremony in Stockholm for fear of not being allowed back home.
In 1973, the first of the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West. He had been hiding the novel from the authorities, fearful that people mentioned in it would suffer reprisals.
Branded a traitor
But his former assistant, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, revealed its location after being interrogated by the KGB after which she hanged herself.
So Solzhenitsyn decided to publish it. The Gulag Archipelago offered a detailed account of the systematic Soviet abuses from 1918 to 1956 in the vast network of prison and labour camps.
Its publication led to a violent campaign against Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet press which denounced him as a traitor.
In early 1974, even Solzhenitsyn's world reputation could not prevent his arrest. But rather than put him on trial, the Soviet authorities stripped him of his citizenship and expelled him from the country.
In exile, he continued to be a source of controversy, notably when he issued a series of documents which cast serious doubt on Mikhail Sholokov's authorship of the novel And Quiet Flows the Don.
Many of his utterances were discursive and even baffling, and the admiration for him was not entirely uncritical.
Eventually, he settled in Vermont in the USA with his second wife and their three sons. Here, he completed the other two volumes of The Gulag Archipelago.
Return to Russia
Prussian Nights, a long narrative poem about the Red Army's vengeful advance into East Prussia in 1945, was published in 1977. He was said to have composed the poem and committed it to memory 25 years before, during his years in prison.
But Solzhenitsyn also rejected liberalism, dismissing the notion of democracy introduced by Gorbachev and Yeltsin as a myth. He was equally scathing of Western liberalism.
He returned to Russia in 1994 and told the Russian parliament, the Duma, that post-communist Russians were not living in a democracy.
He denounced politicians as being corrupt, and appeared regularly on television to voice his disapproval of the country which had first reviled and then embraced him.
In 2000, his book, Two Hundred Years Together, again covered sensitive ground in exploring the position of Jews in Soviet society.
He denied some charges of anti-Semitism. Gradually, his own people no longer had quite the desire to listen so carefully to his criticisms.
But former President Vladimir Putin courted his approval towards the end of the author's life, personally visiting his home in 2007 to award him the State Prize of the Russian Federation for his humanitarian work.
In 2006, the first Russian film based on one of his novels - The First Circle (V Kruge Pervom) - was shown on Russian state television, four decades after it was published.
The 10-part TV film depicted the terror of Stalin's regime, describing the Soviet Union as a huge prison camp.
Also in 2006, Solzhenitsyn, then 87, castigated Nato, accusing it of trying to bring Russia under its control.
He accused the organisation of "preparing to completely encircle Russia and deprive if of its sovereignty".
By then, Alexander Solzhenitsyn had already secured his place in history as one of the greatest Russian writers of the 20th Century.
08-05-2008, 12:07 PM
From The Guardian
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who has died aged 89, was a prolific novelist and memoirist, whose life's work, in the best traditions of Russian literature, transcended the realm of pure letters. He was a moral and spiritual leader, whose books were noted as much for their ethical dimension as for their aesthetic qualities. Between 1968 and 1976, he was a towering figure in the twin worlds of literature and politics, expressing the pain of his long-suffering people . .
Solzhenitsyn's moral authority was not easily earned. It was the fruit, in part, of bitter personal experience in Stalin's labour camps . . Later, he showed unmatched physical and moral courage in writing and publishing his magnum opus, The Gulag Archipelago, a torrential narrative mixing history, politics, autobiography, documentary, corrosive personal comment and philosophical speculation into one of the most extraordinary epics of 20th-century literature. Not least of Solzhenitsyn's achievements was his resurrection of the 19th-century Russian ideal of the writer as secular prophet . .
. . Born in Kislovodsk in southern Russia, . . he grew up a loyal communist and staunch supporter of the Soviet regime. As a student at Rostov University, he edited the Komsomol . . began to write short stories, and drafted the plan for an immense "Tolstoyan" novel. But it was his devotion to revolutionary purity that was to prove his undoing. As an artillery captain during the second world war, he wrote letters to a friend expressing barely disguised hostility to Stalin's autocratic rule and hoping for a return to socialist principles when the war was over. These letters were intercepted by Smersh, the Soviet counter-espionage service, and shortly before the war's end, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and sentenced in July 1945 to eight years in the labour camps and three years' administrative exile for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda".
