Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), Vechnaya Pamyat, Rab Bozhii Aleksandr!
In Moscow, in the early hours on Monday, the outstanding Russian writer and Nobel Prize laureate passed away in his home in Moscow. According to his family, the cause of death was an acute heart attack. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was only a few months short of his 90th birthday. Because of his deteriorating health, he was prevented from appearing much on television lately. Nevertheless, he did not use this as an excuse to stop working, and he was preparing an anthology of his complete œuvre for publication. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the publication of the revision in English of his novel The First Circle (v Kruge Pervom).
According to the writer Aleksei Varlamov, one of the main strengths of Solzhenitsyn laid in the fact that he fought “for” something, he did not fight “against” something. “He lived throughout the 20th century; he survived some of the harshest and most tragic times in our history. He held us up, perhaps, he saved us, but, we did not understand it [at the time]”, Mr Varlamov said.
For many decades, people could read Solzhenitsyn’s works only in typewritten or manuscript copies (so-called samizdat, “self-publication”: editor’s note), all the time understanding that if one read his book on camp life, one ran the very real risk of running afoul of the authorities. In most people’s eyes, he was a prophet. However, to reach this position, Solzhenitsyn had to pass through all the “circles” of the Stalinist prisons and camps, overcome a terrible disease, and find the courage to talk about this phenomenon through the prism of his personal experiences. Now, we must say that the departure of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn marked the closing of an epoch in literature.
From the First to the Second World
Even before he experienced the fire of the prisons and the camps, the writer was no stranger to adversity. Born into an Orthodox family in Kislovodsk, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lost his father before he was born. His childhood was during the time of the Civil War, which completely ruined his family. At the age of 19, he conceived of writing a novel about the period of the First World War. But, he had to put off his dreams of literary accomplishment, for he had to work to support himself, and he enrolled in Rostov University at the physics and mathematics faculties. In 1940, whilst he was still a student, he married Natalia Reshetovskaya, another student.
His second formation, in literature, Solzhenitsyn thought, was finished. Then, World War II broke out, and Aleksandr Isaevich served in the artillery, where he passed the entire war. As a result he earned several military decorations… and eight years in the camps for a careless statement in a letter to a friend about Iosif Stalin. Solzhenitsyn was arrested directly on the front. Eventually, he was sent to a sharashka (special research institute staffed with political prisoners: editor’s note) in Marfino. Prisoners with long sentences under the political articles worked in secret NIIs (Scientific Research Institute), and it was here, specifically, that Solzhenitsyn began to keep notes on cigarette paper that he used in his novel The First Circle.
Pyotr Doronin, a fellow prisoner in the gulag, said that Solzhenitsyn was always circumspect in his conversation; he knew that one had to do certain things in order to survive, but, the main thing was not to become distorted and bent in the struggle for survival. Mr Doronin also related Solzhenitsyn’s interactions with the camp-guards. “We constantly shot the bull with the warders. They became convinced of our influence amongst the other prisoners, and they tried to make us informers, that is, they tried to make us rat finks. First, they tried to cajole us, then, their pressure became unbearable. Solzhenitsyn had a direct answer to it all. ‘I am not for sale!’”
Solzhenitsyn did not escape one of the more common maladies of prisoners, cancer of the stomach. In December 1953, the doctors told him that he had only three more weeks to live. However, after being freed on 5 March 1953 from the camps, the very day that Stalin died, he went for radiation therapy in a Tashkent hospital clinic and he made a full recovery. Quite a few people say that his miraculous healing from cancer led Solzhenitsyn to write about his experiences in the camps.
After his physical rehabilitation was completed, he settled in Ryazan, where he taught mathematics and physics in the local secondary schools, and he began to start seriously writing during this period. In 1962, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir (New World), one of the most prestigious “thick journals” (Soviet slang for a literary magazine: editor’s note), accepted his novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Odin den Ivana Denisovicha) for publication. This work became a revelation to many. Even though Solzhenitsyn was forced to tone down the text to pass it past the censors, he became a famous writer overnight. In 1964, he was even nominated for the Lenin Prize.
Nevertheless, the “thaw” soon ended, and the theme of the camps and sharashkas became taboo again. For several years, Solzhenitsyn attempted to defend himself from attacks, but, nothing helped, for in 1969 he was expelled from the Writer’s Union. By that time, he had already completed work on his magnum opus, an encyclopaedia of camp life entitled The Gulag Archipelago (GULag Arhipelag). In 1970, a momentous event occurred, he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and the academy cited “the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”. This “politically-hostile” award cost Solzhenitsyn his membership in the Writers’ Union of the USSR, and it led to his exile four years later from his native motherland.
The Nobel Prize address of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was published in 1972. It concludes with the words, “One word of truth is worth more than the entire world”. He was only able to accept his award after he was banished from the USSR in 1974. At first, he lived in Zürich in the home another Nobel laureate, Heinrich Böll. Later, Solzhenitsyn settled in the state of Vermont in the USA, where he completed the third volume of The Gulag Archipelago, and he continued his work on a cycl3e of novels on the time of the Russian Revolution entitled The Red Wheel (Krasnoye Koleso). He called this cycle “a tragic history of how Russians themselves destroyed their own past and their future as well”. In 1972, Solzhenitsyn feared it would take 20 years to complete the project, and that he would not have the time to finish it before his death. The name of one of his last works is most appropriate, It is Up to Us to Rebuild Russia. Feasible Considerations.
In May 1994, Aleksandr Isaevich returned to Russia. His train travelled throughout Russia, he was met as a conquering hero at each stop, and the journalists stuck close to him throughout his tour of Russia so as not to miss a word the writer said. “It was just an experiment, you will forgive me for the cruelty of this word, and no one believes in it anymore. Well, there was Sakharov… that is understandable. However, to act without knowing how the test will end, that there would be a Nobel Prize, that there would be a return to Russia, to accept the consequences for standing for the truth, for the motherland, and for patriotism… such is what we need so urgently now”, said Yevgeny Mironov, Honoured Artist of Russia, who played the main role in the TV series based on Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle.
A radically-changed Russia met him when he returned. In spring 1993, Vladimir Lukin, the Russian Ambassador to the USA, asked Solzhenitsyn to give his impressions of “the current events in Russia”. In reply, Aleksandr Isaevich said, “In the last 14 months, people have been thrown down into complete misery and desperation. At such a time, it is dangerous to implement radical political changes”. On several occasions, Solzhenitsyn tried to influence the course of events in Russia. In one of his conversations with President Yeltsin, Solzhenitsyn proposed the separation of Chechnya from Russia and the land on the left-bank of the Terek to remain Russian (for it was a traditional Cossack stanitsa: editor’s note), with the simultaneous deportation of convicted Chechen criminals from Russia.
However, Aleksandr Isaevich remained one of the leaders of the Orthodox-patriotic revival in Russia. After he was told of the death of the writer, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin said, “Aleksandr Isaevich, both for his contemporaries and for our descendants, shall remain a model of internal freedom and human dignity. He boldly spoke out to the Russian government and to the Western countries in the voice of the people. He did not fear to expose falsehood, even if this was against the trend of the time or against the prevailing public opinion. His words and participation in the Russian public dialogue shall be sorely missed”.
4 August 2008