The Russian Interfax news service is reporting the passage of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, perhaps the most important writer of the last century. As this is such recent news that I cannot find a proper obituary, I will write a short one myself. It's still longer than what the New York Times has to say as I write this.
Solzhenitsyn was a captain in the Red Army when, in the last days of World War II, he was caught writing of his hope for change in the Soviet state (a commonly held hope in light of the victory everyone knew was coming) in a letter to a friend. As he was to find, the Soviet state was not about to change. He was tried, convicted, and sent to the penal colonies of the Soviet far east, known by the Russian acronym GULag. The term would become synonymous with Solzhenitsyn's writing.
Solzhenitsyn survived his years in the camps because, as an educated man, he was eventually assigned to relatively "soft" duties in the portion of the camps devoted to atomic research. (The Soviets imprisoned some of their scientists because it was cheaper and they worked harder knowing that they could be sent to the regular camps). But he spent enough time in the real camps, living as one of the 'zeks (prisoners) within, to write of it, of a system and economy designed to ship millions to work as slaves in Siberia and the Russian north until they died of neglect, hunger, disease, or were released. Millions died.
Solzhenitsyn was blessed with a prodigious memory, and a writing ability that put him among the greats of Russian literature, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Among the great Russian writers of the twentieth century, such as Gorky, Pasternak, and Mandelstam, Solzhenitsyn was the greatest.
But it's not his writing alone that made him great. On release, the man showed a stubborn, indeed almost suicidal courage that drove him to describe and condemn the evils of the Soviet system, evils that have been repeated and reinvented subsequently, and indeed still exist in China today, where corrective slave labor as punishment for having the wrong opinions is still practiced. And evils that will be repeated in the future, somewhere. This took courage because though Solzhenitsyn began writing during the Krushchev "thaw" he wrote in such uncompromising terms, even in his published (as opposed to privately circulated and illegal work) that a return to the camps could easily have happened. He spent his last years before departing Russia under constant surveillance and sanctions, and might have been sent to a mental hospital or otherwise disappeared had he not become so prominent the Soviets couldn't figure out what to do with him. In the end, they exiled him.
But they couldn't and didn't exile his work, including the monumental three volume Gulag Archipelago, which stands as one of the greatest descriptions of human suffering and the redemptive power that can can be found in the worst circumstances that will ever be written.
Solzhenitsyn was given the Nobel in literature for the work, but unlike most recipients, who are enlarged somehow by the receipt of the prize, it was too small an honor for Solzhenitsyn. His writing and his legacy, rather, enlarge the prize.
In the end Solzhenitsyn lived long enough to see the fall of the Soviet empire, and its replacement with something … to be seen. In his later years he wrote uneven work, and, not surprisingly for a man of his age and experience, had odd opinions out of place with the modern world and modern Russia. Some mock him for this, or attempt to diminish him through accusations of anti-semitism, which may well be true. None of his mistakes diminish his achievements and his essential rightness about the critical question of the 20th century, whether the state owns its people. Mild-mannered men with conventional opinions don't write great literature, don't challenge an almost all-powerful state, and don't survive through the sort of horrors Solzhenitsyn endured.
If you've not read his work, at least try the short novel "One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich," which gives some flavor of the man's writing and ideas. If you have the time for an epic, the most important work of Russian literature of the past hundred years, you would be well served by Solzhenitsyn's more important work, the Gulag Archipelago, which is unique in world literature.
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