Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn late in life.
|Born||Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn |
December 11, 1918(1918-12-11)
|Died||August 3, 2008 (aged 89) |
|Notable award(s)||Nobel Prize in Literature |
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (IPA: /ʌljikˈsɑːndʌr soʊlʒʌˈniːtsʌn/ Russian: Алекса́ндр Иса́евич Солжени́цын, Russian pronunciation: [ɐlʲɪˈksandr ɪˈsaɪvʲɪtɕ səlʐɨˈnʲitsɨn]) (December 11, 1918 – August 3, 2008) was a Russian novelist, dramatist and historian. Through his writings, he made the world aware of the Gulag, the Soviet labour camp system, and for these efforts, Solzhenitsyn was both awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 and exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974. He returned to Russia in 1994. That year, he was elected as a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in the Department of Language and Literature. He was the father of Ignat Solzhenitsyn, a well-known conductor and pianist. He died at home after years of declining health on August 3, 2008.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, RSFSR (now Russia) to a young widow, Taisiya Solzhenitsyna (née Shcherbak), whose father had risen, it seems, from humble beginnings, much of a self-made man, and acquired a large estate in the Kuban region by the northern foothills of the Caucasus. During World War I, Taisiya went to Moscow to study. While there she met Isaakiy Solzhenitsyn, a young army officer, also from the Caucasus region (the family background of his parents is vividly brought alive in the opening chapters of August 1914, and later on in the Red Wheel novel cycle). In 1918, Taisia became pregnant with Aleksandr. Soon after this was confirmed, Isaakiy was killed in a hunting accident. Aleksandr, who had three brothers and a sister, was raised by his mother and aunt in lowly circumstances; his earliest years coincided with the Russian Civil War and by 1930 the family property had been turned into a collective farm. Solzhenitsyn stated his mother was fighting for survival and they had to keep his father's background in the old Imperial Army a secret. His educated mother (who never remarried) encouraged his literary and scientific leanings, also raising him in the Russian Orthodox faith; she died shortly before 1940. On 7 April 1940, he married chemistry student Natalya Alekseevna Reshetovskaya, whom he divorced in 1952 (a year before his release from the Gulag), remarried in 1957 and divorced again in 1972, the following year marrying Natalya Dmitrievna Svetlova, a mathematician who had a son from a brief prior marriage. He and Svetlova (b. 1939) had three sons: Yermolai (1970), Ignat (1972) and Stepan (1973).
Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics at Rostov State University, while at the same time taking correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History (at this time heavily ideological in scope; as he himself makes clear, he did not question the state ideology or the superiority of the Soviet Union before he had spent some time in the camps).
During World War II, he served as the commander of an artillery unit in the Red Army, was involved in major action at the front, and was twice decorated. In February 1945, while serving in East Prussia, he was arrested for writing a derogatory comment in a letter to a friend, N. D. Utkevich, about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin, whom he called "the whiskered one", "Khozyain" (The Master) and "Balabos", (Odessa Yiddish for "boss"). He was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58 of the Soviet criminal code, paragraph 10, and of "founding a hostile organisation" under paragraph 11. Solzhenitsyn was taken to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he was beaten and interrogated. On 7 July 1945, he was sentenced in his absence by a three-man tribunal of the Soviet security police (NKGB) to an eight-year term in a labour camp, to be followed by permanent internal exile. This was the normal sentence for most crimes under Article 58 at the time.
The first part of Solzhenitsyn's sentence was served in several different work camps; the "middle phase," as he later referred to it, was spent in a sharashka, special scientific research facilities run by Ministry of State Security, where he met Lev Kopelev, paragon of Lev Rubin in his book The First Circle, published in the West in 1968. In 1950, he was sent to a "Special Camp" for political prisoners. During his imprisonment at the camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan, he worked as a miner, bricklayer, and foundryman. His experiences at Ekibastuz formed the basis for the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. While there he had a tumor removed, although his cancer was not then diagnosed.
