COVER STORY: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
Solzhenitsyn, towering 20th-century prophet
, August 16, 2008
Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (December 11, 1918 — August 3, 2008), Soviet dissident and Nobel prize-winning writer. Obituary written by John Ballantyne.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer and former Soviet dissident, has died aged 89.
He was born in Kislovodsk in 1918, within weeks of the establishment of the Soviet slave labour camps (the gulag) which he was to make famous through his writings.
During his career, Solzhenitsyn chronicled the murderous rule of Soviet communism, having himself been a gulag inmate for eight years.
The Soviet authorities retaliated against his exposé by renewing their persecution of him and, once, attempting to assassinate him. They later expelled him to the West. After the downfall of communism in Russia, his citizenship was restored to him. He returned to his homeland in 1994 and died there on August 3 this year.
In his youth, Solzhenitsyn had been an unquestioningly loyal communist. During World War II, he served as an artillery officer in the Soviet Red Army. But, in January 1945, the secret police intercepted a private letter of his in which he had made a critical remark about Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. They seized him and sentenced him, without trial, to eight years in the gulag.
While there, he almost died from malnutrition and overwork. At one stage he almost died of cancer. He was not released from imprisonment until March 3, 1953, the day Stalin died.
Solzhenitsyn took up a teaching job, but in his spare time he wrote books in secret. Once, when asked about his motivation to write so prolifically, he replied: "The secret is that when you've been pitched headfirst into hell you just write about it."
His first book, based on his personal experience of the gulag, was his famous novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
(1962), which chronicled a single day of an inmate of an Arctic slave labour camp. For the reader, it feels like a lifetime.
Incredibly, the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev relaxed his regime's harsh censorship restrictions and allowed the book to be published. It was a literary sensation in both the communist East and the democratic West.
Astonished by what he had unleashed with this slender book, Solzhenitsyn exclaimed: "If the first tiny droplet of truth has exploded like a psychological bomb, what then will happen in our country when whole waterfalls of Truth burst forth?" (The Gulag Archipelago
(Collins/Fontana, 1974), Vol.1, p.298).
In 1964, however, Khrushchev was toppled from power by communist hardliner Leonid Brezhnev and his coterie, who made life increasingly difficult for Solzhenitsyn and other free-thinking intellectuals. But this did not stop Solzhenitsyn's reputation from growing with the publication of two further books, The Cancer Ward
and The First Circle
The secret police (KGB) confiscated his archives. However, Solzhenitsyn persisted in working on what was to be his greatest literary endeavour — his devastating history of the USSR's slave labour camps.
In 1970, he won the Nobel Prize for literature, but was unwilling to travel to Norway to collect it because he feared he would be barred from returning to Russia.
In 1971, a KGB agent attempted to assassinate him by rubbing a toxic jelly on him while he was visiting a cathedral and shops in Novocherkassk. He suffered excruciating pain, fell seriously sick for several months but eventually recovered. (W. Seth Carus, Bioterrorism and Biocrimes
(Minerva Group, 2002), p.84).
More determined than ever to expose the truth, Solzhenitsyn in 1973 authorised the publication in the West of the first volume of what was to be his definitive and epic three-volume indictment of Soviet tyranny, The Gulag Archipelago
On February 12, 1974, the exasperated Soviet authorities arrested him, stripped him of his citizenship and expelled him from the USSR as a traitor. He was followed later to the West by his wife and three sons.
He settled first in Zurich for two years, then migrated to the United States, where he lived with his family in Vermont. Each day he worked a punishing schedule of writing. Each year, on February 9, he marked the anniversary of his first arrest in 1945, by restricting himself to a convict's rations of a morsel of bread, a bowl of broth and a ladle of oats.
Meanwhile, Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago
became increasingly widely read and discussed in the West. That his work came as such a revelation to so many Westerners surprised Solzhenitsyn, who wondered how an educated readership in free countries could have ignored for so long so many studies, before his own, on the same subject.
Solzhenitsyn's arrival in the West came at a time when the Soviet Union was embarking on its greatest period of postwar imperial expansionism, establishing client-states in Latin America, Africa and Asia, particularly Indo-China.
Western leaders at the time, however, ignored the reality that the free world was steadily losing ground to communism and thought they could appease Moscow with endless concessions.
In August 1974, Solzhenitsyn denounced Australia's then Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, for recognising the Soviet postwar incorporation of the once independent Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.White House snub
Solzhenitsyn was not always made to feel welcome in the free world. In 1975, Republican US President Gerald Ford, on the advice of his Secretary of State Dr Henry Kissinger, refused to invite Solzhenitsyn to the White House for fear it would offend the Kremlin and jeopardise his (Kissinger's) policy of détente.
By contrast, the American trade union movement, the AFL-CIO, under the leadership of George Meany, organised a banquet in Solzhenitsyn's honour in Washington, at which he gave the first in a series of famous public addresses in the US. At the banquet he thanked the AFL-CIO, on behalf of Soviet prisoners of conscience, for having been the first in the West, by several decades, to publish maps detailing the vast network of Soviet slave labour camps.
In Britain, in 1976, he appeared on BBC radio and television and had an electrifying impact on the public. George Brown, a former deputy leader of the British Labour Party, disillusioned by the then Labour Government's capitulation to militant Marxists, left the party in which he had grown up. He gave as his reason: "I have joined Solzhenitsyn's army." (Michael Scammell, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography
(W.W. Norton, 1984)).
The legendary columnist of the London Times
, the late Bernard Levin, said of Solzhenitsyn that he could not recall any time in recent history when "a single man with no power — he wasn't a king, a dictator, a general — but with the power of the moral force of his own will and beliefs and character, has compelled the world to listen to him". (Solzhenitsyn interview with Bernard Levin, PBS program FiringLine
, 1976, quoted in David Aikman, Great Souls: Six Who Changed a Century
Solzhenitsyn was a stern, uncompromising prophet. He not only denounced the communist experiment, which had killed millions of his countrymen and laid waste his homeland, but was also contemptuous of the spiritually vacuous and hedonistic lifestyle he encountered in the West. He disliked the unbridled free market as much as the absence of freedom found under communism, saying: "Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive." (Solzhenitsyn interview with Joseph Pearce, St Austin Review, Vol.2, No.2, February 2003).
Many Westerners did not know what to make of Solzhenitsyn and, instead of studying his writings, dismissed him as a crank, a misfit and reactionary nationalist in the same way that they caricatured the Polish-born Pope John Paul II as an out-of-touch eastern Slav.
Just after the downfall of Soviet communism, Solzhenitsyn penned a personal political manifesto, Rebuilding Russia
(HarperCollins, 1990), in which he advocated a social and economic third way for his homeland, based on Orthodox Christianity, family values, widespread ownership of private property and decentralised political authority.
During his years in the harsh gulag Solzhenitsyn came to a strong Christian faith. He realised the poverty of man-made ideologies, especially Marxism. Ideology, he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago
, "is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. (It) helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others' eyes, so that he won't hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honours." (The Gulag Archipelago
(Collins/Fontana, 1974), Vol.1, pp.173-5).
By contrast, religion struggled with "the evil inside a human being (inside every human being)", whereas revolution all too often ended up magnifying it.
"The line separating good and evil," he came to realise, "passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts." (The Gulag Archipelago
(Collins/Fontana, 1976), Vol.2, pp.597-8).
Toward the end of his life, Solzhenitsyn completed a monumental history of the Jews in Russia, Two Hundred Years Together
(2001-02), which is yet to be translated into English.
Solzhenitsyn is survived by his wife Natalya and sons Stepan, Ignat and Yermolai.— Obituary written by John Ballantyne.