Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (b. 1918)

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Russian novelist and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize for literature.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, a small town in southern Russia. Brought up by his mother and other relatives in very straitened circumstances, Solzhenitsyn attended school and university in Rostov-on-Don, by the age of sixteen or seventeen abandoning the traditional beliefs of his home for the new Marxist verities. He graduated from Rostov State University in 1941 with a degree in mathematics and physics, but his plans to pursue postgraduate work in Moscow's Institute of History, Philosophy, and Literature (MIFLI) were dashed by the outbreak of the war. Called up for service in the Red Army, he rose to the rank of captain in command of a sound-ranging battery but in early 1945 was arrested for disparaging comments about Joseph Stalin, who, in Solzhenitsyn's opinion, had strayed from the true revolutionary path. The writer was sentenced to eight years of "corrective labor" to be followed by "perpetual exile" in a remote area of the USSR.

Solzhenitsyn served his sentence in work camps in the Moscow region, in prison research institutes, and finally in a "special regime" camp in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan. At the conclusion of his eight-year-long incarceration (1953) he was directed to settle in Kok Terek, a tiny settlement in southeastern Kazakhstan, where he began teaching in the local secondary school. An abdominal swelling was here diagnosed as terminal cancer, but the writer was successfully treated in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 1954–1955. Meanwhile major political changes were under way in the Soviet Union. In his campaign to repudiate Stalin's legacy, Nikita Khrushchev disbanded the entire exile system in 1956, enabling Solzhenitsyn to leave Central Asia. This was followed in 1957 by the writer's "rehabilitation," with the original sentence against him formally annulled.

Solzhenitsyn was now teaching school in the European part of Russia, first in a village east of Moscow, then in Ryazan, a provincial city south of the capital. But every moment free of teaching responsibilities was dedicated to writing. By 1957 he had in fact been writing in deep secrecy for more than a decade, having produced a substantial volume of poetry, drama, and prose, much of it involving a reexamination of his former beliefs in view of the radical in sight he had gained in to the essence of Soviet ideology by virtue of his prison experience. But it was not until 1961, at the height of Khrushchev's anti-Stalinist campaign, that Solzhenitsyn risked submitting his short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Odin den Ivana Denisovicha) for Soviet publication. It appeared in 1962 in Novy Mir, the leading Soviet literary magazine of the day, thanks to the personal intervention of Khrushchev, who deemed the depiction of a Stalin-era forced-labor camp—heretofore an absolutely taboo subject—useful for his anti-Stalinist purposes. To be sure, Ivan Denisovich is much more than a political statement and its impact derives mainly from the astonishingly understated and morally lucid viewpoint expressed by the main protagonist (who provides the dominant narrative voice) despite the obvious fact that he is immersed in an irredeemably unnatural and corrupt social environment. The novel became an instant sensation both inside and outside the Soviet Union, and the writer received hundreds of letters from former Soviet prison-camp inmates wishing to share their specific experiences with the writer. This led to meetings and testimonies later used by Solzhenitsyn in composing The Gulag Archipelago (Arkhipelag GULag).

Solzhenitsyn was not long in the good graces of the regime, and was able to publish only a small number of other short works before Soviet journals closed their doors to him. Things became more ominous when Khrushchev was toppled in a coup in 1964, with the new regime headed by Leonid Brezhnev taking an actively hostile attitude toward the writer. Uncowed, Solzhenitsyn turned to samizdat, a method of self-publication whereby opposition-minded individuals retyped and distributed officially prohibited texts in chain-letter fashion. Disseminated in this manner, the writer's combative statements, such as his eloquent appeal against censorship (1967), became widely known both in the Soviet Union and abroad, making him an iconic figure in the dissident movement (even though Solzhenitsyn never identified himself in that way).

The 1968 publication in the West of Solzhenitsyn's novels The First Circle (V kruge pervom) and Cancer Ward (Rakovy korpus) was met with high critical acclaim. The First Circle is based on Solzhenitsyn's stint in a prison research institute in the late 1940s and traces the intellectual evolution of the main protagonist as he attempts to define his philosophical identity in contrast to, and in philosophical conflict with, other inmates. Cancer Ward has a similarly autobiographical dimension in that it reflects Solzhenitsyn's radiation treatment in Tashkent and touches upon ultimate metaphysical questions of life, disease, and death. The reaction of the Soviet authorities to Solzhenitsyn's unsanctioned publications was belligerently hostile, and when Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 the harassment escalated to a KGB-directed assassination attempt by means of a poisoned needle. The plot failed, miraculously, but when the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's searing account of the Soviet punitive system, appeared in Paris at the end of 1973, the regime decided to act openly. On 12 February 1974 Solzhenitsyn was arrested, charged with treason, and expelled to the West, where his family was soon allowed to join him.

