Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn
Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, descended from a family of Cossack intellectuals, was born in Koslovodsk, a resort town in the northern Caucasus, on December 11, 1918, a year after the Bolsheviks had stormed to power throughout Russia. His petit bourgeois family moved to the southern Russian port city of Rostov-on-Don when Solzhenitsyn was a child, and there he grew up. His father, an office worker, died when Solzhenitsyn was still young, and his mother, a schoolteacher, brought the boy up. He studied at the University of Rostov, majoring in physics and mathematics, and received a degree in 1941.
Military Service and Imprisonment
In 1941 Solzhenitsyn's life changed drastically. After the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Solzhenitsyn was drafted into the Red Army as a private and was sent to artillery school. He was "a spare man with dark, intense eyes and a brooding, lined face." After his graduation from the artillery course in 1942, Solzhenitsyn became commander of an artillery battery, serving with distinction and almost continuously at the front for three years. Wounded several times, he was twice decorated for bravery. Toward the war's end Solzhenitsyn, now a captain, commented derogatorily about Stalin's conduct of the war—referring to him as "the whiskered one"—in a letter to a friend. He was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Most of Solzhenitsyn's imprisonment was spent in a labor camp—probably Karaganda in Kazakh S.S.R. While a prisoner, he probably underwent an operation for cancer. On March 5, 1953—the day Stalin died—he was released from the labor camp and deported for life from the European part of the Soviet Union.
Solzhenitsyn spent his period of enforced exile in the Dzhambul Oblast of Soviet Central Asia as a teacher. He also began to write down the experiences he had undergone as a prisoner. During this period, too, he apparently had another operation for cancer, this one in a hospital in Tashkent. He was freed from exile in 1956 and was officially rehabilitated in 1957.
Following his release, Solzhenitsyn settled in Ryazan, an industrial town about 110 miles southeast of Moscow, where he taught mathematics and physics. His wife, Natalya, had divorced him during his imprisonment, but she reportedly divorced her second husband and rejoined Solzhenitsyn in Ryazan. Drawing on his prison camp experiences and his observation of life in a small Russian town, Solzhenitsyn continued to write. In autumn 1962 he submitted the fourth draft of a novella to Novy Mir, the Soviet literary journal. The manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was submitted by that journal's liberal editor, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, to the Communist Party Central Committee, who gave it to Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The Premier, in an attempt to fortify his anti-Stalinist line, authorized its publication in Novy Mir in November 1962. The novella was a sensational success, gaining for its author admission to membership in the Union of Soviet Writers.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was the first published work to describe life in one of Stalin's labor camps in detail. It followed its protagonist, Shukhov, a humble farm laborer serving a ten year term on false espionage charges, through a single day in a bleak Arctic camp. The simple, futile, and monotonous horror of the labor camp system emerged strongly.
Solzhenitsyn published two anti-Stalinist short stories in the January 1963 issue of Novy Mir: "Incident at Krechetovka Station" and "Matryona's House." The first told of a military commandant of a railroad station in World War II who denounced a seemingly innocent man to the secret police and later regreted it. The second told of the struggle for survival of a poor and unassuming peasant woman. In summer 1963 Solzhenitsyn published another story in Novy Mir, "For the Good of the Cause," which tells in ironic terms a tale of Khrushchevan bureaucrats acting in the manner of junior Stalins.
Solzhenitsyn was nominated in 1964 for the Lenin Prize for literature, but he did not receive the award. After Khrushchev's removal from the Soviet premiership in October 1964, Solzhenitsyn encountered steadily increasing difficulties in publishing his work in the Soviet Union. In 1966 he published a short story, "Zakhar-Kalita"; it was his last to be published in the Soviet Union.
In May 1967 Solzhenitsyn issued a plea to the Fourth National Congress of Soviet Writers. He called for an end to "the oppression, no longer tolerable, that our literature has been enduring for decades, [which] gives people who are unversed in literature arbitrary control over writers." He revealed that his literary archives, dating back about 20 years, had been confiscated, including the manuscripts of several novels and plays that had been denied publication. "My work has thus been finally smothered, gagged, and slandered," he concluded.
