Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Author and Activist, R.I.P.

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Solzhenitsyn, Literary Giant Who Defied Soviets, Dies at 89
by Michael T. Kaufman
The New York Times
August 4, 2008

Aleksandr SolzhenitsynAleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose stubborn, lonely and combative literary struggles gained the force of prophecy as he revealed the heavy afflictions of Soviet Communism in some of the most powerful works of the 20th century, died late on Sunday at the age of 89 in Moscow.

His son Yermolai said the cause was a heart ailment.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn outlived by nearly 17 years the Soviet state and system he had battled through years of imprisonment, ostracism and exile.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn had been an obscure, middle-aged, unpublished high school science teacher in a provincial Russian town when he burst onto the literary stage in 1962 with "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." The book, a mold-breaking novel about a prison camp inmate, was a sensation. Suddenly he was being compared to giants of Russian literature like Tolstoy, Dostoyevski and Chekhov.

Over the next five decades, Mr. Solzhenitsyn's fame spread throughout the world as he drew upon his experiences of totalitarian duress to write evocative novels like "The First Circle" and "The Cancer Ward" and historical works like "The Gulag Archipelago."

"Gulag" was a monumental account of the Soviet labor camp system, a chain of prisons that by Mr. Solzhenitsyn's calculation some 60 million people had entered during the 20th century. The book led to his expulsion from his native land. George F. Kennan, the American diplomat, described it as "the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times."

Mr. Solzhenitsyn was heir to a morally focused and often prophetic Russian literary tradition, and he looked the part. With his stern visage, lofty brow and full, Old Testament beard, he recalled Tolstoy while suggesting a modern-day Jeremiah, denouncing the evils of the Kremlin and later the mores of the West. He returned to Russia and deplored what he considered its spiritual decline, but in the last years of his life he embraced President Vladimir V. Putin as a restorer of Russia's greatness.

In almost half a century, more than 30 million of his books have been sold worldwide and translated into some 40 languages. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn owed his initial success to Khrushchev's decision to allow "Ivan Denisovich" to be published in a popular journal. Khrushchev believed its publication would advance the liberal line he had promoted since his secret speech in 1956 on the crimes of Stalin.

But soon after the story appeared, Khrushchev was replaced by hard-liners, and they campaigned to silence its author. They stopped publication of his new works, denounced him as a traitor and confiscated his manuscripts.

A Giant and a Victim

Their iron grip could not contain Mr. Solzhenitsyn's reach. By then his works were appearing outside the Soviet Union, in many languages, and he was being compared not only to Russia's literary giants but also to Stalin's literary victims, writers like Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak.

At home, the Kremlin stepped up its campaign by expelling Mr. Solzhenitsyn from the Writer's Union. He fought back. He succeeded in having microfilms of his banned manuscripts smuggled out of the Soviet Union. He addressed petitions to government organs, wrote open letters, rallied support among friends and artists, and corresponded with people abroad. They turned his struggles into one of the most celebrated cases of the cold war period.

Hundreds of well-known intellectuals signed petitions against his silencing; the names of left-leaning figures like Jean-Paul Sartre carried particular weight with Moscow. Other supporters included Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, W. H. Auden, Gunther Grass, Heinrich Boll, Yukio Mishima, Carlos Fuentes and, from the United States, Arthur Miller, John Updike, Truman Capote and Kurt Vonnegut. All joined a call for an international cultural boycott of the Soviet Union.

That position was confirmed when he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in the face of Moscow's protests. The Nobel jurists cited him for "the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature."

Mr. Solzhenitsyn dared not travel to Stockholm to accept the prize for fear that the Soviet authorities would prevent him from returning. But his acceptance address was circulated widely. He recalled a time when "in the midst of exhausting prison camp relocations, marching in a column of prisoners in the gloom of bitterly cold evenings, with strings of camp lights glimmering through the darkness, we would often feel rising in our breast what we would have wanted to shout out to the whole world - if only the whole world could have heard us."

He wrote that while an ordinary man was obliged "not to participate in lies," artists had greater responsibilities. "It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!" Read the rest of the obituary here.