From March 1953, Solzhenitsyn began a sentence of internal exile for life at Kok-Terek in southern Kazakhstan. His undiagnosed cancer spread, until, by the end of the year, he was close to death. However, in 1954, he was permitted to be treated in a hospital in Tashkent, where he was cured. These experiences became the basis of his novel Cancer Ward and also found an echo in the short story "The right hand". It was during this decade of imprisonment and exile that Solzhenitsyn abandoned Marxism and developed the philosophical and religious positions of his later life; this turn has some interesting parallels to Dostoevsky's time in Siberia and his quest for faith a hundred years earlier. Solzhenitsyn gradually turned into a philosophically-minded man in prison. He repented for what he did as a Red Army captain and in prison compared himself with the perpetrators of the Gulag ("I remember myself in my captain's shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: 'So were we any better?'") His transformation is described at some length in the fourth part of The Gulag Archipelago ("The Soul and Barbed Wire").
During his years of exile, and following his reprieve and return to European Russia, Solzhenitsyn was, while teaching at a secondary school during the day, spending his nights secretly engaged in writing. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he wrote, "during all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared this would become known."
Finally, when he was 42 years old, he approached Alexander Tvardovsky, a poet and the chief editor of the Noviy Mir magazine, with the manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was published in edited form in 1962, with the explicit approval of Nikita Khrushchev. This would be the only book-length work of Solzhenitsyn's to be published in the Soviet Union until 1990.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich brought the Soviet system of prison labor to the attention of the West. It caused as much a sensation in the Soviet Union as it did the West—not only by its striking realism and candour, but also because it was the first major piece of Soviet literature since the twenties on a politically charged theme, written by a non-party member, even by a man who had been to Siberia for "libelous speech" about the leaders, and still it had not been censored. In this sense, the publication of Solzhenitsyn's story was an almost unheard of instance of free, unrestrained discussion of politics through literature. Most Soviet readers realized this, but after Khrushchev had been ousted from power in 1964, the time for such raw exposing works came quietly, but perceptibly, to a close. Solzhenitsyn did not give in but tried, with the help of Tvardovsky, to get his novel, The Cancer Ward, legally published in the Soviet Union. This had to get the approval of the Union of Writers, and though some there appreciated it, the work ultimately was denied publication unless it were to be revised and cleaned of suspect statements and anti-Soviet insinuations (this episode is recounted and documented in The Oak and the Calf).
The publishing of his work quickly stopped; as a writer, he became a non-person, and, by 1965, the KGB had seized some of his papers, including the manuscript of The First Circle. Meanwhile Solzhenitsyn continued to secretly and feverishly work upon the most subversive of all his writings, the monumental Gulag Archipelago. The seizing of his novel manuscript first made him desperate and frightened, but gradually he realized it had set him free from the pretences and trappings of being an "officially acclaimed" writer, something which had come close to second nature, but which was getting increasingly irrelevant (the circumstances of how he actually survived in this period, without any income from his books, are obscure; he had quit his teaching post when he broke through as a writer).
In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He could not receive the prize personally in Stockholm at that time, since he was afraid he would not be let back into the Soviet Union. Instead, it was suggested he should receive the prize in a special ceremony at the Swedish embassy in Moscow. The Swedish government refused to accept this solution, since such a ceremony and the ensuing media coverage might upset the Soviet Union and damage Sweden's relations to the superpower. Instead, Solzhenitsyn received his prize at the 1974 ceremony after he had been deported from the Soviet Union.
The Gulag Archipelago was a three-volume work on the Soviet prison camp system. It was based upon Solzhenitsyn's own experience as well as the testimony of 227 former prisoners and Solzhenitsyn's own research into the history of the penal system. It discussed the system's origins from the very founding of the Communist regime, with Lenin himself having responsibility, detailing interrogation procedures, prisoner transports, prison camp culture, prisoner uprisings and revolts, and the practice of internal exile. The appearance of the book in the West put the word gulag into the Western political vocabulary and guaranteed swift retribution from the Soviet authorities.
