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Alexander Solzhenitsyn dies at 89

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / August 3, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist whose unyielding opposition to Soviet dictatorship made him one of the heroic figures of the 20th century, died late yesterday. The cause of death was heart failure, his son, Stepan, was quoted as saying. He was 89.

A onetime political prisoner, Mr. Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. The award citation singled out the “ethical force” of his works. Asked once what the secret of his literary art was, he replied, “The secret is that when you’ve been pitched head first into hell you just write about it.”

His best-known works — the novels “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (1962), “The First Circle” and “Cancer Ward” (both 1968), and, above all, his epic three-volume expose of Stalin’s labor camps, “The Gulag Archipelago” (1973-76) — revealed with unprecedented scope and impact the nature of Soviet oppression.

“The time may come,” The Times of London wrote after publication of its first volume, “when we date the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet system from the appearance of ‘Gulag.’”

Certainly, the Kremlin took “Gulag” seriously. It was as a result of the publication of its first volume that Mr. Solzhenitsyn became the first person since Leon Trotsky, in 1929, to be stripped of Soviet citizenship and exiled.

Shortly after his deportation, in February 1974, the Mexican poet Octavio Paz (himself a future Nobel laureate) described the worldwide admiration Mr. Solzhenitsyn inspired, noting that his “example is not intellectual or political or even, in the current sense of the word, moral. We have to use an even older word, a word that still retains a religious overtone — a hint of death and sacrifice: witness.”

Mr. Solzhenitsyn did not lack for detractors. He very much saw himself in the great Russian tradition of the writer-seer and took for his model Leo Tolstoy. (Mr. Solzhenitsyn first read “War and Peace” in its entirety when he was 10.) Like Tolstoy, he decried the excesses of Western culture in terms that left no room for disagreement or debate.

After his expulsion, Mr. Solzhenitsyn expressed a growing distaste for life in the West. “It’s not your liberty we are criticizing,” he told Walter Cronkite during a televised interview in 1975, “but the use you make of it.” He castigated Western moral decay in even harsher — indeed, apocalyptic — terms at the 1978 Harvard commencement.

He entered into a sort of exile within exile on the 50-acre estate he bought in Cavendish, Vt., in 1976. There he led a secluded existence with his family, working on “The Red Wheel,” a quartet of novels about Russia during World War I, which he regarded as his crowning achievement.

With his thick beard and forbidding gaze, Mr. Solzhenitsyn had the look, as well as the manner, of an Old Testament prophet. In his own country, he became a prophet without honor. Mr. Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994 to a muted welcome and never really found a place in post-Soviet society. Awarded Russia’s highest cultural prize, the Order of the Apostle St. Andrew, in 1998, in honor of his 80th birthday, Mr. Solzhenitsyn very publicly refused it because of the “quagmire of catastrophes” Boris Yeltsin’s government had created.

A career of such consistent political dissent might suggest Mr. Solzhenitsyn was always a rebel. In fact, it wasn’t until he was almost 30 that he rejected Marxism. Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, in Russia’s Caucasus region, in 1918. His father, Isaaki Solzhenitsyn, an artillery officer in the Russian army, had died in a hunting accident six months before. His mother, Taissia (Shcherbak) Solzhenitsyn, was the daughter of a wealthy Ukrainian landowner. She moved with her son to the southern Russian city of Rostov and earned a living as a typist and stenographer.

Even as a young man, Mr. Solzhenitsyn demonstrated the intense seriousness and phenomenal capacity for work that would later see him spending as many as 14 or 16 hours a day at his writing desk. When he married Natalia Reshetovskaya, a fellow science student at Rostov University, in 1940, he took along a copy of Marx’s “Das Kapital” on their honeymoon.

He graduated in 1941 and briefly taught mathematics and astronomy at a secondary school before entering the Red Army after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. He served with a reconnaissance artillery battery, was decorated twice, and eventually rose to the rank of captain. Envisioning a postwar literary career, he began writing both poetry and fiction about his military experiences.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who had been a member of the Komsomol, the Communist youth organization, remained a committed Marxist but harbored a growing distaste for Stalin. He shared his views, often stated facetiously, in letters to a friend. His correspondence was opened by the secret police, and on Feb. 9, 1945, he was arrested.

In a gesture foreshadowing the myriad acts of individual political defiance the author would immortalize in “The Gulag Archipelago,” his commanding general made a point of wishing him well in front of the arresting officers and taking his hand. Mr. Solzhenitsyn, a combat veteran, later wrote, “That handshake was the most courageous act I witnessed throughout the war.”

He was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp. Two years later, thanks to his academic background, he was transferred to a scientific research institute staffed by prisoners. This would provide the setting for “The First Circle.” Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s growing rebelliousness got him transferred in 1950 to a far harsher environment, a labor camp in Kazakhstan, which he would revisit in “Ivan Denisovich.”

