Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isayevich

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isayevich

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (əlyĬksän´dər ēsī´əvĬch sôl´zhənēt´sĬn), 1918–2008, Russian writer widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential authors of the 20th cent., b. Kislovodsk.

Solzhenitsyn grew up in Rostov-na-Donu, where he studied physics and mathematics at Rostov State Univ. During World War II he served in the Red Army, rising to the rank of artillery captain, and was decorated for bravery. In 1945, while still serving on the German front, he was arrested for mildly criticizing Stalin in letters to a friend. In the Moscow prisons he was for the first time confronted with the tragic fates of political prisoners. Sentenced to eight years in labor camps, he worked as a menial laborer and was stricken with cancer (from which he later recovered).

After completing (1953) his prison sentence, he was exiled to the Kazakh SSR (now Kazakhstan). Stalin died in 1953 and Solzhenitsyn's citizenship was restored in 1956. He moved to the Russian city of Ryazan, S of Moscow, where he taught in a local high school and wrote. His early fiction describes the grimness of life in the vast Soviet labor-camp system. His short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was permitted publication in 1962 through the personal intervention of Nikita Khrushchev, in an effort to further encourage anti-Stalinist feeling and to promote his own liberalizing reforms. The book was hailed as a brilliant exposé of Stalinist methods, and it placed the author in the foremost ranks of Soviet writers. Three more short novels were published in 1963. However, with Khrushchev's removal from office (1964), Solzhenitsyn's manuscripts were confiscated, his succeeding works were banned, and he was continually censured by the Soviet press and denounced as a traitor.

With subsequent novels—The First Circle (1968), detailing the lives of scientists forced to work in a Stalinist research center, and Cancer Ward (1968), concerning the complex social microcosm within a government hospital—censorship tightened, and Solzhenitsyn was increasingly regarded as a dangerous and hostile critic of Soviet society. His books found publication and an enormous audience abroad, where he was hailed as a successor to Russia's 19th-century literary giants. In the USSR his works were circulated in samizdat [self-publishing, underground] editions. In 1969 Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers and prohibited from living in Moscow. His cause was championed by prominent writers and scholars worldwide and his treatment became one of the most notorious cases of intellectual persecution and literary censorship of the cold-war period.

In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, but government pressure, specifically the threat of not being allowed to return from Stockholm, compelled him to decline the prize. His next novel, August 1914 (1971, rev. ed 1983, tr. 1972, 1989), published abroad, is a compelling exposition of the internal strife in Russia leading to the Revolution of 1917. It and its sequels, October 1916 (1984, tr. 1999 as November 1916), March 1917 (1986), and April 1917 (1991), form the monumental four-volume series of historical novels that describe the Russian Revolution and are collectively titled The Red Wheel. Solzhenitsyn considered it his major work.

In 1973, fearing that he might soon be imprisoned again, Solzhenitsyn authorized foreign publication of The Gulag Archipelago, a vast work he had started in 1963 and completed in 1968 documenting, with personal interviews and reminiscences, the operation of the oppressive Soviet labor-camp system (see Gulag) from 1918 to 1956. Widely acclaimed as his masterpiece, it is a powerful and searing indictment of the Soviet regime. In Feb., 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested, formally accused of treason, stripped of his citizenship, and forcibly deported to the West. In exile he personally accepted his Nobel Prize in Stockholm (1974).

Solzhenitsyn ultimately settled in the United States, living in rural Cavendish, Vermont. He rarely appeared in public, but when he did speak out he tended to condemn the moral weakness and materialism he found in the United States. In 1980 two nonfiction works were published, The Oak and the Calf, a memoir, and The Mortal Danger: How Misconceptions about Russia Imperil America. The last three volumes of The Red Wheel were also completed during his years in Vermont. In 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev restored the writer's citizenship and the following year treason charges were dropped, laying the groundwork for Solzhenitsyn's 1994 return to his homeland. After touring the country, he denounced the new Russia and what he saw as its spiritual decline, and he called for a return to a paternalistic, autocratic government rooted in the Orthodox Church and Russian nationalism, a view that many deemed anachronistic and antithetical to the aspirations of the modern nation. In later years he publicly supported President Putin, whom he hailed for restoring Russian greatness, while also accusing Western nations of trying to encircle Russia.

Solzhenitsyn's works also include a number of short stories, a play, film scripts, and numerous essays. Some have criticized his writing as old-fashioned and his world view as rigid, reactionary, harsh, authoritarian, overly moralistic, and irrelevant to the contemporary world. However, he remains widely read (during his lifetime more than 30 million of his books were sold and his works were translated into more than 40 languages). Moreover, he continues to be profoundly respected not only as a fearless novelist who convincingly described techniques of terror and the resulting moral debasement in the USSR, but also as a leader of a small but vociferous group of intellectual dissidents who successfully endeavored to expose the nature of the Soviet system.

See biographies by H. Björkegren (tr. 1972), M. Scammell (1984), and D. M. Thomas (1998); studies by A. Rothberg (1971), C. Moody (1973), K. Feuer, ed. (1976), F. Barker (1977), S. Allaback (1978), A. Kodjak (1978), J. M. Curtis (1984), J. B. Dunlop et al., ed. (1985), E. E. Ericson, Jr. (1993), and H. Bloom, ed. (2001); bibliography ed. by D. M. Fiene (1973); L. Labedz, ed., Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record (1973).

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