Bard of the Gulag

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who has died aged 89, was a prolific novelist and memoirist, whose life’s work, in the best traditions of Russian literature, transcended the realm of pure letters. He was a moral and spiritual leader, whose books were noted as much for their ethical dimension as for their aesthetic qualities.

Solzhenitsyn’s moral authority was not easily earned. It was the fruit, in part, of bitter personal experience in Stalin’s labour camps. But it was the lessons he drew from his experience, and the manner in which he voiced the sufferings of three generations of Soviet victims in powerful novels such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward and The First Circle, that secured for him the role of conscience of the nation.

Born in Kislovodsk, southern Russia, Solzhenitsyn was a year younger than the Russian Revolution. Despite a hard period as the only child of a sick churchgoing mother, he grew up a loyal communist and supporter of the Soviet regime.

But it was his devotion to revolutionary purity that was to prove his undoing. As an artillery captain during World War II, he wrote letters to a friend expressing hostility to Stalin’s autocratic rule and hoping for a return to socialist principles when the war was over. These letters were intercepted by Smersh, the Soviet counter-espionage service, and in July 1945 Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in the labour camps and three years’ administrative exile for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”.

The shock of this arrest and the subsequent privations he endured in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow were to lead to some of the finest pages in The Gulag Archipelago—a torrential narrative mixing history, politics, autobiography, documentary, personal comment and philosophical speculation into one of the most extraordinary epics of 20th-century literature.

During his first few months in the camps, Solzhenitsyn almost died from starvation and overwork. He was saved by his unexpected transfer to a sharashka, a scientific institute devoted to the study of decoding techniques and staffed entirely by scientifically trained prisoners.

Here he was thrown into the company of a group of highly educated and intelligent fellow prisoners, who broadened his horizons and forced him to re-examine his earlier beliefs. Two friends in particular, Lev Kopelev and Dmitri Panin, involved him in long philosophical and political debates.

These experiences were to form the core of the finest of Solzhenitsyn’s longer novels, The First Circle (1969), whose title referred to Dante’s circles of hell: the first circle was reserved for “the wise men of antiquity”, pagans but not sinners of commission.

After three years at the sharashka, Solzhenitsyn was transferred in 1950 to Ekibastuz in northern Kazakhstan, where he worked for three more years. The grinding hard labour, the extremes of heat and cold, the brutality of the guards, and the corruption of the camp administration were evoked with brilliance in his short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).

It was while still in the camps that Solzhenitsyn had his first brush with cancer. He was rushed to the infirmary in great pain and operated on for cancer of the groin. The treatment was unsuccessful and a few months later in 1954, in exile in southern Kazakhstan, he dragged himself to a cancer clinic in Tashkent for further treatment. “That autumn I learned from my own experience that a man can cross the threshold of death while occupying a body that is still not dead. Your blood still circulates and your stomach digests things, but psychologically you have completed all your preparations for death and lived through death itself.”

These words are spoken by the main character in Cancer Ward (1968), the novel Solzhenitsyn devoted to describing his ordeal. His experiences also provoked a spiritual crisis and a return to Christianity.

Solzhenitsyn’s release from exile and rise to world fame is inextricably linked with the name and policies of first secretary Nikita Khrushchev, who encouraged the thaw after Stalin’s death in 1953 and inaugurated a wide-ranging policy of de-Stalinisation. He returned from exile in 1956 to Russia a free man.

While in exile in Kazakhstan, Solzhenitsyn had laboured to revise the numerous works he had composed in the labour camps. His camp experiences had taught him the Joycean virtues of “silence, exile, and cunning,” and for several years he had little expectation that his writings would see the light of day. But he changed his mind after the party’s 22nd congress in October 1961, when Khrushchev vowed to erect a monument to the victims of Stalinism, and Aleksandr Tvardovsky, editor of the influential magazine Novy Mir, called on writers to tell the truth about “the era of the personality cult”.

Solzhenitsyn had just completed a short novel about a day in the life of a prisoner, which was less extreme in its political opinions than his early poems and plays. He asked his labour camp friend Kopelev to forward it anonymously to Tvardovsky, setting in motion a chain of events that was to be compared with the poet and publisher Nikolai Nekrasov’s discovery of Dostoevsky 100 years earlier.

Tvardovsky stayed up all night reading the manuscript, then deluged friends and colleagues with the news that “a great writer has been born”.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich caused a sensation when it appeared in the November 1961 issue of Novy Mir. So daring were its revelations about Stalin’s policies and the evils of the labour camps that many Russians concluded that the censorship had suddenly been abolished.

Within weeks his name was known all over the world. In quick succession he published three more stories in Novy Mir.

