In Moscow, in the early hours of Monday morning, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the renowned Russian writer and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature passed away four months shy of his 90th birthday. He obtained a wide reputation for his literary works, which often touched on the most sensitive political themes.
However, his complex adult life began at the front in World War II, where he commanded an artillery battery. He was arrested in 1945 and sentenced to eight years of imprisonment in hard-labour camps for his criticism of the Stalinist régime. After his release and his recovery from cancer, he started to write, based on his camp experiences and his reflections upon them. True, only a few of his short stories gained publication in the Soviet years. At that time, his works were only printed abroad or as samizdat (“self-published”) in the Soviet Union.
In the 1960s, he started work on his most famous book, The Gulag Archipelago, a veritable encyclopaedia of life in the Soviet hard-labour camps. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and four years later, in 1974, he was exiled from the USSR due to the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in the West. Then, 20 long years of exile in the West passed. This was followed by a triumphal return to a new Russia and a continuation of his life’s work up to very last day of his life.
In his words, “I hope that the historical records that I present to readers shall present a picture of our life at that time, and that the character of the lives shattered in those harsh and shadowy years shall enter into the consciousness and memory of my fellow Russians. Such a bitter experience shall be a warning to us and prevent us from falling into the abyss again”.
Natalia Solzhenitsyna, the wife of the author, recalled the last years and days of her husband. “Aleksandr Isaevich never expected that his life would be so long. God gave him many years. Long ago, he expected to die at any time. His mother died at 49 and his father at 26. Therefore, he was surprised to see each day come. With respect to age, he saw that as a trifle, and he worked every day of his life. As for death, my husband did not fear it; he treated it as a natural and light thing”.
However, even now, we can say with confidence that Solzhenitsyn is not a simple “great writer”, and his death is not the simple death of a “great person”. His death is the end of an era, the memory of which is concentrated for us in an encyclopaedic and powerful form in his books. Both Russia and the world offer their tribute to the memory of this great writer, one of the greatest men who ever lived in Russia.
4 August 2008
Voice of Russia World Service