Alexander Solzhenitsyn Dies at 89

Solzhenitsyn was a tenacious dissident whose writings helped expose and disintegrate the brutality of the Soviet Union.

MOSCOW — Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author whose books chronicled the horrors of the Soviet gulag system, has died at age 89, his son said Monday.

Stepan Solzhenitsyn told The Associated Press his father died late Sunday of heart failure, but declined further comment. Solzhenitsyn’s unflinching accounts of torment and survival in the Soviet Union’s slave labor camps riveted his countrymen, whose secret history he exposed. They earned him 20 years of bitter exile, but international renown.

And they inspired millions, perhaps, with the knowledge that one person’s courage and integrity could, in the end, defeat the totalitarian machinery of an empire.

Beginning with the 1962 short novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” Solzhenitsyn devoted himself to describing what he called the human “meat grinder” that had caught him along with millions of other Soviet citizens: capricious arrests, often for trifling and seemingly absurd reasons, followed by sentences to slave labor camps where cold, starvation and punishing work crushed inmates physically and spiritually.

His “Gulag Archipelago” trilogy of the 1970s left readers shocked by the savagery of the Soviet state under the dictator Josef Stalin. It helped erase lingering sympathy for the Soviet Union among many leftist intellectuals, especially in Europe.

But his account of that secret system of prison camps was also inspiring in its description of how one person — Solzhenitsyn himself — survived, physically and spiritually, in a penal system of soul-crushing hardship and injustice.

He did have trouble coming to grips with freedoms in the West:

The West offered him shelter and accolades. But Solzhenitsyn’s refusal to bend despite enormous pressure, perhaps, also gave him the courage to criticize Western culture for what he considered its weakness and decadence.

Russians who lived under communism never read his books, but, when you’re subjected to the very system described by Solzhenitsyn, what’s the point?

After a triumphant return that included a 56-day train trip across Russia to become reacquainted with his native land, Solzhenitsyn later expressed annoyance and disappointment that most Russians hadn’t read his books.

Too bad his eccentrism drove him deeper into cynical depression.

During the 1990s, his stalwart nationalist views, his devout Orthodoxy, his disdain for capitalism and disgust with the tycoons who bought Russian industries and resources for kopeks on the ruble following the Soviet collapse, were unfashionable. He faded from public view.

Putin now argues, as Solzhenitsyn did in a speech at Harvard University in 1978, that Russia has a separate civilization from the West, one that can’t be reconciled either to Communism or western-style liberal democracy, but requires a system adapted to its history and traditions.

Really? Because if Putin’s recent crackdowns are any indication, the system to which he wants Russia to adapt, is a return to totalitarianism.

……Born Dec. 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk, Solzhenitsyn served as a front-line artillery captain in World War II, where, in the closing weeks of the war, he was arrested for writing what he called “certain disrespectful remarks” about Stalin in a letter to a friend, referring to him as “the man with the mustache.” He served seven years in a labor camp in the barren steppe of Kazakhstan and three more years in internal exile in Central Asia.

That’s where he began to write, memorizing much of his work so it wouldn’t be lost if it were seized. His theme was the suffering and injustice of life in Stalin’s gulag — a Soviet abbreviation for the slave labor camp system, which Solzhenitsyn made part of the lexicon.

……The first fruit of this labor was “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” the story of a carpenter struggling to survive in a Soviet labor camp, where he had been sent, like Solzhenitsyn, after service in the war.

The book was published by order of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was eager to discredit the abuses of Stalin, his predecessor, and created a sensation in a country where unpleasant truths were spoken in whispers, if at all. Abroad, the book — which went through numerous revisions — was lauded not only for its bravery, but for its spare, unpretentious language.

After Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, Solzhenitsyn began facing KGB harassment, publication of his works was blocked and he was expelled from the Soviet Writers Union. But he was undeterred.

……Solzhenitsyn made his homeland in America, settling in the tiny town of Cavendish, Vermont, with his wife and sons.

Living at a secluded hillside compound he rarely left, he called his 18 years there the most productive of his life. There he worked on what he considered to be his life’s work, a multi-volume saga of Russian history titled “The Red Wheel.”

Although free from repression, Solzhenitsyn longed for his native land. Neither was he enchanted by Western democracy, with its emphasis on individual freedom.

To the dismay of his supporters, in his Harvard speech he rejected “Western pluralistic democracy” as the model for all other nations. It was a mistake, he warned, for Western societies to regard the failure of the rest of the world to adopt the democratic model as a product of “wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity or incomprehension.”


Yet he decided to stay  in the very Western pluralistic democracy he chastised. The very democracy that worked for his freedom.

Solzhenitsyn had a grudging respect for America and couldn’t bring himself to accept that Russia, sooner or later, is going to have to drag itself into the 21st century; regardless of the ‘system adapted to its history and traditions’.

2 thoughts on “Alexander Solzhenitsyn Dies at 89”

  1. Madame Vengier

    Oh, I forgot to add: He would also be accused (and possibly arrested, indicted, and jailed/fined like Brigitte Bardot) of “hate speech”.

  2. Madame Vengier

    Today, if he were still alive and in his prime he would be called a racist, a bigot and intolerant. That’s what you get in 2008 for telling the truth about despots, tyrants and violent regimes. Oh, the shame.

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