During this period, he was sheltered by the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who suffered considerably for his support of Solzhenitsyn and was eventually forced into exile himself. However, on February 13, 1974, Solzhenitsyn was deported from the Soviet Union to Frankfurt, West Germany and stripped of his Soviet citizenship. In Germany Solzhenistsyn lived in Heinrich Böll's house. The KGB had found the manuscript for the first part of The Gulag Archipelago. Less than a week later, the Soviets carried out reprisals against Yevgeny Yevtushenko for his support of Solzhenitsyn. After a time in Switzerland, Solzhenitsyn was invited to Stanford University in the United States to "facilitate your work, and to accommodate you and your family." He stayed on the 11th floor of the Hoover Tower, part of the Hoover Institution. Solzhenitsyn moved to Cavendish, Vermont in 1976. He was given an honorary Literary Degree from Harvard University in 1978 and on Thursday, June 8, 1978 he gave his Commencement Address condemning modern western culture.
Over the next 17 years, Solzhenitsyn worked hard on his historical cycle of the Russian Revolution of 1917, The Red Wheel, four "knots" (parts) of which had been completed by 1992, and outside of this, several shorter works. Despite an enthusiastic welcome on his first arrival in America, followed by respect for his privacy, he had never been comfortable outside his homeland.
He did not become fluent in spoken English despite spending two decades in the United States; he had, however, been reading English language literature since his teens, something his mother encouraged him to do. More important, he resented the idea of becoming a media star and of tempering his ideas or ways of talking to fit television. Solzhenitsyn's warnings about the dangers of Communist aggression and the weakening of the moral fiber of the West were generally well received in conservative circles in the West, and fit very well with the toughening up of foreign policy under U.S. President Ronald Reagan. But liberals and secularists were increasingly critical of what they perceived as his reactionary preference for Russian patriotism and the Russian Orthodox religion. He also harshly criticised what he saw as the ugliness and spiritual vapidity of the dominant pop culture of the modern West, including television and rock music: "…the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today's mass living habits . . . by TV stupor and by intolerable music."
In 1990, his Soviet citizenship was restored, and, in 1994, he returned to Russia with his wife, Natalia, who had become a United States citizen. Their sons stayed behind in the United States (later, his oldest son Yermolai returned to Russia to work for the Moscow office of a leading management consultancy firm). From then until his death, he lived with his wife in a dacha in Troitse-Lykovo (Троице-Лыково) in west Moscow between the dachas once occupied by Soviet leaders Mikhail Suslov and Konstantin Chernenko.
After returning to Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn published eight two-part short stories, a series of contemplative "miniatures" or prose poems, a literary memoir on his years in the West (The Grain Between the Millstones) and a two-volume work on the history of Russian-Jewish relations (Two Hundred Years Together 2001, 2002). In it, Solzhenitsyn emphatically repudiates the idea the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 were the work of a "Jewish conspiracy" (see chapters 9, 14, and 15 of that work). Yet he documents the predominance of Jews in the early Bolshevik leaderships, excepting Lenin. At the same time, he calls on both Russians and Jews to come to terms with the members of their peoples who acted in complicity with the Communist regime.
The reception of this work confirms Solzhenitsyn remains a polarizing figure both at home and abroad. According to his critics, the book confirmed Solzhenitsyn's anti-Semitic views as well as his ideas of Russian supremacy to other nations. Professor Robert Service of Oxford University has defended Solzhenitsyn as being "absolutely right", noting Trotsky himself claimed Jews were disproportionately represented in the early Soviet bureaucracy.
Another famous Russian dissident writer, Vladimir Voinovich, wrote a polemical study "A Portrait Against the Background of a Myth" ("Портрет на фоне мифа", 2002.), in which he tried to prove Solzhenitsyn's egoism, anti-Semitism, and lack of writing skills. Voinovich had already mocked Solzhenitsyn in his novel Moscow 2042 through the self-centered egomaniac character, Sim Simich Karnavalov, an extreme and brutal dictatorial writer who tries to destroy the Soviet Union and, eventually, to become the king of Russia. Using a more circuitous line of argument, Joseph Brodsky, in his essay Catastrophes in the Air (in Less than One), argued that Solzhenitsyn, while a hero in showing up the brutalities of Soviet Communism, failed to discern that the historical crimes he unearthed might be the outcome of authoritarian traits that were really part of the heritage of Old Russia and of "the severe spirit of Orthodoxy" (venerated by Solzhenitsyn) and much less due to the more recent (Marxist) political ideology.