The term gulag in the title is the Soviet acronym for Main Administration of Corrective-Labor Camps (Glavnoe upravlenie ispravitelno-trudovykh lagerei), but it is used by Solzhenitsyn as a generic—and phonetically memorable—designation of the entire system of camps and prisons. (The metaphor of an archipelago is added to suggest the scattered and isolated location of the camps within the Soviet Union.) Based on the testimony of more than two hundred former prisoners, not least Solzhenitsyn himself, The Gulag Archipelago is a massive, and massively powerful, indictment of the ideological system that generated and encouraged this vast inhuman enterprise. The book is also a disarmingly honest account of the author's struggle with his weaknesses and philosophical quandaries. The political impact of Gulag is difficult to overestimate, and for many left-leaning Western intellectuals it proved to be the decisive text in their view of the Soviet Union.

After his expulsion, Solzhenitsyn lived for a time in Zurich, Switzerland, moving to Cavendish, Vermont, in 1976. At the beginning of his Western sojourn the writer engaged in numerous statements and public appearances, most memorably at the Harvard Commencement in 1978, but he soon chose to concentrate on what he considered the major task of his life—the series of historical narratives ("knots") tracing Russia's catastrophic slide toward the Bolshevik Revolution. Between 1983 and 1991 he completed four "knots" (entitled August 1914, November 1916, March 1917, and April 1917 respectively) comprising ten volumes and more than six thousand pages, with the entire series named The Red Wheel (Krasnoe koleso).

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the cancellation of the treason charges against him, Solzhenitsyn prepared to return to Russia, making his move in 1994. He settled in a Moscow suburb and resisted efforts to draw him into the political process, preferring to make public statements of his own choosing. The outflow of works continued unabated after his return, among them serialized reminiscences of his years in the West (1998–2003), a two-volume study of Russian-Jewish relations (2001–2002), several short stories with an unusual "binary" structure, and a large number of essays on Russian and Soviet writers.

The reception of Solzhenitsyn's works and statements has been a study in extremes. Praised at first in both East and West, Solzhenitsyn soon came to be vituperated in the Soviet Union for his criticisms while being extolled in the West as a courageous truth-teller. But the prevailing Western sympathy changed sharply at the realization that Solzhenitsyn was no admirer of modern secular liberalism. Endless attacks on his moderate traditionalism followed, producing a major decline in his Western reputation, particularly in the United States. Meanwhile Solzhenitsyn's star rose in Russia as the Soviet regime crumbled, and his long-banned works filled Russian journals. But the boom was short lived here as well, as the writer refused to share the fashionable enthusiasm for the chaotic reforms that characterized the Yeltsin years.

See alsoDissidence; Gulag; Russia; Samizdat; Soviet Union.


Primary Sources

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. The First Circle. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. New York, 1968. Translation of V kruge pervom, 1968.

——. Cancer Ward. Translated by Nicholas Bethell and David Burg. New York and London, 1968. Translation of Rakovy korpus, 1968.

——. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956. 3 vols. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney (vols. 1 and 2) and H. T. Willetts (vol. 3). New York and London, 1974–1978. Translation of Arkhipelag GULag, 1973–1975.

———. Sobranie sochinenii. 20 vols. Paris and Vermont, 1978–1991. Collected works.

——. The Oak and the Calf. Translated by H. T. Willetts. New York and London, 1980. Translation of Bodalsia telenok s dubom, 1975.

——. August 1914. Translated by H. T. Willetts. New York and London, 1989. Translation of Avgust chetyrnadtsatogo, 1983. Not to be confused with the incomplete 1971 edition.

——. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Translated by H. T. Willetts. New York, 1991. The most reliable translation of Odin den Ivana Denisovicha, 1962.

——. Invisible Allies. Translated by Alexis Klimoff and Michael Nicholson. Washington, D.C., 1995. Translation of Nevidimki, 1991.

——. November 1916. Translated by H. T. Willetts. New York and London, 1999. Translation of Oktiabr shestnadtsatogo, 1984.

Secondary Sources

Dunlop, John B., Richard S. Haugh, and Alexis Klimoff, eds. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. 2nd ed. New York, 1975. Contains more than thirty essays.

Dunlop, John B., Richard S. Haugh, and Michael Nicholson, eds. Solzhenitsyn in Exile: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. Stanford, Calif., 1985. Includes surveys of the reception of Solzhenitsyn in Europe.

Ericson, Edward E., Jr. Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World. Washington, D.C., 1993. A detailed reception study, focused mainly on English-language articles and reviews.

Nivat, Georges. Soljénitsyne. Paris, 1980. This French translation is the best introduction to Solzhenitsyn's life and works in any language.

Pearce, Joseph. Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2001. Includes information bearing on Solzhenitsyn's life after his 1994 return to Russia.

Scammell, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. New York, 1984. A massive study.

Scammell, Michael, ed. The Solzhenitsyn Files: Secret Soviet Documents Reveal One Man's Fight against the Monolith. Translated under supervision of Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. Chicago, 1995. Reports received and resolutions made by the Soviet leadership in connection with Solzhenitsyn between 1965 and 1980.

Alexis Klimoff