The shock of this arrest and the subsequent privations he endured in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow were to lead to some of the finest pages in The Gulag Archipelago (three volumes, 1974-76):"Of all the cells you've been in, your first cell is a very special one, the place where you first encountered others like yourself, doomed to the same fate. All your life you will remember it with an emotion that can only be compared to memories of your first love. And those people with whom you shared the floor and air of that stone cubicle during the days when you rethought your entire life will later be recalled by you as members of your own family."
During his first few months in the camps, Solzhenitsyn almost died from starvation and overwork. He was saved by his unexpected transfer to a sharashka, a scientific institute devoted to the study of decoding techniques and staffed entirely by scientifically trained prisoners while being supervised and run by the MVD (the ministry of internal affairs) . .
These experiences were to form the core of the finest of Solzhenitsyn's longer novels, The First Circle (1969), whose title referred to Dante's circles of hell: the first circle was reserved for "the wise men of antiquity," pagans but not sinners of commission . . In 1950, after three years at the sharashka Solzhenitsyn was transferred to a special camp at Ekibastuz in northern Kazakhstan, where he worked for three more years, first as a bricklayer, and then as a brigade leader in the machine shop. The grinding hard labour, the extremes of heat and cold, the brutality of the guards, and the corruption of the camp administration were later evoked with great brilliance in his short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). The suffering provoked a bloody riot . . which was followed by a hunger strike. A commission of inquiry was appointed, and Solzhenitsyn, as a brigade leader, urged caution on his fellow strikers and supported compromise. But the prisoners were cynically deceived by the commission, and Solzhenitsyn learned the bitter lesson that compromise with the authorities was impossible.
It was while still in the camps that Solzhenitsyn had his first brush with cancer. He was rushed to the infirmary in great pain and operated on for cancer of the groin. The treatment was unsuccessful, and a few months later in 1954, in exile in southern Kazakhstan, he dragged himself to a cancer clinic in Tashkent for further treatment. "That autumn I learned from my own experience that a man can cross the threshold of death while occupying a body that is still not dead. Your blood still circulates and your stomach digests things, but psychologically you have completed all your preparations for death and lived through death itself … Although you have never regarded yourself as a Christian — sometimes, indeed, the opposite — now you suddenly notice that you have already forgiven everyone who has insulted you."
Solzhenitsyn's ordeal during these months became the substance of Cancer Ward (1968). They also provoked a spiritual crisis and a return to the Christian faith of his mother. He came to the conclusion that religion was superior to ideology, because it struggled with "the evil inside man", whereas revolutions destroyed the contingent carriers of evil, but embraced "the evil itself", and even magnified it. He also concluded that "the line separating good from evil runs not between states, not between classes, and not between parties — it runs through the heart of each and every one of us".
Solzhenitsyn's release from exile and rise to world fame is inextricably linked with the name and policies of Nikita Khrushchev, who encouraged the thaw after Stalin's death in 1953 and inaugurated a wide-ranging policy of de-Stalinisation. Returning from exile in 1956 to Russia a free man, Solzhenitsyn was reunited with Natalia [and] settled down as a schoolteacher in Ryazan . .
While in exile in Kazakhstan, Solzhenitsyn had laboured to revise the numerous works he had composed in the camps. They included a long narrative poem of thousands of lines ("twice the length of Eugene Onegin"), lyric poetry, plays in verse and in prose, and the draft of the novel that was to become The First Circle. His camp experiences had taught him the Joycean virtues of "silence, exile, and cunning," and for several years he had little expectation that his writings would see the light of day. But he changed his mind after the party's 22nd congress in October 1961, when Khrushchev vowed to erect a monument to the victims of Stalinism, and Tvardovsky, editor of . . Novy Mir, called on writers to tell the truth about "the era of the personality cult".
[He] had just completed a short novel about a day in the life of a typical prisoner, which was less extreme in its political opinions than his early poems and plays. He arranged for it to be forwarded anonymously to Tvardovsky, setting in motion a chain of events that was to be compared to the discovery of Dostoevsky by the poet and publisher Nikolai Nekrasov a hundred years earlier.