His time in the Gulag affected Mr. Solzhenitsyn profoundly. “It was on rotting prison straw that I felt the first stirrings of good in myself,” he once wrote. In later years, on the anniversary of his arrest, he would observe what he called a “convict’s day,” limiting himself to a prison regimen of small amounts of bread, hot water, sugar, broth, and groats.

Having served a full term, Mr. Solzhenitsyn was released on March 5, 1953, the day of Stalin’s death. He entered into “perpetual exile,” meaning that, although no longer incarcerated, he had to remain in Kazakhstan and live under severe restrictions. He resumed his teaching career and devoted his energies to writing (something he had managed to do in secret while a prisoner).

In the political thaw that followed Stalin’s death, Mr. Solzhenitsyn was released from exile and, in 1956, saw his conviction voided. He and his wife had divorced during his time in prison. They now remarried and moved near Moscow.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn had long believed that his works’ political frankness precluded their ever being published. As a friend told him after reading an early version of “Ivan Denisovich,” “There are three atom bombs in the world: Kennedy has one, Khrushchev has another, and you have the third.” Yet the relative liberalization of post-Stalinist society made Mr. Solzhenitsyn reconsider. He submitted “Ivan Denisovich” to the leading Soviet literary monthly, Novy Mir. There followed a barely credible chain of developments that ended in Khrushchev himself personally approving the novel’s publication. “What do you think it was, a holiday resort?” the Soviet premier retorted when an underling wondered if the novel’s portrait of the title character’s life as an inhabitant of the Gulag didn’t need softening.

Overnight, the obscure provincial schoolteacher became an international literary celebrity — and, however briefly, a Soviet icon. The government-run newspaper Izvestia hailed Mr. Solzhenitsyn as “a true helper of the Party.” He was made a member of the Union of Soviet Writers and named a finalist for the 1964 Lenin Prize for cultural achievement. Mr. Solzhenitsyn failed to win, something that proved an omen. The fall of Khrushchev earlier that year returned hard-liners to power. In 1965, the KGB confiscated Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s archives, including a manuscript of “The First Circle,” and he took to keeping a pitchfork by his desk in case of further raids. Other than three short stories published in the wake of “Ivan Denisovich,” no more of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s writings would appear with official sanction in his homeland for almost three decades.

“For a country to have a great writer,” a character says in “The First Circle,” “is like having a second government.” Those words were as accurate as they were autobiographical: For much of the next decade the Kremlin’s authority was constantly being challenged by Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who shuttled among a variety of locations (one of them the dacha of the cellist Mtislav Rostropovich) in his successful effort to keep secret the vast undertaking that would become “The Gulag Archipelago.”

Mr. Solzhenityn had a keen understanding that remaining on the offensive, and staying in the international limelight, was his best defense. At various times he wrote very public letters of complaint to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, KGB chief Yuri Andropov, and the Fourth Congress of Soviet Writers. Winning the Nobel Prize in 1970 lent him further stature outside the Soviet Union, an important check on Kremlin action in those days of detente. To move against Mr. Solzhenitsyn would risk major diplomatic setbacks. Nothing better suggests the importance of “The Gulag Archipelago” than the fact that what finally moved the Kremlin to act against Mr. Solzhenitsyn was its publication. As the diplomat-historian George F. Kennan wrote at the time, “Gulag” was “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levelled in modern times.”

On Feb. 12, 1974, Mr. Solzhenitsyn was arrested and the next day put on a plane to Germany. After a brief stay in Frankfurt, he went to Zurich, where he would live for the next two years. Six weeks after his expulsion, he was joined in Switzerland by his second wife, Natalia Svetlova, their three sons, and her son by a previous marriage. (Mr. Solzhenitsyn and his first wife had divorced in 1972.)

Throughout his exile, he stated his conviction that he would one day return. By the time he did so, on May 27, 1994, the Soviet Union had become Russia, and the onetime conscience of a nation had come to seem passe, if not irrelevant. Five-thousand people greeted him in Vladivostok, and he embarked on a 56-day rail journey to Moscow. On his arrival there, he was greeted by another crowd of 5,000.

Three months later, Mr. Solzhenitsyn addressed the Russian parliament and he did not hesitate to speak out heatedly and often on political issues. For a time, he even hosted a twice-monthly television program, but it was eventually canceled for lack of viewer interest. Whether his enemy was the Soviet regime or public indifference, Mr. Solzhenitsyn remained true to the words he wrote in his Nobel Prize address. “Russia’s favorite proverbs are about truth, forcefully expressing a long and difficult national experience, sometimes in striking fashion: One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.

“It is on such a seemingly fantastic violation of the law of conservation of mass and energy that my own activity is based, and my appeal to the writers of the world.”

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