Many of the Soviet Union's leading writers and intellectuals sided with Solzhenitsyn, but the government continued to denounce him and to prohibit publication of his works. In April 1968 Solzhenitsyn protested that Soviet secret agents had sent a manuscript of his novel Cancer Ward to publishers in the West in order to discredit him in Russia. At about the same time another manuscript of his, The First Circle, also found its way to the West.
The First Circle was published in English translation in the United States in 1968. Its title derived from Dante's Inferno, in which the first circle was that portion of hell occupied by the pre-Christian philosophers. The setting of the novel was Mavrino sharashka, a scientific institute near Moscow. Its inmates were technicians and scientists who were working to perfect an eavesdropping machine. Panoramic in scope and in effect a history of the Stalinist era, the novel was harshly satiric in tone.
Solzhenitsyn's next work to be published in the West, Cancer Ward, appeared in 1969. A more emotional and reflective book than its predecessors, Cancer Ward recounted the day-to-day events in the lives of critically ill patients in an overcrowded hospital in Soviet Central Asia. It was partly based on the author's own struggle against cancer. The inmates of the hospital, perhaps because of the hopelessness of their situations, seemed to have achieved a freedom and serenity denied to the healthy.
After the publication of his books in the West and their sensational impact there, Solzhenitsyn continued to be denounced in the Soviet Union. He lived in Ryazan and maintained an apartment in Moscow. He was described as "a vigorous, burly … man with a booming voice— possessed equally by his love for Russia and his passion for freedom" and as an "irreverent individualist" who "wears good clothes … but in haphazard combinations."
In 1970 Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but was unable to leave the Soviet Union to accept it. In 1974 he was finally banished from the U.S.S.R. because of his controversial writings, most notably The Gulag Archipelago (1973). Ultimately, Solzhenitsyn settled in the United States where he lived until 1994, when he returned to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Over the years, Solzhenitsyn has hammered away at an ambitious project, The Red Wheel series, which chronicles WWI in the books August 1914 (1971), October 1916 (1984), and March 1917 (1986). In 1997, despite ailing health, he continued to work on the next installment in the series.
In 1994 Solzhenitsyn returned to his native country, and received a mixed reception. While immensely popular with some, many regarded his nationalist views as out-moded. He felt that too much emphasis was being placed on the economy, and that what most needed attention was the moral aspect of his homeland, saying, "We must build a moral Russia, or not at all … we must preserve and nourish all the good seed which miraculously have not been trampled down." Such views were unpopular at a time when many Russians were forced to wait as long as three months to receive their wages. He had a national talk show for a brief period, but it was canceled in 1995, and after that time he disappeared from the public eye.
In May 1997 Solzhenitsyn was hospitalized for a heart ailment at 78 years of age. Reflecting on his waning popularity, Joseph Epstein wrote in Commentary, "Even his American publisher has said that he does not anticipate a large sale for the next installment of The Red Wheel. The interest is just not there anymore."
There were a number of excellent biographies and discussions of Solzhenitsyn, including Steven Allaback's Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1978); Francis Barker's Solzhenitsyn: Politics and Form (1977); and Stephen Carter's The Politics of Solzhenitsyn (1977). An excellent, extensive discussion of the man and his work can be found in Helen Muchnic, Russian Writers: Notes and Essays (1971). Solzhenitsyn's earlier works were discussed in Vera Alexandrova, A History of Soviet Literature (trans. 1963), and Marc Slonim, Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems (1964; rev. ed. 1967). Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record, edited with an introduction by Leopold Labedz (1971), recounted Solzhenitsyn's struggle for creative freedom. His censorship problems were also recounted in Abraham Brumberg, ed., In Quest of Justice: Protest and Dissent in the Soviet Union Today (1970). □
The word is Russian, from G(lavnoe) u(pravlenie ispravitel′no-trudovykh) lag(ereĭ) ‘Chief Administration for Corrective Labour Camps’.