Tvardovsky stayed up all night reading the manuscript, then deluged friends and colleagues with the news that "a great writer has been born". Tvardovsky was obliged to go all the way up the chain of command to Khrushchev himself to get the novel published. It is said that Khrushchev had to bully his politburo colleagues into reading it. When they declined to make a decision, Khrushchev allegedly said: "There's a Russian proverb that says silence is consent."
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich caused a sensation when it appeared in the November 1961 issue of the literary magazine Novy Mir. So daring were its revelations about Stalin's policies and the evils of the labour camps that many Russians concluded that the censorship had suddenly been abolished. The elder statesman of Russian literature, Korney Chukovsky, called the book "a literary miracle", the famous poet Anna Akhmatova described Solzhenitsyn as "a bearer of light", and said his story should be read by "every one of the 200 million citizens of the Soviet Union".
The responses of the reading public were even more overwhelming: "I kiss your golden hands", "thank you for your truthfulness", "let me bow to the ground before you", "we love you, we believe you, we thank you."
"Thank you, dear friend, comrade and brother. Reading your story I remembered the frosts and blizzards, the insults and humiliations. I wept as I read. Keep well, dear friend."
There had been nothing like it in the entire history of Russian literature. Solzhenitsyn had achieved the miracle of pleasing his country's leaders, its critically minded intelligentsia, and the broad mass of his readers. Moreover, his impact on foreign readers was almost as strong: within weeks his name was known all over the world . .
[His] fall from official grace was almost as precipitous as his rise. In 1964, Khrushchev was removed from power, and Solzhenitsyn narrowly failed to win the Lenin prize for literature. A year later, Leonid Brezhnev began his drive against the intellectuals, signalled by . . the confiscation of Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle from a friend's apartment . .
By now Solzhenitsyn was half-way through Cancer Ward, but although part one was slated for publication by Novy Mir, it was blocked by the authorities. Indeed, [he] was never again to be published while the Soviet regime remained in power.
Solzhenitsyn was convinced that his arrest was imminent, and went to ground for several weeks, but . . he remained unscathed, and came to the conclusion that the authorities were afraid of him . .
From 1966 to 1968, he . . fought doggedly to get either The First Circle or Cancer Ward (now in two parts) into print, and to have one or the other of his plays staged, but the KGB . . was just as determined to stop him . . [and] circulated copies [of an incendiary early play, Victory Celebrations] to members of the Writers' Union, and advocated his expulsion.
Solzhenitsyn fought back with a celebrated open letter to the Writers' Union congress in March 1967, citing the long line of distinguished Russian writers suppressed or killed by the Soviet government and calling for a complete end to censorship:
"A survival of the Middle Ages, censorship has managed, Methuselah-like to drag out its existence almost to the 21st century. Perishable, it attempts to arrogate to itself the prerogative of imperishable time, of separating good books from bad."
Solzhenitsyn also appealed to the union to support his struggle to have his own works published — an appeal that fell on deaf ears. The increasing repression of religious and nationalist dissent by the Brezhnev administration had led to the explosive growth of a dissident movement, which exerted leverage by appeals to the west for support. Solzhenitsyn was both a part of the movement and the object of several of its appeals, and he capitalised on his international reputation by sending copies of his unpublished novels abroad. In 1968 part one of Cancer Ward was published in English by the Bodley Head (followed by translations in other languages), and a year later, Harper & Row brought out The First Circle.
Both novels were old-fashioned in their panoramic reach, their huge cast of characters and realistic manner, but hugely innovative in their subject matter: the submerged and hitherto (except for Solzhenitsyn's own early novel) undescribed world of the labour camps. Solzhenitsyn was acknowledged as a "truth-teller" and a witness to the cruelties of Stalinism of unusual power and eloquence. His fame grew exponentially. He was hailed as a fearless chronicler of evil and as the greatest Russian writer of his time.
The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 inaugurated a new push against dissidents, and the following year, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Writers' Union. But in 1970 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, and this greatly strengthened his position vis-a-vis the government. Other prominent dissidents tried to make common cause with him, but although he sympathised with their goals, Solzhenitsyn stayed aloof and preferred to pursue his own path.
