Solzhenitsyn broke taboos, shook Soviet empire
When Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" appeared in the thick monthly literary magazine Novy Mir back in November of 1962, taboos were shattered. Buried secrets were unearthed. And the Soviet Union was shaken to its foundations.
Solzhenitsyn's short novel described a single day in the life of a carpenter caught up in the Soviet Union's secret network of slave labour camps, where starvation, bitter cold and punishing work regimes were the rule and, it has been said, the average life expectancy was one winter.
The author was working as a provincial math teacher, and his greatest work, "The Gulag Archipelago," was still to come. But "One Day" was to shock the U.S.S.R. and the world.
Some of the crimes of the dictator Josef Stalin were exposed and denounced following a secret speech by Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, as part of his short-lived campaign to reform the brutal Soviet system.
But Solzhenitsyn's novel, based on the seven years he spent as a prisoner, was the first real expose of the gulag --a word derived from the Russian "Glavnoe Upravelenie Lagerei," or Main Camp Administration.
Solzhenitsyn, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature but was exiled from his homeland because of his work, died of heart failure Sunday at age 89, his son, Stepan Solzhenitsyn, told The Associated Press on Monday.
The gulag was, Solzhenitsyn wrote, the "human meat grinder" for processing what Stalin sneered at as "wreckers," vermin and "enemies of the people" who allegedly sabotaged Soviet progress to the workers' paradise. The grim process started, typically, with a knock on the door late at night, an arrest on charges of trivial or imaginary crimes, condemnation by a secret tribunal, transportation by unheated rail car and finally incarceration in the camps.
The prisoners formed a secret army of slave labourers who built railroads, worked in mines and cleared forests in some of the world's most inhospitable terrain. In the end, by the most authoritative estimate, the gulag systematically ground down some 29 million souls.
Armed with his literary talent and prodigious memory, Solzhenitsyn spent more than 40 years working in secrecy, in fear and finally in exile as he chiseled away at the lies that supported the Soviet system. And in the end he, as much perhaps as any individual, helped to bring it down.
After the book appeared, readers of Novyi Mir responded with an outpouring of letters describing their anguish and grief. "Now I read and weep, but when I was imprisoned in Ukhta for ten years I did not shed a tear," one reader said in letter to the magazine.
When Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in 1970, Soviet authorities refused to let him go to Stockholm to accept the award. In the text of the speech he could not deliver to the Swedish Academy, smuggled out of the U.S.S.R., Solzhenitsyn recalled an old Russian proverb: "One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world."
But Solzhenitsyn was not a storybook hero for his admirers in Europe and the United States. Many, especially in the West, found his political judgments as distressing as his literature was inspiring.
After he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and expelled from the U.S.S.R. in 1974, he settled in bucolic Cavendish, Vermont. He became frustrated with what he regarded as the West's shallow obsession with individualism and liberty -- which, in his view, had degenerated into narcissism and license. Democracy had brought paralysis, he believed, affluence decadence.
In a 1978 speech at Harvard University, Solzhenitsyn -- who with his beard and dour demeanour resembled a figure from an Orthodox icon -- denounced the Western view that liberal democracy was fated to triumph in non-Western civilizations, which he called "worlds" unto themselves.
After his return to Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn was outraged by what he found -- a Kremlin, in his view, unable to stop the looting of Russia's vast resources by politically connected tycoons and unwilling to stand up against what he saw as the encroaching threat of NATO and other Western institutions.
The author at first seemed wary of President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer. But he gradually warmed to Putin, as the Russian president reigned in the oligarchs, reclaimed state control of some of Russia's natural resources and adopted a more assertive -- at times confrontational -- relationship with the United States and the West.
Russian liberals are careful to draw the distinction between Solzhenitsyn the writer and Solzhenitsyn the political figure. They cherish the former, and are reluctant to criticise the latter.