In his recent political writings, such as Rebuilding Russia (1990) and Russia in Collapse (1998), Solzhenitsyn criticized the oligarchic excesses of the new Russian 'democracy,' while opposing any nostalgia for Soviet communism. He defended moderate and self critical patriotism (as opposed to extreme nationalism), argued for the indispensability of local self government to a free Russia, and expressed concerns for the fate of the 25 million ethnic Russians in the "near abroad" of the former Soviet Union. He also sought to "protect" the national character of the Russian Orthodox church and fought against the admission of Catholic priests and Protestant pastors to Russia from other countries. For a brief period, he had his own TV show, where he freely expressed his views. The show was cancelled because of low ratings, but Solzhenitsyn continued to maintain a relatively high profile in the media.
All of Solzhenitsyn's sons became U.S. citizens. One, Ignat, has achieved acclaim as a pianist and conductor in the United States.
Solzhenitsyn died of heart failure near Moscow on August 3, 2008 at 23:45 local time, at the age of 89. Burial service will be held at Donskoy Monastery, Moscow on Wednesday, August 6. He will be buried on the same date on the place chosen by him at Donskoye graveyard.
The most complete 30-volume edition of Solzhenitsyn’s selected works is soon to be published in Russia. The presentation of its first three published volumes recently took place in Moscow.
On June 5, 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree conferring the State Prize of the Russian Federation for the humanitarian work of Solzhenitsyn. President Putin personally visited the writer at his home on June 12, 2007, to give him the award.
During his years in the west, Solzhenitsyn was very active in the historical debate, discussing the history of Russia, the Soviet Union and communism. He tried to correct what he considered to be western misconceptions.
He argued in a 1978 Harvard address that the West erred in measuring other civilizations by its own model. He asserted that the countries of the Western world had lost their "civil courage." While faulting Soviet society for denying fair legal treatment of people, he also faulted the West for being too legalistic, "A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities.".
In his 1978 Harvard address he argued that the West erred in "denying its autonomous character and therefore never understood it . . . ."
It is a popular view that the October revolution of 1917 resulting in a violent totalitarian regime was closely connected to Russia's earlier history of tsarism and culture, especially that of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. Solzhenitsyn claims this is fundamentally wrong and famously denounced the work of Richard Pipes as "the Polish version of Russian history". Solzhenitsyn argues Tsarist Russia did not have the same violent tendencies as the Soviet Union. For instance, in Solzhenitsyn's view, Imperial Russia did not practise censorship; political prisoners were not forced into labour camps and the number of political prisoners was only one ten-thousandth of those in the Soviet Union; the Tsar's secret service was only present in the three largest cities, and not at all in the army. The violence of the Communist regime was in no way comparable to the lesser violence of the Tsars.
He considered it far-fetched to blame the catastrophes of the 20th century on one 16th century and one 18th century czar, when there were many other examples of violence which could have inspired the Bolshevik in other countries earlier in time, especially mentioning similarities with the Jacobins of the Reign of Terror of France.
Instead of blaming Russian conditions, he blamed the teachings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, arguing Marxism itself is violent. His conclusion is Communism will always be totalitarian and violent, wherever it is practiced. There was nothing special in the Russian conditions which affected the outcome.
He also criticized the view that the Soviet Union was Russian in any way. He argued Communism was international and only cared for nationalism as a tool to use when getting into power, or for fooling the people. Once in power, Communism tried to wipe clean every nation, destroying its culture and oppressing its people.
According to Solzhenitsyn, the Russian culture and people were not the ruling national culture in the Soviet Union. In fact, there was no ruling national culture. All national cultures were oppressed in favour of an atheistic Soviet culture. In Solzhenitsyn's opinion, Russian culture was even more oppressed than the smaller minority cultures, since the regime was more afraid of ethnic uprisings among Russians than among other peoples. Therefore, Solzhenistyn argued, Russian nationalism and the Orthodox Church should not be regarded as a threat by the West but rather as allies.
Solzhenitsyn criticized the Allies for not opening a new front against Nazi Germany in the west earlier in World War II. This resulted in Soviet domination and oppression of the nations of Eastern Europe. Solzhenitsyn claimed the western democracies apparently cared little about how many died in the east, as long as they could end the war quickly and painlessly for themselves in the west. While stationed in East Prussia as an artillery officer, Solzhenitsyn witnessed war crimes against the civilian German population by Soviet "liberators" as the elderly were robbed of their meager possessions and women were gang-raped to death. He wrote a poem, "Prussian Nights", about these incidents in which the first-person narrator seems to wholeheartedly approve of these crimes, expressing his desire to take part in the plunder himself. The poem describes the rape of a Polish woman whom the Red Army soldiers mistakenly think to be a German.