The sole exception was Academician Sakharov, whose Memorandum on Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom had greatly impressed him, and with whom he had discussed issuing a joint statement on the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The two men met several times, but Sakharov, the typical "westerniser", with a great admiration for western society and democratic norms, soon found himself at odds with the "Slavophile" Solzhenitsyn, who had acquired a deep regard for the traditions of the Orthodox church and a growing conviction that Russia should follow a separate path from the west. Nevertheless, the two did act in concert to block some aspects of the Brezhnev-Nixon policy of détente, and were instrumental in getting the US Senate to include a human rights plank in the agreement.
Solzhenitsyn's increasingly conservative and patriotic views were now beginning to alienate him from liberal opinion in the Soviet Union. In his historical novel, August 1914, published in the west in 1971, he painted a rosy picture of pre-revolutionary Russia, . . In his 1973 political manifesto, Letter to the Soviet Leaders (written partly in response to Sakharov's Memorandum), he spelled out his views in even greater detail, disclosing a vision that was patriarchal and bucolic, and impelled by an intense aversion to modernity in all its forms.
Publication of the Letter (which Solzhenitsyn had sent personally to Brezhnev, without response) was delayed by another major development. The KGB had tracked down and confiscated a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's immense camp history that he had written in the deepest secret and concealed for years from all but close intimates. Copies were already in the west, and when Solzhenitsyn learned of the KGB's coup, he displayed great personal courage in ordering its immediate publication. The appearance of volume one in January 1974 was a bombshell: the book went far beyond anything Solzhenitsyn had published before in revealing the abuses of the regime even as far back as the early twenties, and placed, in the words of one commentator, "a burning question mark over 50 years of Soviet power". Another wrote that "the time may come when we date the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet system from the appearance of Gulag".
The publication of The Gulag Archipelago in the west provoked the politburo to decree his immediate deportation, and after a sensational arrival by plane in West Germany in 1974, he settled in Zurich for two years. There he was joined by his . . wife . . and their three young sons . . During this time he travelled widely, made speeches denouncing the Soviet regime, and published a fascinating memoir, The Oak and the Calf (1975), in which he revealed many new details about his battle with the Soviet authorities. Meanwhile volumes two and three of The Gulag Archipelago appeared to less public acclaim than volume one, but confirmed the uniqueness and immensity of that vast enterprise.
In 1976 Solzhenitsyn moved to Vermont, and after making a badly received speech at Harvard about the west's derelictions in its dealings with the Soviet Union swore himself to public silence while working on a series of historical novels that continued the story of August 1914 (1971) under the collective title of The Red Wheel. The original plan had called for up to 20 novels, but the sheer length of the next two novels in the series, October 1916 and March 1917 (each consisting of two volumes, published in 1985 and 1998), showed that this would be physically impossible. Solzhenitsyn therefore concluded the cycle with April 1917 (1991), possibly influenced by the fact that the historical novels were being met with neither critical nor popular success. The consensus held them to be too densely packed with historical data and turgid commentary, and too short on artistic invention to be of great interest to readers. Since the appearance of August 1914, only one other volume, November 1916, has been translated into English so far, although others are scheduled for the future.
From the moment of his deportation Solzhenitsyn averred that he would return to Russia, and he was right . . he made a triumphal return in May 1994 . . He was welcomed with genuine warmth and gratitude, but the politicians (until Putin's much-publicised personal visit several years later) kept their distance . . Once more Solzhenitsyn retired from public view, settling in a comfortable villa on the outskirts of Moscow. But despite his advancing years, he kept up a punishing work schedule and was rarely out of the news . .
Solzhenitsyn was essentially an old-fashioned artist working within the conventions of the 19th century novel, but the pressure of his extreme subject matter, the passion and discipline he brought to his craft, and the exigencies of the times helped him to stretch the boundaries of Russian realism and find new expressive possibilities for it. He was a truth-teller and moralist of rare force, whose dedication to the ideals of freedom and justice took him beyond literature into the realms of history, philosophy, religion, politics and international affairs . . [He] will be remembered in the short term as the bard of the Gulag, a fearless tribune who exercised a crucial liberating influence at a decisive moment in Soviet history, but in the context of the ages, his works will be read so long as readers thirst for the truth about life on this planet.
Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, writer, born December 11 1918; died August 3 2008
Michael Scammell guardian.co.uk, Monday August 4 2008; the full obit runs to 3800 words.
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