Solzhenitsyn’s fall from official grace was almost as precipitous as his rise. In 1964, Khrushchev was removed from power, and Solzhenitsyn narrowly failed to win the Lenin Prize for literature. A year later, Leonid Brezhnev instituted his drive against the intellectuals.

By now Solzhenitsyn was halfway through Cancer Ward, but although part one was slated for publication by Novy Mir, it was blocked by the authorities. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn was never again to be published while the Soviet regime remained in power.

From 1966 to 1968, he and Tvardovsky fought doggedly to get either The First Circle or Cancer Ward into print, and to have one or the other of his plays staged, but the KGB, under the leadership of Yuri Andropov, was just as determined to stop him.

Solzhenitsyn fought back with a celebrated open letter to the Writers’ Union congress in March 1967 citing the long line of distinguished Russian writers suppressed or killed by the Soviet government and calling for a complete end to censorship.

The increasing repression of religious and nationalist dissent by the Brezhnev administration had led to the explosive growth of a dissident movement, which exerted leverage by appeals to the West for support.

Solzhenitsyn was both a part of the movement and the object of several of its appeals and he capitalised on his international reputation by sending copies of his unpublished novels abroad. In 1968 part one of Cancer Ward was published in English by the Bodley Head and a year later, Harper and Row brought out The First Circle.

Solzhenitsyn was acknowledged as a “truth-teller” and a witness to the cruelties of Stalinism of unusual power and eloquence. He was hailed as a fearless chronicler of evil and as the greatest Russian writer of his time.

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 inaugurated a new push against dissidents and the following year, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Writers’ Union. But, in 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, and, though he was barred from travelling to Stockholm to receive it, this greatly strengthened his position vis-a-vis the government.

Solzhenitsyn acquired a deep regard for the traditions of the Orthodox church and a growing conviction that Russia should follow a separate path from the West.

His increasingly conservative and patriotic views were now beginning to alienate him from liberal opinion in the Soviet Union. In his historical novel August 1914 he painted a rosy picture of pre-revolutionary Russia, and, in three essays for a collection, From Under the Rubble, he praised Russia’s Orthodox church and authoritarian political tradition.

In his 1973 political manifesto, Letter to the Soviet Leaders, he spelled out his views in even greater detail, disclosing a vision that was patriarchal and bucolic, and impelled by an intense aversion to modernity.

Publication of the letter was delayed by another major development. The KGB had tracked down and confiscated a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, which he had written in deepest secrecy and concealed for years. Copies were already in the West, and when Solzhenitsyn learned of the KGB’s coup, he displayed great courage in ordering its immediate publication. The appearance of volume one in January 1973 was a bombshell: the book went far beyond anything Solzhenitsyn had published before in revealing the abuses of the regime.

The Politburo decreed his immediate deportation and he settled in Zurich for two years. There he was joined by his second wife, Natalia Svetlova (whom he had married in 1973, having divorced Natalia Reshetovskaya the previous year), and their three young sons, Yermolai, Ignat and Stepan. During this time he travelled widely, made speeches denouncing the Soviet regime, and published a fascinating memoir, The Oak and the Calf (1975), in which he revealed many new details about his battle with the Soviet authorities.

In 1976 Solzhenitsyn moved to Vermont and after making a badly received speech at Harvard about the West’s derelictions in its dealings with the Soviet Union swore himself to public silence while working on a series of historical novels under the collective title of The Red Wheel.

From the moment of his deportation Solzhenitsyn averred that he would return to Russia, and he was right. Having observed Gorbachev’s perestroika with great scepticism and having remained aloof for a further three years after Yeltsin dismantled communism, he made a triumphal return in May 1994. He had set out his political views on Russia’s future in two long essays, Rebuilding Russia and How Shall We Organise Russia? and in October 1994, he addressed Russia’s parliament.

Solzhenitsyn retired from public view, settling in a comfortable villa on the outskirts of Moscow. But despite his advancing years, he kept up a punishing work schedule.

After publishing numerous fragments left over from his work on The Red Wheel, he released a second volume of his memoirs, Invisible Allies (1995), a sequel to The Oak and the Calf, describing his experiences in the West, and then his controversial, monumental history of the Jews in Russia, Two Hundred Years Together (2001 to 2002). In a 2005 state television interview, he counselled against rushing towards liberalism, and in 2007 President Vladimir Putin visited Solzhenitsyn personally to award him a state prize.

Solzhenitsyn was essentially an old-fashioned artist working within the conventions of the 19th-century novel, but the pressure of his extreme subject matter, the passion and discipline he brought to his craft, and the exigencies of the times helped him to stretch the boundaries of Russian realism and find new expressive possibilities for it.

Survived by Svetlova and their sons, Solzhenitsyn will be remembered as the bard of the Gulag, a fearless tribune who exercised a crucial liberating influence in Soviet history.—Michael Scammell,



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