He also rejected the view Stalin created the totalitarian state, while Lenin (and Trotsky) had been "true communist." In proof of this, he argued Lenin started the mass executions, wrecked the economy, founded the Cheka which would later be turned into the KGB, and started the Gulag even though it did not have the same name at that time.
Solzhenitsyn was the most prominent of the Nobel Laureate Mikhail Sholokhov's detractors. He believed that the work which made Sholokhov's international reputation, And Quiet Flows the Don was written by Fyodor Kryukov, a Cossack and Anti-Bolshevik, who died in 1920. According to Solzhenitsyn, Sholokhov found the manuscript and published it under his own name. The controversy raged for years, without conclusive proof on either side.
In 1973, near the height of the Sino-Soviet conflict, Solzhenitsyn sent a Letter to the Soviet Leaders to a limited number of upper echelon Soviet officials. This work, which was published for the general public in the Western world a year after it was sent to its intended audience, beseeched the Soviet Union's authorities to
Give them their ideology! Let the Chinese leaders glory in it for a while. And for that matter, let them shoulder the whole sackful of unfulfillable international obligations, let them grunt and heave and instruct humanity, and foot all the bills for their absurd economics (a million a day just to Cuba), and let them support terrorists and guerrillas in the Southern Hemisphere too if they like. The main source of the savage feuding between us will then melt away, a great many points of today's contention and conflict all over the world will also melt away, and a military clash will become a much remoter possibility and perhaps won't take place at all [author's emphasis].
In his commencement address at Harvard University in 1978 (A World Split Apart), Solzhenitsyn alleged that many in the U.S. did not understand the Vietnam War. He rhetorically asks if the American antiwar proponents now realize the effects their actions had on Vietnam: "But members of the U.S. antiwar movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there?"
During his time in the West, Solzhenitsyn made a few controversial public statements: notably, he characterized Daniel Ellsberg as a traitor.
Solzhenitsyn has strongly condemned the bombing of Yugoslavia, saying "there is no difference whatsoever between NATO and Hitler."
Solzhenitsyn said that Ukrainian efforts to have the 1930s famine recognised as a Russian genocide against Ukraine is an act of historical revisionism.
In an interview with the newspaper Izvestia, he explained that the famine was caused by the corrupt ideals of the Communist regime, under which all suffered equally. It was not an assault by the Russian people against the people of Ukraine, and that the wish to view it as such is only a recent development.
|“||This provocative outcry of genocide was voiced only decades later. At first, it thrived secretly in the stale chauvinist minds opposing the "bloody Russians". Now it has got hold of political minds in modern Ukraine. It seems they've surpassed the wild suggestions of the Bolshevik propaganda machine. "To the parliaments of the world" - a nice teaser for the Western ears. They have never cared about our history. All they need is a fable, no matter how loony it appears.||”|
|“||…there also exists another alliance—at first glance a strange one, a surprising one—but if you think about it, in fact, one which is well-grounded and easy to understand. This is the alliance between our Communist leaders and your capitalists. This alliance is not new. The very famous Armand Hammer, who is flourishing here today, laid the basis for this when he made the first exploratory trip into Russia, still in Lenin's time, in the very first years of the Revolution.||”|
|“||And if today the Soviet Union has powerful military and police forces—in a country which is by contemporary standards poor—they are used to crush our movement for freedom in the Soviet Union—and we have western capital to thank for this also.||”|
Testimony to the U.S. Congress, July 8 1975.
|“||Until I came to the West myself and spent two years looking around, I could never have imagined to what an extreme degree the West had actually become a world without a will, a world gradually petrifying in the face of the danger confronting it…All of us are standing on the brink of a great historical cataclysm, a flood that swallows up civilization and changes whole epochs.||”|
He described the problems of both East and West as "a disaster" rooted in agnosticism and atheism. He referred to it as "the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness."