Accessibility links

Russian Novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn Dies at 89

Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died in Moscow at the age of 89. Mr. Solzhenitsyn's greatest works, The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich stunned the world, providing irrefutable proof of the horrors of Soviet labor camps. Historians credit his work with playing a significant role in the eventual collapse of communism in Russia and throughout Eastern and Central Europe. Former VOA Moscow correspondent Peter Heinlein reports, Solzhenitsyn stands as perhaps Russia's greatest and most influential 20th century author.

The voice of Alexander Solzhenitsyn crackled out over Voice of America frequencies beaming to the Soviet Union, a powerful Cold War symbol to millions of people behind the Iron Curtain. No one knows how many Soviet citizens huddled around short wave receivers, battling Moscow's frequency jammers, to hear the legendary author read his latest banned novel.

But this we do know. It had an impact, a huge impact.

Former Soviet dissident Semyon Reznik - writing about what he called "The Solzhenitsyn Effect" - said, "you had to have lived in Russia [at that time]. You had to have hunted blind carbon copies of his manuscripts. You had to spend hours and hours with the short-wave radio trying to catch a couple words about him through the jamming - only then might you have an idea of how much Mr. Solzhenitsyn inspired an entire generation of the Soviet intelligentsia to reject communism."

Solzhenitsyn took literature courses by correspondence

Alexander Solzhenitsyn always meant to be a writer, but he could not possibly have imagined how it would eventually happen. He grew up a fervent Leninist in southern Russia. He won a Stalin scholarship to study math and physics, and took literature courses by correspondence.

Graduating just as World War II was breaking out, he joined the army, and rose to the rank of captain of the artillery.

But as the war was ending in 1945, Soviet censors intercepted a letter he wrote to a friend containing a joke about Stalin.

Hard time in labor camps leads to first novella

That casual comment cost him eight years in the infamous forced labor camps, the gulag. The experience changed his life. He was not allowed to keep a diary, so he wrote in his head, committing each incident to memory. When he got out, he began to put on paper what he had memorized.

His first book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a brilliantly crafted tale of good and evil in the labor camps. The 68-page novella first appeared in the literary journal Novy Mir in 1962, when Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev was easing the repressive restrictions of the Stalin era.

Krushchev himself is said to have approved the publication, unaware of the impact it would have. Solzhenitsyn biographer Michael Scammell says when Ivan Denisovich hit the streets, it was an instant sensation.

"There's a tired word called bombshell," he noted. "But, in this case, I think it does properly describe the impact of this book. I know that when various Russian writers and intellectuals first got copies of the magazine with it in, they couldn't believe their eyes. They read it once, read it twice, and there was a rumor, which ran around Moscow like wildfire that censorship had been abolished. That's how sensational, how unusual that particular book was. No such thing had happened. In fact, Krushchev as we know, regretted allowing publication, but that was the impact of the book at the time."

Crackdown on artistic freedom breeds success

Not long after the publication of Ivan Denisovich, the post-Stalinist window of relative artistic freedom was slammed shut. Krushchev himself was ousted in 1964. Further publication of Solzhenitsyn's work was banned. But nearly 900,000 copies of Ivan Denisovich were already in circulation. The dirty secrets of Stalin's gulags were out.

And the book made Alexander Solzhenitsyn an instant celebrity.

He published his next book The First Circle in 1968 with the help of a secret army of mostly middle-aged women, who were devoted to him. They evaded the ban on publishing his work by helping him hide and protecting his manuscripts, and by typing multiple copies and distributing them secretly. The women also smuggled microfilm of his work out of the Soviet Union for publication in the West.

The First Circle traces the differing responses of imprisoned scientists working on research for the secret police, as they are forced to choose whether to cooperate and remain at the research prison, or be sent back to the brutal conditions of the labor camps.

When it was published, Solzhenitsyn was lionized in the West, hailed as the conscience of a nation, an eloquent opponent of repressive Soviet policies. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

But his most devastating indictment of the Soviet system was still lying in wait, and it would shake the Kremlin to its foundations.

Life in the Gulags exposed

Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago over a 10-year period, from 1958 to 1968. But he withheld publication, later explaining that his obligation to protect those still living outweighed his obligation to the dead. He changed his mind in December 1973, when the KGB confiscated a copy of the manuscript.

