MOSCOW – For the Western world, Alexander Solzhenitsyn peeled back the layers of secrecy that obscured the Soviet system’s inhumanity to a people relegated by Josef Stalin to the role of cogs in a machine.
To his countrymen, he embodied the conscience of a nation yearning to break free from the shackles of totalitarianism, and ultimately through his writings helped erode the Soviet regime.
Russia has its pantheon of dissidents who, through their words, shook their fists at the brutality of Soviet communism, from writer Vladimir Bukovsky to nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov. But none of them was as iconic to the struggle as Solzhenitsyn, who died of heart failure late Sunday in Moscow at the age of 89.
His epic works, “The Gulag Archipelago” and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” revealed the cruelty behind Stalin’s notorious camps – a system of forced labor in which millions of Soviet citizens were exploited as grist for the construction of cities and infrastructure from Moscow to the harsh remoteness of the Siberian taiga.
Solzhenitsyn conveyed its brutality so realistically and compellingly, after spending years himself in labor camps in what is now Kazakhstan.
“No writer that I can think of in history really was able to do so much through courage and literary skill to change the society they came from,” David Remnick, the New Yorker magazine editor whose account of the Soviet collapse in “Lenin’s Tomb” won the Pulitzer Prize, wrote of Solzhenitsyn. “And to some extent, you have to credit the literary works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn with helping to bring down the last empire on Earth.”
Solzhenitsyn wrote more than 20 books. Like many great Russian writers during much of the Soviet era, his work was conducted in secret and with the belief that his works likely would never be read.
He would later write that, “during all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that 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 that this would become known.”
Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, he couldn’t accept the award until 1974, after he was expelled from the Soviet Union and had settled in Switzerland. He would move to the United States two years later and live at Stanford University in California and later Cavendish, Vt., before returning to Russia in 1994 after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
Solzhenitsyn was born Dec. 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk, a small city in the heart of Russia’s Cossack region known as the Kuban. His father, Isaaky Solzhenitsyn, was killed in a hunting accident before Solzhenitsyn was born, leaving his mother, Taisia, to raise him in an austere environment.
Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics at Rostov State University in southern Russia and during World War II served as a Soviet army commander on the front lines.
In 1945 while serving in East Prussia, authorities discovered remarks critical of Stalin he had made in letters sent to a school friend, and Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp. His sentence included permanent exile once his term in the labor camps was over.
He was shuttled between labor camps in Kazakhstan, where he worked as a miner, bricklayer and foundry worker. The experience would provide fodder for two of his greatest works, “The First Circle” and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
In 1953, he began living in exile in Kok-Terek in southern Kazakhstan. A year later he was taken to Tashkent in what is now Uzbekistan to be treated for cancer. His ordeal would form the basis for his novel “The Cancer Ward.”
With the rise of Nikita Khrushchev later in the 1950s, Solzhenitsyn was allowed to return to central Russia, where he settled in the city of Ryazan southeast of Moscow and secretly worked on his novels.
In the West, Solzhenitsyn’s works were hailed as revealing portraits of the savagery and injustices to the human spirit that defined Soviet rule. However, while he spent years living in the West, he never embraced the ideals of Western democracy and harshly criticized what he viewed as the excesses of Western culture.
Speaking about pop culture in the West, Solzhenitsyn once said, “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.”
Upon his return to Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn encountered a Russia free from the grip of Soviet authoritarianism, but mired in the economic chaos of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. Solzhenitsyn became outspokenly critical of Yeltsin, and declined to accept the Order of St. Andrew, Russia’s highest honor.
Solzhenitsyn’s view of Yeltsin contrasted sharply with his opinion of Vladimir Putin; like millions of Russians, Solzhenitsyn came to see Putin as the kind of strong-willed leader the country needed in order to wrest itself from the rudderless 1990s. Solzhenitsyn favored the notion of strong but benevolent rule inspired by the tenets of Russia’s traditional Christian values. Putin, it seemed to Solzhenitsyn, was moving Russia in that direction.
He is survived by his wife, Natalya, who acted as his spokesman, and his three sons, including Stepan, Ignat, a pianist and conductor, and Yermolai. All live in the United States.