"It's an absolute masterpiece, almost a combination of a cry of despair, and, at the same time, a crushing indictment of the entire Soviet system," said Solzhenitsyn biographer Michael Scammell. "It was a confirmation, from inside, of many of the things that had been rumored, or even things that were known about in the West, but were, what shall I say, sometimes seemingly discredited, because they seemed to come from an anti-communist lobby. Here was unimpeachable evidence from inside, and from someone who had gone through the gulag system."

Soviet reprisal

The Kremlin's response was swift and furious. Solzhenitsyn was viciously attacked in the Soviet press. On February 12, 1974, the author was arrested and charged with treason. But Soviet officials decided not to send him back to the gulag. The following day his citizenship was revoked and he was sent into exile.

Decades later, KGB documents made public in the post-Soviet era revealed that members of the Soviet Politburo were more worried about the threat posed by Solzhenitsyn than they were about the United States.

Scholar Edward Ericson, who co-edited an abridged version of the Gulag Archipelago with the author, says nobody understood the distinctive character of 20th Century communism better than Solzhenitsyn.

"He has understood at least as well as anyone else, the ideological foundation of totalitarianism, and an ideology he and Vaclav Havel both call 'the lie,'" Ericsson explained. "His last word to Soviet citizens when he was sent into exile in '74 was 'live not by lies.'"

Life in exile

In exile, Solzhenitsyn lived briefly in Switzerland, then moved to the United States.

But once there, he began using his sharp pen against the West, almost as fiercely as he had done against the Kremlin. He seemed to have a penchant for making enemies out of friends. He lashed out at U.S. policies, and at Western liberal intellectuals who had idolized him, accusing them of being soft on communism.

Solzhenitsyn retreated to a heavily-wooded estate in Vermont, confidently predicting that the Soviet Union was on its deathbed, and that he would eventually return home, a free man in a country that was no longer Soviet.

He focused on what he considered his life's work, a mammoth 10-volume historical novel exploring the origins of the Bolshevik revolution.

In 1983 and 1984, VOA broadcast Solzhenitsyn's reading of part of the first volume, titled August 1914.

The broadcasts were controversial in the West. Many Soviet émigrés protested. They described the book as 'subtly anti-Semitic'. But in the Soviet Union, where Solzhenitsyn's works were still officially banned, and the broadcasts jammed, the 36 half-hour segments attracted a wide audience.

Solzhenitsyn serves as inspiration for Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan (file photo)

The author had become the main symbol of resistance to Soviet rule. In a 1988 speech, President Ronald Reagan invoked Solzhenitsyn's name, and issued a challenge to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

"Mr. Gorbachev, open the Soviet Union to the works of a great man and an historic author. Open the Soviet Union to the works of Solzhenitsyn," the president said.

The great edifice of Soviet power was beginning to crack. The following year, officially approved excerpts from The Gulag Archipelago appeared in Novy Mir, the same literary magazine that had published Ivan Denisovich 27 years earlier.

In August, 1990, Solzhenitsyn's citizenship was restored, and, the following year, Soviet prosecutors dropped the treason charge. Within months, the tide of history would sweep away Mr. Gorbachev and the entire Soviet state, just as Solzhenitsyn had predicted.

The long road home

Still he did not return home. He remained secluded in Vermont, writing. It would be another two and a half years, more than 20 years after his expulsion, before he would go back to Russia.

By the time he made his return in 1994, most Russians seemed to view Solzhenitsyn as hopelessly out of touch.

He briefly hosted a television talk show, but it was soon canceled. Critics said he came across on TV as long-winded, egotistical, and irrelevant.

His last few books sold only a few thousand copies each. The Gulag Archipelago, by contrast, was translated into at least 35 languages and sold more than 30 million copies.

In the preface to his biography, Michael Scammell notes that while some people viewed the author as a saint, a prophet and a political visionary, others saw a megalomaniac, a monster of egotism and a literary mediocrity.

Still, distinguished American author David Remnick once wrote "there is no greater story of human dignity in the 20th Century than Solzhenitsyn."

Solzhenitsyn's voice, and his pen that did so much to change the course of the 20th Century, have been silenced. But he leaves behind an indelible mark. His literary achievements have earned him a place in the pantheon of Russia's greatest writers, alongside Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin.